3. Neo-Platonism vs. Christianity: Part I (Remastered)

R.J. Rushdoony • May, 22 2024

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  • Series: Flight From Knowledge and Life (Remastered)
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Neo-Platonism vs. Christianity: Part I

R.J. Rushdoony

Let us begin with prayer.

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Our Lord and our God, we give thanks unto thee that thou, who art Lord of all things, art our God also, that there is nothing too great, nor too small for thee. And so, our Father, we come to thee with our needs great and small, with our hopes and our burdens, great and small; and we cast our every care upon thee, according to thy Word, knowing thou carest for us. Minister to us in thy mercy; relieve us of our burden; confirm us in our joys; bless us in our service; and enlighten our minds, that we might better serve thee and magnify thy holy name. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Our subject tonight and for, perhaps, two more weeks is Neoplatonism and Christianity. Neoplatonism is essentially a Greek philosophy common to the world of antiquity. It gets its name from Plato; and Neoplatonism means the new forms of Platonism that have come up age after age. Neoplatonism has had a great deal of influence on Christianity, and we’re going to look for a moment or two at some of the results it has produced. When we go back through the centuries, we find many things that are regarded as holy and saintly that are really shocking to us, very distressing to us as Christians when we encounter them. The lives of some of the so-called saints make really painful reading. Palladius, for example, saw the goal of Christian living as release from this world and the flesh. And he said:

“All those who love Christ make haste to be joined to God through these virtuous acts, each day preparing for the release of the soul.” 1

In other words, the whole purpose of life was to get ready to die.

Then, when we go to Isidore, the elder, who was guest master of the Church of Alexandria, we are told by Palladius as though this were a great virtue on Isidore’s part:

“Up to the very end of his life, he wore no fine linen, except for a headband. He neither bathed, nor ate meat.” 2

Now, the idea that it made you a saint to avoid taking a bath certainly doesn’t sit well with us, I can see by the expressions on your faces. It doesn’t, certainly, agree with your idea of sanctity. But, this was very common. For example, after a hot journey, when one Christian named Jovinus washed his tired feet and hands in cold water, and stretched out to rest, a woman who was regarded as especially holy, Melania, rebuked him and said, quoting again from Palladius:

“Melania approached him like a wise mother approaching her own son, and she scoffed at his weakness, saying: ‘How can a warmblooded young man like you dare to pamper your flesh that way? Do you not know that this is the source of much harm? Look, I am sixty years old and neither my feet nor my face nor any of my members, except for the tips of my fingers, has touched water, although I am afflicted with many ailments and my doctors urge me. I have not yet made concessions to my bodily desires, nor have I used a couch for resting, nor have I ever made a journey on a litter.’” 3

Now, here was a very well-to-do woman, deliberately avoiding using a bed, or traveling in a litter, or bathing, and doing this, because she felt it was a way of being holy. In fact, we might say that very obviously this kind of sainthood did have an odor of sanctity about it, to use the old expression; but it is not what we would call the odor of sanctity. Killing the body, short of suicide, was a common practice, the body was treated as an enemy.

One ascetic of Thebes, when he was asked:

“What are you doing, Father, killing your body in such heat?”

And he answered:

“It kills me; I will kill it.” 4

Suicidal self-mortification was called ‘sanctification.’ The body, or the flesh, was regarded as the enemy; and therefore, some of these so-called saints and ascetics would whip themselves, they would roll in thorns on rose bushes (try that for size, sometimes) to enhance their spirituality. We are told, for example, one such saint, Ammonius, that:

“He never pampered his flesh when desire rose up in revolt, but he heated an iron in the fire and applied it to his limbs, so that he became ulcerated all over.” 5

And there were many who admired this. Now, of course, very obviously, there was a false principle involved here, as though the flesh were that aspect of man which was fallen. But the Bible does not tell us that the flesh fell, but that the whole man was the sinner and the whole man fell, and it is the whole man that is redeemed by Jesus Christ; body and soul. And the resurrection of the body and the new creation culminates the total redemption of man. The doctrine of total depravity tells us that the whole man is fallen, every aspect of man. Thus, to exalt the mind against the body is to exalt, really, to capital of sin, for it is man’s desire to be as God, which is original sin, not some bodily urge. It was man thinking: “I want to be like God; therefore, I will disobey God.” That was the cause of sin. So to treat the body as though it were the source of sin is to, in effect, say it is the suburbs of sin that are responsible, and forget the capital.

