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A Reflection on Neo-Platonic Diversity and the Return of Individual Souls to the Unity of the Good

 In an early passage from the Timaeus, Plato, speaking through the person of Timaeus, gives us the reason why the material world came into existence:

 Let us therefore state the reason why the framer of this universe of change framed it at all. He was good, and what is good has no particle of envy in it; being therefore without envy he wished all things to be as like himself as possible. This is as valid a principle for the origin of the world of change as we shall discover from the wisdom of men, and we should accept it.

 Note here that Plato is not claiming this explanation as an absolute fact – it is merely as good an explanation as one might obtain by human reasoning.  And Plato expects his God to be reasonable. We must also note that Plato’s God does not quite start from scratch like the Christian God – a sort of world already exists but it is in a state of chaos and lacks order.  We do not know whether this ‘chaos’ exists as a separate principal (ie apart from God) but the passage in the Timaeus suggests that it does. This, in itself, creates some problems for us in understanding how Plato’s ‘God’ can be all encompassing. As Plato implies in the above passage, we cannot expect too much from ‘the wisdom of men’.

 But leaving that problem aside, there is another sort of antinomy at work in Plato’s account of ‘the Good”.  In other of Plato’s dialogues, we get the distinct impression that God is fully self -sufficing and perfect.  Yet, in the Timaeus, we find him needing to improve on things.  In Arthur Lovejoy’s succinct phrases “the concept of Self-Sufficing Perfection, by a bold logical inversion was …converted into the concept of a  Self-Transcending Fecundity.”

 The later Platonists, and particularly Plotinus, took Plato’s account of the formation of the visible universe a step further.  Where Plato says that God, “being … without envy … wished all things to be as like himself as possible”, they interpret this to mean that God ‘overflows’ with goodness and so acts to produce a world of diversity and order (insofar as the ‘raw material’ of chaos will allow this – it is not fully tractable). That is to say, in order to realize all possibilities inherent in the Divine, the finite cosmos came into being ( Plato tells us it is the only universe because unity is perfection  Timaeus 31). Here again, the logic is difficult to follow – for me at least.  The Divine can only ‘overflow’ if it has a limit – something to surpass.  But if it has a limit, how can it be absolute?  To me, superabundance is a very strange notion for an absolute – it’s all that there is plus a little more (like an advertisement for an American automobile).  Again, if the Good needs to realize all possibilities, why does Plato allow only one universe?  Why not every possible universe? Note also, that there is no conception of Divine love here – the Good ‘overflows’ as a sort of mechanical necessity.

 As Lovejoy points out in The Great Chain of Being, Plato’s account of the Divine and his explanation of the material world and its origin was to have an enormous impact on the future path of philosophy and theology in the West.  Working from Plato’s basic premises, later thinkers developed what Lovejoy calls ‘the principle of plenitude’ – in producing the various kinds of things in the Cosmos, the Good must cover every possible ‘type’ of existence (Timaeus 41).  That is to say, every possibility must be realized.

Now, this ‘principle of plenitude’ and the idea of an ‘overflowing god’ had another important consequence in the West. In one important strand of theology, the created cosmos was thought to have ‘emanated’ or ‘radiated’ from the Divine in a ‘chain of being’, with the Divine at the very apex and then, in order of ‘perfection’, angels, humans, animals, plants, and inanimate nature.  There must be no gaps between any one ‘class’ of being and the next, since such a gap would mean that certain possibilities were not realised – a violation of the law of the ‘principle of plenitude’. But what of the gap between the Good and the next class of being in the scale of perfection?  Surely the gap between these two is infinite and, therefore, infinite possibilities of being remain unrealised?  Plato himself seems to be aware of the problem and suggests that the gap can be bridged only by an intuitive leap. 

