Neoplatonists would have called themselves students of Plato. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky would have called Neoplatonists Theosophists. From The Keys to Theosophy she states: “The name Theosophy dates from the third century of our era, and began with Ammonius Saccas and his disciples who started the Eclectic Theosophical system.” “They (Neoplatonists) were the Theosophists of early centuries." Ammonius Saccas was the first to use the term "theosophy," which means "divine wisdom," combining "god" or "divine" (theos) and wisdom (sophia).
Neoplatonists did not use the label "neoplatonists." They felt themselves to be interpreting Plato, not altering his teachings. However during the 19th Century, historians and philosophers decided that the beliefs of this group differed sufficiently from Plato’s original ideas to require the prefix “neo,” meaning “new”, to the root word. This school of thought began in the third century AD in Alexandria by followers of Ammonius Saccas. Ammonius was born to devout Christian parents and he was officially educated at Christian schools but he rejected the exclusive narrowness of his parents Christianity, claiming that he was “god-taught.” He took a far more expanded view of religious philosophy than any one religion could offer.
Saccas believed that knowledge consisted of three grades, ascending from mere opinion derived from sense perception, to science gained through dialectic, to illumination gained from direct spiritual intuition. This essentially is the same as Plato’s three grades of knowledge outlined in the Republic. HP Blavatsky suggests that Ammonius’ endorsement of solitary prayer or meditation to achieve enlightenment is found in Plato’s belief that direct realization of the Form of the Good occurred when one remained “silent in the presence of the divine ones.”
Neoplatonists addressed subjects that Plato did not explore and tried to do so as Plato would have. Such subjects as evil, memory and the new rage in the third century - Christianity. The goal was to separate Plato, the man, from Platonism, his philosophy.
Ammonius Saccas left no written works, so his student, Plotinus, who compiled Saccas’s teachings in the Enneads, is actually credited with the founding this philosophy but through Plotinus and other famous students of Saccas, such as Clement, Origen, Porphyry, Longinus, Iamblichus and, of course HPB, we have learned about the school of Neoplatonism and its founder’s intent.
Saccas founded his school in 194 AD in Alexandria, which was at the time the place for intellectual endeavor attracting scholars from all over the world. They came not only to the great library but also because there was a great enthusiasm for ancient Greek wisdom, and the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato, in particular. In fact, with this emphasis on Platonic study in Alexandria at the time, some present philosophers are finding indications in the old literature of an "unwritten philosophy" that Plato shared with a few select students and a recognition of the role played by the Mystery Schools in the past eras of Grecian culture.
The existence of an inner and outer circle of students seems to be the norm in the Mystery Schools. Saccas’ school also had a division; there was the exoteric and esoteric. Students were further divided into classes - the neophytes, initiates and masters. The rules of the school were copied from those used in the Mysteries of Orpheus. "What Orpheus delivered in hidden allegories, Pythagoras learned when he was initiated into the Orphic Mysteries, and Plato next received a perfect knowledge of them from Orphic and Pythagorean writings."
In the Orpheus tradition the manifested world is inseparable from divine essence, having emanated from it and will eventually return to that divine essence. Of course, many reincarnations and transmigrations are necessary for purification before this return can happen. There are three distinct characteristics of the Orpheus system. First is the idea of a supreme essence. Second is the idea of a human soul which was emanated from that divine essence. Third is the practice of Theurgy, the art of using the divine powers of man to direct the forces of nature.
One of the primary goals of Ammonius Saccas and his school was unity. He wanted to reconcile all religious sects, all peoples and all nations under one common faith, to form a Universal Brotherhood in the hopes of ending violence by uniting all with a common theology. To do this he needed to show that there was one source from which all religions came. With his students he explored the School the Vedantic thought, Zoroastrianism, the Jewish Kabala, Buddhism, ancient Egypt and compared them with the philosophies of Plato and Pythagoras. He wanted to show that there was a prisca theologia and all the various differences were simply variations on the same theme.
Unity. All faiths have a common binding origin. Neoplatonism calls for recognition of that basis and an understanding of our brotherhood with all mankind.
