DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A073-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 20, 2019, from

5. Influence

Neoplatonists were influential through their philosophy, through their preservation of ancient Greek thought (for example, Simplicius is one of our two major sources for the Presocratics), and in their capacity as the educators of late antiquity. Their curriculum passed to the Byzantines, and a Latin fifth-century Neoplatonist, Martianus Capella, devised an influential allegory on the seven liberal arts. Indeed, it is hard to find thinkers of the early medieval period who were not influenced by Neoplatonism. In eleventh-century Byzantium, still find scholars arguing for (Psellus) or against ancient Neoplatonists, and so to the end in the fifteenth century (Plethon).

Theologians found it appealing that rational argument can sustain religion and a life of selfless goodness. However, several philosophical conclusions – for example, that God the transcendent is distinct from the Creator, involuntary divine action, the perpetuity of the physical world, the unimportance of accidental events (incarnation) – conflicted with religions based on the Bible. Moreover, the Neoplatonists tended to defend the Hellenic religion: Porphyry wrote an extensive scholarly refutation of Christianity. As a result Neoplatonist influence often went uncredited. A striking example of this was, the late fifth century theologian who wrote under the name ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’ (see Pseudo-Dionysius). He produced an entire Christian theology, ‘hierarchy’, by adapting the Athenian multi-layered system. Between the seventh and ninth centuries this was taken up by leading theologians of the Greek East and the Latin West. It is even claimed that a prototypical Gothic cathedral, St Denis, was built on Pseudo-Dionysian/Neoplatonic principles. Another example was a collection of works attributed to Aristotle but compiled from Plotinus and Proclus. They first occur in Arabic. Later they were translated into Latin. Both the Pseudo-Dionysian and pseudo-Aristotelian corpora were correctly identified by Aquinas.

Muslims came into contact with Neoplatonism with their first conquests of Syria and Egypt (seventh century). In the next three centuries they translated and paraphrased most of the Greek texts they found. With the Muslim expansion into Spain, the Arabic books became a source of Greek ideas for western Europeans. Some Neoplatonic texts still survive only in Arabic. Neoplatonism influenced Islamic philosophy and religion (Ismailism) (see Ibn Sina; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy).

Jewish thinkers had already participated in Platonism with Philo of Alexandria. Much later, living in the Muslim dominion, the eleventh century thinkers Gabirol (see Ibn Gabirol) and Gersonides developed Plotinian themes on intelligible matter and the active intellect. In the twelfth century, Neoplatonism was influencing the emerging Kabbalah in the south of France (see Kabbalah). Next we find it in Renaissance Kabbalism (see Bruno, G.; Pico della Mirandola, G.), and finally in the famous Dutch Jew, Spinoza.

Western Europe first inherited Plotinian-Porphyrian Neoplatonism through Augustine and Boethius, and later received Byzantine Neoplatonism. They influenced both mystics and logicians, for example, Duns Scotus, Anselm of Canterbury, Abelard, Eriugena, Albert the Great, Grosseteste and Thomas Aquinas. The Renaissance marked the recovery of Greek texts in the original, and a new wave of influence began (see Platonism, Renaissance). Proclus had been recognized since Aquinas’ time; now Plotinus (and Plato) became finally known. The Byzantine Neoplatonist Plethon was invited by the Medici to set up the Platonic Academy of Florence, where Ficino and Pico della Mirandola taught. Their impact extended to European art, literature and landscape theory. The Hellenic rationalism of Neoplatonism appealed to the Humanists, particularly the idea that individuals possess their own means for salvation. This was also the message of Christian mystics such as Eckehart: even theologians such as Nicholas of Cusa upheld it. The late Neoplatonists’ love for mathematics appealed to scientists who disliked medieval explanations by qualities. In art, the Neoplatonic light metaphysics and theories on mathematics and representation proved fruitful in the invention of perspective.

When Plato was separated from Platonists, (Neo) platonic influence declined. Notable exceptions were the Cambridge Platonists (see Cambridge Platonism) and the Idealists – both the British (see Berkeley, G.; Bradley, F.H.) and, especially, the Continental (see Bergson, H.-L.; Schelling, F.W.J. von; Hegel, G.W.F.). In science, Schelling and Hegel contributed to Naturphilosophie, which saw the forces of nature (magnetism, electricity, gravity) as the unfolding of one unified force (see Naturphilosophie). In literature, the English Romantics (Blake, Shelley) were influenced through Thomas Taylor. Coleridge was interested both in Naturphilosophie and, preoccupied with the origin of inspiration, in Schelling’s investigations into the ‘unconscious’.

Citing this article:
Siorvanes, Lucas. Influence. Neoplatonism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A073-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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