History of Dogma, Volume 1 (of 7)
by Adolph Harnack
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Neoplatonism is consequently a stage in the history of religion; nay, its significance in the history of the world lies in the fact that it is so. In the history of science and enlightenment it has a position of significance only in so far as it was the necessary transition stage through which humanity had to pass, in order to free itself from the religion of nature and the depreciation of the spiritual life, which oppose an insurmountable barrier to the highest advance of human knowledge. But as Neoplatonism in its philosophical aspect means the abolition of ancient philosophy, which, however, it desired to complete, so also in its religious aspect it means the abolition of the ancient religions which it aimed at restoring. For in requiring these religions to mediate a definite religious knowledge, and to lead to the highest moral disposition, it burdened them with tasks to which they were not equal, and under which they could not but break down. And in requiring them to loosen, if not completely destroy, the bond which was their only stay, namely, the political bond, it took from them the foundation on which they were built. But could it not place them on a greater and firmer foundation? Was not the Roman Empire in existence, and could the new religion not become dependent on this in the same way as the earlier religions had been dependent on the lesser states and nations? It might be thought so, but it was no longer possible. No doubt the political history of the nations round the Mediterranean, in their development into the universal Roman monarchy, was parallel to the spiritual history of these nations in their development into monotheism and a universal system of morals; but the spiritual development in the end far outstripped the political: even the Stoics attained to a height which the political development could only partially reach. Neoplatonism did indeed attempt to gain a connection with the Byzantine Roman Empire: one noble monarch, Julian, actually perished as a result of this endeavour: but even before this the profounder Neoplatonists discerned that their lofty religious philosophy would not bear contact with the despotic Empire, because it would not bear any contact with the "world" (plan of the founding of Platonopolis). Political affairs are at bottom as much a matter of indifference to Neoplatonism as material things in general. The idealism of the new philosophy was too high to admit of its being naturalised in the despiritualised, tyrannical and barren creation of the Byzantine Empire, and this Empire itself needed unscrupulous and despotic police officials, not noble philosophers. Important and instructive, therefore, as the experiments are, which were made from time to time by the state and by individual philosophers, to unite the monarchy of the world with Neoplatonism, they could not but be ineffectual.

But, and this is the last question which one is justified in raising here, why did not Neoplatonism create an independent religious community? Since it had already changed the ancient religions so fundamentally, in its purpose to restore them, since it had attempted to fill the old naive cults with profound philosophic ideas, and to make them exponents of a high morality, why did it not take the further step and create a religious fellowship of its own? Why did it not complete and confirm the union of gods by the founding of a church which was destined to embrace the whole of humanity, and in which, beside the one ineffable Godhead, the gods of all nations could have been worshipped? Why not? The answer to this question is at the same time the reply to another, viz., why did the Christian church supplant Neoplatonism? Neoplatonism lacked three elements to give it the significance of a new and permanent religious system. Augustine in his confessions (Bk. VII. 18-21) has excellently described these three elements. First and above all, it lacked a religious founder; secondly, it was unable to give any answer to the question, how one could permanently maintain the mood of blessedness and peace: thirdly, it lacked the means of winning those who could not speculate. The "people" could not learn the philosophic exercises which it recommended as the condition of attaining the enjoyment of the highest good; and the way on which even the "people" can attain to the highest good was hidden from it. Hence these "wise and prudent" remained a school. When Julian attempted to interest the common uncultured man in the doctrines and worship of this school, his reward was mockery and scorn.

Not as philosophy and not as a new religion did Neoplatonism become a decisive factor in history, but, if I may say so, as a frame of mind.[455] The feeling that there is an eternal highest good which lies beyond all outer experience and is not even the intelligible, this feeling, with which was united the conviction of the entire worthlessness of everything earthly, was produced and fostered by Neoplatonism. But it was unable to describe the contents of that highest being and highest good, and therefore it was here compelled to give itself entirely up to fancy and aesthetic feeling. Therefore it was forced to trace out "mysterious ways to that which is within", which, however, led nowhere. It transformed thought into a dream of feeling; it immersed itself in the sea of emotions; it viewed the old fabled world of the nations as the reflection of a higher reality, and transformed reality into poetry; but in spite of all these efforts it was only able, to use the words of Augustine, to see from afar the land which it desired. It broke this world into fragments; but nothing remained to it, save a ray from a world beyond, which was only an indescribable "something."

And yet the significance of Neoplatonism in the history of our moral culture has been, and still is, immeasurable. Not only because it refined and strengthened man's life of feeling and sensation, not only because it, more than anything else, wove the delicate veil which even to-day, whether we be religious or irreligious, we ever and again cast over the offensive impression of the brutal reality, but, above all, because it begat the consciousness that the blessedness which alone can satisfy man, is to be found somewhere else than in the sphere of knowledge. That man does not live by bread alone, is a truth that was known before Neoplatonism; but it proclaimed the profounder truth, which the earlier philosophy had failed to recognise, that man does not live by knowledge alone. Neoplatonism not only had a propadeutic significance in the past, but continues to be, even now, the source of all the moods which deny the world and strive after an ideal, but have not power to raise themselves above aesthetic feeling, and see no means of getting a clear notion of the impulse of their own heart and the land of their desire.