In a quote by Madame Blavatsky from The Keys to Theosophy she states that Ammonius Saccas had asserted that the ideas from his Eclectic Theosophical System “dated from the days of Hermes.” If we follow these teachings back to Hermeticism, Saccas studied Plato, Plato studied Pythagoras, Pythagoras studied in Egypt, Egypt was settled by the survivors of Atlantis, and Atlantis was settled by the survivors of Lemuria where Hermes was known to be a King-Instructors. See Hermeticism.
In Hermeticism Nous is the name of the One, the Source. In Hermeticism Source created Nous II who created the earth. This first emanation, Nous II, or intellect, relates to the Forms in Plato's philosophy.
Neoplatonists believed in one Supreme Eternal Unknown and Unnamed Power which governs the universe by immutable and eternal laws. They also believed in a hierarchy of mortal and immortal beings, emanations from the One, both physical and non-physical associated with earth and its development. Sometimes called intermediate gods, angels, devas or demons, Iamblichus is noted for adding hundreds to the list. An interesting note here about Iamblichus, according to H. P. Blavatsky he believed in and practiced “ceremonial magic and practical theurgy” which the other neo-Platonists felt was “dangerous.” Hypatia of Alexandria, whom we will discuss later, was also noted for her skill at theurgy.
Metempsychosis or reincarnation is believed to have first appeared in the Orphic Religion in Thrace some time before the fifth century BC. Orpheus, the founder, was believed to be a poet. His philosophy taught that the body and soul are united in a sort of contract. The immortal soul longs for freedom while the body holds it as a sort of prisoner. Upon death the contract is temporarily void. The soul is free for a while until the next round of incarnation. The round of freedom and incarnation is inexorable without the grace of redeeming gods. The gods calls them to turn to God by ascetic piety of life and self-purification: the purer their lives the higher their next incarnation will be, until the soul has completed the spiral ascent of destiny to live forever as God from whom it came to begin with. Dionysus, in particular, is to be sought in this intervention of reincarnation.
Why Dionysus? In mythology, Dionysus, aka, Bacchus, is the son of Zeus in one of his incarnations. (Interesting that gods reincarnate too.) He is killed by the Titans and eaten by them, all but his heart which Athena manages to save. Athena tells Zeus of the crime by the Titans. Zeus hurls a thunderbolt at the Titans and from the resulting soot, sinful man (represented by the Titans) and divine soul (represented by Dionysus) are born. So sinful body will return time and time again with divine soul in bondage. Such are the teaching of Orpheus which found their way into Neoplatonism.
We learned that reincarnation was necessary for the soul to purify itself in order to reunite with the One. What made the soul impure to begin with unless simply the descent into matter caused this? In Hermeticism matter, or Nature, is not impure but a beautiful environment to be enjoyed and appreciated. According to Plotinus, matter is to be identified with evil. “Matter is what accounts for the diminished reality of the sensible world, for all natural things are composed of forms in matter. The fact that matter is in principle deprived of all intelligibility and is still ultimately dependent on the One is an important clue as to how the causality of the latter operates. If matter or evil is ultimately caused by the One, then is not the One, as the Good, the cause of evil? In one sense, the answer is definitely yes. As Plotinus reasons, if anything besides the One is going to exist, then there must be a conclusion of the process of production from the One. The beginning of evil is the act of separation from the One by Intellect, an act which the One itself ultimately causes. The end of the process of production from the One defines a limit, like the end of a river going out from its sources. Beyond the limit is matter or evil.”
If we can replace “intelligibility” with “consciousness” modern scientists, as well as, Rudolf Steiner would take exception to the statement “matter is in principle deprived of all intelligibility.” Matter, all matter, has some form of consciousness. A modern physicist would propose that any object is held together by a sort of consciousness, an intelligence of the very subatomic particles that “chose” to remain in an organized form to make a solid object. Spinning protons and neutrons somehow remain in place instead of spinning off into the cosmos. Steiner says that rocks, plants, animals, all have a form of consciousness. We may not be familiar with its form of consciousness but at one point in our development as a species we did experience these lower forms of consciousness which with sensitivity can be communicated with and understood.
