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Neoplatonism (also Neo-Platonism) is the modern term for a school of religious and mystical philosophy that took shape in the 3rd century CE, founded by Plotinus and based on the teachings of Plato and earlier Platonists. The term - neuplatonisch - was coined by a German historian[1]. Neoplatonists would have considered themselves simply "Platonists", and the modern distinction is due to the perception that their philosophy contained enough unique interpretations of Plato to make it substantially different from what Plato wrote and believed. The Neoplatonism of Plotinus and Porphyry has been referred to as really being orthodox Platonic philosophy by scholars like John D. Turner. This distinction provides a contrast with later movements of Neoplatonism, such as those of Iamblichus and Proclus, which embraced magical practices or theurgy as part of the soul's development in the process of the soul's return to the Source. This could also be due to one possible motive of Plotinus, being to clarify some of the traditions in the teachings of Plato that had been misrepresented before Iamblichus (see Neoplatonism and Gnosticism).

Neoplatonism took definitive shape with the philosopher Plotinus, who claimed to have received his teachings from Ammonius Saccas, a philosopher in Alexandria.[2] Plotinus was also influenced by Alexander of Aphrodisias and Numenius of Apamea. Plotinus's student Porphyry assembled his teachings into the six sets of nine tractates, or Enneads. Subsequent Neoplatonic philosophers included Iamblichus, Hypatia of Alexandria, Hierocles of Alexandria, Proclus (by far the most influential of later Neoplatonists), Damascius (last head of Neoplatonist School at Athens), Olympiodorus the Younger, and Simplicius of Cilicia.

Neoplatonism strongly influenced Christian thinkers (such as Augustine, Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and Bonaventure). Neoplatonism was also present in medieval Islamic and Jewish thinkers such as al-Farabi and Maimonides, and experienced a revival in the Renaissance with the acquisition and translation of Greek and Arabic Neoplatonic texts.



The most important forerunners of Neoplatonism are the Middle Platonists, such as Plutarch, and the Neopythagoreans, especially Numenius of Apamea. We also see a forerunner of Neoplatonism in Philo who translated Judaism into the terms of Stoic, Platonic and Neopythagorean elements, and held that God is "supra rational," who can be reached only through "ecstasy", and that the oracles of God supply the material of moral and religious knowledge. The earliest Christian philosophers, such as Justin and Athenagoras, who attempted to connect Christianity with Platonism, and the Christian Gnostics of Alexandria, especially Valentinus and the followers of Basilides, also mirrored elements of Neoplatonism, albeit without its rigorous self-consistency. There is, however, no evidence in Plotinus for any actual influence of Jewish and Christian philosophy, and undoubtedly, Alexandria, where Neoplatonism originated, was bathed in eastern methods of worship which were accessible to everyone. It is only the later Neoplatonism, from Iamblichus onwards, that offers striking and deep-rooted parallels to Philo and the Gnostics.[citation needed]

Platonism and Neoplatonism

The philosophers called Neoplatonists did not found a school as much as attempt to preserve the teachings of Plato. They regarded themselves as Platonists. The concept of the One was not as clearly defined in Plato's Timaeus (the good above the demiurge) as it later was by Plotinus' Enneads: however the passage in Plato's Republic (509c) in which the Sun is said to symbolise The Good (or The One) can be seen as ample justification for the late Platonists view of The One - for here Plato calls The Good "beyond essence", especially when this is placed alongside the range of attributes which are denied of The One in the Parmenides. The afterlife as defined by Socrates in Phaedo is also different from the afterlife of the person or soul in the Enneads. The soul returns to the Monad or One in Plotinus' works. This is the highest goal of existence, reflected in the process of henosis. In both the Enneads and Phaedo there are different afterlives : one could be re-incarnated, one could receive punishment, or one could go to Hades to be with the heroes of old. This last one for Socrates was the highest ideal afterlife. This is in contrast to Neoplatonism's ideal afterlife of returning to the One or Monad. However, what is said in the Phaedrus (248c-249d)reconciles these two apparently conflicting views: for Socrates in this dialogue shows that a movement from life to life (including periods in Hades) is part of a much greater cycle which culminates in perfection and a divine life.


Neoplatonism is generally a religious philosophy. Neoplatonism is a form of idealistic monism (also called theistic monism) and combines elements of Polytheism (see Monistic-polytheism).

Although the founder of Neoplatonism is supposed to have been Ammonius Saccas, the Enneads of his pupil Plotinus are the primary and classical document of Neoplatonism. As a form of mysticism, it contains theoretical and practical parts, the first dealing with the high origin of the human soul showing how it has departed from its first estate, and the second showing the way by which the soul may again return to the Eternal and Supreme. The system can be divided between the invisible world and the phenomenal world, the former containing the transcendent One from which emanates an eternal, perfect, essence (nous), which, in turn, produces the world-soul.


The One

The primeval Source of Being is the One and the Infinite, as opposed to the many and the finite. It is the source of all life, and therefore absolute causality and the only real existence. However, the important feature of it is that it is beyond all Being, although the source of it. Therefore, it cannot be known through reasoning or understanding, since only what is part of Being can be thus known according to Plato. Being beyond existence, it is the most real reality, source of less real things. It is, moreover, the Good, insofar as all finite things have their purpose in it, and ought to flow back to it. But one cannot attach moral attributes to the original Source of Being itself, because these would imply limitation. It has no attributes of any kind; it is being without magnitude, without life, without thought; in strict propriety, indeed, we ought not to speak of it as existing; it is "above existence," "above goodness." It is also active force without a substratum; as active force the primeval Source of Being is perpetually producing something else, without alteration, or motion, or diminution of itself. This production is not a physical process, but an emission of force; and, since the product has real existence only in virtue of the original existence working in it, Neoplatonism may be described as a species of dynamic pantheism. Directly or indirectly, everything is brought forth by the "One." In it all things, so far as they have being, are divine, and God is all in all. Derived existence, however, is not like the original Source of Being itself, but is subject to a law of diminishing completeness. It is indeed an image and reflection of the first Source of Being; but the further the line of successive projections is prolonged the smaller is its share in the true existence. The totality of being may thus be conceived as a series of concentric circles, fading away towards the verge of non-existence, the force of the original Being in the outermost circle being a vanishing quantity. Each lower stage of being is united with the "One" by all the higher stages, and receives its share of reality only by transmission through them. All derived existence, however, has a drift towards, a longing for, the higher, and bends towards it so far as its nature will permit. Plotinus' treatment of the substance or essence (ousia) of the one was to reconcile Plato and Aristotle. Where Aristotle treated the monad as a single entity made up of one substance (here as energeia). Plotinus reconciled Aristotle with Plato's "the good" by expressing the substance or essence of the one as potential or force.[3]

