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Neoplatonism

A philosophical foundation for much of Western Occultism.

One of the primary ways that Neoplatonism was introduced early into Western Philosophy was through the writings of “Pseudo-Dionysius”. The real author of the texts remains unknown, though scholars point to the fifth or sixth century as the likely time of writing. Whoever the author was, they chose to pseudonymously go by the name of “Dionysius the Areopagite”.

Julius R. Weinberg, in A Short History of Medieval Philosophy, explains some of the important context and key points of the corpus:

“One of the characteristic forms of medieval thought and emotion is the cultivation of contemplative mysticism. Its remote source is Neoplatonism and it was communicated to the medieval Christian world mainly (though not exclusively) by the works attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, companion to St. Paul.” (Weinberg 46)

While Pseudo-Dionysius certainly met the needs of the burgeoning mystic in his dense and symbolic language, its actually content did not fit with mainstream Christian thought:

“It is altogether remarkable that these works, representing as they do a Neoplatonic system of mystical theology combined with Christian doctrine, should have achieved such authority in medieval Christendom. While many of the great scholastics wrote commentaries on them (regarding them as inspired writings), the doctrines expressed and implied in these works are inconsistent with several of the fundamental dogmas of Christianity. There can be no doubt that the language is pantheistic, and implies that God permeates the world, or rather, that the world is an emanation or procession of God…” (Weinberg 46).

Regardless, the methods expressed for understanding or contemplating the Christian God would prove influential:

“The fundamental thesis of Pseudo-Dionysius is the absolute incomprehensibility of God. We can approach the Divine nature by an affirmative theology which applies to God the names taken from Scripture, He is one, good, living, etc. But, as we realize that the Divine nature is incomprehensible in its indescribable remoteness from anything in the world, we are obliged to adopt a negative theology which denies all the predicates ascribed to God by affirmative theology. Thus we must hold that God is not any of these things and that the approach God is by way of a learned ignorance; we know Him best by admitting our inescapable ignorance of His nature. We express this discovery and reconcile it with affirmative theology by a third way, symbolic or superlative theology in which God can be called Super-being, Super-goodness, Super-life, and the like. These words are justified because creation is good, contains life, and the like, and the terms “Super-good” and the like imply that since God is the source of the world which issues forth from Him and since the world as effect can contain only that which exists in its cause, God must be superlatively everything that is in the created universe. The universe is a symbolic manifestation of God and falls short of its Source without, however, being separated from It.” (Weinberg 46-7)

While the Neoplatonic source may contradict Christian doctrine, it proved useful in trying to rationalize an ineffable God.

 

Bibliography and Suggested Reading:

Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works. Translated by Colm Luibheid, Paulist Press, 1987.

Weinberg, Julius R., A Short History of Medieval Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 1964.

Wildberg, Christian, “Neoplatonism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/neoplatonism.