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ARCHIBALD B. D. ALEXANDER - 1922 - Table of contents

Diccionario filosófico
Complete edition

Diccionario de Filosofía
Brief definition of the most important concepts of philosophy.


A Dictionary of English Philosophical Terms Francis Garden

Biografías y semblanzas Biographical references and lives of philosophers

Brief introduction to the thought of Ortega y Gasset

History of Philosophy Summaries

Historia de la Filosofía
Explanation of the thought of the great philosophers; summaries, exercises...

Historia de la Filosofía
Digital edition of the History of Philosophy by Jaime Balmes

Historia de la Filosofía
Digital edition of the History of Philosophy by Zeferino González

Vidas, opiniones y sentencias de los filósofos más ilustres
Complete digital edition of the work of Diogenes Laertius

Compendio de las vidas de los filósofos antiguos

A brief history of Greek Philosophy
B. C. Burt






Its origin and character


SOCRATES. Cynics and Cyrenaics



Stoicism. Epicureanism

Roman Moralists: Seneca, Epictetus, M. Aurelius
Alexandrian Mystics: Philo, Plotinus, Proclus


THE PATRISTIC PERIOD Augustine and Church Fathers

SCHOLASTIC PERIOD Nominalism and Realism

Anselm, Abelard, Peter Lombard

1. Alexander of Hales, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas
2. Duns Scotus, Francis of Assisi, William of Occam


1. Revival of Learning
2. Reformation
3. Rise of Sciences
Bruno, Böhme, Montaigne



Geulinx, Occasionalism
Malebranche, Pantheism
Spinoza, Acosmism



Development of empiricism-Berkeley
Sceptical Conclusion-Hume

Natural Philosophy
Theological Controversy
Ethical Theories
Scottish Philosophy

Earlier Rationalism
Bossuet, Fontenelle, Bayle, Montesquieu, Condillac, Helvetius
Materialistic Tendencies
Voltaire, Diderot, D'Alembert,  La Mettrie, Holbach, Rousseau


Thomasius, Tschirnhausen, Wolff

Mendelssohn, Nicolai







Hamann, Herder, Jacobi
Schiller and Humboldt

1. Science of Knowledge
2. Its Theoretic Principles
3. Its Practical Sphere

1. Philosophy of Nature
2. Philosophy of Identity
3. Mythology and Revelation

1. Novalis and Schlegel
2. Baader and Krause
3. Schleiermacher


1. Herbart
2. Beneke
3. Schopenhauer


1. Influence of Hegelianism
2. Materialistic Tendency—Haeckel
3. Idealistic Tendency
Fechner, Lotze, Hartmann, Wundt
4. Modern Psychology
5. Neo-Kantianism
Dühring, Schuppe, Ritschl
6. Eucken and Activist Tendency

1. Cousin and Eclecticism
2. Comte and Positivism
3. Religious Philosophy
4. Philosophy of Development—Taine, Renan, Fouillée

1. Utilitarianism—Bentham and Mill
2. Evolution—Darwin and Spencer. Maurice, Newman, Martineau
3. Influence of German Idealism. Caird, Green, Bradley, etc.

Pragmatism—Wm. James
Neo-Realism. Revival of Idealism in Italy. The Philosophy of the Gifford Lectures







Chap. II. Religious Tendencies

The speculations of the Stoics and Epicureans, as well as those of the followers of Plato and Aristotle, were at first developed chiefly in the lecture rooms of Athens, whose fame as a seat of learning drew multitudes from all lands. But by and by, with the decline of political power, her teachers spread throughout the Roman world, and new centres of thought sprang up, especially in Rome and Alexandria.

1. Though Greece had to acknowledge the military sway of Rome, intellectually Rome had to bow to Greece. The Hellenic language and literature became necessary elements in the liberal education of wealthy Roman families, and Greek rhetoricians settled in the Capital as teachers of youth. Various attempts were indeed made by the more conservative to exclude foreign ideas, but authority was powerless to stay the tide of invasion. In 161 B.C. a decree was issued by the Senate for banishing philosophers from Rome, but six years later (155) we hear of the famous embassy of philosophers sent from Athens to obtain remission of a tax. As late indeed as 93 B.C. we read of another decree against what was called the "New Learning," which had already become fashionable and was welcomed by the best spirits in the Capital. The natural bent of the Roman mind was towards practical affairs, and, therefore, Rome never developed a philosophy of its own, and its men of culture simply became the exponents of the newly-imported systems of Athens. But the Roman was impatient of abstract speculation, and it was the practical side of philosophy which attracted attention. While the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle were little cultivated in the west, the moral philosophy of Zeno and Epicurus found numerous adherents. One of the greatest works of Roman literature, the poem of Lucretius, was the direct outcome of Epicurean philosophy, though it was not the ethical view so much as the physical theory of atoms that attracted Lucretius. The Academy in its more sceptical phase had a more eminent advocate in Cicero, whose work, De Officiis, presents Greek philosophy, especially the teaching of the Stoic Panaetius, in a Roman dress.