Demiurge or Nous

The original Being initially emanates, or throws out, the nous, which is a perfect image of the One and the archetype of all existing things. It is simultaneously both being and thought, idea and ideal world. As image, the nous corresponds perfectly to the One, but as derivative, it is entirely different. What Plotinus understands by the nous is the highest sphere accessible to the human mind, while also being pure intellect itself. As nous is the most critical component of idealism, Neoplatonism being a pure form of idealism.[4][5] The demiurge (the nous) is the energy, or ergon (does the work), that manifests or organizes the material world into perceivability.

The world-soul

The image and product of the motionless nous is the world-soul, which, according to Plotinus, is, like the nous, immaterial. Its relation to the nous is the same as that of the nous to the One. It stands between the nous and the phenomenal world, is permeated and illuminated by the former, but is also in contact with the latter. The nous is indivisible; the world-soul may preserve its unity and remain in the nous, but at the same time it has the power of uniting with the corporeal world and thus being disintegrated. It therefore occupies an intermediate position. As a single world-soul it belongs in essence and destination to the intelligible world; but it also embraces innumerable individual souls; and these can either submit to be ruled by the nous, or turn aside from the intellect and choose the sensual and lose themselves in the finite.

The phenomenal world

The soul, as a moving essence, generates the corporeal or phenomenal world. This world ought to be so pervaded by the soul that its various parts should remain in perfect harmony. Plotinus is no dualist in the same sense as sects like the Gnostics; in contrast he admires the beauty and splendor of the world. So long as idea governs matter, or the soul governs the body, the world is fair and good. It is an image - though a shadowy image - of the upper world, and the degrees of better and worse in it are essential to the harmony of the whole. But in the actual phenomenal world unity and harmony are replaced by strife or discord; the result is a conflict, a becoming and vanishing, an illusive existence. And the reason for this state of things is that bodies rest on a substratum of matter. Matter is the indeterminate: that which has no qualities. If destitute of form and idea, it is evil; as capable of form it is neutral. Evil here is understood as a parasitic, having no-existence of its own (parahypostasis), unavoidable outcome of the Universe, having an "other" necessity, as a harmonizing factor.[6]

The human souls which have descended into corporeality are those which have allowed themselves to be ensnared by sensuality and overpowered by lust. They now seek to cut themselves loose from their true being; and, striving after independence, they assume a false existence. They must turn back from this; and, since they have not lost their freedom, a conversion is still possible.


Here, then, we enter upon the practical philosophy. Along the same road by which it descended the soul must retrace its steps back to the supreme Good. It must first of all return to itself. This is accomplished by the practice of virtue, which aims at likeness to God, and leads up to God. In the ethics of Plotinus all the older schemes of virtue are taken over and arranged in a graduated series. The lowest stage is that of the civil virtues, then follow the purifying, and last of all the divine virtues. The civil virtues merely adorn the life, without elevating the soul. That is the office of the purifying virtues, by which the soul is freed from sensuality and led back to itself, and thence to the nous. By means of ascetic observances the human becomes once more a spiritual and enduring being, free from all sin. But there is still a higher attainment; it is not enough to be sinless, one must become "God", (henosis). This is reached through contemplation of the primeval Being, the One - in other words, through an ecstatic approach to it. Thought cannot attain to this, for thought reaches only to the nous, and is itself a kind of motion. It is only in a state of perfect passivity and repose that the soul can recognize and touch the primeval Being. Hence the soul must first pass through a spiritual curriculum. Beginning with the contemplation of corporeal things in their multiplicity and harmony, it then retires upon itself and withdraws into the depths of its own being, rising thence to the nous, the world of ideas. But even there it does not find the Highest, the One; it still hears a voice saying, "not we have made ourselves." The last stage is reached when, in the highest tension and concentration, beholding in silence and utter forgetfulness of all things, it is able as it were to lose itself. Then it may see God, the foundation of life, the source of being, the origin of all good, the root of the soul. In that moment it enjoys the highest indescribable bliss; it is as it were swallowed up of divinity, bathed in the light of eternity. Porphyry tells us that on four occasions during the six years of their intercourse Plotinus attained to this ecstatic union with God.

Celestial hierarchy

The religious philosophy of Plotinus for himself personally sufficed, without the aid of the popular religion or worship. Nevertheless he sought for points of support in these. God is certainly in the truest sense nothing but the primeval Being who is revealed in a variety of emanations and manifestations. Plotinus taught the existence of an ineffable and transcendent One, the All, from which emanated the rest of the universe as a sequence of lesser beings. Later Neoplatonic philosophers, especially Iamblichus, added hundreds of intermediate beings such as gods, angels and demons, and other beings as mediators between the One and humanity. The Neoplatonist gods are omni-perfect beings and do not display the usual amoral behaviour associated with their representations in the myths.

The One
God, The Good. Transcendent and ineffable.
The Hypercosmic Gods
Those which make Essence, Life and Soul
The Demiurge
The creator.
The Cosmic Gods
Those who make Being, Nature, and Matter. These include the gods known to us from classical religion.


Neoplatonists believed human perfection and happiness were attainable in this world, without awaiting an afterlife. Perfection and happiness— seen as synonymous— could be achieved through philosophical contemplation.

