Plotinus ( c. 204/5 – 270) was a major philosopher of the ancient world, and is considered to be the founder of Neoplatonism. Taking his lead from his reading of Plato, Plotinus developed a complex spiritual cosmology involving three foundational elements: the One, the Intelligence, and the Soul. It is from the productive unity of these three Beings that all existence emanates, according to Plotinus. The principal of emanation is not simply causal, but also contemplative. In his system, Plotinus raises intellectual contemplation to the status of a productive principle; and it is by virtue of contemplation that all existents are said to be united as a single, all-pervasive reality. In this sense, Plotinus is not a strict pantheist, yet his system does not permit the notion of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothingness). In addition to his cosmology, Plotinus also developed a unique theory of sense-perception and knowledge, based on the idea that the mind plays an active role in shaping or ordering the objects of its perception, rather than passively receiving the data of sense experience (in this sense, Plotinus may be said to have anticipated the phenomenological theories of Husserl).
Plotinus’ doctrine that the soul is composed of a higher and a lower part — the higher part being unchangeable and divine (and aloof from the lower part, yet providing the lower part with life), while the lower part is the seat of the personality (and hence the passions and vices) — led him to neglect an ethics of the individual human being in favor of a mystical or soteric doctrine of the soul’s ascent to union with its higher part. The philosophy of Plotinus is represented in the complete collection of his treatises, collected and edited by his student Porphyry into six books of nine treatises each. For this reason they have come down to us under the title of the Enneads, and have inspired centuries of Pagan, Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Gnostic metaphysicians and mystics.
Plotinus was born in 204 C.E. in Egypt, the exact location of which is unknown. In his mid-twenties Plotinus gravitated to Alexandria, where he attended the lectures of various philosophers, not finding satisfaction with any until he discovered the teacher Ammonius Saccas. He remained with Ammonius until 242, at which time he joined up with the Emperor Gordian on an expedition to Persia, for the purpose, it seems, of engaging the famed philosophers of that country in the pursuit of wisdom. The expedition never met its destination, for the Emperor was assassinated in Mesopotamia, and Plotinus returned to Rome to set up a school of philosophy. By this time, Plotinus had reached his fortieth year. He taught in Rome for twenty years before the arrival of Porphyry, who was destined to become his most famous pupil, as well as his biographer and editor. It was at this time that Plotinus, urged by Porphyry, began to collect his treatises into systematic form, and to compose new ones. These treatises were most likely composed from the material gathered from Plotinus’ lectures and debates with his students. The students and attendants of Plotinus’ lectures must have varied greatly in philosophical outlook and doctrine, for the Enneads are filled with refutations and corrections of the positions of Peripatetics, Stoics, Epicureans, Gnostics, and Astrologers. Although Plotinus appealed to Plato as the ultimate authority on all things philosophical, he was known to have criticized the master himself (cf. Ennead IV.8.1).
We should not make the mistake of interpreting Plotinus as nothing more than a commentator on Plato, albeit a brilliant one. He was an original and profound thinker in his own right, who borrowed and re-worked all that he found useful from earlier thinkers, and even from his opponents, in order to construct the grand dialectical system presented (although in not quite systematic form) in his treatises. The great thinker died in solitude at Campania in 270 C.E. According to the account of Eustochius, who attended him at the end, Plotinus’ final words were: “Strive to give back the Divine in yourselves to the Divine in the All.”
Plotinus had an inherent distrust of materiality (an attitude common to Platonism), holding to the view that phenomena were a poor image or mimicry (mimesis) of something “higher and intelligible” which was the “truer part of genuine Being”. This distrust extended to the body, including his own; it is reported by Porphyry that at one point he refused to have his portrait painted, presumably for much the same reasons of dislike. Likewise Plotinus never discussed his ancestry, childhood, or his place or date of birth. From all accounts his personal and social life exhibited the highest moral and spiritual standards.
