Neoplatonism

In order meaningfully to discuss reincarnation in a Christian context, we’ll have to look at Origen.  However, to understand him, and the overall milieu, we’ll have to look at the philosophical system that moderns refer to as Neoplatonism.  And so the posts multiply….

To use the term “Neoplatonism”, and to describe it as a philosophy is doubly misleading.  None of its followers would  have called it “Neoplatonism–for them it was just “Platonism”, the teachings of the great Plato.  It is we moderns who distinguish the various phases and gradual changes in the philosophical system that began with Plato and lasted for nearly a millennium–arguably longer than that.

Also, “philosophy” didn’t mean the same to the ancients as it does to us.  Philosophy–“love of wisdom”–did not mean abstract speculation on the nature of reality, or metaphysics, or such.  It meant an integrated way of life that sought wisdom as a way for finding out how humans should live, behave, and prepare for death.  What the ancients called philosophy was closer to what we’d term “religion”.  The main difference is that as products of a Judeo-Christian background, we tend to view religion as bodies of dogmatic teachings that are more or less incompatible.

Greek philosophical schools were more like modern religions such as Buddhism or the Vedanta schools of Hinduism in that they were more concerned with developing practices and attitudes that would guide followers in this life and the next than with pantheons or revelations.  Thus, a Neoplatonist, or Stoic, or Epicurean might take various elements of other belief systems that seemed useful, and might participate (or not participate) in public worship of any pantheon, or none.  Thus, while each philosophical school had distinct beliefs and attitudes, none were exclusivist.  Just as modern Japanese might combine Shinto, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist beliefs and practices into their lives–belonging to more than one religion at once–a Neoplatonist might worship Greek or Roman or Syrian gods, or none, or even be a Christian.   This despite the fact that Christians and Neoplatonists often argued against each other!

Anyway, I’d like to give a very brief outline of Neoplatonism as background to upcoming posts. Neoplatonism begins by positing an infinite, incomprehensible, immaterial reality that is beyond all human concepts, beyond space and time, and which  is the basis and source of everything that exists.  We could call it “God”–the Neoplatonists did at times–but the Neoplatonists preferred to call it the One–in Greek, το Ήν (to Hen, more frequently rendered to En, to avoid confusion with “hen”), a neuter noun, since It is beyond all distinctions, including gender.  The concept is not unlike the Hindu conception of Brahman (also a neuter noun).  All potentiality resides within the One.

At some point, the One emanates from itself the Nous–“Mind”–which is a perfect image of Itself.  The Nous, in turn, emanates the World Soul, which is the image of the Nous as the Nous is the image of the One.  The Nous creates the phenomenal world–the world we live in–through the World Soul, which mediates between the world we live in and the Nous–which further mediates between the World Soul and the One.

The phenomenal world, as (ultimately) an emanation of the One is in itself an image of the Divine; but being immersed in matter, it is a shadowy and imperfect image.  It is not intrinsically evil, but to the extent that it fails to participate in the Forms (which ultimately reside in the One and are mediated through the Nous and the World Soul), matter produces chaos, confusion, and what we perceive as evil (which is seen not as a positive force, but a lack or privation).

The human soul resides in the human body and to the extent that it becomes obsessed with or enmeshed in material concerns tends to be drawn again and again to the material world through rebirth.  The goal of the philosopher is to distance himself as far as possible from such worldly concerns by philosophical inquiry, contemplation, and a simple life.  Holy souls are reborn in higher realms; and the ultimate goal is to achieve reunion (henosis) with the One.

This is an extremely abbreviated description, but it will do for what I’m shooting at in upcoming posts.  The similarities of this system to the Gnostic and Evagrian systems should be obvious.  The similarities of the One, the Nous, and the World Soul to the orthodox Father, Son (who is also the Logos, “reason”, remember), and Holy Spirit are also apparent.  Finally, the overall system is very similar overall to Hinduism and Buddhism in many ways.

Neoplatonism has had enormous influence on Western philosophy and religion, and Christianity has been no exception.  For a list of some of the more prominent Christian Neoplatonists or Neoplatonist-influenced Christians, see here.  One of the most important theologians influenced by Neoplatonism was Origen.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 20/07/2012, in philosophy, Plato and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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