In this day and age putting together a volume such as The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism is a celebratory event even when the publishers’ catalogues are laden with state-of-the-art companions, guides and histories in every field. In the case of Neoplatonism, the appearance of such a volume is momentous as a “rite of passage” acknowledging that the discipline of late ancient philosophy has reached its full maturity. What, then, one may ask, is so timely and attractive in the study of Neoplatonism today?
The fates of Neoplatonism have changed in the past two decades. It has come out from the cupboard of intellectual oddities to become the fastest growing area of research in ancient philosophy. This new-found interest has yielded fruitful results for the understanding not only of Neoplatonism itself but also of the cultural vitality of ancient philosophy in late antiquity. In the constantly changing, fractured, world of intellectual and ideological allegiance in the period from the third to the sixth century CE, Neoplatonism was a stabilizing factor, of a kind, the unity and completeness of which cannot be underestimated. Developing a system that builds the impermanent physical reality, in even more impermanent historical times, into a self-sustained whole of cascading causal principles made Neoplatonism an enduring philosophical force. The scholarly attempt to grasp this system better, with its complexity and resilience, various interpretations and unfoldings, has turned Neoplatonic studies into a success story today.
The first steps of Neoplatonic research were naturally constrained by the intellectual circumstances in which Neoplatonic philosophy grew in the shadow of its two Classical predecessors – Platonism and Aristotelianism. From the point of view of scholarship narrowly concentrated on the floruit
of Greek ancient philosophy in Athens in the late fifth and fourth centuries BCE
, Neoplatonism can be easily seen as the unwanted stepchild of this period of Classical ancient philosophy which earnestly but inanely tries to dovetail with its illustrious ancestry. This point of view has for some time now been challenged by an ever-growing interest in the post-Classical period of ancient thought, with late ancient thinkers as the most recent area of exploration. Within Neoplatonic scholarship,
the pioneering efforts sent a sustained series of intellectual waves throughout the twentieth century which incited translations, rethought interpretations, and charted new territories for future research.1
Thanks to the avalanching success of these efforts today we understand better the philosophical phenomenon of Neoplatonism: its sources, overarching simplicity, internal complexity, methodologies, and interrelations with every corner of knowledge. Neoplatonism, comprehensively understood, can no longer be dismissed as an in-vitro
offspring of Platonism, which attempts to work out the quirks of Middle Platonism, sprinkled with (anti)-Peripatetic zest and a few smears of Neopythagoreanism, Stoicism and, not to forget, religious mysticism. From an idiosyncratic and peripheral aftermath of Plato’s philosophy, Neoplatonism grew to establish itself as the foremost philosophical venue of late antiquity.
There are three directions of research that have contributed most to the success of Neoplatonic studies in the twenty-first century. First, contemporary research seeks to unravel the psychological, ethical and political consequences of metaphysics, the heart of hearts of Neoplatonic philosophy. While research of metaphysical themes remains the backbone of scholarly work, more and more studies are interested in bridging the gap between ontology and other areas of philosophizing. This is directly connected to the second feature of present research, namely the rising attention to how the Neoplatonists understood the so-called sensible realm. Areas such as politics and natural philosophy that were previously considered neglected by these thinkers have become insurgent and vibrant today. Metaphysics continues to play a key role in these studies, but the centre of attention has shifted, from merely revealing the finesse of the Neoplatonic ontological hierarchy for its own sake to understanding the inherent interconnectedness of all parts of the philosophical system, including metaphysics. The emerging picture is thus more balanced as well as more relevant for human concerns.
Besides the more practical and this-worldly emphasis, recent research is marked, thirdly, by the substantial advance of both historical and philosophical interpretations. Historically, Neoplatonism is now treated as a continuation of the Classical and Hellenistic heritage rather than an introspective curiosity from late antiquity the main outcome of which is the conceptual firmament of Christian ideology. The picture of the relationship of Neoplatonism with other schools of thought, both philosophical and religious, is rapidly becoming more concrete. The philosophical purport of this is to see, for example, Neoplatonic metaphysical hierarchy – the proliferation of entities as well as levels – as a series of attempts to address philosophical problems detected or left behind by earlier thinkers such as Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. In the same vein, the study of the relationship between metaphysics and theology or metaphysics and mathematics – to give just two pairs of examples among many – has outgrown the limitations of scepticism to reveal a sound philosophically based communication. Thereby the new research in metaphysics, mathematics and theology has become more and more problem-oriented rather than strictly descriptive. As a result, the writing of a commentary on a single work has been supplemented by the analytical explication of a particular problem or a concept, sometimes within a single author, at others across time and divergent views.
