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Updated on September 2, 2009

Neoplatonism derives from Plato's idea that man must know the general characteristics, or universal forms, of objects before he can have fully true or valuable knowledge. Plotinus thought that from the perfect One arises the nous, or world mind containing universal forms. The nous gives rise to the Demiurge, or world soul, which produces the material world, or least perfect form of reality. Man perfects himself by turning away from the material world and seeking, through reason, to retrace the stages of existence into a mystical union with the One.

Development of Neoplatonism

Neoplatonism developed in the Roman Empire in the late Hellenistic period, a time of cultural and social decline that also stimulated the rise of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and much religious thought. As thinkers increasingly turned away from the instability of the world about them, Plato's strong emphasis on eternal and unchanging universal forms gained a new importance for many. The Neoplatonism of Plotinus was a systematic development of the ideas of several earlier men at the great center of Hellenistic culture at Alexandria, Egypt. Among them were the Jewish theologian Philo, the Christian teacher Clement of Alexandria, and Plotinus' teacher Ammonius Saccas. The writings of Plotinus, organized into final form by his student and biographer Porphyry, had a profound influence on early Christian theologians.

In the early 4th century A.D., Iamblichus moved the major Neoplatonist school from Rome to Syria. Thereafter, Neoplatonism flourished mainly in the Eastern Roman Empire, with centers in Athens, Alexandria, and Pergamum (now in Turkey). In the 5th century A.D. its greatest teacher was Proems, at Athens. During the same century the writings of St. Augustine firmly established its influence in Christian theology. About the 5th century A.D. a learned man, known as Pseudo-Dionysius, expounded a Christian mysticism based on Neoplatonism that influenced later Christian mystics. A famed medieval Neoplatonist was John Scotus Erigena, an Irish theologian of the 9th century A.D. One of the last notable efforts to revive Neoplatonism was made in England in the late 17th century by the Cambridge Platonists, who sought to counteract the scientific materialism then prevalent.


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