Imagine some people who had grown up and lived their entire lives chained to the wall of a cave. Their only view of the world comes from shadows cast into the cave. They would have some idea of what the world was like, but would be unable to fully experience and appreciate the full depth of the colours, the sounds and the smells of the world outside. They would have only the haziest notions of the motivations and passions of the people living there.
This is Plato’s allegory for the way we experience the world. We see only a reflection of a true ideal that exists in the mind of the One, the transcendent being who created the Universe. It is a familiar idea to mathematicians, who often study concepts like, say, circles. They conceive of a perfect circle with precise mathematical properties, but which it is impossible to reproduce – any circle we can draw will have some deviation from perfection. In a sense it could be said that there was an ideal form of circle which all other circles are simply reflections or images of. This idea can be extended to things like trees, and to abstract concepts like beauty. Each of them has an ideal form created by the sublime thought of the One.
Although it is tempting to equate the One with the Christian notion of God, there really is little in common between them. For a start the One is a lot more transcendent and remote than God. It is beyond gender for example. It is also beyond Good and Evil. And most significantly, it doesn’t have a direct personal relationship with the World. Plato’s One is a much purer and more austere idea. Despite it being the fundamental cornerstone of his philosophy, Plato doesn’t really go very far with this basic idea in his work, he is more interested in other questions.
Plato was enormously influential in the ancient world and his ideas continued to be discussed and developed long after his death. The two biggest philosophical threads in the early Roman Empire were Epicureanism and Stoicism. Both had some kind of debt to Plato, but neither treated the issues of the gods or the One as particularly significant. Marcus Aurelius for instance, the Roman emperor who tried most consistently to practice stoic virtues, wonders if the gods even exist. He concludes that they probably do, but that he has to work out the best way to live his life without taking them into account. His stoic philosophy was compatible with religious beliefs but didn’t depend upon them. The Epicureans were equally uninterested and even doubted life continued after death.
It wasn’t until around the First Century, some 500 years after his death, that the Neoplatonists started to look closely at the religious ideas of Plato and to forge a new interpretation that came to be known as Neoplatonism.
So who were the Neoplatonists and what is Neoplatonism? First off, the Neoplatonists themselves would have simply called themselves Platonists. They regarded themselves, quite rightly, simply as continuing the work of Plato himself. It was later scholars, much later, that have named them the Neoplatonists in recognition of the originality of their philosophical ideas.
The easiest question to answer is who they were. The first Neoplatonist is usually acknowledged to be Ammonius Sachus, about whom we know very little. His student, Plotinus is the first member of the school to leave any of his own work behind. Even Plotinus is mainly known from what his student,Porphyry, wrote about him. It is fair to say that Porphyry was the person who really popularised Neoplatonism and it is his writing that tells us most about it. He also had students, the chief of whom was Iamblychus, often referred to as the Divine Iamblychus. These men all had their own individual approaches, but were clearly a distinct and recognisable grouping.
What they had in common was an intense interest in the teachings of Plato about the mystical and religious. They looked closely at the nature of the One, the nature of the soul and how the idea of forms could be used to understand the relationship between the One, the Gods, the world and the souls of the men inhabiting it.
The Neoplatonists were fascinated by the divine. They were interested in the properties of the soul and regarded it as having the ability to connect with beings from higher planes. In fact Plotinus visited a temple where he found that he was inhabited by an actual god – though the priest officiating at the ceremony was so scared by the power of the being his art had revealed that he panicked and stopped the reading before its name was revealed. It is hard to imagine Plato himself going along with something like that, not without at least challenging the basis behind it. But the Neoplatonists were interested in anything mystical. They looked back before Plato to Pythagoras and resurrected his belief in magical numbers. Plotinus was well versed in mathematics and music, though from a purely theoretical viewpoint. He was interested in what that study could tell him about the nature of the divine, rather than counting things or playing an instrument.
For similar reasons, Porphyry was fascinated by the leading edge science of the time.
An astronomer in Alexandria called Ptolemy had pulled off what still counts as one of the big achievements of science. He had constructed a working mathematical model of the solar system accurate enough to give excellent predictions of the future positions of the planets in the sky. His picture of the Universe had the Earth at the centre of seven heavenly spheres each corresponding to the five visible planets, the Sun and the Moon. This covered everything that could be seen to move in the sky before the invention of the telescope. This can still be considered as the starting point of the modern maths based approach to describing the Universe making Ptolemy the direct ancestor of Newton and Einstein and the men who are currently seeking the Higgs Boson in the tunnels under the Alps.
