The role of Neoplatonism in Christianity
In this article I will explain the basics of Plotinian ontology and its differences with Christianity. This essay assumes basic knowledge about the difference between ontology (processes outside of time) and unfolding of processes in time. It is written from my perspective as a Christian.
In the correct understanding of Plotinus all is hierarchical, leading up to the One True God. From this God, all in Creation is sustained (emanation).
This means that all of Creation participates in this One God, without being part of it.
Many readers will be familiar with the heavenly hierarchy of angels which lead up to God (an expanded version of this hierarchy is shown in the Medieval Chain of Being). I won’t go too deeply into what particular place Roman Gods might take, but the short version is that Christians view them as demons, at worst, and at best as simply lower, compared to the Most High.
There are two tendencies in Christianity: firstly, to do away with that which leads up to God. God is the summit, who connects all that is below (the Ultimate Form). That which is below can obstruct. If you look too low, you can be confused or distracted from your ultimate purpose. To worship, in the Christian conception, is to focus on Who in all becomes One in Love.
The second tendency is to view the angels or demons as a ladder towards God. There is a great tension in that concept. Are the Roman Gods demons? Are they even real? The problem with the first tendency (to discard everything apart from The One or God) is that it can make God too distant. This is the mistake Protestants make. One first needs to learn philosophy, to learn correct perception, and then conclude that it is ultimately a ladder, as even Plotinus talks about this ‘stepping higher’. But of course, even with that there is the problem of standing too long on the ladder. For this problem, the discarding tendency is an option. And if a balance can be struck between these two, we can start talking about non-being and being.
Plotinus’ philosophy is highly mystical and informative, and many early church fathers (such as Augustine, and most probably St Dionysius) were deeply influenced by his writings. He comes extremely close to describing a perfect metaphysical system.
The Plotinian Ontology
What is the source of Being? From what does something derive its being? From matter or from form? Materialism, one of the modern philosophies, thinks that meaning derives from matter, but Plotinus thinks otherwise. All meaning, or Being is emanated from higher levels. Most readers will be familiar with Plato’s Cave. (https://aureus-press.com/correcting-popular-misconceptions-about-plato-part-one/…)
All of philosophical inquiry is in essence a tension between both matter and form.
Plotinus (and normal Christian ontology) explains that form is something which holds matter together. There are many terms to indicate the immaterial part of something material: essence, force, form, spirit. These stand in opposition to the material – the substance or the matter. Both matter and form combine to make a whole. The relationship between matter and form determines the vision of a particular philosophy: for instance Aristotle gives too much credit to matter, and Plato gives too much to spirit.
The forms are things eternal, giving Being to things temporal. An apple tree in the garden receives its Being from the ultimate Form of an apple tree.
Plotinus describes his metaphysical system beautifully. At the top, there is the One, which emanates in the intellect, and then in the world soul. Ultimately, the world soul emanates into matter and individual souls. His ontology seems fundamentally correct, he describes things that are higher on the ontology as less prone to the ravages of time, suggesting there is an eternal stability in higher things. All things move towards the One. Only the One rests in itself.
There seems to be similarities between the Plotinian One and Christian God the Father, as well as the Intellect and the Logos, (Jesus Christ) and the world Soul and the the Holy Spirit, a kind of mini-trinity, but with different relations to each other.
Plotinus describes matter as inherently evil. It is the place where non-being is, and the body is a place which tends to drag spirit down. If you listen to all the nagging of the body, then it’s easy to suffer from this dragging down. Plotinus compares this to the ultimate unity, the One, towards which we should ascend (Henosis).
Apophatic and cataphatic
There is something very interesting about the fact that Plotinus’ determination that the One cannot be known by cataphatic (positive) philosophy, but only by apopathic philosophy. This makes sense, as the One is infinite, and defining it is limiting it (defining = putting boundaries, which is ultimately a negation). By a double negation (the negation of the definition) we can hope to grasp, or intuit, the One. The reason I find this interesting is that in most modern philosophy the ultimate goal is known explicitly.
Comparison to the Plotinian ontology.
There is a self-sacrificial aspect to this: one has to negate their own knowledge to come to fully know the Truth. This is where (according to me) Plotinus falls short. The self-sacrifice is purely intellectual, it is not merely something one does, which has limits.
Time and Sinning
There is a problem with sinning (sinning as in failing to have your eyes on the highest). All sinning causes time to speed up. This makes perfect sense, as material reality, which is lower on the ontological hierarchy, changes faster because it is less anchored in the fundamental reality. Not only does time speed up, but material reality also extends. A reality that is less aligned to God.
For example, if we create technology, without it being connected to God, it becomes a kind of demon. It will draw all the attention of a society, creating chaos – such as the kind we currently suffer from. There is nothing inherently bad in technology, the failure comes in not aligned it to the True Source.
In summary: the focus on lower things can cause a spiritual lowering.
Try to focus as highly as possible.
1 thought on “The role of Neoplatonism in Christianity”
Great and timely post. In my opinion, Plato got it essentially right. It’s been said that all modern philosophy is a footnote to Plato and I agree. His summation of Pre-Socratic thought is embedded in our language and social order. For example, in English you can feel a desk or feel love; both are consider direct objects, one material and one abstract. Plato said love is more real than that desk because that desk will be dust someday but love will always exist. As a matter of fact, love is more real than you in a similar sense–love probably even created you! So your assertion that Plato over-relied on spirit is wrong in my humble estimation. The physical being merely a manifestation of the abstract. Also, I know that Plato used the word form but I think it’s more helpful to say ideas, as form has a physical manifestation. Finally, I feel strongly that Aristotle was vastly overrated in the middle ages starting with Occam, Aquinas, and nominalists. The abandonment of Plato is the cause of our current cultural collapse; Plato stresses transcendent and eternal principles quite at odds with the unbalanced modern notion of infinite material progress on a finite planet.