The Not-So-Platonist Neoplatonists

I’ve been reading Remes book Neoplatonism and have found it to be, though difficult, a great introduction to Neoplatonism. Very highly recommended! Anyways, in chapter 3 she discusses the Neoplatonist view of nature and the sensible universe. If you’re familiar with conservative Evangelicalism or have spent anytime in those circles, you would know that there is a pop-antagonism against anything that smacks of Platonism. Often, as some of my earlier posts have noted (here, here, and here), the Early Church is singled out as an example of the detrimental effects of “Platonism.” Normally, this critique centers around the platonic understanding of creation and its relation to evil, which brings me back to Remes. As the standard account of “Platonism” goes as explained by some Evangelicals, matter and creation are “inherently evil.” But, is that an accurate portrayal of Platonism? Remes concludes her section on the subject of evil with this paragraph:

In all these approaches, evil undermines the goodness of the generation emanating from the One, but it has no ultimate power over it, nor is its existence independent of it. Even though evil marks especially the material and sensible existence, it should be remembered that Neoplatonism regards the sensible existence as a mainly positive one: a realm that displays the beauty of the higher principles. Plotinus attacks vehemently, for instance, Gnostic dualism: this world, although deficient, is not unqualifiedly or even predominantly evil but an image of a beautifully ordered intelligible realm. Bodies are beautiful houses and instruments of souls, not anything inherently evil (Enn. I.4.16.21-30, II.9.4-5). Even though matter is often described as a source of deformation and vice, it is unlimited and formless, and thereby without any beautiful organization or proportion, rather than being positively evil. It is not another source of existence alongside the One, but rather, generated by the One, even though furthest removed from its goodness.

-Pauliina Remes, Neoplatonism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 97.

The point: if you’re going to critique Platonism (and there are places where it needs to be critiqued), make sure you are actually critiquing Platonism. We (i.e., Christians) are people of action––strawmen do not become us.

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2 thoughts on “The Not-So-Platonist Neoplatonists

  1. Are you conflating the Platonism and Neoplatonism? Is Plato’s Platonism more ambivalent about matter than Plotinus’?

    • Good point. I think the ambiguity lies in the term “Platonism” which necessarily entails the followers of Plato who may have held different views than he did. I think this ambiguity is also present in the pop-antagonism towards Platonism, which is why it is it makes such a good strawman. 🙂 In regards to my ambiguity, the predominance of Neoplatonism in Late Antiquity (especially around the time of Augustine) that seemed enough to equate the two. But, good catch. I’ll try to be clearer.

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