  It was, however, in the sphere of Law and Jurisprudence that the independent contribution of Rome to the development of thought was mainly made, and consequently the influence of Cicero was felt most profoundly in his treatment of the legal aspects of morality. Stoicism, by its high conception of law, lent itself peculiarly to this form of thought, and it became the philosophic basis of that system of Jurisprudence which is Rome's gift to the world.

No one was more instrumental in accommodating Stoicism to Roman life than Panaetius of Rhodes (about 180-110 B.C.), who was a friend of Polybius the historian, and also of Scipio and Laelius. Panaetius, like all the later Stoics, regarded almost exclusively the practical bearings of philosophy. He was something of an Eclectic, and did not hesitate to mingle the teachings of Plato and Aristotle with the tenets of Zeno.

Posidonius, a Syrian (130-50 B.C.), maintained the same intercourse with Rome, and pursued the same Eclectic tendencies as his master. Cicero and Pompey are said to have attended his lectures at Rhodes. Strabo calls him the most learned man of his times.

It was not uncommon at this time for some wealthy man of culture to maintain a philosopher in his house. Of this custom Cato is an instance, and on the night before his suicide he and his domestic spiritual adviser discussed the paradox,—that the wise man alone is free. Cato is often cited as the typical Roman Stoic, and even when there was little acquaintance with the philosophical tenets of Stoicism there was in the general character of the noblest spirits of the period a sternness of mood and a sublimity of virtue which were doubtless the outcome of Stoic influence. From Cato to Marcus Aurelius we find an immense diffusion of the principles and practices of the Stoics.

But in its transference to Roman soil, Stoicism underwent a change. Instead of being, as it originally was, a theory of ideal virtue, it became in the hands of its Roman representatives a doctrine of deliverance and redemption. While the earlier Stoics were occupied with the theoretic questions as to the ideal of wisdom, its adherents in Rome were more concerned with the practical realization of wisdom.

Passing over the few and unimportant philosophical efforts of the last century of the Roman republic, which were mostly of an eclectic and sceptical character, as manifested in the atomic theory of Lucretius and the more literary and political studies of Cicero (106-43) and Varrus (116-27), we may mention the earliest outstanding names of the imperial period.

1. Seneca (3-65 A.D.) was born at Cordova in Spain. He came early to Rome, but just as he was attaining to celebrity he was banished to Corsica by the Emperor Claudius. After eight years' exile he was recalled by the influence of Agrippina, who made him tutor to her son, the future Emperor Nero. These years of banishment seemed to tinge his life and thought if not with bitterness at least with melancholy. Seneca has been most differently estimated, according as he has been judged at his best or his worst. In the Museum at Naples may be seen a fresco, recovered from Pompeii, representing a butterfly acting as a charioteer to a dragon. The design is meant to caricature the relation of Seneca to his pupil. He may have attempted to hold in the reins of license, but they were too strong for him. It is also probable that he sometimes connived at vice, and not seldom pandered to Nero's weaknesses. He has been charged with complicity in the murder of Agrippina and with the accumulation of wealth by unworthy means. Whether these charges are true or not, it must be admitted that his was a difficult position, and that neither physically nor morally was he endowed with those qualities which fit a man for a heroic part. If we judge him not so much by his outward life as by the sentiments of his letters, we shall see that he possessed at least one feature of Stoicism—an intense and no doubt earnest desire for moral improvement. He does not claim to be a sage, but only a seeker after wisdom who has to wage an incessant conflict with the weaknesses of his nature, and who can only hope to gain the victory over himself by constant watching and habitual abstemiousness. The picture of the inner life of Seneca—his daily efforts after self-discipline, his untiring asceticism, his expressed enthusiasm for all that is true and of good report—a picture often marred by pedantry and vain conceit—stands as a contrast to the voluptuousness and vice of the higher classes of his day. The conscious desire for moral progress is easily perverted, and is apt to degenerate into minute and morbid self-analysis. While a comparison has often been drawn between the teaching of Seneca and the doctrines of Christianity, and in many respects the similarity is striking, in one aspect at least the contrast is not less notable—the difference between Seneca's views of death and the hereafter and those of the Gospel. Seneca is constantly speaking of death, and all his writings are shadowed by the thought of it. But everywhere there is an absence of hope. And the only temper which he commends in view of the end which sooner or later awaits all is one of fearless indifference. He even approves of suicide when the trials of life can no longer be worthily borne. 'Death,' he says, 'is either an end or a transition.' In any case there is nothing to fear. He himself met his end with fortitude and in anticipation of that tranquillity of mind and freedom from care which, he said "await us when we shall have got away from these dregs of existence into the sublime condition on high."

