Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Influence of Neo-Platonic Conceptions of God in Early Christian Theology

Frederick Copleston described Neo-Platonism as “the intellectualist reply to the ... yearning for personal salvation”. Produced during the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284AD), this late mystical and soteriological development within the tradition of Platonic philosophy reflects upon both a shifting intellectual milieu as well as the swiftly transforming Mediterranean world system of the Late Roman Empire. With the assassination of Alexander Severus (208-235AD), the formerly pacific Roman Empire was catapulted into fifty years of political instability, famine, rebellion, and invasion in which the Empire was briefly divided in three parts and more than twenty pretenders would aspire to the title of Caesar. At the close of the third century, the herculean efforts of the Emperor Diocletian (244-311AD) would once again restore political order.
Emperor Constantine I
The conversion of Constantine (b.272 r.306-337AD) would afterwards imbue the Empire with a vibrant new Christian character. A variety of social, economic, and political trends would emerge during this century which would later come to characterize the ‘Middle Ages’ . Yet despite these changes, there nevertheless remained broad continuities of intellectual thought. Prominent among these was the philosophical tradition of Platonism which began with the founding of the Academy of Athens (387BC) shortly after the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC). After six centuries of development, Late Platonism or Neo-Platonism was produced with the posthumous compilation and publication of Plotinus’s (204-270AD) six Enneads by his disciple Porphyry (234-305AD). In their lengthy metaphysical writings, Plotinus and his successors made explicit the metaphysical system which they believed to be implicit within the Platonic philosophical corpus. Although Plotinus was heavily indebted to previous Middle Platonists and Neo-Pythagoreans, the Neo-Platonic system which he and his successors created is nonetheless principally distinguished by its conception of the One - the ineffable first principle transcending being from which all reality is emanated and continuously sustained. The Neo-Platonic conception of the One is widely believed to have had a formative influence on the development of Christian conceptions of God during Late Antiquity- an influence which would continue throughout the theological tradition of Christianity.
The new Academy of Athens

Although Plotinus is generally credited with defining the concept of the Platonic One, the idea had many precedents within the history of Greek philosophy. In both the Republic and the Parmenides , Plato (428/7-348/7BC) had hinted at the possibility of a creative and sustaining power beyond the experiential grasp of the human discursive intellect. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle (384-322BC) also speculated about the possibility of a first cause (πρῶτον κινοῦν ἀκίνητον or primus motor) - an unmoved mover which was, by its very nature, a self-existent cause unto itself. During the period of Middle Platonism , numerous attempts had been made to synthesize the metaphysics of Platonic philosophy with the mystical Gnostic and the monotheistic Jewish traditions. Additionally the Neo-Pythagoreans, like the Platonists, speculated about the existence of a unitary and self-existent Monad (μονάς) from which there originated all plurality and diversity within the perceptible cosmos. It is known from Porphyry’s biography of Plotinus that he would have been well informed of these prior religious and metaphysical developments within Platonism and Greek philosophy.

“Plotinus was himself extraordinarily well read both in the philosophy of the early period and in more recent work. He knew the writings of Aristotle as intimately as the Platonic texts themselves.”

Even prior to refining his metaphysical theories, Plotinus would have certainly become familiar with the tremendous intellectual inheritance of Middle Platonism and the Neo-Pythagoreans (which, like so many treasures from antiquity, has scarcely survived the centuries). Yet despite Plotinus’s acknowledged debt to his predecessors, he does more than simply summarily reproduce the insights of Middle Platonism. Instead we find that there is much within his philosophy which is distinctly original.

“The thought of his Middle-Platonist and Neo-Pythagorean predecessors formed the basis of the metaphysical speculations of Plotinus, but he worked over the pre-existing material available to him with such critical penetration and careful attention to his own mental experience that the resulting system was in many ways original, and far more coherent and attractive than anything found in Middle Platonism.”

While noting these elements of intellectual continuity, Plotinus and his successors can nevertheless be justifiably distinguished from prior Platonists due to their zealous insistence on the existence of an incomprehensible and ineffable Platonic One (αἰών τέλεος). Although Plotinus and his successors write extensively on this subject, they are nevertheless careful to emphasize the inapplicability of predicates to the One.

