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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Neo-Platonism is the term used by modern scholars
to describe the final form taken by the revived Plato-
nism of the Roman Empire. This was the dominant
philosophy in the Greco-Roman world from about the
end of the third century A.D. to the end of the public
teaching of Greek philosophy by pagans in the sixth
century A.D. Neo-Platonism had a deep influence on
Arabic and Jewish thought, and on Christian thought
from the later patristic period till the seventeenth
century, and in some cases even till our own times.


The philosophers whom we call Neo-Platonists would
not have been pleased with the name. They spoke and
thought of themselves simply as Platonists, and be-
lieved that their philosophy was an authentic exposi-
tion of the ancient masters, Pythagoras and Plato. In
their way of thinking the oldest philosophy was the
truest. And there was much more continuity in the
development of the revived Platonism of the Empire
than the rather artificial modern division into Middle
Platonism and Neo-Platonism would suggest, and its
earlier forms had more continuing influence than is
sometimes realized. But nonetheless the philosophy of
Plotinus (third century), the first and greatest of the
Neo-Platonists, and his successors, is so original and
distinctive and has been so deeply and widely influen-
tial, that it deserves separate treatment and special

1. As has already been said, Neo-Platonism was the
final stage of a continuous development of Platonism.
This began with the revival of dogmatic teaching in
Plato's school, the Academy, after a skeptical and
critical phase which lasted for some two centuries, by
Antiochus of Ascalon who was head of the Academy
at Athens in 79-78 B.C., when Cicero heard some
lectures by him. This revived dogmatic Platonism, of
which the general features begin to become clear to
us in the first century A.D., was in fact based on a highly
selective reading of Plato and on interpretations of his
thought which were current among his immediate
successors in the Old Academy, before the skeptical
period. There was some Stoic influence, though the
school carried on a continual polemic against the
Stoics, which is very apparent in the writings of
Plotinus. Some Platonists also were deeply influenced
by the thought of Aristotle, though others (notably
Atticus in the second half of the second century A.D.)
were strongly anti-Aristotelian. Plotinus, though some
aspects of his thought show clearly Aristotelian influ-
ence, spends a great deal of time criticizing Aristotle,
often very acutely. The revival of Pythagoreanism
which seems to have begun at about the same time
as the revival of dogmatic Platonism in the first cen-
tury B.C. contributed a good deal to the development
of Neo-Platonism, and especially to its most distinctive
doctrine, that of the transcendent One, the source of
all reality. There was already a strong Pythagorean
element in the thought of Plato himself, and still more
in that of his pupils and immediate successors,
Speusippus and Xenocrates, and post-Platonic Pythag-
oreanism was deeply influenced by the later thought
of Plato. Thus it was natural that the two schools under
the Empire should develop with a great deal of mutual
influence and interaction.

