Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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2. The curriculum of knowledge and virtue
The Neoplatonic curriculum was established by Iamblichus, and maintained with minor changes by Athenians and Alexandrians over three centuries until the end of independent Neoplatonist schools (whence it was transmitted to Byzantium). It consisted of thematic topics tuned to educational ‘scopes’. Beginning with Aristotle’s logic (first through Porphyry’s Introduction) and practical ethics, it progressed to physics, the mathematical sciences, Aristotle’s metaphysics, and twelve of Plato’s dialogues culminating with the Timaeus and Parmenides. After approximately six years of university education, the student graduated as a philosopher and a virtuous person.
From Socrates and Aristotle, Neoplatonists accepted that aretē (virtue) can be taught (see Aretē): however, this is not to say that teachers impart goodness to students, but that they make the students fully aware of their true nature. Each grade of the curriculum was meant to stimulate the appropriate virtue. According to the Platonic Alcibiades I, psychē (soul/life/mind) is the human essence (see Psychē). Educating the person means educating the soul as to its true origins and place in the scheme of things. Thus, education and ethics are grounded in epistemology and metaphysics. Concentrating on the essence of things involves a certain detachment from incidentals, the temporal, physical events. The soul must be ‘unaffected’ (apathēs) by externals. Eventually a sense of completion and full awareness bring about the state of wellbeing (eudaimonia) that is the goal of human life (Eudaimonia). Ultimately this is nothing else than ‘becoming similar to God’.
As there are many degrees of awareness, so there are many levels of virtue. The physical (physikai) virtues relate to a well-maintained body: for example, genetic characteristics, beauty, state of health, stamina. Ethical (ēthikai) virtues relate to the sense of justice, courage, temperance and truth (the four Platonic cardinal virtues) and, generally to the temperament of the individual, including, it seems, the quality of memory. Social (politikai) virtues measure regard for one’s fellow human beings, participation in politics and affairs at large: for example, standing up for human welfare and dignity against state officialdom (compare Aristotle’s definition of the human being as social animal). The three types outlined above belong to the ‘lower’ level because they refer to passing matters, not to the atemporal essence of life. The first of the ‘higher’ virtues are the purifying (kathartikai) virtues. The detachment of the soul can be assisted through a simple lifestyle consisting of abstinence and vegetarianism (Porphyry was the first to write on its philosophy), fasting and praying. Erotic love was not shunned, and most of the Neoplatonist scholarchs enjoyed fertile marriages. The aim was to redirect desire towards the eternal. Next are the intellectual (theōrētikai) virtues: learning about names (onomata) as signifying concepts (noēmata) of real objects (pragmata), both natural and divine. Iamblichus added also a sixth type, the theurgic virtue. What exactly he meant is still controversial, but it included initiation in magic, prediction of natural disasters, out-of-body visions and, in general, acting like god while being a mortal. The leap to the transcendent absolute was theurgy’s highest aim. Finally, there was the ‘paradigmatic’ virtue, which in earlier Neoplatonism denoted the exemplary state of divine union but in later Neoplatonism was reserved solely for divine beings.
Siorvanes, Lucas. The curriculum of knowledge and virtue. 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/sections/the-curriculum-of-knowledge-and-virtue.
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