Study Guide

Plotinus

Plotinus Essay - Critical Essays

Plotinus

Introduction

Plotinus 205-270

Greek philosopher.

The leading proponent of Neoplatonism, Plotinus was the last of the great early Greek philosophers. His metaphysic stressed the need to transcend this world, know the Divine Mind, and become reunited with the One. Plotinus's hierarchical system is set forth in his Enneads (253-70), collected by one of his students, Porphyry, at the beginning of the fourth century. Although opposed to the Gnostics and other Christian sects, Plotinus greatly influenced Christian philosophers, notably Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, and aspects of his philosophy have become incorporated into Catholic theology.

Biographical Information

Most of what is known about Plotinus comes from a biography written by Porphyry about 301 titled On the Life of Plotinus and the Order of His Books. According to Porphyry, Plotinus cared little for his earthly form and was reticent when it came to revealing his past. Nevertheless, some details of his life are known. Plotinus was born in Lycopolis, Egypt. From about age twenty-seven to thirty-nine he studied in Alexandria under Ammonius Saccas, a Platonist often considered the founder of Neoplatonism. Ammonius exerted a profound influence on Plotinus's thought. Plotinus fought against the Persians with Emperor Gordian III; after Gordian was murdered, Plotinus moved to Antioch, and then to Rome. Ammonius had always refused to put his own teachings in writing, and Plotinus followed this practice for his first ten years in Rome. He did not begin writing until age forty-nine. He was a friend of the Emperor Gallienus (253-68) and at one time the two apparently considered establishing a city to be run according to Platonic principles.

Major Works

The essays which make up the Enneads are believed to have stemmed from Plotinus's lectures to students at seminars. Porphyry organized the essays into six books of nine chapters each, arranged by subject matter: Book IV, for example, deals with the Soul, while Book VI deals with Being. Plotinus emphasized a state of unselfconscious contemplation, in which an individual's true self achieves union with the One,—a condition he himself achieved only occasionally and for fleeting moments. The One is at the top of Plotinus's hierarchy, represents pure unity, and is sometimes translated as the Good or the Divine Mind. It defies expression in words. Below that is the Intellect, and below that the Soul. The Soul links the Intellect to the material world, a world that is really made up of little more than images. Matter is at the lowest level of the hierarchy. Plotinus showed disdain for much of the earthly world and for art that attempts to copy reality. Porphyry informs us that Plotinus did not form his letters with any regard for neatness, did not divide his syllables correctly, and paid no attention to spelling. A. H. Armstrong says that “anyone who reads the Enneads will soon discover that Plotinus writes in a Greek very much of his own, which is certainly not bad or barbarous, but is highly unconventional and irregular.” Armstrong warns that it is dangerous to emend Plotinus's text, therefore, because of the possibility of introducing error.

Critical Reception

Plotinus's teachings were not popular in his own lifetime, nor were they intended to be: he presupposed great knowledge in his readers and his style was difficult even for the best educated. Much of the scholarly work involving Plotinus deals with clarifying his sometimes oblique and often abstract texts. John Bussanich writes that the study of Plotinus “is an irresistibly intriguing and tantalizingly difficult enterprise. Behind every sentence, every phrase we can sense a vigorous intelligence at work, one which is, at the same time, supremely certain of its direction and purpose, but which also strains for expression.” Plotinus did not believe it was possible to fully understand or adequately convey ultimate truth through language. Some critics have suggested that Plotinus uses symbolism and metaphorical language in his writings to try to overcome the limitations of words; Sara Rappe explores Plotinus's deliberate use of metaphor to hint at what it is like to achieve union, and Steven K. Strange contends that Plotinus believed that metaphor is the only means of speaking about otherworldly reality. Bertrand Russell sees Plotinus's philosophy as an attempt to mentally overcome the physical disasters of Rome—to, in effect, leave this world by concentrating on another. He emphasizes the beauty of Plotinus's philosophy and states that Plotinus was the last philosopher for centuries who was not hostile to beauty and pleasure. Scholars are actively engaged in trying to determine to what degree Plotinus was influenced by the works of his predecessors and to what extent his ideas are original. E. R. Dodds writes that the Enneads “converge almost all the main currents of thought that come down from 800 years of Greek speculation; out of it there issues a new current, destined to fertilize minds as different as those of Augustine and Boethius, Dante and Meister Eckhart, Coleridge, Bergson, and Mr. T. S. Eliot.”

