The Nature of Creation: Christian Neoplatonism
- Hello all.
Just bringing my enquiry into the medieval conception of the nature of
creation/matter up to date. I'm looking into this since its a clearly
documented (if obscure) area, in whose framework the medieval concepts of the
nature of matter seems to be embedded.
First though, (Part One) a copy of some thoughts I've been exchanging
privately with other listmembers, about the role naturally occurring minerals
must surely have played in the recognition of geometric form.
I've been trying to give myself a flavour of the atomism debate, as it
relates to religious/spiritual standpoints. This debate was very important,
and very problematic, and the details throw a good deal of light on the
sequence of developing understanding as Greek philosophy was turned into
Christian theology (the 'unmanifest/manifest issue'.) This short outline
describes a broad picture of how the two main accounts of the geometric form
of nature came to be.
This is my speculation of an order of events that makes sense of all the
evidence. However, this proposition involves turning one piece of scholarly
orthodoxy on its head. Instead of relying on the idea that the ancients
discerned their natural philosophy mathematically/intellectually, my outline
is based on the idea that atomism (and competing philosophies) were created
***in order to explain the observation of geometry in matter.***
1) The Greeks understood that minerals 'grow' in the ground. This is
documented, and is a record of their observations that reveals that they'd
recognised minerals as special forms of matter, and developed a theory to
account for mineral presence. They also knew how to distinguish between
different minerals, and that some minerals could be reduced to metals. (In
Alchemy, the minerals are matter 'not yet fully formed', and the Alchemist
brings them to their proper form.)
2) Minerals are geometric in their structure. Couldn't be missed, it seems
unlikely it would have been disregarded.
1) and 2) together both require an explanation, and *have the potential to
reveal the nature of creation.* Together they mean 'minerals grow (in the
earth) in geometric shapes'. The next set of questions will have have to
address why this is so. Two explanations developed:
A) Atomism. Particles of pure substance come together in arrays. I don't
know how far Democritian/Epicurian atomism had come in terms of arrays, but
it was very well recorded as an explanation of matter, and developed by
Epicurius into a well defined philosophy.
B) A Divinely emmanated prima materia is given order, and manifests in the
form 'thought' by the Diety, according to the divine forms. These may be
inspired by the geometry of the regular solids. This explanation requires the
metaphysical concept of Divine Forms; and the geometry exhibited in nature,
according to this way of thinking, is evidence of a Creator, and says
something about the nature of the Creator's methods.
A) is not compatible with contempory spiritual Creation/religious models or
imperatives. It provides an explanation that can exclude the Diety
altogether, and is thus atheistic. It is therefore rejected, and during the
Religious Era remains anathema (along with the rest of Epicurianism).
B) becomes in later times, in combination with the Hebrew Tetragrammaton
*Orthodoxy*. Christian Orthodoxy, that is the official standpoint of the
Catholic Church, both East and West, (until Thomas Aquinus threw out the
'Reality of Forms' in the 13th C., changing forever Western
theology/philosophy) This is the orthodox concept of Creation from the 3rd
and 4th centuries until the 13th. When combined with the Assyrian Tree of
Life, it is the basis of Qabbala, much used by Neoplatonists. Both draw on
Greek Divine number theory, (One, Monad, Point, Two, Dyad, Line etc) (Please
tell me if I've got this wrong qabbalists, or anybody!)
B) then is the non-atomic resolution to the problem of geometric minerals.
It also neatly resolves the other major philosophical question, that of
species. Form, whether geometric in minerals and flowers, or symetrical, as
in other forms of life, reveals the thoughts of God. God eternally
geometricises; the mechanism of creation is thus explaned.
This model subsequently develops to become, together with the other
explanation of Reality, the Hierarchy of Being, the orthodox concept of
Creation from the 3rd and 4th centuries until the 13th.
Atomism, on the other hand, continues to be regarded as antithetical to
spiritual realities. It tends toward atheism. In Christianity it is
disparaged and eventually becomes heretical. This remains the case until
(18th C.?) Gassendi makes a good case for an atomism in which God creates the
atoms (traditionally, atoms had been ever-extant according to Epicurius?) By
then, the church had to give way, as chemists and others were making it
obvious that a new kind of atomism was a reality.
Plato tried to synthesise the two in Timeaus. How well this synthesis
survived in Christian philosophy I don't know. But the atomic element of
Timeaus wouldn't have been popular in the Christian world.
