The Position of Neoplatonism in the Histor(iograph)y of Platonism

1 Two phases of philosophy in the tradition of Plato: Academic and Platonic

The ancient history of Platonic philosophy can be variously divided. One schema is bipartite. The earlier successors of Plato were the Academics, who considered themselves bound to the school he had founded—the eponymous Academy—and to his project of philosophizing, but not necessarily to the conclusions Plato had reached. Many of them (the so-called Academic Skeptics) even opposed the viewpoint that philosophy was meant to reach conclusions at all. From the 1st century BCE onward, however, interest turned back upon Plato himself, first as he had been interpreted by the Stoics, and then increasingly in opposition to the Stoics. As a result, the name “Academic” was largely given up in favor of “Platonic”. The Academy as an institution fell into irrelevance.

The rise of a school of philosophy or persuasion (hairesis) that defined itself as Platonic (Platōnikē) and saw its purpose as lying primarily in the correct interpretation of Plato’s writings, and in the explication and defense of his doctrines against the claims of rival schools, is part of a general “philological turn”, as it were, in the Roman imperial period. As parallels, we may cite the turn towards Aristotle’s body of work in Peripatetic philosophy, or the valorization of Hippocrates by the physician Galen. In striking contrast to modern philology, however, this fashion for textual studies went hand in hand with a belief that the original text, if interpreted correctly, will reveal not only the intentions of the author, but also the truth.

2 Two phases of the Platonic school: “Middle” and “Neo”-Platonism

The Academic and Platonic schools can, in turn, be subdivided in various ways. The terms Old, Middle and New Academy (and the later additions, the Fourth and Fifth Academy) are ancient. Among the Platonic philosophers, no such groupings emerged for several centuries, except by reference to the authority of some especially prominent teacher; but there were no long-lasting lineages nor, as far as we can judge, any attempts to write histories of recent Platonic philosophy. It appears that philosophical history was seen as a matter of the past, before the establishment of Roman hegemony; the duty of philosophers in the Roman present was to study and teach that history.

This self-conception changed around the turn of the 4th century CE, in no small part due to the efforts of Porphyry of Tyre, who wrote a biography of his teacher, Plotinus of Lycopolis, which stressed the importance of the teacher–student lineage, but also the independence of Plotinus from earlier Platonic writers. Porphyry’s own student Iamblichus, and his students and their students in turn, retained this sense for the importance of teacher–student lineages, and some of them made efforts to record these lineages.

Thereafter, philosophers in this tradition located philosophical truth in Plato, took a largely dismissive approach to his Academic and Platonic successors, but saw the lineage from Plotinus onward as progressively approaching the true meaning of Plato. The main innovators can be listed as follows:

  • Early Neoplatonism (3rd – early 4th cent. CE): Plotinus, Amelius, Porphyry, Theodore, Iamblichus.
  • Late Neoplatonism (late 4th – 6th cent. CE): Plutarch, Syrianus, Proclus, Ammonius Hermiae, Damascius.

In a distant echo of a throwaway reference to “recent Platonics” in Augustine of Hippo, this tradition, which saw itself as springing from Plotinus but had no name for itself, has been conventionally referred to as “Neoplatonism” in recent times. Those Platonics who lived before Plotinus or remained outside of his lineage, by contrast, are called the Middle Platonists.