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Concept of Neo-platonism
By Fomba V. Sannoh
Date: 1/11/ 2000


The concept of Neo-platonism is a philosophical thought related to Platos philosophical dualism which , was  interpreted and developed by Plotinus. It has been argued that  it greatly influenced the thoughts of philosophers who succeeded him. Neo-platonism was developed by Plotinus. He interpret Neoplatonism in a Dualist manner in relation to Platos metaphysic world of form and material world of appearance.


Plotinus, like many of his contemporaries was a Greek philosopher. He philosophical analysis were geared toward the identified three ideas with Neoplatonism manifested in One God, the Nous and the Soul a thought which later attracted the attention of many philosophers. Porphyry was no exception.  Moreover, No did Neoplatonism Dualist concept  only influenced the thought of Ancient Greek philosophers but also the  Christian fathers of the middle age. Among the outstanding middle age theologian who was influenced by this concept was St. Augustine. This Christian father established the bases of his religious and philosophical justification on the concept of Dualist Neoplanist philosophy. Though he was a Christian convert, he played a pivotal role in convincing the church to adopt the concept of the Church - State relationship. His appraisal of platonist philosophical thought, was exemplified in Neoplatonism. Thus,  as Christian father, his idea on state and the church also took the Dualist thought explained in the City of God and the City of Man.


Therefore, in this study we will first of all shed some lights on the philosophical basis of the concept of Neoplatonism and we will to find out how it influenced the thought of St. Augustan in relation to the state. Only then we shall be in a position to appreciate the impact of Platonic and Plotinus Dualist neoplatonist philosophical thoughts on e succeeding Christian fathers and philosophers.

I find it necessary to begin with a brief explanation and analysis of all  what Neoplatonism is about and its Platonic philosophical doctrines. We shall however, base our analysis on the  interpretation of  Plotinus. This is followed by analysis of how this Neoplatonist philosophy influenced the ideas of the Christian theologian, St. Augustine. This will help us to see how manipulated the concept to  justify his political and religious thoughts.



1.                  PART  ONE



1.1.      What is Neoplatonism about?

Like many other philosophical thoughts of early great philosophers such as Plato, Neoplatonism tremendously influenced the thoughts of the succeeding generation of philosophers[1], definition of Neoplatonism can illustrate the concept for us. He attributed Neoplatonism to the philosophical works of Plato which was later interpreted by Plotinus in a very systematic way.


Therefore, Neoplatonism is Platonic as he (Plato) laid its the basis. It could also be said to be Plotinus, in the  sense he actually developed and explained the concept of Platos dualism, i.e. the metaphysical world of form and the material world of appearance. The same dualism is also identified with his perception of this world, the soul and the One the Nous and their origin, or in the word of Plato, the form and the and appearance or the intelligible and sensory worlds, in the world of Plotinus. The philosophers who live in the world of form, as rulers, should reform the sensory world. But unlike Plato, Plotinus, as a Christian father, didnt see the return of the soul  or the philosophers to the material world and reform it after been unified in the metaphysic world, which Plato sees as necessary work of the philosopher kings[2].


Therefore, Neoplatonism, is a dual-work of two great philosophers; Plato and Plotinus, whose philosophical works were based on Dualist doctrine;  metaphysical and material worlds; intelligible and sensory worlds. Hence, Neoplatonism, is the Dualist philosophical doctrine of Plato interpreted by Plotinus.


   1.2       The Central Dualist Doctrine of  Neoplatonism

The central philosophical concept of Neoplatonism lies in the Dualist interpretation of the world or society as intelligible and sensory world or body and spirit. This Dualist concept is manifested in the philosophical thought  of Plato (427-347 B.C) and Plotinus

(205-270 B. C.).


By the Dualist philosophy of Plato we mean, the way he perceived  the world as a metaphysical world, where the soul and all good we learn about, like  justice and truth are, best comprehended by the  philosopher  kings. It is he (the philosopher king) who achieves the highest degree of the knowledge of this world. He refers to this world as the form, therefore, the world we live in is just a  material one which he called the world of appearance.