Actually, the ascetics, in all their warfare against the body, revealed a great deal of mental sin and pride. On one occasion, one such ascetic named Nathaniel refused to show courtesy to seven holy bishops who came to see him. And the deacons told him:

“You are committing an arrogant act, Father, not escorting the bishops forth.”

But he said:

“I am dead both to my sovereign bishops and to the whole world. I have an intention which is hidden, and God knows my heart, why I do not escort them forth.” 6

Now, this so-called hidden intention was really the sin of Adam we would have to say, the desire to be as God, to transcend creatureliness. The thing they disliked about the body, the flesh, was because they believed, while the soul was supposedly eternal, the body was mortal and perishable; and therefore, they should have nothing to do with it. Their desire was to be more than man, and this, for them, constituted holiness. For example Macarius of Alexandria gives us an instance of this:

“He decided to be above the need for sleep, and he claimed that he did not go under a roof for twenty days in order to conquer sleep. He was burned by the heat of the sun and was drawn up with the cold at night. And he also said, ‘If I had not gone into the house and obtained the advantage of some sleep, my brain would have shriveled up for good. I conquered to the extent I was able, but I gave in to the extent my nature required sleep.’

Early one morning when he was sitting in his cell a gnat stung him on the foot. Feeling the pain, he killed it with his hands, and it was gorged with his blood. He accused himself of acting out of revenge and he condemned himself to sit naked in the marsh of Scete out in the great desert for a period of six months. Here the mosquitoes lacerate even the hides of the wild swine just as wasps do. Soon he was bitten all over his body, and he became so swollen that some thought he had elephantiasis. When he returned to his cell after six months he was recognized as Macarius only by his voice.” 7

In other words, to attain holiness, to obtain perfection meant to transcend creatureliness, to become more than a man. Some of them actually, in order to mortify the flesh, castrated themselves. This, fortunately, was not too common, although among the pagans in antiquity, it was very common. The goal was to be, as the Stoic philosophers held it, like God; and the stoic idea of God was to be passionless, to be above feeling; so that feeling of any kind was decried. Even to have loved, some felt, was to give way to feeling. The monk, Diocles, said that: “Desire was beastlike, but anger was demonlike.” 8 The goal was to have no feelings about anything material or fleshly.

One very prominent person regarded as an extremely holy man, Sorathia, wore only a loincloth. When he heard that there was a virgin who claimed to have great holiness, he went to challenge her, because he wanted to see is she was living in a high state of passionless life, above feeling, above caring about anything? And so, he went to challenge her. So, this is the exchange that follows:

“He said: 'Where do you travel?'

And she said: 'To God.'

He asked her: 'Are you living or dead?'

She answered: 'I believe in God that I am dead, for no one in the flesh makes that journey.'

He said: 'So that you may indeed convince me you are dead, do what I do.... Go out and show yourself.... Disrobe yourself and place your clothing on your shoulders and go through the middle of the city with me in the lead in this way.'

(In other words, let’s both strip naked and go through the middle of the town.)

She said to him: 'I would scandalize many doing such an indecent thing and they would have to say: ‘That one is insane and demon-ridden.’'

He told her: 'And so far as you are concerned, what does it matter that they say you are insane and demon-ridden?'

Then she told him: 'If you wish anything else, I will do it; for I do not boast that I have come to this point.'

Then he told her: 'See now, do not consider yourself more pious than the others, or dead to the world, for I am more dead in that sense than you are; in fact I will show you that I am dead to the world, for I will do this without shame and without feeling.' Thus he left her humbled and broke her pride.

There are many other wonders which he did also proving his perfect self-control.” 9

Now, we’re moving, when we discuss such men, into a world not like anything we recognize as Christian; in fact, closer to the modern hippie, very definitely closer, because the modern hippie in a sense is following the same kind of ideal. Remember that he was preceded by the beatnik. The beatnik got his name from ‘beat,’ the Italian for ‘beatitude,’ ‘beatific,’ saintly, holy. They were the new saints of the modern age, they didn’t care about material things. And this is why the beats and, after them the hippies, let their hair go; they become dirty and filthy, totally careless about their appearance; in fact, they feel happier in old, ragged, dirty clothing, because they’re holy, they’re above material things, and they despise their parents and all the squares, because there is no spirituality in them; they’re out grubbing for money, which proves they’re such terrible people.

