Thursday, March 24, 2011

Edward Gibbon and the neo-Platonists

Since it's been a while, I thought I'd better post before I disappear into the aethernet.
I've been reading, inter alia, Edward Gibbon's thoroughly readable Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It wears very well for an eighteenth century work. I wish he'd reveal his sources though. 
Gibbon, though conservative in outlook in many respects, was an enlightenment figure in terms of science and religion. His take on the neo-Platonists is still quite relevant today, and worth quoting at length. Gibbon was referring to the period just before, and during, the reign of Constantine in the early fourth century of the Christian era. He points out that, with the emperors of this time being drawn largely from the military, and with the preoccupation being with the 'barbarians' at the frontiers, and with internal strife between the different camps created by Diocletian, science, knowledge and the literary arts were largely neglected. 'The voice of poetry was silent,' he writes. Even the practical arts and sciences, such as law and medicine, were at a low ebb. And into this stagnant pool plops the great millstone of neo-Platonism.

The declining age of learning and of mankind is marked, however, by the rise and rapid progress of the new Platonists. The school of Alexandria silenced those of Athens, and the ancient sects enrolled themselves under the banners of the more fashionable teachers, who recommended their system by the novelty of their method and tha austerity of their manners. Several of these masters, Ammonius, Plotinus, Amelius and Porphyry, were men of profound thought and intense application; but by mistaking the true object of philosophy, their labors contributed much less to improve than to corrupt the human understanding. The knowledge that is suited to our situation and powers, the whole compass of moral , natural and mathematical science, was neglected by the new Platonists; whilst they exhausted their strength in the verbal disputes of metaphysics, attempted to explore the secrets of the invisible world, and studied to reconcile Aristotle and Plato on subjects of which both these philosophers were as ignorant as the rest of mankind. Consuming their reason in these deep but unsubstantial meditations, their minds were exposed to illusions of fancy. They flattered themselves that they possessed the secret of disengaging the soul from its corporal prison; claimed a familiar intercourse with demons and spirits; and by a very singular revolution, converted the study of philosophy into that of magic. The ancient sages had derided the popular superstition; after disguising its extravagance by the thin pretence of allegory, the disciples of Plotinus and Porphyry became its most zealous defenders. As they agreed with the Christians in a few mysterious points of faith, they attacked the remainder of their theological system with all the fury of civil war. The new Platonists would scarcely deserve a place in the history of science, but in that of the church the mention of them will very frequently occur.

Way to go, Eddie!