- Philosophical system (or group of systems) derived from the ancient Athenian philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.); it is called Neoplatonism rather than Platonism because it tends to vary consider-ably from the actual teachings of Plato and his immediate disciples. It emphasized the importance of spiritual over material reality and valued contemplation and the quest for spiritual perfection more highly than an active life. Neoplatonism was the last major philosophical movement in ancient Greek philosophy, developing in the third century of the Chris-tian era, especially at Alexandria in Egypt. Its founder was Ammonius Saccas, who taught at Alexandria in the early third century. He left a great impression on his pupils but wrote no books. His most influential disciple was Plotinus, who moved to Rome about 244 and taught there for a quarter-century. Only late in life did he set down his philosophy in written form. After his death his philosophical treatises were collected by his pupil Porphyry into six books called Enneads. Porphyry also wrote works of his own, especially an introduction to the Categories, a logical work of Aristotle, since he insisted that if properly understood, Plato and Aristotle agreed on most issues. Another Alexandrian Neo-platonist was Iamblicus, who merged Platonic and Pythagorean philo-sophical ideas with Egyptian religion. Also important was Proclus, who developed the idea of divine hierarchies emanating from the one divine being. These Neoplatonic systems were all religious in spirit, empha-sizing the spiritual, the divine, and the eternal and belittling the material, the human, and the ephemeral. They presented themselves as systems that could lead the human soul from the material and transitory world to the spiritual and eternal God.Neoplatonism, which presented itself as an accurate expression of the ideas of Plato himself, was familiar to many of the early Christ-ian intellectuals (both orthodox and heretical ones). St. Augustine of Hippo credited "Platonism" (that is, Neoplatonism) with teaching him the nature of spiritual being and so removing an impediment to his eventual understanding of the Christian concept of God. But Neo-platonism itself was not Christian. In fact, it was a serious rival of Christianity for the spiritual allegiance of educated Greeks and Ro-mans. Its description of humanity's progress from the material to the spiritual and from death to eternal life involved personal perfection through study, ascetic practices, and meditation; it had no place for such central Christian doctrines as the Incarnation, the resurrection of the flesh, the physical existence of a divine being like Jesus or his physical suffering and the shedding of his blood.Many early Christian heresies arose because of a tendency of Pla-tonizing intellectuals to reinterpret Christianity in Platonic terms—for example, the Docetists, who denied Christ's bodily existence. The Neoplatonists of Alexandria were actively critical of Christianity, which they despised as a materialistic superstition of low-class and uneducated people. Neoplatonic ideas found a harbor within Chris-tianity in the thought of an author known as Dionysius the Areopagite, who actually was a philosophical follower of Proclus but presents himself in his works as the Athenian philosopher converted to Chris-tianity by St. Paul himself, an incident mentioned in the Book of Acts (17:34). His highly spiritualized and hierarchical concept of Chris-tianity presents the religion in largely Neoplatonic terms, and because they were incorrectly believed to be the work of a man taught directly by one of the Apostles, his writings attained almost scriptural author-ity throughout the medieval period.The Latin church of the Middle Ages knew virtually nothing at first hand about Plato himself or about the genuine Neoplatonic philosophers of the third and fourth centuries. Only one Platonic di-alogue, the Timaeus, was available in Latin translation. The name of Plato remained current, but only as a memory of an almost-forgotten past. There was Platonic influence on medieval philosophy and the-ology, but mainly at second hand, through citations in the writings of well-known Roman authors like Cicero and St. Augustine, and also from Dionysius the Areopagite. Dionysius' works were received from the Byzantine east in the age of Charlemagne and translated into Latin in the ninth century. At least some of them were known to the-ologians and ascetics of the 12th and 13th centuries, who accorded apostolic authority to their teachings but were not always quite sure what to make of them. Aristotle was the prevailing ancient philo-sophical authority; his intellectual method and many of his philo-sophical doctrines were central to almost all scholastic systems.When early Renaissance humanists like Petrarch criticized the ra-tionalism of Aristotle and his scholastic disciples, they sometimes suggested that Plato was a more acceptable thinker, more harmonious with Christianity, but such assertions were based on mere supposi-tion. Petrarch had a few Platonic dialogues in the Greek original, but he could not read them. Only with the re-establishment of Greek studies in northern Italy through the work of Manuel Chrysoloras and his Italian pupils in the last decade of the 14th century did it be-come possible to investigate the thought of the mysterious Plato.Many of those who learned Greek felt obligated to produce a Latin version of some ancient Greek text. Plato was one of the most allur-ing subjects of such translations. With the aid of Chrysoloras himself, the