Introductory Notes on Neoplatonism and “Return to the One”, With Article and Audio About the Works of the Great Ismaili Thinker Avicenna

I. WHAT IS NEOPLATONISM?

Plato

Plato

Plotinus

Plotinus

If you live in the Western world today or have been influenced by it, you may be more of a Neoplatonist than you realize. As the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated, the general characterization of the Western philosophical tradition “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” [1]

Neoplatonism is a relatively modern term that mid-nineteenth century scholars created to distinguish the ideas of later Greek and Roman Platonists from those of Plato himself. Plotinus (ca. 204 – 270 CE) is considered the first main proponent of Neoplatonism. His intent was to use Plato’s thought as an intellectual basis for a rational and humane life. [2]

Neoplatonists synthesized the approaches of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and others, addressing the individual yearning for salvation from a philosophical viewpoint. Neoplatonism posits a single source (the One) from which all existence emanates and with which an individual soul can be mystically united.

This philosophical school provided ways that the individual could ascend the ladder of being through theoria – contemplation of the Divine. The ultimate goal of life is to achieve mystical union with the Divine (the One). After completing its spiritual evolution, the soul of each human being reintegrates with the Universal Soul in all purity and lives in the Divine Immanence in full consciousness.

Remarkable individuals such as Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Augustine of Hippo (Saint Augustine), Avicenna, Paracelsus, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Taylor, and Ralph Waldo Emerson have all been associated with Neoplatonism or Neoplatonic thought. Many widely accepted Neoplatonic concepts have been perpetuated in the West by such diverse sources as Christianity, Sufism, Kabbalah, the art and philosophy of the Renaissance, the Cambridge Platonists, the American Transcendentalists, and others. Neoplatonic approaches continue to be of tremendous importance in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mysticism, as well as the esoteric schools, including Rosicrucianism.

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II. THE NEOPLATONIST DOCTRINE OF EMANATION AND
RETURN TO THE ONE

By Lloyd Abrams, Ph.D, FRC

“The One”

In Neoplatonism, the source of everything, the highest divinity and ultimate reality, is “the One,” a formless, infinite, simple unity. As such, it is beyond comprehension by the physical senses and rational thought. For Neoplatonists, “all theoretical discussions of the One are finally inadequate, since its true nature is revealed only in the mystical union.” [3]

Plotinus likened the One to a fountain that overflows, and it is this out-flowing or emanation from the One that gives rise to all of the other levels of existence. In this model, creation is a sequential, stepwise process, from higher and more perfect levels down to lower and lower levels, finally ending with the material world of multiplicity and oppositions.

What exactly is it that emanates or flows out of the One? Since the One is a simple unity, without component parts or separate attributes, it must be the stuff of the One itself, infinite and unknowable. As we have seen, Plotinus compared it to water overflowing from a fountain. Light is often used as a metaphor for this divine flow, as light is non-material and expands infinitely in all directions. Sometimes terms like Spirit or spiritual energy are used to express this sense of flowing. The word “spirit” is related to wind or breath, both of which are flowing air. The Neoplatonists sometimes used more abstract terms, such as “causation” or “influence” flowing downward from one level to the next. Whatever terminology we encounter in the various esoteric systems, we should remember that these are all metaphors for a metaphysical concept rather than descriptions of a physical process.

Plotinus’s model includes three “hypostases,” or fundamental levels of reality. The first and highest is the unknowable “One,” which emanates the next level, called Nous, translated as Divine Mind or Intelligence. This second level contains the Platonic Forms or Ideas, which we can know intellectually, and so this level is also called the Intelligible World. Nous then emanates the next lower level, Psychē or Soul, which animates the physical world and serves as an intermediary between the Intelligible World and the material world we know with our physical senses. Later Neoplatonists added more and more intermediaries and multiple levels of being to Plotinus’s original model, but the basic idea remained the same. Everything comes from an original ineffable unity by a process of sequential emanation, resulting in a graded hierarchy of levels or states of being, from the highest divinity down to the lowest materiality. This hierarchical structure has been called “The Great Chain of Being.”

There are two seemingly conflicting implications inherent in this model. First, the sequential emanation of successively lower and lower levels of being emphasizes how we and our physical world are so separated from the divine level and so far from connection with the One. Emanation proceeds farther and farther from the original source, and each level differs more and more from the original unity and perfection of the One. At the same time, however, since everything arises by a process of emanation from the One, everything is ultimately composed of the same basic stuff as the One. Therefore, in its deepest essence, even the lowliest particle of inert matter shares a common nature with the One. So there is a profound connection, or unity, underlying the apparent multiplicity of the physical world, and of the entire hierarchy of worlds. That is why it is possible for us to strive to return to our source, the One.

