Wow! This Has Been Getting Interesting!
I’ve been working for awhile now on this project. I don’t think I realized how interesting it would be for me personally to approach the wide-ranging material on Classical Western philosophy with a specific focus and intent rather than considering it more broadly. I find myself following tangential informational paths of interest, and then having to reel myself back in to seek the specific threads that relate to the two axioms that prompted this exploration. I have been spending my early mornings, some of my lunches and most of my nights and weekends in a sea of amazing ancient writings, thoughts and information.
When I began this project it was almost on a whim that grew out of a periodic “pet peeve” I have with credulity, blanket statements, and claims about “truth” or “what is”. I had also noticed a general tendency among many modern Pagans and New Age thinkers to base their actions, including spiritual, religious, and magical practices, upon a cluster of significant ideas without necessarily knowing where those ideas come from. I realized that we can use a pen without knowing how ink is made; we can type on our computers without needing any understanding of motherboards and electrons, but I also knew that information specific to an understanding of where our ideas come from can be enriching and powerful. I also knew that I was uncomfortable with the two axioms I’ve chosen to explore here, again, these are: the belief or assertion that we “create our own realities” and the claim that each individual is 100% responsible for all occurrences in their lives. I even knew, albeit rather foggily, why I had these concerns, and I had some unrefreshed memory about where the ideas come from, possible alternative interpretations, useful aspects in spiritual or magical practice, and risks and logical fallacies. However, as I said this understanding was “foggy” and the context was “unrefreshed”. Cleaning the philosophical spectacles has been very inspiring.
What’s personally been really entertaining is the focused revisiting and the discovery of new ( to me) information about early metaphysical and Pagan philosophy. I have to say, I’m loving it. Philo Sophia.
At the same time, part of me is feeling impatient–I know I need to get the underlying and foundational ideas out there and into some sort of perspective before I can begin to really think about and discuss aspects of these two axioms, but I keep wanting to jump ahead to the analysis and I haven’t even gotten out of the Classical era yet. And there are all those German philosophers who weighed in on this, and then there are the more recent roots of modern esoteric thought! However, I will keep plugging away at this, get the hereditary roots of magical philosophy onto the page and then, I get the feeling I’ll have a wild adventure synthesizing the meanings.
So, without further ado, the next installment:
Neoplatonism and the Rise of Christianity
This post is the fourth in a discussion and criticism of the roots, context, spiritual and philosophical significance of the widespread related axioms of reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities” and “responsibility assumption”, or the belief that all individuals are 100% personally responsible for what happens in their lives. I will again provide links for further detail from Wikipedia and elsewhere.
The previous post examined later Hellenic and Hellenistic Classical thinking that can be seen as related in a foundational manner to our two topics, particularly looking at Stoicism and Skepticism. Towards the later period in question, the rise of Christianity in Rome dramatically impacted the previously poly- and pantheistic Western perspectives.
Neoplatonism was last in the line of Classical Pagan philosophies. Synthesizing the work of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the esoteric interpretations of classical Hellenic mathematics and practices from Pythagoras, Neoplatonic thought blended philosophical, mythical and metaphysical concepts and served as a last bastion of Hellenic Paganism during the rise of an increasingly hostile monotheistic and Christian dominance. Neoplatonic thought can be seen as not just an eclectic approach to Hellenic philosophical concepts but a synthesis of many of the most important ideas. Aristotle’s logic and philosophical method are oddly countered by a Skeptism particularly of empirical knowledge. Neoplatonism’s desire to aspire to goodness and virtue through a metaphysical dialectic is derived from Plato’s Socratic Dialogs. Neoplatonic thought also draws from Stoic ethics while sharing the Stoic perspective of the action of the Divine in Nature as well as Stoic interpretations of the origin of matter. Neoplatonic thought is important to a discussion of the roots of our two axioms of reality formation and 100% personal responsibility for outcomes in our lives, partly because of ways in which Neoplatonism informed the much later development of Theosophy which will be addressed in another post. Of specific importance to modern ideas about reality formation and personal responsibility for individual outcomes are the Neoplatonic ideas about the relationship of the Soul to extrinsic reality.
A critical Neoplatonic voice is that of Plotinus who felt that engaging in a dialectic allows the Soul to discover its status as an intimate governor of Nature. Plotinus discusses the relation of the individual soul to the All-Soul. He describes the individual soul as independent of the highest Soul to demonstrate how the forgetful soul can fall into an illusion of separation. In The Enneads however he specifically insists that the individual soul and the All-Soul are one and that Nature is the Soul’s expressive act. Plotinus posited that the Universe is an analogue of the experience of the Soul, and he developed a system by which the Soul naturally comes to know itself in relation to its acts, which results in the attainment of full self-consciousness.