* * * * *

Historical Origin of Neoplatonism.

The forerunners of Neoplatonism were, on the one hand, those Stoics who recognise the Platonic distinction of the sensible and supersensible world, and on the other, the so-called Neopythagoreans and religious philosophers, such as Posidonius, Plutarch of Chaeronea, and especially Numenius of Apamea.[456] Nevertheless, these cannot be regarded as the actual Fathers of Neoplatonism; for the philosophic method was still very imperfect in comparison with the Neoplatonic, their principles were uncertain, and the authority of Plato was not yet regarded as placed on an unapproachable height. The Jewish and Christian philosophers of the first and second centuries stand very much nearer the later Neoplatonism than Numenius. We would probably see this more clearly if we knew the development of Christianity in Alexandria in the second century. But, unfortunately, we have only very meagre fragments to tell us of this. First and above all, we must mention Philo. This philosopher, who interpreted the Old Testament religion in terms of Hellenism, had, in accordance with his idea of revelation, already maintained that the Divine Original Essence is supra-rational, that only ecstasy leads to Him, and that the materials for religious and moral knowledge are contained in the oracles of the Deity. The religious ethic of Philo, a combination of Stoic, Platonic, Neopythagorean and Old Testament gnomic wisdom, already bears the marks which we recognise in Neoplatonism. The acknowledgment that God was exalted above all thought, was a sort of tribute which Greek philosophy was compelled to pay to the national religion of Israel, in return for the supremacy which was here granted to the former. The claim of positive religion to be something more than an intellectual conception of the universal reason, was thereby justified. Even religious syncretism is already found in Philo; but it is something essentially different from the later Neoplatonic, since Philo regarded the Jewish cult as the only valuable one, and traced back all elements of truth in the Greeks and Romans to borrowings from the books of Moses.

The earliest Christian philosophers, especially Justin and Athenagoras, likewise prepared the way for the speculations of the later Neoplatonists by their attempts, on the one hand, to connect Christianity with Stoicism and Platonism, and on the other, to exhibit it as supra-Platonic. The method by which Justin, in the introduction to the Dialogue with Trypho, attempts to establish the Christian knowledge of God, that is, the knowledge of the truth, on Platonism, Scepticism and "Revelation", strikingly reminds us of the later methods of the Neoplatonists. Still more is one reminded of Neoplatonism by the speculations of the Alexandrian Christian Gnostics, especially of Valentinus and the followers of Basilides. The doctrines of the Basilidians(?) communicated by Hippolytus (Philosoph. VII. c. 20 sq.), read like fragments from the didactic writings of the Neoplatonists: [Greek: Epei ouden en ouch hule, ouk ousia, ouk anousion, ouch haploun, ou suntheton, ouk anoeton, ouk anaistheton, ouk anthropos ... ouk on theos anoetos, anaisthetos aboulos aproairetos, apathos, anepithumetios kosmon ethelese poiesai ... Houtos ouk on theos epoiese kosmon ouk onta ex ouk onton, katabalomenos kai hupostesas sperma ti en echon pasan en heauto tes tou kosmou panspermian.] Like the Neoplatonists, these Basilidians did not teach an emanation from the Godhead, but a dynamic mode of action of the Supreme Being. The same can be asserted of Valentinus who also places an unnamable being above all, and views matter not as a second principle, but as a derived product. The dependence of Basilides and Valentinus on Zeno and Plato is, besides, undoubted. But the method of these Gnostics in constructing their mental picture of the world and its history, was still an uncertain one. Crude primitive myths are here received, and naively realistic elements alternate with bold attempts at spiritualising. While therefore, philosophically considered, the Gnostic systems are very unlike the finished Neoplatonic ones, it is certain that they contained almost all the elements of the religious view of the world, which we find in Neoplatonism.

But were the earliest Neoplatonists really acquainted with the speculations of men like Philo, Justin, Valentinus and Basilides? were they familiar with the Oriental religions, especially with the Jewish and the Christian? and, if we must answer these questions in the affirmative, did they really learn from these sources?

Unfortunately, we cannot at present give certain, and still less detailed answers to these questions. But, as Neoplatonism originated in Alexandria, as Oriental cults confronted every one there, as the Jewish philosophy was prominent in the literary market of Alexandria, and that was the very place where scientific Christianity had its headquarters, there can, generally speaking, be no doubt that the earliest Neoplatonists had some acquaintance with Judaism and Christianity. In addition to that, we have the certain fact that the earliest Neoplatonists had discussions with (Roman) Gnostics (see Carl Schmidt, Gnostische Schriften in koptischer Sprache, pp. 603-665), and that Porphyry entered into elaborate controversy with Christianity. In comparison with the Neoplatonic philosophy, the system of Philo and the Gnostics appears in many respects an anticipation, which had a certain influence on the former, the precise nature of which has still to be ascertained. But the anticipation is not wonderful, for the religious and philosophic temper which was only gradually produced on Greek soil, existed from the first in such philosophers as took their stand on the ground of a revealed religion of redemption. Iamblichus and his followers first answer completely to the Christian Gnostic schools of the second century; that is to say, Greek philosophy, in its immanent development, did not attain till the fourth century the position which some Greek philosophers, who had accepted Christianity, had already reached in the second. The influence of Christianity—both Gnostic and Catholic—on Neoplatonism was perhaps very little at any time, though individual Neoplatonists since the time of Amelius employed Christian sayings as oracles, and testified their high esteem for Christ.

