As defined by Funk and Wagnals, 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 Platos 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. (Funk and Wagnalls) Neoplatonism began in Alexandra, Egypt, in the third century AD.
Plotinus was the founder of Neoplatonsim and was born in Egypt. He studied at Alexandra with the philosopher Ammonium Saccus. Along with 224 others he helped carry the Neoplatonic doctrine to Rome, where he established a school. Other important Neoplatonic thinkers were the Syrian-Greek scholar’s, Porphyry and Lablichus. The Syrian, Athenian, and Alexandrian Schools Neoplatonism was the last of the great schools of classical pagan philosophy. Platonism, as well as Aristotlism, Stoicism, and Pythagoreanism, all provided an awkward understanding of classical Greek paganism.
It incorporated philosophy, mysticism, and theosophy. For three centuries it served as a last bastion of pagan wisdom and esoteric philosophy in an increasingly hostile Christian dominated empire. The school of Alexandra was not the same as the academy under Ammonius. It seems to date back to the late fourth and early fifth centuries, represented by the mathematician Theon and his daughter Hypatia, who was martyred by a Christian mob under the instigation of the infamous church leader Cyril. Persecution seems to have been common.
Hierocles was flogged by the authorities in Constantinople, despite the fact that his teachings were more monotheistic than those of other pagan Neoplatonists. It was only with Heimonius and his son Ammonius that a definite succession can be traced at Alexandra. Olympiodorus, the Platonic commentator, was the last pagan head of the school. After his death it passed into Christian hands under the Aristotlean commentators Elias and David. The school’s last head, Stephanus, moved to and became head of an academy in Constantinople in 610.
In 641 the Arabs captured the Alexandrian school. It thus played an important part in the transmission of Neoplatonic thought to both the Byzantine and Islamic civilizations. Proclus’s works exerted a great influence on the next thousand years. They not only formed one of the bridges by which medieval thinkers rediscovered Plato and Aristotle, but also determined scientific method up until the sixteenth century, and through “Pseudo”-Dionysius gave rise to and nurtured the Christian mysticism of the middle ages. In 529, Justinian closed the school of Athens.
Damascius, the Aristotlean commentator Simplicius, and five other Neoplatonists set out for Persia, hoping they would be able to teach and continue there under Chosroes I. But conditions were unfavourable, and they were allowed to return to Athens. Neoplatonism was the last of the great Hellenistic systems of thought to fall. Yet quite a lot of it did survive in Christian and Islamic form. In the West, Christian neoplatonism exerted a strong influence on philosophy and theology at least until the rise of scientific materialism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Neoplatonism ad a profound effect on medieval Christian and Islamic mystical thought and on Jewish Kabbalah, Renaissance Hermeticism, the Cambridge Platonism of the 18th century, and 19th century Theosophy. In the more philosophical Islamic circles it is still going strong, appearing in the works of modern Islamic philosophers such as Fritj of Schuon and Sayyed Hossien Nasr. And through Theosophy its traces can be seen in the modern day “New Age” movements, and through Islam and Sufism (e. g. modern day writers like Fritjof Schuon) it made its way into the “New Paradigm” and transpersonal psychology arena.