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Born: C. A.D. 204, perhaps in Lycopolis (now Asyut), Egypt

Died: A.D. 270, in the Campania region of Italy

Major Works: The Enneads, written between 253 and 270

Major Ideas

The Soul is more important and real than the body or any other material object.

In its pure state the World-Soul is the same as the Intellect (or Mind).

The Intellect is a system of Platonic ideas that exists simultaneously in all individual souls.

Above the Intellect is the One, the absolute unity from which all things come.

The One is beyond being and is indescribable.

The three principal levels of reality, in descending order, are the One, the Intellect, and the Soul.

The goal of human life is to return to the One through developing a good moral character, cultivating reason, and experiencing a mystical unity in which body, soul, and intellect are left behind.

Plotinus, the great rational mystic, was one of several famous pupils of a little-known Egyptian teacher called Ammonius Saccas. It is hard to guess at the teachings of Ammonius (which were supposed to be secret anyway), but one speculation is that he tried to harmonize Plato with Aristotle, and both with Indian philosophy. (The alternative would have been to emphasize the differences between the schools of thought, and repudiate the others where they disagreed with Plato.) In any case, we know that Plotinus tried other teachers and did not like them, heard Ammonius and said, "This is the man I was looking for and studied with him for eleven years. After that Plotinus joined a Roman army that was marching east, because he wanted to reach a place where he could study Persian or Indian philosophy. The army however, was defeated, and Plotinus never got to Persia or India.

In the year A.D. 244, Plotinus began to give seminars in Rome, using the Greek language. In his own opinion he was a loyal Platonist, teaching the same thing as Plato, who had lived 600 years before. Modern scholars, however, think that the views of Plotinus show major differences from those of Plato, and accordingly it is customary nowadays to call the philosophy of Plotinus not Platonism but Neoplatonism. There were no Neoplatonists before Plotinus, unless Ammonius was one, but for 250 years after Plotinus almost all Western philosophers were Neoplatonists.

In 263, Plotinus was joined by his most important pupil, a man from Lebanon whose name in his own language (Aramaic) was "Malka." In Greek, however, he called himself "Porphyrios," so he is known in English as "Porphyry." Porphyry collected the essays of Plotinus and arranged them into six groups of nine, which he called simply Enneads (an ennead is a group of nine). Porphyry also wrote the Life of Plotinus, one of the most vivid character portrayals of a real person in all of ancient literature. The Life of Plotinus is found in modern libraries at the beginning of each complete edition of the En-neads. Porphyry is also known for his work in Aristotelian logic. In addition, he wrote a treatise denouncing Christianity, which was fifteen books long and was later suppressed.

Plotinus was noted for his personal honesty and integrity, even though his philosophy claimed that worldly goods and activities were unimportant. People who were approaching death used to name him as guardian of their children. Several of these orphans were raised in Plotinus's household. Plotinus's comment was that as long as they had not yet become philosophers, their property had to be kept safe for them.

Although Plotinus was a mystic, and experienced reunion with the One on several occasions, he was unlike many other mystics in that he liked to give straightforward, logical answers to theoretical questions. One time Porphyry kept pressing him for three days with problems about the connection of the soul to the body. Plotinus gave thoughtful, responsive answers. A visitor to the seminar complained that he wanted to hear Plotinus's lecture and not Porphyry's questions. Plotinus replied that if he couldn't answer Porphyry's questions, there wouldn't be anything to put in the lecture. Most philosophers would applaud that answer heartily. That attitude makes Plotinus count as a philosopher, and not as a mystic only. The ancient Greek cultural tradition valued reason more than many other cultures have done, so it is not too surprising that the combination of mysticism with philosophical analysis was achieved by someone from that tradition.

Some incidents are recorded that bear on Plotinus's attitude toward the body. Porphyry said that Plotinus seemed to be ashamed even to have one. He would not sit for a portrait, saying, "Isn't it enough that I have to carry around this image that nature has put around us [the body], without also having to allow an even longer-lasting image of the image [a painting]?"

In Rome, he lived sociably in the house of a widowed woman, and the household was filled with his friends, including married men and women. He himself never married. His overall attitude appears to have been one of moderation and inwardness, not one of total revulsion from the world (as is sometimes supposed).