“Although the required utter simplicity of the One is probably best served by the way of negation, the ascription of positive characteristics is not the polar opposite of negation since the intention of the way of negation is not to remove all qualities from the ultimate principle but rather to suggest that it transcends them…the ascription of positive characteristics may be seen as a way of suggesting in what way it is not like and transcends everything else.”

Neither the processes of contemplation nor of willful volition can be accurately attributed to the One, as doing so would imply both mutability and duality- qualities which would be inconsistent with the One’s eternal and unitary perfection. Plotinus instead describes the One as pure, self-existent, dynamis (δυναμις) or potentiality. Recent Platonic scholarship has demonstrated with great certainty that the metaphysical conception of God as “Absolute Being” appears to have originated in the writings of Plotinus’s devoted disciple Porphyry. This negative, or apophatic (from the Greek ‘apophanai’), method of describing the One has precedents in earlier Jewish theology. However, Plotinus notably introduces this descriptive method to the cosmopolitan intelligentsia of Late Antiquity. This method would in later centuries feature prominently among the Cappadocian Fathers and in Eastern Orthodox Church where negative, or apophatic, theology is taught to be descriptively superior to positive, or cataphatic, theology.
Platonic One

Plotinus’s One is both the apex of the Neo-Platonic metaphysical hierarchy as well as the central concern of the Neo-Platonic tradition. What had been merely hinted at in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and the Pre-Socratics, in the writings of Plotinus and his successors, becomes the primary focus of investigation. An important element in understanding the influence of the Neo-Platonic tradition upon Christian metaphysics is the transmission of concept of immateriality, or incorporeality.

“Most Christians of this sort have agreed with Plotinus that God was spiritual, that is, immaterial or incorporeal, with all that this implies: and also that he was transcendent, in a sense which by no means excludes immanence and implies mystery, a transcendence of our speech and thought”

This concept of incorporeality is implied in many of the Platonic dialogs, and is most prominently featured in the arguments which Plato provides for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo. Throughout the subsequent development of Abrahamic theology this uniquely Platonic philosophical legacy would continue to facilitate a conceptualization of God as an active yet incorporeal entity.

Additionally, it is important to emphasize the unique beneficence of the Platonic One. In sharp contrast to the Gnostic conception of a malevolent and deceitful Demiurge or the more common Hellenistic conception of a largely apathetic yet reciprocally rewarding pantheon, the Neo-Platonists prominently distinguished themselves by ascribing, not merely goodness, but the origin and continual subsistence of all goodness and perfection to the One. The beneficence of the Neo-Platonic One is first hinted at in a famous passage contained within Plato’s Republic in which Socrates alludes to the Sun to describe how all goodness emanates from the Form of the Good:
The Pythagorean Monad

“The sun, I presume you will say, not only furnishes to visibles the power of visibility but it also provides for their generation and growth and nurture though it is not itself generation…In like manner, then, you are to say that the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it, though the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power.” (Republic Bk. VI 509b)

However the relationship between the One and the Form of the Good is not merely a relic of earlier Platonism, but is instead intimately interrelated with the Neo-Platonic metaphysical hierarchy. Following Plato, Neo-Platonists similarly believe that the incorporeal Platonic forms are ontologically superior to those objects contained within the sensible world . All perfection and goodness in the sensible world is likewise attributed to the Form of the Good. A greater attribution of goodness to a thing implies a more potent instantiation of the Form of the Good. There is, as a result, an immediate correspondence between goodness, or perfection, and ontology. Plotinus extrapolates from this principle to postulate that there must exist an incorporeal entity, of the “highest” possible ontology, which contains within itself all possible goodness and perfection. This ontological zenith, which Plotinus calls the One (αἰών τέλεος), is neither spatio-temporal nor bound by causal laws. These unique properties allow Plotinus to describe the One as self-existent, self-caused, and also unlimited in either temporal duration or effectual potency.

Early in the Enneads, Plotinus offers a brief proof of the existence of the Neo-Platonic One. Although the existence of God is doxastically required in Abrahamic faiths, in the 3rd century Greco-Roman world it was not without its philosophical opponents. Although there appears to have been some influence of Platonic metaphysics upon Late Stocism, the school nonetheless remained largely materialistic and pantheistic (there are some notable similarities between Stoic and Hegelian ‘pantheism’).

