Though Stoicism represented the current of thought in the west,
in the east the climate was much different. There the
inspiration came from Plato, not Zeno. Frederick Grant explained
that much of this inspiration that led the eastern Syncretism
came from Plato's Laws. As you
may recall from our discussion of Plato, the soul of a person
served as the messenger between the world of the forms and the
world of the senses. The Laws detailed Plato's most
mature thoughts on the subject. Here he explained soul as the
principle of activity, change, and motion. In a more abstract
sense than in his earlier works, he made soul the bridge between
timeless and unchanging being, and change and becoming throughout
the universe. The soul creates by contemplating the changeless
forms. But its goal of bringing the universe into compliance
with the forms is never fully met. Grant quoted Theophrastus who
explain Plato's words thus; "Not even God can bring all things to
perfection, but only within the limits of possibility." There
always remains an irreducible element of imperfections in the
The soul of the individual too makes progress through
contemplating on the eternal forms. It finds the truest path
through mathematical proportion and harmony. But if we follow
this thought, as many scholars have done, we will find ourselves in
a different period, that following the end of the third century.
And to understand this we must first step away from the Greek
world and back into the world of the earliest Christians.
In the year 37 C.E. the Jewish Sanhedrin arrested a man named
Peter and several of his followers in Jerusalem. Peter was the
leader of a heretical Jewish sect who called themselves travelers
of "The Way". These Jews believed that one of their number,
Jesus of Nazareth, who had been put to death at the orders of the
Sanhedrin had risen from the dead and was in fact the Messiah of
God. Peter declared;
You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him
before Pilate. ...You killed the author of life, but God
raised him from the dead. ...But this is how God fulfilled
what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that
his Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and return to God,
so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing
may come from the lord, and that he may send the Christ, who
has been appointed for you --even Jesus. He must remain in
heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything,
as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. ...Anyone
who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from
Since this made the Sanhedrin responsible for the death of the
Messiah, this attitude could not be tolerated. Their impulse was
to sentence them all to death. However, before doing so, they
consulted one of the most highly respected Pharisees of the day,
Gamaliel, son of Hillel. This was the answer he gave.
Consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some
time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and
about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all
of his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.
After him, judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the
census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was
killed and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in
the present case I advise you: Leave these man alone! Let
them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human
origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not
be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves
fighting against God.
The Sanhedrin released Peter and his men after a severe flogging.
An order to refrain from teaching The Way in the temple was
immediately ignored. But this was only the beginning. It was
among the Diaspora that the next crisis occurred. These Jews
were more Hellenized and did not hold the Temple in Jerusalem in
such high esteem. It was in this period too that the earliest
Gospels were written and the impact of Greek philosophy on these
is important for our study.
The all-important clash between Jewish thought and the thought of
these new members of "The Way" involved the route to salvation.
For the Jewish people of the time salvation was obtained through
strict adherence to Jewish law and custom, to the dictates of the
Torah. For these followers of Jesus salvation was directly
through the Messiah. Stephen, a leader of the movement of
Diaspora Jews was brought before the Sanhedrin. The first of the
charges brought against him was that he had proclaimed that Jesus
would return and destroy the temple. The second and more
damaging was that the coming of the Messiah had abrogated all
obligations to adhere to the law. This was unheard of and
absolutely unacceptable to the Jewish hierarchy. Stephen was
sentenced to death by stoning.
The Platonic approach to salvation is summed up best by this
statement from the Laws;
And whenever the soul receives more of good or evil from her
own energy and the strong influence of others ―when she has
communion with divine virtue and becomes divine, she is
carried into another and better place, which is perfect in
holiness; but when she has communion with evil, then she
also changes the place of her life.
For Plato this was a reflection of the unification of the soul of
man and the world soul. Of particular importance was the
critical role of the individual soul in the perfection of the
world. As we can see from this excerpt;
Over these, down to the least fraction of them, ministers
have been appointed to preside, who have wrought out their
perfection with infinitesimal exactitude. And one of these
portions of the universe is thine own, unhappy man, which,
however little, contribute to the whole, and in order that
the life of the whole may be blessed; and that you do not
seem to be aware that this and every other creation is for
the sake of the whole, and not the whole for the sake of
So for Plato, and for the Hellenized world of the first century,
the path to salvation is personal, between God and man. But
though the soul of man for Plato is a very individual personal
element, the Platonic God is an abstraction. We can recognize
this Hellenistic individual approach even with the stoics, among
whom God was simply nature. In a real sense the new approach to
salvation provided by these heretical Jews added an element
missing in the Platonic view. That was the concept of a personal
God. Even though the Laws makes it quite plain that the Gods
care as much for the little man as for the great, nevertheless,
they are still abstractions.