Now, this kind of asceticism, which crept into the church (and I have given you examples of it), we had in its worse form in Greco-Roman culture. And, of course, you find great extremes of this in India. But the examples I have given are really pale, compared to what was commonplace in the world of antiquity. If you travel to India today, you will see far, far more extravagant things than anything I have cited. The origin of this is pagan. All of this came into Christianity through Neoplatonism, and Neoplatonism was not without its influence from India. Now, what was the background of this kind of thinking? It was grounded in the dialectical nature of Greek philosophy and Greek religion, Greek thinking.

Now, what is dialecticism? We hear a great deal of dialecticism today because the church, by and large today is taken over by dialectical theology. The modern world is dialectical in its thinking, and we’ll come in our last lecture to the dialecticism and the Neoplatonism in Marxism and other modern philosophies, just what it means in those philosophies.

Now, dialectical philosophy is any philosophy which tries to hold two things which are mutually exclusive, at war with each other, alien to each other, so that they should not go together; and yet, they feel they have to hold them, somehow, together, because otherwise they would be denying the reality of an aspect of life. For Greek philosophy and thought, as well as for Hindu philosophy and thought, mind and body, spirit and matter are two different substances, entirely different substances that have nothing really in common. Somehow, they’ve been brought together by evolution or chaos; so that we are both spirit, or mind, and body. But the two are against each other, they are at war with each other. Doesn’t this sound familiar? And, therefore, sooner or later one or the other has to give way; and, of course, the higher is mind or spirit: it is eternal, according to Greek thought; whereas matter is mortal and perishes. The principle of evil is matter, and the principle of good is spirit. So, man is an unhappy union of good and evil; the good being his mind, his reason, his spirit; and the bad being his body, his flesh, matter. Man is half holy and half evil.

Then, how do you become holy? Well, you live the life of the mind; you pay no attention to the life of the matter. You can do this two ways, and in India, you have the two ways of holiness. You can do it by having nothing to do with the body, as it were, and trying to destroy the body. And you have in India the ascetics, who do everything to torture the body, to suppress it, to destroy it. Then you have, also in India, others who are trying to accomplish the same goal of holiness by saying: “Since the body is nothing, I will abuse it through endless sexuality; I’ll treat it as nothing.”

Now you have this type of thinking among your hippies today, because, as existentialists, they are neoplatonic. In other words, the whole neoplatonic view of man is schizophrenic: man is made up of two alien substances. One is the uncreated mind, matter, or reason, which is ultimately going to be reabsorbed into the universal mind. Now, what does that sound like? Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy; and she was neoplatonic to the core. It was pure Neoplatonism. And the other is matter, which is bad, it’s evil; and some would say, good Neoplatonists; it’s an illusion. So you forget about it. You try to get rid of it.

Now, in terms of the Bible, you do not have anything of a dialectical perspective. Body and soul are alike, created by God; created very good, the Bible tells us. Man as a unity fell into sin. The doctrine of total depravity says that the whole man sinned; body and soul. The whole man is redeemed by Christ, and we cannot say: “Well, yes, there’s still sin in me, because I’m not perfectly satisfied. It’s in my body, but my mind is pure.” That’s rubbish! That’s Neoplatonism. If your body sins, it’s because your mind is leading it there. You are a unity in the Bible, you see. In the Bible the problem is not the body, it is not matter, it is sin; this is the problem. In the Bible, the Savior is not mind or spirit or soul, it is Jesus Christ. But in Neoplatonism, it is mind, or reason or soul that saves man from evil matter.

Plotinus, one of the greatest philosophers of Neoplatonism, who, together with Plato, can be considered the two great minds of this movement, said he was ashamed to have a body. He was a pagan philosopher. This is the essence of Neoplatonism. As a result, the goal of all such people is to escape from the body, to regard the body as man’s problem and enemy.

The pagan mystics, the pagan saints and ascetics:

“...prayed to be delivered from the flesh rather than from sin. The body was a prison or a tomb, dissociation from which was the soul’s one hope.” 10

You see, salvation was to get rid of the body, to control it; finally to be separated from it: that was salvation, not Christ redeeming us from sin.