Plotinus wrote the essays that became the Enneads over a period of several years from ca. 253 until a few months before his death seventeen years later. Porphyry makes note that the Enneads, before being compiled and arranged by himself, were merely the enormous collection of notes and essays which Plotinus used in his lectures and debates, rather than a formal book. Plotinus was unable to revise his own work due to his poor eyesight, yet his writings required extensive editing, according to Porphyry: his master’s handwriting was atrocious, he did not properly separate his words, and he cared little for niceties of spelling. Plotinus intensely disliked the editorial process, and turned the task to Porphyry, who not only polished them but put them into the arrangement we now have.
Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent “One”, containing no division, multiplicity or distinction; beyond all categories of being and non-being [compare to the concept of the Absolute in Advaita Vedanta]. His “One” “cannot be any existing thing”, nor is it merely the sum of all things, but “is prior to all existents”. His “One” concept encompassed thinker and object. If we insist on describing it further, we must call the One a sheer potentiality (dynamis) or without which nothing could exist. Plotinus compared the One to “light”, the Divine Nous (first will towards Good) to the “Sun”, and lastly the Soul to the “Moon” whose light is merely a “derivative conglomeration of light from the ‘Sun'”. The first light could exist without any celestial body.
The One, being beyond all attributes including being and non-being, is the source of the world—but not through any act of creation, willful or otherwise, since activity cannot be ascribed to the unchangeable, immutable One. The One is not just an intellectual conception but something that can be experienced, an experience where one goes beyond all multiplicity. Plotinus writes, “We ought not even to say that he will see, but he will be that which he sees, if indeed it is possible any longer to distinguish between seer and seen, and not boldly to affirm that the two are one.”
The essentially devotional nature of Plotinus’ philosophy may be illustrated by his concept of attaining ecstatic union with the One (henosis). Porphyry relates that Plotinus attained such a union four times during the years he knew him. This may be related to enlightenment, liberation, and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions.
Authentic human happiness for Plotinus consists of the true human identifying with that which is the best in the universe. Because happiness is beyond anything physical, Plotinus stresses the point that worldly fortune does not control true human happiness, and thus “… there exists no single human being that does not either potentially or effectively possess this thing we hold to constitute happiness.” The issue of happiness is one of Plotinus’ greatest imprints on Western thought, as he is one of the first to introduce the idea that eudaimonia (happiness) is attainable only within consciousness.
The true human is an incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul, and superior to all things corporeal. It then follows that real human happiness is independent of the physical world. Real happiness is, instead, dependent on the metaphysical and authentic human being found in this highest capacity of Reason. “For man, and especially the Proficient, is not the Couplement of Soul and body: the proof is that man can be disengaged from the body and disdain its nominal goods.” The human who has achieved happiness will not be bothered by sickness, discomfort, etc., as his focus is on the greatest things. Authentic human happiness is the utilization of the most authentically human capacity of contemplation. Even in daily, physical action, the flourishing human’s “…Act is determined by the higher phase of the Soul.” Even in the most dramatic arguments Plotinus considers (if the Proficient [Adept] is subject to extreme physical torture, for example), he concludes this only strengthens his claim of true happiness being metaphysical, as the truly happy human being would understand that which is being tortured is merely a body, not the conscious self, and happiness could persist.
Plotinus offers a comprehensive description of his conception of a person who has achieved eudaimonia. “The perfect life” involves a man who commands reason and contemplation. A happy person will not sway between happy and sad, as many of Plotinus’ contemporaries believed. Stoics, for example, question the ability of someone to be happy (presupposing happiness is contemplation) if they are mentally incapacitated or even asleep. Plotinus disregards this claim, as the soul and true human do not sleep or even exist in time, nor will a living human who has achieved eudaimonia suddenly stop using its greatest, most authentic capacity just because of the body’s discomfort in the physical realm. “…The Proficient’s will is set always and only inward.” Overall, happiness for Plotinus is “…a flight from this world’s ways and things,” and a focus on the highest, i.e. Forms and The One.