Since the ultimate sin of The Way was the rejection of the Jewish
law, their persecution became the responsibility of the
Pharisees. It was their role in the Jewish community to insure
adherence to the Torah. One of these, a particularly zealous
Pharisee who had been persecuting members of the new sect in
Jerusalem was on his way to Damascus when he underwent a sudden
conversion. Klingaman's description is quite vivid.
Then, along the road to Damascus, where the high priest had
sent him to persecute more disciples of The Way, all the
nervous anxiety and emotional stress that had been
smoldering within Paul suddenly burst into an explosion of
light behind his eyes that literally blinded him and as he
collapsed to the ground he heard a voice he was certain was
the resurrected Jesus asking him in Aramaic, "Saul, Saul,
why do you persecute me?" And in a flash of revelation Paul
discerned a way out of the impasse that had tormented him:
in the shadow of the crucifixion and the resurrection, the
bonds of the law no longer mattered. God had deliberately
sacrificed Himself upon the cross to open a new door of
redemption for all mankind; and this gift of God's grace,
freely given through faith in the risen One, had rendered
the law obsolete.
Paul did not ask permission of Peter to begin his missionary
work. He went directly to the synagogues where he preached both
to the Jews there and to Gentiles who had been attracted there by
the Jewish way. In the year 47 Paul journeyed to Antioch where
the believers had begun a new splinter group who called
themselves Christians, or followers of the Christ. They had
built a church of their own separate from the Jewish Synagogues.
Out of this grew a split between converted Jews who believed that
Jesus' Way was necessarily through Judaism, and the others,
primarily gentiles, who claimed that they had no compulsion to
either submit to the rule of the temple or be circumcised. Paul
took the argument to Jerusalem and put it before Peter and the
leaders of the sect. They refused to take any action. From then
on Paul proceeded to convert Gentiles to the new religion.
As soon as the new sect, through Peter and Stephen, entered the
Hellenized world, it was plain that they had to learn to speak in
a new language. Not only with words, but with concepts, ideas.
Thus the lure of Platonism lingered in the new churches. But for
the first two centuries of our era this allure of Platonistic
religions, including Christianity, remained in the background of
Western culture. The primary religious forces were the Skeptics
and the Stoics. Purely abstract attitudes toward religion,
however, are possible only in a culture with sufficient stability
to warrant a faith in the nature of their immediate environment.
But in the third century things began to change. In the second
half the Roman empire was invaded from all sides. From the north
came the Franks, Alamanni, Vandals, Goths, and Samaritans.
Gothic vikings came from the Black Sea, Persians from the east,
Blemmys, Libyans, and Mauritanians from the south. Within the
empire order began to disintegrate. Separate provinces organized
against one another. Emperors were murdered and usurpers took
their place. Economic chaos spread across the empire resulting
from the devaluation of the currency leading to wildly
fluctuating prices. Standing armies required the requisition of
provisions. The state found it necessary to take their taxes in
kind since devaluation made tax money unstable.
In periods of insecurity people tend to cling to those principles
they hold dearest without regard to their value in the face of
the crisis. Cultural change, though the need is greater than
ever before, is stubbornly resisted until despite the opposition
new ideas begin to show dividends. With the security of Pax
Romana falling around them it was only natural that systems which
can be identified with success, or at least with the expectation
of success, would thus gain adherents while those that tend to be
linked with failure, or more likely the expectation of failure,
would lose some. At this point the ingredients for spectacular
cultural change are in place. That is, a pool of possible belief
patterns and extreme cultural strain. The final ingredients in
the case of the later third century turned out to be a
charismatic individual with a clear plan of action in a position
of power. That individual was Diocletion.
The twenty year reign of Diocletion was dominated by his
extraordinary will power and his penchant for immediate and
direct action. It ended, too, in the same way for after setting
up the Tetrarchy system to follow him with four emperors sharing
power over the realm, he and his co-emperor in the west,
abdicated simultaneously on the imperial twenty year jubilee.
During those twenty years the direction of the whole of western
culture was set for the next millennium.
