Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
The mystic philosopher Plotinus is considered the father of Neoplatonism. He believed that he had achieved union with the Supreme Principle, the One, several times in his life. According to his theory, all material beings and things emanated from the One, including the Intellect, the Soul, and humans. In his belief system, human beings were to work to escape material reality and achieve union (or reunion) with the One. A renowned teacher, Plotinus lectured on this philosophy; his lectures were later compiled by one of his students, Porphyry of Tyre, who edited them into six books of nine chapters each, which he titled Enneas. Porphyry also wrote a biography of Plotinus. Although neither Porphyry nor Plotinus was a Christian, this compilation proved to have a significant influence on later thinkers, both pagan and Christian.
Plotinus’s interpretation of Platonic philosophy centers on his conception of the One, the creator-being. The One engendered not only the universe but himself as well. Plotinus claims this is possible because the One is the penultimate element; it is made up of everything else, yet it remains in the purest form. Plotinus calls this state “the light before the light.” As this purest form, it cannot be described or discussed; living beings can only hope to realize that even with a sense of perfection in meditation, they must be aware that there is a greater perfection that exists. The One is known only by what it is not; it is not comprehensible. It is the paradoxical culmination of everything, and yet it is like nothing else. This creation of a complex universe from the final, most pure element can be compared to the creation of gold jewelry. It is created from parts of pure gold yet could not exist as pure gold jewelry. It needs an amalgam for strength. However, it could not call itself gold without the original gold, which remains in a pure, if almost untouchable, form.
All else emanates from the One “because [there] is nothing within the One that all things are from it.” Plotinus states that the first element to spring from the One is Intellect. The Intellect’s purpose is to discern the rest of the forms of the universe. There...
(The entire section is 895 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Plotinus’s life and philosophical thought are known today mainly through the work of his fellow philosopher and his sometime student Porphyry, who wrote an important biography of Plotinus that forms the preface to Porphyry’s compilation of Plotinus’s philosophical discourses. In making his compilation, Porphyry was following thinkers such as Apollodorus of Athens, who collected the works of Epicharmus, and Andronicus of Rhodes, the Peripatetic, who organized the work of Aristotle and Theophrastus. Porphyry arranged the discourses by topic and separated the thinkers into six groups of nine. This organization gave rise to the title The Enneads, which comes from the Greek word ennea, the cardinal numeral nine.
In this work, Plotinus deals with a wide range of subjects and covers an array of questions concerning ethics, natural phenomena, the soul, the intellect, beauty, and the origin of evil. He does not, however, discuss politics. Constituting the earliest sources for Plotinus are Porphyry’s collection, along with another edition (now lost) that was made by one of Plotinus’s associates, a physician named Eustochius. Also, he used as a source brief comments made by Eusabius and Eunapius in the Suda, a tenth century Byzantine historical encyclopedia written in Greek.
Although Plotinus’s name attests to a Roman ancestry, he was said by Eunapius to have been born in an Egyptian city located 200 miles south of Cairo on the Upper Nile River known as Asyut, also known as Siout. This ancient city founded in the time of the pharoahs was known as Lycopolis or Lyco during the period of Roman rule. Details of Plotinus’s childhood and student life are not known, but according to Porphyry, in 232, Plotinus, in his twenties, decided to move north to Alexandria and was admitted to study with the philosopher Ammonius Saccas. After eleven years of study, Plotinus left Ammonius and headed east on an expedition against Persia that was led by the teenage Roman emperor Gordian III. Plotinus’s goal was to carry out his own firsthand investigations into Persian and Indian thought. The expedition collapsed almost immediately; Gordian III was murdered, and Plotinus escaped through Syria to Rome, where he set up his own school in 244, the same year that Emperor Marcus Julius Philippus, also known as Philip the Arab, began his reign.
In Rome, Plotinus lived as the houseguest of a Roman woman and her daughter, both of whom were named Gemina. Plotinus’s lectures, which were based for a decade or so on the precepts of his teacher Ammonius, attracted an influential group of men and women such as Amelius Gentilianus, a philosopher from Etruria and a prominent member of Plotinus’s school; Paulinus, a physician from Scythopolis; Zoticus, a critic and man of letters; Amphiclea, the wife of Ariston; and the senators Sabinillus, Castricius Firmus, Marcellus Orantius, and Rogantianus. To follow Plotinus’s precepts, Rogantianus had given up his extravagant lifestyle. As a result, he regained his health....
(The entire section is 1241 words.)