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The Pagan Philosopher's Quest for Holiness: Plotinus and his Circle

From Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, Oxford University Press 1993, pp. 49-54










Time and Creation in Gregory of Nyssa and Meister Eckhart
Time and Creation
In Gregory of Nyssa and
Meister Eckhart

    ΙT IS is generally acknowledged that Greek philosophy became an increasingly religious endeavor during the period of late antiquity. By the second century C.E. the philosophical schools were not thought of merely as intellectual schools of thought but as something broader - bioi or ways of life.[1] In these philosophical schools, religious questions were central. "To the man in the street," Dodd says, "the term 'philosophy' came increasingly to mean the quest for God."[2] Hadot, having reviewed numerous schools of ancient Greek philosophy, concludes that "[t]rue philosophy is ... 'spiritual exercise' ... no longer [understood] as a theoretical construction, but as a method of forming a new way of living and of seeing the world, as an attempt to transform man."[3] These descriptions of the philosophical endeavor in late antiquity catch much of the spirit of Plotinus's own school. It was characterized by a particular way of life and a distinctly religious approach to philosophical questions.

The pagan philosopher was distinguished by a generally positive appraisal of his culture. We learn at the beginning of Porphyry's Vita Plotini that a crucial turning point in Plotinus's life came with his conversion to philosophy and the decision to spend time studying with the philosopher Ammonius Saccas.[4] Conversion to philosophy meant then, as it had for some time in the Greek world, a profound inward reorientation in which one was, in a sense, reborn into a new awareness of everything most sublime in the cultural tradition. It was "a turning from luxury and self indulgence and superstition, to a life of discipline and sometimes to a life of contemplation, scientific or mystic."[5] This note concerning Plotinus's conversion to philosophy helps to situate Plotinus's quest for holiness within his culture and society. The pagan philosopher's attitude toward culture was, fundamentally, sanguine. "For Plotinus and his pagan successors, otherworldliness rose out of the traditional culture like the last icy peak of a mountain range: a training in classical literature and philosophy stood at the base of asceticism of the late Roman philosophy, as seemingly irremovable as the foothills of the Himalayas."[6] The pagan holy man drew from the heart of his cultural tradition in order to define the meaning of his quest for holiness. This positive attitude toward the cultural tradition had some significant practical implications. Certain people were, for all intents and purposes, excluded from this quest: "Familiarity with the divine world was in effect limited to these capable of standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past - in other words to the learned."[7]

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Cf. Plotinus, The soul's movement will be about its source, Music leads to the absolute beauty
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