The Neoplatonic Tradition
Neoplatonism exercised great power among the scholiasts and magicians of the Middle Ages. In fact most of what medievalism knew of Plato was through the medium of the Neoplatonists. In Germany in the fourteenth century it became a vivifying principle, for although its doctrine of emanation was abandoned, its allegorical explanation and its exaltation of the spirit above the letter was retained, and Platonism and mysticism together created a party within the church—the sworn foes of scholasticism and mere lifeless orthodoxy.
In western Europe, Neoplatonism was revived in the Italian Renaissance by figures such as Nicholas Cusanus, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, the Medici, Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli and later Giordano Bruno. Platonism in the Renaissance was a major force in European cultural life.
Neoplatonism as a mystical philosophical system was initiated by Plotinus of Alexandria in 233 C.E. that combined the Platonic philosophy of ancient Greece with later Gnostic spiritual cravings. Although to some extent founded on the teachings of Plato, it was undoubtedly sophisticated by a deep mysticism, which in all probability emanated from Greece.
To a great extent, Neoplatonism colored the thought of medieval mysticism and magic. Plotinus, its founder, commenced the study of philosophy in Alexandria at the age of 28. He early experienced an earnest desire to reach the truth concerning existence, and to that end made a deep study of the dialogues of Plato and the metaphysics of Aristotle. He practiced severe austerities and attempted to live what he called the "angelic" life, or the life of the disembodied in the body.
He was greatly drawn to Apollonius of Tyana by reading his Life by Philostratus. The union of philosopher and priest in the character of Apollonius fired the imagination of Plotinus, and in his Pythagorean teachings the young student discovered the elements of both Orientalism and Platonism, for both Pythagoras and Plato strove to escape the sensuous and to realize in contemplative abstraction the tranquility, superior to desire and passion, that made men approach the gods.
However, in the hands of the later Pythagoreans and Platonists, the principles of the Hellenic masters were carried off into popular magical speculations. Many of the Pythagoreans joined the various Orphic (mystery religion) associations, becoming little more than itinerant vendors of charms.
It is probable that even before he left Alexandria Plotinus began to absorb some of the gnostic mysticism circulating throughout the Mediterranean Basin. But everywhere he also found a growing indifference to religion as known to the more ancient Greeks and Egyptians. By this time, the pantheons of Greece, Rome, and Egypt had become fused in the worship of Serapis, and this fusion had been forwarded by the works of Plutarch, Apuleius, and Lucian.
The position of metaphysical philosophy at this time was by no means a strong one. In fact, metaphysical emphases had given place to ethical teachings, and philosophy was regarded as a branch of literature, or an elegant recreation. Plotinus persuaded himself that philosophy and religion should be one, and that speculation should be a search after God. It was at this time that he first heard of Ammonius Saccas, who shortly before had been a porter in the streets of Alexandria, and who lectured upon the possibilities of reconciling Plato and Aristotle.
"Skepticism," stated Ammonius, "was death." He recommended men to travel back across the past, and out of the whole bygone world of thought to construct a system greater than any of its parts. This teaching formed an epoch in the life of Plotinus, who was convinced that Platonism, exalted into a species of illuminism and drawing to itself like a magnet all the scattered truths of the bygone ages, could alone preserve mankind from skepticism. He occupied himself only with the most abstract questions concerning knowledge and being.
"Truth," according to Plotinus, "is not the agreement of our comprehension of an external object with the object itself, but rather, the agreement of the mind with itself. For the philosopher the objects we contemplate, and that which contemplates are identical; both are thought." All truth is then easy. Reduce the soul to its most perfect simplicity, and we find it is capable of exploration into the infinite; indeed it becomes one with the infinite. This is the condition of ecstasy, and to accomplish it, a stoical austerity and asceticism was necessary.
