On Neoplatonism
by: M. Moravius Horatius Piscinus
In the Collegium Religionis I mentioned that there were three parts to becoming a practitioner of the Religio Romana: the practice of its rites; study of the old ways (not only of the Religio itself, its rites and mythology, but also of the philosophies); and adoption of an ethical code from paganism whereby one would walk in the ways of the Gods. Each is equally important and they should be incorporated in tandem. There are different aspects of philosophy which contribute to one's general knowledge of the Religio Romana, these being metaphysics, ethics, and logic. I do not adhere to or advocate for any one of the ancient philosophies in particular; there is much to learn from each school. What I would like to state here is how I find that in Neoplatonism a modern practitioner of the Religio Romana is able to find a continuous line of thought from ancient times into a modern setting, and is therefore worthy of our consideration.

There are, to begin with, the teachings of the divine Plato (428-347 BCE). Not only was Plato influenced in his thought by Socrates, but also by the Eleactic Parmenides, and there is a strong influence of Pythagoreanism. Plato is not just a fountain of thought, he is a continuation of the schools of philosophy that came before him. While I would recommend reading all the Dialogues of Plato and his Epistles, the key to his system of philosophy, imho, lies within his Parmenides.

After Plato the Academy at Athens continued with Speusippus (405-335 BCE) and Xenocrates (396-314). Scepticism entered the old Academy with Arcesilaus of Pitane (315-240), Carneades of Cyrene (214-129), Charmides, Clitomachus and his student Philo of Larisia. In 88 BCE, in addition to the many barbarities perpetrated by Sulla on Rome, he also sacked Athens and destroyed the old Academy. But in Antiochus of Ascalon (130-68), and others like Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE-50 CE), there emerged a school of Middle Platonism which synthesized Platonism with the philosophies of the Peripatetics who followed after Aristotle and of the Stoics.

At Alexandria the Middle Platonist Ammonius Saccus became the teacher of Longinus, Origen and Plotinus. Plotinus (201-276 CE) went on to found a new school at Rome, where his piety and charity came to influence many Romans; even the Emperor and his wife sought out Plotinus' wisdom and friendship. Returning to the works of Plato for inspiration, and including the ideas of the leading Stoics of his day, Plotinus synthesized once more the ancient schools of thought into what has become known as Neoplatonism. His philosophy is one of adherance to moral precepts taken from Stoicism based in a mystical knowledge of the gods through the metaphysics of Platonism. Plotinus' teachings were recorded by his student Porphyry in the Enneads. Not only in his philosophy but in the example of his personal life, Plotinus is a model of pagan erudition and moral character.

In the time of Plotinus the dominant, and perhaps the only, form of Christianity, in a multiplicity of forms of that superstitio, was Gnosticism. Among Plotinus' students were two Valentinian Gnostics. Within the Enneads, Plotinus lays out the argument for a pagan view of the Kosmos, emmanating from a single source of the Good, as Plato had taught, and opposed the dualism of Christianity and its concept of the divine universe as being evil. With Plotinus' student Porphyry (233-304 CE), the philosophical debate between the ancient wisdom and the new superstitio continued in his Against the Christians. Porphyry not only laid out the pagan argument against the Gnostic form, but also against the new heretical form of his day that later came to be accepted as Orthodoxy.

Among Porphyry's students was Iamblichus (250-330 CE), who established the Syrian School of Neoplatonism. One of Iamblichus' students was Aedesius, who founded the Pergamenes School where the Emperor Julian the Blessed was taught. Another student of Iamblichus was Theodorus who founded the Alexandrian School where the mathematician Theon of Alexandria taught his daughter Hypatia mathematics and astronomy. Hypatia embraced Cynicism, taught "all kinds of schools" of philosophy, but above all traditional Platonism, with a little influence from Plotinus or Porphyry. Among her most devoted students was Synesius (378-430), who became the Christian bishop of Ptolemais in 410. Hypatia herself became a martyr of pagan philosophy, visciously murdered by the fanatic followers of Cyril in 415.

Another student of Iamblichus was Plutarch of Athens who reestablished the Academy at Athens in the late 4th century CE. His student was Syranius, who taught Herminasas and Proclus. Both taught Ammonius, who in turn taught Olympiodorus, Simplicius, and Damascius. These latter two were among the Seven Philosophers who departed for Harran when the Emperor Justinian closed the Academy of Athens in 529. Damascius returned, with Justinian's permission to teach in Alexandria. From Olymiodorus a school of Christian Neoplatonism emerged, whose students in turn taught Thabit ibn Quirra, founding the Arab school of Neoplatonism. The school at Harran, founded by Simplicius (d. 549), gave rise to another Islamic school at Bagdad. At Harran the Religio continued to be openly practiced, as reported by Christian pilgrams, whether under the rule of Christian emperors or Muslim sultans, until the sack of the city by the Turks during the First Crusade in the 11th century. Those who escaped departed to Alexandria, Spain, and along the Silk Road as far as China. Also from the line of philosophers that came after Olympiodorus there was established the Imperial Academy at Constantinople. Later adherents to the Imperial Academy were Michael Psellos (1018-1078 CE), Basilius Bessarion (1403-72), and Georgios Pletho (1355-1450). These latter two went on to Florence, there to establish the Florentine Academy that produced Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni della Mirandola.

Perhaps the most important figure of the Late Classical period is Proclus (410-485 CE), who first studied at Alexandria under Olympiodorus, then went on to Athens to study under Syranius. Proclus is called Diadochus, "the Successor," as the last great head of the Academy of Athens. Well-learned in the ancient schools of thought, surrounded as he was by hostile Christian prelates in a period when proscriptions had been made against the practice of the Religio on pain of death, Proclus provided the philosophical argument for paganism that is still relevent for us today. In his Elements of Theology and the Platonic Theology, in his commentaries on Euclid and on Plato's Parmenides and Timaeus, the modern practitioner of the Religio Romana may find the philosophical reasons behind our practice today.

Underlying the comments I made in the Collegium Religionis regarding the three aspects of the Religio Romana that a practitioner should adopt are thoughts very similar to these comments by Proclus. For a general view on the use of images in the Religio Romana see Porphyry, On Images, and these links to the works of Iamblichus. For a general review of Neoplatonism with links to many of the texts I referred to above visit Kheper Topics: Neoplatonism.

Raised as a practitioner of the religio rustica, which parallels the Religio Romana, growing up in a country dominated by the Christian superstitio, I have often found myself in philosophical debate. While in my personal life I have found much relevent wisdom among the Stoics and Epicurians, meeting the challenge of my public life has often been strengthened by referring to the Neoplatonists. Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus in their own times debated in favor of paganism against the atheistic superstitio. They represented the accumulation of wisdom from the philosophers who preceeded them, the embodiment of ancient culture. Their teachings and their arguments mark the starting point for those of us who continue on the path of the mos maiorum in the modern world.

Di deaeque vos semper bene ament

M. Horatius
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