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§ 34. Neo-Platonism.

I. Sources.

Plotinus: Opera Omnia, ed. Oxf 1835, 3 vols.; ed. Kirchhoff, Lips. 1856; ed. Didot, Par. 1856; H. F. Müller, Berlin 1878–80.

Porphyrius: Κατὰ Χριστιανῶν λόγοι (fragments collected in Holstein: Dissert. de vita et scriptis Porphyr. Rom. 1630). His biographies of Pythagoras, Plotinus, and other works were ed. by A. A. Nauck, 1860.

Hierocles: Λόγοι φιλαλήθεις πρός Χριστιανούς (fragments in Euse b.: Contra Hierocl. lib., and probably also in Macarius Magnes: Ἀποκριτικὸς ἢ Μονογενής Par. 1876).

Philostratus: De Vita Apollonii Tyanensis libri octo (Greek and Latin), Venet. 1501; ed. Westerman, Par. 1840; ed. Kayser, Zürich, 1853, 1870. Also in German, French and English translations.

II. Works.

Vogt: Neuplatonismus u. Christenthum. Berl. 1836.

Ritter:Gesch. der Philos. vol. 4th, 1834 (in English by Morrison, Oxf. 1838).

Neander: Ueber das neunte Buch in der zweiten Enneade des Plotinus. 1843. (vid. Neander’s Wissenschaftl. Abhandlungen, published by Jacobi, Berl. 1851, p. 22 sqq.)

Ullmann: Einflusz des Christentums auf Porphyrius, in "Stud. u. Krit." 1832.

Kirchner:Die Philosophie des Plotin. Halle, 1854.

F. Chr. Baur: Apollonius von Tyana u. Christus. Tüb. 1832, republ. by Ed. Zeller, in Drei Abhandlungen zur Gesch. der alten Philosophie U. ihres Verh. zum Christenthum. Leipzig, 1876, pp. 1–227.

John H. Newman: Apollonius Tyanaeus. Lond. 1849 (Encycl. Metropol. Vol. X., pp. 619–644).

A. Chassang: Ap. de T., sa vie, ses voyages, ses prodiges, etc. Paris, 1862. Translation from the Greek, with explanatory notes.

H. Kellner: Porphyrius und sein Verhültniss zum Christenthum, in the Tübingen "Theol. Quartalschrift," 1865. No. I.

Albert Réville: Apollonius of Tyana, the Pagan Christ of the third century, translated from the French. Lond. 1866.

K. Mönkeberg: Apollonius v. Tyana. Hamb. 1877.

Fr. Ueberweg: History of Philosophy (Eng. transl. N. York, 1871), vol. I. 232–259.

Ed. Zeller: Philosophie der Griechen, III. 419 sqq.

More earnest and dignified, but for this very reason more lasting and dangerous, was the opposition which proceeded directly and indirectly from Neo-Platonism. This system presents the last phase, the evening red, so to speak, of the Grecian philosophy; a fruitless effort of dying heathenism to revive itself against the irresistible progress of Christianity in its freshness and vigor. It was a pantheistic eclecticism and a philosophico-religious syncretism, which sought to reconcile Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy with Oriental religion and theosophy, polytheism with monotheism, superstition with culture, and to hold, as with convulsive grasp, the old popular religion in a refined and idealized form. Some scattered Christian ideas also were unconsciously let in; Christianity already filled the atmosphere of the age too much, to be wholly shut out. As might be expected, this compound of philosophy and religion was an extravagant, fantastic, heterogeneous affair, like its contemporary, Gnosticism, which differed from it by formally recognising Christianity in its syncretism. Most of the NeoPlatonists, Jamblichus in particular, were as much hierophants and theurgists as philosophers, devoted themselves to divination and magic, and boasted of divine inspirations and visions. Their literature is not an original, healthy natural product, but an abnormal after-growth.

In a time of inward distraction and dissolution the human mind hunts up old and obsolete systems and notions, or resorts to magical and theurgic arts. Superstition follows on the heels of unbelief, and atheism often stands closely connected with the fear of ghosts and the worship of demons. The enlightened emperor Augustus was troubled, if he put on his left shoe first in the morning, instead of the right; and the accomplished elder Pliny wore amulets as protection from thunder and lightning. In their day the long-forgotten Pythagoreanism was conjured from the grave and idealized. Sorcerers like Simon Magus, Elymas, Alexander of Abonoteichos, and Apollonius of Tyana (d. a.d. 96), found great favor even with the higher classes, who laughed at the fables of the gods. Men turned wishfully to the past, especially to the mysterious East, the land of primitive wisdom and religion. The Syrian cultus was sought out; and all sorts of religions, all the sense and all the nonsense of antiquity found a rendezvous in Rome. Even a succession of Roman emperors, from Septimius Severus, at the close of the second century, to Alexander Severus, embraced this religious syncretism, which, instead of supporting the old Roman state religion, helped to undermine it.8484    The oldest apostle of this strange medley of Hellenic, Persian, Chaldean and Egyptian mysteries in Rome was Nigidius Figulus, who belonged to the strictest section of the aristocracy, and filled the praetorship in 696 a.u.c. (58 b.c.) He foretold the father of the subsequent emperor Augustus on the very day of his birth his future greatness. The system was consecrated by the name of Pythagoras, the primeval sage of Italian birth, the miracleworker and necromancer. The new and old wisdom made a profound impression on men of the highest rank and greatest learning, who took part in the citation of spirits, as in the nineteenth century, spirit-rapping and tablemoving exercised for a while a similar charm. "These last attempts to save the Roman theology, like the similar efforts of Cato in the field of politics, produce at once a comical and a melancholy impression. We may smile at the creed and its propagators, but still it is a grave matter when all men begin to addict themselves to absurdity." Th. Mommsen, History of Rome, vol. IV. p. 563 (Dickson’s translation. Lond. 1867.)3

