BMCR 2013.08.06

Religion and Philosophy in the Platonic and Neoplatonic Traditions: From Antiquity to the Early Medieval Period

, , , Religion and Philosophy in the Platonic and Neoplatonic Traditions: From Antiquity to the Early Medieval Period. Sankt Augustin: Academia, 2012. xii, 368. ISBN 9783896655691 €39.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

The title of this volume, the product of a workshop held at Emory University in 2008, is somewhat misleading in that it suggests that this collection is equally concerned with Plato and the Neoplatonists. Yet even the first three contributions, grouped under the heading ‘Religion, Philosophy, Divine Inspiration and Religious Piety in the pre-Platonic and Platonic Traditions’, deal extensively with the Neoplatonists. Plato is for the most part discussed as the background against which these Neoplatonic philosophers should be understood and references to other pre-Plotinian philosophers are rare. Given that Neoplatonism is part of the Platonic tradition, ‘Religion and Philosophy in the Platonic Tradition’ might thus have been a more fitting title of this collection, or perhaps even ‘Religion and Philosophy in the Platonic Tradition and Beyond’, for while Plotinus and other Neoplatonists dominate this volume, it also takes into account later thinkers from a variety of backgrounds (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu). Since it is not possible to do full justice to all eighteen articles (for which see the link to the table of contents, above) within the limited span of this review, I shall discuss a thematic selection of them, which should give a representative impression of the content and merits of the entire collection.

According to the editors in their introduction, religion and philosophy have not always been treated as very distinct, or even completely separate, domains as they are today; the Platonic tradition would thus suggest “new ways of thinking about the relation between these two fields or disciplines”. Two contributors, John Dillon and John Turner, explicitly address the issue of the relation between religion and philosophy. In his paper ‘Philosophy and Theology in Proclus’, Dillon argues that whereas there has always existed a tension between philosophy and theology in the Abrahamic religions, pagan Neoplatonism presents the two as complementary. Philosophy is not subservient to theology, rather the two supplement each other. In Dillon’s words: “reason commends a theory, wise men of old support a theory and the gods add their voice in confirmation.” This divine confirmation comes especially from a body of religious texts, the so-called Chaldaean Oracles.

Turner in his paper ‘The Curious Philosophical World of Later Religious Gnosticism: The Symbiosis of Antique Philosophy and Religion’ has an axe to grind with all those scholars, including Dillon, who have called Gnosticism a sub-philosophical or only superficially philosophical movement. Because they deny the philosophical quality of Gnosticism, these scholars fail to appreciate the important role that the polemics with the Gnostics played in Plotinus’ philosophical development. Turner speculates that the tendency among historians of philosophy to dissociate Gnosticism from genuine Platonic philosophy is due to a strict distinction between religion and philosophy that is rather modern than ancient. In order to question this rigid distinction, he once again refers to the Chaldaean Oracles, since these mix Platonic philosophical elements with religious rituals. But note that, as Dillon demonstrates, already an ancient philosopher like Proclus, who values Chaldaean lore and rituals highly, draws a clear distinction between philosophy and religion. To Proclus, the Chaldaean Oracles matter, precisely because they are, at least in Proclus’ perception, not philosophical. For that reason, he may use them as external, i.e. independent, evidence for the correctness of his philosophical reasoning. In other words, it seems to be the appreciation of the distinction between religion and philosophy that matters, rather than the distinction as such. Does this imply that no meaningful communication between the two domains is possible, as seems to be the modern view, or does it make religion all the more relevant to philosophy as some sort of external point of reference?

A stock complaint about collected volumes is that they tend to be rather mixed bags. From the introduction by the editors one could get the impression that this goes for the present one as well, but this would not do justice especially to the first half of the collection. I suggest that a reader start with a second contribution by Dillon, entitled ‘The Religion of the Last Hellenes’. Dillon here discusses what he calls the three ‘pillars’ of the religion of the late pagan Neoplatonists: antiquarianism, syncretism, and allegory. He distinguishes these external characteristics of Neoplatonic religion from its internal, spiritual, dimension, in which philosophical prayer plays an important role. Personally, I would hesitate to label the Neoplatonic practise of comparing various theological systems as ‘syncretism’, since the term suggests that the Neoplatonists blended various theological systems into one, whereas they were in fact very careful not to do so. Something like ‘theological compatibilism’ would perhaps be a better term to capture the Neoplatonic doctrine that all theological systems of all nations, however seemingly different, describe the same metaphysical structure. However this may be, Dillon’s paper provides an excellent framework for many on the other contributions.

The paper ‘The Emperor Julian’s Use of Neoplatonic Philosophy and Religion’ by Michael Harrington provides an elaboration on Dillon’s ‘pillar of antiquarianism’, i.e. the efforts by late antique Hellenes to identify and preserve ancient cults and cult sites. Harrington in his contribution develops what he calls the ‘Neoplatonic theory of sacred place’ in contrast to that of Plato. Whereas Plato presents worship as an opportunity to foster social cohesion and therefore locates places of worship at the centre of the city, the Neoplatonists interpret sacred places and rituals in terms of their theory of cosmic sympathy, which makes it possible for us to connect to the gods. For that reason they would prefer tranquil places outside the city. Harrington argues that Julian’s project to restore sacred places is motivated both by the Platonic idea of sacred places as social meeting-grounds—especially in the case of Greek cultic sites—and by the Neoplatonic theory of cosmic sympathy, for example in the case of his plan to restore the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The distinction that Harrington draws between the Platonic and Neoplatonic theory of sacred place is a bit too neat. True, the Neoplatonists did indeed value religious quietness (ἡσυχία), but in doing so they did not necessarily differ from Plato. One need only think of the quiet location dedicated to Achelous and the nymphs that serves as the setting of the Phaedrus (229a-230b). As Kevin Corrigan rightly observes in his contribution (p. 21), the “numinous quality” of that landscape plays an important role throughout the dialogue.