“Salvation therefore meant relief, if possible, from suffering in this present life, and release from the shame and limitation of the body in the life to come.” 11

You can see why, when St. Paul began to talk to the Greeks in Athens about the resurrection of the body, they turned and walked away, and about a Savior Who would come as their judge: “Oh, no, this is impossible. Why, man’s savior is his mind or spirit or reason, to save him from this world of matter, including his own body.” And as a result, the resurrection of the body was a very painful thing for these pagans, who became pseudo-Christians, to deal with. They didn’t like it. They tried to get rid of it and to say: “Well, we believe in the immortality of the soul.” And, of course, in the modernist churches today, they don’t talk about the resurrection of the body; they will talk about the immortality of the soul. And, of course, at the same time, they will not talk about Christ as man’s only savior. No, the mind of man, applied reason, working through the state, and social action is going to save the world; man’s mind, mind/spirit, as against the body.

Moreover, conversion meant the soul turning to seek higher, nobler, spiritual goals, as against material ones. Then, too, some of the Neoplatonists have held that the one emotion or feeling that can be tolerated, you should be passionless, basically, but the one tolerable emotion, which is a spiritual emotion, is love. So, if you’re going to be spiritual, you love. But if you get angry and you say you hate communism; then, you hate hoodlums and murderers—oh, you’re material, you’re fleshly; and therefore, you are not holy. This has been a common strain in many varieties of Neoplatonism.

The Neoplatonists throughout the centuries have attacked Christianity because of what they call its downward movement, instead of its upward movement. The upward movement is, à la Mary Baker Eddy, everyone being mind or spirit, forgetting the world of matter, and trying to rise higher and be reunited with divine mind. But the Bible talks, instead of any upward movement (there’s none of this, none of this in the Bible) it talks, instead, about a downward movement: The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us; the Incarnation. And then Christ saying, when he washed his disciples’ feet, that you are to be servants of men; go down amongst men; work with them. You’re not to rise upward to try to escape the world and from problems.

This is why I had a very famous sermon, which I’ve referred to a time or two in the past six years in speaking to you: Martin Luther, in talking about the Virgin Mary, when the angel came to her and told her she should conceive and bear the only begotten Son of God. Martin Luther said: “And what did she do, retire into a convent, and seek in prayer and meditation to rise above this material world? No, she went on sleeping on the floor, slopping the hogs, and doing all the work that a good girl would do around her father’s home.” Now, this is the emphasis, you see, it is on the downward aspect. You are saved? All right, you get down to the nitty gritty level of human responsibility, and you’d do your work.

Moreover, if and when Neoplatonists have believed in prayer, because if it’s a divine mind that is not really personal or conscious, how’s He going to hear you? But to the extent that they believe in prayer, when they pray, their prayer should be, they hold, a meditation on higher things. And prayer should be very spiritual. And as a result, they have through the centuries been very, very critical of Christianity. “Why, these Christians are so materialistic, they pray, why in the Lord’s Prayer, there’s a prayer: “give us this day our daily bread!” How crude can you get!? And look at these Christians who are praying about very material things. They want to get well, to be healed, they want a better job, they want to prosper in this or that thing, and they actually pray about these things! How shocking!” Now, that’s the Neoplatonists’ attitude.

And, of course, you can see the influence of this in many areas in the church. In many churches, the people, who claim to be super holy, are the ones who have a sanctimonious, smug way about them; and who are above being concerned about material things. And their idea of being a Christian is that they can really pray by the yard. And if you’ve ever had the misfortune to go to a prayer meeting where some of these so-called saints hold forth, they can take over for twenty and thirty minutes, and say nothing, except to be very spiritual and prove how holy they are, you see. Their prayers never got down to the needs of Christ’s people. All it’s done is to do what the Pharisees did: exalt themselves spiritually. The goal of Neoplatonism is to rise upward above the material things, and to be spiritual; and ultimately to be one with God, to become divine, to merge in the divine mind, and, meanwhile, to be so spiritual in this world before you merge with God that you are actually a rival to God; you’re holier than God, in effect.