The “Middle” Platonists of the period from the late
first century A.D. to the early third century were a very
varied group, showing widely differing degrees of
philosophical knowledge and intelligence. But their
thought has enough unity to make possible some gen-
eral statements about it which will be sufficient to show
how it led up to the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus and
his successors, and why it had a considerable and per-
sistent influence on contemporary Jewish and Christian
thought, although it must be remembered that these
large generalizations conceal considerable divergences
and inconsistencies. The Middle Platonists were, much
more clearly and unmistakably than Plato, monotheists
in the sense of believing in a single supreme being,
the highest divine Intelligence. They quite often use
Theos (“God”) as a proper name for this supreme being
in a way which sounds familiar to those brought up
in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but is not in accord-
ance with earlier Greek usage; they of course recognize
the existence of many other theoi and daimones, gods
and spirits subordinate to and dependent on the su-
preme Intelligence. An important distinction made by
some of them is that between the supreme Intelligence
or God and a Second Intelligence or God inferior to
and dependent on the First. In the Neo-Pythagorean
Numenius, who in some ways anticipated Plotinus, the
First God is purely contemplative and it is the Second
who is active in forming and directing the world. His
Third God is the World-Soul (all Platonists, following
the Timaeus, believed that the physical world was an
ensouled living being). The Platonic Forms or Ideas
are conceived by most Middle Platonists as the
thoughts of the supreme God. Their eternal existence
is in his mind, and they are often thought of as the
plan or pattern on which he makes the world (again
an interpretation of the Timaeus). This extremely im-
portant development goes back at least to before Philo
Judaeus (an older contemporary of Saint Paul), but its
origins, in spite of much modern speculation, remain
obscure. The transcendence of the supreme God is very
much stressed, and sometimes there are already traces
of the “negative theology,” which Plotinus and the
later Neo-Platonists developed so fully, in which God
is said to be “not this,” “not that,” to indicate how
he is completely other and better than anything we
can think or imagine. In the thought of some Neo-
Pythagoreans the first principle is already the tran-
scendent One, which became of such great importance
in Neo-Platonism. But though the supreme God is the
transcendent head of the hierarchy of spiritual being,
the Middle Platonists do not always think of him as
extremely remote. In Plutarch and Atticus there is a
good deal of simple straightforward piety, an affec-
tionate insistence on God's goodness and providential
care for men.


When they turn from God and the divine hierarchy
to the world and man the Middle Platonists tend to
be dualists in two different senses. Their attempted
solutions of the problem of evil are in most cases
dualistic; evil is due either to the disturbing and pol-
luting influence of a preexisting matter, coeternal with
and not created by God, or to an evil soul, again a
coeternal independent principle. Their conception of
man is dualistic in a different sense, following and
developing Plato's doctrine in the Phaedo. Man is a
spirit, godlike by the possession of intelligence, tempo-
rarily resident in and using an earthly body (or a series
of earthly bodies) and he can only attain true happiness
by escaping from this lower world and returning after
purification to his true home in the divine world. The
austere (though not inhumanly ascetic) morality which
they taught, which derived ultimately from Plato and
was often strongly influenced by Stoicism, fitted well
with this dualistic view of human nature. But the
mention of Stoicism should remind us that in later
Greek philosophy asceticism and moral austerity are
not necessarily bound up with otherworldliness. The
austere Stoics were generally agnostic about a future
life, and their God was the wholly immanent principle
of life and order in the physical universe: their intense
religion and rigorous morality were generally wholly
this-worldly. And even the Epicureans, with their
dogmatic disbelief in life after death and divine inter-
vention in the world, were austere and even ascetic
in their view of how man should live to secure lasting