Dillon’s ‘pillar of allegory’ receives closer scrutiny in Luc Brisson’s discussion ‘Allegory as Used by the Later Neoplatonic Philosophers’ in which he gives an admirably clear explanation of why allegory mattered so much to Iamblichus, Proclus and their colleagues. Since these Neoplatonists assume that philosophy was at the beginning taught by the gods themselves by means of symbolical poetry and oracular revelations and that it is impossible to grasp it otherwise than by divine intervention, allegorical exegesis of divinely inspired texts played a crucial role in later Neoplatonism. As Brisson points out, the Neoplatonists justified their conception of philosophy as handed down from the gods by an appeal to the account of divine inspiration in Plato’s Phaedrus. It has been argued that here Plato rehabilitates poetry after his attack in the Ion, but Suzanne Stern-Gillet argues in her contribution ‘Divine Inspiration Transformed: From Hesiod to Ficino’ that this interpretation is incorrect. The Neoplatonists, and later on Ficino, could only read the desired positive evaluation of divine inspiration in Plato’s Phaedrus (and even the Ion) by lifting certain lines out of their context.

The spiritual side of Neoplatonic religion in general and prayer in particular comes to the fore in several contributions, starting with Kevin Corrigan’s wide-ranging paper ‘Religion and Philosophy in the Platonic Tradition’. Corrigan’s suggestion that Neoplatonic prayers for illumination are somehow comparable to Socratic dialogues strikes me as problematic. It may be true that both consist in asking questions, but the critical examination of opinions that is a defining element in Socratic questioning is absent from Neoplatonic prayer. Corrigan is certainly right, though, to stress the importance of prayer in Neoplatonic spiritual life as an act of conversion towards and unification with the divine.

Gerald Bechtle (‘Categories and Conversion’) seeks to answer the question of how, according to the Neoplatonists, the philosophical study of Aristotle’s Categories helps the student to make this conversion towards intelligible reality by an attentive reading of a passage from Simplicius’ commentary on the Categories. Simplicius sees a close connection between intelligible realities, our concepts of these, and the words that we use to express these concepts. Because of this intimate link, the study of words will point the mind of the reader towards the intelligible realities. Bechtle notes that this passage from Simplicius is the only one that he has found so far that explicitly deals with this issue. I suggest that this is due to the fact that Simplicius’ ideas about language are somewhat different from those of the other commentators on the Categories, because he was influenced by Proclus’ speculations about the relation between language and reality in the latter’s commentary on the Cratylus.1

The spiritual aspect of Neoplatonism is approached from a different angle in the last part of the volume, which is dedicated to comparative perspectives. Rkia Elaroui Cornell, for example, compares the ‘Old Woman Who Never Dies’, one of the teachers of the heroes of the Sufi tradition in Islamic mystical literature to Socrates’ teacher Diotima in Plato’s Symposium. She makes a considerable effort to demonstrate that early Muslims in general and the Sufis in particular were much more intimately acquainted with the text of that dialogue than is usually assumed.

Svetla Slaveva-Griffin takes up another resonance of the Platonic tradition in Sufism in her paper ‘Contemplative Ascent as Dance in Plotinus and Rumi’.2 She argues that Plotinus’ comparison of the mystical ascent of the human soul to dancing somehow underlies the Sufis’ ceremony of a whirling dance in a circle around an immobile centre ( sama) which is intended to bring about a mystical union with the divine. The suggestion of Neoplatonic influence on the Sufis’ practice of sama is an intriguing one and Slaveva-Griffin argues her case strongly, yet she did not in the end completely convince me. As she herself points out, there exists an important difference between Plotinus’ dance and that of the Sufis. Contrary to the Sufis, Plotinus places little store on rituals as a way to the divine. He uses the image of dance to describe the ascent of the soul, which for him is essentially a form of contemplation. But if so, how likely is it that some isolated images of dancing in Plotinus would inspire the full-blown ritual dances of the Sufis?

In conclusion, I find that the whole of the present volume is greater than the sum of its parts. As I have tried to bring out in this review, many contributions, even though perhaps sometimes less revolutionary in their own right, intersect with each other in all sorts of interesting ways. For that reason it is a real pity that the various contributors do not explicitly respond to each other, as one might perhaps have expected in the case of the proceedings of a workshop. However this may be, together these papers demonstrate that the theme of the relation between religion and philosophy in the (Neo)platonic tradition is a rich one that invites further scholarly exploration. This collection provides a good starting-point for such an undertaking.


1. See my Proclus’ Commentary on the Cratylus in Context (Leiden 2008), 206-10.

2. Unfortunately, a conversion problem has affected some of the footnotes of this contribution. Similar problems and typos occur throughout the volume, including the contribution of the late Steven Strange on the history of the interpretation of the Parmenides. The crucial, yet enigmatic passage from Proclus Commentary on the Parmenides (1057.5-9) on p. 56, should read ὁ ἐκ Ρόδου φιλόσοφος (not ὁ ἐκ όδου φιλόσοφος); readers interested in this topic are advised to consult the recent edition by C. Steel and others (OCT 2009) for a significantly improved reading of the text.