"Other-directedness," or "other-worldliness" are just ways of
expressing the idea that there is something outside the
individual that determines the right order of existence. While
the attitude of Stoicism implies that the forces of the world are
for the most part out of the control of the individual,
nevertheless, within the bounds of nature every person was the
ruler of his own fate. The death of even this individualism
under Diocletion is abundantly evidenced. The events at the end
of the third century brought to prominence in Roman culture a
general feeling of other-worldliness, a loss of faith in the
nature and the world, and a search for other-worldly powers that
lay outside nature but which controlled nature. This formed a
climate in which Platonist religions including Christianity
However, we are not ready to discuss Christianity further yet
because there were changes in Roman philosophy toward other-worldliness that brought more strain to the problem of truth and
knowledge. That is a return to Plato in a new and somewhat
unique way. This was Neo-Platonism and the major writer was
Under Plotinus the Neo-Platonists expressed Plato's idealistic
world using two fundamental triads. The first was the trinity of
divine principles, the absolute, spirit, and soul, and second was
the trinity of man, or spirit, soul, and body. This is not the
only place where Pythagorean numerology played a part in Plotinus
thought. Explaining the second triad, he said that body
corresponds to the world as perceived by the senses, the soul to
the world as interpreted by the mind as a spatial and temporal
order. Man's spirit, through intuition, is in contact with the
spiritual world. The organs of perception are the bodily senses,
discursive thought, and spiritual perception or intuitive
knowledge. It is only by this last that we are in contact with
reality. Spirit and the spiritual world do not exist separately.
Spirit is the self-consciousness of the spiritual world, and the
spiritual world is the self-actualization of the spirit.
In this abstract view of the universe the absolute was the
ineffable source of all that is. Plato's creator, and
Parmenides' one all rolled into one perfect source. It was this
absolute entity who created everything that is through
"emanations" from the infinite. When they spoke of the world
soul, they meant the essence and order of the world as it is.
Thus it was only through the power of intuition that the soul of
the individual could experience the world soul because intuition
is the source of all knowledge. But man is in touch with
intuition only through his spiritual self and the world spirit is
simply the self-consciousness of the individual of the actuality
of the spiritual world. In other words, the spiritual world
actualizes itself through the individual through the individual
spirit. But the soul of the individual is a property of the
individual and in contact with the world soul through intuition.
It is not possible that the soul could be corporeal. In answer
to the Atomists he said that life could not be generated by an
aggregation of lifeless particles and intelligence could not be
produced without under-standing. While every body is compounded
of matter and form, the soul is uncompounded. It can be neither
the body nor matter. In a reflection of Aristotelian influences,
he said that matter can not give itself form. Without soul it
would have no existence. The importance of this Aristotelian
influence during a period when Aristotle's works were lost to the
world cannot be over-emphasized.
The soul being perfect, its defects and hindrances are due only
to presence of matter, in this case body. It obscures the light
of the absolute which shines on the soul. It is that part of
nature which resists form. It is without qualities, with a total
absence of good. Its absolute poverty makes it the principle of
evil. The last words of Plotinus help us to understand the
meaning of the role of matter of obscuring the spiritual world.
Speaking on his death bed to his physician and friend, he said,
"I was waiting for you, before that which is divine in me departs
to unite itself with the divine in the universe."
This is a return to the concept of truth from reasoning. Above
Plato's world of the forms was the absolute, the one. Below that
lay the world-soul, and completing the trinity, the human soul.
Speaking of Plato, Plotinus discussed how he derived his concept
of the human soul. He does this with a reference to the concept
of the cave as described in Plato's Republic. There Plato has us
imagine a cave filled with people who are chained to chairs.
They are unable to turn their heads or bodies and thus forced to
look straight ahead. Before them is a screen and behind them,
outside the mouth of the cave, a fire. Between the mouth of the
cave and the fire ordinary people go about their normal
activities, parading back and forth carrying objects, some women
in the tradition of the ancient Greeks carrying things on their
heads. In the cave the people see these as shadows on the screen
before them. Because they have not witnessed the reality outside
the cave they believe the shadow on the wall to be real. One of
their number somehow breaks free of the chains and walks out of
the cave. At first he is blinded by the light of the fire but
moments later he is confronted with reality. He then turned back
into the cave and attempted to explain to his former friends that
he has discovered reality and proceeds to explain it to them.
They, of course do not believe him, they revile him. The point
that Plato was making is that this is the basic problem of the
Philosopher. He must explain to people of the world who are
convinced the shadow world of their senses is reality when it is
no more than shadows on the wall. In this excerpt Plotinus calls
upon this image to explain Plato's concept of the soul.
Everywhere, no doubt, he expresses contempt for all that is
of sense, blames the commerce of the soul with body as an
enchainment, an entombment, and upholds as a great truth the
saying to the mysteries that the soul is here a prisoner.
In the cavern of Plato and in the cave of Empedocles, I
discern this universe, where the breaking of the fetters and
the ascent from the depths are figures of the wayfaring
towards the intellectual realm.
This drive of the soul from entrapment in the body to the world
of the pure forms and unification with the supreme later he
called the flight of the alone to the alone. Neo-Platonism is a
complex philosophy worthy of study on its own. What is important
for us to see now is that it represents the Roman return to the
idealist concepts of Plato and the concept of truth through
reasoning. But there is still something missing. Plotinus'
supreme, his one, is a purely intellectual concept.