Ancient Connections to Heresy
Possibly the earliest instance of metaphysical teaching was around the fourth century, BC, during what is generally accepted as the origin of the Roman-Hellenistic period of philosophical thought.
During this time in history there was an intense period of philosophical inquiry, founding the growth of philosophical academies, and philosophical speculation stimulated in large part by the theories developed in Athens by the great Greek philosopher Socrates (c.470-399 BC). By far, the most prominent of these "Academies of Philosophy" was that founded by Socrates' "star pupil," the Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC).
Plato's philosophical views were based in large part upon his belief that there was a distinction between that which is (Being), and that which comes to be (Becoming). Pack- aging his ideas in a series of works he called his "Dialogues," Plato articulated the results of his search for the "true basis of order in the moral, natural, and political realms."1 He describes in his Dialogues the idea that truth cannot be attained by the senses, but with the mind.2
To Plato, truth, and therefore reality, is actually the grasping by the subject of ideas, or forms already existent in his own mind. According to Plato, these ideas existed independently of external reality or of what we perceive with our senses. What we perceive with our senses are only examples of what is already grasped by the mind. Actual truth about reality then, can only be gleaned with the proper exercise of the mind, because, as Plato put it, "knowledge does not consist in impressions of sense, but in reasoning about them." In other words, one doesn't know reality by observing and perceiving it; he must look to his own mind, and according to Plato's "Theory of Forms," it is the mind that gives "objective truth" to reality.
After the death of Plato, his most gifted student broke away to found his own school of philosophy which he named the "Peripatetic school." This student's name: Aristotle.
As Plato was Socrates most gifted student, so also was Aristotle to Plato. He differed from his mentor, however, in that while Plato believed the world to be composed of "eternal forms", Aristotle believed it to be real, but subject to the unreal, or unseen. This contrast was short lived in that the brand of philosophy postulated by these Greek philoso- phical giants soon gave way to new schools of thought; chief of which was the "Stoics," founded by "Zeno," another student of the teachings of Socrates; and the "Skeptics," founded by "Pyrrho of Elis." This dominance over the realm of metaphysical thought was short lived, however, by the first century before Christ.
Around 100 AD the works of Plato saw a resurgence of interest. Combined with some of the ideas of Aristotle and the Stoics, and based largely on his work "Timaeus" this school of thought soon became known as the "Middle Platonism."
In Middle Platonism, Aristotle's ideas concerning "formless matter" as the ultimate substratum of all visible things, and the existence of the "transcendent mind" was merged with Plato's ideas as defined in his "Theory of Forms". From this perspective, Middle Platonism taught that "the visible cosmos is shaped as the eternal World-Soul, formed and enlivened by it's contemplation of God." This contemplation, in it's turn; "confers form and harmony on formless matter."3
Middle Platonism existed as such for more than 300 years. It was most prevalent in Alexandria, Egypt and the East, where it competed for dominance with it's sister "science," Gnosticism. It was eventually supplanted by the rising popularity of "Neo-Platonism," a new philosophy that used it as an intermediate point to it's own formation.
The individual credited with the formation and popularity of Neo-Platonic thought was one "Plotinus" (205-270AD). Egyptian born, Plotinus was a late blooming student of philosophy, having only begun his studies in Alexandria, Egypt at age 28. His quest for knowledge became so great, at one point, that he even joined the army of Roman Emperor Gordianus III in his campaign against Persia with hopes of gaining first hand knowledge of Persian and Indian thought. Later, he moved to Rome and founded a school of philosophy where he began to shift Middle Platonic views back towards pure Platonism, (but maintain- ing Aristotle's metaphysical framework). By the end of the fourth century B.C., Plotinus' writings concerning Neo-Platonic ideas had gained dominance in the world of philosophical thought.
Neo-Platonic philosophies have come down to us today due largely to the efforts of three men:
1. Porphyry - (232-306? AD) A staunch and eloquent Neo-Platonist, who is almost as equally well known for his virulent anti-Christian sentiment as his philosophies.
2. Proclus (410-485 AD) Considered to be the last and greatest of the Athenian Platonists. In the writings of his student "Marinus," Proclus is shown to have held daily devotions to the sun and moon. He also openly observed the holy days of several divergent religions.
The third figure most responsible for today's proliferation and growth of Neo-Platonism is Immanuel Kant, a philosopher of the 18th century who has been ranked in influence with both Plato and Aristotle. Kant provides the unbroken link between ancient and modern metaphysical thought.