“Christian thinkers, almost from the beginning of Christian speculation, found in the spiritualism of Plato a powerful aid in defending and maintaining a conception of the human soul which pagan materialism rejected, but to which the Christian Church was irrevocably committed. All the early refutations of psychological materialism are Platonic. So, too, when the ideas of Plotinus began to prevail, the Christian writers took advantage of the support thus lent to the doctrine that there is a spiritual world more real than the world of matter.”

Perhaps in recognition of either this prevalent philosophical opposition or the objection of Middle Platonists, Plotinus offers a difficult argument for the metaphysical necessity of the One without which individual entities, composed of a plurality of component parts, would lack a necessary unifying principle.

“The transcendent one is the ultimate cause of the relationship between the unity and plurality of the Intellect, providing each component with its coherent and unified identity and at the same time securing their relationships to each other as a whole.”

“Plotinus believes, arguing from the different levels of reality which represent, for him, the grades of being, the structure, the oneness and goodness, that he can refer back to the One-Good as the ultimate source and the highest principle of all being, all oneness, goodness and form.”

R. Baine Harris writes that this argument appears to work if we accept, as Plotinus certainly does, the existence of a Platonic metaphysical hierarchy.

“Plotinus assumes a whole hierarchy of beings and of the level of being which according to the grade of their being as well as their oneness and their goodness are dependent on each other and finally and ultimately on the One-Good as the highest principle and highest ground of all being.”

Finally, Plotinus advances the theory of emanation through which the infinitely powerful One continuously creates and sustains not only our discursive intellect but the entirety of the cosmos as well. There are clear indications of this theory of emanation contained within the Republic long before the time of Plotinus.

"God holds the beginning, middle, and end of all things. He is the supreme mind or reason, the efficient cause of all things, eternal, unchangeable, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-pervading, and all-controlling, just, holy, wise, and good, the absolutely perfect, the beginning of all truth, the fountain of all law and justice, the source of all order and beauty, and especially the cause of all good " (Republic Bk. VII 716a)

Although this concept is hinted at within the writings many previous Greek philosophers, it is nonetheless Plotinus who most elaborately discusses the theory of Emanationism. In a departure from the finite power of the Hellenistic pantheon, Neo-Platonism advances the counter-intuitive theory in which the One continuously emanates the entirety of the physical and intellectual cosmos without itself being diminished in the process. In describing this concept, Plotinus often utilizes the analogy of a spring of water billowing forth.

“Think of spring which has no other origin, but gives the whole of itself to rivers, and is not used up by the rivers but remains itself at rest.”

This postulation of an incorporeal creator deity of infinite and inexhaustible power, allows Plotinus to offer an explanatory account of the perpetual emanation of the One.

During this formative period within Christian philosophy, many of the characteristics of the Neo-Platonic One would noticeably reappear in the metaphysical writings of Christian theologians.

“Platonism especially had always proved an attractive source of ideas as can be seen from earlier Christian thinkers such as Justin and Origin. All of these philosophical strands had been absorbed in different ways and in differing degrees by Christian writers before Plotinus, but the thought of Plotinus and those Platonists influenced by him was the predominant vehicle of influence in Late Antiquity.”

Any examination of the interrelationship between Christianity and Platonism must take notice of the centuries of mutual admiration and contention between these two intellectual traditions which in some cases preceded the school of Neo-Platonism. Armstrong argues that Christian theology was predominantly Platonic in the Patristic era, writing that:

“it is easy to see both that the Christians agreed with Plotinus and that the agreement is in no way surprising, since their formulated theology owed at least as much to contemporary Platonism as to Christian scripture and tradition.”
Julian the Apostate

