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     Middle Platonism: General Characteristics

Middle Platonism: General Characteristics

The Platonism from the first century B.C. to the second century A.D. is called Middle Platonism. It had been prepared for in the move from skepticism to eclecticism by Antiochus of Ascalon. At this time, when the Academy was moving toward Stoicism, the Stoa was becoming more Platonic. The first century B.C. saw a revival in the study of Plato and Aristotle,who returned to a position of predominance they have not lost since. The idea of the soul as distinguished from the body reappeared and became the basis of patristic and medieval philosophy. The thinkers included among the Middle Platonists.Plutarch, Apuleius, Maximus of Tyre, and the bridge to Neoplatonism, the dominant philosophy at the end of paganism. Middle Platonism provided the intellectual background for the work of the Christian apologists of the second century -. Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria. Even in the New Testa.ment Platonsim has been seen reflected in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Middle Platonsim was Platonsim influenced by Stoic ethics, Aristotelian logic, and Neopythagorean metaphysics and religion. Roots of its metaphysics may be found in Xenocrates (head of the Academy 339.314. B.C.).

Given the different elements from which the Middle Platonists drew, it is understandable that there are many issues on which different positions were taken by philosophers bracketed under this name. Some common elements, however, may be discerned. The Middle Platonists started with the idea that it might be possible to reconcŁe Plato's and Aristotle's views about the uni.verse and divine things. Albinus, for instance, identified Aristotle's Supreme Mind (the Unmoved Mover) with Plato's Good (which became the first principle of the world of forms). The Platonic ideas or forms became the thoughts within the divine mind. Philo of Alexandria is the first extant author explicitly to give this formulation: the ideas are the thoughts in the mind of the Supreme God of Judaism. In view of Philo's general lack of philosophical originality and incorporation of existing philosophical commonplaces it is conjectured that this reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle may go back to Antiochus.

The Mlddle Platonists exalted the absolute transcendence of the Supreme Mind (God). This is the head of a hierarchy of being reached only through intermediary powers. The universe is animated by a World Soul. Direct knowledge of the transcendent Mind is impossible, but a "negative theology" gives an indirect knowledge of God. Direct contemplation may bring a few brief flashes of intuition even in this life. Some, influenced by Neopythagoreans, gave a negative judgment on matter as evil. Others, closer to Plato, saw evil as the result of the embodiment of ideas. Whereas philosophers from the fifth century B.C. onward had kept a certain distance between themselves and religious tradition, even when friendly toward it, from the end of the first century A.D. they increasingly looked to religion as a source of enlightenment.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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