If you think this is an overstatement, let me quote to you what Ficino a few centuries ago said. After going on along this vein about how the soul should rise above all these things, then he concluded:

“If one with all this before his eyes will not admit that the human soul is a rival of God, he is undoubtedly out of his mind…” 12

Very baldly, in other words, saying this is the goal: “We’re going to rival God, we’re going to be holier than God.” Now the implications of this were very, very plainly pointed out by Anders Nygren in commenting on Ficino’s position, and those of other Neoplatonists, like Ficino:

“Since man is fundamentally a divine being, he cannot bear to see in God any perfection and power which he does not himself possess He is inflamed with desire to vie with God.

So Nietzsche was not the first to think: 'if there were gods, how could I endure not to be a god!' … What is new in this idea is the hypothetical beginning, and the negative conclusion: 'Thus, there are no gods.' It is not a far cry from Ficino to Nietzsche, who replaces God with the Superman, and to Feuerbach, who conceives God as the projection of man’s wish fantasy.” 13

In other words, what Nygren is pointing out, the Neoplatonist says he is divine; he ends up by seeking to rival God; and finally, he proclaims the death of God, and that he is God. And this is precisely what happened.

Neoplatonism infected the life and thought of the early church, and of all Europe. It saw man in schizophrenic terms. It saw the problem not as sin, but as matter. In other words, it reversed the problem. It is the heart of man, of the whole man; body and soul,which is the source of sin. Sin comes out of the whole being of man. It is a willful act of the whole man. Neoplatonism says the mind is pure, but it’s just the flesh which is a problem to this pure mind that gets out of hand; and this pure mind has to try to bring it back into line periodically. In other words, the whole issue is reversed. Salvation is made separation from the flesh, not the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

The effect of Neoplatonism, thus, is very deadly. It is very extensive. We shall be tracing its influence in our succeeding meetings. But Neoplatonism has saturated the church with a false gospel, and where it gets a foothold, ultimately, it ousts truly biblical faith, because if one does see the flesh, matter as the problem, Christ, as Savior, is ultimately excluded, because then the savior is the mind of man. Then you have humanism as your gospel; and you have man, the reason of man, man the planner, as the savior, and somehow able ultimately to transcend the body.

It is interesting that Kenneth Heuer, a British astrophysicist, has said that someday science will actually enable man to get rid of the body; and then man will be able to travel throughout the universe without any problem of a body that needs repairing, and a body that dies. In other words, he fails to see that the real problem of man is not the body, it is the heart of man, the whole man; man the sinner. This is why the hand of Neoplatonism is raised against the gospel, because, as against Neoplatonism with its pride and the pride of man as pure and all-wise, the gospel points the finger at the whole man and says: “Thou art the man, the sinner, thou art the rebel against God. Sin is in you, all of you, and the only Savior is Jesus Christ and his atoning blood.”

Let us pray.

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Almighty God our heavenly Father, we thank thee for thy Word, and for plain speaking, thy Word is truth and thy Word is the only corrective against the powers of darkness and the evil philosophies which flood our world today. Enable us so to understand thy Word and to apply it day by day that we may grow in grace and in knowledge of thee, and by thy Spirit flourish in thy service. In Jesus’ name, amen.

1. Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (Westminster, Md.: The

Newman Press, 1965), 24.

2. Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (Westminster, MD.: The Newman Press, 1965), 31.

3. Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (Westminster, MD.: The Newman Press, 1965), 136.

4. Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (Westminster, MD.: The Newman Press, 1965), 33.

5. Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (Westminster, MD.: The Newman Press, 1965), 47.

6. Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (Westminster, MD.: The Newman Press, 1965), 53.

7. Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (Westminster, MD.: The Newman Press, 1965), 59.

8. Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (Westminster, MD.: The Newman Press, 1965), 139.

9. Robert T. Meyer, trans., Palladius: The Lausiac History (Westminster, MD.: The Newman Press, 1965), 109,110.

10. G. L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1940), 76.

11. G. L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1940), 76.

12. Nygren, Anders. Agape and Eros. Translated by Philip S. Watson. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953, 675. Quapropter dementem esse ilium constat, qui negaverit animam quae in artibus et gubernationibus est aemula Dei, esse divinam.” Lib XIII., cap. iii. 291 b.

13. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Thomas Common. Thus Spake Zarathustra; A Book for All and None. Fifth Edition. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1923, 138.

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