The Neoplatonists seem to be saying that matter is evil because it gets in the way of the human being making their return to the One. This is simply a matter of choice. It does not have to be an impediment to progress. On the subject of evil we end with the Neoplatonic view that evil is the absence of light, or intelligence but not an entity unto itself. There is no personification of evil in a Satan, Lucifer, the Devil, Beelzebub or Prince of Darkness causing havoc with innocent souls, instead, the innocent souls lack the light of intelligence to prioritize the goal of purification and return to One.
Plotinus and Origen believed the descent of the soul into the material was a necessary event to unfold the divine Intellect, or God. The descent itself is not an evil, for it is a reflection of God's essence but both Origen and Plotinus place the blame for experiencing this descent as an evil squarely upon the individual soul. They believed a rational soul will naturally choose the Good, the God, the One, and that any failure to do so is the result of forgetfulness or ignorance. So we have free will to choose the One or be caught up in the material world. Evil is thus the absence of light or knowledge.
Reincarnation is necessitated by karma. What you sow you shall reap in one life or the next. There is a curious balance of energy that seems to be required before one can be purified and move on.
Theurgy, the art of using the divine powers of man to rule the blind forces of nature was an accepted belief of Neoplatonists. As mentioned earlier Iamblichus was a famous practitioner of Theurgy. He believed that the soul, once descended into Nature, was so enamored by it that it became blind to the higher aspects of spiritual life. He thought the spell of matter needed to be broken by physical ritual which involved some carefully chosen items called sunthemata, “items that had the property of revealing and communicating some aspect of the divine, and could be physical objects (stones, plants, animals), perfumes, music, actions, songs or poetry. A ritual immersion in sunthemata had the effect, like a magnifying glass, of concentrating a divine aspect on the soul and awakening the corresponding aspect in the soul. Ritual was a natural adjunct to the worldview of Iamblichus: philosophy prepared the mind, and ritual awakened the interior eye of the soul to the natural orders of the Kosmos. In time the soul itself became sunthemata, a conscious channel for the divine influx capable of demiurgic action and co-creation.”
There were many diverse schools of thought at this time but because of opposition from the burgeoning numbers of Christians in particular, Neoplatonists decided to move their school to Athens.
The Rise of Catholicism
Plato was born four hundred years before Jesus so Christianity was not a subject he addressed yet for the Neoplatonists in the third and fourth centuries it was a major issue of the day. The thinkers and philosophers and religionists from traditions, like Gnosticism and Hermeticism, were also part of the mix in the maelstrom that was the formation of the Catholic Church.
Christianity took various forms in the three centuries after the death of Jesus but the rise of Catholocism was the work of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The word “catholic” is derived from the “Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos), meaning "universal") which comes from the Greek phrase καθόλου (katholou), meaning "on the whole", "according to the whole" or "in general." It was a political system designed to control the masses, the general population.
The supposed conversion of Constantine to Christianity took place after an alleged psychic vision. Christ himself supposedly appeared and spoke to Constantine, telling him to place the Christian cross on his battle flag and he would defeat his enemy Maxentius. Constantine did as he was told in the vision. He knew that many of his soldiers were followers of a new religious sect called Christianity so carrying a flag with the symbol of their savior was inspiring to his men. He marched into battle and defeated Maxentius.
Constantine was a pagan, a worshipper of the sun god and he remained so until his death but Christianity had a lot to offer a murderer like Constantine. After his defeat of Maxentius, Constantine murdered five members of his own household and later he killed his own wife and son. Eventually all of these murders began to weigh upon his conscience. He had been fighting under the banner of Christ for twenty years but he turned to the pagan religions for absolution. “He was told that no pagan religion offered absolution for such crimes as his. He then turned to the Christian Church, and was informed that Christian baptism would expiate any crime, irrespective of its magnitude. At the same time he was advised that baptism might he deferred to the day of his death without losing any of its efficacy.”
What a deal! Murder anyone you like, be baptized at your death and go to heaven. How could a tyrant like Constantine even consider not encouraging such a convenient religion? So encourage it he did. Rome became Catholic, after some flushing out of the details into an official creed. This was neatly accomplished at the Council of Nicea in 325.