Nelson (1996)  elaborated on the Dualist philosophy in his  Cave example. The cave, which is considered as the world of appearance, it is the philosophers who live outside of it in the metaphysic world, and they have known about what justice is. Therefore, it is their duty, as philosopher king rulers to reform this world of appearance; the Cave. According to Nelson, Plato then shows two problems for the philosopher kings to do, as rulers. First, ...to train a class of philosopher rulers who know what justice is. The second problem is to compel them to rule once they have left the Cave of appearance[3].

This shows that the political power lies in the hands of the philosopher kings who have the highest degree of knowledge about justice and truth. Therefore, the Cave, as a society or state, must be reform by them; they must teach the people about the absolute right like truth and justice.


Plotinus, on the other hand, developed this Platonic Dualist ideal philosophy in a speacial  way and shared the same Dualist view with Plato. According to Nelson, it was Plotinus who founded Neoplatonism by extending platonic dualism between intelligible world of form and the sensory world of appearance[4].


Platinus, being a Christian theologian, shares Platos view  that the philosophers should rule and reform the world of appearance; the Cave by educating the people about what is justice and truth. But unlike Plato, Plotinus is of opinion that the Philosophers should not return to the world of appearance or the sensory world to reform it, as seen by Plato, after been unifited with the Nous; the One in the metaphysic world.


Therefore, there are two significant differences between Platos Dualist concept and that of the Plotinus. First, Plato sees the necessity of the philosophers returning to the cave (the state) and reform it after been educated. Unlike Plato, Plotinus was, as Nelson put it, concerned only with uniting the soul with the reality, what he called: The One, not reforming this world [Cave] and not this politics[5].

Second, Platos Dualist doctrine is more philosophical. But Plotinus Dualist concept, unlike Plato, is both philosophical and-even more-religious, based on Christian faith. This explains the fact that Plotinus Dualist concept came about whereby the Roman Empire philosophy accordingly produced a kind of hopeless that philosophy only could not assuage. People no longer wanted Socratic Platonic...virtues as an end...[6].


Finally, the central ideal of Neoplatonism is Dualistic in the form of intelligible World; the metaphysic world and the sensory world of appearance; the Cave given as example, and the former has to reform the latter. This implies the taking over of political power and rhe rule in the state by the philosophers kings. What is interesting is that this concept latter had religious interpretation that links God in the intelligible world with the people in the sensory world of appearance, in which relationship, the reforming of the sensory world of appearance as society and state is the sole responsibilities of the Church (christians) which is the representative of God on earth, the world of appearance, as we shall see in the proceeding paragraphs. Hence then, this Dualist intelligible - sensory worlds influencing the Christian fathers such as St. Augustine, was only an alternative that suited the political needs of the time, in which St. Augustine tends be for a political philosopher. Thus he was able, as he saw the Dualist approach compatible to his idea, to explain and interpret his Neoplatonist philosophy in his City of God that link God and the church, and subsequently the state been in no separable linkage.


2.      PART II:


The above discussion d has given us a deep insight and ground about the gist of Neoplatonism . The purpose of this, was to shed light on the Dualist concept of the Platonic dualstic idealism reiterated by Plotinus manifested in the Neoplatonism. This paving was necessary, as to grasp the inner concept of Neoplatonic dualism. This Dualist approach was highly admired by St. Augustine and they subsequently, shaped his theological and philosophical thoughts. This led him to adopt the Dualist assumption about the world and the sates in particular.


2.1.      St. Augustine appraisal of Platonic Philosophy

St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) was both a greate theologian and philosopher. Middle age Christian father, he had deep insight in Christian faith after his conversion to Christianity. Thus he, in fact had dual life; once a pagan and then a great Christian theologian latter.


Nelson (1996), in his commentary on St. Augustines contradictory life; once a pagan, a philosopher, a theologian and a politician figured him out as a Dualistic thinker. In the word of Nelson, for St. Augustine all things are either black or white, good or evil[7].