Despite this admittedly shared intellectual tradition, scholars have been careful to avoid the simplistic characterization of Neo-Platonism as merely an intellectual forerunner and facilitator of Christianity’s philosophical and political development. Until the Emperor Justinian (b.483 r.527-565AD) closed the revived Neo-Platonic Academy of Athens in 526AD, Platonism was often the source of anti-Christian polemics. The first known philosophical response to Christianity is the treatise, “the True Doctrine” (~178-188AD), penned by the Platonist philosopher Celsus which is characteristically known only through the lengthy response, “Against Celsus” (248AD), composed a century later by Origen of Alexandria (185-254AD). In sharp contrast with the later imperial persecution of Neo-Platonists (notably by the Emperors Theodosius and Justinian), The Emperor Constantine (272-337AD) patronized the school and is known to have employed the Neo-Platonist Sopater of Apamea (d. ~330-337) at his imperial court in Constantinople. Within two decades however, both intellectual and political opposition to Christianity were manifested in the reign of the Emperor Julian the Apostate (b. 331/2 r. 355-363AD). Julian, who was himself instructed, in 351AD, by, a student of Sopater, the Neo-Platonist Aedesius (d. 355AD), personally wrote a no longer extant anti-Christian polemic entitled “Against the Galilaeans” (~362/3AD) . However despite the admitted political and philosophical opposition to Christianity which emerged from the Platonic tradition, the references to the Neo-Platonic philosophy throughout the development of Christian theology and their undeniable metaphysical similarities continue to reinforce the view that there existed a substantial, and often mutually beneficial, dialog between these two Greco-Roman intellectual traditions.

The earliest example of, the characteristically Hellenistic, philosophical syncretism is Philo of Alexandria (20BC-50AD), a Jewish hellenophile with a solid understanding of Middle Platonism, who produced a philosophical synthesis of Platonism and Jewish theology in the decades immediately preceding the composition of the Gospels. The writings of Philo the Jew survived due to his subsequent Christian admirers (Clement, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, and Augustine among others) who came to believe, incorrectly, that he had been an apostolic Christian. As he is the earliest synthesizer of Platonism and Abrahamic theology, both ancient and modern scholars have speculated about the possibility of Philo’s influence on the author of the Gospel of John as well as later Christian theologians.
Philo the Jew

The vibrant intellectual community of Alexandria, which was in Philo’s time a center of Jewish scholarship, would later come to host a large Christian intellectual community as well. In the Patristic era, Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD) taught Christian theology in Platonic terms and is believed to have founded the Catechetical School of Alexandria (~190AD) for the training of priests and theologians. Origen of Alexandria (185-254AD), a student of Clement who would later become the head of the school , also wrote extensively- producing commentaries on every book in the Bible. Utilizing the intellectually reputable techniques of Platonic philosophy, Origen produced De principiis (On First Principles), the first philosophical treatment of Christianity. Although Origen was a contemporary of Plotinus in the city of Alexandria where both men studied philosophy, recent research has demonstrated that it was very unlikely that these two philosophers had any more than a superficial contact. Origen is nonetheless notable as pre-Plotinian Christian theologian who adopted many elements of Middle Platonism, and in doing so foreshadowed the later influence of Neo-Platonism upon the subsequent development of Christian theology.
Clement of Alexandria

Although there are some notable Neo-Platonists who converted to Christianity in the 4th century (Senesius and Marius Victorinus), none is more influential upon subsequent Christian theology than St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD). Augustine records in his Confessions that he was, in his youth, deeply influenced by Manichaeism (a prophetic quasi-Christian religion which originated and briefly gained imperial patronage in early Sassanid Persia). Augustine was familiar with prior African Platonists such as Apuleius (123/5-180AD) , and mentions Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus (245-325AD) as the most important of “modern philosophers”. Augustine, like previous Neo-Platonist converts, recounts how he wrestled with the uncertain dissimilarities between Neo-Platonic metaphysics and Christian doctrine.

“By reading these books of the Platonists I have been prompted to look for truth as something incorporeal, and I ‘caught sight of your invisible nature as it is known through your creatures’ (Rom. 1.20). Though I was thwarted of my wish to know more, I was conscious of what it was that my mind was too clouded to see. I was certain both that you are and you are infinite, though without extent in terms of space either limited or unlimited.”
St. Augustine of Hippo

Chief among the philosophical disagreements were those pertaining to the creation (rather than immortality) of the soul at the moment of conception, the creation and final dissolution of (rather than the eternity of) the physical universe, and the divine resurrection of the body. The Alexandrian Neo-Platonist Senesius (370-413AD), who would later convert to Christianity and become the Bishop of Cyrene, writes of his struggle between faith and reason in a surviving letter.

“It is difficult if not impossible for doctrines to be shaken which have entered the soul through knowledge and proof. You know that philosophy in many ways opposes these doctrines that are on everyone’s lips. To be sure, I will never think it to be right to consider the soul to be generated after the body. I will not say that the cosmos and its parts will parish. The resurrection that everyone speaks about I consider to be something sacred and inexpressible and I am far from agreeing with the ideas held by the masses.”