Before discussing, briefly, some particularities of Neoplatonism as currently understood, a few methodological points about both the term and the object of research it grasps are in order. As is well known today, the term “Neoplatonism” captures something less than a unified phenomenon in the history of philosophy, and comes with its own historical
baggage. The first of these problems, the impossibility of marking the chronological boundaries of the school, will be discussed in the subsequent section introductions, where, particularly in the context of Parts I and VII, we explicate our take on the boundaries – or the lack thereof – regarding the philosophical movement known as Neoplatonism. Here we shall limit ourselves to contending that in this volume, the concept of “Neoplatonism” is explored, perhaps paradoxically, not
primarily through Platonic or ancient means; that is, by searching one definition or essence behind its different permutations in various thinkers, contexts and centuries. Rather, our approach is closer to Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance; that is, that a term’s usages should be followed through “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing” (Wittgenstein 1953: 66). When asked to author a contribution to a volume entitled Handbook of Neoplatonism
, scholars know, in a pre-theoretical manner, what is meant by this request. They are efficient users of the term “Neoplatonism”, confident in conveying shared meanings by using it themselves. But shared meanings are hardly entirely fixed: in the articles submitted for this volume, for instance, the core elements of this movement and philosophy were sometimes understood differently, and opinions diverge as to what, exactly, counts as Neoplatonic. From the methodologies applied to the ancient sources to the understanding of their core motivation – social, spiritual or intellectual – the volume offers a multitude of diverse voices. Yet it cannot be denied that the contributions do paint, in their separate ways, a picture of something singular, albeit perhaps not paradigmatically so. It is our hope that this wealth of approaches is the best vehicle in charting the meaning and content of the term “Neoplatonism”, and our only regret is the number of superb scholars, interesting approaches and research results that, for reasons of extension, did not make their way into the volume.
When it comes to the usage of the term “Neoplatonism” itself, it is here that the comparison with the Wittgensteinian idea of “family resemblance” is challenged. The problem with the term is, arguably, today’s blind adoption of it from a historical usage that we no longer recognize, much less agree with. The term was coined in the eighteenth-century German scholarship, where its history seems to be bound to the understanding of its relationship to Middle Platonism. According to recent research, the division between Middle and Neo-Platonism was cemented by Joseph Brucker (in Historia Critica Philosophiae, 1742–67), who used the term to create a juxtaposition, where the former was seen as a genuine form of Platonism, whereas the latter played the role of a villain, representing a distorted or deteriorated interpretation of Plato (see Catana 2013). The following problem now arises: if we are to follow the different usages of the term all the way to its origins, is all resemblance and similarity thereby lost? And worse still, have we adopted, ahistorically, a tainted term, created for a quite different context, and unhappily for a purpose that challenges and mocks the very object to which it refers? For these kinds of reasons, the term is not used in the by now authoritative collection on late ancient philosophy, The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity (2010). The editor, L. P. Gerson, argues for this choice as follows (we shall provide a lengthy quote to be able to explicate in detail our own choice to retain this very term):
Unfortunately, in the eighteenth-century the label was intended mostly as pejorative, and that situation has not changed much even today. It was assumed that “Neoplatonism” represented a muddying of the purest Hellenic stream. … We refer
throughout to “Platonism” or “late Platonism”, or “Christian Platonism” when discussing Plotinus, his successors and those Christian thinkers who were in one way or another shaped by the dominant tradition in ancient philosophy. In doing so, we make no presumptions about fidelity or lack thereof to Plato’s own philosophy. It is enough, at least initially, to recognize that there were varieties of Platonism, just as there were varieties of Christianity in our period, and varieties of various philosophical movements in earlier centuries.
(2010: vol. 1, 1–10, at 3)
Gerson’s methodological points are forceful and have already turned out to be influential. When this Handbook and its title were conceived, we could not foresee that the field would advance so rapidly that by the time of publication we would be put in a position to defend not only the original title of the volume but the name of the field itself. And while we find this kind of development most exciting and reassuring in the longevity of our field, why are we, as editors, not simply adopting Gerson’s well-thought and -argued stance, and choose to persist in our use of the term? The reasons can be divided into (i) linguistic, (ii) pragmatic, and (iii) interpretative. Let us comment on each in turn. (i) Is an originally pejorative term predetermined to retain its pejorative associations through history? Evidently not. A number of Finnish village names originate from once foul terms, often connected to female anatomy. The original connotation being lost, they are used with pride by the inhabitants of these villages. In our view, Neoplatonism has for some time undergone a similar ameliorative process. Few know that the prefix “Neo-” of the term once got its force from the juxtaposition with Middle Platonism. People use it, rather, merely to denote a new kind of interpretation of Platonism that emerged in Alexandria in the third century CE, partly from elements that were available in the intellectual and religious climate of the time, and partly directly connected to the historical Plato or his writings. We believe that abundant first-rate scholarship on late ancient philosophy, with Gerson’s double volume as a paradigmatic example, is the best way to erase the last vestiges of the once pejorative meaning of the term. (ii) For pragmatic reasons, “Platonism” and even “late Platonism” seem deficient when compared with Neoplatonism. The term “Platonism” seems simply too wide, lending itself to a variety of usages that are for our purposes potentially misleading. Even “late Platonism” raises the question of how late exactly the topic under study is. While Gerson sets out to describe the whole of late ancient philosophizing and its relationship to Christian philosophy, we limit ourselves, in the Handbook, to one school of thought – or better, one movement, scriptural community, like-minded ways of doing philosophy. To be able to distinguish this branch from other branches of Platonism, be they earlier or later, is vital for the undertaking of this collection. Our object is the interpretation of Plato that gets its first full expression in the Enneads of Plotinus in the third century CE and continues in such central figures as Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus and many others.
