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Neoplatonism

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-A073-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A073-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neoplatonism/v-1

1. Who, what, when?

The modern label ‘Neoplatonism’ conveniently describes the philosophy of late antiquity, and at once misrepresents it. It was neither ‘new’, a departure from Plato, nor simply a ‘Platonism’ (see Plato; Platonism, Early and Middle). The more we learn of the philosophers from the first century bc to the second century ad, such as Cicero, the Middle Platonists and Neo-Pythagoreans, the more we discern a continuous line of thought (see Cicero; Neo-Pythagoreanism). How far back it stretches is still intriguing and controversial, since several leading scholars have indicated independently a proximity in thought between Neoplatonism and the late Plato and his immediate successors in the Old Academy (see Speusippus; Xenocrates). The Neoplatonists were known in their time as ‘Platonists’; those at Athens regarded themselves the true successors to Plato, and called their school the ‘Academy’. But these ancient labels mislead as much as the modern, and to understand the sources of Neoplatonism we have to look also to the Stoics and the commentators on Aristotle (see Stoicism; Aristotle Commentators). Plato’s and Aristotle’s schools disappeared as institutions in the first century bc. Freelance philosophers took up the different causes. In the second century ad the Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius (§1) established chairs of philosophy at Athens (apparently bearing the title ‘successor’) in Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Alexander of Aphrodisias, in his endeavour to unify the Aristotelian corpus, identified the active intellect (nous) with god and with its intelligible object, unintentionally easing the absorption of Aristotle in mild Platonism. By the beginning of the third century imperial funding for the chairs had vanished, and by the end of that century only Platonists survived. Some, who were more inclined to scholasticism, flourished at the prestigious teaching centres of the late Roman Empire, Athens and Alexandria. Others, particularly those of the Neo-Pythagorean tendency, such as Numenius, flourished at other centres, notably Apamea (Syria). Both sorts took up relevant ideas from past Greek philosophies, including Aristotelian theories of logic and mind, and rejected those they considered fruitless (Epicureanism) or wrong (for example, the dualism of the Platonist Plutarch of Chaeronea §3).

This is the philosophy that Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus turned into a fresh, highly integrated school of thought, now called, for lack of a better term, Neoplatonism. Each of the three founders contributed something different, often in reaction to their teacher. Plotinus abandoned scholastics in favour of a Pythagorizing Platonist, Ammonius Saccas, at Alexandria. Later, he set up his own circle of followers in Rome, which was to prove highly influential. Porphyry first studied under the leading scholastic at Athens (Longinus) but then studied under Plotinus. Only five years later he abandoned Plotinus and pursued his explicit ‘harmonization’ of Aristotle with Plato. Iamblichus taught philosophy at Apamea. He had read Porphyry and may have been his student, but disagreed with him over the approach to the divine. One of Iamblichus’ disciples, Aedesius, founded a celebrated school at Pergamum, and proselytized the emperor Julian. By the fifth century the Iamblichean version had spread to the main teaching establishments at Athens (see Damascius; Proclus; Simplicius) and Alexandria (see Ammonius, son of Hermeas; Philoponus), as well as Gaza (which was Christian).

Neoplatonists saw their metaphysics in all forms of expression, provided they could find the appropriate level of interpretation. Language is the mediator of concepts and realities, and so even literary works (for example, those by Homer and Hesiod) allude to metaphysical truths. Similarly, revelatory proverbs, the Orphics and the Chaldaean Oracles, point to truths that transcend ordinary description (see Orphism; Chaldaean Oracles). The Neoplatonists did not admit irrationalism, however, remaining within the Greek rationalist manner of explanation.

Their writings are mostly commentaries on classical greats, Plato and Aristotle – although there are notable exceptions, including the Enneads of Plotinus, Porphyry’s On Abstinence from Animal Food, Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries, Proclus’ treatises On Providence, On Fate, On Evil and Platonic Theology and Damascius’ treatise Problems and Solutions on First Principles. As a textual form, the commentary is no evidence of lack of originality: it was the conventional form of scholarly writing of the middle and late imperial period, and was useful for teaching. Good interpretative works contained critical appraisals and innovative theories using the set text as a frame for the commentator’s own reflections. That two Athenian heads of school (Proclus and Damascius) wrote most of the commentaries on Plato, while the Alexandrians concentrated on Aristotle, was not due to an ideological split, but to avoidance of duplication. The Alexandrian professors were envious of the rich endowments given to the Athenians and the Athenians looked with disdain on the money-making compromises of the Alexandrians, but the two schools enjoyed close bonds, and students from the one regularly travelled to take positions at the other (for example, Hierocles, Hermeias, Ammonius, Damascius and Simplicius).

On the Latin side, Plotinus’ and Porphyry’s works were translated by the pagan Macrobius and the Christian convert Marius Victorinus. The latter transformed Neoplatonism to a form suited to Roman Christianity and influenced Augustine and Boethius (see Marius Victorinus; Augustine; Boethius, A.M.S.).

On the Greek side, Neoplatonists supported Hellenism as a civilizing culture and as a universal, pagan religion, at a time of Christian emperors. The school at Athens ended with the emperor Justinian’s imperial ban on pagan public teaching in 529. There was an unsuccessful sojourn to Persia, but it is still a mystery what finally happened to the last Athenian scholarchs, Damascius, and especially Simplicius, who flourished after the ban. At Alexandria, Neoplatonic teaching continued with the pagan Olympiodorus, and then with Christians (Elias and David). In the seventh century, Alexandrian teaching transferred to the Byzantine capital, when Stephanus was invited to teach at the university of Constantinople (see Byzantine philosophy §§2,3).

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Citing this article:
Siorvanes, Lucas. Who, what, when?. 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/who-what-when.
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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