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Neo-Platonism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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With respect to Augustine's desire to find a viable alternative to theawkward and intractable moral dualism of the Manicheans, there can belittle question that his embracing of Neoplatonism is a positivedevelopment. Not only does it allow him to account for evil withoutsubstantializing it, but it also provides him with a unified accountof the moral drama that constitutes the human condition. Even so, thismetaphysical architectonic is prone to tensions of its own, some ofwhich lend themselves to a kind of moral dualism not altogether unlikethat of the Manicheans.

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At Milan, Augustine was given ëPlatonic books' in a Latintranslation by Marius Victorinus (7.9.13, 8.2.3), and, he says, they changedhis life. The Platonism Augustine encountered at Milan, in books and discussiongroups and Ambrose's preaching, was ëNew Platonism' (Neoplatonism),which set out to explicate Plato in the belief that he had understood theeternal truth and had expounded it in a consistent philosophical systemwhich was passed on by his followers. It required great ingenuity of mindto reconcile Plato's various experiments in thought, Aristotle'scritique, and the arguments of their successors, and many debates continuedamong the New Platonists. Milanese Neoplatonism was very much influencedby the third-century philosopher Plotinus, an impressive ascetic who refusedto give formal philosophical lectures, and by his pupil Porphyry, who revisedPlotinus' brief written records of his thinking and organised theminto groups of nine, the ... The ëPlatonic books'may have included writings by Plotinus and Porphyry: certainly, by the timehe wrote the, Augustine had read some Plotinus and hadbeen profoundly impressed. Plotinus' style, as well as his arguments,is heard in the , both in the tenacious strings of questionswith which Augustine pursues a difficult problem (as in 1.3.3-4.4) and inoccasional flashes of exhortation (as at 1.18.28).

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This has led some to suggest that what is called Thomistic philosophyis an eclectic hodgepodge, not a set of coherent disciplines. Others,struck by the prominence in Thomas of such Platonic notions as participation, have argued that his thought is fundamentally Platonic, not Aristotelian. Still others argue that that there is a radically original Thomistic philosophy which cannot be characterizedby anything it shares with earlier thinkers, particularly Aristotle.

As the history of Classical Greek philosophy shows, this schema leavesopen a number of possibilities in terms of the relation of soul andbody (dualism, hylomorphism, and materialism, to cite some of the moreobvious examples), as well as room for disagreement concerning thesoul's prospect for continued existence upon the dissolution of thebody (Aristotelians tended towards and Epicureans actually embraced amortalist position, whereas Platonists and Stoics were somewhat moreoptimistic). For Augustine, however, it is virtually axiomatic thatthe human soul is both immaterial and immortal. It is worth noting inthis connection that while the Christian scriptural tradition clearlyalludes to the idea of post-mortem existence, the issue of the soul'simmateriality is another matter. It is not obvious that the scripturaltradition requires this, and Tertullian (160–230 C.E.) is aprime example of an early Christian thinker who felt comfortable witha materialist ontology [e.g. Tertullian, De Anima37.6–7]. Thus, while the immortality of the soul is arguably apoint of happy convergence of these two traditions, Augustine'semphasis upon the soul's immateriality, an emphasis that comes to haveenormous historical importance, seems largely a contribution of hisNeoplatonism. As we have seen, he insists upon the soul's mutabilityas being necessary to account for moral progress and deterioration;however, it is also clear that there must be limits to thismutability, and a material soul would not only run counter toNeoplatonic ontology, but it would also impose upon the soul a degreeof vulnerability that would destroy the eudaimonistic promise thatmade the Neoplatonic ontology so attractive in the first place.

The Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino, ..

it is all based on Plotinus' created synthesis, ..

When Augustine was about twenty (4.16.28), he read Aristotle's, a basic text of logical analysis which was available inLatin translation. He found it very clear, but he says it was a furtherobstacle to his thought about God, whom he imagined in Aristotelian categoriesas a subject with attributes, not as greatness itself or beauty itself (4.16.29).He was not, evidently, aware of the Platonist debate on whether the was concerned only with human systems of classification, or whetherit was applicable to all levels of being. He also read more of Cicero'sphilosophical works. Some of Cicero's ethical treatises, especially and , supply him with the materialand the style for ethical analysis in the (for instance,2.6.13), though he does not discuss the effect they had on him when he readthem... As his commitment to Manichaeism weakened, Augustine was impressedby Cicero's ... The ëAcademics' weresuccessors of Plato, who had taught at the house he bought near the shrineof the obscure Athenian hero Akademos. Some of them advocated strict agnosticism:As Augustine put it (5.10.19) ëtheir opinion was that everything mustbe doubted, and they declared that nothing of the truth can be understoodby a human being'. But, he says, he had not yet understood what theymeant, and what this means is that he had read Cicero on the state of philosophicaldebate 400 years earlier, but had not yet encountered the argument thattheir apparent scepticism camouflaged an esoteric teaching of the truthwhich had been expounded by Plato.

But to acknowledge the primary role of Aristotle in Thomas's philosophy is not to deny other philosophical influences. Augustine is a massively important presence. Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Proclus were conduits through which he learned Neo-platonism. There is nothing more obviously Aristotelian about Thomas than his assumption that there is something to be learned from any author and not only mistakes tobe avoided. He definitely adopted many features from non-Aristotelian sources.

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For much of the twentieth century, Aristotelian studies had been conducted under the influence of Werner Jaeger's (1934) evolutionary hypothesis. On this view, Aristotle began as an ardent Platonist for whom the really real lay beyond sensible reality. With maturity, however, came the sober Macedonian empiricism which trained its attention on the things of this world and eschewed all efforts to transcend it. As for the Metaphysics, Jaeger saw it as an amalgam of both theories. The passage just alluded to at the beginning of the work is ascribed to the Platonic phase. Other passages have a far more modest understanding of the range and point of a science over and above natural philosophy and mathematics. Platonice loquendo, there are entities which exist separately from sensible things and they constitute the object of thehigher science. The more sober view finds a role for a science beyondnatural philosophy and mathematics, but it will deal with things those particular sciences leave unattended, e.g. defense of the firstprinciple of reasoning. But these tasks do not call for, and do not imply, a range of beings over and above sensible things.

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