The term neoplatonism refers to a school of thought that was founded by Plotinus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 204—270 C.E. During this period cultures that had not had much contact with each other were for the first time studying and responding to each other’s sacred texts and philosophies.
Gnostic, Jewish, Christian, and pagan philosophers all debated and interpreted the philosophy of Plato, attempting to reconcile their own belief systems with the cosmology it presented. Neoplatonism is known for synthesizing aspects of the speculations of these various faiths into a single cosmology.
In neoplatonism, the universe can be divided into three basic categories: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. From the One emanates the Intellect, which engages with itself as an Other, dividing itself into Forms, whose unity constitutes the expression of the One. Numerous individual soul’s then contemplate these Forms, and from their basic potential manifest action in the world, and it is this action of the Soul that generates the material cosmos.
It is through contemplating the material world as one’s own creation, the physical manifestation of the Soul’s contemplation of the Forms, that are themselves the expression of the One, that the Soul achieves salvation. For Plotinus and neoplatonism, contemplation is the creative principle. It is contemplation that manifests the potential present in the One. Even action is seen as a form of contemplation, but the lowest form.
This view of the universe, while it has been influenced by the traditions that Plotinus was in contact with, does not place a creator god at the center of the universe like Islamic or Christian mystics would. Each link in the chain, from the One, to the Intellect, to the Soul, plays a vital role in the manifestation of the cosmos. In and of itself the One is unchanging and does not act.
The term mysticism is quite hard to define. It has taken on many meanings in many different traditions. When the term is used today, it is usually referring to traditions, practices, or philosophies that are said to lead to a direct intuition of divinity. The term finds its origin in the ancient Greek mystery schools, so-called because their rituals and practices were kept secret and only revealed to initiates.
As time has passed the term has taken on new meaning. It is now most commonly associated with any tradition that claims direct intuitive experience of God or the divine as its highest aim. Loosely speaking, a mystic could be anyone who has had some degree of personal experience with and understanding of the Divine.
Mysticism can be found all over the world in various forms. However, in the western and Islamic worlds most forms of mysticism can find their roots in the philosophical developments that were taking place throughout the Hellenistic world during the first half of the first millennium.
Ben is a philosophy major at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana focusing on Tibetan Buddhism. Ben has an ongoing interest in psychology, religion, neuroscience and consciousness research. Ben tutored his younger brother Christopher for several years in topics of mutual interest such as astronomy, Greek mythology, programming and science. Ben is my oldest son and I am also grateful for the many hours we have spent together in fascinating conversations!