St. Augustines thoughts can be considered as philosophized Christian doctrine which affected his thought as politician, as the Roman society of the time was the compelent.

Literature review shows that St. Augustine depth involvement in reading Platonic books led him to prefer Platonic philosophies. This is clear in the word of St. Augustine. But his appraisal of Platonic philosophies was partially of religious purpose. He was seemingly trying to find out about truth in the human soul, which is best treated by Platos theory of form. Therefore, St. Augustine, after his conversion to Christianity, fund his justification of Christian faith. All these influenced his ideas and subsequently led him to praise Platonic philosophy. According to Robert Russell (1995), in St. Augustines efforts to support his biblical claims in the his  The City of God, he  ...continues to reaffirm the superiority of Platonism over other philosophers, and to recognize its similarity with the Christian religion[8]. 


What is interesting about this is the similarity St. Augustine fund between Christianity and these classic philosophers. Thus the spiritual life and the truth about the soul, led St. Augustine to admit saying:


they [Platonic philosophers] also share other truths with us... such as the immorality of the soul, the existence of the true God who not only created the universe but who also exercises his providence over the universe[9].


By this, St. Augustine really found his way in Platonism and by evidence, he accepted Platonic philosophy as the only true system of philosophy[10]. His great work, The City of God has its fundamental teaching from this platonic philosophy. According to Russel, St. Augustine gave the tribute of his understanding of the true Christianity to the Platonists. He made this clear in his The City of God, where he is said to have frequently referred to the teaching  of Platonic philosophies.


Finally, St. Augustines subscription to platonic philosophy is a clear indication of its influence on him. Plotinus, as well, who then developed Neoplatonism, had influence on the thought of St. Augustine. Hence, comparatively, Plato, Plotinus and St. Augustine all are said to be Dualist thinkers, but the previous influence the succeeding ones.


2.2.      Neoplatonist Influence on St. Augustines assumption on State

St. Augustines assumption about state has historical evidence that subsequently led him  to politics and  his great work The City of God  was an effort toward that direction. It emerged  as a response to the Roman who accused and persecuted  Christians , as they were considered  the cause of the decline and defeat of the Roman Empire. St. Augustine tried to find what is justice, truth and the true world. He fund this in the City of God and the City of men. Christianity then became accepted as the official Roman religion when the Roman Emperor converted to Christianity,  religion and state  became inseparable.

From this explanation, it follows up that the state and the government decision-making were constituted by the church. Church therefore, had a significant place and role to play.

In the case of St. Augustine, as Christian father, he might have seen himself  a politician even if he didnt will it. According to Miller (1987), church in North Africa, where St. Augustine served as Bishop of Hipo, then fund itself increasingly implicated in legal and political activities[11].

Therefore, St. Augustines religious work which, coincided  the decline of the of the Roman Empire can be considered, as termed by Miller, one of the Latin Christian political theory in a declining Roman civilization. It was this time that St. Augustine wrote his book the City of God. The central message of his book seems to have had provided answers to many of the Roman problems that arose during that period of history. In deed, the City of God, in which St. Augustine believes that the people of God (Christians) live in, comprised all of his thoughts. He tends to explain the relation of the City of God with the City of Man, which Miller considers as a Neoplatonic philosophy; a Dualist approach.


The concept of the City of God and the City man was the direct response St. Augustine saw as solving Roman secular state or pagan problems and its relation with the church. Hence, St. Augustine should explain, according to his Christian political theory  of state - church relationship with state and their functions. Thus, he upholds that any government of the earthly city should be ordained by God.


Therefore, the Roman argument that man fulfillment came with citizenship in a rational and just state is refuted by St. Augustine, as this could not be achieved through mans own established self-state. This refers to the original sin of Adam. St. Augustine argues that man couldnt control himself, because of his irrational ways of thinking, and because of that man is forever the victim of this irrationality  . Therefore, government, according to him is instituted with divine sanction in order to preserve a relation worldly order and not as means of human  fulfillment[12].