But let us leave all of these problems aside and now consider the position regarding the human soul in the schema outlined above.  In Neoplatonism and certain other religious traditions, we have the view that the human soul loses its individuality upon returning to the Good – i.e. its ‘individuality’ in the material realm arises purely by virtue of its association with matter.  Once it returns to the Good, it will be totally re-absorbed in the unity of the Divine Being. Otherwise, so the reasoning goes, the perfect unity of the Good would be violated.  But if the Good produces souls which ‘individuate” in separate corporeal beings then revert to the undifferentiated Good at death, what happened to that ‘superabundance’ which needed to express itself in diversity?  Part of the full realisation of the Divine is plenitude. If that plenitude reverts to a unity in the Good, then it seems that the Good is deficient because it no longer realizes all possible modes of representation – the mode of diversity is missing. 

The usual rejoinder is that the Good is outside time so that there is no sense of ‘before’ or ‘after’ regarding the individuation of souls as a manifestation of the Divine.  But these souls are manifested in the temporal order and in that order they undergo experiences.  These experiences of the individual soul in the temporal order are, by virtue of the principle of plenitude, part of the diversity of the Good.  How can they be jettisoned when the soul returns to this supposed unity? 

There is yet another aspect of the Neo-Platonic view of the soul which requires comment. Here, the human soul is more or less identified with the Divine – it is the manifestation of the Divine Unity in man.  This, of course, leads to a serious problem when the concept of sin arises, for it must be that sin arises only by virtue of the soul’s association with matter (the soul, being identified with the Divine, cannot sin).  It is matter which drags the soul into error, matter which is (or, at least, causes) evil.  But how can matter be evil if it, itself, is a product of the Divine Mind? 

In summary, the problem with the Platonic approach to the unity of the Divine is that it completely jettisons human history and devalues the world of matter.  Souls leave the Divine for their sojourn on earth and then return to the Divine. They are, to use Yeat’s words “fastened to a dying animal’. Our animal natures are at best a dead weight – an impediment to the soul.  The individual experiences and identity of the soul in this earthly realm are lost upon their return to the Divine. There is no net gain, merely a sort of diversion of the Divine into a temporal order – like a river breaking into anabranches which then rejoin.


We ask ourselves; ‘was it worth the effort’?



Timaeus 9 (41-)

There are three kinds of mortal creature yet uncreated, and unless they are created the world will be imperfect, as it will not have in it every kind of living creature which it must have if it is to be perfect

 Now the mortal creature man, has, as part of his makeup, the experience of individuality.  This experience comes about by the process of self-reflection – an attribute of the soul itself.  If such an attribute is deemed necessary in order to fulfil the requirements of the Demiurge for ‘perfection’, then how can it be lost when the individual soul returns to the unity of the Good?


Plato’s soul is tripartite, having a divine part (reason), an emotional part, and an appetitive part (Timaeus 38). Unlike the mortal parts of the human, the divine part of the soul is created by the Demiurge himself (Timaeus 9). We get the strongest impression that the divine soul is, in fact part of that unity called “The Good” – ie. corresponding to the Christian notion of God.  For example, if we go to Book 6 in the Republic, we get (490b) this passage:

Then shall we not fairly plead in reply that our true lover of knowledge strives for reality, and will not rest content with each set of particulars which opinion takes for reality, but soars with undimmed and unwearied passion till he grasps the nature of each thing as it is, with the mental faculty fitted to do so, that is, with the faculty which is akin to reality, and which approaches and unites with it, and begets intelligence and truth as children, and is only released from travail when it has thus attained knowledge and true life and fulfilment?

 Again, in Book 7 of the Republic, Plato suggests that the final object of pure reasoning is to unite oneself with The Good (532b):

So when one tries to get at what each thing is in itself by the exercise of dialectic (the transcending of the human mind in infinite regression), relying on reason without any aid from the senses, and refuses to give up until one has grasped by pure thought what the good is in itself, one is at the summit of the intellectual realm as the man who looked at the sun was of the visual realm.


At 533b, Glaucon asks Socrates to delineate that path of enquiry which will lead to ‘the end of the journey’ of the soul.  Socrates replies:

My dear Glaucon, you won’t be able to follow me further, not because of any unwillingness on my part, but because what you’d see would no longer be an image of what we are talking about but the truth itself……


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Brian Coman

A former research biologist, I returned to the Academy after retirement to take up postgraduate studies in the humanities. I am interested in most aspects of the Western Tradition but, in particular, I have focused on that grey area between philosophy and religion.

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