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Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Blavatsky and the Neoplatonic Revival

Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie
Jay Bregman places Theosophists Thomas Moore Johnson (1851-1919) and AlexanderWilder's (1823-1909) platonic adventure as part of the American transcendentalist current begun by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882),(1) which can be considered the first significant American philosophical school of thought. Sadly, the passing of Johnson and Wilder spelled the end of this idealistic school, fading out in the wave of materialist, technological, empirical impulses of the twentieth century. However, it is not to say that their work did not bear any fruits. In this post, I would like to attempt a kind of rough charcoal sketch of the aftermath of their bold Platonic experiment, which saw the surprising revival of Neoplatonic studies in academia, which has influenced further growth in more alternative circles as well.

A short digression before beginning: despite the extensive amount of study Neoplatonism has garnered in the last 100 years, I think that it is a philosophy that remains undervalued and misunderstood, considering that it was a major part of the intellectual worldview in the West and the Middle East for at least a thousand years (mainly in the Aristotelian form known as the ‘Ammonian synthesis’, (after Ammonius Hermiae (c. 440 – c. 520), a philosopher who has been largely forgotten, but who is actually extremely influential in the history of philosophy) the last major expression in the west being with the Cambridge Platonists like Ralph Cudworth (1617 –1688). The greatest thinkers of the Medieval period in the Christian, Islamic and Jewish worlds, Aquinas (1225–1274),  Avicenna (980-1037), and Maimonides (1135-1204), were all thoroughly steeped in Neoplatonic philosophy (3). The main problem, as I see it, that there is a prevalent tendency for modern historians to interpret that philosophers of that period with a modern form of Aristotelianism that is more in tune with the sceptical, empirical, and rationalistic tendencies of modernism, an approach to Aristotelian thought that has no historical precedence, and as Lloyd Gerson argues (see Aristotle and Other Platonists,  Cornell University Press; 2006), is not an accurate presentation of Aristotle’s thought, but a rather materialistic one. Although this approach dominated the academic world from roughly 1930-1985, fortunately there are signs that things are changing as post-modern perspectives being to take hold.

In a letter to GRS Mead (1863-1933), Thomas Moore Johnson expressed a wildly ambitious desire to translate the entirety of the Enneads of Plotinus (2).  He did not get very far, but his idea proved to be prescient, because it was precisely a complete modern translation of Plotinus in English (and French) that proved to be the necessary catalyst for the revival in interest in Neoplatonism. It did not take long for two more intrepid mavericks to romantically take up the challenge, the Irishman Stephen Mackenna (1872 –1934)(1917-1930 edition) and  the Scott-born American Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie (1871-1940) (1918 edition).  
Soon after, the academic world began to pay more attention to Plotinus. The academic world was already in the process of a major re-evaluation of Greek philosophy, spear-headed in Germany with the Bibliotheca Teubneriana extensive series of ancient greek texts.  In the English world, Arthur Hilary Armstrong, (1909 –1997) was a pioneer and Émile Bréhier (1876-1952) produced an excellent complete French translation (1924–1938). By the 1960s, Plotinus broke a kind of academic embargo on Neoplatonic philosophers  with his inclusion in the Cambridge Loeb Classical Library (A. H. Armstrong, Enneads, 1966-1988) and in the French world, a comparable translation by Paul Henry and Hans-Rudolf Schwyzer appeared (1951-1973), capping a considerable breakthrough that saw his status rise from an obscure excentric footnote in the history of philosophy to a figure regularly considered to be the greatest philosopher between Aristotle and Aquinas.

Moreover, Wayne Hankey argues how neoplatonism plays an important role in contemporary French philosophy, beginning with Bergson and Heidegger:
In 1959 Hadot published a criticism of Heidegger‘s treatment of Platonism in the course of judging both that Heidegger is ―the prophet of this end of Platonism, which is, at the same time, the end of the world and that ―one is able to be tempted to interpret the thought of Heidegger as a sort of néo-platonisme. Pierre Aubenque‘s―Plotin et le dépassement de l‘ontologie grecque classique, was published in 1971. It sets up the question about the alternative metaphysics which might derive from Neoplatonism in the Heideggerian terms which have dominated French philosophy in the last two-fifths of the twentieth century. 

By either, or both, of these ways Plotinian thought might escape Heidegger‘s critique of onto-theology. Aubenque also suggests how Neoplatonism relates to a Derridean deconstruction of ontology: ‘’Fundamental Ontology or ―overcoming metaphysics: this alternative, which the contemporary project of a ―destruction or better of a ―deconstruction of the pseudo-evidences of classical ontology confronts anew, finds its exact prefiguration in Neoplatonism.’’ (Neoplatonism and Contemporary French Philosophy Dionysius 23 (2005): 161 - 190.)

Furthermore, Plotinus has even worked his way into mainstream French bookstores, thanks mainly to the "Les Écrits de Plotin", Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, which publishes individual treatises in French translation, started by Pierre Hadot. As discussed previously, a renewed interest in Iamblichus (c. AD 245 – c. 325) would follow, and even a much-shunned philosopher like Proclus (412 –485 AD), has been the object of a renewed interest in study since the mid-1980s. Moreover, Platonism has continued to exist in a vital way in certain  individual and collective efforts. For example, Manly P. Hall,  David Fideler, with his Phanes Press and Alexandria journal, Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D , the thriving Prometheus Trust and the International Society for NeoplatonicStudies.   It is therefore safe to say that there has not been this much interest in Neoplatonism since the days of Ralph Cudworth and the Cambridge Platonists.
(1) For a history of American Transcendentalism see: Bregman J. (2009) Proclus Americanus. In: Vassilopoulou P., Clark S.R.L. (eds) Late Antique Epistemology. Palgrave Macmillan, London (2) Bowen, Patrick D. and K. Paul Johnson, eds. Letters to the Sage: Selected Correspondence of Thomas Moore Johnson Volume One: The Esotericists. Forest Grove, OR: The Typhon Press, 2016.
(3) See Christian Platonists and Platonizing Christians in History
See also:
The Brothers Guthrie: Pagan Christianity of the Early 20th Century
Interview with Tim Addey, co-founder and chair of The Prometheus Trust, a UK charity that supports scholarship in the Platonic tradition.

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