Platonism: A body of thought associated with the fourth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Plato that includes three major doctrines concerning ideas, love, and recollection. Plato’s idealistic doctrines can be difficult to pin down, for Plato did not explicitly codify his thinking; rather, he wove it (along with antithetical views) through his various dialogues, which take the form of discussions among his teacher Socrates and other speakers on the nature of various problems.
The doctrine of ideas postulates that the materiality of the visible world — what we think of as “reality” — emanates from a higher “ideal” realm, an invisible, universal, spiritual world of ideas. Plato, who believed that ideas were the source of everything, held that true reality lies in this spiritual realm; that humans should use their intellect to try to understand it; and that they should aspire to the ideas of friendship, justice, and morality that they discover there. The doctrine of love, known more commonly as Platonic love, equates beauty and virtue, holding that the proper appreciation and understanding of beauty can lead to a more spiritual level of being. The doctrine of recollection postulates that the soul has many incarnations and is, therefore, immortal. Although the soul “forgets” most of what it learned in higher realms during periods in which it resides in a physical body, it does “recollect” certain ideas and images, which are the basis for knowledge.
Followers of Plato have so modified his doctrines over the centuries that it can be difficult to separate true Platonism (if such a thing exists) from its offshoots. Two particularly important schools of Neoplatonism, however, emerged from Platonic thought. The first was the Alexandrian school (associated with Plotinus, a third-century A.D. philosopher), which accentuated the mystical elements in Platonism and which functioned nearly as a religion. The second was Italian Renaissance Neoplatonism (associated with Marsilio Ficino, a fifteenth-century Italian scholar and priest), which developed a mystical system intended to fuse Christian doctrine with Platonic thought.