JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

2. Neo-Pythagoreans, and Eclectic Platonists.

1. Cicero mentions, as the restorer of the Pythagorean teaching, P. Nigidius Figulus, who lived in Alexandria during the latter half of the century preceding the birth of Christ. Many works, written in the time of Augustus, and ascribed to the older Pythagoreans, contain Neo-Pythagorean ideas. About the same period, Sotion, pupil of the Pythagorean Eclectic, Sextius, flourished in Alexandria. But the principal representatives of the Neo-Pythagorean philosophy were Apollonius, of Tyana (in the time of Nero), Moderatus of Gades (also in the time of Nero), and Nicomachus of Gerasa, who lived before the age of the Antonines. Secundus of Athens (under Hadrian) would also appear to deserve a place among the philosophers of this school.

(a.) Apollonius of Tyana, in his travels through the Roman Empire, and especially through the East, appeared in the character of a worker of miracles. He was a man of action rather than of systematic thought. His chief purpose was to revive the doctrines of Pythagoras in their purity, and to blend the lore of the East with the theories of the West. Eusebius (Praep. Ev. 13) has preserved a fragment from a treatise of Apollonius on sacrifice: "Apollonius here distinguishes between the one God, who is separated from all else, and other gods. No sacrifice should be offered to the former. He should not even be mentioned by name, but only thought of by the nous. All things of earth, because of their material state, are unclean, and unfit to come in contact with the supreme God. To the subordinate gods Apollonius seems to have assigned bloodless sacrifices."{1}

(b.) Moderatus of Gades, who lived about the same time as Apollonius, endeavoured to justify the introduction of Platonic and new theological notions into the Pythagorean teaching, by contending that the older Pythagoreans had purposely expressed the highest truths in symbols, and had for this purpose made use of numbers. The number One was the symbol of unity and similarity, the principle of harmony and of the constitution of all things; the number Two, on the other hand, was the symbol of diversity, of dissimilarity, of separation, and of change.

(c.) Nicomachus of Gerasa, in Arabia, appears to have lived about 150 B.C. In his work Arithmeticae, Libri II., he taught the existence of numbers in the mind of the Creator antecedently to the formation of the universe; these numbers gave the plan after which all things were fashioned. In this wise Nicomachus makes the numbers of Pythagoras what Philo had made his Ideas -- conceptions of the Divine mind, Furthermore, he holds the number One to be itself the Divinity, Reason, the Principle of form and goodness; the number Two is the Principle of dissimilarity, of change, of matter, and of evil. The ethical duty of man is to withdraw from contact with the impure, and to attain again to union with God.{2}

2. Eclectic Platonism had its rise in the first century of our era, and attained a considerable diffusion in the second. Its aim was to combine in one system the Ideas of Plato and the Categories of Aristotle, and further to establish a harmonious accord between the philosophy of Greece and the religious and mythical notions of the East. It strove, in particular, to renew and propagate the transcendentalism of Plato in opposition to the pantheism of the Stoics and the naturalism of the Epicureans. This system was the forerunner of Neo-Platonism, and led up to it.

3. Among the Eclectic Platonists, the most renowned are Arius Didymus, and Eudorus (in the time of Augustus); Dercyllides and Thrasyllus (under Tiberius, A.D. 30); Theon of Smyrna, Plutarch of Chaeronea (under Trajan, A.D. 100); Maximus of Tyre (under the Antonines, A.D. 170); Apuleius of Madaura in Numidia; Alcinons, Albinus, and Severus (about the same period); Calvisius Taurus (A.D. 150), and Atticus (A.D. 174), the physician Galen (A.D. 175); Celsus, the antagonist of Christianity (A.D. 200), and Numenius of Apamea (A.D. 170).

