Philo
Sophos
·org

philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy



PhiloSophos knowledge base

Philosophical Connections

Pathways to Philosophy programs

University of London BA

Pathways web sites

Philosophy lovers gallery

GVKlempner: complete videos

PhiloSophos home

Pathways to Philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


PLOTINUS

(c. 205 — c. 270)

 

NEOPLATONISM

Born in Egypt Plotinus studied philosophy at Alexandria. He travelled to Persia with the abortive expedition of Emperor Gordianus III and later founded his own school in Rome. He was not a Christian, but nevertheless a man of deep spirituality and morality, and he led an ascetic life. His thought underwent considerable development throughout his career, and although his writings were edited by his pupil Porphyry, c. 232 — c. 405, (who became the primary instrument for the channelling of his philosophy throughout the Roman Empire), they tend to remain unsystematic, his numerous ideas being spread diversely throughout the Enneads.

 

METAPHYSICS/ RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY

[1] [gen. 1] God for Plotinus is the Ultimate Principle of all things. He is absolutely transcendent and contains within Himself no distinctions or multiplicity [see, for example, Enneads III, 8; V,4; VI, 9] [a]. We cannot therefore predicate any positive qualities of Him. Plotinus does however allow that we may refer to God as being identical with The One and The Good in an analogical sense [for example, VI, 7] [b]. To account for creation without having to attribute any activity to God, Plotinus makes use of the metaphorical concept of emanation (aporroia). By this he means that the less perfect and changing world issues necessarily from the absolutely perfect and fully real One [c], which remains unchanged [for example, VI, 9] — just as the Sun (Plotinus supposes) suffers no loss when it produces light. He says that this process consists of four stages or hierarchical levels [hypostases] of diminishing illumination and reality [d] in so far as they become more 'distant' from the radiance of the One. (1) [See, for example, V, 9.] The One produces Intelligence (nous) (cf. the Platonic 'Demiurge'), which is also Beauty and which has as its cognitive objects the One and itself (and whence also derives the beauty of the visible world) [III, 12] [e]. Furthermore it contains within itself the eternal Ideas or Forms of all things, including both universals and individuals [f]. Intelligence is the realm of number. Thus it is within nous that plurality emerges [g](2) [See, for example, III, 5 and 8.] Although Plotinus seems to equate number with soul [V, 1], generally soul emerges from nous in the second stage of emanation. He distinguishes a higher and a lower 'World-Soul' [h]. The former is close to Intelligence; the latter, called Nature (phusis), is the soul of the phenomenal world. He says that ideas have their reflections in these two World-Souls as, respectively, primary and derived seminal reasons (logoi spermatikoi) [i]. (3) [For example, IV, 3.] Next come individual human souls. These existed before becoming united with the body [j]. They experience emanation as temporal although it is itself a timeless process [V, 10]. Plotinus attributes time to the soul by virtue of its inability to grasp the totality of Nous as it 'falls away'; and he calls it the "life of the soul in motion" [III, 7] [k]. (4) Finally [for example, II, 4; IV, 3; VI, 1] we reach indeterminate matter, which is for Plotinus complete absence of the One. What we perceive to be material things in the world are in reality spiritual emanations. Matter is a limit and cannot exist on its own. In itself it is total darkness — privation of light: but in so far as it can be thought of as a substratum of individual things and receiving Forms it can be said to reveal itself through being illuminated — at several removes — by the One [l][l]. Matter is evil in that it constitutes absence of good. But the universe as a whole is not evil, because it is the creation of the Demiurge and the World-Soul, and a manifestation of the One [see I, 8; III, 2] [m]. Plotinus also talks of an 'Indeterminate Dyad' as the (non-evil) archetype of matter in the realm of nous and allegedly equivalent to Plato's 'Receptacle' [II, 4] [n][n].

 

PSYCHOLOGY/ ETHICS/ KNOWLEDGE

[2] Plotinus accepts immortality and transmigration of the tripartite individual soul [see, for example, I, 1 and 2]. The highest part remains grounded in the world of nous, with which it seeks to identify itself and thereby to discover its true self; whereas the theoretical and ethical parts have been dragged down by matter acquiring 'accretions' on the way [a] Divine providence for Plotinus belongs to the order of the universe [III, 2 and 3]. It is only the actions of the wicked which can be said to be necessitated. The good can seek to release themselves through self-knowledge or intelligence [b]. While matter can still be supposed to be the occasion of evil, with the aid of Eros man can disengage himself from the sensory physical world by undergoing a process of purification (katharsis) [c]. By means of this the ethical element is able to exercise the four cardinal virtues [d] (courage, discipline, justice, and wisdom) [see, for example, I, 2].

