The Golden Chain of Platonic Succession
This site is under construction and was last updated on: 25 March 2011
This sublime theology, though it was scientifically disseminated by Plato, yet conformably to the custom of the most ancient philosophers, was delivered by him synoptically, and in such a way as to be inaccessible to the vulgar; but when, in consequence of the commencement of a degraded and barren period, this theology became corrupted through the negligence and confusion of its votaries, then such of his disciples as happened to live when it was thus degraded and deformed found it necessary to unfold it more fully, in order to prevent its becoming utterly extinct. The men by whom this arduous task was accomplished were the last of the disciples of Plato; men who, though they lived in a base age, possessed a divine genius, and who having happily fathomed the depth of their great master's works, luminously and copiously developed their recondite meaning, and benevolently communicated it in their writings for the general good. From this golden chain of philosophers, as they have been justly called, my elucidations of the present mystic hymns are principally derived: for I know of no other genuine sources, if it be admitted (and it must by every intelligent reader), that the theology of Orpheus is the same as that of Pythagoras and Plato.
Thomas Taylor (1758-1838) the Platonist, from his introduction to the translation of the Hymns and Initiations of Orpheus.
The main purpose of this website is to identify those philosophers that form the most important links in this Golden Chain and summarize the core content of their teachings. These summaries are accessible from the following hyperlinks:
... But what was the knowledge on which the teaching of the mysteries was founded ? It was no less than that of the ground and geniture of all things; the whole state, the rise, the workings, and the progress of all Nature, together with the unity that pervades heaven and earth. A few years ago this was proclaimed with great sound of trumpets as a new discovery, although so ancient an author as Homer speaks, in the 8th book of the "Iliad," of the golden chain connecting heaven and earth; the golden chain of sympathy, the occult, all-pervading, all-uniting influence, called by a variety of names, such as anima mundi, ilureurius philosophorum, Jacob's ladder, the vital magnetic series, the magician s fire, &c. This knowledge, in course of time, and through man's love of change, was gradually distorted by perverse interpretations, and overlaid or embroidered, as it were, with fanciful creations of man's own brain; and thus arose superstitions systems, which became the creed of the unthinking crowd, and have not lost their hold on the public mind, even to this day keeping in spiritual thraldom myriads who tremble at a thousand phantoms conjured up by priest craft and their own ignorance ...
Charles William Heckethorn, The Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries, first published 1897.
City of Athens in about 400 B.C., showing the location of Plato's Academy
At the time when [the Emperor] Justinian closed its doors, [the Academy] might have celebrated its 916th anniversary ... [the Academy] changed considerably in the course of centuries; it is only the old Academy that may be considered as Plato's Academy, and it lasted a century and a half or less. To this one might reply that every institution is bound to change with the vicissitudes of time and that the longer it lives the more it must be expected to change. Bearing these remarks in mind, we may put it this way: the Academy of Athens, the Academy founded by Plato, lasted more than nine centuries.
George Sarton, A History of Science: Ancient Science Through the Golden Age of Greece, published 1959.
The Academy (in Greek = Aκαδημία), located on the northwestern side of Athens, was originally a Bronze Age shrine sacred to Goddess Athena which was situated in a grove of olive trees. Subsequently. the shrine became associated with the Athenian hero Akademos (or Hekademos). It was also the site of a gymnasium, surrounded by gardens and groves. Here, in approximately 387 B.C., Plato established his school, subsequently known as the Academy. It survived continuously for more than nine centuries, until 529 A.D., when the Christian Emperor Justinian closed the philosophy schools of Athens.
During the Academy's long existence, it continued to teach philosophy and science roughly in accordance with Plato's own teaching. However, its doctrines naturally changed direction several times. For this reason, Classical writers divided the history of the Academy into periods designated by the terms Old, Middle, and New Academy.
1) Old Academy covers the period when the school was headed by Plato and his conservative successors Speusippus, Xenocrates, Polemon, Crantor, and Crates, down to about 265 BC.
2) Middle Academy describes the period initiated by Arcesilaus of Pitane (circa. 315–242 B.C.) who gave the school a Skeptical approach which it kept until the leadership of Antiochus of Ascalon in 86 B.C.
3) New Academy started in the mid-second century B.C. under Carneades (died 129 B.C.). The Academy and its library were destroyed during the sack of Athens by the Roman general Sulla in 86 B.C. Antiochus of Ascalon, became head of the Academy from 86 to 68 B.C. He promulgated an eclectic form of Platonism by maintaining that there was essential agreement between the doctrines of the Old Academy, the Aristotelians (Peripatetics), and the Stoics. He was very influential and his lecture audience included the famous Roman Senator, Cicero, to whom his eclecticism appealed and who later proclaimed himself to be an Academic.After Antiochus, little is known of the Academy in subsequent centuries; apparently it declined in stature and became little more than a local philosophical school.
