Neoplatonism

This comprised probably the most important intellectual vehicle of the ancient world after the third century, though unlike Gnosticism* it never acquired a comprehensive religious guise. Its roots lie in the prolific Platonic culture of Alexandria, which had displaced Athens as the intellectual center of the world. Its founder, Plotinus,* was influenced by the unknown philosopher Ammonius Saccas.* There followed an outstanding philosophical progeny, including Porphyry* and Boethius.*

Neoplatonic influences on Christian thought were more as a catalyst and vehicle of thought than as a religion. Christian writers who employ Neoplatonic methods include Basil the Great,* Nemesius* of Emesa, Synesius* of Cyrene, Nestorius (see Nestorianism), Augustine,* and the treatises of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite.* In Neoplatonism the ultimate divine principle is above being. The divine light streams from the superabundance of the divine perfections and fades into the inexhaustible void. Existence is like a ladder with the top near to the light, but the bottom mired in the realm of the irrational and lifeless. By abstracting the particulars of existence or by sheer mystical illumination (a form of transcendental meditation) the mind can overcome the hindrances of the psyche to experience the sublime.

Neoplatonism aimed to overcome the duality between thought and ultimate reality by direct union of the soul with God. It maintained an infinite qualitative distinction and distance between the material world (including the flesh) and divine goodness; hence the ascription to Christ of a phantasmal body by some Neoplatonists because a real incarnation was unthinkable. Religious questions were of the utmost importance, based on a dualistic view of reality. Man should turn his face upward; science turns man's face to what is below him. They refused totally to see in the world the manifestation of a spiritual or divine principle. By contrast, Christianity brought the divine goodness down into the world in discrete personal, bodily form by the Incarnation. Salvation is by redemption through the Cross, based upon the creation of the world by God and His personal coming into it in human life, not by aspiration.

H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth (1954); L. Hodgson, For Faith and Freedom (1957); B. Altaner, Patrology (1958); C.C.J. Webb, A History of Philosophy (1964); J. Quasten, Patrology (1966); A.H. Armstrong (ed.), The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1967); R.T. Wallis, Neoplatonism (1972).