2. But though the deepening and intensification of
religious concern and the austere morality which are
characteristic of Greek philosophy in the first centuries
of the Christian era were not necessarily otherworldly,
they became more so as time went on, and in the form
of philosophy which finally became dominant, Neo-
Platonism, the whole object of the good and wise man
was to return in spirit to the divine intelligible world
to which he really belonged, a world immeasurably
superior to that perceived by the senses. The question
is therefore worth asking whether and in what sense
this intensely religious and otherworldly philosophy
was the result of a reaction from the extremely insecure
and unpleasant conditions of the society in which it
developed, i.e., the society of the later Roman Empire
from the end of the second century A.D. onwards, the
period which E. R. Dodds calls the “Age of Anxiety.”
There can be little doubt that the misery and insecurity
of this period account to some extent for the way in
which religious concerns and activities become more
and more important as it goes on, and the best and
most serious minds turn away from a hopeless world
to the quest for God. It is true that almost everything
which is worth reading in the age from Plotinus to
Justinian, and beyond, is centered in some way on the
quest for God and written by deeply religious men.
But we must not exaggerate the otherworldliness of
the period. This world as a whole was by no means
ultra-spiritual and most men in it, from emperors to
peasants, were much interested in the well-being of
their bodies and the accumulation (if they had the
chance) of very tangible possessions. Even the religion
of most of them, pagans or Christians, was directed
to a great extent to securing by divine favor very
this-worldly and material ends. The genuinely other-
worldly people, then as in most other periods, were
a very small minority, and this is particularly true of
Neo-Platonists. The description given by Porphyry, the
editor and biographer of Plotinus, of the circle of his
master at Rome, suggests that the circle was a small
and exclusive one: and no later Neo-Platonist attracted
any sort of mass following. The Neo-Platonic paganism
of the Emperor Julian was not attractive to the mass
of his subjects, though comparatively few of them,
probably, were very fervent Christians. Nor were the
people who turned most enthusiastically to other-
worldly philosophical or nonphilosophical religion
necessarily or normally those who suffered most from
the insecurity, injustice, and cruelty of the late Roman
world. Plotinus found his following among the aristoc-
racy of Rome, as later did Saint Jerome; and though
most of the Christian ascetics in Egypt and Syria were
no doubt peasants, many came from the comfortable
classes. Further, if we are not to be grossly unfair to
these otherworldly religious men, we must remember
that neither Plotinus and other Neo-Platonists nor the
great Christian otherworldly ascetics who became
bishops, like Saint Basil and Saint Augustine, neglected
their duty to their fellow men in this world or thought
that it should be neglected. Care for widows and or-
phans and the poor and the practice of common
honesty, decency, and humanity in personal rela-
tionships were by no means absent from these small
otherworldly circles. But no man of the later Roman
Empire ever seems to have thought that anything could
be done to change or improve radically the in many
ways horrible society in which he lived, though he
might do what he could to help its victims. And this
sense of powerlessness, this resignation to or disgust
with an almost intolerable world, probably had a good
deal to do with the turning of the best minds of the
age to an interior religious quest, though it cannot be
the whole explanation.


1. In the third century A.D. one of the greatest of
Greek philosophers, Plotinus, gathered together the


speculations of his Middle Platonist and Neo-
Pythagorean predecessors and made them into a far
stronger, more attractive, and influential philosophy
by thinking through them again, correcting and devel-
oping them under the pressure of his own living expe-
rience of discovery of the divine intelligible world and
its transcendent source. The ideas which have been
mentioned in the account of Middle Platonism above,
of the One beyond being, of the Forms in the Divine
Mind, of the universe given life and direction by divine
Soul, and of man as an intelligent spirit temporarily
resident in an earthly body, whose whole object is to
find his way back to the divine world to which he
belongs, are presented with a new depth, power, and
mutual coherence in the thought of Plotinus. This is
the real beginning of Neo-Platonism. Plotinus of course
did not think that he was producing a new philosophy
but that he was giving the authentic interpretation,
with some explication and development where neces-
sary, of the thought of Plato, and so expounding the
one true philosophy, whose truth was confirmed both
by its evident reasonableness and by ancient authority.
Contributing to the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus were—
besides Plato (read very selectively) and the Platonist
and Neo-Pythagorean commentators on his thought—
a constructively critical consideration of Aristotle and
his Peripatetic commentators and an influence, deep
at some points, of Stoic ideas which Plotinus' conscious
and frequently expressed hostility to Stoic corporealism
could not overcome. That he was the real founder of
Neo-Platonism does not mean that he was regarded
by later Neo-Platonists as the supreme philosophical
authority. His influence in the Platonic school was deep
and decisive. But he was a somewhat isolated figure
in the philosophical world of his time, and the Neo-
Platonists of later generations never thought of him
as the second founder or reformer of the school or
hesitated to disagree with him, even on important
points, if they thought fit. If his devoted disciple and
editor, Porphyry, had not published the great edition
of his master's works which we know as the Enneads
it is possible that Plotinus would have before very long
been almost completely forgotten. But the Enneads
were published and read, and they imposed a distinc-
tive metaphysical pattern on post-Plotinian Platonism
which persisted through all later elaborations and vari-