After the beginning of the third century this tendency found philosophical expression and took a reformatory turn in Neo-Platonism. The magic power, which was thought able to reanimate all these various elements and reduce them to harmony, and to put deep meaning into the old mythology, was the philosophy of the divine Plato; which in truth possessed essentially a mystical character, and was used also by learned Jews, like Philo, and by Christians, like Origen, in their idealizing efforts and their arbitrary allegorical expositions of offensive passages of the Bible. In this view we may find among heathen writers a sort of forerunner of the NeoPlatonists in the pious and noble-minded Platonist, Plutarch, of Boeotia (d. 120), who likewise saw a deeper sense in the myths of the popular polytheistic faith, and in general, in his comparative biographies and his admirable moral treatises, looks at the fairest and noblest side of the Graeco-Roman antiquity, but often wanders off into the trackless regions of fancy.

The proper founder of Neo-Platonism was Ammonius Saccas, of Alexandria, who was born of Christian parents, but apostatized, and died in the year 243. His more distinguished pupil, Plotinus, also an Egyptian (204–269), developed the NeoPlatonic ideas in systematic form, and gave them firm foothold and wide currency, particularly in Rome, where he taught philosophy. The system was propagated by his pupil Porphyry of Tyre (d. 304), who likewise taught in Rome, by Jamblichus of Chalcis in Coelo-Syria (d. 333), and by Proclus of Constantinople (d. 485). It supplanted the popular religion among in the educated classes of later heathendom, and held its ground until the end of the fifth century, when it perished of its own internal falsehood and contradictions.

From its love for the ideal, the supernatural, and the mystical, this system, like the original Platonism, might become for many philosophical minds a bridge to faith; and so it was even to St. Augustin, whom it delivered from the bondage of scepticism, and filled with a burning thirst for truth and wisdom. But it could also work against Christianity. Neo-Platonism was, in fact, a direct attempt of the more intelligent and earnest heathenism to rally all its nobler energies, especially the forces of Hellenic philosophy and Oriental mysticism, and to found a universal religion, a pagan counterpart to the Christian. Plotinus, in his opposition to Gnosticism, assailed also, though not expressly, the Christian element it contained. On their syncretistic principles the Neo-Platonists could indeed reverence Christ as a great sage and a hero of virtue, but not as the Son of God. They ranked the wise men of heathendom with him. The emperor Alexander Severus (d. 235) gave Orpheus and Apollonius of Tyana a place in his lararium by the side of the bust of Jesus.

The rhetorician Philostratus, the elder, about the year 220, at the request of Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus, and a zealous patron of the reform of paganism, idealized the life of the pagan magician and soothsayer Apollonius, of the Pythagorean school, and made him out an ascetic saint, a divinely inspired philosopher, a religious reformer and worker of miracles, with the purpose, as is generally assumed, though without direct evidence, of holding him up as a rival of Christ with equal claims to the worship of men.8585    Philostratus himself gives no intimation of such design on his part, and simply states that he was requested by the empress Julia Domna (a.d. 217), to draw up a biography of Apollonius from certain memoranda of Damis, one of his friends and followers. The name of Christ is never mentioned by him; nor does he allude to the Gospels, except in one instance, where he uses the same phrase as the daemon in St. Luke (viii. 28): "I beseech thee, torment me not (μή με βασανίσῃς .). Vita Apoll. IV. 25. Bishop Samuel Parker, in a work on the Divine Authority of the Christian Religion (1681), Lardner, Neander (K G. I. 298), and J. S. Watson (in a review of Re’ville’s Apoll. of T., in the "Contemporary Review" for 1867, p. 199 ff.), deny the commonly received opinion, first maintained by Bishop Daniel Hust, and defended by Baur, Newman, and Re’ville, that Philostratus intended to draw a parallel between his hero and Christ. The resemblance is studied and fictitious, and it is certain that at a later date Hierocles vainly endeavored to lower the dignity of Christ by raising this Pythagorean adventurer as portrayed by Philostratus, to a level with the eternal Son of God.4

The points of resemblance are chiefly these: Jesus was the Son of God, Apollonius the son of Jupiter; the birth of Christ was celebrated by the appearance of angels, that of Apollonius by a flash of lightning; Christ raised the daughter of Jairus, Apollonius a young Roman maiden, from the dead; Christ cast out demons, Apollonius did the same; Christ rose from the dead, Apollonius appeared after his death. Apollonius is made to combine also several characteristics of the apostles, as the miraculous gift of tongues, for he understood all the languages of the world. Like St. Paul, he received his earlier education at Tarsus, labored at Antioch, Ephesus, and other cities, and was persecuted by Nero. Like the early Christians, he was falsely accused of sacrificing children with certain mysterious ceremonies.8686    Comp. the account of the resemblance by Baur, l.c. pp. 138 sqq.5 With the same secret polemical aim Porphyry and Jamblichus embellished the life of Pythagoras, and set him forth as the highest model of wisdom, even a divine being incarnate, a Christ of heathenism.

These various attempts to Christianize paganism were of course as abortive as so many attempts to galvanize a corpse. They made no impression upon their age, much less upon ages following. They were indirect arguments in favor of Christianity: they proved the internal decay of the false, and the irresistible progress of the true religion, which began to mould the spirit of the age and to affect public opinion outside of the church. By inventing false characters in imitation of Christ they indirectly conceded to the historical Christ his claim to the admiration and praise of mankind.

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