Monophysitism And Neo-platonism

When we compare monophysitism with the system of Plotinus, several

points of resemblance appear. There is first the impersonal character

of the deity. Monophysitism was not a Trinitarian heresy, and the

Catholic doctrine of the three persons in the godhead was the official

creed of the heretical church. But their theologians refrained from

laying emphasis upon the distinct personalities of Father, Son and Holy

Their sympathies were Sabellian to the core, and Sabellian

heresies were constantly recurring within their communion. The

impersonal Trinity, such as Plotinus taught, was thoroughly in keeping

with their Christology. They lacked a clear conception of personality

in the second Person of the Trinity. It was inevitable that they

should overlook the same element in the incarnate Christ.

The Neo-Platonic view of matter finds its counterpart in monophysite

theory. The monophysites, without formally denying its real existence,

nursed a Manichean suspicion of it. It was, to them, the seat of

illusion; it was an obstacle to spirit, the enemy of spiritual

development. If not unreal, it was at any rate unworthy. The

association of Christ with matter through His body and through His

human nature was, in their eyes, a degradation of deity. That Christ

took matter up into His being as a permanent element, that He dignified

the body and glorified human faculties, these facts seemed to the

monophysite mind improbable, and, if true, devoid of religious

significance. It came natural to him to explain Christ's body as a

phantom. He was prepared to regard the human nature as unsubstantial.

The mystic's view of matter, of sense and human existence characterises

the whole monophysite outlook.

In the spirit of Plotinus the monophysites conceived the incarnation as

the supreme example of the unio mystica. The unio mystica was a

state of rapture, abnormal and temporary in earthly experience, in

which the identity of the mystic was actually merged in the cosmic

reason. The lower nature disappeared completely into the higher. It

was absorption. This word "absorption" was in common use among the

heretics. It was a trite saying among the first generation of the

monophysites that "the human nature of Christ was absorbed in the

divine, as a drop of honey in the ocean." They conceived His thought

as lost in the universal reason, His will as surrendered to the will of

God, His human affections as fused in the fire of divine feeling, His

body as a phantom. They could not admit that He lived the real life of

a real man. They could not see the value of such a life.

Neo-Platonism had paralysed their optic nerve. Thinkers such as the

Christologians of Alexandria, imbued with the spirit of Neo-Platonism,

had no motive for preserving the distinct subsistence of Christ's human

nature. It was their boast that their Ideal had faced and overcome and

trampled on the lower elements of His being. He was a proof from fact

that body and sense and all that is distinctively human could be

sublimated into the universal substance, which is the primary effluence

of the Plotinian One. In a word, the incarnate Christ was, to them,

the personification of the Neo-Platonist unio mystica.

We may conclude this comparison of monophysitism with Neo-Platonism by

pointing out that the two systems had a similar bearing on the conduct

of life. Neo-Platonism was a religion. Its speculative aspect was

subordinate to its practical. A knowledge of the soul's position in

creation and of its destiny laid the philosopher under strict

obligation. Fasting and self-denial were essential preliminaries to

the higher mystic practices. Ecstasy could not be reached until body

and sense had been starved into complete submission. Monophysitism

adopted this tradition, and made ascesis the central duty of the

Christian life. The monophysite church became celebrated for the

length and rigidity of its fasts. The monastic element dominated its

communion. Indeed, it is hardly too much to say that the monophysite

movement, on its external side, was an attempt to capture the Church

for monastic principles. The heresy drew its inspiration from the

cloister. The Christ of the monophysites had withdrawn from the market

to the wilderness; so His followers must needs go out of the world to

follow in His steps.