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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Neoplatonism

A mystical school of philosophy that flourished from the 3rd to the 6th centuries identified primarily with Plotinus, and which had a significant influence on later philosophies and mystical schools.

Background. For nine centuries after the death of Plato, his teachings continued in the Academy he founded (until it was closed by Emperor Justinian in 529 ce). There were some modifications of his ideas made by his followers around the middle of the 3rd cent. BCE, but a more significant departure was made by a series of philosophers now called neo-Platonists. Some identify the Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus (ca. 20 BCE - ca. 50 CE) from Alexandria, Egypt, as a forerunner of these with his attempt to reconcile Jewish theology with Greek philosophy through an allegorical interpretation of the Bible. In addition to identifying the Platonic Logos with God, he claimed that there was an invisible host of discarnate beings associated with the earth, some mortal and some immortal. This is very much like the theosophical view that after the death of the physical body the human soul continues to exist in a superphysical world, yet still mortal, while also in this superphysical world (sometimes termed astral, mental, and buddhic in theosophical literature) there exists a hierarchy of immortal beings, sometimes called “angels,” “gods,” “devas,” etc. Philo, according to Helena P. Blavatsky, also held the theosophic doctrine of the descent of consciousness into matter and the inevitable ascent of it back to God — i.e., involution and evolution in theosophical terminology (cf. IU I:2).

The chief founder of the neo-Platonic School was the mystic Ammonius Saccas (late 1st - early 2nd cent. ce) who claimed to be “god taught” (theodidaktos). He taught that all religions came from the same divine source and that their esoteric doctrines were identical, a claim also found in theosophical literature. He stated that knowledge was of three grades, ascending from mere opinion derived from sense perception, through science (Lat. sciens) gained through dialectic, to illumination gained through direct spiritual intuition. This is essentially the same as Plato’s three grades of knowledge outlined in the Republic. Blavatsky even suggests that Ammonius’ recommendation of solitary prayer (or meditation) as the means for attaining illumination is found in Plato’s belief that direct realization of the Form of the Good occurred when one remained “silent in the presence of the divine ones” (IU I:434). Since we have no writings from Ammonius, it is not known whether he taught one of the most characteristic doctrines of neoplatonism, metempsychosis or reincarnation, but it is most likely that he did since it was a central doctrine of his followers.

Ammonius’ most important disciple was Plotinus (205-270), who traveled to Alexandria to study with him about 232 and stayed with him for the next 10 years. In 242 he traveled to Persia and India for further studies, finally settling in Rome in 244 to teach his ideas which attracted wide attention. His writings were collected by his pupil Porphyry (ca. 232 - ca. 304) into six groups of nine treatises each, hence they are known as Enneads (“Nines”). His principal modification of Plato’s philosophy is his doctrine of emanation, in which the One or Absolute manifests the Logos or Divine Mind, which, in turn, manifests the World Soul; this trinity then manifests the universe in a series of densifications of matter, in each of which the Divine is still inherent but more and more concealed. This is very similar to the modern theosophical doctrine of cosmogenesis. Plotinus compared the One to a fountain which overflowed in a series of descents into matter or to a stone dropped into water which created ever widening circles from the center. The purpose of life, he taught, is to recapture or realize one’s essential union with one’s divine source, the center, which he called “the flight of the alone to the Alone” (or “of the one to the One”), a state his biographer, Porphyry, said he had achieved six times. In addition to social and political virtues, he taught those virtues which would assist the soul in achieving its mystical union.

In addition to collecting the works of Plotinus into the Enneads and writing biographies of Pythagoras and Plotinus, Porphyry wrote the Isagoge, an introduction to Aristotle’s logic, although his own metaphysical ideas were completely at variance with that philosopher. Like Philo, he taught that there was a world of beings invisible to ordinary perception and is said to have described them in some detail (cf. IU I:329, 332-333, 344), which indicated that he was clairvoyant (cf. IU I:434-435). Like Pythagoras, he advocated vegetarianism (IU I:xliii). He was also the teacher of Iamblicus (d. 330), a mystic who had a large and devoted following in his day and was widely studied in the 15th and 16th centuries. Unfortunately, all of Iamblicus’ writings have been lost except for On the Egyptian Mysteries. The principal difference between Iamblicus and his predecessors, according to H. P. Blavatsky, is that he believed in and practiced “ceremonial magic and practical theurgy” which the other neo-Platonists felt was “dangerous” (ibid., and p. 219). He too was reputed to have been clairvoyant (IU I:435).

The next important person in the movement was the remarkable Alexandrian woman philosopher-mathematician Hypatia (ca. 350-415). Unfortunately, little is known historically of her except that she was very learned, a skilled orator, extremely beautiful, and impeded the spread of Christianity with her neo-Platonic teachings. Because of the latter, she was murdered by a mob of fanatic Christians in a most barbaric manner — first dragged from her chariot to a church, then stripped naked and pounded with clubs, and then scraped to death in front of the altar with oyster shells. A dramatic depiction of her martyrdom is described by Annie Besant, who claimed to remember a previous incarnation as Hypatia (see “The Story of Hypatia” in Legends and Tales [Adyar: TPH, 1913], pp. 45-50). According to Besant, Proclus was the eldest son of Hypatia’s cousin (cf. Lives of Alcyone, Vol. 2, p. 705).

Proclus (410?-484) was born in Constantinople, studied in Alexandria, and taught in Athens. His main contribution was to systematize neoplatonism, in the process making some alterations of the ideas of Plotinus, especially in the origin of matter. Like other neo-Platonists, he taught the doctrine of correspondences or analogy, sometimes stated as “as above, so below.” He is quoted by H. P. Blavatsky as writing that “the ancients, having contemplated this mutual sympathy of things (celestial and terrestrial) applied them for occult purposes. . . . All things are full of divine natures . . . while every order of things proceeds gradually in a beautiful descent from the highest to the lowest” (IU I:244) — in other words, that nature works from within outwards, a key tenet of occult philosophy. His theory about the after-death condition of the soul is essentially the same as that of modern theosophists, such as Charles W. Leadbeater (cf. IU I:432 and Leadbeater, The Other Side of Death). He also classified the “gods” into hierarchies of supercelestial, intercosmic, and elemental, foreshadowing the later classification of them into nine types by pseudo-Dionysius (late 5th or early 6th cent.).

The last noted neo-Platonist was the Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius (ca. 475-525) whose most famous work, The Consolation of Philosophy, was written in prison where he was sentenced to death (without a trial!) for treason. It is still in print and still read today. He is mentioned briefly only in passing in theosophical literature.

Neo-Platonists were viciously attacked and persecuted by Christians, especially during the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-565), for heresy, immorality, and “demonolatry,” clearly ridiculous charges. Prior to that time, however, despite their general pagan bias, the neo-Platonists had considerable influence on such early Church fathers as Origen (185? - 254?), Clement of Alexandria (d. 513), and pseudo-Dionysius. One can also find their influences in some medieval philosophers (most notably St. Augustine, who was a neo-Platonist before he became a Christian), in mystics like Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260 - ca. 1368) and Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), in the Cambridge Platonists Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688) and Henry More (1614-1687), and in 19th cent. German Romantic philosopher-poets, such as Lessing (1729-1781) and Schiller (1759-1805).

R.W.B.

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