Academic Article

Plato, Platonism, and Neo-platonism

     Download PDF version of article (32 KB)

Key words:
Neoplatonism, Syriac, Plotinus, Plato, Republic, Phaedo, Symposium, Aristotelian, Stoic, neo-Pythagorean, Enneads, Nous (intellect), methaphysics, Platonists, creatio ex nihilo, the World Soul, Laws, Sophist, Timaeus, history of ideas in Islam, al‑Madina al-Fadila (The Virtuous City), Corpus Platonicum, Tandhib al-akhlaq (The Cultivation of Morals), Ibn Miskawayh, Liber de Causis (Kitab al-Khayr al-Mahd), al-Kindi, Ikhwan al-Safa’, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Sijistani, al-Kirmani, Suhrawardi, Ibn ‘Arabi, Mullainfo-icon Sadra.
Plato, Platonism and Neo-platonism

Neoplatonism was a philosophical movement that primarily belonged to the Hellenist Alexandrian and Syriac schools of thought. Its founder, Plotinus (ca. 205-270 CE), an Egyptian of Greek culture, was pro­foundly influenced by Plato’s Republic, Phaedo, and Symposium, as well as being inspired by Aristotelian, Stoic, and neo-Pythagorean doctrines. Plotinus’ own monumental corpus, the Enneads, was partly drafted in response to the objections raised by Aristotle against Plato’s theory of ideas. Therein, Plotinus ar­gued that the Platonic forms subsist in what Aristotle referred to as Nous (intellect). Giving a metaphysical primacy to abstract ideas, the realm of the intelligible was construed as being the ground of the ultimate reality, which was radically independent from sensible beings. This ontology led to a belief in the existence of absolute values rooted in eternity. Further elabora­tions of Plotinus’s teachings were undertaken by his disciple, Porphyry of Tyre (ca. 232-305 CE), and were supplemented by the work of the latter’s pupil, the Syrian Iamblichus (ca. 250-330 CE). However, Proclus (ca. 411-485 CE) introduced the most rigor­ous systematization of this tradition.

The impetus of Neoplatonism in philosophy confronted many chal­lenges following the closing of the Athenian Academy (ca. 526 CE) by the Roman Emperor Justinian. The momentum of this tradition was renewed with the philosophers of the medieval Muslim civilization who imbued it with monotheistic directives. Follow­ing Socrates, in a critique of the Sophists, Platonists believed that knowledge cannot be derived from appearances alone, and that it can only be properly attained through universal ideas. Heeding the medita­tions of Parmenides, they held that the realm of being was unchanging, eternal, and indestructible; while following Heraclitus, they took the sensible realm as being subject to a constant flux of transformational becoming. Establishing a distinction between truth and belief, they asserted that the intelligible was apprehended by reason and the sensible by mere opinion. With this Platonist heritage, the ethical code of goodness became a cosmological principle.

Eventually, Neo-Platonists held that The One, as the indeterminate perfection of absolute unity, simplicity, and goodness, imparts existence from itself due to its superabundance. This event was grasped as being a process of emanation that accentuated the primacy of Divine transcendence over creation and represented an alternate explication of generation that challenged the creatio ex nihilo doctrine. Endowed with vision, the One, as the First undiminished Source of exis­tence, imparts Nous, the immanent changeless Intel­lect, as its own Image. From this effused Nous issues forth the World Soul, which acts as a transition be­tween the realm of ideas and that of the senses. Refracting itself in materiality, the Soul generates all sensible composite beings, while matter represents the last station in the hierarchy of existence as the unreal substratum of the phenomenal universe. Emanation, as a processional descent, was itself to be followed by an ascent that expressed the longing of the rational soul to return to its Source and a yearning to inhabit the realm of ideas. This reversible movement acted as the basis of the moral code of the Neoplatonist system, which advocated a dualist sepa­ration of mind and body, as well as affirmed the immortality of the soul.

Philosophers in medieval Islam came to know Plato through the Arabic translations of his Laws, Sophist, Timaeus, and Republic. His influence on the history of ideas in Islam is most felt in the domains of ethics and political philosophy, whereby his views offered possibilities for reconciling pagan philosophy with monotheistic religion in the quest for truth and the unveiling of the ultimate principles of reality. His Republic and Laws presented an appealing legislative model that inspired political thought in Islam, particularly the line in thinking that is attested in al-Farabi’s (ca. 870-950 CE) treatise al‑Madina al-Fadila (The Virtuous City), which gave prominence to the role played by philosophy in setting the legal arrangements and mores of the ideal Islamic polity. The Corpus Platonicum also impressed humanists like Ibn Miskawayh (ca. 940-1030 CE), who, in his Tahdhib al-akhlaq (The Cultivation of Morals) espoused the Platonic tripartite conception of the soul, along with its ethical-political ramifica­tions. As for the Neoplatonist doctrines, these found their way into the intellectual history of Islam through Plato’s dialogues, as well as being channeled via the tracts known as Aristotle’s Theology and Liber de Causis (Kitab al-Khayr al-Mahd). Although both texts were erroneously attributed to Aristotle, the former reproduced fragments from Plotinus’s Enneads, and the latter rested on Proclus’ Elements of Theology. This misguiding textual transmission led to imbuing Aristotelianism with Neoplatonist leitmo­tifs, which impacted the thinking of authorities such as al-Kindi (d. ca. 873 CE), Ikhwan al-Safa’ (tenth century CE), al-Farabi (d. ca. 950 CE), and Ibn Sina (d. 1037 CE), who in their turn influenced the onto-theological systems of al-Sijistani (d. 971 CE), al-Kirmani (d. 1020 CE), Suhrawardi (d. 1191 CE), Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240 CE), and Mulla Sadra (d. 1640 CE).

Primary Sources

al-Farabi (Alfarabius). De Platonis Philosophia. Edited by Franz Rosenthal and Richard Walzer. London: The Warburg Institute, University of London, 1943.

Galenus, Claudius. Compendium Timaei Platonis. Edited by Paul Krauss and Richard Walzer. London: The War­burg Institute, University of London, 1951.

Plato. Plato Arabus. Edited by Paul Krauss and Richard Walzer. London: The Warburg Institute, University of London, 1943.

Further Reading

Krauss, Paul. “Plotin chez les arabes.” Bulletin de 1’Institut d’Égypte 23 (1941): 236-295.

Netton, Ian Richard. Muslim Neoplatonists: An Introduc­tion to the Thought of the Brethren of Purity. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1982.

Rosenthal, Franz. “On the Knowledge of Plato’s Philoso­phy in the Islamic World.” Islamic Culture 14 (1940): 398- 402.

Walzer, Richard. “Aflatun.” In The Encyclopaedia of Islam.

Vol I. Leiden: Brill, 1960.

— — Greek into Arabic: Essays in Islamic Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

This article was originally published in Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopaedia, Vol. II, p. 614-616, ed. Josef W. Meri, Routledge (New York-London, 2006).

The school of philosophy that took shape in the 3rd century CE, based on the teachings of Plato and the commentators on his work, received a new intellectual impetus when its texts became available to scholars in the Islamic civilization through translations from Greek to Arabic, starting from...