Neoplatonism is generally a religious philosophy inspired by the teachings of Plato.

Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism all had their roots in the teaching of Socrates, whereas Neoplatonism was inspired by Plato’s philosophy on the relationship between body and soul.

The term Neoplatonism itself was not used in ancient times – it was in fact not coined until the early 19th Century. Neoplatonists would have considered themselves simply Platonists, although their beliefs demonstrate significant differences from those of Plato. Perhaps the most significant difference was that the Neoplatonists add a religious or divine element to their philosophy.


Neoplatonism took hold in the late Hellenistic period and its most important figure was Plotinus (c. 205 – 270 AD), who studied philosophy in Alexandria but later settled in Rome. It’s interesting to note that he came from Alexandria, the city that had seen the central meeting point for Greek philosophy and Oriental mysticism for several centuries.

Plotinus brought with him to Rome a doctrine of salvation that was to compete seriously with Christianity when its time came. However, Neoplatonism also became a strong influence in mainstream Christian theology as well.

The Neoplatonists built on Plato’s World of Ideas, and the way he distinguished between a higher reality and the sensory world. For Plato, this meant establishing a clear division between the soul and the body. Mankind thus became a dual creature: our bodies consist of earth and dust like everything else in the sensory world, but we also have an immortal soul.

To reconcile the duality between the soul and the body, Neoplatism introduced a spiritual connection between the two.

The One

Plotinus believed that the world is a span between two poles. At one end is the divine light which he called The One. Sometimes he called it God. At the other end is absolute darkness, which receives none of the light from The One.

But Plotinus’ point is that this darkness actually has no existence. It is simply the absence of light – in other words, it is not there.

All that exists is God, or The One.

But in the same way that a beam of bight grows progressively dimmer and is gradually extinguished, there’s somewhere a point that the divine glow of light cannot reach.

According to Plotinus, the soul is illuminated by the light from the One, while matter is the darkness that has no real existence. But the forms in nature have a faint glow of the One.

Imagine a great burning bonfire in the night from which sparks fly in all directions. A wide radius of light from the bonfire turns night into day in the immediate area; but the glow from the fire is visible even from a distance of several miles.

If you went even further away, you would be able to see a tiny speck of light like a far-off lantern in the dark, and if we went on moving away, at some point the light would not reach us. Somewhere the rays of light disappear into the night, or when it is completely dark we see nothing. There are neither shape nor shadows.

Imagine now that reality is a bonfire like this. That which is burning is The One and the darkness beyond is the cold matter that mankind and nature are made of. Closest to The One are the eternal ideas which are the primal forms of all creatures.

Yet everywhere in nature some of the divine light is shining. We can see it in all living creatures, even a rose or a bluebell has its divine glow. Furthest away from the The One are earth and water and stone.

There is something of the divine mystery in everything that exists. We can see it sparkle in a sunflower or a poppy. We sense more of this unfathomable mystery in a butterfly that flutters or from a goldfish swimming in a bowl.

But we are closest to The One in our own soul. Only there can we become one with the great mystery of life. In truth, at very rare moments we can experience that we ourselves are that divine mystery. Plotinus’ metaphor is rather like Plato’s Myth of the Cave, the closer we get to the mouth of the cave, the closer we get to that which the source of existence springs from.

But in contrast to Plato’s clear two-fold reality, Plotinus’ doctrine is characterized by an experience of wholeness – everything is one for everything is The One. Even the shadows deep down in Plato’s cave have a faint glow of the One. On rare occasions in his life, Plotinus experienced a fusion of his soul with God.

We usually call this a mystical experience and it led Neoplatonism to inspire the movement known as Mysticism.

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