Specifically, it is in Neoplatonism that we see an effort to clarify how individual souls can directly engage with Nature through dialectic. While some believed that is impossible to understand Divine Nature through reason, and the soul is therefore not capable of rising to a Platonic goal of perfect knowledge beyond change, Neoplatonic thinkers posited that it is through the dialectic that the soul attempts to recover from its forgetfulness of Divinity and once again know reality.
“God is not external to anyone, but is present within all things, though they are ignorant that he is so.” –Plotinus
Specifically, Plotinus’ description of the Soul as an essentially creative being which understands existence on its own terms, is of importance to the development of the axioms in question. It is clear that early ideas about reality formation are best expressed in Neoplatonic ideas such as that of Proclus who in Platonic Theology III stated that:
“The thought of every man is identical with the existence of every man, and each is both the thought and the existence”.
The origins of Neoplatonism can be traced back to the era of Hellenistic syncretism which also spawned such movements and schools of thought as Gnosticism and the Hermetic tradition. A major factor in this syncretism, and one which had an immense influence on the development of Platonic thought, was the introduction of the Jewish Scriptures into Greek intellectual circles via the translation known as the Septuagint. The encounter between the creation narrative of Genesis and the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus set in motion a long tradition of cosmological theorizing.
Because this “Magic 299” discussion takes as its particular focus the philosophical context for modern eclectic and primarily non-montheistic individuals in the Neo-Pagan, Magical, New Age and Gaian communities, I am not going to spend a lot of time exploring monotheistic viewpoints unless they directly contribute to either of the two axioms in question. For those interested in that there’s a ton of information out there from Islamic, Christian and Jewish religious thinkers and teachers. A good place to start for those who do wish to explore the dominant religious viewpoints is the Pacific School of Religion. I will touch upon Western and Middle Eastern philosophies from around the time of the spread of Christianity that specifically contribute to or shed light upon the two axioms in question.
I closed Part Three with the following sentence:
“As skepticism influenced nearly all other Greek philosophies, Hellenic and later Roman philosophies came to take it for granted that certain knowledge is impossible and they turned to focus upon that knowledge which could be deemed to be true most of the time.”
While I just said above that I am not going to be spending a lot of time on monotheistic perspectives, there is an important issue that applies here. It also allows for a transition from the Paleo-pagan and Neoplatonic thought to later contributions to our topic.
Specifically, I want to talk about how early Christian thought drew upon or rejected the two schools of thought I discussed in part three. Much of the history of early Christian philosophy is an attempt to superimpose the new religion over Greek and Roman philosophical methods which had increasingly embraced Stoicism and Skepticism and the related idea of probable knowledge and uncertainty.
Early Roman Christians faced a dilemma as Christian philosophy was far more concerned with, and even demanded, an absolute and certain knowledge of the divine and of Christian ethical precepts, and this perspective directly contradicts Hellenic and Hellenistic ideas about probable knowledge. It became increasingly important to distinguish between “the true religion” and ideas rooted in various Pagan philosophies. One of the original Christian “missionaries”, Paul of Tarsus, addressed this problem by claiming that he was spreading the knowledge of God, while the knowledge of the Hellenes was “human knowledge” and therefore the knowledge of fools. Christian knowledge, which rejects the human reasoning which might lead to skepticism, was described as the wise knowledge. This approach resulted in Christianity taking a strong anti-rational position from its inception.
The Christians were competing however with a very well-established and powerful cluster of beliefs and philosophies. As with the destruction, usurpation and re-purposing of Pagan sculpture, art, architecture and temples, what early Christians could not destroy they chose to preempt. Much of the history of early Christian theology and philosophy is therefore an attempt to superimpose the new religion over Greek and Roman philosophical methods which were based on Skepticism and probable knowledge.
So early Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine and Boethius adapted some of the Aristotelian, Platonic, and Stoic traditions of Greece and Rome to demonstrate that one could in fact arrive at certain knowledge, at least in matters of Christian religion and divinity.
While Stoicism was regarded by Christians as a pagan philosophy, nonetheless, they did “retool” certain important terms from that philosophical viewpoint. This includes the use of language such as “virtue “, “spirit “, “conscience ” and “logos “. Additionally, the Christians did not simply borrow a useful terminology from the Stoics. They also embraced and created a synchretic religious perspective based upon shared philosophical beliefs such as the Stoic and Christian concept of an intrinsic free will in the face of extrinsic reality, assertions of a human kinship with God, and a belief in the innate weakness or “evil” of mankind. Both Stoicism and Christianity also advocated restraint of the passions and the “lower” emotions so that human potential could be developed.
This idea of “working on oneself for spiritual betterment” is also tied to modern ideas of personal responsibility and reality formation.
“Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown from his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow or beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine” –Plotinus
All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.