Session Notes

What We Will Learn Today

  1. First, how neoplatonism affected the hierarchical thinking of early medieval thought.
  2. Second, the ways in which Neoplatonism affected thinkers from each of the major Abrahamic religions.


Neoplatonism profoundly influenced early Medieval thought

  1. It kept many of Plato’s original ideas, but instead of focusing on creating the just Republic, as Plato did, Neoplatonists were a bit more otherworldly.
  2. From this point on in our exploration of philosophy we will see that there are many intersections between religious and philosophical conversations in the West.
    1. Indeed, they resonated with a tendency toward mysticism, which is the attempt to become unified with the ultimate source of all things.

Some call this source God and early Christian thinkers picked up on this idea to the extent that for some, Neoplatonism was the proper philosophy for Christian believers.

Neoplatonic Philosophers

  1. Plotinus (c. 204 – 270) He was Jewish, as was the much later Moses Maimonides (1135-1204)
  2. Augustine (354-430) was later honored as a Christian saint, and influenced all subsequent Western theology.
  3. Al-Farabi (872-950) and Avicenna (980-1037) were Muslim.

In each case, these thinkers used Neoplatonic ideas to resolve different questions about the problems of biblical (or Koranic) revelation, language about a God beyond our world, and the problem of evil.

What was so attractive about Neoplatonism?

  1. Changelessness
  2. Mystics seek to get around the troubling debates about religious teaching, and connect directly with the source of being that might be described as “beyond being” if he or it could be described at all.
    1. If we identify the Neoplatonic concept of the One with the monotheistic concept of God, we find that Christian mystics, Kabbalists, and Sufis all hoped to directly experience God without spending so much time trying to use words to describe God.

Plotinus and the Hierarchy of Being

  1. Plotinus thought that something called Spirit emanated from the One.
  2. Something called the Soul emanated from that. He believed that the world itself had a soul.
  3. We can see the influence of hierarchical thinking by observing the way royalty (the top tier of society) in Medieval England
    1. Represented by objects and animals that likewise are at the top of their respective hierarchies.

Reflecting on Christian Perspective

  1. mysticism in the strain of Neoplatonism shows up throughout the two thousand years of Christian history.
  2. Luther’s mysticism (a la Theologia Germanica) might be called a mysticism of the Cross.
  3. For St. Augustine, Neoplatonic thought helped him convert to Christianity
  4. The Problem of Evil
    1. The first clear formulation of the problem of evil is attributed to the philosopher Epicurus
    2. if there is an all-powerful, all good God, who created everything, did God create evil?

St. Augustine’s Response to the Problem of Evil

  1. Neoplatonic ideas about the nature of being and the universe to understand this problem
  2. He argued that, in a technical sense, evil does not exist. Evil is only a twisting or perversion of the good.
  3. Evil is more like a hole or a fracture than an actual substance.
    1. Consider light vs dark

Baptizing Plato with St. Augustine’s thinking

  1. On Innate Knowledge….For Augustine, since souls are given life by the biblical God, human beings have certain patterns engrained in their minds not because they saw them in a past life, but because their minds are gifts from God.

Key elements of Neoplatonism

  1. Arose during the crisis of the third century AD.
  2. Made use of the ideas of Plato, but with more of an otherworldly emphasis.
  3. Influenced mystical traditions in the three Abrahamic faiths.
  4. Emphasized a hierarchy of being, with the world ultimately emanating from The One, the source of all things visible and invisible.
  5. Believed that evil is not a substance, but a corruption of the good.

Suggested Readings

  1. Augustine, Confessions
  2. Paula Remes and Steven Gerrard, Neoplatonism (University of California Press, 2008).
  3. Also check out the Theologia Germanica and perhaps see how that fits with Luther’s Freedom of the Christian