Neoplatonism


Neoplatonism
(al-aflatuniyat al-muhdatha)
   A creative synthesis of Pythagorian, Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic philosophy – infused with a religio-mystic spirit – Neoplatonism was the final flowering of ancient Greek thought (c. third – sixth century ce). As a result of early Islamic expansionism and the ambitious scholarly translation project beginning in the third/ninth century under the ‘Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, a considerable number of Neoplatonic texts were made available in Arabic. Two of the key works were mistakenly attributed to Aristotle: Aristotle’s Theology (actually a selective paraphrase of Books 4–6 of Plotinus’ Enneads) and The Book of the Pure Good, or Liber de causis as it was known to the Latins (actually chapters from Proclus’ Elements of Theology). But whether associated with Aristotle or their true Neoplatonic authors, the contents of these texts resonated powerfully with the emerging worldviews of Islamic philosophers. The most influential aspect of Neoplatonism was its hierarchical model of reality, in which existence ‘emanates’, light-like, from the divine One or Good (the First Cause, which itself is beyond being) through the intellect (which encompasses the intelligible forms and is being itself), to the soul (a kind of amphibious entity, rooted in the intelligible world but enmeshed in, and providing rational order to, the physical world), to the material world of generation and destruction. This ‘cascade of causality’ is not a temporal event, nor is it a result of God’s volition. Each hypostasis automatically gives rise to the next, through a kind of logical entailment in which God’s existentially overrich nature necessarily and eternally manifests itself. Numerous Islamic philosophers in the classical period appropriated and elaborated extensively upon this model, most notably the early Peripatetics and Isma‘ilis. However, while it proved an invaluable resource for articulating an Islamic metaphysics and rational theology, it also generated some serious conceptual problems. Perhaps most importantly, its necessitarian metaphysics of emanation seemed flatly to contradict the Qur’anic notion of God’s free creation, His active, deliberate intervention in history, and the possibility of miracles. The Neoplatonic dimension of Islamic philosophy eventually came under devastating attack with al-Ghazali’s pivotal Incoherence of the Philosophers and never entirely recovered. Even the definitive philosophical reply, Ibn Rushd’s Incoherence of the Incoherence, distanced itself from Neoplatonism and hewed to a more purely Aristotelian line. However, significant elements of Neoplatonic metaphysics can still be found in subsequent Isma‘ili thought, as well as Illuminationism and Sufism.
   See active intellect; Aristotle; Brethren of Purity; causality; al-Farabi; Ibn al-‘Arabi; Ibn Masarra; Ibn Sina; Isma‘ilis; al-Kindi; al-Kirmani; metaphysics; Nasir-i Khusraw; Plato; psychology; al-Razi, Abu Bakr; al-Sijistani, Abu Ya‘qub; al-Suhrawardi
   Further reading: Adamson 2003; Dillon and Gerson 2004; Morewedge 1992; Netton 1989/95

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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