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite was deeply influenced by Neoplatonism, as was St. Augustine who, though often referred to as a “Platonist,” acquired his Platonist philosophy through the mediation of the Neoplatonist teachings of Plotinus. Plotinus’ philosophy had a great influence on the development of Christian theology. In A History of Western Philosophy, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that:
“To the Christian, the Other World was the Kingdom of Heaven, to be enjoyed after death; to the Platonist, it was the eternal world of ideas, the real world as opposed to that of illusory appearance. Christian theologians combined these points of view, and embodied much of the philosophy of Plotinus. Plotinus, accordingly, is historically important as an influence in moulding the Christianity of the Middle Ages and of theology.”
The Eastern Orthodox position on energy, for example, is often contrasted with the position of the Roman Catholic Church, and in part this is attributed to varying interpretations of Aristotle and Plotinus, either through Thomas Aquinas for the Roman Catholics or Gregory of Nyssa for the Orthodox Christians.
Neoplatonism and the ideas of Plotinus influenced medieval Islam as well, since the Sunni Abbasids fused Greek concepts into sponsored state texts, and found great influence amongst the Ismaili Shia. Persian philosophers as well, such as Muhammad al-Nasafi and Abu Yaqub Sijistani. By the 11th century, Neoplatonism was adopted by the Fatimid state of Egypt, and taught by their da’i. Neoplatonism was brought to the Fatimid court by Iraqi Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, although his teachings differed from Nasafi and Sijistani, who were more aligned with original teachings of Plotinus. The teachings of Kirmani in turn influenced philosophers such as Nasir Khusraw of Persia.
In the Renaissance the philosopher Marsilio Ficino set up an Academy under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici in Florence, mirroring that of Plato. His work was of great importance in reconciling the philosophy of Plato directly with Christianity. One of his most distinguished pupils was Pico della Mirandola, author of An Oration On the Dignity of Man. Our term ‘Neo Platonist’ has its origins in the Renaissance.
In England, Plotinus was the cardinal influence on the 17th-century school of the Cambridge Platonists, and on numerous writers from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to W. B. Yeats and Kathleen Raine.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Ananda Coomaraswamy used the writing of Plotinus in their own texts as a superlative elaboration upon Indian monism, specifically Upanishadic and Advaita Vedantic thought. Coomaraswamy has compared Plotinus’ teachings to the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta (advaita meaning “not two” or “non-dual”).
“I am striving to give back the Divine in myself to the Divine in the All.”
“Withdraw into yourself and look.”
“Being is desirable because it is identical with Beauty, and Beauty is loved because it is Being. We ourselves possess Beauty when we are true to our own being; ugliness is in going over to another order; knowing ourselves, we are beautiful; in self-ignorance, we are ugly.”
“Life is the flight of the alone to the alone.”
“Pleasure and distress, fear and courage, desire and aversion, where have these affections and experiences their seat? Clearly, either in the Soul alone, or in the Soul as employing the body, or in some third entity deriving from both. And for this third entity, again, there are two possible modes: it might be either a blend or a distinct form due to the blending. Now what could bring fear to a nature thus unreceptive of all the outer? Fear demands feeling. Nor is there place for courage: courage implies the presence of danger. And such desires as are satisfied by the filling or voiding of the body, must be proper to something very different from the Soul, to that only which admits of replenishment and voidance. And how could the Soul lend itself to any admixture? An essential is not mixed. Or of the intrusion of anything alien? If it did, it would be seeking the destruction of its own nature. Pain must be equally far from it. And Grief- how or for what could it grieve? Whatever possesses Existence is supremely free, dwelling, unchangeable, within its own peculiar nature. And can any increase bring joy, where nothing, not even anything good, can accrue? What such an Existent is, it is unchangeably.”
“We may treat of the Soul as in the body- whether it be set above it or actually within it- since the association of the two constitutes the one thing called the living organism, the Animate. Now from this relation, from the Soul using the body as an instrument, it does not follow that the Soul must share the body’s experiences: a man does not himself feel all the experiences of the tools with which he is working. No: the body has acquired life, it is the body that will acquire, with life, sensation and the affections coming by sensation. Desire, then, will belong to the body, as the objects of desire are to be enjoyed by the body. And fear, too, will belong to the body alone; for it is the body’s doom to fail of its joys and to perish.”