(a). Eudorus of Alexandria wrote a commentary upon the Timaeus of Plato, as well as upon the works of Aristotle, and composed a treatise on the Divisions of Philosophy. Arius Didymus, a pupil of Antiochus of Ascalon, wrote a work, peri areskontôn Platôni, and others besides. Thrasyllus of Egypt (A.D. 30), to whom we owe an arrangement of the Platonic dialogues, combined with his Platonism Pythagorean speculations about numbers, and Chaldean doctrines regarding magic. Dercyllides was the first to divide the Platonic dialogues into tetralogies. Theon of Smyrna composed a work on the mathematical principles involved in the Platonic theories.

(b). Plutarch of Chaeronea regarded it as the chief end of philosophy to instruct men in their moral and religious obligations, and so came to consider as chief in importance the doctrines which affect the character and temperament of the learner, In the exposition of his views he professes to follow Plato, even where he is very distinctly at variance with Plato's teaching. He combats the Monism of the Stoics, and returns to Plato's assumption of two cosmical principles, God (the Monas), the author of good, and matter (the Duas), on which depends the existence of evil. God is in Himself, unknowable, it is only His creative action which comes within reach of our knowledge. Intermediate between God and matter, Plutarch places Ideas. This lower world, the soul of man included, appears to him a being debased by the disturbing influences of matter. He holds the existence of an evil World-Soul, as well as a good. His ethical doctrines are lofty, temperate, and pure.

Maximus of Tyre, who lived about half a century later than Plutarch, followed the same lines, but shows himself more inclined to religious syncretism and a superstitious demonology.

(c). Apuleius of Madaura holds God, Ideas, and Matter to be the primary principles of all things. He distinguishes between the sensible and super-sensible world. The latter includes God, Reason, or the Unity of Ideas, and the Soul; the former rests upon matter as its basis. Alcinous likewise holds God, Ideas, and Matter to be the ultimate principles of being; but he confounds in one system the notions of Plato, of Aristotle, and of the Stoics. Severus denies that the world had a beginning. Atticus protests against the combination of Aristotelian and Platonic theories, and is a vigorous opponent of Aristotle; that the world had its beginning in time he holds to be established.

(d). Claudius Galen, the celebrated teacher of the medical art who first traced the connection between the nerves and the brain, devoted much attention to philosophy, and occupied himself with the exposition of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Chrysippus. He esteems philosophy, which for him is the same thing as religion, as the greatest of the benefits conferred by the gods. To him we owe the Fourth syllogistic Figure. He inclines to the Platonic notion of an immortal soul, but he is unable to conquer his doubts upon this point as upon all others where experience is not available. He lays special stress on the general religious belief in the existence of the gods, and the rule of a Providence. Celsus, the opponent of Christianity, is known to us by the refutation with which Origen met the arguments against Christianity which he had put forward in his logos alêthês.{3}

(e). The most unmistakable forerunner of Neo-Platonism is, however, Numenius of Apamea. He traces the philosophy of the Greeks back to the lore of the East, and speaks of Plato as the Attic Moses. There can be no doubt that he was well acquainted with Philo, and with the Jewish theosophy of Alexandria. He formulated a distinct system of Tritheism, He distingushes the Platonic Demiurgos from the Supreme Deity, making the former subject to the latter, and thus proceeds: The first God is goodness in itself and of itself, he is pure activity of thought (nous), and the ultimate reason for all existence (ousias archê). The second god (ho deuteros theos), the Demiurgos, is good by participation in the being of the first, he contemplates the super-sensible archetypes of things, and so acquires knowledge; he exerts his activity upon matter, fashions it after the archetypes he has beheld, and thus becomes the creator of the world: The world, the creation of the Demiurgos, is the third god. This doctrine Numenius ascribes to Plato, and even to Socrates. He holds that the soul has been degraded from a previous incorporeal state of existence in punishment of a fault. Harpocration and Oronius seem to have held similar views.