Sketch of the History and Doctrines of Neoplatonism.

Ammonius Saccas (died about 245), who is said to have been born a Christian, but to have lapsed into heathenism, is regarded as the founder of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria. As he has left no writings, no judgment can be formed as to his teaching. His disciples inherited from him the prominence which they gave to Plato and the attempts to prove the harmony between the latter and Aristotle. His most important disciples were; Origen the Christian, a second heathen Origen, Longinus, Herennius, and, above all, Plotinus. The latter was born in the year 205, at Lycopolis in Egypt, laboured from 224 in Rome, and found numerous adherents and admirers, among others the Emperor Galienus and his consort, and died in lower Italy about 270. His writings were arranged by his disciple, Porphyry, and edited in six Enneads.

The Enneads of Plotinus are the fundamental documents of Neoplatonism. The teaching of this philosopher is mystical, and, like all mysticism, it falls into two main portions. The first and theoretic part shews the high origin of the soul, and how it has departed from this its origin. The second and practical part points out the way by which the soul can again be raised to the Eternal and the Highest. As the soul with its longings aspires beyond all sensible things and even beyond the world of ideas, the Highest must be something above reason. The system therefore has three parts. I. The Original Essence. II. The world of ideas and the soul. III. The world of phenomena. We may also, in conformity with the thought of Plotinus, divide the system thus: A. The supersensible world (1. The Original Essence; 2. the world of ideas; 3. the soul). B. The world of phenomena. The Original Essence is the One in contrast to the many; it is the Infinite and Unlimited in contrast to the finite; it is the source of all being, therefore the absolute causality and the only truly existing; but it is also the Good, in so far as everything finite is to find its aim in it and to flow back to it. Yet moral attributes cannot be ascribed to this Original Essence, for these would limit it. It has no attributes at all; it is a being without magnitude, without life, without thought; nay, one should not, properly speaking, even call it an existence; it is something above existence, above goodness, and at the same time the operative force without any substratum. As operative force the Original Essence is continually begetting something else, without itself being changed or moved or diminished. This creation is not a physical process, but an emanation of force; and because that which is produced has any existence only in so far as the originally Existent works in it, it may be said that Neoplatonism is dynamical Pantheism. Everything that has being is directly or indirectly a production of the "One." In this "One" everything so far as it has being, is Divine, and God is all in all. But that which is derived is not like the Original Essence itself. On the contrary, the law of decreasing perfection prevails in the derived. The latter is indeed an image and reflection of the Original Essence, but the wider the circle of creations extends the less their share in the Original Essence. Hence the totality of being forms a gradation of concentric circles which finally lose themselves almost completely in non-being, in so far as in the last circle the force of the Original Essence is a vanishing one. Each lower stage of being is connected with the Original Essence only by means of the higher stages; that which is inferior receives a share in the Original Essence only through the medium of these. But everything derived has one feature, viz., a longing for the higher; it turns itself to this so far as its nature allows it.

The first emanation of the Original Essence is the [Greek: Nous]; it is a complete image of the Original Essence and archetype of all existing things; it is being and thought at the same time, World of ideas and Idea. As image the [Greek: Nous] is equal to the Original Essence, as derived it is completely different from it. What Plotinus understands by [Greek: Nous] is the highest sphere which the human spirit can reach ([Greek: kosmos noetos]) and at the same time pure thought itself.

The soul which, according to Plotinus, is an immaterial substance like the [Greek: Nous],[457] is an image and product of the immovable [Greek: Nous]. It is related to the [Greek: Nous] as the latter is to the Original Essence. It stands between the [Greek: Nous] and the world of phenomena. The [Greek: Nous] penetrates and enlightens it, but it itself already touches the world of phenomena. The [Greek: Nous] is undivided, the soul can also preserve its unity and abide in the [Greek: Nous]; but it has at the same time the power to unite itself with the material world and thereby to be divided. Hence it occupies a middle position. In virtue of its nature and destiny it belongs, as the single soul (soul of the world), to the supersensible world; but it embraces at the same time the many individual souls; these may allow themselves to be ruled by the [Greek: Nous], or they may turn to the sensible and be lost in the finite.

The soul, an active essence, begets the corporeal or the world of phenomena. This should allow itself to be so ruled by the soul that the manifold of which it consists may abide in fullest harmony. Plotinus is not a dualist like the majority of Christian Gnostics. He praises the beauty and glory of the world. When in it the idea really has dominion over matter, the soul over the body, the world is beautiful and good. It is the image of the upper world, though a shadowy one, and the gradations of better or worse in it are necessary to the harmony of the whole. But, in point of fact, the unity and harmony in the world of phenomena disappear in strife and opposition. The result is a conflict, a growth and decay, a seeming existence. The original cause of this lies in the fact that a substratum, viz., matter, lies at the basis of bodies. Matter is the foundation of each ([Greek: to bathos hekastou he hule]); it is the obscure, the indefinite, that which is without qualities, the [Greek: me on]. As devoid of form and idea it is the evil, as capable of form the intermediate.