The Neoplatonists were thus, like the Gnostics, ascetics and enthusiasts. Plato was neither. According to Plotinus, the mystic contemplates the divine perfection in himself; all worldly things and logical distinctions vanish during the period of ecstasy. This approach has some similarity with the stages of yoga meditation.
Plotinus regarded the individual existence as phenomenal and transitory, and subordinated reason to ecstasy where the Absolute was in question. It is only at the end of his chain of reasoning that he introduces the supernatural. He is first a rationalist, afterwards a mystic, and only a mystic when he finds that he cannot employ the machinery of reason.
Plotinus appears to have been greatly indebted to Numenius for some of the ideas peculiar to his system. Numenius attempted to harmonize Pythagoras and Plato, to elucidate and confirm the opinions of both by the religious dogmas of the Egyptians, the Magi, and the Brahmans, and he believed that Plato was indebted to the Hebrew as well as to the Egyptian theology for much of his wisdom. Like Plotinus he was puzzled that the immutable One could find it possible to create the manifold without self-degradation, and he therefore (from Plato) posited a being whom he calls the Demi-urge, or Artificer, who merely carried out the will of God in constructing the universe.
Expressed in summary, the mysticism of Plotinus is as follows: One cannot know God in any partial or finite manner. To know him truly we must escape from the finite, from all that is earthly, from the very gifts of God to God himself, and know him in the infinite way by receiving, or being received into him directly. To accomplish this, and to attain this identity, we must withdraw into our inmost selves, into our own essence, which alone is susceptible of blending with the Divine Essence. Hence the inmost is the highest, and as with all systems of mysticism introversion is ascension, and God is found within.
Porphyry entered the school of Plotinus when it had become an institution of some standing. At first he strongly opposed the teachings of his master, but soon became his most devoted scholar. He directed a fierce assault on Christianity, and at the same time launched strictures at paganism, but both forces were too strong for him.
Porphyry modified the doctrine of Plotinus regarding ecstasy by stating that in that condition the mind does not lose its consciousness of personality. He called it a dream in which the soul, dead to the world, rises to a species of divine activity, to an elevation above reason, action and liberty. He believed in a certain order of evil genii, who took pleasure in hunting wild beasts, and others of whom hunted souls that had escaped from the fetters of the body, so that to escape them, the soul must once more take refuge in the flesh. Porphyry's theosophical conceptions, based on those of Plotinus, were strongly and ably traversed by the theurgic mysteries of Iamblichus, to whom the priest was a prophet full of deity.
In the process of time the principles on which the system of Plotinus rested were surrendered little by little, while divination and evocation were practiced with increasing frequency. Plotinus had declared the possibility of the absolute identification of the divine with human nature—the broadest possible basis for mysticism. Porphyry took up narrower ground and contended that in the union which takes place in ecstasy, we still retain consciousness of personality. Iamblichus diminished the real principle of mysticism still farther in theory, and denied that man has a faculty, eternally active and in accessible, to passion; the intellectual ambition so lofty in Plotinus subsided among the followers of Iamblichus into magical practice.
Proclus was the last of the Greek Neoplatonists. He elaborated the Trinity of Plotinus into a succession of impalpable triads, and surpassed Iamblichus in his devotion to the practice of theurgy. With Proclus, theurgy was the art that gave human beings the magical passwords that carried them through barrier after barrier, dividing species from species.
Above all being is God, the Non-Being, who is apprehended only by negation. When we are raised out of our weakness and on a level with God, it seems as though reason were silenced for we are above reason. In short we become intoxicated with God.
Proclus was an adept in the invocation rituals of every people in the world, and a great magical figure. With the advance of Byzantinism, he represented the old world of Greek thought, and even those who wrote against him as a heathen show the influence he exercised on their doctrines. Thus Dionysius attempted to accommodate the philosophy of Proclus to Christianity, and greatly admired his asceticism. The theology of the Neoplatonists was always in the first instance a mere matter of logic. They associated universals with causes. The highest became with them merely the most comprehensive.