Principal Works

Enneads (philosophy) 253-70

Plotinus (translated by A. H. Armstrong) 1966-88

Plotinus: The “Enneads” (translated by Stephen MacKenna) 1992

Criticism

E. R. Dodds (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: “The Parmenides of Plato and the Origin of the Neoplatonic ‘One’,” in The Classical Quarterly, Vol. XXII, Nos. 3-4, July-October, 1928, pp. 129-42.

[In the following essay, Dodds traces Plato's influence on the thought of Plotinus.]

expedition to the East with a view to studying the philosophy of Persia and India, but failed to get there; and that on one occasion he accepted the invitation of an Egyptian priest to take part in a spiritualistic seance arranged by the priest at the Iseum in Rome.1 Add to this the fact that in one passage, dealing with the theory of Beauty,2 he expresses his admiration of the Egyptian hieroglyphs; and that (like Plato) he compares philosophy to an initiation into the mysteries—perhaps in his case the Isiac mysteries,3 and perhaps not. Even so might an Englishman, educated and perhaps born in India, take advantage of a punitive expedition to study comparative religion on the North-West Frontier, and of an invitation to a Tantrist temple to see something of Indian devil-worship; he might even praise the sacred sculpture of Benares, and adorn his style with occasional allusions to the car of Juggernaut. We know with certainty that Plotinus' name is Roman, and that he wrote the idiomatic Greek of a native speaker; he may have been an expert in Egyptian religion, but all that he tells us on the subject could have been picked up on a Cook's tour.

The second method of proof is much simpler, since it rests entirely on negative evidence. Certain thoughts and points of view are shared by Plotinus with earlier writers who have been given their passports as ‘true Greeks’; these are deducted from the sum total of Plotinus' system, and the residuum is labelled ‘oriental.’ Three assumptions are involved in this labelling: That the labeller has a safe criterion for distinguishing the ‘true Greeks’ from the half-breeds among Plotinus' prodecessors; that he is intimately familiar with the whole of ‘true Greek’ literature, both with what has survived and with what has not; and, lastly, that Plotinus never invented anything for himself, but composed his works by copying out passages from ‘authorities.’ Clearly these are large assumptions. If we are to avoid making them, we must find convincing parallels between specific passages in Plotinus and specific passages of non-Hellenized oriental religious literature. Perhaps the orientalists will one day help us there. Until such parallels are forthcoming4 it seems to me wisest to maintain a position of [épokhé] on the whole question and in the meantime see what can be made of possible sources nearer home.

This was in substance the advice of Zeller, who called attention to the existence of such sources in Stoicism, Neopythagoreanism, and Middle Platonism. They are scattered and for the most part fragmentary. In the last fifty years German scholars like Schmekel and Praechter have done a good deal to illuminate them and bind them together; but easily the most important contribution to the question since Zeller is contained in Werner Jaeger's brilliantly written book Nemesios von Emesa—a book which has not yet received in this country the attention it merits, perhaps because it was published on the eve of the war. Jaeger shows, in my judgment convincingly, that some characteristic Neoplatonic doctrines, in particular the notion of … the universe as a spiritual continuum extending through a definite series of media from the supreme God to bare Matter—go back to the Platonizing Stoic source which the Germans have agreed to call Poseidonius. Jaeger indeed would be more precise, and say that most of them went back to Poseidonius' commentary on the Timaeus—the epoch-making commentary thanks to which, he tells us, the Plato of the Timaeus is the Plato of Neoplatonism and of the Renaissance. He concludes that Poseidonius was the true father of Neoplatonism; had but Poseidonius found a place for the Platonic Ideas there would have been nothing left for Plotinus to do!5vIt is apparent that Jaeger has here allowed his discovery to carry him too fast and too far. Poseidonius left out something far more essential to Neoplatonism than the Ideas (which Plotinus might at a pinch have dispensed with had he not found them in Plato): Poseidonius left out the One. If there is one doctrine more than another which the tradition justifies our accepting as echt-Poseidonisches it is his definition of God as ‘a fiery breath which thinks,’6 which has no shape of its own, but changes into what it chooses and assimilates itself to all things. Poseidonius' highest principle is thus material, immanent (though in varying grades of immanence), and of the same stuff as the human intellect. But the Plotinian doctrine of an undifferenced ground of all existence, transcending not only Matter but Mind, creative without will or causality, unknowable save in the unio mystica, having no character save the character of being a ground—this is the part of Plotinus' system which has at all times impressed itself most deeply on his readers.