Revitalized Academy: In the fifth century A.D., it again became prominent as a major centre of Neoplatonism. At this time, the Athenian Academy adopted a much more rigorous scholarly methodology. The school's teaching reinterpreted the entire Greek intellectual tradition in the light of the Neo-Platonic philosophy of Plotinus.
The first head (Platonic Successor) of this revitalized school was Plutarch of Athens (died 432 A.D.), not to be confused with the earlier Greek writer and biographer Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-122 A.D.). Plutarch was succeeded by his disciple Syrianus (died 437 A.D.), an important commentator on both Plato and Aristotle. The third man was Proclus (died 485 A.D.), the last great Greek thinker and the most important of the later Neo-Platonists. Proclus is generally recognized as the greatest philosopher to hold the title of Platonic Successor (Diadochus) at the Academy.
After Proclus, under Marinus, Isidorus, Hegias and Zenodotus a period of decline set in. However, in the early sixth century, under the highly talented Damascius (died 540 A.D.) there was a fresh revival of Platonism; it is probable that the popularity of Damascius caused the emperor Justinian to finally close the school in 529. According to the historianAgathias, several Academy members fled to Persia where they obtained protection from the Sassanid king Chosroes I at his capital, Ctesiphon. The refugees took with them many important scrolls of philosophy and science. Unfortunately these last few Platonists found that their life remained difficult in Persia due to the hostility of the local Zoroastrian clergy.
In 532, After execution of a peace treaty between the Persian and the Byzantine empires which contained specific clauses guaranteeing their personal security, most of these philosophers returned to the Roman Empire and found sanctuary in the pagan city of Harran (Carrhae) in the Western part of northern Mesopotamia (now southeast Turkey). One of the leading figures of this group was Simplicius (ca. 490-560 A.D.), a former pupil of Damascius. These Neoplatonists founded an Academy-in-exile, that survived at least into the 10th century A.D. After the Arabs conquered this city in the 7th century A.D., the school played an important role in facilitating the Islamic preservation of Greek science and medicine. Harran also became an important center of alchemical research in the Islamic world.
Plato's school, the Academy, lasted in Athens for over nine centuries. In 529 A.D., the Emperor Justinian ordered the closure of all the remaining philosophical schools, including the Academy. As mentioned above, several of these last Platonic teachers departed from the Roman Empire and settled in Persia at the invitation of the Persian King Chosroes I; they later resettled in the city of Harran where they established a new school. Henceforth, except for this small group in Harran, all Western devotees of Platonism would also nominally be Christians.
In the West, the last great philosopher of Classical World was Anicius Manlius Severinus, better known as Boethius. He was born in Rome of a consular family and, in about 500 A.D., he was appointed a court minister by Theodoric, the Gothic ruler of Italy. Boethius was made consul of Rome in 510 A.D. Unfortunately he was accused of conspiring with the Byzantines against King Theodoric. He was imprisoned at Pavia for several years and was executed in about 526. During his imprisonment, Boethius completed his most famous philosophical work, De Consolatione Philosophiae. This work was written in the best classical Latin style and contains no indication that its writer was in fact a Christian. Boethius was the last great West European writer who understood Greek until the time of the Italian Renaissance. His manuals on arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music were frequently used in the monastic schools of the Middle Ages.
Dionysius, or Pseudo-Dionysius, as he has became known to the modern world, was a Christian Neoplatonist living in Syria in the late fifth century and the early sixth century A.D. He developed a comprehensive Christian theological system that fully integrated the metaphysical teachings of the great pagan Neoplatonists, including Plotinus and Proclus.
In the twelfth century A.D., many of Aristotle's writings became available in the West from Arab sources and Western scholastics began to adopt the Aristotelean view. By the end of the thirteenth century, Aristotle occupied, in the Christian universities, the dominant position occupied in earlier Classical Times only by Plato himself.
In the fifteenth century A.D., with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Plato's Dialogues and many Neo-Platonic writings were brought to the West by fleeing Byzantine scholars. By 1500, during the height of the Renaissance, many if not all of the works of Plato, Plotinus and Proclus became available in Roman Catholic Europe in Latin translations. The availability of these texts brought about a great revival of Neoplatonism which lasted for several centuries. Even in modern times many learned people consider themselves Platonists. In particular, many leading physicists and mathematicians, such as Werner Heisenberg, Roger Penrose and Edward Witten espouse at least some elements of the Platonic cause.
Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist. I do not think it possible that anyone born an Aristotelian can become a Platonist; and I am sure that no born Platonist can ever change into an Aristotelian. They are two classes of man, beside which it is next to impossible to conceive a third.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), English Poet
There are two tenable but diametrically opposed paradigms for understanding the correspondence between mathematics and physics, a dichotomy that arguably goes as far back as Plato and Aristotle. According to the Aristotelian paradigm, physical reality is fundamental and mathematical language is merely a useful approximation. According to the Platonic paradigm, the mathematical structure is the true reality and observers perceive it imperfectly. In other words, the two paradigms disagree on which is more basic, the frog perspective of the observer or the bird perspective of the physical laws. The Aristotelian paradigm prefers the frog perspective, whereas the Platonic paradigm prefers the bird perspective.
As children, long before we had even heard of mathematics, we were all indoctrinated with the Aristotelian paradigm. The Platonic view is an acquired taste. Modern theoretical physicists tend to be Platonists, suspecting that mathematics describes the universe so well because the universe is inherently mathematical. Then all of physics is ultimately a mathematics problem: a mathematician with unlimited intelligence and resources could in principle compute the frog perspective--that is, compute what self-aware observers the universe contains, what they perceive, and what languages they invent to describe their perceptions to one another.
A mathematical structure is an abstract, immutable entity existing outside of space and time. If history were a movie, the structure would correspond not to a single frame of it but to the entire videotape. Consider, for example, a world made up of pointlike particles moving around in three-dimensional space. In four-dimensional spacetime--the bird perspective--these particle trajectories resemble a tangle of spaghetti. If the frog sees a particle moving with constant velocity, the bird sees a straight strand of uncooked spaghetti. If the frog sees a pair of orbiting particles, the bird sees two spaghetti strands intertwined like a double helix. To the frog, the world is described by Newton's laws of motion and gravitation. To the bird, it is described by the geometry of the pasta--a mathematical structure. The frog itself is merely a thick bundle of pasta, whose highly complex intertwining corresponds to a cluster of particles that store and process information. Our universe is far more complicated than this example, and scientists do not yet know to what, if any, mathematical structure it corresponds.
The Platonic paradigm raises the question of why the universe is the way it is. To an Aristotelian, this is a meaningless question: the universe just is. But a Platonist cannot help but wonder why it could not have been different. If the universe is inherently mathematical, then why was only one of the many mathematical structures singled out to describe a universe? A fundamental asymmetry appears to be built into the very heart of reality.
Max Tegmark (born 1967), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, article entitled Parallel Universes, Scientific American, May 2003.
In the 18th century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) divided all of existence into two realms: 1) a higher realm of ultimate reality which he called the "Noumenal World" and 2) a false and changeable "Phenomenal World" of the ordinary senses. This dichotomy was consistent with the beliefs expressed many centuries earlier by Plato (427-347 B.C.) who had postulated that our ordinary world of the senses was a false world of appearances containing only poorly constructed images of the higher world of true reality which he called the "World of the Forms." Many centuries after Plato, a self-avowed Platonist (who we now call a Neoplatonist) named Plotinus (204-270 A.D.), asserted that Plato's written and unwritten teachings further divided this World of the Forms (Kant's Noumenal World) into three separate levels or hypostases. This tripartite division became a major component of all subsequent Neoplatonic thought. The belief that there are three layers of true reality above and beyond the material world of the senses became known as the "Theory of the Three Hypostases."
In Greek, the word hypostasis (υπόσταση) means underlying state or underlying substance. In other words, beyond the sensory world of visible matter and detectable energy are three other higher levels of reality or hypostases; each subsequent hypostasis is more sublime than the level which precedes it. These three higher levels are: 1st Hypostasis - "The One" (Hen); 2nd Hypostasis - The Nous (Intellect); and the 3rd Hypostasis - The World Soul. Each of these levels is produced from its higher level by a process called emanation. The Hypostases are both ultimate ontological realities and explanatory principles. All Neoplatonists believe that these four Hypostases were recognized, not only by Plato, but by the entire subsequent Platonic tradition. Below the level of the World Soul is the phenomenal world as perceived by the human senses; unlike the three hypostases, this material world is in a constant state of flux or change. Detailed explanations of each of the three hypostases is given below.
This project is being accomplished mainly as an intellectual exercise for my own personal amazement and amusement. Even so, the results of this exercise are being made available to anyone who may have similar interests by accessing this web site.
Unless otherwise stated, this website presents my interpretations of some of the ideas of the Platonic philosophers. Such interpretations should not be considered as a complete summary of all of their ideas. These interpretations are entirely my own and I am solely responsible for any errors, whether objective or subjective, that may be found.
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