|| ||Born: 204 AD, Lycopolis, Egypt
Died: 270 AD, Campania, Italy
|| ||Lecture Notes in raw form: Recall the tension between Parmenides and Heraclitus resulted in a period of skepticism and “this worldliness” came in that threatened the very fabric of civilization.
But Socrates stepped into that vacuum and attempted to bring sober sanity to theoretical thought.
That impasse happens with cyclical regularity, and we’re in one of those pits of skepticism.
After Aristotle, another phase of skepticism came. Stoicism and epicureanism where they sought to find the happy life and “peace of mind.”
The really important movement that came in this period was the rise of the Christian church. The advent of Christianity once again saved western civilization by bringing attention to ultimate truth and a sound intellectual basis for understanding the world in which we live.
In this regard, some argue that the most important philosopher in the period between Aristotle and Plotinus (3rd century AD) was the Apostle Paul. Though we usually don’t think of him as a philosopher. He was more engaged with missionary activity, as a preacher, and as an evangelist and theologian.
Between the death of Aristotle and the beginning of the third century, Christianity is dominating the intellectual climate, and Platonism is gone by the wayside. But it is by no means become extinct.
In the third century there is a rebirth of Platonic thought called Neo-Platonism.
Neo means new.
What the Neo-Platonists wanted to do was reconstruct ancient Platonism, but to make certain changes and adaptations to account for the impact of Christianity.
Some of the radical ideas that were introduced by Christian thought into the world of ideas were, first of all, the idea of the absolute singular person.
Aristotle gave us an absolute singular concept with his idea of god as the unmoved mover.
But Christianity and Judaism had brought into the forefront the idea of the ultimate solution to the ancient questions of ancient philosophy, of the searching of ultimate reality, the ARCHE, the CHIEF TRUTH, and the solution to the question of motion, and the solution to the question of life, were found in the Judeo-Christian concept of God, who is the absolute, eternal, personal Creator, in whom we live, and move, and have our being.
Now the idea of creation by a voluntary act of an eternal being was an idea the Greeks did not have. Even Aristotle’s idea of God, was an idea of a being that eternally moves things, but does not create them out of nothing.
We’ll explore this more when we get to St. Augustine, but for now let’s notice in passing that the idea of the absolute singular and the idea of the trinitarian concept of God were radical innovations to theoretical thought, because the Trinity gives us the idea of absolute oneness with whom with that unity there is eternal diversity, so the one and the many come together in the Christian concept of God.
The other notion that became so important to the future of theoretical thought was the Christian philosophy of history.
The world is something that is created by God; It has a beginning and not only does it have a beginning, but it has a terminal point, and it is moving in a direction of a divinely ordained blueprint, so that history is not cyclical; going on and on, and on with no end. But history is part of the creation of this absolute singular God who not only starts things going, like and unmoved mover, but who maintains sovereignty over His creation and over the events of history. In other words, the concept of Divine Providence by which God is totally committed to this world and this time, was in many ways a radical thought for the ancient mind.
It’s against this background that we see the entrance of Neo-Platonism. There were many thinkers under this name, but the founder of the movement was Plotinus (~203 to 270).
When he developed his form of philosophy, which was an attempt to restructure Plato, he did it as a conscious alternative to Christianity.
He was aware of the widespread influence of Christian thought. He opposed Christian thought at the intellectual level, and saw it as fallacious, and destroyed the brilliance of Plato’s contribution to the world. So, he sought to come up with a philosophical alternative to Christianity.
Many of the features that we find in his philosophy show certain similarities to gnosticism, which was a syncretistic religion that blended all sorts of ideas, from oriental dualism, Persian mysticism, and Greek philosophy, and a dab of Christianity.
We won’t explore gnosticism, but we’ll look at Neo-Platonism.
Plotinus did not reject rationality, but believed that the highest source of knowledge was through mystical intuition. In fact, the only real avenue to ultimate truth came through mystical experience. And there were very few people who were gifted with mystical intuition who were part of what we might call the mystical elite.
It’s at this point where we see a point of contact with earlier gnosticism, because the gnostics repudiated the ordinary ways of knowing - through reason and sense perception, and believed the only true way of knowing God or ultimate truth was by some sort of direct or immediate intuition. that only a few gifted people had who were those who were “in the know,” (gnostikoi).