Milanese brothers Uberto and Pier Candido Decembrio made a pioneering translation of the Republic. One of the most active early translators was the Florentine chancellor Leonardo Bruni. He translated several Platonic dialogues. Other prominent translators of Plato included Francesco Filelfo, Angelo Poliziano, and the native Greek George of Trebizond.By far the greatest of these Renaissance translators of Plato was the Marsilio Ficino, who devoted most of his professional life to translating and interpreting the works of Plato and other ancient philosophers associated with the Platonic tradition. His translation, Platonis opera omnia / Complete Works of Plato, first printed in 1484, made the whole body of Plato's works available in a Latin ver-sion that remained the basic text used by Latin-reading philosophers until the 18th century. But Ficino in his own philosophy (a commen-tary on Plato's works in 1496 and the treatises De Christiana reli-gione / On the Christian Religion  and Theologia Platonica ) understood Plato in the light of the ancient Neoplatonists. In addition to translating Plato he translated the works of the leading Alexandrian Neoplatonists, including Plotinus' Enneads (1492), per-haps his greatest translation, dedicated to his patron Lorenzo de'Medici. He translated Hermes Trismegistus' Pimander and other tracts (1471), a collection of vaguely Platonic tracts produced in Roman Alexandria, and he retranslated the works of Dionysius the Areopagite (ca. 1496). The Neoplatonic commentator on Plotinus, Proclus, also attracted the attention of the Ficinian circle at Florence. In fact, the Florentine group associated the Platonic (or Neoplatonic) tradition with other genuine and forged ancient texts that they be-lieved preserved a theosophy, or philosophical wisdom about divine matters, that extended back beyond Plato himself to the Persian sage Zoroaster, the mythical Egyptian sage Hermes, the Jewish Cabalists, Orpheus, Pythagoras, the Sybilline prophets, and other even more questionable texts that they found available in Greek.Ficino firmly believed that these texts, despite their obvious diversity, represented one single tradition of divine wisdom, revealed to human-ity at the very beginning of time and passed orally from generation to generation until it was written down in the various texts that he and his colleagues were discovering, translating, and studying. These texts constituted a prisca theologia ("ancient theology") that God provided to guide humanity, running parallel to God's revelation to Moses and the Hebrew patriarchs as recorded in the Old Testament. The Neoplatonists were convinced that study of these sages would enrich and revitalize Christianity and that this enriched Christianity would eventually win over by persuasion the followers of all other re-ligions as part of God's plan for the redemption of humanity. The other early leaders of the so-called Florentine Academy were Gio-vanni Pico della Mirándola (who was less of a Platonist than the others), Cristoforo Landino, Angelo Poliziano, and the patron of them all, Lorenzo de'Medici.The fundamental philosophical doctrines of Florentine Neoplaton-ism started from Plato's distinction between the eternal world of ideas and the ephemeral world of matter. Like the Alexandrian Neo-platonists whom they studied, they interpreted Plato in a radically spiritualizing way, regarding the whole universe as permeated by a hierarchy of spiritual beings that emanated from the one God, and viewing the human soul as an inherently immortal spirit that seeks union with God (the true goal of human existence) not only through rational knowledge but also through love, the desire for absolute beauty. The theme of Platonic love was important in Ficino's own philosophical works and passed into the literary world through the Disputationes Camaldulenses /Disputations at Camaldoli (ca. 1472) of Landino, the poetry (both Latin and Italian) of Poliziano and Lorenzo de'Medici, and a generation later, such works as The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione and the Dialogues on Love of Leone Ebreo. In northern Europe, Platonic love was influ-ential in the poems of the French group known as the Pléiade, in Ed-mund Spenser, and in many generations of European poets since the 16th century. These themes are also prominent in the visual arts, beginning with two painters who were themselves members of the Medicean court society, Sandro Botticelli and Michelan-gelo, and continuing through the long course of Renaissance and post-Renaissance art.The concept of an animated universe permeated by spiritual beings also linked Neoplatonism to the study of occultist fields such as magic, astrology, and alchemy, and to the work of scholars who studied philosophical and scientific questions that would still be re-garded as genuine science, such as mathematics, physics, astronomy, and biology. Ficino and Pico themselves pursued both occultist and conventional sciences. Some others affected by Neoplatonism were Agrippa von Nettesheim, Paracelsus, such Italian "philosophers of nature" as Francesco Patrizi and Giordano Bruno, the "Cambridge Platonists" of 17th-century England, and such significant pioneers of modern natural science as Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler. Another earlier Renaissance philosopher who was heavily influenced by Platonism (though not by the Florentine tradition, which had not yet developed) was the German cardinal and philoso-pher Nicholas of Cusa.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.
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