In this paper, I wish to show how elements of Neoplatonism such as the hierarchical structure of “being” available through the dynamics of cosmological descent and soteriological ascent might revitalize contemporary philosophy in the face of its present post-deconstruction impasse.
Since Parmenides’ poem, where the kouros undertakes a journey to the Goddess as part of his ontological pedagogy, ancient philosophy has used the metaphor of ascent and descent to describe the philosophical itinerary. Plato makes systematic use of the motifs of ascent and descent within a rigorous ontology (Symp. 210a-211b, Rep. VI, VII, Phaidr. 246a-256e and Phil. 16c-17a). This idea of an ontological hierarchy, especially in the form of an ascent along a gradient of beauty culminating in the sudden beholding of a wondrous vision (cp. Symp. 210e: ἐρωτικῶν ἐξαίφνης κατόψεταί) was influential on post-Platonic philosophy. Plotinus makes systematic use of it (especially in his treatise “On Beauty,” Ennead I,6) and in Ennead IV,1 attests to a personal experience of this beauty. Via Plotinus’ Ennead I,6, the Platonic idea of a gradient of beauty had a major influence on Christian thinkers from Augustine (Confessions) to Bonaventure (The Soul’s Journey into God), all of whom appreciate its significance for detailing a salvific itinerary.
With Scotus, however, who introduces a univocal concept of “being” and thus, at a stroke, levels the sophisticated distinction between different ontological gradations as developed in ancient philosophy since Plato (Radke-Uhlmann 2009), philosophers begin to turn away from the vertical metaphor. Luther, for example, attacks the idea of a theologia gloriae (Heidelberger Disputation, 1518) which he sees as a legacy of pagan philosophy. He wishes to deconstruct the philosophical underpinnings of Christian theology to secure the principle of salvation through faith along (sola fide) and therefore recommends a theologia crucis (i.e., a theology of the crucified and suffering Christ) in place of Scholastic/Greek theology (ibid.).
Modern philosophy takes this attack seriously: Kant repeats Luther’s criticism of the alleged hybris of the ancients in secularized form in his critique of “dogmatic [i.e., Aristotelian] metaphysics” and Nietzsche explicitly conceives of his philosophical program as an overturning of Plato, when he describes his philosophy as “inverted Platonism.” Contemporary philosophy has internalized the Nietzschean criticism of Platonic “metaphysics.” Heidegger explicitly replaces the Platonic vertical metaphor with a horizontal metaphor: human existence, according to him, is stretched along a temporal axis between its past and future. The attitude of anticipation, further, represents the highest and most “authentic” mode of human existence. French philosophy follows Heidegger in accepting that we live in a “postmetaphysical” era, yet it does not want a God who is simply historical (i.e., Christ). Rather, the mode of showing of God becomes that of absence, a staying away or an infinite deferral. Instead of the verticality of the Platonic ascent, which guarantees both God’s transcendence and immanence, Derrida (as do Foucault and Marx) proposes a messianic theology in which an infinitely remote event is supposed to guarantee meaning in the present, while simultaneously keeping the present open to the future. Derrida not only claims that God is “wholly other” (i.e., other than the human), but, in his final work (2008), also extends the claim to animals. Derrida’s thought of l’autre is thus, ontologically, at the other end of the continuum from the Platonic ladder. This “messianism without the Messiah,” as Derrida calls it (1994) is explicitly intended to offer an alternative theology for a post-theological age.
In this paper, I demonstrate the cogency of the Neoplatonic vision of ascent and defend it against misunderstandings arising from a theological rejection of the rational soteriology of the Greeks . My discussion will center on how Plato and Plotinus use the language of ascent and how this language is immune to criticisms in contemporary philosophy of “metaphysics.” If I am successful in my argument, this might provide a way for contemporary philosophy to reengage with its Platonic and Neoplatonic heritage.
What is Neoplatonism? Purpose and Structure of a Philosophical Movement to New Directions in Neoplatonism