The human souls that are sunk in the material have been ensnared by the sensuous, and have allowed themselves to be ruled by desire. They now seek to detach themselves entirely from true being, and striving after independence fall into an unreal existence. Conversion therefore is needed, and this is possible, for freedom is not lost.

Now here begins the practical philosophy. The soul must rise again to the highest on the same path by which it descended: it must first of all return to itself. This takes place through virtue which aspires to assimilation with God and leads to Him. In the ethics of Plotinus all earlier philosophic systems of virtue are united and arranged in graduated order. Civic virtues stand lowest, then follow the purifying, and finally the deifying virtues. Civic virtues only adorn the life, but do not elevate the soul as the purifying virtues do; they free the soul from the sensuous and lead it back to itself and thereby to the [Greek: Nous]. Man becomes again a spiritual and permanent being, and frees himself from every sin, through asceticism. But he is to reach still higher; he is not only to be without sin, but he is to be "God." That takes place through the contemplation of the Original Essence, the One, that is through ecstatic elevation to Him. This is not mediated by thought, for thought reaches only to the [Greek: Nous], and is itself only a movement. Thought is only a preliminary stage towards union with God. The soul can only see and touch the Original Essence in a condition of complete passivity and rest. Hence, in order to attain to this highest, the soul must subject itself to a spiritual "Exercise." It must begin with the contemplation of material things, their diversity and harmony, then retire into itself and sink itself in its own essence, and thence mount up to the [Greek: Nous], to the world of ideas; but, as it still does not find the One and Highest Essence there, as the call always comes to it from there: "We have not made ourselves" (Augustine in the sublime description of Christian, that is, Neoplatonic exercises), it must, as it were, lose sight of itself in a state of intense concentration, in mute contemplation and complete forgetfulness of all things. It can then see God, the source of life, the principle of being, the first cause of all good, the root of the soul. In that moment it enjoys the highest and indescribable blessedness; it is itself, as it were, swallowed up by the deity and bathed in the light of eternity.

Plotinus, as Porphyry relates, attained to this ecstatic union with God four times during the six years he was with him. To Plotinus this religious philosophy was sufficient; he did not require the popular religion and worship. But yet he sought their support. The Deity is indeed in the last resort only the Original Essence, but it manifests itself in a fulness of emanations and phenomena. The [Greek: Nous] is, as it were, the second God; the [Greek: logoi], which are included in it, are gods; the stars are gods, etc. A strict monotheism appeared to Plotinus a poor thing. The myths of the popular religion were interpreted by him in a particular sense, and he could justify even magic, soothsaying and prayer. He brought forward reasons for the worship of images, which the Christian worshippers of images subsequently adopted. Yet, in comparison with the later Neoplatonists, he was free from gross superstition and wild fanaticism. He cannot, in the remotest sense, be reckoned among the "deceivers who were themselves deceived," and the restoration of the ancient worships of the Gods was not his chief aim.

Among his disciples the most important were Amelius and Porphyry. Amelius changed the doctrine of Plotinus in some points, and even made use of the prologue of the Gospel of John. Porphyry has the merit of having systematized and spread the teaching of his master, Plotinus. He was born at Tyre, in the year 233; whether he was for some time a Christian is uncertain; from 263-268 he was a pupil of Plotinus at Rome; before that he wrote the work [Greek: peri tes ek logion philosophias], which shews that he wished to base philosophy on revelation; he lived a few years in Sicily (about 270) where he wrote his "fifteen books against the Christians"; he then returned to Rome where he laboured as a teacher, edited the works of Plotinus, wrote himself a series of treatises, married, in his old age, the Roman Lady Marcella, and died about the year 303. Porphyry was not an original, productive thinker, but a diligent and thorough investigator, characterized by great learning, by the gift of an acute faculty for philological and historical criticism, and by an earnest desire to spread the true philosophy of life, to refute false doctrines, especially those of the Christians, to ennoble man and draw him to that which is good. That a mind so free and noble surrendered itself entirely to the philosophy of Plotinus and to polytheistic mysticism, is a proof that the spirit of the age works almost irresistibly, and that religious mysticism was the highest possession of the time. The teaching of Porphyry is distinguished from that of Plotinus by the fact that it is still more practical and religious. The aim of philosophy, according to Porphyry, is the salvation of the soul. The origin and the guilt of evil lie not in the body, but in the desires of the soul. The strictest asceticism (abstinence from cohabitation, flesh and wine) is therefore required in addition to the knowledge of God. During the course of his life Porphyry warned men more and more decidedly against crude popular beliefs and immoral cults. "The ordinary notions of the Deity are of such a kind that it is more godless to share them than to neglect the images of the gods." But freely as he criticised the popular religions, he did not wish to give them up. He contended for a pure worship of the many gods, and recognised the right of every old national religion, and the religious duties of their professors. His work against the Christians is not directed against Christ, or what he regarded as the teaching of Christ, but against the Christians of his day and against the sacred books which, according to Porphyry, were written by impostors and ignorant people. In his acute criticism of the genesis or what was regarded as Christianity in his day, he spoke bitter and earnest truths, and therefore acquired the name of the fiercest and most formidable of all the enemies of Christians. His work was destroyed (condemned by an edict of Theodosius II. and Valentinian, of the year 448), and even the writings in reply (by Methodius, Eusebius, Apollinaris, Philostorgius, etc.,) have not been preserved. Yet we possess fragments in Lactantius, Augustine, Macarius Magnes and others, which attest how thoroughly Porphyry studied the Christian writings and how great his faculty was for true historical criticism.

Porphyry marks the transition to the Neoplatonism which subordinated itself entirely to the polytheistic cults, and which strove, above all, to defend the old Greek and Oriental religions against the formidable assaults of Christianity. Iamblichus, the disciple of Porphyry (died 330), transformed Neoplatonism "from a philosophic theorem into a theological doctrine." The doctrines peculiar to Iamblichus can no longer be deduced from scientific, but only from practical motives. In order to justify superstition and the ancient cults, philosophy in Iamblichus becomes a theurgic, mysteriosophy, spiritualism. Now appears that series of "Philosophers", in whose case one is frequently unable to decide whether they are deceivers or deceived, "decepti deceptores," as Augustine says. A mysterious mysticism of numbers plays a great role. That which is absurd and mechanical is surrounded with the halo of the sacramental; myths are proved by pious fancies and pietistic considerations with a spiritual sound; miracles, even the most foolish, are believed in and are performed. The philosopher becomes the priest of magic, and philosophy an instrument of magic. At the same time, the number of Divine Beings is infinitely increased by the further action of unlimited speculation. But this fantastic addition which Iamblichus makes to the inhabitants of Olympus, is the very fact which proves that Greek philosophy has here returned to mythology, and that the religion of nature was still a power. And yet no one can deny that, in the fourth century, even the noblest and choicest minds were found among the Neoplatonists. So great was the declension, that this Neoplatonic philosophy was still the protecting roof for many influential and earnest thinkers, although swindlers and hypocrites also concealed themselves under this roof. In relation to some points of doctrine, at any rate, the dogmatic of Iamblichus marks an advance. Thus, the emphasis he lays on the idea that evil has its seat in the will, is an important fact; and in general the significance he assigns to the will is perhaps the most important advance in psychology, and one which could not fail to have great influence on dogmatic also (Augustine). It likewise deserves to be noted that Iamblichus disputed Plotinus' doctrine of the divinity of the human soul.

The numerous disciples of Iamblichus (Aedesius, Chrysantius, Eusebius, Priscus, Sopater, Sallust and especially Maximus, the most celebrated) did little to further speculation; they occupied themselves partly with commenting on the writings of the earlier philosophers (particularly Themistius), partly as missionaries of their mysticism. The interests and aims of these philosophers are best shewn in the treatise "De mysteriis AEgyptiorum." Their hopes were strengthened when their disciple Julian, a man enthusiastic and noble, but lacking in intellectual originality, ascended the imperial throne, 361 to 363. This emperor's romantic policy of restoration, as he himself must have seen, had, however, no result, and his early death destroyed ever hope of supplanting Christianity.

But the victory of the Church, in the age of Valentinian and Theodosius, unquestionably purified Neoplatonism. The struggle for dominion had led philosophers to grasp at and unite themselves with everything that was hostile to Christianity. But now Neoplatonism was driven out of the great arena of history. The Church and its dogmatic, which inherited its estate, received along with the latter superstition, polytheism, magic, myths and the apparatus of religious magic. The more firmly all this established itself in the Church and succeeded there, though not without finding resistance, the freer Neoplatonism becomes. It does not by any means give up its religious attitude or its theory of knowledge, but it applies itself with fresh zeal to scientific investigations and especially to the study of the earlier philosophers. Though Plato remains the divine philosopher, yet it may be noticed how, from about 400, the writings of Aristotle were increasingly read and prized. Neoplatonic schools continue to flourish in the chief cities of the empire up to the beginning of the fifth century, and in this period they are at the same time the places where the theologians of the Church are formed. The noble Hypatia, to whom Synesius, her enthusiastic disciple, who was afterwards a bishop, raised a splendid monument, taught in Alexandria. But from the beginning of the fifth century ecclesiastical fanaticism ceased to tolerate heathenism. The murder of Hypatia put an end to philosophy in Alexandria, though the Alexandrian school maintained itself in a feeble form till the middle of the sixth century. But in one city of the East, removed from the great highways of the world, which had become a provincial city and possessed memories which the Church of the fifth century felt itself too weak to destroy, viz., in Athens, a Neoplatonic school continued to flourish. There, among the monuments of a past time, Hellenism found its last asylum. The school of Athens returned to a more strict philosophic method and to learned studies. But as it clung to religious philosophy and undertook to reduce the whole Greek tradition, viewed in the light of Plotinus' theory, to a comprehensive and strictly articulated system, a philosophy arose here which may be called scholastic. For every philosophy is scholastic which considers fantastic and mythological material as a noli me tangere, and treats it in logical categories and distinctions by means of a complete set of formulae. But to these Neoplatonists the writings of Plato, certain divine oracles, the Orphic poems, and much else which were dated back to the dim and distant past, were documents of standard authority, and inspired divine writings. They took from them the material of philosophy, which they then treated with all the instruments of dialectic.

