The Archetypes

Neoplatonism teaches that the "meaning of life" is bound up in the "descent" of the soul from the Divine and the soul's subsequent rediscovery of the Divine. The world is theophany -- the appearance or manifestation of the Divine. Reality is heirarchically organized, with what is "most real" at top, and what is "least real" at bottom. At the highest level reality is unsayable, absolute, and formless. But contained within that is a world of differentiation, of distinctness. There's a logic to this that takes some explaining, but in short, at every level of reality one is viewing the same thing, only from different vantage points.

The level that is just below the Formless is the Intellect, the Divine Mind. In this sphere there dwells all the Forms, Ideas, or Archetypes. According to Plotinus, the Archetypes are not static abstractions, like dead mathematical objects. They are, in fact, living beings, though timeless. The Archetypes are the gods.

Some may think that talk of the Archetypes is the product of speculative thinking. I disagree and would argue that their existence is open to experiential verification in altered states of consciousness.

Neoplatonism asserts that the Archetypes, or Forms, are active in ordering the world, they "in-form" various objects with their natures and in the same way serve as that in which the object participates to have its form. The object reaches upward to the Form and the Form reaches downward to the object.

I believe that some Archetypes have been more active than others in human development. In altered states of consciousness one may very readily encounter mother, child, forest, animals and other primal, earthen archetypes that have been very involved in our evolution. That even the most cultured, urban dwelling humans have these experiences shows that perhaps we're not as alienated from our prehistoric ancestors as we often feel.

Experiencing the Archetypes can teach us a lot about ourselves. Perhaps therein lies the importance of art; the best art can bring to light what is normally hidden from our perception in this sphere.



  • Thanks for posting. This is not entirely unlike the Druid Revival concept of the different levels or planes of being--and for all I know that may have come from the Neoplatonists, as the revival was constructed out of various Western philosophical and occult thinking that was available in the 19th and 20th centuries. (This is different from reconstructionist Druidry that attempts to recover the practices of the ancient Celtic Druids.) Whether the archetypes are speculative or not, they can still be useful concepts.

  • Yes, the idea of being's hierarchy seems to have been very compelling to the ancients. The only notable exception to my mind is in the case of Buddhism, which nonetheless (arguably) adopts it in at least some schools, particularly those concerned with the concept of Tathatagarba or Buddha-nature. I don't know if the Druid Revival borrowed it from Neoplatonism, though it seems likely enough. Christianity, too, was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism (as can be seen in the writings of Dionysius, who basically wrote a Neoplatonic treatise using Christian terminology).

    As to the status of the archetypes, there is an element of speculation in that Neoplatonism places them in a systematic understanding of the cosmos. In another way one can say they are simply a matter of direct experience; even if they exist only in the psyche, their existence is still confirmed. I tend to think a lot of religious concepts are constructed in order to account for powerful experiences people have. I can think, for instance, of the Dreamtime in aboriginal culture. An anthropologist might look at how the Dreamtime is an artifact, a product of historical and cultural contingencies. To some extent this may be true, as the particular Dreamtime stories are handed down from generation to generation. But I also think the deeper experience of life to which Dreamtime refers is a matter direct experience of altered states of consciousness, and that it is these deeper strata of consciousness which inspire and sustain a culture's metaphysical intuitions.

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