“But if Soul is sinless, how come the expiations? Here surely is a contradiction; on the one side the Soul is above all guilt; on the other, we hear of its sin, its purification, its expiation; it is doomed to the lower world, it passes from body to body.”
“If a fire is to warm something else, must there be a fire to warm that fire?”
“The Will of God is able to cope with the ceaseless flux and escape of body stuff by ceaselessly reintroducing the known forms in new substances, thus ensuring perpetuity not to the particular item but to the unity of idea: now, seeing that objects of this realm possess no more than duration of form, why should celestial objects, and the celestial system itself, be distinguished by duration of the particular entity?”
“Every living thing is a combination of soul and body-kind: the celestial sphere, therefore, if it is to be everlasting as an individual entity must be so in virtue either of both these constituents or of one of them, by the combination of soul and body or by soul only or by body only.”
“Our doctrine of the immortality of the heavenly system rests on the firmest foundation once we have cited the sovereign agent, the soul, and considered, besides, the peculiar excellence of the bodily substance constituting the stars, a material so pure, so entirely the noblest, and chosen by the soul as, in all living beings, the determining principle appropriates to itself the choicest among their characteristic parts. No doubt Aristotle is right in speaking of flame as a turmoil, fire insolently rioting; but the celestial fire is equable, placid, docile to the purposes of the stars.”
“The dominant in a living thing is what compasses it entirely and makes it a unity.”
“The truth is that while the material emanations from the living beings of the heavenly system are of various degrees of warmth- planet differing from planet in this respect- no cold comes from them: the nature of the space in which they have their being is voucher for that.”
“Of men, some enter into life as fragments of the All, bound to that which is external to themselves: they are victims of a sort of fascination, and are hardly, or not at all, themselves: but others mastering all this- straining, so to speak, by the head towards the Higher, to what is outside even the Soul- preserve still the nobility and the ancient privilege of the Soul’s essential being.”
“All our ideas will be determined by a chain of previous causes; our doings will be determined by those ideas; personal action becomes a mere word. That we are the agents does not save our freedom when our action is prescribed by those causes; we have precisely what belongs to everything that lives, to infants guided by blind impulses, to lunatics; all these act; why, even fire acts; there is act in everything that follows the plan of its being, servilely. All things and events are foreshown and brought into being by causes; but the causation is of two Kinds; there are results originating from the Soul and results due to other causes, those of the environment.”
“The world, we must reflect, is a product of Necessity, not of deliberate purpose: it is due to a higher Kind engendering in its own likeness by a natural process.”
“I am made by a God: from that God I came perfect above all forms of life, adequate to my function, self-sufficing, lacking nothing: for I am the container of all, that is, of every plant and every animal, of all the Kinds of created things, and many Gods and nations of Spirit-Beings and lofty souls and men happy in their goodness.”
“The conflict and destruction that reign among living beings are inevitable, since things here are derived, brought into existence because the Divine Reason which contains all of them in the upper Heavens- how could they come here unless they were There?- must outflow over the whole extent of Matter.”
“But humanity, in reality, is poised midway between gods and beasts, and inclines now to the one order, now to the other; some men grow like to the divine, others to the brute, the greater number stand neutral.”
“Man has come into existence, a living being but not a member of the noblest order; he occupies by choice an intermediate rank; still, in that place in which he exists, Providence does not allow him to be reduced to nothing; on the contrary he is ever being led upwards by all those varied devices which the Divine employs in its labour to increase the dominance of moral value. The human race, therefore, is not deprived by Providence of its rational being; it retains its share, though necessarily limited, in wisdom, intelligence, executive power and right doing, the right doing, at least, of individuals to each other- and even in wronging others people think they are doing right and only paying what is due. Man is, therefore, a noble creation, as perfect as the scheme allows; a part, no doubt, in the fabric of the All, he yet holds a lot higher than that of all the other living things of earth.”