2. Epictetus, the slave philosopher, who lived in the time of Domitian, offers in every respect a contrast to Seneca. In him we pass from the florid and sentimental rhetorician to the pious devotee. No writings of Epictetus remain, but a faithful record of his conversations has been preserved by Arrian, the historian. He was born in Hierapolis in Phrygia, and was brought to Rome as a slave in the court of Nero. While yet a slave he became a Stoic, and on obtaining his freedom taught at Rome and afterwards in Greece. What is most striking about his discourses is their religious spirit. In them Stoicism reaches its climax and attains almost a Christian character. There is nothing speculative in his reflections. Philosophy for him is a means of comfort rather than an intellectual discipline. He lays stress on the impossibility of finding the wise man in actual experience, and he regards philosophy as the source of help and salvation amid the imperfections of life. Character, at the best, is but an approximation to virtue, and the wisdom which is to heal the ills of the world is not to be found by dialectic subtlety so much as by practice and self-discipline. The soul, conscious of weakness, depends less upon philosophic acumen than upon fellowship with God. His words often present a striking coincidence with the language of the New Testament. He repeatedly speaks of Divine Providence, and commends purity, submission and forgiveness of injuries. Perhaps the main feature of his philosophy is the emphasis he lays upon the power of the will and the distinction he draws between the things that are within our command and the things that are beyond our control. The body, outward possessions and worldly fame are beyond our power. But nothing can touch the will.

3. Marcus Aurelius (121-180), the Emperor, was as exalted as Epictetus was humble. In his Meditations he strips Stoicism of its sterner aspects and invests it with a warmth and fervour of emotion which gives it the character of a religion rather than a philosophy. "To reverence the gods and help men" is his summary of a good life, and his philanthropy contains an element of sympathy and tenderness towards weakness which is alien to the somewhat cold and rigid spirit of the earlier Stoics.

In Marcus Aurelius we see for the first time Plato's desire fulfilled—a philosopher on the throne. But the philosophy of the Emperor did not add to his political influence. Instead of helping him to transform the world by bringing him into contact with its needs, it withdrew him from men into the seclusion of self-scrutiny and divine communion. While the Emperor was intent upon the salvation of his own soul, the affairs of the State were neglected. He sought to be just to all, but by a remarkable lack of insight into character, he was a prey to unscrupulous advisers, and with all his general clemency, he lent his authority to one of the fiercest persecutions of Christianity which stain the imperial age.

There is so much that is noble and exalted in the teaching of these Roman Stoics, so much indeed that is in harmony with the Ethics of Christianity, that the question has frequently been discussed as to whether Stoicism did not borrow some of its sentiments from the precepts of Christ: and it has been maintained by some, but wholly without evidence, that Seneca actually came into contact with St. Paul, and became familiar with the tenets of the Gospel through intercourse with the Apostle or some of his friends.

As we have seen, Roman law was largely shaped by Stoicism, and partly through the spread of jurisprudence and under the influence of later Roman writers that ancient system of morals, which took its rise in Greece, but assumed in the West a practical cast, has left its mark on history and modern life. In its preference for the joys of the inner life and its scorn of the delights of sense; in its emphasis upon the duty and responsibility of the individual and its conception of the power of the will; in its disregard of all national restrictions and its advocacy of a common humanity and brotherhood of man, together with its belief in the direct relation of each human soul to God—Stoicism in the Roman Empire not only showed how high Paganism at its best could reach, but it proved in a measure a preparation for Christianity, with whose practical tenets, in spite of its imperfections and onesidedness, it had so much in common.