The most prominent teachers at Athens were Plutarch (died 433), his disciple Syrian (who, as an exegete of Plato and Aristotle, is said to have done important work, and who deserves notice also, because he very vigorously emphasised the freedom of the will), but, above all, Proclus (411-485). Proclus is the great scholastic of Neoplatonism. It was he "who fashioned the whole traditional material into a powerful system with religious warmth and formal clearness, filling up the gaps and reconciling the contradictions by distinctions and speculations," "Proclus," says Zeller, "was the first who, by the strict logic of his system, formally completed the Neoplatonic philosophy and gave it, with due regard to all the changes it had undergone since the second century, that form in which it passed over to the Christian and Mohammedan middle ages." Forty-four years after the death of Proclus the school of Athens was closed by Justinian (in the year 529); but in the labours of Proclus it had completed its work, and could now really retire from the scene. It had nothing new to say; it was ripe for death, and an honourable end was prepared for it. The words of Proclus, the legacy of Hellenism to the Church and to the middle ages, attained an immeasurable importance in the thousand years which followed. They were not only one of the bridges by which the philosophy of the middle ages returned to Plato and Aristotle, but they determined the scientific method of the next thirty generations, and they partly produced, partly strengthened and brought to maturity the mediaeval Christian mysticism in East and West.

The disciples of Proclus, Marinus, Asclepiodotus, Ammonius, Zenodotus, Isidorus, Hegias, Damascius, are not regarded as prominent. Damascius was the last head of the school at Athens. He, Simplicius, the masterly commentator on Aristotle, and five other Neoplatonists, migrated to Persia after Justinian had issued the edict closing the school. They lived in the illusion that Persia, the land of the East, was the seat of wisdom, righteousness and piety. After a few years they returned with blasted hopes to the Byzantine kingdom.

At the beginning of the sixth century Neoplatonism died out as an independent philosophy in the East; but almost at the same time, and this is no accident, it conquered new regions in the dogmatic of the Church through the spread of the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius; it began to fertilize Christian mysticism, and filled the worship with a new charm.

In the West, where, from the second century, we meet with few attempts at philosophic speculation, and where the necessary conditions for mystical contemplation were wanting, Neoplatonism only gained a few adherents here and there. We know that the rhetorician, Marius Victorinus, (about 350) translated the writings of Plotinus. This translation exercised decisive influence on the mental history of Augustine, who borrowed from Neoplatonism the best it had, its psychology, introduced it into the dogmatic of the Church, and developed it still further. It may be said that Neoplatonism influenced the West at first only through the medium or under the cloak of ecclesiastical theology. Even Boethius—we can now regard this as certain—was a Catholic Christian. But in his mode of thought he was certainly a Neoplatonist. His violent death in the year 525, marks the end of independent philosophic effort in the West. This last Roman philosopher stood indeed almost completely alone in his century, and the philosophy for which he lived was neither original, nor firmly grounded and methodically carried out.

Neoplatonism and Ecclesiastical Dogmatic.

The question as to the influence which Neoplatonism had on the history of the development of Christianity, is not easy to answer; it is hardly possible to get a clear view of the relation between them. Above all, the answers will diverge according as we take a wider or a narrower view of so-called "Neoplatonism." If we view Neoplatonism as the highest and only appropriate expression for the religious hopes and moods which moved the nations of Graeco-Roman Empire from the second to the fifth centuries, the ecclesiastical dogmatic which was developed in the same period, may appear as a younger sister of Neoplatonism which was fostered by the elder one, but which fought and finally conquered her. The Neoplatonists themselves described the ecclesiastical theologians as intruders who appropriated Greek philosophy, but mixed it with foreign fables. Hence Porphyry said of Origen (in Euseb., H. E. VI. 19): "The outer life of Origen was that of a Christian and opposed to the law; but, in regard to his views of things and of the Deity, he thought like the Greeks, inasmuch as he introduced their ideas into the myths of other peoples." This judgment of Porphyry is at any rate more just and appropriate than that of the Church theologians about Greek philosophy, that it had stolen all its really valuable doctrines from the ancient sacred writings of the Christians. It is, above all, important that the affinity of the two sides was noted. So far, then, as both ecclesiastical dogmatic and Neoplatonism start from the feeling of the need of redemption, so far as both desire to free the soul from the sensuous, so far as they recognise the inability of man to attain to blessedness and a certain knowledge of the truth without divine help and without a revelation, they are fundamentally related. It must no doubt be admitted that Christianity itself was already profoundly affected by the influence of Hellenism when it began to outline a theology; but this influence must be traced back less to philosophy than to the collective culture, and to all the conditions under which the spiritual life was enacted. When Neoplatonism arose ecclesiastical Christianity already possessed the fundamental features of its theology, that is, it had developed these, not by accident, contemporaneously and independent of Neoplatonism. Only by identifying itself with the whole history of Greek philosophy, or claiming to be the restoration of pure Platonism, was Neoplatonism able to maintain that it had been robbed by the church theology of Alexandria. But that was an illusion. Ecclesiastical theology appears, though our sources here are unfortunately very meagre, to have learned but little from Neoplatonism even in the third century, partly because the latter itself had not yet developed into the form in which the dogmatic of the church could assume its doctrines, partly because ecclesiastical theology had first to succeed in its own region, to fight for its own position and to conquer older notions intolerable to it. Origen was quite as independent a thinker as Plotinus; but both drew from the same tradition. On the other hand, the influence of Neoplatonism on the Oriental theologians was very great from the fourth century. The more the Church expressed its peculiar ideas in doctrines which, though worked out by means of philosophy, were yet unacceptable to Neoplatonism (the christological doctrines), the more readily did theologians in all other questions resign themselves to the influence of the latter system. The doctrines of the incarnation, of the resurrection of the body, and of the creation of the word, in time formed the boundary lines between the dogmatic of the Church and Neoplatonism; in all else ecclesiastical theologians and Neoplatonists approximated so closely that many among them were completely at one. Nay, there were Christian men, such as Synesius, for example, who in certain circumstances were not found fault with for giving a speculative interpretation of the specifically Christian doctrines. If in any writing the doctrines just named are not referred to, it is often doubtful whether it was composed by a Christian or a Neoplatonist. Above all, the ethical rules, the precepts of the right life, that is, asceticism, were always similar. Here Neoplatonism in the end celebrated its greatest triumph. It introduced into the church its entire mysticism, its mystic exercises, and even the magical ceremonies, as expounded by Iamblichus. The writings of the pseudo-Dionysius contain a Gnosis in which, by means of the doctrines of Iamblichus and doctrines like those of Proclus, the dogmatic of the church is changed into a scholastic mysticism with directions for practical life and worship. As the writings of this pseudo-Dionysius were regarded as those of Dionysius the disciple of the Apostle, the scholastic mysticism which they taught was regarded as apostolic, almost as a divine science. The importance which these writings obtained first in the East, then from the ninth or the twelfth century also in the West, cannot be too highly estimated. It is impossible to explain them here. This much only may be said, that the mystical and pietistic devotion of to-day, even in the Protestant Church, draws its nourishment from writings whose connection with those of the pseudo-Areopagitic can still be traced through its various intermediate stages.