“The magnitude present in any mass is definitely one thing, yet its identity from part to part does not imply any such community as would entail common experience; within that identity there is diversity, for it is a condition only, not the actual Essence.”
“The nature, at once divisible and indivisible, which we affirm to be soul has not the unity of an extended thing: it does not consist of separate sections; its divisibility lies in its presence at every point of the recipient, but it is indivisible as dwelling entire in the total and entire in any part. To have penetrated this idea is to know the greatness of the soul and its power, the divinity and wonder of its being, as a nature transcending the sphere of Things.”
“At this there would be a Socrates as long as Socrates’ soul remained in body; but Socrates ceases to exist, precisely on attainment of the highest.”
“The infinity is a matter of power: there is question, not of the soul’s being divisible into an infinite number of parts, but of an infinite possible effectiveness: it is infinity in the sense in which the Supreme God, also, is free of all bound.”
“The kosmos is like a net which takes all its life, as far as ever it stretches, from being wet in the water, and has no act of its own; the sea rolls away and the net with it, precisely to the full of its scope, for no mesh of it can strain beyond its set place: the soul is of so far-reaching a nature- a thing unbounded- as to embrace the entire body of the All in the one extension; so far as the universe extends, there soul is; and if the universe had no existence, the extent of soul would be the same; it is eternally what it is. The universe spreads as broad as the presence of soul; the bound of its expansion is the point at which, in its downward egression from the Supreme, it still has soul to bind it in one: it is a shadow as broad as the Reason-Principle proceeding from soul; and that Reason-Principle is of scope to generate a kosmic bulk as vast as lay in the purposes of the Idea [the Divine forming power] which it conveys.”
“Nothing, in fact, is far away from anything; things are not remote: there is, no doubt, the aloofness of difference and of mingled natures as against the unmingled; but selfhood has nothing to do with spatial position, and in unity itself there may still be distinction.”
“Admiring pursuit of the external is a confession of inferiority; and nothing thus holding itself inferior to things that rise and perish, nothing counting itself less honourable and less enduring than all else it admires could ever form any notion of either the nature or the power of God.”
“The material body is made up of parts, each holding its own place, some in mutual opposition and others variously interdependent; the soul is in no such condition; it is not whittled down so that life tells of a part of the soul and springs where some such separate portion impinges; each separate life lives by the soul entire, omnipresent in the likeness of the engendering father, entire in unity and entire in diffused variety.”
“All existences, as long as they retain their character, produce- about themselves, from their essence, in virtue of the power which must be in them- some necessary, outward-facing hypostasis continuously attached to them and representing in image the engendering archetypes: thus fire gives out its heat; snow is cold not merely to itself; fragrant substances are a notable instance; for, as long as they last, something is diffused from them and perceived wherever they are present.”
“Soul thus is nowhere but in the Principle which has that characteristic existence at once nowhere and everywhere.”
“Either we must exhibit the self-knowing of an uncompounded being- and show how that is possible- or abandon the belief that any being can possess veritable self-cognition.”
“In sum, it is impossible to define Substance: determine its property, and still you have not attained to its essence. Even the definition, “That which, numerically one and the same, is receptive of contraries,” will hardly be applicable to all substances alike.”
“Sensation may be regarded as a Form of double origin [determined both by the sense-organ and by the sensible object]; and similarly with knowledge.”
“The world is knowable, harmonious, and good.”
“It is in virtue of unity that beings are beings.”
“The soul in its nature loves God and longs to be at one with Him in the noble love of a daughter for a noble father; but coming to human birth and lured by the courtships of this sphere, she takes up with another love, a mortal, leaves her father and falls.”
“When we look outside of that on which we depend we ignore our unity; looking outward we see many faces; look inward and all is one head. If a man could but be turned about, he would see at once God and himself and the All.”