2. Greek philosophy spread, however, not only westwards to Rome, but eastwards and southwards to Syria and Egypt; and in both directions it assumed a religious form. While it was the practical teaching of the Stoics which naturally attracted the western mind, it was rather the mystical idealism of Plato that appealed to the spirit of the east.

Everywhere a feeling of dissatisfaction, of which Greek scepticism was the philosophic expression, was manifesting itself throughout the Roman world. The ideal which philosophy had conceived could not be realized in any human being, and it was felt, not in Rome alone, but everywhere, that man in his own strength could attain neither to knowledge nor to virtue. The old desire for sensuous pleasure gave place to a new craving for purer joy, and a deep yearning for something more than this world offered became the urgent need of the soul. Men were beginning to turn to the religions of the east, and especially to Judaism and to the religion of Christ, for the satisfaction of that deep heart-hunger which philosophy of itself could not meet, and it was hoped that by a combination of Greek thought with oriental worship, peace might be attained and the riddle of being solved.

The centre of this new movement was Alexandria, the meeting-place of the east and the west, the focus of Greek culture and oriental enthusiasm. Here Greek and oriental spirits met and commingled; method and ecstasy were interwoven, scientific exactitude and poetic mysticism were united in a complex system which at once completed and exhausted ancient philosophy.

The name generally given to the philosophy which arose in Alexandria is Neo-Platonism, from the attempt of its representatives to combine the systematizing of Plato with the mysticism of the east.

The first effort to unite Greek thought with Hebrew religion was made by Philo—the great Jewish commentator —who sought to find higher philosophic meanings in the ancient Scriptures. He may be regarded as the precursor of the Alexandrian school. He was born shortly before the beginning of the Christian era, and was, therefore, a contemporary of Jesus. Many legends have gathered around his name,—among others, that he came to Rome in the reign of Claudius, and there met the Apostle Peter. He was a prolific author, many of his works being still extant. His principal treatises are—De Mundi Opificio; De Praemiis et Poenis; Quod Deus sit Immutabilis. He seeks to expound Scripture in the light of Plato and to discover an allegorical significance in the ancient records of Moses and the prophets. In his teaching there is a sharp antithesis between God and the world. To God we may attach none of the predicates which characterize finite things. There can be no action of God upon the world of matter except through intermediate agents, which are the angels of the Jewish religion, and the demons of heathen mythology. The conception of the Logos has a central place in Philo's system. The Logos is the power of God, or the divine reason, endowed with energy and comprehending in itself all subordinate powers. The Logos is conceived of as personal in its relation to the world and yet as impersonal in relation to God. He is the only first born of God, the chief of the angels, the viceroy of God and representative of man. The world is not created at once, but is gradually moulded out of matter. Hence arises evil. Souls are pre-existent, and are imprisoned in flesh. The end of life is to break the thraldom of the senses and to rise by a sort of ecstasy to the immediate vision of God. Philo inaugurated a school of philosophy, which existed for centuries, as a rival of Christian faith, and much of his teaching was gradually incorporated into the creeds of the church. Following the example of Philo, the Gnostics sought to harmonize the Apostolic traditions with the ideas of Greek philosophy and to change faith (πίστις) into a special kind of knowledge (γνῶσις). The term "Gnosticism" is applied to all these sects, which, during the first three centuries, endeavoured to introduce into Christianity a so-called higher knowledge, founded partly on the philosophy of Plato and still more on the religions of the east, especially those of Persia and of India.

The earlier forms of this teaching appeared in the Apostolic age, and are dealt with by St. Paul and St. John in the Epistles to the Colossians, Timothy and Titus, and in the Revelation. The chief representatives were Basilides of Alexandria (125-140 A.D.), Carpocrates, Valentinus, Marcion, and Tatian. Gnosticism had many features in common with Philo.

"There is a body of men," says Irenaeus, "who set aside the truth, putting in its place fables and vain genealogies which, as the apostle says, minister questionings rather than godly edifying, which is in faith. They wickedly pervert the good words of Scripture. They destroy the faith of many, leading them astray by the pretence of 'knowledge' (γνῶσις) from Him who hath established and adorned the universe, claiming to reveal something higher and greater than God, the Maker of heaven and earth and all that is therein."