They did not believe in an independent existence of evil. They compared it to darkness, which does not exist in itself but only as the absence of light. So too, evil is simply the absence of good. Things are good insofar as they exist; they are evil only insofar as they are imperfect, lacking some good that they should have. It is also a cornerstone of Neoplatonism to teach that all people return to the Source. The Source, Absolute, or One is what all things spring from and, as a superconsciousness (nous), is where all things return. It can be said that all consciousness is wiped clean and returned to a blank slate when returning to the Source. All things have force or potential (dynamis) as their essence. This dynamis begets energy (energeia).[7][8][9] When people return to the Source, their energy returns to the One, Monad, or Source and is then recycled into the cosmos, where it can be broken up and then amalgamated into other things.[citation needed]

The Neoplatonists believed in the pre-existence, and immortality of the soul.[10][11] The human soul consists of a lower irrational soul and a higher rational soul (mind), both of which can be regarded as different powers of the one soul. It was widely held that the soul possesses a "vehicle",[12] accounting for the human soul's immortality and allowing for its return to the One after death.[13] After bodily death, the soul takes up a level in the afterlife corresponding with the level at which it lived during its earthly life.[14][15] The Neoplatonists believed in the principle of reincarnation. Although the most pure and holy souls would dwell in the highest regions, the impure soul would undergo a purification,[11] before descending again,[16] to be reincarnated into a new body, perhaps into animal form.[17] A soul which has returned to the One, achieves union with the cosmic universal soul,[18] and does not descend again, at least, not in this world period.[16]

Neoplatonist philosophers

Ammonius Saccas

Ammonius Saccas (birth unknown death ca. 265 CE, Greek: Ἀμμώνιος Σακκᾶς) is a founder of Neoplatonism and the teacher of Plotinus. Little is known of the teacher other than both Christians (see Eusebius, Jerome, and Origen) and pagans (see Porphyry and Plotinus) claim him a teacher and founder of the Neoplatonic system. Porphyry stated in On the One School of Plato and Aristotle, that Ammonius' view was that the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle were in harmony. Eusebius and Jerome claimed him as a Christian until his death, whereas Porphyry claimed he had renounced Christianity and embraced pagan philosophy.


Plotinus (Greek: Πλωτῖνος) (ca. 205–270) was a major Graeco-Egyptian[19] philosopher of the ancient world who is widely considered the father of Neoplatonism. Much of our biographical information about him comes from Porphyry's preface to his edition of Plotinus' Enneads. While he was himself influenced by the teachings of classical Greek, Persian and Indian philosophy and Egyptian theology,[20] his metaphysical writings later inspired numerous Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Gnostic metaphysicians and mystics over the centuries. Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent "One", containing no division, multiplicity or distinction; likewise it is beyond all categories of being and non-being. The concept of "being" is derived by us from the objects of human experience, and is an attribute of such objects, but the infinite, transcendent One is beyond all such objects, and therefore is beyond the concepts that we derive from them. The One "cannot be any existing thing", and cannot be merely the sum of all such things (compare the Stoic doctrine of disbelief in non-material existence), but "is prior to all existents".


Porphyry (Greek: Πορφύριος, c. A.D. 233– c. 309) was a Syrian[19] Neoplatonist philosopher. He wrote widely on astrology, religion, philosophy, and musical theory. He produced a biography of his teacher, Plotinus. He is important in the history of mathematics because of his Life of Pythagoras, and his commentary on Euclid's Elements which was used by Pappus when he wrote his own commentary. [1] Porphyry is also known as an opponent of Christianity and defender of Paganism; of his Adversus Christianos (Against the Christians) in 15 books, only fragments remain. He famously said, "The gods have proclaimed Christ to have been most pious, but the Christians are a confused and vicious sect."


Iamblichus, also known as Iamblichus Chalcidensis, (ca. 245 - ca. 325, Greek: Ἰάμβλιχος) was a Syrian[19] neoplatonist philosopher who determined the direction taken by later Neoplatonic philosophy, and perhaps western philosophical religions themselves. He is perhaps best known for his compendium on Pythagorean philosophy. In Iamblichus' system the realm of divinities stretched from the original One down to material nature itself, where soul in fact descended into matter and became "embodied" as human beings. The world is thus peopled by a crowd of superhuman beings influencing natural events and possessing and communicating knowledge of the future, and who are all accessible to prayers and offerings. Iamblichus had salvation as his final goal (see henosis). The embodied soul was to return to divinity by performing certain rites, or theurgy, literally, 'divine-working'. Some translate this as "magic", but the modern connotations of the term do not exactly match what Iamblichus had in mind, which is more along the lines of religious ritual.


Proclus Lycaeus (February 8, 412 – April 17, 485), surnamed "The Successor" or "diadochos" (Greek Πρόκλος ὁ Διάδοχος Próklos ho Diádokhos), was a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher, one of the last major Greek philosophers (see Damascius). He set forth one of the most elaborate, complex, and fully developed Neoplatonic systems. The particular characteristic of Proclus' system is his insertion of a level of individual ones, called henads between the One itself and the divine Intellect, which is the second principle. The henads are beyond being, like the One itself, but they stand at the head of chains of causation (seirai or taxeis) and in some manner give to these chains their particular character. They are also identified with the traditional Greek gods, so one henad might be Apollo and be the cause of all things apollonian, while another might be Helios and be the cause of all sunny things. The henads serve both to protect the One itself from any hint of multiplicity, and to draw up the rest of the universe towards the One, by being a connecting, intermediate stage between absolute unity and determinate multiplicity.

Emperor Julian

Julian (born c.331–died June 26, 363), was a Roman Emperor (361–363) of the Constantinian dynasty. He was the last pagan Roman Emperor, and tried to reform traditional Pagan worship by unifying Hellenism worship in the Roman empire in the form of Neoplatonism developed by Iamblichus. Julian sought to do this after the legalization of Christianity and its widespread success within the Eastern Roman Empire and to a lesser extent, the Western Roman Empire.


Circa 530CE Simplicius of Cilicia, a pupil of Damascius, is not known as a very original thinker, but his remarks are thoughtful and intelligent and his learning is prodigious. To the student of Greek philosophy his commentaries are invaluable, as they contain many fragments of the older philosophers as well as of his immediate predecessors.

Gemistus Pletho

Gemistus Pletho (born c. 1355–died 1452, Greek: Πλήθων Γεμιστός) remained the preeminent scholar of Neoplatonic philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire. He introduced his understanding and insight into the works of Neoplatonism during the failed attempt to reconcile the East-West schism at the council of Florence. At Florence Pletho met Cosimo de' Medici and influenced the latter's decision to found a new Platonic Academy there. Cosimo subsequently appointed as head Marsilio Ficino, who proceeded to translate all Plato's works, the Enneads of Plotinus, and various other Neoplatonist works into Latin.

