The Alexandrian Tradition

By I. M. Oderberg

Was it foreknown that a downward cultural cycle was due about the beginning of the Christian era, and that a determined effort would be needed to ensure that a numinous quality would spread some light through it? It would seem so if we consider the birth at that time of a number of new movements and the reappearance of older efforts such as the Orphic which was born in ancient Greece and revived in Roman times. Among the several streams of theosophic thought that flowed into the spiritual currents of the period were three that drew their sustenance from the Alexandrian Library. These were: 1) Neoplatonism, an effort to revitalize the essence of Plato's philosophy; 2) the Gnosticism that used the Hermetic documents we now know as the Corpus Hermeticum (These writings seem to be Alexandrian translations of very old Egyptian thought); and 3) the attempt to inject a philosophy into the Christian scriptures (see the gospel of John). In addition, early in the first century A.D. Philo Judaeus (Philo of Alexandria) studied in the Library where he became attracted to Plato's writings and concepts, so much so that his own expositions became known as Hellenistic Judaism and strongly influenced the first Alexandrian Christians as well as the Neoplatonists.

The Library at Alexandria was founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, "lover of mankind," using as a nucleus the collection of his father Ptolemy I Soter, "Savior," Egypt's protector, who became the first Greek-born Pharaoh. Philadelphus made the Library and its growth the goal of his life, assembling the best scholars in the country to staff it and to secure good copies of all the worthwhile books available, those in foreign languages to be translated into Alexandrian Greek.

It is believed that the word theosophia, meaning "divine wisdom," was first used in Alexandria in the third century A.D. by Ammonius Saccas to designate what he felt to be the essence of the major religions of his time, his teaching being known later as the "eclectic theosophic system."

Ammonius Saccas left behind him nothing in writing, but thanks to his students, notably Plotinus, his work and teaching were not lost. In his school he insisted upon strict moral discipline based on a mode of life that accorded with natural law; he also advocated exercising and purifying the mind by contemplation.

It was the aim and purpose of Ammonius to reconcile all sects, peoples and nations under one common faith -- a belief in one Supreme Eternal, Unknown, and Unnamed Power, governing the Universe by immutable and eternal laws. His object was to prove a primitive system of Theosophy, which at the beginning was essentially alike in all countries; to induce all men to lay aside their strifes and quarrels, and unite in purpose and thought as the children of one common mother; . . . his chief object in order, as he believed, to achieve all others, was to extract from the various religious teachings, as from a many-chorded instrument, one full and harmonious melody, which would find response in every truth-loving heart. -- H. P. Blavatsky, "What is Theosophy?" in The Theosophist, October 1879, 1:2-3; see also H. P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, pp. 1-12

The real founder of Neoplatonism, the new or revived Platonism, was Ammonius although the school is generally credited to Plotinus, who was the most outstanding of his pupils, others being Origen, Herennius, and Longinus. Until recently Western philosophers have tended to regard Neoplatonism as a distortion of what Plato taught, holding that the Alexandrians took passages from Platonic works out of context and built a fanciful edifice of ideas unrelated to those of the Academy in Athens. However, some present philosophers are finding indications in the old literature of an "unwritten philosophy" that Plato shared with a few select students.* Perhaps the main difficulty lies in the lack of recognition of the role played by the Mystery schools in the best eras of Grecian culture.

[*Philip Merlan, From Platonism to Neoplatonism, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1953, supports the view of an "unwritten Platonism." He finds in Plato's writings and those of his contemporaries evidence for concepts central to the Alexandrians. See also J. N. Findlay, Plato: The Written and Unwritten Doctrines, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974, where Professor Findlay calls for a new interpretation of the Platonic writings; and Veda Cobb-Stevens, "Perception, Appearance, and Kinesis: The Secret Doctrine in Plato's Theaetetus," preprint of thesis published by the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy, 1983.]

The theosophy of Neoplatonism as expressed by Plotinus has come down to us in a series of treatises called the Enneads or "Nines," compiled by his pupil Porphyry (Plotinus: The Ethical Treaties, Vol. I of the Enneads translated by Stephen MacKenna). Firstly, the emanation of beings from the Infinite or Unconditioned was conceived as three hypostases, i.e., three aspects of Divinity or Godhead: 1) the transcendent One, "the Principle of the Universe," of which no quality can be predicated; then 2) Its first emanation, "Nous, or Divine-Mind, or Divine-Intellection" -- in Platonic philosophy, the higher mind or spiritual pole in mankind as well as in the cosmos; and finally, 3) the "All-Soul," sometimes defined as Logos, dual in manifestation: the "Celestial Soul" looking toward the Divine-Mind, and the lower or "Generative Soul" bringing into being the material world.