These words, with which Irenaeus begins his Refutation of Heresy, indicate the main features of the Gnostic sects in the second century. Their theology was not a connected system, but was embedded in a fantastic cosmogony: their exegesis was fanciful: they claim to possess a special doctrine or Gnosis only revealed to the initiated, and between the Supreme Being and the world they interposed a number of spiritual powers or Aeons, attributing the creation of the visible universe to a subordinate agent, the Demiurge. That a doctrine of this kind was inconsistent with Christian truth and in practice led to antinomian licence or to asceticism is true, and we are not surprised that the Bishop of Lyons should warn his flock against these "wolves in sheep's clothing," as he calls them.


  Against such attempts to rationalize Christianity a reaction set in, and men like Justin Martyr (beheaded 166 A.D.), who has been described as "the first among the fathers who may be called a learned theologian and Christian thinker"; Irenaeus, of Lyons (b. A.D. 115), whose most important work is his Refutation of Gnosticism; Hippolytus, the greatest scholar of the Church next to Origen, his chief work being Philosophumena, or Refutation of all Heresies—sought to vindicate the Christian faith.

It was not, however, till the beginning of the third century that a positive Christian theology was established, which took its rise in the school for Catechists at Alexandria through its founders, Pantaenus, Clement (b. A.D. 150), and Origen (b. 185).

Origen was the great master of the Alexandrian school, and philosophically the most important representative of Christianity of early times. He was a profound thinker and scholar. His great critical work is his Hexapla or Sixfold Bible, while his most famous theological work is his treatise against Celsus, composed about 248, the most complete defence of Christianity belonging to the anteNicene period. His theological system contains strange doctrines as to the eternity of creation by the logos; the pre-existence of all souls: the power of free will and the extension of the work of redemption to the inhabitants of the stars and to all rational creatures; and the final restoration of all men and fallen angels.

Contemporary with Origen there went forth from the Alexandrian philosophic school the man who sought to erect a philosophy of religion solely upon the Hellenic basis—Plotinus, the greatest thinker of this period. His aim was to systematize the main doctrines of Greek philosophy under a religious principle, and his system is the most thorough and most complete that antiquity produced. He was a disciple of Ammonius Saccas (died 245 A.D.), of whom we know nothing beyond the fact that he was one of the first who expounded Plato in Alexandria. Plotinus (204-269 A.D.) was a native of Egypt, but after a life of adventure he settled as teacher in Rome. Inspired with oriental fanaticism he set forth his views in brief, irregular tractates, which were afterwards edited by Porphyry (in six Enniads), his most celebrated pupil and biographer.

The Emperor Galienus and the greatest men of Rome regarded his teaching as a message from heaven, and venerated him as a prophet.

To overcome the dualism between subject and object or between matter and thought, the world and God was the problem which Greek philosophy had bequeathed to humanity. This had been the aim of the Platonic ideas as well as of the practical systems that had flown from him. Platonism strove to reach a final God, in whom all distinctions are abolished. For Plato the highest good lay in transcending the world of matter and attaining peace in a life of pure thought. This object, which was largely theoretic or intellectual with Plato, became the practical aim of the Neoplatonists. Plotinus professes to carry out the system of Plato to its logical conclusion and to find in the One—the Supreme Being, that unity of thought and life after which all reflection is striving. The way of salvation is to outgrow the life of the senses, to exterminate the bodily desires and seek by communion with God purity and blessedness of spirit.

He held that the knowledge of truth cannot be gained by proof, but only by the seeker becoming one with the object of his search. The highest stage of cognition is the vision of God, in which separation between the subject and object, the soul and deity, is obliterated. Variety and unity are but opposite aspects of existence—the various phenomena of the universe but modes of the divine being. He who would attain to a perfect union with the Supreme must seek, by means of swoon and trance, to be absorbed in the infinite. It is this mystical absorption into the divine which gives the distinctive character to Neo-platonism.

The fundamental conception of Plotinus' theory is a kind of Emanistic Pantheism. He regards the world as an overflow or diffusion of the divine life, and a reabsorption in God, the goal of existence.

