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Neoplatonism (also Neo-Platonism) was a school of philosophy that took shape in the 3rd century A.D. Though based on the teachings of Plato and Platonists, it interpreted Plato in many new ways, so that Neoplatonism was quite different from what Plato had written, though many Neoplatonists would prefer to say that what they advocated had been previously taught by Plato. The prefix "neo" was only added by modern scholars to distinguish between the two, but the practitioners of the time called themselves Platonists.

Neoplatonism took definitive shape with the philosopher Plotinus, who claimed to have received his teachings from Ammonius Saccas, a humble dock worker and philosopher in Alexandria. Plotinus's student Porphyry assembled his teachings into the Six Enneads.

Neoplatonism is a form of idealistic Monism. It has also been called philosophical or mystical Monotheism. Plotinus taught the existence of an ineffable and transcendent One, from which emanated the rest of the universe as a sequence of lesser beings. Later Neoplatonic philosophers, especially Iamblichus, added hundreds of intermediate gods, angels and daemons, and other beings as emanations between the One and humanity. Plotinus' system was much simpler in comparison.

Subsequent Neoplatonic philosophers included Hypatia of Alexandria, Proclus, Simplicius of Cilicia, and Damascius, who wrote On First Principles. He was born at Damascus and was the last teacher of Neoplatonism at Athens.

Neoplatonists believed human perfection and happiness were attainable in this world, without awaiting an afterlife. Perfection and happiness (seen as synonymous) could be achieved through philosophical contemplation.

They did not believe in evil as positively existing. They compared it to darkness, which does not exist in itself, but only as the absence of light. So too, evil is simply absence of good. Things are good insofar as they exist. They are evil only insofar as they are imperfect, lacking some good that they should have.

This aspect of Neoplatonism helped Augustine of Hippo, on learning of it, to abandon dualistic Manichaeism and convert to Christianity. When, three or four years after his 387 baptism, he wrote his treatise On True Religion, he was still thinking of Christianity in Neoplatonic terms. But, after he was ordained priest and bishop and had acquired greater familiarity with Scripture, he came to see contradictions between Neoplatonism and Christianity.

When classical paganism found itself giving way before Christianity, it had turned to Neoplatonism as a philosophical foundation, unsuccessfully attempting to use it as what Arnold Toynbee called a counter-religion and a counter-church (A Study of History, 1972 one-volume edition, pages 56 and 58).

Nevertheless, many Christians were influenced by Neoplatonism. They identified the One as God. The most important and influential of them was the fifth century author known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. His works were significant for both Eastern Orthodox and western branches of Christiantiy. John Scotus's ninth century Latin translation of the writing of pseudo-Dionysius was widely studied during the Middle Ages.

Neoplatonism also had links with the belief systems known as Gnosticism.

In the Middle Ages, Neoplatonist ideas influenced the thinking of Jewish Kabbalists, such as Isaac the Blind. However, the Kabbalists modified Neoplatonism according to their own monotheistic belief. A famous Jewish Neoplatonic philosopher from the early Middle Ages was Solomon ibn Gabirol. During this period, Neoplatonist ideas also influenced Islamic and sufi thinkers such as al Farabi and through him Avicenna.

Neoplatonism survived in the east as an independent tradition and was reintroduced to the west by Plethon. It was subsequently revived in the Italian Renaissance by figures such as Marsilio Ficino, the Medici and Sandro Botticelli. Thomas Taylor, "The English Platonist", wrote extensively on Platonism and translated almost the entire Platonic corpus into English.

Neoplatonism has influenced some modern Christian theologians as well, particularly, it is claimed, C.S. Lewis.

Publications

Ruelle, an edition of On First Principles, (Paris, 1889)

Whittaker, The Neo-Platonists, (Cambridge, 1901)

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