Early Christian and Medieval Neoplatonism

Central tenets of Neoplatonism, such as the absence of good being the source of evil, and that this absence of good comes from human sin, served as a philosophical interim for the Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo on his journey from dualistic Manichaeism to Christianity. When writing his treatise 'On True Religion' several years after his 387 baptism, Augustine's Christianity was still tempered by Neoplatonism, but he eventually decided to abandon Neoplatonism altogether in favor of a Christianity based on his own reading of Scripture.[citation needed]

Many other Christians were influenced by Neoplatonism, especially in their identifying the Neoplatonic One, or God, with Jehovah. The most influential of these would be Origen, the pupil of Ammonius Saccas and the fifth-century author known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, (whose works were translated by John Scotus in the 9th century for the west) and proved significant for both the Eastern Orthodox and Western branches of Christianity. Neoplatonism also had links with Gnosticism, which Plotinus rebuked in his ninth tractate of the second Enneads: "Against Those That Affirm The Creator of The Kosmos and The Kosmos Itself to Be Evil" (generally known as "Against The Gnostics").

Due to their belief being grounded in Platonic thought, the Neoplatonists rejected gnosticism's vilification of Plato's demiurge, the creator of the material world or cosmos discussed in the Timaeus. Neoplatonism has been referred to as orthodox Platonic philosophy by scholars like Professor John D. Turner; this reference may be due in part to Plotinus' attempt to refute certain interpretations of Platonic philosophy, through his Enneads. Plotinus believed the followers of gnosticism had corrupted the original teachings of Plato.

Despite the influence this pagan philosophy had on Christianity, Justinian I would hurt later Neoplatonism by ordering the closure of the refounded School of Athens.[21] After the closure, Neoplatonic and or secular philosophical studies continued in publicly funded schools in Alexandria. In the early seventh century, the Neoplatonist Stephanus brought this Alexandrian tradition to Constantinople, where it would remain influential, albeit as a form of secular education.[22] The university maintained an active philosophical tradition of Platonism and Aristotelism, with the former being the longest unbroken Platonic school, running for close to two millennia until the 15th century [22] In the Middle Ages, Neoplatonist ideas influenced Jewish thinkers, such as the Kabbalist Isaac the Blind, and the Jewish Neoplatonic philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol, who modified it in the light of their own monotheism. Neoplatonist ideas also influenced Islamic and Sufi thinkers such as al Farabi and Avicenna. Neoplatonism survived in the Eastern Christian Church as an independent tradition and was reintroduced to the west by Plethon.

Renaissance Neoplatonism

"Of all the students of Greek in Renaissance Italy, the best-known are the Neoplatonists who studied in and around Florence." (Hole) Neoplatonism was not just a revival of Plato's ideas, it is all based on Plotinus' created synthesis, which incorporated the works and teachings of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and other Greek philosophers. The Renaissance in Italy was the revival of classic antiquity, and this started at the fall of the Byzantine empire, who were considered the "librarians of the world," (Hole) because of their great collection of classical manuscripts, and the number of humanist scholars that resided in Constantinople.

Neoplatonism in the Renaissance combined the ideas of Christianity and a new awareness of the writings of Plato.

Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) was "chiefly responsible for packaging and presenting Plato to the Renaissance," (Hole). In 1462, Cosimo I de' Medici, patron of arts, who had an interest in humanism and Platonism, provided Ficino with all 36 of Plato's dialogues in Greek for him to translate. Between 1462 and 1469, Ficino translated these works into Latin, making them widely accessible, as only a minority of people could read Greek. And between 1484 and 1492, he translated the works of Plotinus, making them available for the first time to the Christian world.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–94) was another excelling Neoplatonist during the Italian Renaissance. He could not only speak and write in Latin and Greek, but he also had immense knowledge on the Hebrew and Arabic languages. He published 900 theses by the age of 20, but the pope banned his works because they were viewed as heretical - unlike Ficino, who managed to stay on the right side of the church.

Cambridge Platonists

In the seventeenth century in England, Neoplatonism was fundamental to the school of the Cambridge Platonists, whose luminaries included Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, Benjamin Whichcote and John Smith, all graduates of Cambridge University. Coleridge claimed that they were not really Platonists, but "more truly Plotinists": "divine Plotinus", as More called him.

Later, Thomas Taylor (not a Cambridge Platonist) was the first to translate Plotinus' works into English.[23][24]

Modern Neoplatonism

In the essay "Inner and Outer Realities: Jean Gebser in a Cultural/Historical Perspective", Integral philosopher Allan Combs claims that ten modern thinkers can be called Neo-Platonists: Goethe, Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, Emerson, Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Jean Gebser and the modern theorist Brian Goodwin. He sees these thinkers as participating in a tradition that can be distinguished from the empiricist, rationalist, dualist and materialist Western philosophical traditions.[25]

Some cite American poet Ezra Pound as a Neo-platonist, albeit from a rather Confucian perspective due to his great admiration for Plotinus and his writings on philosophy and religion. Religiously he often described himself in public as a Hellenistic Pagan.

Other notable modern Neoplatonists include Thomas Taylor, "the English Platonist," who wrote extensively on Platonism and translated almost the entire Platonic and Plotinian corpora into English, and the Belgian writer Suzanne Lilar.

