Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 30, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neoplatonism/v-1
Neoplatonism was the final flowering of ancient Greek thought, from the third to the sixth or seventh century ad. Building on eight centuries of unbroken philosophical debate, it addressed questions such as: What is the true self? What is consciousness and how does it relate to reality? Can intuition be reconciled with reason? What are the first causes of reality? How did the universe come into being? How can an efficient cause retain its identity and yet be distributed among its effects? Why does the soul become embodied? What is the good life?
There were several flavours of Neoplatonism, reflecting the concerns and backgrounds of its practitioners, who ranged from Plotinus and his circle of freelance thinkers to the heads of the university schools of the Roman Empire, Proclus, Ammonius and Damascius. In the later, more analysed form, we see a rich scheme of multi-layered metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, but also literary theory, mathematics, physics and other subjects, all integrated in one curriculum. Neoplatonism was not just a philosophy but the higher education system of its age.
The Neoplatonism that came to dominate the ancient world from the fourth century was an inseparable mixture of inspired thought and scholastic order. To this may be traced some of its internal conceptual conflicts: for example, the free individual soul versus the ranks of being, personal experience versus demonstrative knowledge. To this may also be traced its appeal to polar audiences: mystics and mathematizing scientists, romantics and rationalists.
To the Neoplatonist, knowledge consists of degrees of completion. Take the example of tutor and student. Both study the same things, but the tutor has a wider and more intimate knowledge. The tutor opens the student’s mind to the breadth and intricacies of the study-matter, and corrects the student’s deliberations. So it is with the Neoplatonic levels of knowledge. Every level has access to the entire spectrum of what there is to know, but each with its appropriate adverbial modifier. At the ‘lower’ level an individual comprehends things ‘particularly’ and is concerned with the ‘images’ or presentations of mind and sense-impressions of the qualities of physical things. At the ‘higher’ level, an individual apprehends things ‘wholly’, as universal statements (often called ‘laws’ and ‘canons’). The concern is with propositions about what is true or false, self-grounded and logically necessary. Thus the higher level corrects and supplies the ‘criterion’ for the lower level.
Knowledge, however, is not an end in itself, but a means to salvation. Increasing awareness puts us in touch with the levels of reality of which we ourselves are part. The ultimate reality is none other than the fundamental unity out of which all came into being: God. In this union we recover our true good.
As the summation of ancient Greek philosophy, Neoplatonism was transmitted to Byzantium, Islam and western Europe. It was the prime intellectual force behind the protagonists of the Italian Renaissance, and its influence was felt until the nineteenth century.
Siorvanes, Lucas. Neoplatonism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A073-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neoplatonism/v-1.
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