So in the midst of Constantine and the Roman Emperors who followed him sponsoring their new religion Catholicism many pagan schools, like Neoplatonists continued. “Christians claimed that Jesus was a unique character, while the entire pagan world knew that the legends surrounding Jesus' life were identical with those of the pagan gods.” They knew Catholics were inventing a story about Jesus using pagan symbols, pagan holidays, pagan beliefs and half-truths from the life of Jesus. Yet the Catholic Church was solidifying into a political powerhouse to crush any opposition.
There were many famous Neoplatonists - Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblicus – but perhaps the greatest and certainly the most tragic was Hypatia. Hypatia was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. She was living in Athens when she first became acquainted with the Neoplatonic school. Later she moved to Alexandria where she became the head of the Neoplatonic school and also taught philosophy and astronomy.
“Hypatia brought Egypt nearer to an understanding of its ancient Mysteries than it had been for thousands of years. Her knowledge of Theurgy restored the practical value of the Mysteries and completed the work commenced by Iamblichus over a hundred years before. Continuing the work of Ammonius Saccas, she showed the similarity between all religions and the identity of their source.
Under the leadership of this astonishing woman Neoplatonism thrived. She publically debated and analyzed the metaphysical allegories from which Christianity had pirated its dogmas and repeatedly and publically embarrassed the new church. It has been suggested that if the Neoplatonic school had continued under Hypatia’s leadership that entire fraud of the Catholic Church would have been exposed. But the Catholic Church had ways of dealing with opposition, especially from upstart women who obviously had not learned the rightful place of women according to the Catholic Church.
One afternoon in 414 a group of Cyril’s monks, led by Peter the Reader, descended on Hypatia as she left the Museum where she had just finished teaching a class. They stripped her naked and dragged her to a nearby church where at the altar of the church Peter the Reader struck her dead. The crowd then dragged her dead body into the street where they scraped the flesh from her bones with oyster shells and burned what remained in a bonfire.
With Hypatia’s death the School Neoplatonism came to an end, being officially closed by Justinian in 527. Many Neoplatonists fled to Athens and some escaped to the Far East to avoid the persecution of Justinian and the Dark Ages began with the Catholic Church in the lead. And the Catholic Church like radical Islamism today tolerated no one who did not adhere strictly to their system. Paganism, which was anything that was not Catholicism, was made illegal by an edict of the Emperor Theodosius I in 391. Eventually, the Inquisition was instituted to destroy any deviance from Catholic doctrine. Neoplatonism, along with many other schools of thought, like Hermeticism and Gnosticism went underground.
But in 1438 the underground thoughts swelled to the surface. Cosmo de Medici met, Gemisthus Pletho, a passionate Platonist, who inspired him to found a Platonic Academy in Florence. Cosmo selected Marsilio Ficino, the son of his chief physician, to translate the great works of Greek and Eastern philosophy that had been forbidden by the Catholic Church. Eventually he translated Plato, Hesiod, Proclus, Orpheus, Homer, Hermes Trismegistus, Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus and Synesius. Ficino could not help but be profoundly influenced by these profound thinkers. He became a major proponent of Neoplatonic and Hermetic thought and that opinion was carried on by others, many of whom lost their lives in the Holy Inquisition for having an allegiance to anything other than the Catholic Church.
Despite its pagan origins, Neoplatonism has had a major influence on later unorthodox Christian, Jewish and Islamic thought. Today and in recent history those who could be considered Neoplatonists include Goethe, Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, Emerson, Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Jean Gebser and any Theosophist.
Neoplatonism and Theosophy
Mills, Joy. The Keys to Theosophy: H. P. Blavatsky : an Abridgement. , 2013. Internet resource. P. 1.
Harris, R B. Neoplatonism and Contemporary Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. Print.
Harris, R B. The Significance of Neoplatonism. Norfolk, Va: International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, Old Dominion University, 1976. Print.
- Turning-Points for the West: From Pythagoras and Plato through Gnosticism and Neoplatonism by Stephan Hoeller and Tony Lysy
- Mills, Joy.The Key to Theosophy: H. P. Blavatsky : an Abridgement.,2013. Internet resource. P. 1