The Druze, a religious community found primarily in Lebanon, Israel, and Syria, incorporate neoplatonic concepts into their beliefs.[26]

See also

Further reading

  • The London Philosophy Study Guide offers many suggestions on what to read, depending on the student's familiarity with the subject: Post-Aristotelian philosophy
  • Ruelle, an edition of On First Principles, (Paris, 1889)
  • Whittaker, The Neo-Platonists, (Cambridge, 1901)
  • Cambridge Companion to Plotinus. Ed. L.P. Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  • Neoplatonic Philosophy. Introductory Readings. Trans. and ed. by John Dillon and Lloyd P. Gerson, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 2004)
  • R.T.Wallis:neoplatonism


  1. ^ Robert Bolton, Person, Soul and Identity. A Neoplatonic Account of the Principle of Personality.
  2. ^ *Mubabinge Bilolo: Fondements Thébains de la Philosophie de Plotin l'Égyptien (Academy of African Thought & African Institute for Future Studies, Sect. I, vol. 9), Kinshasa-Munich-Paris, 2007. ISBN 978-3-931169-00-5
  3. ^ Neoplatonism and Gnosticism Negative theology in Neoplatonism and Gnosticism by Curtis L Hancock pg 177
  4. ^ Schopenhauer wrote of this Neoplatonist philosopher: "With Plotinus there even appears, probably for the first time in Western philosophy, idealism that had long been current in the East even at that time, for it taught (Enneads, iii, lib. vii, c.10) that the soul has made the world by stepping from eternity into time, with the explanation: 'For there is for this universe no other place than the soul or mind' (neque est alter hujus universi locus quam anima), indeed the ideality of time is expressed in the words: 'We should not accept time outside the soul or mind' (oportet autem nequaquam extra animam tempus accipere)." (Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume I, "Fragments for the History of Philosophy," § 7)
  5. ^ Similarly, professor Ludwig Noiré wrote: "For the first time in Western philosophy we find idealism proper in Plotinus (Enneads, iii, 7, 10), where he says, "The only space or place of the world is the soul," and "Time must not be assumed to exist outside the soul." Ludwig Noiré, Historical Introduction to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. It is worth noting, however, that like Plato but unlike Schopenhauer and other modern philosophers, Plotinus does not worry about whether or how we can get beyond our ideas in order to know external objects.
  6. ^ Neoplatonism and Gnosticism pgs 42-45
  7. ^ D. G. Leahy, Faith and Philosophy: The Historical Impact, pages 5-6. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
  8. ^ Enneads VI 9.6
  9. ^ Richard T. Wallis, Jay Bregman, Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, page 173. SUNY Press
  10. ^ Plotinus, iv. 7, "On the immortality of the Soul."
  11. ^ a b Glen Warren Bowersock, Peter Brown, Peter Robert Lamont Brown, Oleg Grabar, 1999, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, page 40. Harvard University Press.
  12. ^ See Plato's Timaeus, 41d, 44e, 69c, for the origin of this idea.
  13. ^ Paul S. MacDonald, 2003, History of the Concept of Mind: Speculations About Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume, page 122. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
  14. ^ Plotinus, iii.4.2
  15. ^ Andrew Smith, 1974, Porphyry's Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition: A Study in Post-Plotinian Neoplatonism, page 43. Springer.
  16. ^ a b Andrew Smith, 1974, Porphyry's Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition: A Study in Post-Plotinian Neoplatonism, page 58. Springer.
  17. ^ "Whether human souls could be reborn into animals seems to have become quite a problematical topic to the later neoplatonists." - Andrew Smith, (1987), Porphyrian Studies since 1913, ANRW II 36, 2.
  18. ^ James A. Arieti, Philosophy in the Ancient World: An Introduction, page 336. Rowman & Littlefield
  19. ^ a b c George Sarton (1936). "The Unity and Diversity of the Mediterranean World", Osiris 2, p. 406-463 [429-430].
  20. ^ Porphyry, On the Life of Plotinus and the Order of His Books, Ch. 3 (Armstrong's Loeb translation).
    "he became eager to make acquaintance with the Persian philosophical discipline and that prevailing among the Indians"
  21. ^ See E. Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria; Rainer Thiel, Simplikios und das Ende der neuplatonischen Schule in Athen, and a review by Gerald Bechtle, University of Berne, Switzerland, in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.04.19. Online version retrieved June 15, 2007.
  22. ^ a b Encyclopedia Britannica, Higher Education in the Byzantine Empire, 2008, O.Ed.
  23. ^ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Plotinus
  24. ^ Notopoulos, J.A. "Shelley and Thomas Taylor" Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 1936), pp. 502-517
  25. ^ Inner and Outer Realities: Jean Gebser in a Cultural/Historical Perspective by Allan Combs
  26. ^

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A system of idealistic, spiritualistic philosophy, tending towards mysticism, which flourished in the pagan world of Greece and Rome during the first centuries of the Christian era. It is of interest and importance, not merely because it is the last attempt of Greek thought to rehabilitate itself and restore its exhausted vitality by recourse to Oriental religious ideas, but also because it definitely entered the service of pagan polytheism and was used as a weapon against Christianity. It derives its name from the fact that its first representatives drew their inspiration from Plato's doctrines, although it is well known that many of the treatises on which they relied are not genuine works of Plato. It originated in Egypt, a circumstance which would, of itself, indicate that while the system was a characteristic product of the Hellenistic spirit, it was largely influenced by the religious ideals and mystic tendencies of Oriental thought.

To understand the neo-Platonic system in itself, as well as to appreciate the attitude of Christianity towards it, it is necessary to explain the two-fold purpose which actuated its founders. On the one hand, philosophical thought in the Hellenic world had proved itself inadequate to the task of moral and religious regeneration. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Eclecticism and even Scepticism had each been set the task of "making men happy", and each had in turn failed. Then came the thought that Plato's idealism and the religious forces of the Orient might well be united in one philosophical movement which would give definiteness, homogeneity, and unity of purpose to all the efforts of the pagan world to rescue itself from impending ruin. On the other hand, the strength and, from the pagan point of view, the aggressiveness of Christianity began to be realized. It became necessary, in the intellectual world, to impose on the Christians by showing that Paganism was not entirely bankrupt, and, in the political world, to rehabilitate the official polytheism of the State by furnishing an interpretation of it, that should be acceptable in philosophy. Speculative Stoicism had reduced the gods to personifications of natural forces; Aristotle had definitely denied their existence; Plato had sneered at them. It was time, therefore, that the growing prestige of Christianity should be offset by a philosophy which, claiming the authority of Plato, whom the Christians revered, should not only retain the gods but make them an essential part of a philosophical system. Such was the origin of Neoplatonism. It should, however, be added that, while the philosophy that sprang from these sources was Platonic, it did not disdain to appropriate to itself elements of Aristoteleanism and even Epicureanism, which it articulated into a Syncretic system.