The Neoplatonists asserted that all things naturally desire to return to their source, to re-unite with their cause. As the One is the first cause of everything, all things have an inherent tendency to return to the One. This Neoplatonist picture of emanation followed by striving for reintegration is referred to as the doctrine of “Procession and Return.”

In the Individual Human Life

In addition to applying to the history and structure of the universe, this pattern of procession and return also applies to the individual human life. The Neoplatonists believed that each human soul originates from the divine level, and that it descends through the seven spheres of the planets to arrive on earth and enter a physical body. As it descends, the soul is “stained” and weighed down by taking on characteristics from each of the planets it passes near. (That is how one’s personality and fate are affected by the positions of the various planets at the time of birth.) During one’s life, the soul is described as imprisoned within the physical body. At the time of death, if the soul has not been too attached to the material world and the pleasures of the physical senses, it can be freed to rise back up through the seven planetary spheres, being progressively purified by giving back at each level what it had taken on during its descent, until it regains its original purity and finally returns to re-unite with the One.

Mysticism is attempting to make that return trip to divine union while one is still alive, rather than waiting until after death. For the Neoplatonists, the model remains the same. Mystics purify themselves by not being too attached to the physical world and the pleasures of the senses, and by living in accord with the divine will. Then, by engaging in various means, such as meditation, prayer, and ritual practices, the mystic sends his or her soul or consciousness up through the spheres toward re-union with the One. This archetypal theme of a Fall from a perfect state of unity and divinity into the material world of multiplicity and oppositions, and striving to eventually re-unite with the original divine oneness, is prevalent in many spiritual traditions and common cultural concepts.

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III. THE LIFE AND WORKS OF AVICENNA

By Connie James, FRC

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980. Abu Ali al-Husain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina was known in Europe as Avicenna. A healer and a humanist, Avicenna developed an exemplary holistic approach that captures the essence of ethics in science and has thus come to serve as a source of inspiration for the promotion of this concern, which is of central importance to UNESCO. Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples, inspired by a miniature in a 17th-century Turkish manuscript.

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980. Abu Ali al-Husain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina was known in Europe as Avicenna. Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples, inspired by a miniature in a 17th-century Turkish manuscript.

Abstract: Many people think that Neoplatonism flourished only inthe Roman Empire around the third and fourth centuries CE. However, itre-emerged again in the Islamic lands in later centuries. In this article, Connie James, SRC, presents the story of a great Muslim, pantheist, Neoplatonic philosopher, and mystic who influenced Western thought for hundreds of years.

A thousand years ago the Muslim world had reached a high degree of civilization with a rich and diverse culture, great centers of learning, a developed commerce, and a high standard of living. Muslim civilization exhibited a vitality and energy unmatched in backward Europe. In fact, the Muslim world, with its roots in what was left of Classical civilization, acted as a cultural bridge between the great civilizations of the past and the later European Renaissance. Knowledge, which might have been lost, was preserved and elaborated upon. Building on what the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans had earlier synthesized, Muslim thinkers made much progress in science, particularly in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, chemistry, physics, and medicine. Many great minds emerged as guiding lights of this civilization. The one who is best known in the West is the Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980 – 1037).

Abu Ali al-Hussain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina was born in 980 at Afshaneh, a village near Bukhara in modern Uzbekistan. His father was a member of the Ismaili sect and came from the city of Balkh. The Ismailis have esoteric doctrines, which developed under the influence of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. Avicenna was educated in Bukhara, at that time the capital of the Persian Samanid dynasty, the first native dynasty to arise in Iran after the Arab conquest, and who were responsible for a new Persian renaissance. Bukhara was a trading, scientific and cultural center; one of the most ancient cities in Central Asia, once conquered by Alexander the Great, when it was a part of the Persian province of Sogdia. The name of the city is said to be derived either from the Buddhist word “vihara” meaning “monastery” or from a Zoroastrian word meaning “source of knowledge.” The Samanids controlled Transoxiana (north of the Oxus or Amu Darya river) and Khorasan (south of the Oxus river). Bukhara and the nearby city of Samarkand were the cultural centers of the kingdom and lay on the fabled Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean. Bukhara was known as “the meeting place of the highest intellectuals of the age, the horizon of the literary stars of the world.” It attracted the greatest minds of the time. Although Persian was the spoken language of the region, it was around this time that the gradual turkicisation started in Transoxiana, whose countries remain mainly Turkic speaking to this day.