Plotinus speaks of philosophers as "lovers" of invisible, nonsensory beauty. When saying this, Plotinus uses word forms related to the word eros, meaning passionate longing, especially sexual. Only those who feel such "erotic" longing for nonphysical things will make progress in philosophy, he thought. Examples of such objects of longing are good moral character, rational insight, and reunion with the One. To a naturalistic modern critic, it could appear that this was a redirection of sexuality away from its natural objects. A follower of Plotinus, however, would say that longing directed at another person is itself a redirection, onto a not very appropriate object, of our natural urge to return to our transcendent source. It is important to see that these two opposing theories are quite symmetrical with each other. Neither one can be assumed at the outset to be more profound. Each one has an explanation of why someone would believe the other, and each also explains many other things. The connection between mysticism and sexuality is a well-known theme; the issue between the mystic and the modern critic is not whether the two are connected, but which is prior.

Although Plotinus's philosophy held that each soul ascends alone if it ascends at all, so that society plays no role in salvation, he had at least some interest in forms of social organization. He petitioned the emperor Gallienus, who favored him, to establish or reestablish a city of philosophers in southern Italy, to be ruled according to Plato's Laws. Nothing came of this proposal, however.

In his sixties, Plotinus was affected by a loathsome disease, possibly a form of leprosy, and people started to shun him. He then retired to a country estate, where he died in the year 270. As he died, he admonished his doctor (who was also a pupil and friend) to try to bring back (or bring up) the god in himself to the divinity in the all.

Theory of the Divine Mind or Intellectual Principle

Plotinus believed that the "Ideas" of Plato (that is, the logical patterns that manifest themselves in the constitution of material objects) do not exist independently of one another but form an interpenetrating system. To this system of ideas Plotinus gave the name of "Intellect" (another translation would be "Mind"; the Greek word is nous). When we study geometry, we are exploring a small part of this realm. Theorems of geometry refer not to the imperfect diagrams we draw but to such things as a perfect circle, or a completely straight line without width. These ideal mathematical objects are certainly not material things. What they are, according to Plotinus, is ideas in the Intellect or Mind. By calling them "ideas," he is not saying that they are subjective. They are Platonic Ideas, that is, real patterns that exist independently of what anyone thinks about them. If we make a mistake about these Ideas, they are not affected by our mistake; they remain unchanged.

According to Plotinus the unchanging nature of the Ideas-we could say, the fact that they are outside of time is a sign of their greater reality and importance. Things that undergo change (states of the soul and material objects) are of less value. No historical event could ever be of much importance, according to the philosophy of Plotinus.

Plotinus, like many other ancient, medieval, and early modern thinkers assumed that the other sciences would turn out to be much like geometry once they were better understood. It is therefore implicit in the philosophy of Plotinus that we should be able to make progress m for example, physics or biology by cultivating the ability to pay attention to ideas that are already timelessly present in the intellect. The fact that scientific progress outside of mathematics has hardly ever happened in this way is probably the single most powerful objection to Neoplatonism.

According to Plotinus, all of the Ideas are in principle available to each individual human being who desires (and, by self-discipline, becomes able) to pay attention to them, instead of paying attention to the objects of the senses. We do this by turning our attention toward them, which is to say, inward, since the intellect is at the center of the soul. Turning around in this way, from looking out to looking in, the root meaning of the religious expression "to convert." It is the first main step on the usual path of mysticism outward, then inward, then upward 2

Plotinus's account is not the same as the medieval and early modern doctrine of "innate ideas." According to that doctrine, we have knowledge of important truths because all of us have, inside us, innate ideas that are reliable copies of real things or facts. According to Plotinus, however, we do not have copies. We have the originals.

An Idea, to Plotinus is not a representation of something else (except in the sense that each Idea is an imperfect expression of the One). An Idea is a real thing, at the level of the intellect. Far from representing things in the material world, the Ideas are actually archetypes that cause the production of bad copies of themselves, and it is these bad copies that make up the material world. Causation moves in this way from higher to lower, and never in the other direction, according to Plotinus.