Forerunners of Neoplatonism

Among the more or less eclectic Platonists who are regarded as forerunners of the Neoplatonic school, the most important are Plutarch, Maximus, Apuleius, Aenesidemus, Numenius. The last-mentioned, who flourished towards the end of the second century of the Christian era, had a direct and immediate influence on Plotinus, the first systematic neo-Platonist. He taught that there are three gods, the Father, the Maker (Demiurgos), and the World. Philo the Jew (see PHILO JUDAEUS), who flourished in the middle of the first century, was also a forerunner of Neoplatonism, although it is difficult to say whether his doctrine of the mediation of the Logos had a direct influence on Plotinus.

Ammonius Saccas

Ammonius Saccas, a porter on the docks of Alexandria, is regarded as the founder of the Neoplatonic school. Since he left no writings, it is impossible to say what his doctrines were. We know, however, that he had an extraordinary influence over men like Plotinus and Origen, who willingly abandoned the professional teachers of philosophy to listen to his discourses on wisdom. According to Eusebius, he was born of Christian parents, but reverted to paganism. The date of his birth is given as 242.


Plotinus, a native of Lycopolis in Egypt, who lived from 205 to 270 was the first systematic philosopher of the school. When he was twenty-eight years old he was taken by a friend to hear Ammonius, and thenceforth for eleven years he continued to profit by the lectures of the porter. At the end of the first discourse which he heard, he exclaimed: "This man is the man of whom I was in search." In 242 he accompanied the Emporer Gordian to Mesopotamia, intending to go to Persia. In 244 he went to Rome, where, for ten years, he taught philosophy, counting among his hearers and admirers the Emporer Gallienus and his wife Solonia. In 263 he retired to Campania with some of his disciples, including Porphyry, and there he died in 270. His works, consisting of fifty-four treatises, were edited by Porphyry in six groups of nine. Hence they are known as the "Enneads".The "Enneads" were first published in a Latin translation by Marsilius Ficinus (Florence, 1492); of recent editions the best are Breuzer and Moser's (Oxford, 1855), and Kirchoff's (Leipzig, 1856). Parts of the "Enneads" are translated into English by Taylor (London, 1787-1817).

Plotinus' starting-point is that of the idealist. He meets what he considers the paradox of materialism, the assertion, namely, that matter alone exists, by an emphatic assertion of the existence of spirit. If the soul is spirit, it follows that it cannot have originated from the body or an aggregation of bodies. The true source of reality is above us, not beneath us. It is the One, the Absolute, the Infinite. It is God. God exceeds all the categories of finite thought. It is not correct to say that He is a Being, or a Mind. He is over-Being, over-Mind. The only attributes which may be appropriately applied to Him are Good and One. If God were only One, He should remain forever in His undifferentiated unity, and there should be nothing but God. He is, however, good; and goodness, like light, tends to diffuse itself. Thus from the One, there emanates in the first place Intellect (Nous), which is the image of the One, and at the same time a partially differentiated derivative, because it is the world of ideas, in which are the multiple archetypes of things. From the intellect emanates an image in which there is a tendency to dynamic differentiation, namely the World-soul, which is the abode of forces, as the Intellect is the abode of Ideas. From the World-Soul emanates the Forces (one of which is the human soul), which, by a series of successive degradations towards nothing become finally Matter, the non-existent, the antithesis of God. All this process is called an emanation, or flowing. It is described in figurative language, and thus its precise philosophical value is not determined. Similarly the One, God, is described as light, and Matter is said to be darkness. Matter, is, in fact, for Plotinus, essentially the opposite of the Good; it is evil and the source of all evil. It is unreality and wherever it is present, there is not only a lack of goodness but also a lack of reality. God alone is free from Matter; He alone is Light; He alone is fully real. Everywhere there is partial differentiation, partial darkness, partial unreality; in the intellect, in the World-Soul, in Souls, in the material universe. God, the reality, the spiritual, is, therefore, contrasted with the world, the unreal, the material. God is noumenon, everything else is appearance, or phenomenon.

Man, being composed of body and soul, is partly, like God, spiritual, and partly like matter, the opposite of spiritual. It is his duty to aim at returning to God by eliminating from his being, his thoughts, and his actions, everything that is material and, therefore, tends to separate him from God. The soul came from God. It existed before its union with the body; its survival after death is, therefore, hardly in need of proof. It will return to God by way of knowledge, because that which separates it from God is matter and material conditions, which are only illusions or deceptive appearances. The first step, therefore in the return of the soul to God is the act by which the soul, withdrawing from the world of sense by a process of purification (katharsis), frees itself from the trammels of matter. Next, having retired within itself, the soul contemplates within itself the indwelling intellect. From the contemplation of the Intellect within, it rises to a contemplation of the Intellect above, and from that to the contemplation of the One. It cannot, however, reach this final stage except by revelation, that is, by the free act of God, Who, shedding around Him the light of His own greatness, sends into the soul of the philosopher and saint a special light which enables it to see God Himself. This intuition of the one so fills the soul that it excludes all consciousness and feeling, reduces the mind to a state of utter passivity, and renders possible the union of man with God. The ecstasy (ekstasis) by which this union is attained is man's supreme happiness, the goal of all his endeavor, the fulfillment of his destiny. It is a happiness which receives no increase by continuance of time. Once the philosopher-saint has attained it, he becomes confirmed, so to speak, in grace. Henceforth forever, he is a spiritual being, a man of God, a prophet, and a wonder-worker. He commands all the powers of nature, and even bends to his will the demons themselves. He sees into the future, and in a sense shares the vision, as he shares the life, of God.


