The Neoplatonic Doctrine
Neoplatonism is a type of idealistic monism in which the ultimate reality of the universe is held to be an infinite, unknowable, perfect One. From this One emanates nous (pure intelligence), whence in turn is derived the world soul, the creative activity of which engenders the lesser souls of human beings. The world soul is conceived as an image of the nous, even as the nous is an image of the One; both the nous and the world soul, despite their differentiation, are thus consubstantial with the One.
The world soul, however, because it is intermediate between the nous and the material world, has the option either of preserving its integrity and imaged perfection or of becoming altogether sensual and corrupt. The same choice is open to each of the lesser souls. When, through ignorance of its true nature and identity, the human soul experiences a false sense of separateness and independence, it becomes arrogantly self-assertive and falls into sensual and depraved habits. Salvation for such a soul is still possible, the Neoplatonist maintains, by virtue of the very freedom of will that enabled it to choose its sinful course. The soul must reverse that course, tracing in the opposite direction the successive steps of its degeneration, until it is again united with the fountainhead of its being. The actual reunion is accomplished through a mystical experience in which the soul knows an all-pervading ecstasy.
Doctrinally, Neoplatonism is characterized by a categorical opposition between the spiritual and the carnal, elaborated from Plato's dualism of Idea and Matter; by the metaphysical hypothesis of mediating agencies, the nous and the world soul, which transmit the divine power from the One to the many; by an aversion to the world of sense; and by the necessity of liberation from a life of sense through a rigorous ascetic discipline.
Neoplatonism began in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 3rd century AD. Its founder and foremost exponent was the Roman philosopher Plotinus, who was born in Egypt, studied at Alexandria with the philosopher Ammonius Saccus (flourished 1st half of 3rd century), and about 244 carried the Neoplatonic doctrine to Rome, where he established a school. His major works comprise the Enneads, which contain a comprehensive exposition of Neoplatonic metaphysics. Other important Neoplatonic thinkers were the Syrian-Greek scholar and philosopher Porphyry, the Syrian-Greek philosopher Iamblichus, and the Greek philosopher and mathematician Proclus.
The elements of asceticism and unworldliness in Neoplatonism appealed strongly to the Fathers and Doctors of the Christian Church. The early Christian prelate St. Augustine, in his Confessions, acknowledged the contribution of Neoplatonism to Christianity and indicated the profound influence exerted by its doctrines on his own religious thinking. Although a number of medieval theologians and philosophers, notably the German mystic Meister Eckhart, were deeply influenced by Neoplatonism, Roman Catholic dogmatists condemned its unorthodox tenets. In the 15th century, however, Neoplatonism became more generally accepted. The German Roman Catholic speculative philosopher Nicholas of Cusa and other mystics sought to overcome the doubt arising from the limitations of human knowledge by espousing the theory of direct human intuition of God, a theory closely akin to the Neoplatonic doctrine that the soul in a state of ecstasy has the power to transcend all finite limitations.
The humanists of the Italian Renaissance, in their reaction against the previously dominant rationalistic philosophy of Aristotle, turned to the idealistic metaphysics of Plato, and thence to Neoplatonism. Notable in this connection was the Italian scholar Marsilio Ficino, who, under the patronage of the wealthy nobleman Cosimo de' Medici, translated and annotated the works of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus. In England, the 17th-century Cambridge Platonists exhibited marked affinities with Neoplatonic philosophers. A number of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers and writers have been influenced by Neoplatonism; among them were several of the most important British romantic poets, including William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.