Raised among the intellectuals of Bukhara, Avicenna was exposed to philosophical and metaphysical ideas at an early age. His father’s house was a meeting place for people of learning in the area. He amazed scholars who met at his father’s house with his remarkable memory and ability to learn. Exceptionally bright, by the age of ten he had become well versed in the study of the Qur’an, poetry, and various sciences. Having mastered all branches of formal learning, including Euclid, law, and medicine, he became a physician at the age of sixteen. He also studied logic, philosophy, and metaphysics. In his autobiography, Avicenna stated that he was more or less self-taught, but that at crucial times in his life he received help. At seventeen Avicenna successfully treated the seriously ill ruler of Bukhara, the Shah Nuh ibn Mansur, when his own doctors had given up hope. His renown as a physician spread throughout the Muslim world. Refusing any monetary reward, Avicenna asked only to be allowed free use of the royal library, which contained many rare and unique books and was one of the most extensive collections of works on philosophy and science then extant. Avicenna studied avidly, devouring all the contents of the library. By twenty one, he had composed his first book, and within a few years was recognized as one of the most learned people in the world.

If the fortunes of the Samanids had taken a different turn, Avicenna’s life might have been very different. The Shah had appointed Sebüktegin, a former Turkish slave as governor of Ghazni in present-day Afghanistan, and his son, Mahmud, was made governor of Khorasan. However the Turkish tribes already in Transoxiana joined with the two governors in an attempt to overthrow the Shah. Bukhara was taken in 999, and it was during these turbulent times when the newer Turkish elements were replacing the Persian domination of Central Asia that Avicenna’s father died. Without the support of his father or his patron, he travelled westward to Khiva, and then to avoid being kidnapped by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, he fled westward again to Gurganj, the modern Köneürgench in northern Turkmenistan, which was the sophisticated, cultured, and cosmopolitan capital of the Khorezmshahs. There, the state-sponsored Academy of Learning sparkled with the brilliance of such great minds as Avicenna and al-Biruni. By day he lectured on law, logic, and astronomy, while in the evening he gathered students around him for philosophical and scientific discussion.

Later he travelled south into Persia, to Rey, just south of Tehran, where he started a medical practice; and then later still, he moved further west to Hamadan. There he cured the ruling Buyid Amir of severe colic. For this he was made court physician and vizier. A mutiny among the army caused his dismissal and forced him to flee to Esfahan, disguised as a Sufi. But when the Amir’s colic returned, he was summoned back; the Amir apologized to him and reinstated him. This was a very hectic time for Avicenna. By day, as vizier, he was concerned with the administration, while the nights were spent lecturing and dictating notes for his books. Students would gather at his home to read his books, especially his two greatest, the Shifa and the Qanun.

After the death of his patron in 1022, he went to Esfahan once again, only to return several years later to Hamadan, worn out by hard work. His friends advised him to slow down and take life in moderation, but this was not in his character and he died in 1037 at the age of fifty-seven. His mausoleum, with its twelve pillars, can still be seen in Hamadan.

The opening decoration and invocation to Allah from Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine,  copied in 1597-8. From the Medical Historical Library at Yale University

The opening decoration and invocation to Allah from Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, copied in 1597-8. From the Medical Historical Library at Yale University.

Avicenna’s writings on medicine and the sciences brought him fame in both the East and West. He wrote mainly in Arabic, though some of his works were in his native Persian. His most famous work, the Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb or “Canon of Medicine,” is an immense encyclopedia of over one million words, based on the findings of the Greeks, Romans, and Arabs, and containing all medical knowledge available at the time. The Qanun or “Canon” as it was called in the West, was translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and for several centuries thereafter, it was the medical authority in both East and West, having reputedly had a significant influence on the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci. It was divided into five books. The first deals with general principles; the second with some 760 drugs arranged alphabetically; the third with diseases of the organs and other parts of the body; the fourth with diseases such as fevers; and the fifth with compound medicines. Due to its systematic approach, it superseded the works of Galen and remained supreme for six centuries. His important contributions included such advances as the recognition of the contagious nature of tuberculosis, the distribution of diseases by water and soil, the interaction between psychology and health, and a treatise on drugs. He was the first to describe meningitis and he made rich contributions to anatomy, gynecology, and child health. He pointed out the importance of diet, the importance of climate and environment on health, and the use of oral anesthetics. He noticed the close relationship between emotions and the physical condition and felt that music had a definite physical and psychological effect on patients. Avicenna’s early interest in medicine and science probably led to his interest in alchemy. Along with many learned people of his time, he considered alchemy to be of great importance. It was through his alchemical researches that he was able to produce many new compounds and medicines.