“Before we had our becoming here, we existed There, men other than now; we were pure souls. Intelligence inbound with the entire of reality, not fenced off, integral to that All. Then it was as if One voice sounded. One word was uttered and from every side an ear attended and received and there was an effective hearing; now we are become a dual thing, no longer that which we were at first, dormant, and in a sense no longer present.”
“This All is universal power, of infinite extent and infinite in potency, a god so great that all his parts are infinite. Name any place, and he is already there.”
“It is now time, leaving every object of sense far behind, to contemplate, by a certain ascent, a beauty of a much higher order; a beauty not visible to the corporeal eye, but alone manifest to the brighter eye of the soul, independent of all corporeal aid. However, since, without some previous perception of beauty it is impossible to express by words the beauties of sense, but we must remain in the state of the blind, so neither can we ever speak of the beauty of offices and sciences, and whatever is allied to these, if deprived of their intimate possession. Thus we shall never be able to tell of virtue’s brightness, unless by looking inward we perceive the fair countenance of justice and temperance, and are convinced that neither the evening nor morning star are half so beautiful and bright. But it is requisite to perceive objects of this kind by that eye by which the soul beholds such real beauties. Besides it is necessary that whoever perceives this species of beauty, should be seized with much greater delight, and more vehement admiration, than any corporeal beauty can excite; as now embracing beauty real and substantial. Such affections, I say, ought to be excited about true beauty, as admiration and sweet astonishment; desire also and love and a pleasant trepidation. For all souls, as I may say, are affected in this manner about invisible objects, but those the most who have the strongest propensity to their love; as it likewise happens about corporeal beauty; for all equally perceive beautiful corporeal forms, yet all are not equally excited, but lovers in the greatest degree.”
“Let us, therefore, re-ascend to the good itself, which every soul desires; and in which it can alone find perfect repose. For if anyone shall become acquainted with this source of beauty he will then know what I say, and after what manner he is beautiful. Indeed, whatever is desirable is a kind of good, since to this desire tends. But they alone pursue true good, who rise to intelligible beauty, and so far only tend to good itself; as far as they lay aside the deformed vestments of matter, with which they become connected in their descent. Just as those who penetrate into the holy retreats of sacred mysteries, are first purified and then divest themselves of their garments, until someone by such a process, having dismissed everything foreign from the God, by himself alone, beholds the solitary principle of the universe, sincere, simple and pure, from which all things depend, and to whose transcendent perfections the eyes of all intelligent natures are directed, as the proper cause of being, life and intelligence. With what ardent love, with what strong desire will he who enjoys this transporting vision be inflamed while vehemently affecting to become one with this supreme beauty! For this it is ordained, that he who does not yet perceive him, yet desires him as good, but he who enjoys the vision is enraptured with his beauty, and is equally filled with admiration and delight. Hence, such a one is agitated with a salutary astonishment; is affected with the highest and truest love; derides vehement affections and inferior loves, and despises the beauty which he once approved. Such, too, is the condition of those who, on perceiving the forms of gods or daemons, no longer esteem the fairest of corporeal forms. What, then, must be the condition of that being, who beholds the beautiful itself?”
“The sensitive eye can never be able to survey, the orb of the sun, unless strongly endued with solar fire, and participating largely of the vivid ray. Everyone therefore must become divine, and of godlike beauty, before he can gaze upon a god and the beautiful itself. Thus proceeding in the right way of beauty he will first ascend into the region of intellect, contemplating every fair species, the beauty of which he will perceive to be no other than ideas themselves; for all things are beautiful by the supervening irradiations of these, because they are the offspring and essence of intellect. But that which is superior to these is no other than the fountain of good, everywhere widely diffusing around the streams of beauty, and hence in discourse called the beautiful itself because beauty is its immediate offspring. But if you accurately distinguish the intelligible objects you will call the beautiful the receptacle of ideas; but the good itself, which is superior, the fountain and principle of the beautiful; or, you may place the first beautiful and the good in the same principle, independent of the beauty which there subsists.”
“All teems with symbol; the wise man is the man who in any one thing can read another.”