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In Our Time: Neoplatonism

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 16:17, Friday, 20 April 2012

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Enjoyed this as much as the IOT on Heraclitus.Adamson excellentspeaker. Camus completed his licence de philosophie (BA) in 1935; in May 1936, he successfully presented his thesis on Plotinus, Néo-Platonisme et Pensée Chrétienne (Neo-Platonism and Christian Thought), for his diplôme d'études supérieures (roughly equivalent to an M.A.thesis).Plotinus spoke of union with the One,but Plato spoke of glimpsing the Form of the Good. St Augustine joined Plato to the mystic Christ of St Paul and the God of the Psalms.He derived from Plato and Plotinus, and made Christian,the idea of the soul as a huge dark reservoir of potential power in which truth and light must be ceaselessly, momently sought.We are changed by love and pursuit of what we only partly see and understand.This activity is our awareness of our world. The religious significance of metaphysical ideas of ‘the One’ and ‘the many’. The idea of an ‘ultimate reality’ is one found throughout religiously oriented philosophical systems,the presumptions led thinkers in different traditions to insist on the ineffability and immanence of the One through mysticism. Russell: "To the Christian, the Other World was the Kingdom of Heaven, to be enjoyed after death; to the Platonist, it was the eternal world of ideas, the real world as opposed to that of illusory appearance. Christian theologians combined these points of view, and embodied much of the philosophy of Plotinus.Plotinus, accordingly, is historically important as an influence in moulding the Christianity of the Middle Ages and of Catholic theology. Augustine promotes the idea of a connection between God and the rest of the world." Camus identified with the idea that a personal experience could become a reference point for his philosophical and literary writings. Although he considered himself an atheist, Camus later came to tout the idea that the absence of religious belief can simultaneously beaccompanied by a longing for "salvation and meaning".The nobler part of the soul sought for knowledge of reality through what Plato called Ideas,universal rational conceptions or sources of enlightenment

  • Comment number 2.

    The essentially devotional nature of Plotinus' philosophy may be further illustrated by his concept of attaining ecstatic union with the One (henosis see Iamblichus). Porphyry relates that Plotinus attained such a union four times during the years he knew him.This may be related to enlightenment, liberation, and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions.Real happiness comes from the capacity of Reason, independent of the physical world,true happiness is metaphysical, non-corporeal.Eudaimonea for Plotinus is "...a flight from this world's ways and things," and a focus on the highest, i.e. Forms and The One.I was thinking about Camus’ identification with Plotinus,mentioned also in The Myth of Sisyphus,as well as his descriptions of Algiers:his atheism has a religious aspect in its intensity.Porphyry,the advocate of Plotinus’ life and work,castigates Christianity.However.Plotinus also with his idea of The One and the Trinity of The One,the Intellect and The Soul parallels Christianity and all the monotheistic faiths. For Plotinus, philosophy was not only a matter of abstract speculation but also a way of life and a religion. His works strongly influenced early Christian theology.Camus states(Sisyphus) that Plotinus turned reason away from contradiction to integrate it in the strangest,quite magic, one of participation:it is an instrument of thought and not thought itself,an early phenomenologist.
    The One, being beyond all attributes including being and non-being, is the source of the world—but not through any act of creation, willful or otherwise, since activity cannot be ascribed to the unchangeable, immutable One. Plotinus argues instead that the multiple cannot exist without the simple. The "less perfect" must, of necessity, "emanate", or issue forth, from the "perfect" or "more perfect". Thus, all of "creation" emanates from the One in succeeding stages of lesser and lesser perfection.Russell called him the last of the great philosophers of antiquity. Russell said the central vision of the great philosophers are essentially simple.Salvation was an essential part of Plotinus’s teachings and preaching.Remember Camus words from paragraph 1?

  • Comment number 3.

    I enjoyed the programme - as I do almost every week - but sometimes, as in this case, a seemingly trivial thing interferes with the pleasure. I wonder whether the experts are screened not just for their expertise but also for their ability to articulate it. Sometimes we have the um and ah and er types but in this case it was the intensely irritating intrusion of Peter Adamson's rising terminals. It's bad enough when they occur at the ends of sentences, but he uses them for phrases, clauses and sometimes individual words, too. I know enquiry is the basis of all intellectual activity but in a programme designed to enlighten, a delivery which sounds full of perpetual questions is unsettling.

  • Comment number 4.

    In all fairness to that which actually transpired, Peter Adamson's dialogue was heard to be both far less disjointed and p_unsettlinguistically than that of any of the other three persons taking part in the programme. Bill Kirton may like to ponder the fact that Peter was raised in but a decided democracy and not that of an adamant aristocracy, perhaps well-explaining his innate intonation's narking need of rising "roily" to the occasion. I too enjoyed the propounded programme as time well spent.

  • Comment number 5.

    What else other than godly going ons could thunderings and weepy rains,etc, be, in the aftermath of the form of a single deity outside of things to do things inside of them us aweful folk can't do. Both so plotinustic in reasoning spirit and wonderfully born again, bob vivant Neanderthal.

  • Comment number 6.

    I thought the panel members sounded a little uncomfortable when they were asked to discuss Oneness. As well, I felt the message they were conveying was that the concept belonged only in the distant past where it had occasionally been experienced by a few (eccentric?) philosophers and mystics. There was no mention of Oneness as an ongoing human phenomenon. However,according to Abraham Maslow, a professor of psychology writing in the 60s, "peak experiences", his term for “feeling at one with the universe”, have always been with us. In his studies he cites numerous individuals, including himself, as evidence. A Google search proves he is right. Current descriptions of the phenomenon of Unity, exactly as experienced by Plotinus, can be found surprisingly frequently in the blogosphere. The accounts are written by a range of seemingly ordinary people, most of whom seek an explanation. It is these up-to- date descriptions of the mystery that is Oneness, that enable us to clarify a couple of aspects discussed, but not resolved, on the programme. Firstly, Oneness occurs spontaneously. It is fleeting and happens, by most accounts, only once in a lifetime. Those who write of the experience are profoundly and positively affected by it. Interestingly, none say they were actively seeking it, nor can any of them explain why it happened to them. It follows, of course, that the way to Oneness is random and there is no guarantee that it can be taught. Secondly, to experience Oneness is to feel merged with the universe where time is irrelevant. This seamless merging brings with it intense love and the knowledge that we are all one wondrous thing with “the universe unfolding as it should”. Within this merging, however, there is no sense of a loss of self. Although part of a whole, throughout the experience, you remain aware of exactly who you are.


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