the time of Plato until the repression of pagan philosophy under
Justinian, a period of nearly one thousand years, Platonic metaphysics
was one of the dominant views on the nature of reality. It was to have
a significant impact on Christian, Islamic and Jewish theology. In its
later stages, Platonism is often referred to as Neoplatonism, and this
is taken to imply a fall from purely rational speculation into a
philosophic and theurgic mysticism, as epitomised by Plotinus and
Several aspects of Kabbalah have a
superficial similarity to Neoplatonism. It has even been characterised
as Jewish Neoplatonism. This is too glib, but at a superficial level
there are many similarities.
Probably the most important and
influential summation of Platonic philosophy comes from Plotinus. A paraphrase of
the Enneads of Plotinus (incorrectly titled The Theology of Aristotle)
was influential in Arab philosophy, and both directly and indirectly,
in Jewish and Christian philosophy. According to Plotinus, reality is
an emanation of a single creative
principle he calls the One. The One has no qualities accessible to
cognition. The One emanates a realm of archetypal ideas or
forms, which provides the organisional patterns for souls. Souls in
turn imprint, structure and organise matter, but are separate from it.
One is the source of all life and all being. Matter is the polar
opposite, in that it is pure, formless alienation from the One.
The ontological status of Matter in Platonism is quite
perplexing: as it is utterly formless, it is as cognitively void as the
One, and although Plotinus wrestles with the inherent duality of his
system, this duality is not resolved.
Each person has a soul
which is a part of the World Soul, and whose nature comes ultimately
from the One. The nature of the soul is another problem in Platonism
that is not resolved in a satisfactory way. Although the soul informs
and animates matter, it shares no quality with matter. Attempts were
made to chop the soul up into parts - for example, a higher soul and a
lower soul - in order to bridge the unbridgeable gap between Soul and
Matter. One finds reasoning of this kind in Kabbalah, where the soul
can have several parts.
The highest level of cognition in the Soul is nous,
the intellectual ability to apprehend that which is eternally true in
the real of archetypal forms. This view was probably derived from the
study of pure mathematics, and connects the Platonic tradition back to
Pythagoras. Although Plotinus views the world as a beautiful creature,
a tradition that goes back to Plato, his views are fundamentally
ascetic. The world of Matter ensnares the Soul, which loses sight of
its true nature. Only by cultivating the intellectual faculty can the
Soul recover true knowledge of the source of all being.
view of the Soul was modified by Iamblichus, who saw the Soul
as so embedded in Matter that for most people it cannot free itself by pure
intellection alone. He saw traditional pagan cultic practices and
theurgic ritual as a way to awaken the soul to the ruling powers of
the cosmos. This combination of philosophy and tradition presented
a powerful challenge to a nascent Christianity, and was squashed,
although it has survived in Hermetic practices to this day.
Iamblichus's invigoration of ancient practices is also similar to the
way in which medieval Kabbalistic theosophy reinterpreted and gave a
mystical significance to traditional forms of Jewish worship.
The world of Platonism was a locative cosmos: that is a hierarchy of emanation deriving from a single source in which everything had its place in a great chain of being. The principle of plenitude maintained that every possibility of being within the One was expressed.
The overall unity within the system meant that nothing (apart from
matter) was truely alienated, and any two principles that appeared to
be opposed could in fact be reconciled by a third principle. This idea
is often called "the principle of the mean term".
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Neoplatonism in shaping
the philosophical worldview of Christianity and Islam. There is much in
Kabbalah that reflects the Neoplatonism that formed a pervasive
cultural background throughout its history, but over time it diverged
in several important senses. The most important was the growing sense
of dislocation that found its full expression in the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria.
The harmonious great chain of being of Neoplatonism was fractured,
shattered, and replaced by a perception that cataclysmic events had
created a realm of evil and impurity. In Neoplatonism, human beings
simply had to restore a true perception of reality to recover their
place in the great scheme. In the Kabbalah of Luria, human beings were
an essential component in the repair and restoration of a damaged
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