Gothic Architecture then drew on the orthodox explanation of Creation, what
Kepler (later) calls the 'formatrix'. This is both Eastern and Western
Orthodoxy, and in keeping with qabbala and hermeticism. Matter is given form
by the ideas of God, and the cathedrals, for various reasons, mimic this
The forms that explain geometric matter in a non atomic way, are, naturally,
forms that imitate atomic arrays and the geometry of the regular solids
Building on Cat's recent post containing an account of the origins and
interests of Freemasonry, here's an account from Neoplatonism and Christian
Thought by Dominic J. O'Meara, actually a paper by W. Norris Clarke called
'The Problem of the Reality and Multiplicity of Divine Ideas in Christian
Neoplatonism.' I'm looking at this stuff to see what was around,
nature-of-matter wise *before* the new learning (inc. quabbala) that
Freemasonry leans on started to flood in from Spain and Byzantium from the
Skipping a few pages on Plato and Plotinus, Norris Clarke comes to The Early
"When the first philosophically minded and trained Christian thinkers took
over the Neoplatonic philosophical framework to use in the intellectual
explication of their faith, during the third and fourth centuries, they had
to make two drastic changes in the matter which concerns us
First, the subordinationist hierarchy of divine hypostases in Plotinus had to
be condensed into a single supreme divine principle, in which the three
Persons within the divine nature were perfectly coequal in perfection of
being, distinguished only by internal relations of origin, not by differing
levels of perfection. Thus the Word or Logos, the Second Person,
corresponding analogously to Plotinus' Nous, was declared perfectly coequal
with the Father (corresponding analogously to Plotinus' One) sharing the
identical divine nature and perfection. Secondly, the single supreme God of
the Christians was identically creator of the universe through knowledge and
free act of love, and exercised personal providence over each and every
individual creature. This required that the one divine Mind, the same for all
three Persons but attributed by special aptness to the Word or Logos, contain
the distinct knowledge of every creature ***as well as the universal
archetypal ideal patterns guiding the creation of the world according to
The old Platonic and Neoplatonic world of ideas, enriched with the distinct
knowledge of individuals, is now incorporated directly into the one supreme
divine nature itself. Christian thinkers simply had to do this ' to do
justice to their own revelation, and they had no hesitation, but rather took
pride, in doing so."
Norris Clarke continues with some details of the problems that arose from
this synthesis, then outlines the contributions made by John Scottus Erugina
and the School of Chartres - Thierry of Chartres, a notorious atomist being
at the forefront. He then comes to the end; St Thomas Aquinus and Scholastic
Aristotlianism finally demolish the entire construct of the 'Ideas of God',
or 'The Reality of Universals'. (Universal Ideas = Forms).
"The crucial decision is finally made: the Platonic realism of ideas must
once and for all be given up...
...(The) single stroke of distinguishing the subjective being of ideas, which
is nothing but the act of the mind that thinks them, from their objective
content, their intentional meaning and reference which can be multiple and
distinct, opened the way at last to a metaphysically coherent assimilation of
the whole Eriugenian doctrine of the presence of the divine ideas in the
Word in a single, simple act prior to any plurality. The latter was indeed a
brilliant insight of Christian Neoplatonism, but one that could not make
sense unless the doctrine that accompanied it in Eriugena-that of the ideas
as true being in themselves-was jettisoned. The divorce was painful, but
inevitable. But this move also entailed the dropping of another cherished
theme of classical Neoplatonism, namely, that the passage from the divine
ideas, or realm of true being, to their unfolded exemplifications in the
contingent world of matter is a passage to a lower mode of being a
degradation or diminution in being. (The Hiearchy of Being - M) Creation
now becomes, on the contrary, a positive expansion from the merely mental
being of the world of divine ideas to a new dimension of true being "outside"
the divine Mind (extra causas), as an enrichment of the universe through a
gracious free sharing of its own real perfection; for this real perfection is
always in the line of actual esse, and this was not yet accomplished in the
realm of the divine ideas by themselves.
The same move also forced, if not the total giving up, at least the drastic
toning down and reinterpretation of another closely linked theme long
cherished by Christian Neoplatonists in the pre-Scholastic period following
the lead of Augustine himself. This is the notion that all creatures exist
in a higher, more perfect state in the exemplary idea of each of them in the
mind of God than in their own created being-especially so, but not
exclusively, in the case of material beings. This theme still keeps recurring
in the spiritual writings of Christian Neoplatonists, used as a potent
motivation and intellectual model for spiritual growth. But its literal
metaphysical force is now toned down."
This event signals the beginning of the end for Platonism, and begins to open
the door to the new approaches to natural philosophy (reason based on
observation) that will eventually create enormous difficulties for the
Church, leading it to outlaw much 'philosophical speculation', and pave the
way for the scientific revolution.