2. Philosophy for Plotinus is, even more than for
his predecessors, a way of life, requiring not only an
intense intellectual but also an intense moral effort.
It is a procedure for discovering who we really are,
which eventually carries us beyond our true selves to
their origin. In our philosophizing, if it is genuine, we
become aware of ourselves as having, beyond ordinary
human experience, an eternal existence in a divine
world of living intelligence, and we are able to share
in the everlasting return of that divine whole to unity
with its origin, the One or Good. The fact that Plotinus
sees philosophy in this way—as a process of self-
discovery and growing awareness of reality—means
that though he is capable of intellectual rigor and can
argue and criticize powerfully and intelligently, he is
not always unduly worried by paradox or careful about
consistency. It also means that he would rather be
vague, or give accounts in different places which are
not easy to reconcile with one another, than leave
anything out or fail to do justice to all aspects of the
reality which he believes himself to be discovering
within himself under the guidance of the ancients and
the pressure of his longing to return to union with the
Good. The goal of philosophy for the later Neo-
Platonists was the same. But it seems for them to have
been less a matter of experience and more a matter
of tradition and study. They were more scholastic than
Plotinus, both in the sense of being more concerned
with learned (though often by the standards of modern
scholars perverse) exposition of ancient thought and
in the sense of being more concerned to attain com-
plete clarity and consistency, to present a logically
coherent system of concepts precisely defined (so far
as the nature of their understanding of reality would

3. The basic pattern of reality according to Plotinus,
which all later Neo-Platonists follow in essentials, is
that in which the transcendent source, which is ab-
solutely one, undetermined, and unlimited, produces
a series of levels of being which are progressively less
unified, more dispersed and separate and multiple, and
consequently weaker and more imperfect; though even
the last and lowest, the physical universe, is held to-
gether and given a certain degree of unity which pre-
vents it from vanishing altogether into nonbeing by
the power of the One. Plotinus calls the transcendent
source of reality by the traditional names of the One
and the Good, though he is well aware that these
names, like all others, are inadequate. He very rarely
speaks of the One as God (his disciple Porphyry, like
some Middle Platonists, uses theos [θεός] as a name for
the supreme principle more frequently).

The One is beyond the reach of words or thought
and is best indicated by negations, or statements that
he is other and more than we can conceive. It or he
(Plotinus normally uses neuter substantives, but mas-
culine pronouns in speaking of this source of reality)
is beyond the reach of thought, and cannot even be
said to be, because he is absolutely beyond determi-
nation or limitation: being for Plotinus means being
something, a particular, describable thing. But the One


is certainly not nothing; he is more real than the beings
we can know or speak of.

Another negation which is important for Plotinus
is the denial that the One can be said to know himself
because self-knowledge implies a minimum duality
between subject and object and so a kind of internal
division and limitation. But again this negation is not
meant to imply that the One is unconscious and inert
but that when we are directing our minds towards the
source of living intelligence the language which we
use even of its highest product is no longer applicable.
The One, though he can only be reached through
thought, is beyond thought. He is the source of all our
values and the goal of all our aspirations who lies
always beyond the horizons of our minds: that is why
he is also the Good.

4. The One or Good produces eternally, completely
spontaneously, but also quite inevitably—because for
a Platonist a Good which does not diffuse or communi-
cate itself is unthinkable—the first determinate and
describable reality, the Divine Intelligence. This
springs eternally from the One as a life not yet formed
and determinate and, as it springs, turns back upon
the One in contemplation, impelled by the love the
One gives it in producing it as life. In this contempla-
tion it cannot receive the One in his absolute unity
and simplicity (though its love for its source carries
it eternally beyond its contemplation so that it is also
joined to the One in a mystical union in which we
at our highest can share). It determines itself as a
one-in-many, a whole of parts as perfectly unified as
anything except the One can be, the One-Being which
is the Platonic World of Forms or Ideas. This is at once
Absolute Being, perfect Intelligence, and Life at its
most intense. The Forms in it are, as in Plato, the
eternal archetypes of all else that to any degree exists,
but they are not just objects of true thought but, being
parts of Intelligence and Life, themselves living intelli-
gences, each of which knows and so in a sense is the
whole of which it is a part. Since Intelligence is a
determinate reality possessing immediate, intuitive,
and complete self-knowledge it is a limited reality in
the sense that the number of Forms is finite, though
Plotinus sometimes speaks of Forms of individuals. But
its power is infinite.

5. We at our highest belong in some way to the
world of Intellect and can be carried back with it in
its eternal self-transcendence to mystical union with
the One. But we are properly situated on the next level,
that of Soul, which is produced by Intellect as Intellect
is produced by the One. Plotinus, developing and
sharpening an earlier Platonic distinction, generally
distinguishes the spheres of Intellect and Soul very
clearly. Intellect is the level of intuitive thought, which
is one with its object in a single act of apprehension;
and Soul of discursive thought, which attains its object
in a more external way by reasoning from premisses
to conclusions. It is because Soul has a succession of
thoughts and not a single eternal act of thought that
time comes into being in it and the material universe
which it forms, orders, and animates is subject to time:
for in Plotinus, as in all Platonic systems, one of the
most important functions of Soul is to be the link
between the intelligible and sensible worlds and to
form, order, and govern the physical universe on the
model of the intelligible Forms. Plotinus distinguishes
between a lower phase of Soul, Nature, which is the
immanent principle of life and gives form to bodies,
and the higher World-Soul which orders and adminis-
ters the universe spontaneously and without previous
planning, deliberation, or choice, in a way which is
more like a process of organic growth than the care-
fully organized action of a human administrator or
craftsman. Plotinus strongly opposes the “artisan” con-
ception of divine action, as found in Jewish and Chris-
tian thought, in earlier Platonists, and, apparently, in
Plato himself, which represents God as making plans
and then proceeding to carry them out. The everlasting
material universe which is formed and ruled by Soul
is the best possible of its kind, the most perfect image
on the level of sense-perception of its intelligible
archetype, but it is immeasurably inferior to the arche-
type, both because the Forms in it are the weakest
reflections or expressions of the original Forms in In-
tellect, and because what underlies it, matter, though
derived from the spiritual realities which bring the
material world into being, is a principle of opposition
to them, a negative antireality which imparts some-
thing of its negation to material things.

6. Though Plotinus, when considering the order of
intelligible reality, distinguishes the spheres of Soul and
Intellect very clearly, he does not always maintain the
distinction and there is considerable overlapping. Soul
at its highest often appears as a permanent inhabitant
of the world of Intellect. This overlapping and crossing
of frontiers is particularly apparent in Plotinus' account
of men, who can live consciously on any level within
the wide range of souls, from Intellect's world of light
to the ghost-forms which flit through the darkness of
matter. Our true higher self, the “man within” lives
eternally and unchangingly on the level of Intellect
(whether we are conscious of it or not). It does not
sin or suffer and remains essentially unhindered in its
thinking activities by the body and its world, into
which it does not “come down.” Plotinus' accounts of
this higher self often do not make it clear whether it
belongs to the sphere of Soul or Intellect, or both. He
does not, sometimes, appear to think it matters very


