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Earthdate 2003-06-02

5.  Neoplatonism and Christianity  by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.

This multiform and yet homogeneous paganism had the further support of a system of philosophy expounded and enforced by the greatest non-Christian thinkers of the age.  Neoplatonism, the last birth of Hellenic thought, not without traces of Oriental parentage, has the look of a philosophy of hesitation and expectancy.  It had lost the firm tread of Plato and Aristotle, and feared that the human intelligence unaided could not penetrate and explain all things.  The intellectual faculty of man was reduced to something intermediate between mere sense perception and some vague intuition of the supernatural, and the whole energy of the movement was concentrated on discovering the means to follow out this intuition and to attain by it not only communion but union with what was completely and externally divine.

Its great thinker was Plotinus (d. 269).  His disciples Porphyry (233-304) and Iamblichus (d. circa 330) made it the basis and buttress of paganism when it was fighting for its life against a conquering Christianity.  If the Universe of things seen and unseen be an emanation from Absolute Being, the Primal Cause of all things, the fountain from which all existence flows and the haven to which everything that has reality in it will return when its cycle is complete, then every heathen deity has its place in this flow of existence.  Its cult, however crude, is an obscure witness to the presence of the intuition of the supernatural.  The legends which have gathered round its name, if only rightly understood, are mystic revelations of the divine which permeates all things.  Its initiations and rites of purification are all meant to help the soul on the same path of return by which it completes its cycle of wanderings.  The new paganism can be represented to be the collected flower and fruit of all the older faiths presented and ready to satisfy the deeper desires of the spirit of man.  Neoplatonism could present itself as a naturalistic, rational polytheism, retaining all the old structures of tradition, of thought and of social organisation.  The “common man” was not asked to forsake the deities he was wont to reverence.  The Roman was not required to despise the gods who, as his forefathers believed, had led them to the conquest of the world.  The cultured Hellenist was taught to overstep, without disturbing, creeds which for him were worn out and to seek and find communion with the Divine which lies behind all gods.  The very conjuror was encouraged to cultivate his magic.  Pantheism, that wonder-child of thought and of the phantasy, included all within the wide sweep of its sheltering arms and made them feel the claim of a common kinship.  Jesus Himself, had His followers allowed, might have had a place between Dionysos and Isis; but Christianity, which according to Porphyry had departed widely from the simple teaching of the mystic of Galilee, was sternly excluded from the Neoplatonist brotherhood of religions.  Its idea of a creation in time seemed irreligious to Porphyry; its doctrine of the Incarnation introduced a false conception of the union between God and the world; its teaching about the end of all things he thought both irreverent and irreligious; above all things its claim to be the one religion, its exclusiveness, was hateful to him.  He was too noble a man (philosophus nobilis, says Augustine) not to sympathise with much in Christianity, and seems to have appreciated it more and more in his later writings.  Still his opinion remained unchanged:  “The gods have declared Christ to have been most pious; he has become immortal, and by them his memory is cherished.  Whereas the Christians are a polluted set, contaminated and enmeshed in error.”  Christianity was the one religion to be fought against and if possible conquered.

What Neoplatonism did theoretically the force of circumstances accomplished on the practical side.  The Oriental creeds had not merely gained multitudes of private worshippers; they had forced their way among the public deities of Rome.  Isis, Mithras, Sol Invictus, Dea Syra, the Great Mother, took their places alongside of Jupiter, Venus, Mars, etc., and the Sacra peregrina appeared on the calendar of public festivals.  As most of these Oriental cults contained within them the monotheist idea it is possible that they might have fought for pre-eminence and each aspired to become the official religion of the Empire.  But they all recognised Christianity to be a common danger, and M. Cumont has shewn that this feeling united them and made them think and act as one.



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