Of those issues concerning the nature of God, two notable differences are the description of God’s free will and character. Because the One is absolute unity beyond intellectual or corporeal being, it likewise cannot be described through the use of either those predicates which are intrinsically spatio-temporal or those which may imply mutability or duality. The Platonic One must instead be conceptualized as a metaphysically distant, creative and sustaining force, absent of either human passions or temporal volition. The continual sustaining emanation of the Platonic one, as well as the absence of either passionate empathy of active volition, would seem to imply theistic determinism. These descriptive and conceptual restrictions may introduce substantial problems when an attempt is made to reconcile the apparently deterministic Platonic One with the apparently actively interventionist God of Abrahamic faiths.

In contrast to the infinitely loving God of the Beatitudes, the One of Plotinus is described with the logocentric characteristic of apathēs (ἀπαθές) or apathy. For the Neo-Platonists, the perfection of the One requires that it should maintain a perpetual state of apatheia- the absence feelings, passions, or affections. Rather than the empathetic God of Christ, the Platonic One might more appropriately be described in terms of the metaphysically distant, and entirely unconcerned, deity of enlightenment deism. This impersonal and dispassionate Platonic One appears to contrast with the immanent and providential God of Christianity and Judaism who continually intervenes in worldly affairs, not only through miracles but more substantially, through Christ’s incarnation, ministry, and resurrection.

While an apparent distinction is often raised between the empathetic God of the Gospels and the distant logocentric Platonic One, the Neo-Platonic scholar Arthur Armstrong attempts to minimize the distinction. He ascribes the significance of this difference in character primarily to the differing sources of philosophical exegesis, rather than to a genuine philosophical divide:

“There are certainly, important differences of tone and emphasis between Plotinus and Christians: but these seem to be due primarily to the different character of the sources which they were expounding: on both sides we are concerned with exegetes, who regard it as their main business to bring out the true and deepest meaning of the texts which they regard as authoritative.”

Additionally, it is not entirely clear whether the Neo-Platonic One is necessarily either deterministic or wholly divorced from worldly affairs. The inapplicability of emotional or volitional predicates to the Platonic One need not necessarily prohibit the One from freely intervening in the spatio-temporal realm if such an intervention is compatible with this realm’s teleological end. If the material world is created and sustained for the sake of some beneficent soteriological end, then it is not inconceivable that miraculous theistic intervention (such as the incarnation of Christ) might be entirely necessary for the realization of this soteriological end. Various Christian theologians (notably Origen and Augustine) have either attempted to reconcile Neo-Platonism with Christianity, or have conceptualized God as sufficiently deterministic so as to be conceivably reconcilable Christianity with Neo-Platonic theistic determinism.

Platonism, especially as it was developed by the Neo-Platonic school of late antiquity, seems, then and now, to be especially compatible with Christianity, either due to its innate commensurability or due to the centuries of philosophical synthesis which have inseparably intertwined these two intellectual traditions. Both the nascent Christian Church as well as the school of Neo-Platonism grew to philosophical maturity during the ruinous wars, famine, and political calamities of the Third Century. Bertrand Russell openly speculates about the influence of political pessimism upon philosophy, writing that:

“of all this there is no mention in the works of Plotinus. He turned aside from the spectacle of misery in the actual world, to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty. In this he was in harmony with all the most serious men of his age. To all of them, Christian and Pagans alike, the world of practical affairs appeared to offer no hope, and only the Other world seemed worthy of allegiance.”

During the exceedingly heresiophobic 6th century, the Neo-Platonic school was brought to a sudden end when the Emperor Justinian (b.483 r.527-565) ordered the forcible closure of the revived Academy of Athens in 526AD. During this time of increasing theological dispute, heterodox Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire were widely persecuted. The theological tradition of Origenism was notably condemned by the Patriarch Mennas of Constantinople in 544AD and thereafter declared anathema by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553AD. Yet despite these persecutions, the intellectual inheritance of Neo-Platonism has remained inextinguishable, ever finding renewed expression in the writings of subsequent Christian theologians. The 20th century Cambridge Platonist and Neo-Platonic scholar William Ralph Inge writes:

“Platonism is part of the vital structure of Christian theology, with which no other philosophy, I venture to say, can work without friction… There is an utter impossibility of excising Platonism from Christianity without tearing Christianity to pieces.”

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