Neo-Platonism was a complex system for understanding reality that was founded by the Roman philosopher, Plotinus (A.D. 204–270), the last great pagan philosopher. Coming more than five hundred years after Plato, the Egyptian-born Plotinus carried on some of the main ideas of Plato such as: (1) there is an immaterial reality that exists apart from the physical world; (2) a strong distinction exists between an immaterial soul and the physical body; and (3) the immortal soul finds its ultimate fulfillment as it becomes one with an eternal, transcendent realm. Plotinus, though, was not just a mere follower of Platonism, his ideas were novel enough that someday his views would come to be known as Neo-Platonism. His works were edited after his death by his disciple, Porphyry. This compilation of writings is called the Enneads which covers a wide variety of philosophical topics including metaphysics, ethics, logic, epistemology, ethics, psychology, and physics.
According to Plotinus, the basis of all reality is an immaterial and indescribable reality called the One or the Good. There are several levels of reality that emanate from the One or the Good, much like ripples in a pond emanate from a dropped stone. The second level of reality is Mind or Intellect (nous). Mind results from the One’s reflection upon itself. The level below Mind is Soul. Soul operates in time and space and is actually the creator of time and space. Soul looks in two directions—upward to Mind and downward to Nature which created the physical world. The lowest level of reality is matter. According to Plotinus and Neo-Platonism, matter is viewed very negatively. Plotinus, himself, held such disgust for physical things that he despised his own body. He did not celebrate his own birthday since the birth of his physical body was nothing to be celebrated. He also did not take care of his physical health or hygiene. For example, Plotinus had puss-filled sores on his body that he refused to care for. Unfortunately for his students, he liked to embrace his pupils, causing many of them to flee from their teacher.
Plotinus’s school in Rome did not survive after his death but his ideas were carried on by his disciples. His ideas had a strong influence on the great Christian philosopher and theologian, Augustine, who adopted several elements of Neo-Platonism. Augustine credited Neo-Platonism for steering him away from the view that that all reality is material. Also, Neo-Platonism had an impact on how some Christian doctrines were perceived. The early church’s views on God’s transcendence paralleled the Neo-platonic view that the human mind cannot grasp the ultimate reality. Neo-Platonism also heavily contributed to negative views about the physical body.