It follows up from St., Augusitnes argument that a true state cant exist without God involvement to make a just society. In a state whereby people are united because of material, St. Augustine sees that such unity should be in the love of God. Therefore, the best state, according to him, is the true church. Church as state is then institutionalized in order to preserve order and serve the people. St. Augustine, finding answers to the Roman problem, looks into the history. The Dualist answer he fund was that there have been always two cities in history, and according to what these two cities were confined to, distinct them. One city has obeyed  and remained loyal to God, this is The City of God, where the true Christians live. And the other is the City of Man, where loyalty and self obedience are to human reasoning.

Therefore,  Christians have to serve the state and then avert the state from injustice. This implies platonic and neoplatonic philosophies. Plato sees the return of the philosopher kings necessary to reform the cave; sensory world or the society (state). Unlike Plato, Plotinus didnt see their return of the souls, after they are united in the metaphysical world. The function of the church, which represent the heavenly City (The City of God), as viewed by St. augustine, is to reform  the city of man; the state. According to Miller, St. Augustine argument lies on the fact that church existence is a grace without which men can do not good[13].


Finally, all what St. Augustine says about church as state and its role to reform the state, however, will only come in history. He argues the invisibility of the City of God, represented in the church. But then, according him, the visible church should serve the needs of the City of God on the earth city. This function of the church put universal duties on the church and make it more powerful society, outside of which St. Augustine sees no salvation. In this understanding, there is no separation between church and state. However, Miller, according to analysis, didnt assure as whether St. Augustine sees state confinement to the church. For one reason, St. Augustine acknowledges the existence of secular state in which Christians work in public offices to preserve orders of the church. Therefore, church, accepting this view, can be conceived only as advisory institution to the state, i.e. priests to the emperors. This best explains St. Augustines theory of true governance ... founded on grace[14].


In conclusion, Neoplatonism as a philosophy, was a Dualistic concept and had influence on the ideas of the succeeding generation of philosophers. Plato, who laid its ground working, fund that there are two worlds; the intelligible world of form or metaphysical world, and the material world of appearance. The previous, is where the philosopher kings, the ruler, live and the latter, is where the rest of the people live given in the example of Cave. And it is the duty of the philosopher kings, to return to the world of material to reform it.


Plotinus, on the other hand, was also a Dualist philosopher. He developed the Neoplatonism and interpreted it in a special manner. But unlike Plato, he sees that, the philosophers or the soul, dont have to return to the material world of appearance, after been united in the metaphysical world of form with the Nou referred to as The One.


This Dualist approach influence the ideas and thought of St. Augustine in his philosophical, theological and political works. This led him to assumed in his The City of  God about the state as also Dualist world, where the church, which represents the The City of God or the metaphysical world, (the form), has to reform the City of Man the society or the state, or the sensory world of appearance.


Finally, Neoplatonism, rooted from the Platonic dualism, interpreted by Plotinus, clearly influenced the ideas of St. Augustine on state, where state is to be reform by  the church in order to preserve order in the society.




Miller, D (1987). The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thoughthought.  New York: Basil Blackwell Inc.


 Reese, W.  (1980). Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Wastern and Estern Thought.

    Humanities Press Inc.


4. Nelson, R. (1995). Western Political Thought: From Socrates to the Age of Ideology. , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall











[1] W. Reese (1980), dictionary of philosophy and religion, Western and Eastern though. Humanites press Inc. USA. P. 385.

[2] W. Reese. Pp. 385.

[3] W. Reese. Pp. 39.

[4] W. Reese. Pp. 105

[5] W. Reese. Pp. 104-6.

[6] W. Reese. Pp. 107.

[7] R. Nelson. (1995). Western political tought, from Socrates to the Age of Idrology. Englewood cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice hill. P. 107.

[8] R. Nelson. Pp. 403.

[9] R. Nelson. Pp. 403-4.

[10] Ibib. Pp. 403.

[11] D. Miller (1987). The blackwell Encyclpedia of political thought. New york, basil blackwell Inc. p. 24-5.

[12] D. Miller. Pp. 25.

[13] D. Miller. Pp. 26.

[14] D. Miller. Pp. 27.

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