There is a similarity. But for Plotinus, “the good life,” the virtuous life, is the life of the mystic, who makes a pilgrimage along life’s way from being preoccupied with the physical world, where most people spend lives just as materialists. Their whole life is focused on things - on things that one can handle, taste, see, hear, etc.
He said that the first step beyond that is to live the contemplative life, where one’s mind rises above the shadowy cave of Plato where people are locked into the wold of material things - the world of the receptacle.
Remember, Plato wanted to get us out of the world of sense perception and into the realm of the mind, where contemplation is the highest source of truth.
Plotinus adds a new dimension to Plato. The stage of mystical union.
How does this fit with Christianity?
We read the New Testament and there are obviously elements of mysticism. Paul is in the third heaven, He talks about our union with Christ, that we’d call the mystical union of the believer with Christ, and so on.
But there’s a different kind of thinking with historic Christian mysticism and what we find in these ancient philosophies.
For the ancient mystic, this stage of progression, this movement, this pilgrimage that begins with sense perception, then moves through contemplation, then moves to what they mystics call “communion,” which is “a being with God; a union with god.”
The next stage is “unio,” where the mystic becomes one with god. This is a common feature of eastern religions, where the goal of the religious experience is to lose one’s personal identity, to become one with the “oversoul.” The common illustration is the drop of water that falls into the ocean and becomes absorbed by the whole.
This is significant for Plotinus because of his concept of god. For Plotinus, god is called the One.
He calls god the One in a sense that suggests pure pantheism, but most experts say Plotinus wasn’t a garden variety pantheist. He tried to avoid pantheism and he tried to avoid Christianity. But still, the highest being is called “the One.”
Here’s the problem; You can’t know the One. The One escapes all possible knowledge of what it is or who it is.The emphasis for Plotinus was an idea called “the via negativa,” in other words, “the way of negation.”
By describing things (in this case, God) by describing what it is not.
Historic Christianity makes us of this to some degree. For instance, it is said that God is infinite, invisible, and immutable.
To give a feel for Plotinus, let’s read a bit of Plotinus.
“Intelligence is a thing and belongs to real being. The One is not any thing, but prior to all things. Neither is it a kind of real being. Real being possesses a character comparable to shape; the intelligible shape of the real. But the one is not shape even by intelligible shape. For that principle which generates all things, cannot be any thing of them at all. It is not a thing, it’s not a quality, it’s not a quantity, it’s not intelligence, nor soul. It does not move; and yet it is not at rest. It is neither in space nor in time. It is the uniform absolute or rather the formless.
Aristotle called god “pure form.” For Plotinus, god is formLESS, because he’s prior to all form and prior to motion and prior to rest. For these last are characters of real being, and make reality manifold. If it be asked why the One having no movement is not at rest, we answer, Because only a being or only to A being must these predicates apply. Any being that we conceive of must either be at rest or in motion. But, if the One is not a being, then neither the categories of rest or motion apply to it.
A stationary object is at rest, but it is not rest, and so also if the One be at rest, then rest would be added to it as an accident and it would no longer remain simple.
Even to name it the cause is to predicate an accident, not of the One, but of ourselves. It signifies that while the One abides within itself we have nothing derived from it. He who would speak exactly must not name it by this name or by that. We can but circle, as it were, about its circumference, seeking to interpret it in speech or in our experience, now shooting near the mark, but again disappointed of our aim by reason of the antinomies or contradictions found within it.”
Many philosophers have used the approach to an understanding of god.
One must ask, “What is the difference between the One, who is not being (or a being) and nothing?
We must come to the conclusion that Plotinus’s god is nothing. But this god who is unknowable, emanates from his own oneness the different levels of reality that we find in this world - reality of mind, soul, matter.
The further one gets from the One is matter, or the physical, which becomes, for Plotinus, the principle of evil.
One of the most important influences for Plotinus in the history of philosophy is the influence he had on St. Augustine, because Augustine was converted to Neo-Platonism in his earlier years. Then, when he became a Christian he became the chief critic of the ancient world of Neo-Platonism.