an overview of neo-platonism

Neo-Platonists during the first few centuries AD would never call themselves Neo-Platonists. To them they were just Platonists, teaching the teachings of Platonism. They expanded Platonism, as described in my previous article, developing the attributes of the Summum Bonum, their concept of god (Plotinus often just calls god “the Good” or “the One”). Neo-Platonists greatly expanding on the Platonic ascent.

The most famous of the Neo-Platonists was Plotinus, who was taught by Ammonius Saccas. Augustine gained the majority of his Platonism from the essays of Plotinus, and Augustine’s statements concerning theology closely mirror Plotinus’ work. Besides the terms used for god, Augustine often can be confused with Plotinus.

To Plotinus, god was the Summum Bonum. He writes in his Enneads:

1. We can scarcely conceive that for any entity the Good can be other than the natural Act expressing its life-force, or in the case of an entity made up of parts the Act, appropriate, natural and complete, expressive of that in it which is best.

From this concept of being the ultimate good, Plotinus developed the attributes that are now attributed to the God of the Bible: perfection, immutability, simplicity, omnipresence, timelessness, unknownability, and omnipotence.

On perfection:

If The First is perfect, utterly perfect above all, and is the beginning of all power, it must be the most powerful of all that is, and all other powers must act in some partial imitation of it.

On immutability:

Now, if all aspiration and Act whatsoever are directed towards the Good, it follows that the Essential-Good neither need nor can look outside itself or aspire to anything other than itself: it can but remain unmoved, as being, in the constitution of things, the wellspring and firstcause of all Act: whatsoever in other entities is of the nature of Good cannot be due to any Act of the Essential-Good upon them; it is for them on the contrary to act towards their source and cause. The Good must, then, be the Good not by any Act, not even by virtue of its Intellection, but by its very rest within Itself.

On simplicity:

If we define it as The Good and the wholly simplex, we will, no doubt, be telling the truth, but we will not be giving any certain and lucid account of it as long as we have in mind no entity in which to lodge the conception by which we define it.


Even in calling it “The First” we mean no more than to express that it is the most absolutely simplex: it is the Self-Sufficing only in the sense that it is not of that compound nature which would make it dependent upon any constituent; it is “the Self-Contained” because everything contained in something alien must also exist by that alien.

On unknowability:

Thus The One is in truth beyond all statement: any affirmation is of a thing; but the all-transcending, resting above even the most august divine Mind, possesses alone of all true being, and is not a thing among things; we can give it no name because that would imply predication:


Once you have uttered ‘The Good,’ add no further thought: by any addition, and in proportion to that addition, you introduce a deficiency.

On Omnipresence (outside of special limitations):

The authentic and primal Kosmos is the Being of the Intellectual Principle and of the Veritable Existent. This contains within itself no spatial distinction, and has none of the feebleness of division, and even its parts bring no incompleteness… every part that it gives forth is a whole; all its content is its very own, for there is here no separation of thing from thing, no part standing in isolated existence estranged from the rest, and therefore nowhere is there any wronging of any other, any opposition. Everywhere one and complete, it is at rest throughout and shows difference at no point; it does not make over any of its content into any new form; there can be no reason for changing what is everywhere perfect.

On timelessness:

The phrase “He was good” refers to the Idea of the All; and its very indefiniteness signifies the utter absense of relation to Time: so that even this Universe has had no temporal beginning; and if we speak of something “before” it, that is only in the sense of the Cause from which it takes its Eternal Existence. Plato used the word merely for the convenience of exposition, and immediately corrects it as inappropriate to the order vested with the Eternity he conceives and affirms.

On Omnipotence:

We are forced to ask how such things can be, under a Providence. Certainly a maker must consider his work as a whole, but none the less he should see to the due ordering of all the parts, especially when these parts have Soul, that is, are Living and Reasoning Beings: the Providence must reach to all the details; its functioning must consist in neglecting no point.

No: the Reason-Principle is the sovereign, making all: it wills things as they are and, in its reasonable act, it produces even what we know as evil: it cannot desire all to be good: an artist would not make an animal all eyes; and in the same way, the Reason-Principle would not make all divine; it makes Gods but also celestial spirits, the intermediate order, then men, then the animals; all is graded succession, and this in no spirit of grudging but in the expression of a Reason teeming with intellectual variety.

Note that Reason was an emanation from the Intellect which in turn was an emanation from the One. This was the core of Platonism. Reality had spawned from emanations: Reason from Intellect and Intellect from Good.

It was from this “Good” that all things were created:

Seeking nothing, possessing nothing, lacking nothing, the One is perfect and, in our metaphor, has overflowed, and its exuberance has produced the new: this product has turned again to its begetter and been filled and has become its contemplator and so an Intellectual-Principle… Soul arises as the idea and act of the motionless Intellectual-Principle- which itself sprang from its own motionless prior- but the soul’s operation is not similarly motionless; its image is generated from its movement. It takes fulness by looking to its source; but it generates its image by adopting another, a downward, movement.

The idea is this: the One was so very perfect that it overflowed with perfection, creating the Intellect, the Intellect departed from the One and when it looked back it sprang forth the Soul (these would rightly be called emanations).

A side note on the Gnostics: The Christian Gnostics would be obsessed with these emanations, because the more emanations the farther the material world was from perfection. Some Gnostics claimed the God of the Old Testament was an evil emanation that the God of the New Testament came to overthrow. The Gnostics were highly Platonistic.

Because the Soul was an image of perfection, the material world in turn was a falling of the Soul. The extent to which the Soul was bound to the material world was the extent to which it had fallen from the One. The goal of any good Neo-Platonist was to return to the one. They were to remove the chains of the material world and attempt to break the bonds that trapped the Soul. This was known as the ascent.

On the ascent:

In the advancing stages of Contemplation rising from that in Nature, to that in the Soul and thence again to that in the Intellectual-Principle itself- the object contemplated becomes progressively a more and more intimate possession of the Contemplating Beings, more and more one thing with them; and in the advanced Soul the objects of knowledge, well on the way towards the Intellectual-Principle, are close to identity with their container.

In short, Platonism was the belief that there was a ultimate Good, a Summum Bonum. This god was perfect, immutable, simple, omnipresent, timelessness, unknowable, and omnipotence. The duty of all Platonists was to escape the physical world and return to the closest state that one could reach towards this One.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Gnostics, Platonism, Plotinus, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to an overview of neo-platonism

  1. Pingback: an overview of platonism | reality is not optional

  2. gricketson01 says:

    chris,did these clowns ever consider suicide,that you know of ? it seems that would do the job lol

    • Their idea was to return to the one. I think suicide would have prevented that because they would not have sufficiently escaped the material world and would still be trapped.

      • james says:

        How so, if body and soul are separate entities and death is separation of the soul from the body?

        • Here was the idea: Not everyone could return to the one. The soul was attached to the material world because it had fallen. In order to unfall, it had to become like the One. Compare it to some early Christian teachings: those who live righteously will go to heaven and those who live evil lives will go to hell. The Platonists believed either the evil soul was still trapped or in a form of annihilation.

  3. Pingback: understanding colossians 2 | reality is not optional

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