Neoplatonism: How Does it Relate to Plato?

How did Neoplatonic philosophers synthesize elements of ancient philosophy in order to theorize about reality from a single principle?

May 10, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

what is neoplatonism


What is Neoplatonism? The term is used to refer to a group of philosophers who lived throughout a period of several hundred years, from the 3rd to the 7th centuries CE. They were spread across a wide geographical area — from Egypt and North Africa to Western Europe, modern-day Turkey, and much of the Middle East. Plotinus is often regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism, and Porphyry — his disciple — another major figure of Neoplatonism. Plotinus founded a philosophical school in Rome and appears to have propagated his theories there. Neoplatonism was extremely influential on some of the earliest (and most significant) Christian theologians, most notably St. Augustine.


What Is Neoplatonism? 

Statue of Plato in front of the Academy of Athens, Via Wikimedia Commons


Neoplatonism is a term that has been applied after the fact — no Neoplatonist called themselves a Neoplatonist – and it is something of a misnomer insofar as it represents the project of the Neoplatonists as an attempt to revive Plato’s doctrines.


Certainly, the Neoplatonists were Platonists, and the effect they had upon the general current of Western philosophy was to shift away from the more materialist philosophies which preceded them (grounded in Epicureanism and Stoic philosophy) towards a more Platonic conception of reality.


Plotinus, ca. 300 CE, via Wikimedia Commons


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Emphasis should be placed on the qualifier “more” here. Certainly, many Neoplatonists — including Plotinus, undoubtedly the most influential Neoplatonist philosopher — saw themselves as aligned with Plato’s philosophy as a whole. What this does not allow us to do is assume that the Neoplatonists understood themselves as subscribing to a version of Plato’s thought which corresponds to how we understand Plato today, or to how Plato’s contemporaries understood his philosophy. Indeed, that holds for various other appropriations made by the Neoplatonic philosophers. The interpretation of Aristotle as a follower of Plato is just one such example.


Two Distinctive Neoplatonist Principles 

Aristotle with a bust of Homer, Rembrandt, 1653, via the Met Museum


The two most characteristically Neoplatonic principles are not distinctly Platonic. The first is held by Plato, but also by Aristotle and many other Greek philosophers of that period. The principle can be summarised simply as: “mind precedes matter,” or “mind over matter” as it is sometimes rendered. For the term “mind” we could well substitute “mindful intelligence,” “consciousness,” “intellect,” or “thought.” The Greek term, nous, bears connotations of all these English terms.


This ontological claim (a claim about which categories of being are more fundamental) in turn often implies an epistemological claim — that is, a claim about knowledge. This is the claim that the world as it appears to us is, to a certain extent, misleading, or at the very least in need of serious interpretation if we wish to understand that which is most fundamental.


The second principle is perhaps the most distinctive Neoplatonic principle — it is the idea that reality wholly depends on a highest principle. This principle is one of unity. It is commonly considered divine, and indeed sometimes referred to simply as “God,” although the Neoplatonists were pagans. It goes by other names: “the One,” “the Good,” “the First,” and others. Evidently, these principles are related. If mind precedes matter, then the first principle of creation must be a conscious principle. Neoplatonism must, therefore, attempt to explain how all of reality proceeds from consciousness.


Creation and Emanation

The Creation of Adam (from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), Michelangelo, 1510, via Musei Vaticani


The Neoplatonists should not be misunderstood as suggesting that reality was created from nothing by consciousness. It would be far more accurate to say that they conceive of the world as in the process of being constituted by it, where “constituted” implies not the instantiation of new material stuff, but an elaboration of structure.


In fact, the word most often applied to Neoplatonism is “emanationist,” which goes some way to make the point — things are being made, but not everything emerged from nothing. If the world is derived from the single principle of creation, it has and will always be ever thus. The emergence of the universe is gradual — it has determined stages.


The natural question to ask of this rather vague-sounding principle is — “well, but what it is?” To put the point more specifically, we might be inclined to ask what, exactly, the principle of “the One” determines, fixes, or means.


The Neoplatonist answer to this would likely have two parts. First, to observe that saying more about a principle that is meant to be utterly simple, to give it features, to divide it into sub-categories, would contravene the principle’s role in the structure of reality. A principle of which we could say more would no longer serve as the most basic principle on which the rest of being could be founded.


Secondly, it is a central tenet of Neoplatonism that everything has an inner and outer element, and the inner element (the principle on which a given thing is formed) will always correspond to the outer. Therefore, the principle will pre-empt its effects, and perhaps we can learn something about the principle (if not the principle considered strictly in itself) by attempting to understand these effects.


The Single Principle From Which Everything Emerges

Plate from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750, via the Marginalian.


Much of the appeal of Neoplatonism lies in the elegance of describing the structure of reality as preceding from a single principle. Yet even accepting the total simplicity of this principle, we can nonetheless attempt to elaborate on the concept of nous, which is, in effect, the “second principle” of Neoplatonic philosophy.


It is worth stressing how the ontological basicness of nous is at absolute odds with the proclivity of modern philosophy to conceive of consciousness as the product of the relationship between material parts. Even the most ardent materialist with respect to the mind will, if they are remotely self-aware, have moments in which they doubt that any physical machinery is a sufficient cause of the operations of the mind. In other words, even in a philosophical culture that is relatively hostile to a Neoplatonic way of conceiving of consciousness, it seems to be one of our secret suspicions that this status quo misses something.


Perhaps this goes some way to explaining philosophical stances, like panpsychism, which have experienced a relatively recent resurgence against the grain of materialism about the mind. The principle of nous or consciousness is the gateway to understanding the more distinctly Platonic elements of Neoplatonism. In particular, it is through their conception of consciousness that Neoplatonists understand the creation of the Forms, those concepts which Plato argues constitute the real nature of reality beyond the world of appearances.


Neoplatonism and Christianity

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1498, via


The Neoplatonist conceives of consciousness as emerging from the first principle, the principle of unity or “the One.” However, even though consciousness is, as it were, downstream from this first principle ontologically, it is in the nature of consciousness to think of its origins and to turn back on this first principle in order to contemplate it. Neoplatonists hold that this awareness of another entity breaks consciousness into two.


Though the reasons for this aren’t consistent across the Neoplatonic tradition (and are rarely totally clear), presumably, the thought is that there is some substantial, qualitative difference between consciousness as relates to what is ontologically subsidiary, and consciousness as relating to its ontological superiors. In any case, it is the breaking apart of consciousness that Neoplatonists locate the creation of the Forms — of difference, multiplicity, identity, equality, greater than and smaller than, all the various categories and elements of reality as such.


It might be worth concluding with an attempt to explain why Neoplatonism, in spite of its difficulty, is worth understanding. Neoplatonism is worth understanding for its own sake, but it is separately worth the attention of anyone who wants to understand how philosophy developed through the period in which Christianity and Islam became world-historical forces and came to dominate the intellectual currents of their respective societies. Understanding Neoplatonism is also critical for attempting to make sense of medieval philosophy (again, in both the Christian and Islamic world), and, therefore, the environment in which philosophy as we know it today emerged.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.