In antiquity itself Neoplatonism influenced with special directness one Western theologian, and that the most important, viz., Augustine. By the aid of this system Augustine was freed from Manichaeism, though not completely, as well as from scepticism. In the seventh Book of his confessions he has acknowledged his indebtedness to the reading of Neoplatonic writings. In the most essential doctrines, viz., those about God, matter, the relation of God to the world, freedom and evil, Augustine always remained dependent on Neoplatonism; but at the same time, of all theologians in antiquity he is the one who saw most clearly and shewed most plainly wherein Christianity and Neoplatonism are distinguished. The best that has been written by a Father of the Church on this subject, is contained in Chapters 9-21 of the seventh Book of his confessions.

The question why Neoplatonism was defeated in the conflict with Christianity, has not as yet been satisfactorily answered by historians. Usually the question is wrongly stated. The point here is not about a Christianity arbitrarily fashioned, but only about Catholic Christianity and Catholic theology. This conquered Neoplatonism after it had assimilated nearly everything it possessed. Further, we must note the place where the victory was gained. The battle-field was the empire of Constantine, Theodosius and Justinian. Only when we have considered these and all other conditions, are we entitled to enquire in what degree the specific doctrines of Christianity contributed to the victory, and what share the organisation of the church had in it. Undoubtedly, however, we must always give the chief prominence to the fact that the Catholic dogmatic excluded polytheism in principle, and at the same time found a means by which it could represent the faith of the cultured mediated by science as identical with the faith of the multitude resting on authority.

In the theology and philosophy of the middle ages, mysticism was the strong opponent of rationalistic dogmatism; and, in fact, Platonism and Neoplatonism were the sources from which in the age of the Renaissance and in the following two centuries, empiric science developed itself in opposition to the rationalistic dogmatism which disregarded experience. Magic, astrology, alchemy, all of which were closely connected with Neoplatonism, gave an effective impulse to the observation of nature and, consequently, to natural science, and finally prevailed over formal and barren rationalism Consequently, in the history of science, Neoplatonism has attained a significance and performed services of which men like Iamblichus and Proclus never ventured to dream. In point of fact, actual history is often more wonderful and capricious than legends and fables.

Literature—The best and fullest account of Neoplatonism, to which I have been much indebted in preparing this sketch, is Zeller's, Die Philosophie der Griechen, III. Theil, 2 Abtheilung (3 Auflage, 1881) pp. 419-865. Cf. also Hegel, Gesch. d. Philos. III. 3 ff. Ritter, IV. pp. 571-728: Ritter et Preller, Hist. phil. graec. et rom. Sec. 531 ff. The Histories of Philosophy by Schwegler, Brandis, Brucker, Thilo, Struempell, Ueberweg (the most complete survey of the literature is found here), Erdmann, Cousin, Prantl. Lewes. Further: Vacherot, Hist, de l'ecole d'Alexandria, 1846, 1851. Simon, Hist, de l'ecole d'Alexandria, 1845. Steinhart, articles "Neuplatonismus", "Plotin", "Porphyrius", "Proklus" in Pauly, Realencyclop. des klass. Alterthums. Wagenmann, article "Neuplatonismus" in Herzog, Realencyklopaedie f. protest. Theol. T. X. (2 Aufl.) pp. 519-529. Heinze, Lehre vom Logos, 1872, p. 298 f. Richter, Neuplatonische Studien, 4 Hefte.