[3] Plotinus distinguishes three cognitive stages. (1) In sensory experience we are provided with images which, however, are not always or universally reliable. (2) Reason, the theoretical part of the individual soul, then works on the images so as to transcend sensory experience [a] and facilitate the practice of science and philosophy [I, 3]. (3) [For example, VI, 9.] The soul then passes beyond this to become united with nous before finally enjoying a mystical and ecstatic union with the One [b], in which it loses all consciousness of itself. This is what Plotinus calls "the flight of the alone to the Alone" [VI, 9, ix].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

As the founder of Neoplatonism Plotinus produced a subtle and complex synthesis of elements drawn from Plato, Aristotle, the Neo-Pythagoreans, and the Stoics; and this has understandably led to much debate concerning the unity of his philosophy. Indeed he was not satisfied with it himself; and throughout his life it underwent constant modification. There would seem to be difficulties in reconciling unity with multiplicity — the many Ideas contained within Intelligence, the many individual souls and yet one Soul. Can nous and soul be both transcendent and yet active in a changing sensory world? How does a 'higher' part of the soul coexist with a lower part? What is the 'true self'? It cannot be soul and body. Is it intelligence? The doctrine of emanation is also open to difficulties. How can the One suffer no loss when the less perfect intelligible world emanates from it? Likewise how can the unchangeable soul be 'corrupted' when 'dragged down' by matter as it falls away from nous? Plotinus says further that evil is the absence of good, but matter in so far as it has the capacity to drag the soul down seems to possess evil qualities in a positive sense. Lastly he might be criticized for the apparent 'otherworldliness' of his general philosophical outlook. Nevertheless, despite these many problems with his thought — indeed perhaps because of them — his system represents the last great flowering of ancient philosophy; and Plotinus proved to be an influential figure in early medieval philosophy.

 

READING

Plotinus: Enneads, especially IV, V, and VI. (There is a Loeb edition of his writings.) See also Porphyry's The Life of Plotinus (Loeb, vol. I). Both works are also available in the Penguin edition.

General

J. Dillon, The Middle Platonists , or

R. Wallis, The Neoplatonists.

Studies

D. O'Meara, Plotinus.

J. M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality.

Collection of essays

Ll. P. Gerson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus.

 

CONNECTIONS

Plotinus

 

[sec. 1] General influence (pattern) Schelling [1d]

 

[1a] God — One and transcendent (no distinctions)

   Plato

Proclus

Augustine

Avicenna

Jaspers

[3a 4a]

[1a]

[3a]

[2b]

[2a]

 

[1b] God — predication and analogy (One & Good)

   Plato

Proclus

Avicenna

[3a 4a]

[1a b 4a]

[1e]

 

[1c-n] 'Creation' as necessary emanation from the One; hierarchy: Nous → soul → matter; One and many; degrees of reality

   Plato

   Aristotle

Proclus

Augustine

Avicenna

Averroes

Albert

[3a c 5a b]

[12e]

[1d f 2a d e 1c-e 2c-e]

[4a 4b]

[3a b d]

[2e g]

[1f g]

 

[1d l ] 'Illumination'

   Plato

Proclus

Augustine

   Fichte

[8b]

[4b]

[2a 8b]

[5c]

 

[1e] Cosmic Intelligence/ Beauty demiurge and self-knowing Nous; beauty of the world

   Plato

   Aristotle

Avicenna

Averroes

Shaftesbury

Schelling

[4c 5b d 15a 15b]

[12e]

[3c]

[2d]

[1e]

[5c 6a]

 

[1f] Forms in Divine Mind; universals & individuals;

   Plato

   Aristotle

Proclus

Augustine

Avicenna

Schelling

[5d]

[13d e 14b c 16d e]

[2c]

[1g 4c]

[1b 3e]

[6a]

 

[1g n] Numbers / 'Receptacle'; nous and plurality

   Pythagoras-/eans→

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Posidonius

Augustine

   Avicenna

[1a]

[1d 3c 5c]

[13f 7a]

[1f]

[4d]

[3d]

 

[1h] World-Souls

   Pythagoras

   Plato

Schelling

[2a]

[5f]

[1b]

 

[1i] Seminal Reasons (logoi spermatikoi)

   Plato

   Chrysippus

Proclus

Augustine

Albert

[1c]

[3e]

[2c]

[4e]

[1f]

 

[1j] Individual souls (from World-Soul)

   Pythagoras

   Plato

Proclus

Augustine

[2a]

[5f]

[2c]

[7b]

 

[1k] Time a function of the soul

   Plato

   Aristotle

Augustine

[5e]

[12c]

[6a]

 

[1l] Matter — substrate/ privation (of light); receives form via Active Intelligence

   Plato

   Aristotle

Augustine

Avicenna

[5a c 9e 13a]

[8d]

[4b]

[2a 3e]

 

[1m] Matter and evil/ imperfection, privation; not real as manifestation of the...

   Plato

Proclus

Augustine

Avicenna

Schelling

[9e 13a]

[3a]

[5b]

[3h]

[6d]

 

[1n] 'Intermediate dyad' as archetype of matter in realm of nous; cf. 'Receptacle'

   Plato

Proclus

[5c]

[3a]

 

[2a] Soul — parts (especially nous); transmigration & immortality.

   Plato

   Aristotle

Augustine

Avicenna

[9a c]

[15d 15e]

[7a]

[4d]

 

[2b] Providence; self-knowledge and release from evil

   Plato

   Chrysippus

Avicenna

Augustine

[9d e 13a]

[3g]

[3g]

[5a]

 

[2c; cf. 1d] 'Purification'; Eros (the 'daimon')

   Pythagoras

   Plato

   Plutarch

   Aurelius

Augustine

[2c]

[4b 8b 9e]

[2a]

[2a]

[7a]

 

[2d] Cardinal virtues    Plato [11b 14a]

 

[3a] Knowledge: sense-experience & reason

   Plato

   Aristotle

Proclus

Augustine

Avicenna

[7b 7e]

[16b-e]

[4c d]

[1b c]

[5b]

 

[3b] Mystical knowledge/ union with the One

   Plato

Proclus

Augustine

Avicenna

Averroes

Bergson

[8b]

[4d]

[1h 8a]

[5e]

[3a]

[6a]