The Levels of Reality: One, Intellect, Soul

According to Plotinus, if we ask for the cause of a thing, we are asking for something that it resembles but is higher than it. "Higher" means more unified, and therefore more real. Plotinus recognized three principal levels of reality. Each of these is called a hypostasis, meaning something solid, something real. Each hypostasis gives rise to the next lower level by an automatic process of diffusion of its own reality called emanation. The emanation of a lower level from a higher one is a necessary consequence of the abundance of reality possessed by the higher one, and it takes place without in any way diminishing, or even affecting, the higher one.

In descending order, the three hypostases are the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. At each successively lower level, there is more disunity. The One has no internal divisions at all. The Intellect has logical distinctions. The Soul has these plus time order. Material objects have both of these plus spatial separation. This means that physical objects are so strongly divided from each other that they actually exclude each other from their respective spaces. So, there is hardly any unity left by the time we reach the material world; material objects as perceived by the senses are on the very borderline of nonexistence. Therefore the material world does not count as a hypostasis, and is too feeble to generate anything below itself.

That the Soul is higher than matter is shown, according to Plotinus, by the fact that even though symmetry contributes to beauty, a living, asymmetrical face is more beautiful than a statue's symmetrical one. The Soul, according to Plotinus, actually lights up the face that it animates. Being higher, it confers beauty on it. Beauty, incidentally, is objective, according to Plotinus. We do not need any indoctrination from society to find a crushed animal carcass ugly. It is ugly not because our cultural tradition says so but because it has lost all of the unity conferred by the soul, and most of that confer by symmetry. Our soul notices this and recoils, without having to be told.

Plotinus's views may seem strange to us today. Hardly anyone nowadays rejects the saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Hardly any modern philosopher could use the familiar phenomenon of someone's face "lighting up" as a central example of anything. Philosophies differ, most irreducibly, in which features of experience they regard as easy to explain, and which they regard as complex and obscure. These examples suggest that Neoplatonism is far indeed from the philosophies that are now usual. Nevertheless, to its followers it seemed plainly true. Almost any philosophy comes to seem obvious to those who hold it. This is partly because each philosophy trains people to direct their attention and imagination onto just those examples that it takes to be easiest to explain. Then whoever starts from those examples is already aimed toward that philosophy, or one like it.

Such unity as material objects have is conferred upon them, according to Plotinus, by the Soul. The reason why a living body heals when injured is that an offshoot of the Soul has looked far enough down to take care of it. Were the body inanimate (unsouled), this would not happen. On a larger scale, if there were not a World-Soul, the material world would fall apart. (Strictly speaking, the World-Soul is the whole of soul; the individual souls are in it.)

The body, then, is unified by the soul, but from the soul's point of view it is better and more congenial to turn away from the body and toward the intellect. Then instead of becoming distracted (disunited) by matter, it returns to its truest (most united) self. If the soul then lingers long in contemplation of the intellect, becoming entirely identified with it, it may occasionally experience reunion with the One. This is what the soul has really wanted all along; its yearning is built into it by its manner of creation, namely, exile from its source. Since the One is the object of our deep desire, we also call it the Good.

The One does not return our love. Unlike our-selves, it has no desires, no needs, and no knowledge.

Further Reading

Armstrong, A. H. [Arthur Hilary]. The Architecture of the intelligible Universe in the Philosophy of Plotinus. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1967. An advanced treatment by the author of the following book.

Armstrong, A. H., ed. The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967. The section on Plotinus is probably the best introduction for beginners.

Atkinson, Michael. Plotinus: Ennead V.1. On the Three Principal Hypostases: A Commentary with Translation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A detailed, line-by-line explanation of one of Plotinus's more important essays. This book takes you as close to the actual words of Plotinus as you can get without reading Greek.

Dodds, E. R. [Eric Robertson]. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1965. Treats only some aspects of Plotinus's work, but is reliable and insightful on those aspects. Perhaps the most interesting work for the nonspecialist.

Irwin, Terence, Classical Thought. (A History of Western Philosophy, Vol. 1.) New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 185-201. A highly condensed interpretive summary.

Wallis, R. T. Neoplatonism. London: Duckworth, 1972. A reference work, filled with insights and information, masterfully compressed. Parts of the book cover predecessors and followers of Plotinus. This is the best comprehensive work on Neoplatonism.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
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Date:Jan 1, 1999
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