Avicenna is also remembered as a great philosopher. His early reading of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the writings of other Greek thinkers led him to pursue philosophy with an intense interest and original thinking, though he acknowledged his debt to al-Farabi, the real founder of Islamic Neoplatonism, and his avowed spiritual master. His own philosophy combined elements of Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism, attempting to reconcile Greek and Islamic beliefs. Mystical, Hermetic, and Gnostic ideas are evident in some of his later writings. His Kitab al-Shifa, or “Book of Healing” is a vast scientific and philosophical work covering the natural sciences, mathematics based on Euclid’s “Elements,” astronomy, music, philosophy, metaphysics, and various other subjects. It is a compilation of the entire corpus of knowledge of the ancient world. In physics he studied the different forms of energy, heat and light, and the concepts of force, vacuum, and infinity. He made the observation that if the perception of light is due to the emission of some sort of particles by a luminous source, the speed of light must be finite. He proposed an interconnection between time and motion, and also commented upon gravity. Through careful observation he even deduced that the planet Venus must be closer to the Sun than Earth.

Avicenna completed most of his works, both major and minor, in Arabic. But in his native Persian, he wrote a large manual on philosophy entitled the Danishnme-ye Alai. One of his most celebrated Arabic poems describes the descent of the Soul into the body from the “Higher Sphere.”

Among his major contributions to philosophy, and where he comes closest to Rosicrucian ontology, are his discussions on reason and reality. He claimed that the Divine is pure intellect and that knowledge consists of the mind grasping the intelligible. He discussed the difference between reality and actuality, and examined the concept of “existence,” seeking to integrate all aspects of science and religion into a grand metaphysical vision. Using this vision he tried to explain the formation of the universe. He regarded the world as an emanation from the Divine, and what we see around us as a process of gradually evolving complexity which through time, has resulted in the world we see around us today. Writing about “Nous,” or the “Active Intellect” as he termed it, he believed in the existence of the soul and that the human body was composed of both material and immaterial components. He wrote about the use of intuition and the nature of psychic events, and taught that the ultimate fate of the soul was to achieve “conjunction” with the Active Intellect or Nous, something akin perhaps to what we would today call “Cosmic Consciousness.” The modern world owes much to this Muslim scientist-philosopher and mystic. It has been said that his Shifa and Qanun mark the apex of medieval thought, and constitute one of the major syntheses in the history of the mind. As Rosicrucians, we acknowledge the great part he played in upholding and developing the tradition he traversed, one which has contributed greatly to our own teachings.

Date posted: Thursday, June 5, 2014.
Date last updated:  February 4, 2017 (formatting).

Copyright: Rosicrucian Digest.

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Credit: Reproduced with the kind permission of the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC, http://www.rosicrucian.org. The introductory notes on Neoplatonism and the article about Avicenna above are excerpted from a special themactic issue of the journal Rosicrucian Digest, Volume 90, Number 1, 2012, which can be downloaded at http://rosicrucian.org/publications/digest/digest1_2012/table_of_contents.html.

Copyright: 2012 by the Supreme Grand Lodge of AMORC.

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Notes:

[1] Alfred North Whitehead. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, ((New York: Free Press, 1979), 39.
[2] PBS, “Neoplatonism,” http://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/gengloss/neoplat-body.html.
[3] R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995), 59

TO LISTEN TO AUDIO OF AVICENNA ARTICLE, CLICK ON PLAY BUTTON BELOW

Credit: http://www.rosicrucian.org.

Related article on this website: A Brief Discussion on Avicenna’s Madhab

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One thought on “Introductory Notes on Neoplatonism and “Return to the One”, With Article and Audio About the Works of the Great Ismaili Thinker Avicenna

  1. Superb article. I had heard of Avicenna but never knew he was an Ismaili. We have never heard of him mentioned in any W’aez or lecture. More of these kind of articles would be very illuminating. Thank you. Simerg.

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