Porphyry, who in beauty and lucidity of style excels all the other followers of Plotinus, and who is distinguished also by the bitterness of his opposition to Christiani, was born A.D. 233, probably at Tyre. After having studied at Athens, he visited Rome and there became a devoted disciple of Plotinus, whom he accompanied to Campania in 263. He died about the year 303. Of his work "Against the Christians" only a few fragments, preserved in the works of the Christian Apologists, have come down to us. From these it appears that he directed his attack along the lines of what we should now call historical criticism of the Old Testament and the comparative study of religions. His work "De Antro Nympharum" is an elaborate allegorical interpretation and defence of pagan mythology. His Aphormai (Sentences) is an exposition of Plotinus's philosophy. His biographical writings included "Lives" of Pythagoras and Plotinus in which he strove to show that these "god-sent" men were not only models of philosophic sanctity but also thaumatourgoi, or "wonder-workers", endowed with theurgic powers. The best known of all his works is a logical treatise entitled eosagoge, or "Introduction to the Categories of Aristotle". In a Latin translation made by Boethius, this work was very widely used in the early Middle Ages, and exerted considerable influence on the growth of Scholasticism. It is, as is well known, a passage in this "Isagogue" that is said to have given occasion to the celebrated controversy concerning universals in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In his expository works on the philosophy of Plotinus, Porphyry lays great stress on the importance of theurgic practices. He holds, of course, that the practices of asceticism are the starting-point on the road to perfection. One must begin the process of perfection by "thinning out the veil of matter" (the body), which stands between the soul and spiritual things. Then, as a means of further advancement, one must cultivate self-contemplation. Once the stage of self-contemplation is attained, further progress towards perfection is dependent on the consultation of oracles, divination, bloodless sacrifices to the superior gods and bloody sacrifices to demons, or inferior powers.


Iamblichus, a native of Syria, who was a pupil of Porphyry in Italy, and died about the year 330, while inferior to his teacher in power of exposition, seemed to have a firmer grasp of the speculative principles of Neoplatonism and modified more profoundly the metaphysical doctrines of the school. His works bear the comprehensive title "Summary of Pythagorean Doctrines". Whether he or a disciple of his is the author of the treatise "De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum" (first pub. by Gale, Oxford, 1678, and afterwards by Parthey, Berlin, 1857), the book is a product of his school and proves that he, like Porphyry, emphasized the magic, or theurgic, factor in the Neoplatonic scheme of salvation. As regards the speculative side of Plotinus's system, he devoted attention to the doctrine of emanation, which he modified in the direction of completeness and greater consistency. The precise nature of the modification is not clear. It is safe, however, to say that, in a general way, he forestalled the effort of Proclus to distinguish three subordinate "moments", or stages, in the process of emanation.

While these philosophical defenders of neo-Platonism were directing their attacks against Christianity, representatives of the school in the more practical walks of life, and even in high places of authority, carried on a more effective warfare in the name of the school. Hierocles, pro-consul of Bithynia during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), not only persecuted the Christians of his province, but wrote a work, now lost, entitled "The discourse of a Lover of Truth, against the Christians", setting up the rival claims of neo-Platonic philosophy. He, like Julian the Apostate, Celsus (q.v.), and others, was roused to activity chiefly by the claim which Christianity made to be, not a national religion like Judaism, but a world-wide, or universal, religion. Julian sums up the case of philosophy against Christianity thus: "Divine government is not through a special society (such as the Christian Church) teaching an authoritative doctrine, but through the order of the visible universe and all the variety of civic and national institutions. The underlying harmony of these is to be sought out by free examination, which is philosophy." (Whittaker, "Neo-Platonists", p. 155). It is in the light of this principle of public policy that we must view the attempt of Iamblichus to furnish a systematic defence of Polytheism. Above the One, he says, is the Absolutely First. From the One, which is thus itself a derivative, comes intellect, which, as the Intellectual and the Intelligible, is essentially dual. Both the Intellectual and the Intelligible are divided into triads, which are the superterrestrial gods. Beneath these and subordinate to them, are the terrestrial gods whom he subdivides into three hundred and sixty celestial beings, seventy-two orders of sub-celestial gods, and forty-two orders of natural gods. Next to these are the semi-divine heroes of mythology and the philosopher-saints such as Pythagoras and Plotinus. From this it is evident that neo-Platonism had by this time ceased to be a purely academic question. It had entered very vigorously into the contest waged against Christianity. At the same time, it had not ceased to be the one force which could claim to unify the surviving remnants of pagan culture. As such, it appealed to the woman-philosopher Hypatia, whose fate at the hands of a Christian mob at Alexandria, in the year 422, was cast up as a reproach to the Christians (see CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA). Among the contemporaries of Hypatia at Alexandria was another Hierocles, author of a commentary on the Pythagorean "Golden Verses".


Proclus, the most systematic of all the Neoplatonists, and for that reason known as "the scholastic of neo-Platonism", is the principal representative of a phase of philosophic thought which developed at Athens during the fifth century, and lasted down to the year 529, when, by an edict of Justinian, the philosophic schools at Athens were closed. The founder of the Athenian school was Plutarch, surnamed the Great (not Plutarch of Chaeronea, author of the "Lives of Illustrious Men"), who died in 431. his most distinguished scholar was Proclus, who was born at Constantinople in 410, studied Aristotelean logic at Alexandria, and about the year 430 became a pupil of Plutarch at Athens. He died at Athens in 485. He is the author of several Commentaries on Plato, of a collection of hymns to the gods, of many works on mathematics, and of philosophical treatises, the most important of which are: "Theological Elements", stoicheiosis theologike, (printed in the Paris ed. of Plotinus's Works); "Platonic Theology" (printed, 1618, in a Latin translation by Aemilius Portus); shorter treatises on Fate, on Evil, on Providence, etc. which exist only in a Latin translation made by William of Moerbeka in the thirteenth century. These are collected in Cousin's edition, "Procli Opera", Paris, 1820-1825. Proclus attempted to systematize and synthesize the various elements of neo-Platonism by means of Aristotelean logic. The cardinal principle upon which his attempt rests is the doctrine, already foreshadowed by Iamblichus and others, that in the process of emanation there are always three subordinate stages, or moments, namely the original (mone), emergence from the original (proodos), and return to the original (epistrophe). The reason of this principle is enunciated as follows: the derived is at once unlike the original and like it; its unlikeness is the cause of its derivation, and its likeness is the cause, or reason, of the tendency to return. All emanation is, therefore, serial. It constitutes a "chain" from the One down to the antithesis of the One, which is matter. By the first emanation from the One come to "henades", the supreme gods who exercise providence over worldly affairs; from the henades comes the "triad", intelligible, intelligible-intellectual, and intellectual, corresponding to being, life, and thought; each of these is, in turn, the origin of a "hebdomad", a series corresponding to the chief divinities of the pagan pantheon: from these are derived "forces", or "souls", which alone are operative in nature, although, since they are the lowest derivatives, their efficacy is least. Matter, the antithesis of the One, is inert, dead, and can be the cause of nothing except imperfection, error, and moral evil. The birth of a human being is the descent of a soul into matter. The soul, however, may ascend, and redescend in another birth. The ascension of the soul is brought about by asceticism, contemplation, and the invocation of the superior powers by magic, divination, oracles, miracles, etc.

