BBC Radio 4

    In Our Time: Neoplatonism

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    Editor's note: This week Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Neoplatonism, the school of thought founded in the 3rd century AD by the philosopher Plotinus. As always the programmes are available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD


    As I sit here phoning this through, London's skies are full of thunder. It's quite magnificent. Not all that many years ago - say a couple of thousand, or in some places a couple of hundred, or in other places a couple of generations - this thunder would have been explained in what are now thought of as unsustainable terms. The anger of gods. The anger with each other of gods. Gods playing bowls. And so on.

    Since then we have learned quite a lot about thunder, but yet again I wonder whether dismissing the - as it turns out - inaccurate versions of the past does us any good. The really interesting thing is not that they thought that gods were angry with each other, but that they sought an explanation. It's the seeking of explanations that count and not the explanation itself.

    If we think that in five thousand years' time the explanations that we have of the universe will obtain precisely as they are today, then history suggests we're not only arrogant and conceited but silly.

    Neoplatonism held sway in Europe as a system of thought for about twelve to fourteen hundred years, which is far longer than modern science has survived so far. What does that add up to? We shall see. Or rather, we won't, but our descendants - should they survive Martin Rees's ominous apprehensions about the history of survival in this century - will live to discover another tale.

    Enough of that. This philosophy comes on after a rather too good lunch which followed getting soaked nearly to the skin, when I ambled out on a bit of a walk round London after going to see a rough cut and thinking a pleasant thing to do would be to walk down Regent Street, only to be cascaded upon mightily. The gods pouring buckets of water down on us, just for fun, because they must have known that BBC weather forecasts were telling us that we were in a time of severe drought.

    A few highlights from the conversation after the programme. A couple of the contributors were, of course, disappointed that we had not got to talk about the contribution of Neoplatonism to the philosophy of the unconscious. Another guest told the story of how Plotinus had been taken to see his guardian spirit who turned out to be a god, but before he had time to relish this great honour one of his assistants strangled a chicken and the god disappeared.

    Then there were the Christians whom the great disciple, Porphyry, of Plotinus called "a confused and vicious sect". He also called them atheists because they believed in one God and not in many gods. Peter Adamson pointed out that they were thought of at the time rather as some people think of fundamentalist, radical Islamists now, i.e. anything could be done to them because they were so disruptive and terrible.

    However, the Neoplatonists had got hold of them and the Christians had absorbed Neoplatonism to such a degree that when Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor, tried to hold on to his paganism, it just didn't work. Neoplatonism had done its work and Christianity emerged no longer "a confused and vicious sect" but an intellectually respectable and fierce force to be reckoned with, so much so that eventually it was taken over as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

    Sorry about this rather confused message, but I want to get back to listen to the thunder.

    Best wishes

    Melvyn Bragg

    PS: Stop press! Angie Hobbs, who has been on In Our Time more than any other contributor, has just been appointed Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield and will take up the post in September. Congratulations all round. Lucky Sheffield.

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