The aim of this part of the website is to provide an exemplary overview over English astronomy textbooks from the early modern period that contain traces of Neoplatonic thought. We hope to show how Neoplatonic ideas and astronomical knowledge influenced each other and how this reciprocal influence changed in view of new astronomical discoveries and theories.
There are several online databases that provide a plethora of digitalised texts from this time, the most extensive of which include Early English Books Online (EEBO), Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. However, due to their comprehensive, wide-ranging approach, they cannot provide the in-depth analysis that is necessary to indentify Neoplatonic traces in the texts they make available. This website hopes to close that – admittedly small – gap in order to provide any future researcher concerned with the topic with a starting point and quick overview over sources that might be of interest to them.
What is Neoplatonism?
The term ‘Neoplatonism’ is not undisputed. As is often the case with philosophical movements, it is not a term contrived of and used by the members of said group themselves, but a denomination given to them by those who came after them and had (or at least thought so) the necessary historic overview to identify them as a distinct school of thought that needed a label of its own. In this case, it was coined in the eighteenth century and was originally used in a pejorative manner. But although some scholars today still avoid the word for that reason, in general it has lost most of its negative overtone. The copious amount of studies and publications on the topic over the last decade is proof of the general acceptance and usefulness of the term.
Although there are traces of Neoplatonic thinking present in the writings of earlier philosophers such as Plato’s nephew and successor Speusippos (ca. 400-339 BCE) or the Syrian Numenius (fl. 150-215 CE), its origin is commonly traced back to the time around 245 CE, when the philosopher Plotinus (204/4-270 CE) started teaching in Rome. He interpreted and refined Plato’s teachings in a way that prompted posterity to mark it as the beginning of a new, different type of Platonic thinking. Starting from Plotinus’ school in Rome, Neoplatonism spread throughout the ancient Mediterranean world and its other intellectual centres Athens and Alexandria, flourished well into the sixth century and continued to influence Western as well as Arabic culture and philosophy up until the nineteenth century. However, Plotinus interpretation of Plato was by no means the end of the story. His way of thinking continued to evolve throughout time, being influenced by and incorporating aspects of different philosophical movements and vice versa.
Platonism vs. Neoplatonism
But what exactly is it that composes and distinguishes Neoplatonism? Which features does is share with its ancestral philosophy, which features mark it as an independent school of thought?
The demarcation is not an easy one to make, nor is there a definitive, comprehensive catalogue of aspects and idiosyncrasies that can neatly be assigned to either one or the other philosophical movement. However, there are a few features that are common in all Neoplatonic interpretations, although the details may differ:
- A focus on the One (hen) as the highest, ultimately ineffable principle from which everything (including itself) is derived, a process called ‘procession’ or ‘emanation’.
- This procession results in a series of sequentially structured metaphysical levels of intellect and being. This stratification is the decisive difference to Plato’s original teachings, which proposed only two levels: the material level, which is temporal, everchanging and perceptible to the human senses, but ultimately is only an impression or imitation of the immaterial level, which is eternal, unchanging, intelligible through reason and thought of as the actual form of reality. The exact number of and correlation between the different levels is subject of interpretation between the various instances and representatives of Neoplatonism.
- The sequential process does not only generate a temporal hierarchy, but implies a power imbalance, where the metaphysically prior is always more powerful, better and more simple or unified than the metaphysically lower. Reality is ordered along the principles of unity, goodness, perfection, immutability, eternity and metaphysical chronology (which are interchangeable to a certain degree), where the One is the upper end of the spectrum and the sensible world the lower end.
- The different strata of reality and being are linked with the human soul and have corresponding, equally hierarchically structured levels of intellection and reason. Therefore, although in the Neoplatonic doctrine (metaphysical) reality can and does exist outside and independent of the human mind, via the mirroring described above it resides there, too.
A Note on the Definition of the Term "Textbook"
Just like the term ‘Neoplatonism’, the term ‘textbook’ in the early modern context is not unproblematic. The genre as we know and understand it today, i.e. as books written by experts of the field specifically for educational purposes, following certain standards, and often tightly connected to educational institutions, did not yet exist in this clarity.
Therefore, textbooks in this context need to be understood in a broader sense: as books that, according to the indications that authors and editors included in the titles, covers, or prefaces, were expressly written to provide a more or less systematic overview of a field or a well-defined part of a discipline, in this case: astronomy.
List of Texts
Phase I: The Ptolemaic-Aristotelian Universe
- Salysbury, Wyllyam. The Description of the Sphere or the frame of the worlde (1550)
- Hill, Thomas. The Schoole of Skil (1599)
Phase II: The Copernican Universe
- Recorde, Robert. The Castle of Knowledge (1556)
- Digges, Thomas. A Perfit Description of the Celestiall Orbes (1576)
- Peter Borell. A New Treatise, proving A Multiplicity of Worlds (1658)
Phase III: The Keplerian Universe
- Remes, Pauliina, and Svetla Slaveva-Griffin. The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.
- Remes, Pauliina. Neoplatonism. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.