Heigl, Der Bericht des Porphyrios ueber Ongenes, 1835. Redepenning, Origenes I. p. 421 f. Dehaut, Essai historique sur la vie et la doctrine d'Ammonius Saccas, 1836. Kirchner, Die Philosophie des Plotin, 1854. (For the biography of Plotinus, cf. Porphyry, Eunapius, Suidas; the latter also in particular for the later Neoplatonists). Steinhart, De dialectica Plotini ratione, 1829, and Meletemata Plotiniana, 1840. Neander, Ueber die welthistorische Bedeutung des 9'ten Buchs in der 2'ten Enneade des Plotinos, in the Abhandl. der Berliner Akademie, 1843. p. 299 f. Valentiner, Plotin u.s. Enneaden, in the Theol. Stud. u. Kritiken, 1864, H. 1. On Porphyrius, see Fabricius, Bibl. gr. V. p. 725 f. Wolff, Porph. de philosophia ex oraculis haurienda librorum reliquiae, 1856. Mueller, Fragmenta hist. gr. III. 688 f. Mai, Ep. ad Marcellam, 1816. Bernays, Theophrast. 1866. Wagenmann, Jahrbuecher fuer Deutsche Theol. Th. XXIII. (1878) p. 269 f. Richter, Zeitschr. f. Philos. Th. LII. (1867) p. 30 f. Hebenstreit, de Iamblichi doctrina, 1764. Harless, Das Buch von den aegyptischen Mysterien, 1858. Meiners, Comment. Societ. Gotting IV. p. 50 f. On Julian, see the catalogue of the rich literature in the Realencyklop. f. prot Theol. Th. VII. (2 Aufl.) p. 287, and Neumann, Juliani libr. c. Christ, quae supersunt, 1880. Hoche, Hypatia, in "Philologus" Th. XV. (1860) p. 435 f. Bach, De Syriano philosopho, 1862. On Proclus, see the Biography of Marinus and Freudenthal in "Hermes" Th. XVI. p. 214 f. On Boethius, cf. Nitzsch, Das System des Boethius, 1860. Usener, Anecdoton Holderi, 1877.

On the relation of Neoplatonism to Christianity and its significance in the history of the world, cf. the Church Histories of Mosheim, Gieseler, Neander, Baur; also the Histories of Dogma by Baur and Nitzsch. Also Loeffler, Der Platonismus der Kirchenvaeter, 1782. Huber, Die Philosophic der Kirchenvaeter, 1859. Tzschirner, Fall des Heidenthums, 1829. Burckhardt, Die Zeit Constantin's des Grossen, p. 155 f. Chastel, Hist. de la destruction du Paganisme dans l'empire d'Orient, 1850. Beugnot, Hist. de la destruction du Paganisme en Occident, 1835. E. V. Lasaulx, Der Untergang des Hellenismus, 1854. Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria 1886. Reville, La religion a Rome sous les Severes, 1886. Vogt, Neuplatonismus und Christenthum, 1836. Ullmann, Einfluss des Christenthums auf Porphyrius, in Stud, und Krit., 1832 On the relation of Neoplatonism to Monasticism, cf. Keim, Aus dem Urchristenthum, 1178, p. 204 f. Carl Schmidt, Gnostische Schriften in Koptischer Sprache, 1892 (Texte u. Unters. VIII. I. 2). See, further, the Monographs on Origen, the later Alexandrians, the three Cappadocians, Theodoret, Synesius, Marius Victorinus, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus, Scotus Erigena and the Mediaeval Mystics. Special prominence is due to: Jahn, Basilius Plotinizans, 1838. Dorner, Augustinus, 1875. Bestmann, Qua ratione Augustinus notiones philos. Graecae adhibuerit, 1877. Loesche, Augustinus Plotinizans, 1881. Volkmann, Synesios, 1869. On the after effects of Neoplatonism on Christian Dogmatic, see Ritschl, Theologie und Metaphysik. 2 Aufl. 1887.

[Footnote 455: Excellent remarks on the nature of Neoplatonism may be found in Eucken, Goett. Gel. Anz., 1 Maerz, 1884 p. 176 ff.: this sketch was already written before I saw them. "We find the characteristic of the Neoplatonic epoch in the effort to make the inward, which till then had had alongside of it an independent outer world as a contrast, the exclusive and all-determining element. The movement which makes itself felt here, outlasts antiquity and prepares the way for the modern period; it brings about the dissolution of that which marked the culminating point of ancient life, that which we are wont to call specifically classic. The life of the spirit, till then conceived as a member of an ordered world and subject to its laws, now freely passes beyond these bounds, and attempts to mould, and even to create, the universe from itself. No doubt the different attempts to realise this desire reveal, for the most part, a deep gulf between will and deed; usually ethical and religious requirements of the naive human consciousness must replace universally creative spiritual power, but all the insufficient and unsatisfactory elements of this period should not obscure the fact that, in one instance, it reached the height of a great philosophic achievement, in the case of Plotinus."]

[Footnote 456: Plotinus, even in his lifetime, was reproached with having borrowed most of his system from Numenius. Porphyry, in his "Vita Plotini", defended him against this reproach.]

[Footnote 457: On this sort of Trinity, see Bigg, "The Christian Platonists of Alexandria," p. 248 f.]


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