Plotinus envisaged us to be miniature universes, replicas of the large, and that which we seek is to rejoin Divinity, by making "ourselves one out of our manyness," Not only is the first emanation out of the One the Intellectual-Principle (Nous), but "Light is visible by light: the Intellectual-Principle sees Itself; and this Light shining upon the Soul enlightens it" (Ennead, V, 3, 8, Preller-Ritter trans.). This "Light" is not its physical manifestation as we perceive it on earth, but a spiritual essence that illumines us as to the nature of Being.

As far as the soul is concerned, Plotinus maintained that it had fallen into generation or material existence in order to distill the heart of that experience; then, purified, it would return to the primal source in the spiritual and divine realms of Being. To remain immersed in material involvements was held to be a debasement of the soul, from which it must free itself. Under the heading "Problems of the Soul," he alludes to the need of the soul for matter, and matter's need of soul, both helping each other in accordance with a "law of necessity," souls following their own bent, magnetically attracted to material existence, while matter "aspires" or yearns toward spirit. And yet . . .

The souls of men, seeing their images in the mirror of Dionysus as it were, have entered into that realm in a leap downward from the Supreme: yet even they are not cut off from their origin, from the divine Intellect; it is not that they have come bringing the Intellectual Principle down in their fall; it is that though they have descended even to earth, yet their higher part holds for ever above the heavens. -- IV, 3, 12

To Plotinus "purification" meant the separation of Intellectual-Soul from the body-soul and from the body (V, 3, 9). This parallels a concept in Indian philosophy, which holds that the lower pole of mind is bridged or linked to the higher, as well as to the more material aspects of man. It also compares with St. Paul's suggestion that the soul is the link between body and spirit. For Plotinus our task in life is not merely to eliminate evil out of our nature but to become good, not just to be "without fault, but to be God."

We may summarize the theosophy of Ammonius as transmitted by Plotinus as follows: 1) the One, beyond being and description; 2) the Ideas, that is, the spiritual prototypes or essences of beings; 3) the Forms (or transcendent aspects of entities) in the Divine Mind; 4) the cosmos enlivened, sustained, and directed by the World-Soul or Logos; and 5) man's essential nature as an intelligent spirit (temporarily housed in a material, earthly, body), whose sole object is to find its way back to the divine world to which it belongs. Following in the footsteps of Ammonius, Plotinus tried to inspire his pupils to discover who they really were, to lead them beyond the limitations of their everyday selves to the very source of life.

It is this reference to the very source of life that indicates the foundation of the modern theosophic emphasis on the brotherhood of mankind and all of earth's other inhabitants. A common origin, the sustenance drawn by everyone from universal energies and intelligence as channeled through the planet as a biosphere, makes us all kin. In other words, we constantly share and exchange what we embody, and doing this we bear responsibilities for each other and for harmonious development of the whole organism of which we are cells, as it were. The fraternal association of mankind and the other inhabitants of the globe is therefore more than a slogan based on sentiment.

To compress the system of Plotinus and modern theosophy into a few words: it revolves around Deity, spirit, soul, and body, such differences as may be noticed being due to the grades between what pertains to the great cosmos and what to the small or microcosm man. The fundamental point is the identity of the divine in human beings and the divine in the universe at large or macrocosm.

The Neoplatonic school flourished in Alexandria until 415 A.D., when Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, inflamed a mob of his monks to attack and kill Hypatia, the great Neoplatonist. In spite of the fact that Origen had introduced into Christianity the broad, humane teachings of Ammonius, had "neoplatonized" it, to coin a word, the influence had soon waned. After the fifth century, the flow of inspiration continued, albeit for the most part privately, at other times with public recognition. The last of the great figures of the movement was Proclus who, like Plotinus three centuries before him, had been dubbed by his contemporaries "Plato reincarnated." This was meant more perhaps as an indication of esteem than as an actual belief.

After almost eight centuries, the Alexandrian tradition received a deathblow with the destruction of the Library and its Museum, but the spirit that had animated its philosophers spread to other places, Byzantium for one. It flowered in the Platonic Academy established in Florence by the Medici enabling Ficino to issue Platonic texts unavailable for many centuries, and inspiring such great artists as Michelangelo and da Vinci. Centuries later, the Cambridge Platonists powerfully influenced English humanist traditions, leading to Thomas Taylor's work in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which in turn stimulated William Blake, Shelley, and other notable poets. Much more could be said, but the thrust of the Neoplatonic tradition is probably best summed up as the apprehension of Divinity in the cosmos and in the self of all beings.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu