Episode 11: Forgetting the Ideal

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     Plotinus died in 270 at the age of 66; according to Eustochius, a student who was present, his last words were, “I am striving to give back the Divine in myself to the Divine in the All.”  Due to his ill-health, he had retired to a country house some time before, and his circle had diminished.  Porphyry, his biographer and editor, went on to publish Plotinus’ works, and to become a carrier of the torch of the Ideal himself, although his light did not shine as brightly.  But like Plotinus, he realized that union with the Divine was available to humans; in fact he says, “To this God, I also declare, I Porphyry, that in my sixty-eighth year I too was once admitted and entered into Union.” What came to be known as “neo-Platonism” was given a new life through his work, both in Rome and other parts of the empire.    

The Emperor Diocletian

The Emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (245?-312? AD)

The empire itself, which had been divided into three parts for most of the century, was reunited under the emperor Diocletian.  But eventually he had to admit that the size of the empire and the number of attacks and revolts that had become commonplace made it ungovernable.  In the late 3d century he deliberately divided the empire into Eastern and Western, each ruled by a senior and junior “Augustus.”  This system proved workable for a while, and a period of relative calm ensued.  Rome itself however declined in influence as the seat of power moved north to around Milan in the Western Empire, and Byzantium in the Eastern. 

     Just as the emperors during this period were not for the most part native to the Italian peninsula, the “successors” to Plato and Plotinus also came from far-flung parts of the empire. Porphyry himself (this, like “Plato” was also a nickname, derived from the Greek word for “purple,” denoting royalty) had been born in Tyre, in what is now the southern part of Lebanon, and had come to Rome after studying at the Academy in Athens.  Late in his life he married a woman named Marcella, and his letter to her exhorting to the study of philosophy still stands as one of his most popular works.  “As there is no profit in the physician’s art unless it cure the diseases of the body, so there is none in philosophy, unless it expel the troubles of the soul.”¹  On Plotinus’ death, Porphyry took over as the successor, and he too attracted many students.  

     One of the most famous of these (although it is not certain he was a direct student) was Iamblichus, who, like Porphyry, was born in what is now Syria or Lebanon.  After studying in Rome, he returned to Syria around 304 and founded his own school.  Although most of his original writing have been lost, much of his teaching has been preserved in the work of his students, and it consists for the most part of elaborations of the Plotinian hierarchy, the source of which was of course The One.

     Equally famous was Proclus, who was born also in the Eastern Empire–Constantinople–in 412.  He received most of his philosophical training in Alexandria, and then moved to Athens where he eventually became head of the Academy.  Because of this, and because of his devotion to the works of Plato, he is often called “The Successor.”  He wrote commentaries on a number of works by Plato as well as other philosophical systems.  Like Plotinus, he is capable of extremely dense discursive reasoning, alternating with moments of poetic beauty.  In his Commentary on the Chaldean Oracles, he says, “Let us not therefore imagine that we may persuade the Master of true discourses by a strange hurricane of words, nor by show or parade adorned with artificial rites: for God loves the simple, unadorned beauty of form.”²  Unfortunately, what follows after is one of the most incomprehensible “hurricane of words” in the neo-Platonic literature.  Notwithstanding, his influence on other philosophers of the Middle Ages and beyond has been great.³

The Emperor Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus (272-337)

The Emperor Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus (272-337)

     But of course the real force weighing on “Idealism” around this time, and increasingly during the 5th century was Christianity.  The Emperor Constantine (272-37) had been the first to convert to Christianity and in 311, with the Edict of Milan, had reversed the empire-wide practice of persecuting Christians.  (Actually it was a blanket recognition of religious tolerance in which Christians were included–quite visionary.)  It was declared the state religion in 380 under the authority of the Pope, based in Rome. 

St. Augustine (354-430)
St. Augustine (354-430)

      Christianity and Platonism had for many years maintained a kind of peaceful coexistence, and in fact many of the early churchmen were articulate Platonists as well.  St. Augustine (354-430) was a practicing Platonist before joining the church, and his writing remained full of Platonic ideas.  In fact, during the Middle Ages, when many of Plato’s original manuscripts were lost, Augustine’s writings were a major source of knowledge about the Ideal. 

      But the evangelistic spirit of Christianity and its requirement that converts had to renounce all other religions brought it into conflict with Platonism.  While some churchmen continued to consider Plato’s teaching almost on the same level as that of Jesus, officially they became considered pagan along with other forms of philosophy and Greco-Roman polytheism.  In 391, at the order of the Emperor Theodosius, paganism was declared illegal, and the patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, used the occasion to order the destruction of the famous library.  In 415, in one of history’s many tragic reversals where those persecuted become the persecutors, the Platonic philosopher and mathematician Hypatia was brutally murdered by a mob of Christians.  Her death had a chilling effect on the teaching of Plato from which the Alexandrian schools would not recover.

     The Empire, in particular the Western, had continued a long, slow decline.  The rift between East and West had grown, and the turnover of Emperors returned to levels seen during the Crisis of the Third Century.  The year 476 is generally given as the “fall” of Rome, when the Gothic invaders deposed the last nominal Emperor, Romulus Augustus.  But in fact the empire had already become a pale shadow of its former self, and a confluence of church and state now came together as a new form of governance.  The church became a political force as well, with its own territories and its own army.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (480-525)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (480-525), teaching, and imprisoned

     Boethius, born shortly after the “fall,” grew up under the influence of both Christianity and Platonism, and seemed to see no conflict between the two.  He rose to a high position of authority under the rule of King Theodoric “the Great,” and had planned a project to translate all Plato’s dialogs into Latin.  But Theodoric came to believe that Boethius was conspiring against him with the Eastern Empire, and ordered him executed in 525.  While in prison, Boethius wrote the classic Consolation of Philosophy, which is Platonic through and through in form (a dialog between the author and the goddess Philosophy) and content (there is one Good, which is the source of all we can know or see).   

…it is plain that the essence of the good and of hap-
piness is one and the same.”
“I cannot see how any one can think otherwise.”
“But we have shewn that God and true happiness are one
and the same.”
“Yes.”
“Therefore,” said she, “we may safely conclude that the
essence of God also lies in the absolute good and nowhere else.”4

     The translation project was likely never started.    

     Just four years later, in 529, the Eastern Emperor Justinian ordered the closing of all pagan schools, including the Academy in Athens, and the Western World entered into a period of sleep from which it would not emerge for another 900 years.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission. 

¹Porphyry, Letter to Marcella, in Algis Uzdavinys, ed., The Golden Chain.  World Wisdom, 2004.

²Proclus, Commentary on the Chaldean Oracles, in Algis Uzdavinys, ed., op. cit.

³Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a journal entry in 1842 says,

I read Proclus for my opium ; it excites my imagination to let sail before me the pleasing and grand figures of gods and daemons and demoniacal men. I hear of rumors rife among the most ancient gods, of azonic gods who are itinerants, of daemons with fulgid eyes, of the unenvying and exuberant will of the gods ; the aquatic gods, the Plain of Truth, the meadow, the nutriment of the gods, the paternal port, and all the rest of the Platonic rhetoric quoted as household words.  By all these and so many rare and brave words I am filled with hilarity and spring, my heart dances, my sight is quickened, I behold shining relations between all beings, and am impelled to write and almost to sing. I think one would grow handsome who read Proclus much and well.

(When I read Proclus, my eyes glaze over and I want to take a nap.  But that’s why Emerson is Emerson, and I’ll never be very good-looking.)

4A number of translations are available online, such as these at the Internet Archive.