1. Plotinus starts with the notion of God, whom he variously describes, now the First, now the One, and now the Good. This unity transcends all being—it produces all things, yet is produced by none. It is the source of all thought without being intelligence itself. It is the principle of goodness without being good. To attribute any of these attributes to God is to limit his perfection. In the strictest sense he can neither strive nor will, for there is nothing desirable outside of himself. He is complete rest, perfect peace, pure being. All that we can say of God is that He is above all thought. Every affirmation limits, every definition diminishes His perfection. We cannot even say He exists. The moment we give expression to our thoughts about Him He eludes our grasp and vanishes into nothingness. We cannot express the highest. With Goethe, Plotinus would have said God is the great unutterable.

2. But the question now arises, How are we to account for the world which we see? Plotinus is unable to rest in this pure abstraction, and finds it necessary to assume some kind of breaking up of the pure unity of God into the manifold of the world. Hence he explains that created things come from the primal one—not by transference of the nature of the one to the many, not by an act of will nor a principle of causation,—but by a process which he calls Emanation. The world is an effluence of God, in such a way that the remotest emanation possesses a lower degree of perfection than that which precedes it. Fire emits heat, snow cold, fragrant bodies exhale odours, and every thing, as well as every organized being, generates what is like it. In the same manner the all-perfect being, in the fulness of his perfection, sends off from itself that which is like itself, in successive images or reflections. Plato had already used the figure of the sun and its radiating beams of light to express the relation of the one to the many. And Plotinus borrows this metaphor. The visible world is an absolute counterpart of the heavenly source of being. Like the sun, the infinite light radiates into the fathomless distances of space, sowing the seeds of worlds and planets: itself always full, yet always giving forth its influences, itself impalpable, pure, sheer flame without admixture, yet the cause of the light and warmth and existence wherever its beams can reach: touching the lowest dregs of matter, penetrating into the dimmest depths, immanent everywhere, yet transcending all things.

But obviously there are many difficulties in connection with the genesis of the world which the theory of radiation or emanation does not explain. Was the plurality of the world which the One discharges from itself originally contained in the One or not? If so, then the One cannot be strictly one,—the pure repose which Plotinus assumes. If the world is not originally in the One, how could it give forth that which it did not possess? The difficulty is got over by Plotinus, by attributing to the One both transcendence and immanence. It is everywhere, yet nowhere,—originative yet pervasive.

3. The first emanation from the one is the Nous or Reason—the image of the One,—and being next to it possessing the greatest perfection—scarcely less than the primal essence itself. As the product of the One, the image turns towards the One to grasp it, and in this 'turning' it becomes reason, which implies by its very nature a dual element,—a knowing subject and a known object. The Nous therefore includes within itself the world of ideas.

Everything that exists in the visible world has its corresponding idea or prototype. Each one of us realizes a distinct idea, and there are as many ideas as individuals. These ideas are not, however, merely thoughts, but moving powers. Hence they propagate themselves, and give rise to the world of phenomena.

4. From Reason again there radiates forth the World-Soul. And just as the Nous is the image of the One, so the world-soul is the image of the Nous. This world-soul is the mediator between the ideas and the corporeal world. It shares both. Receiving the contents of the spirit by reflection, it forms them after its image into the world of sensible things. Matter is thus the last emanation, and even it retains something,—a faint far-off reflection—of the primitive light.

Individual souls, like the soul of the world, are a compound of matter and reason. They belong to the highest element of reason, but by a mysterious fate they are imprisoned in a world of sense, and are ever striving to regain their proper sphere. Creation is thus represented by Plotinus as a descent or degeneration from the divine. The union of the human soul with a material body— which, as the complete antithesis of the primal essence, is the source of all evil—is a fall, and it is our vocation by the conquest of new desires, through devotion, contemplation and asceticism, to regain our own original home.

5. As there has been a descent, so there must be an ascent, and the soul must retrace its steps upwards again to God. We must mortify the senses, rid ourselves of the restrictions of matter and find our true life again in the divine.

The Ethical system of Plotinus reminds us partly of Plato and partly of Stoicism. The end of human life is the purification of the soul. Three roads lead to God— art, love, and philosophy—one path with three stages. The upward way is slow. We are not fitted at once for the full enjoyment of heaven. We must be gradually prepared by the contemplation of beautiful things, by intercourse with beautiful souls, and finally by meditation on beautiful and holy thoughts for final union with God. Beauty in art, nay living beauty itself, is but a pale reflection of absolute beauty. We may refuse the higher life and may elect to live in bondage to the senses, with the result that we shall sink lower and lower, and may be sent back into the bodies of animals or even plants. This doctrine of retribution implies freedom on the part of the soul. Each man is indeed the author of his own fate. The true goal of life is only reached when the soul loses all thought, desire, and activity; when, in short, the enraptured spirit loses the consciousness of individuality and attains ideal blessedness in the embrace of the Supreme Being.