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{1} A century later Philostratus, at the instigation of the Empress Julia, wife of Alexander Severus, composed a treatise on Apollonius, which purports to be a biography. This work is a romance at once philosophical and religious in character, and written for a purpose. In the person of Apollonius the Neo-Pythagorean ideal is sketched with the design of setting another ideal and wonder-working personage in opposition to the person of Christ, and of thus maintaining the repute of the heathen religion against the advance of Christianity. In this work we are told of the wonders which befel at the birth of Apollonius; for example, a streak of lightning which sank into the earth, rose again into the air, and there disappeared. we are told of the great piety of Apollonius, and of the higher knowledge he possessed, and by which he was enabled to read the future, and to speak in tongues which he had never learned. We are told how he journeyed to India to converse with the Brahmins, and to interchange knowledge with them. His miracles are described at length. He is said to have cast out devils, to have raised a dead girl to life, and to have learned from the whining of a tame lion that it possessed a human soul -- the soul of Amasis, King of Egypt, and so forth. We are also told that he travelled into Egypt and there confounded the wisdom of the Gymnosophists. Apollonius enjoyed the personal acquaintance of Vespasian and Titus. Under Domitian he suffered imprisonment in consequence of an unguarded prophecy regarding Nerva's succession to the Empire. But he escaped miraculously from prison, and announced at Ephesus the death of Domitian at the moment that the Emperor died in Rome. His own death was accompanied by miracles. Some say he entered the temple of Athene, in Lindus, and there disappeared; others assert that he went into the temple of Athene, in Crete, and thence raised himself into heaven, an unseen choir of maidens singing the while: "Rise up from earth; ascend to heaven." Philostratus relates these and other fantastic stories, professing to found his narrative on a written document left by a certain Damis, a pupil and companion of Apollonius; but of this document there is no further trace. The design to raise Apollonius to the position of a heathen saint and worker of miracles, and to set him against Christ, in order to drive Christianity from the field, is unmistakable. {2} To Secundus, of Athens, the "silent philosopher," who lived under Adrian, are attributed certain answers to philosophical questions put by the Emperor, which are in accord with the notions of the Neo-Pythagoreans. Those answers are found in the philosopher's "Life" -- a work which dates from the second century.

{3} As to the substance of Celsus' work -- it is remarkable that big first objection to Christianity is, that it aims at becoming not a national religion, but a universal religion. All the heathen creeds were national, the claim of Christianity to be a universal faith was unintelligible to the pagan world. Celsus despised the Jews as heartily as he despised the Christians, but he held that the Jews had an advantage over the Christians in this, that they possessed a national religion. He furthermore reproached the Christians with insisting always on blind faith, and refusing all rational inquiry into their articles of belief. He failed to understand the nature of Christian faith and its relation to reason. He denied the supernatural manner of the birth of Christ. The Jewish fable of the Roman soldier Pantheus and his relations with Mary he accepts without question. The whole life of Christ seems to him to be a refutation of the Christian belief in His divinity. He cannot reconcile the lowliness and poverty of the Saviour with his own epicurean conceptions of the happiness and immunity from suffering enjoyed by the gods. He makes mockery of the god who hid himself when the Jews accused him, whe wandered about the country, was betrayed by one of his disciples, taken prisoner, and crucified. He altogether denies the resurrection ef Christ. He laughs at the evidence in favour of the resurrection. If Jesus really meant to display his divine power, he would have revealed himself to his torturers and executioners; but he did not appear to them: he showed himself to a feolish woman, and then to his own companions. Moreover, how could the Son of God descend from heaven? Such a thing could not be accomplished without effecting a change in God himself from a better state to a worse. And if he came to bring the true religion into the world, why did he not come sooner? In a word, Celsus maintains that the whole teaching regarding the person of Christ is no more than an attempt to deify a dead man; it is no better than any other heathen apotheosis. Finally, what do the Christians mean by the resurrection of the body? Such a belief is wholly irrational; for the body is altogether unclean, and subject to every kind of misery, &c &c.