much. But his final conclusion appears to be that we
at our highest are souls living on the level of Intellect,
illuminated and raised to its level by its continuous
action. That in us which is subject of what most people
regard as normal human experience is an image or
expression of the higher self on a lower level, which
“comes down” and joins with the bodily organism to
form the “composite” being, the “other man.” It is
important to notice that “come down” is not a phrase
which Plotinus intends to be taken literally. The spirit-
ual world for him is not “up there,” remote in space
like the heaven of the more naïve pagans and Chris-
tians, or distant in time, to be reached only after the
end of the present world, like the heaven of early
Christian tradition. It is eternally present within us,
here and now, immediately accessible if we will make
the initially intensely difficult effort to turn to it, to
become consciously aware of and live on the level of
our true selves. The task of philosophy is to bring about
this return to our selves which enables us to rise above
them to the final union with their source, the Good.
The driving force behind it is the love, the impulse
to return which the Good gives to all which it pro-
duces. By moral discipline, by recognition of the beauty
of the higher world in the images which nature and
art provide in the lower, and above all by intense
intellectual concentration, we awake to our true nature
and return to the goal of our desire. And for Plotinus
the way of philosophy is the only way of return. For
Iamblichus in the next century, and many of his suc-
cessors, the actual way of return to the divine was
through theurgic ritual rather than philosophy. But in
the religion of Plotinus rites and sacraments are of no


1. Platonism as expounded by Plotinus provides the
foundation and framework for all later Neo-Platonic
speculation, that is, for all Greek philosophy for the
next three hundred years. The Three Hypostases, the
transcendent source of reality, the world of Intellect,
real being, and true life, and the sphere of Soul which
forms, animates, and governs the material world, are
taken for granted by later Neo-Platonists. But there
are many developments and variations. Plotinus is, as
has already been said, by no means regarded as a
decisive authority, and there are other influences at
work in the development of later Neo-Platonism which
are apparent already in the thought of Plotinus' own
pupil and editor, Prophyry. The chief of these are the
continuing influence of the earlier type of Platonism
described in the first part of this article, and the influ-
ence of some very odd writings called the Chaldaean
of which only fragments survive. They were
produced as divine revelations probably in the second
half of the second century A.D. by the two Julians,
father and son, the “Chaldaean” and the “Theurgist,”
and seem to have been a theosophical farrago in verse
containing ideas drawn from popular Platonism,
Pythagoreanism, and Stoicism and with affinities with
the pagan Gnosticism of the Hermetica. Porphyry, their
first commentator, gave them only a limited and
grudging recognition, but for Iamblichus and his suc-
cessors they had the status of sacred scripture, and the
effort to produce a philosophical exegesis of them had
a confusing and complicating affect on later Neo-
Platonic thought.

2. Prophyry used to be considered as a transmitter
of the thought of Plotinus rather than as a thinker in
his own right. But the recent work of a number of
scholars, notably P. Hadot (see bibliography), has
shown that he developed Neo-Platonism in a manner
of his own, distinct from and in some ways opposed
to that of later Neo-Platonists who followed
Iamblichus. This Porphyrian Neo-Platonism had a
considerable influence on fourth-century Christian
thinkers, notably Marius Victorinus and Synesius. Its
most distinctive characteristic seems to have been its
monistic tendency. The One for Porphyry is much
closer to and more on a level with Intellect than it
is for Plotinus. The horizontal articulation of Intellect
into the triad Being, Life, and Intelligence (of which
the beginnings are apparent in Plotinus) plays an im-
portant part in his thought, as it does in that of all
later Neo-Platonists. And the One, it seems, for him
was the unknowable and ineffable pure being or activ-
ity of which the first self-determination was Intellect.
This is the form of Neo-Platonic doctrine which came
closest to, and had most influence on, the Trinitarian
theology of Post-Nicene Christian thinkers. Prophyry
also seems to have regarded Soul in its real nature as
practically identical with Intellect.