The pragmatic worry is connected to (iii) an interpretative view already implicitly expressed above. We believe it is still philosophically valuable and perhaps also possible to try to distinguish Neoplatonism from other kinds of Platonism. That is, we do believe that the term on the cover of the book captures a phenomenon. Whether there is a true unity holding together different thinkers under the term “Neoplatonism”, and whether this unity could be something stronger than a family resemblance, and described through a list of shared background assumptions, convictions or doctrines, is an interesting question. In a highly useful article, Gerson himself has given such a list for “Platonism”: (i) the
understanding of metaphysics as a hierarchy of intelligible and sensible layers of which the higher is the explanatory, as well as the better and more ontologically powerful; (ii) the top-down explanatory approach, in which the orientation of investigation is predominantly vertical, not horizontal; (iii) a commitment to the psychological as an irreducible explanatory category, and the connected dogma of the immortality and eternity of the soul. Further, all or at least most Platonists share the idea of (iv) cosmic unity and its explanatory role in everything, including personal happiness (Gerson 2005a). As a particular branch of Platonism, Neoplatonism should contain all these features, but be open for a more detailed description, identifying it as one subset of “Platonism”. In general expositions, particularly Neoplatonic features are often identified as the following: further stratification of the explanatory intelligible realm above the sensible or physical realm; the idea that soul uniquely mirrors this stratification in its own nature and yet is capable of transgressing the limits of this stratification; a commitment to an absolutely unified source and origin of this stratified order, the One. To argue, however, for this or some other exhaustive list is not what we set out to do in this volume. With this list as a guiding but not terminating map, the reader is advised to read, absorb, and crisscross the chapters themselves.
With the above case in point, Neoplatonism today has reached a level of conceptual maturity from which it can reflect upon itself. The understanding of Neoplatonic thought has advanced so far as to allow and foster the critical re-examination not only of its vast accumulation of data but also its definitions, terminologies, methodologies, and internal and external relations. One distinguishing characteristic which exposes Neoplatonism as a particularly systematic, or holistic, way of thinking is that it operates within a closed system of principles, the full interrelations and explanatory possibilities of which are emerging, as you read this, in research. The newly inspired as well as the seasoned expert of late ancient philosophy will equally welcome the shift from the static and fractured presentation of the Neoplatonic worldview as a frozen slice through three vertically organized hypostases into a dynamic whole of interrelated ontological processes. This “animated” understanding of the Neoplatonic structure of the universe as a sequential causal proliferation of underlying principles of reality – from the One as an ultimate source of existence, which is beyond existence itself, to the imprint of a paradigmatic intelligible reality onto the physical realm at the level of the soul – grasps something that could be defined as an essential feature of Neoplatonism, its systemic self-sustainability.
The implications of this systematicity for pursuing different research questions are significant. Since Neoplatonism has holistically thought out its principles, it does not offer compartmentalized “chopped-up” kinds of knowledge concerning individual sciences but presupposes the systematic application of the same conceptual framework to all sciences. As a result, Neoplatonic studies do not call for an inter-disciplinary but an all-disciplinary perspective. This kind of uniformity merges the lines between Neoplatonism as philosophy and the other spheres of knowledge. The dynamic understanding of the Neoplatonic structure of reality has naturally carried over to a similarly dynamic and integrative understanding of all spheres of knowledge. The static division of Neoplatonic metaphysics, psychology, epistemology, physics, ethics and aesthetics has given way, at least among the majority of researchers, to a dynamic approach in which the specific parameters of the individual areas are understood as dependent on all elements of the philosophical system as a whole. We have also striven to follow this approach in the present collection, as will
be explained in greater detail below. While we have still chosen to adapt some thematical division for the sake of organizational clarity, a closer look at it will discern its inherent fluidity.
On one hand, this cohesiveness has allowed us to chart, with precision, the major signposts of the conceptual territory of Neoplatonism. But at the same time, there is always a danger that it obscures the understanding of their particulars and ends repeating its central structural solutions regardless of the phenomena under investigation. In relation to this integrative approach, a future line of research is to assess how Neoplatonism pervades all spheres of knowledge and whether it forces its systematicity on them by compressing or comprising their particular essence.
The form of methodological sustainability found in Neoplatonism is distinct in comparison to other ancient philosophical models, and it may ultimately be responsible for the particularly robust kind of aftermath Neoplatonism has incited. Its systematic unity has the explanatory power either to absorb or to deflect external influence. The effectiveness of this power is best illustrated by the fact that Neoplatonism, we conjecture, is often either rejected wholesale by other systems or absorbed, if not as a whole, nonetheless more profoundly than most other philosophical systems. This unity seems to be the doctrinal armour with which it pervades the philosophical foundation of Christianity, for an example, and repe...