The Last Neoplatonists

Proclus was the last great representative of neo-Platonism. His disciple, Marinus, was the teacher of Damascius, who represented the school at the time of its suppression by Justinian in 529. Damascius was accompanied in his exile to Persia by Simplicius, celebrated as a neo-Platonic commentator. About the middle of the sixth century John Philoponus and Olympiadorus flourished at Alexandria as exponents of Neoplatonism. They were, like Simplicius, commentators. When they became Christians, the career of the school of Plato came to an end. The name of Olympiadorus is the last in the long line of scholarchs which began with Speusippus, the disciple and nephew of Plato.

Influence of Neoplatonism

Christian thinkers, almost from the beginning of Christian speculation, found in the spiritualism of Plato a powerful aid in defending and maintaining a conception of the human soul which pagan materialism rejected, but to which the Christian Church was irrevocably committed. All the early refutations of psychological materialism are Platonic. So, too, when the ideas of Plotinus began to prevail, the Christian writers took advantage of the support thus lent to the doctrine that there is a spiritual world more real than the world of matter. Later, there were Christian philosophers, like Nemesius (flourished c. 450), who took over the entire system of neo-Platonism so far as it was considered consonant with Christian dogma. The same may be said of Synesius (Bishop of Ptolemais, c. 41), except that he, having been a pagan, did not, even after his conversion, give up the notion that Neoplatonism had value as a force which unified the various factors in pagan culture. At the same time there were elements in Neoplatonism which appealed very strongly to the heretics, especially to the Gnostics, and these elements were more and more strongly accentuated in heretical systems: so that St. Augustine, who knew the writings of Plotinus in a Latin translation, was obliged to exclude from his interpretation of Platonism many of the tenets which characterized the neo-Platonic school. In this way, he came to profess a Platonism which in many respects is nearer to the doctrine of Plato's "Dialogues" than is the philosophy of Plotinus and Proclus. The Christian writer whose neo-Platonism had the widest influence in later times, and who also reproduced most faithfully the doctrines of the school, is the Pseudo-Dionysius (see DIONYSIUS, THE PSEUDO-AREOPAGITE). The works "De Divinis Nominibus", "De hierarchia coelesti", etc., are now admitted to have been written at the end of the fifth, or during the first decades of the sixth, century. They are from the pen of a Christian Platonist, a disciple of Proclus, probably an immediate pupil of that teacher, as is clear from the fact that they embody, not only Proclus's ideas, but even lengthy passages from his writings. The author, whether intentionally on his part, or by some mistake on the part of his readers, came to be identified with Dionysius who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as a convert of St. Paul. Later, especially in France, he was further identified with Dionysius the first Bishop of Paris. Thus it came about that the works of the Pseudo-Areopagite, after having been used in the East, first by the Monophysites and later by the Catholics, became known in the West and exerted a widespread influence all through the Middle Ages. They were translated into Latin by John Scotus Eriugena about the middle of the ninth century, and in this form were studied and commented on, not only by mystic writers, such as the Victorines, but also by the typical representatives of Scholasticism, such as St. Thomas Aquinas. None of the later scholastics, however, went the full length of adopting the metaphysics of the Pseudo-Areopagite in its essential principles, as did John Scotus Eriugena in his "De divisione naturae".

After the suppression of the Athenian school of philosophy by Justinian in 529, the representatives of neo-Platonism went, as we have seen, to Persia. They did not remain long in that country. Another exodus, however, had more permanent consequences. A number of Greek neo-Platonists who settled in Syria carried with them the works of Plato and Aristotle, which, having been translated into Syriac, were afterwards translated into Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, and thus, towards the middle of the twelfth century, began to re-enter Christian Europe through Moorish Spain. These translations were accompanied by commentaries which continued the neo-Platonic tradition commenced by Simplicius. At the same time a number of anonymous philosophical works, written for the most part under the influence of the school of Proclus, some of which were ascribed to Aristotle, began to be known in Christian Europe, and were not without influence on Scholasticism. Again, works like the "Fons vitae" of Avicebrol, which were known to be of Jewish or Arabian origin, were neo-Platonic, and helped to determine the doctrines of the scholastics. For example, Scotus's doctrine of materia primo-prima is acknowledged by Scotus himself to be derived from Avicebrol. Notwithstanding all these facts, Scholastic philosophy was in spirit and in method Aristotelean; it explicitly rejected many of the neo-Platonic interpretations, such as the unity of the Active Intellect. For this reason all unprejudiced critics agree that it is an exaggeration to describe the whole Scholastic movement as merely an episode in the history of neo-Platonism. In recent times this exaggerated view has been defended by M. Picavet in his "Esquisse d'une histoire comparée des philosophies médiévales" (Paris, 1907).

The neo-Platonic elements in Dante's "Paradiso" have their origin in his interpretation of the scholastics. It was not until the rise of Humanism in the fifteenth century that the works of Plotinus and Proclus were translated and studied with that zeal which characterized the Platonists of the Renaissance. It was then, too, that the theurgic, or magic, elements in Neo-Platonism were made popular. The same tendency is found in Bruno's "Eroici Furori", interpreting Plotinus in the direction of materialistic pantheism. The active rejection of Materialism by the Cambridge Platonists in the seventeenth century carried with it a revival of interest in the neo-Platonists. An echo of this appears in Berkeley's "Siris", the last phase of his opposition to materialism. Whatever neo-Platonic elements are recognizable in the transcendentalists, such as Schelling and Hegel, can hardly be cited as survivals of philosophic principles. They are rather inspirational influences, such as we find in Platonizing poets like Spenser and Shelley.

Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.


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