Contents of this category


Contents of this page

  1. Introduction – laying out this page’s purpose
  2. The name ‘Neoplatonism’ – an explanation of the terminology (feel free to skip)
  3. What separates Neoplatonism? – why we treat Neoplatonism as a distinct school
  4. – …
  5. – …

1 Introduction

After a long period of neglect, the ancient Mediterranean philosophy of Neoplatonism has come back into (relative) prominence in recent decades, and there now seems to be a never-ending stream of people who do not yet know what it is but who want to learn. This is wonderful! Yet unfortunately, when there are more and more students of a subject, but only a limited amount of competent instructors, the few who do make their voices heard in teaching can easily appear more authoritative than they really are. Through no fault of their own (usually), their personal interpretations become synonymous with the entire tradition they are speaking for.

In light of this problem, this page is intended to give a consciously non-sectarian introduction to the philosophy, arguing neither for or against Neoplatonism, nor for or against a particular interpretation of the philosophy. At the same time, I strive to a high standard of scholarly accuracy – but always with the understanding that, when I find it necessary to differ from someone else’s reading of an ancient text, I am only disputing the historicity of that interpretation, not its philosophical validity. As far as I am concerned, those who would be faithful to the Neoplatonic tradition today must necessarily explore unprecedented avenues!

2 The name ‘Neoplatonism’

First of all, a note on terminology. ‘Neoplatonism’, like ‘Platonism’, is a modern coinage; the –ism suffix did not exist in this sense in ancient Greek or Latin. The same is true of the words ‘Neoplatonist’ and ‘Platonist’. In antiquity, the school was called ‘the Platonic sect (gr. haíresis)’ or ‘Platonic philosophy’, and its followers, ‘Platonic philosophers’ or simply ‘Platonics’ (gr. Platōnikoí, lat. Platōnicī).

Now, whether one uses ‘Platonists’ or ‘Platonics’ does not make much of a difference, but why do we add ‘Neo-’ to it if the ancients did not do so themselves? Simply for the sake of convenience, exactly as when we distinguish ‘Old English’, ‘Middle English’ and ‘Modern English’: these are recognizably different periods, and although the speakers of the language have always simply called it ‘English’, in linguistics, we need to be clear which period is being discussed.

Just so, what is generally called ‘Platonism’ can be broken into several periods. Already in antiquity, people divided the Academy – the lineage of Plato’s successors from 347 BCE to the 1st century BCE, who taught on a piece of land consecrated to the hero Academus – into an ‘Old’, ‘Middle’ and ‘New Academy’. Using precisely the same modifiers, modern scholars have divided the subsequent history of Platonic philosophy into ‘Middle’ and ‘Neoplatonism’ (i.e., ‘New Platonism’):

  1. Academy (what we might call ‘Old Platonism’)
    1. Old Academy
    2. Middle Academy
    3. New Academy
  2. Middle Platonism
  3. Neoplatonism (i.e., New Platonism)

I should be clear that not everyone likes the modern additions to this schema: some say that the term ‘Middle Platonism’ reduces the philosophers it names to mere intermediaries between the Academy and the Neoplatonic philosoophers; others, that ‘Neoplatonism’ implies deviation from ‘Platonism’ proper. Let it suffice to say that for my purposes, ‘Platonism’ is simply an umbrella term, which always includes Neoplatonism. If others wish to use these words differently, that is their concern.

A more recently coined name I deliberately avoid is “Late (Antique) Platonism”, for two reasons: (a) as a term of periodization, “Late Platonism” does exactly the same thing that ‘Neoplatonism’ already accomplishes, and (b) “Late Antique Platonism” actually achieves less clarity, since there were still Middle Platonists in late antiquity, too. But again, this is a matter of personal choice, and I do not begrudge anyone the use of their preferred terminology.

3 What separates Neoplatonism?

So much for the word, but now for the substance: what makes Neoplatonism distinct from everything else in the history of (Platonic) philosophy, and marks it out as a separate school?

Neoplatonism as a lineage

Firstly, on a social level, the Neoplatonists of antiquity constituted a self-conscious lineage, with much reverence paid to one’s teachers and predecessors, going back to Plotinus of Lycopolis in the 3rd century CE, and reaching well into the 6th century CE.

Such a line of succession (gr. diadokhḗ) had been important to philosophers in an earlier period. The Academy, for instance, maintained a single line of scholarchs (‘school heads’) for two and a half centuries, despite the transitions from Old to Middle to New, which saw radical changes in what was being taught. However, in the Roman period, philosophers’ attention shifted away from teacher-student transmission, which positioned the current scholarch as the greatest authority, towards close study of the writings of a given school’s founder. The Platonic philosophers of this time (the ‘Middle Platonists’) still honored their respective teachers, of course – but as able interpreters of Plato more than links in a chain of ongoing Academic philosophizing. Indeed, this seems to be why they now tended to call themselves ‘Platonics’, not ‘Academics’ as their predecessors had.

(They also lost the Academy as an institutional center in the 1st century BCE, but the Stoics likewise lost their columnade or ‘Stoa’, and they never changed their name.)

Neoplatonism as a framework of philosophical inquiry

The Neoplatonic philosophers, to be clear, did not reject the approach of the Middle Platonists and simply revert to an earlier model of succession. Although they re-established the Academy in Athens as a teaching site, they only rarely called themselves Academics, preferring to see themselves as Platonic first and foremost. They were also still concerned to interpret and explain “the divine Plato” rightly (like the Middle Platonists), not to continue Plato’s project by developing their own, original approaches to philosophy (as the Academics had done). In this respect, it makes sense to group them with the Middle Platonists in distinction to the Academy.

What set Neoplatonism apart, however, was a novel approach to interpreting Plato. The Middle Platonists, or at least those whose works survive, tended to each champion an original reading of Plato, often by way of contrast with the readings other Middle Platonists had proposed (and by arguing against non-Platonic philosophers). Interpreting Plato, we might say, was immanent: it was both method and purpose.

Just as the Academics had built on each other to reach closer to the truth, so the Neoplatonists built on each other to reach closer to Plato (and thereby also the truth!).

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Status: work in progress