3. On both these points, for bringing the One down
to the level of what comes after it, and for confusing
Intellect and Soul, Porphyry was severely criticized
by Iamblichus and his successors, whose development
of Neo-Platonism early in the fourth century took a
different direction, though it owes a good deal in some
ways to Prophyry's developments of Plotinus.
Iamblichus was the originator of the distinctive type
of Neo-Platonism which became dominant in the later
schools, and which we know best from the voluminous
works of Proclus (fifth century A.D.), who became head
of Plato's school at Athens. This, far from showing any
tendency to interpret Plotinus in a monistic way,
sharpened the distinctions between the hypostases and
multiplied the levels of reality. The ineffable source
of reality was described in terms more negative than


anything in Plotinus; even our negative statements
about it have to be negated, and in the end we are
reduced to utter silence and ignorance about it. The
mystical union, though still regarded as theoretically
possible, does not seem to have been a matter of expe-
rience for most later Neo-Platonists. Between the
ineffable first principle and the first intelligible triad
Iamblichus and his successors placed a rather Neo-
Pythagorean One before all multiplicity, a One of
which we know at least that it is One.

The intelligible world and the sphere of Soul are
extremely elaborately subdivided both horizontally and
vertically, with continual use of the triadic articulation
which appears already in the triad of Being, Life, and
Intelligence. The need to provide a precise systematic
exegesis of everything in those dialogues of Plato which
they thought important (especially the Parmenides and
the Timaeus); the need to take the Chaldaean Oracles
and other alleged revelations (especially Orphic)
seriously; and the need to find a place in the system
for every god and spirit of the Hellenic and Near-
Eastern pantheons; all these deeply felt necessities
contributed to the complication of the later Neo-
Platonic systems. For these men, as for Plotinus, the
end of human life was to return to the divine. But the
return for them could not be accomplished by them-
selves through the natural love and intelligence which
they receive in their origin from the Good. It was
brought about by the gracious operation of a descend-
ing and generous divine eros which is remarkably like
Christian agapē: and the method of return was through
the performance of theurgic rituals revealed by the
gods themselves. But they did not confuse theurgy with
philosophy, and the amount of attention paid to
theurgy varied a good deal from one school or individ-
ual to another. They were deeply religious men, utterly
committed to the defense of what they regarded as
the authentic ancient religious tradition which the
world around them had abandoned. But they were also
concerned to give a philosophically rigorous, clear,
coherent, and systematic account of their beliefs.

4. An important feature of this later Neo-Platonism
was the increased attention paid to Aristotle, and espe-
cially to his logical theory, which the later Neo-
Platonists continually studied, criticized, and adapted
in their effort to give their system logical coherence
and rigor. This concern with Aristotle's logic begins
with Porphyry, and extensive commentary on the
works of Aristotle was one of the main activities of
the Neo-Platonic school of Alexandria: though it seems
that in their metaphysics the Alexandrians were ortho-
dox post-Iamblichean Neo-
Platonists, and did not differ
as much as has been supposed in the fifth and sixth
centuries A.D. from the contemporary school of Athens,
though they were less bitterly hostile to Christianity.
It was at Alexandria in the later sixth century that the
teaching of philosophy finally passed from pagans to


In considering the influence of Neo-Platonism on
early medieval thought in the East and West of the
former Roman world, it is first of all important to
remember the continuing influence—especially on
Christian thought—of the earlier Platonism described
in the first part of this article. The relatively simple
and unsophisticated theism of Middle Platonism had
a strong attraction for Jewish and Christian minds, and
the majority of Christian thinkers in the fourth century
and later, even when they are influenced by Neo-
Platonism, base their philosophical theology on a con-
ception of God which is Middle Platonist rather than
Neo-Platonist in that it presents him as Being and
Intelligence. The Christian Origen, whose influence
was very great, is immediately pre-Neo-Platonist and
not Neo-Platonist in his conception of God. When
there is a question of properly Neo-Platonist influence
one must distinguish between the limited, though im-
portant, influence exercised by the direct reading of
pagan Neo-Platonist treatises, and the much more
widespread influence exercised by eminent Christian,
Muslim, or Jewish thinkers who had assimilated some
Neo-Platonic ideas but had adapted and developed
them according to their own religious preconceptions
and personal casts of mind.