But for the Neoplatonists it had a completely different significance. The seven heavens represented different aspects of the One. Each sphere was presided over by a god with a particular character created directly by the One. Astrology was already well established, but the ability to predict the positions of the planets using Ptolemy’s maths took it a stage further. The idea that what happens in Heaven influences what happens on Earth was not really all that far fetched based on what the men of the First Century knew. The influence of the Sun and the Moon is quite noticeable after all, and the seasons do move in step with what is happening in the sky. It is a deep rooted idea, and we still have horoscopes in the newspapers today. We use astrological metaphors in our language, often unconsciously. Influenza for example, gets its name from the time when medical men attributed it to the influence of the skies. But the Neoplatonists were really into astronomy in a big way. Porphyry studied Ptolemy’s work closely and wrote a commentary on it. Observing the sky could reveal the secrets of the Divine will, and also give practical day to day predictions as a guide to action. The crystal ball still used today by people claiming knowledge of the future reminds me of Ptolemy’s heavenly spheres, and I don’t think it is a coincidence.
It’s an easy step from observing, to predicting, to trying to influence. Sacrifices to gods could steer things in the way you wanted. You could even conceive that with a really detailed understanding of the movements of the celestial objects, the mood of the celestial being and knowing the right things to say, the right food to eat and auspicious moment to act you could bend the universe to your will. It sounds like magic, but the Neoplatonsts coined the term theurgy. Theurgy was very much the creation of Iamblichus, and was frowned on by Porphyry. But the objection was not that it wouldn’t work, but that it was a distraction from the important business of reminding the soul of its true nature as part of the divine one.
Theurgy did make perfect sense if you followed the logic behind it. Plato’s idea of forms came into its own here. If we can conceive of something like say beauty, this is because it exists as a form that has a reality in the mind of the One. No man had created the concept of beauty, it is something we are born aware of. This is because our immortal souls remember it from before birth. In a story like that of Helen of Troy, her beauty is another reflection or form from the divine will. So the beauty in the story is also true, it is just another form of reflection. Whether this meant that it must have actually happened is another matter, and something that might be open to debate. But even if it was made up, it was still true enough to command respect. The Neoplatonists were always interested in looking for metaphors and allegories in myths and in observations of nature as a way of seeking knowledge. Theurgy gave a practical way to apply this knowledge.
That it didn’t actually work was not really an issue. Neoplatonism failed to gain mass appeal mainly because it had a more efficient competitor rather than not delivering the goods. But it was influential enough for the trappings of Neoplatonic mysticism to have stuck in our culture long after the philosophy behind them has been forgotten. Magicians wear hats decorated with starry symbols and continue to cast spells, count out in magic numbers and concoct things using strange ingredients with astrological significance.
Neoplatonism was initially an alternative to Christianity, but somehow never became an effective organised force. For all its elegance, it was perhaps just a bit too clever. To understand it took some effort which limited its appeal to men with the time and the inclination to study it carefully. But while it failed to compete on the practical level, it was still able to exert an influence on its rival. As Christianity grew in strength its weakness as a philosophy became more apparent. Many of the ideas of the Neoplatonists were adapted and incorporated into mainstream Christianity by thinkers like Augustine and Boethius – a debt that is rarely acknowledged. And it is a pretty big debt. If you follow the arguments between atheists and Christians on Youtube and in internet forums, you sometimes see Christians, I assume unknowingly, using Neoplatonic arguments about the nature of God. And they are good arguments. Atheists much prefer quoting the Bible – its easier meat.
Despite ransacking their ideas for anything that might be useful to them, the Christian elites did not look favourably on Neoplatonism, and after the emperor Justinian closed the Academy in Athens it went underground. Sorcery and magic became objects of suspicion, and have remained so. Despite this or maybe because of it a tradition of sorts has continued in shady corners. Elements of Neoplatonism have continued to surface in various forms over the centuries and still pops up from time to time even today. The works of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien for example both draw on the ideas of the Neoplatonists. A magic ring that imposing a particular form on the wearer? That would have made perfect sense to Iamblychus. Lewis goes even further with Bacchus himself turning up in Narnia.
But the biggest blow to Neoplatonism probably wasn’t suppression by the authorities but the advance of natural science. Everything we have learned about the Universe tells us that it is random and unplanned, and that our role in it is down to pure chance. There is no sign of anyone having given much thought to its creation. In contrast, Ptolemy’s cosmology of concentric spheres really does look a lot like the conception of a divine mind with a mathematical bent. Combining this picture of the world with Plato’s concepts creates a beautiful and consistent concept that is hard to resist. It enables you to believe, literally, in magic. I find it tempting to look up into the night sky and imagine how it would feel to be indeed looking at a series of vast crystal heavens full of meaning and significance, and created by a sublime being far beyond imagination.