Primal Essence, Pure Intelligence, the World-Soul— these constitute the Plotinian triad, which are connected with each other as the successive stages of an eternal emanation.

The one watchword of Neoplatonism is Continuity. The doctrine of Emanation professes to solve the irreconcilable antithesis of God and the world, spirit and matter, mover and moved—the perennial problem of philosophy. It does not posit an artificer, nor even a material substratum. The world is to be regarded as the body of the Almighty, the incarnation of his inmost thought. There is no abyss yawning between the creator and the created. All being is one—a permanent outflow of the fulness of divinity. The one becomes the many in order that the many may become the one. Thought forms an eternal cycle. It goes forth and comes back. There is no breach, no cataclysm anywhere. By almost imperceptible gradations heaven and earth are united, and the lowest form of matter is connected with the inmost essence of God. The problem of alienation, of duality, of estrangement, is solved. If the question be asked, how can man be reconciled with God?—the answer of Plotinus is—he has never been separated.

The monism of Neoplatonism is the last word of Greek philosophy. The spirit of inquiry comes back to where it began. The duality of God and the world is not really solved. The many is simply merged in the one. This bare contentless abstraction, which has no movement or actuality in itself, which is only to be grasped by the annihilation of self and the arrestment and negation of thought, is the practical dissolution of ancient philosophy.

Neoplatonism spread itself wherever the Greek tongue was spoken, but with its extension its decline went hand in hand. Towards the end of the fourth century it changed its character without essentially modifying its principles. Among the successors of Plotinus the search for truth was gradually subordinated to the interests of religion. Philosophy became the opponent of Christianity and the palladium of the persecuted gods. Everything Pagan was regarded as good, and to promote polytheism at all hazards was her desperate task. We need not dwell upon those who took up the mantle of Plotinus. Porphyry (233-305) was his immediate disciple and the faithful expounder of his teaching. He too was a fierce antagonist of Christianity. Among the few surviving defenders of the dying polytheistic faith we may mention two here— Iamblichus of Chalcis and Proclus of Byzantium, who bring the history of ancient philosophy to a close.

Iamblichus, a pupil of Porphyry (died 333), sought to introduce a magical element into Neoplatonism, teaching that certain mystical symbols exercised a supernatural influence over the divinities. From the school of one of his disciples, Maximus, came the Emperor Julian, whose patronage shed a passing lustre over the doctrines of Neoplatonism.

Proclus (412-485) was the last of the Neoplatonists worthy of mention. He was a man of great learning and enthusiastic temperament, also strongly opposed to Christianity. In its success he saw only the triumph of a vulgar superstition over a beautiful philosophic theory. He piously held to the old traditions, and built upon the basis of oriental daemonology his theosophic system, "a veritable pantheon of heathen dogmas and philosophies." He begins like Plotinus with the One, but does not immediately deduce from it the nous. The many-sided world is not so much deduced from the One as contained in it. The many is the negative of the One, and God is conceived as the Being without negation or limitation. Proclus also speaks of a Trinity, but it differs from the triad of Plotinus. The three moments are, the One, the Infinite, and the Limited, or identity, difference, and union. This Trinity is the explanation of the world. Everything is threefold. The logic of thought is the logic of the universe. Therefore, to know the nature of one's own mind is to know the whole universe. The idea of Proclus, as will be seen, exercised a profound influence upon later German speculation, especially upon the philosophy of Hegel.

The three essential points of Neoplatonism are: its theory of the Trinity, its doctrine of Emanation, and its belief in Asceticism. Its later representatives, Isodorus, Damascius, and Simplicius, tended to magic, thaumaturgy, and theosophy. Under the Emperor Justinian, by whose edict all Pagan philosophies were suppressed, Neoplatonism ceased to exist as a school. Its exponents neglected the experimental sciences, and strove by annihilation of self and mystic absorption to attain to union with the Absolute. At the same time Neoplatonism had much in common with Christianity, and had no little part in shaping the theology of the mediaeval Christian thinkers.

Stoicism, Epicureanism, Scepticismo                              The Patristic Period - Philosophy of the Middle Ages



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