The works of the Greek Neo-Platonists continued
to be copied, and to some extent read, in the Byzantine
world, from which they eventually reached Renais-
sance Europe. Marius Victorinus and others read
Plotinus and Prophyry in Greek in the West in the
fourth century A.D., and Augustine read them in Latin
translation. In the sixth century Boethius was well
acquainted with Greek Neo-Platonism. In the Muslim
East a great collection of translations of works which
had been studied in the Neo-Platonist philosophical
schools was produced, first in Syriac and after A.D. 800
in Arabic. It was the reading of these translations which
inspired the Muslim philosophers, from Al-Kindi to
Averroës, to develop their often highly original philos-
ophies which later deeply influenced the medieval
West. In the Greek-speaking Byzantine world Neo-
Platonic ideas had some influence on Christian thinkers
from the fourth century A.D. onwards, which was con-
siderably increased by the work of the anonymous
author who wrote probably in the late fifth to early
sixth centuries A.D. under the name of Dionysius the
Areopagite, and adapted and in many ways trans-
formed fifth-century Neo-Platonism for the purposes


of his own very distinctive Christian philosophical
theology. The Christian Platonist tradition of
“Dionysius,” further Christianized by his successors
(notably his great seventh-century commentator Saint
Maximus, a most original and important theological
thinker), eventually reached the West in the Carolin-
gian period through Erigena.

But the most influential of Neo-Platonic Christian
thinkers in the West was, of course, Saint Augustine,
who was deeply impressed by his reading of Plotinus
and Porphyry and produced his own thoroughly
Christianized and highly personal kind of Platonic
philosophical theology, which left its mark on most
later Western Christian thinking. In the sixth century
A.D. Boethius, in the book which he wrote in prison
before his execution, the Consolation of Philosophy,
expounded a simple Neo-Platonic theism perfectly
compatible with Christian doctrine, though not ex-
plicitly Christian, which had a great influence on the
thought of the early medieval West.


The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medi-
aeval Philosophy,
edited by A. H. Armstrong (Cam-
bridge, 1967; reprint 1970), gives a full account of Neo-
Platonism, its development, and its influence on early
medieval thought. Part I, by P. Merlan, deals with pre-
Plotinian Platonism; Part II, by H. Chadwick, with Philo
of Alexandria and the earliest Christian thinkers; Part III,
by A. H. Armstrong, with Plotinus; Part IV, by A. C. Lloyd,
with the later Neo-Platonists. The remaining four Parts, by
R. A. Markus, P. Sheldon-Williams, H. Liebeschütz, and
R. Walzer, are very largely concerned with Neo-Platonic
influences on Christian patristic and early medieval thought
in East and West, and on Muslim philosophy. All parts have
extensive bibliographies, including the principal editions
and translations of Neo-Platonic texts.

On Plotinus and his predecessors, see also Les Sources
de Plotin,
Entretiens Hardt V (Vandoeuvres and Geneva,
1960); J. M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge,
1967), which includes a good bibliography. On Porphyry
see Porphyre, Entretiens Hardt XII (Vandoeuvres and
Geneva, 1966); and P. Hadot, Porphyre et Vietorinus, Vols.
I-II (Paris, 1968). On the later Neo-Platonists the most
important work in English besides A. C. Lloyd's contri-
bution to the Cambridge History referred to above is the
commentary of E. R. Dodds on Proclus, Elements of Theol-
2nd ed. (Oxford, 1963). See also L. J. Rosàn, The Philos-
ophy of Proclus
(New York, 1949), with extensive bibliogra-
phies; J. Trouillard, Le Néoplatonisme, Encyclopédie de la
Pléiade, Histoire de la Philosophie,
I, Orient-Antiquité-
Moyen Age
(Paris, 1969), pp. 886-935. Le Néoplatonisme,
ed. P. Hadot (Paris, 1971), is also valuable.


[See also Dualism; Gnosticism; God; Hierarchy; Platonism;
Pythagorean...; Stoicism.]