It is also—and very surprisingly, I think—the part which historians have found most difficulty in accounting for. Zeller called it ‘a dialectical development from Stoicism,’7 and asserted that it appeared first in Plotinus;8 Monrad found it ‘oriental’ in contrast with the echt hellenischen doctrine of [nous];9 Vacherot, Guyot, and others derive it from Philo, despite the profound difference in point of view between Philo and Plotinus, and despite the fact that Philo repeatedly calls his God öv and voûs.10 Some have thought of Numenius or Alcinous (whom we are now taught to call Albinus); but the God of both these writers remains a superior voûs,11 and neither of them speaks of him as the One. Others, more reasonably, have been reminded of the One and the Indeterminate Dyad in some Neopythagoreans and in Aristotle's version of Plato's metaphysic. But, oddly enough, apart from a passing reference in Whittaker's book all the professed historians of Neoplatonism whom I have read ignore for some reason the obvious Platonic source.

Think of a principle of unity which so completely transcends all plurality that it refuses every predicate, even that of existence; which is neither in motion nor at rest, neither in time nor in space; of which we can say nothing, not even that it is identical with itself or different from other things: and side by side with this, a second principle of unity, containing the seeds of all the contraries—a principle which, if we once grant it existence, proceeds to pluralize itself indefinitely in a universe of existent unities. If for the moment we leave fragments out of account and consider only the extant works of Greek philosophers before the age of Plotinus, there is one passage and so far as I know one passage only, where these thoughts receive connected expression—namely, the first and second ‘hypotheses’ in the second part of Plato's Parmenides. Plotinus ignored one or two of the more fanciful conclusions reached in these hypotheses; and to some of those which he adopted he gave a new turn. …

Small wonder that Plotinus13 regarded the Platonic Parmenides as a great improvement on his historical prototype; that Iamblichus14 considered the Parmenides and the Timaeus as the only Platonic dialogues indispensable to salvation; that Proclus15 found in the Parmenides, and there only, the complete system of Platonic theology. Read the second part of the Parmenides as Plotinus read it, with the single eye of faith; do not look for satire on the Megarians or on anybody else; and you will find in the first hypothesis a lucid exposition of the famous ‘negative theology,’ and in the second (especially if you take it in connexion with the fourth) an interesting sketch of the derivation of a universe from the marriage of unity and existence. What you will find in the remaining hypotheses I cannot so easily predict; even within the Neoplatonic school there were violent differences of opinion about them16—differences which I must not attempt to discuss here, as they would carry me too far from the main intention of this paper.

Even as regards the first two hypotheses, it is no part of my purpose to argue that the Neoplatonic valuation is an entirely just one; Parmenides' description of his own performance …,17 taken in conjunction with the obvious fallacies in which some of the hypotheses abound, should be sufficient to warn us against assuming that all his conclusions necessarily found a place in Plato's own system. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the Idea of the Good, no less than the ‘One’ of the first hypothesis, is beyond Being. … Moreover, some of the most important discoveries of the later Platonic logic, especially the distinction between absolute and relative non-Being, appear first in the Parmenidean hypotheses—surely an odd way to publish them, if these speculations are pure fun. However that may be, I have difficulty in understanding the present position of so distinguished a scholar as Professor A. E. Taylor, who, when he meets with the negative theology in Proclus or the schoolmen,18 takes it seriously as a necessary and salutary ‘moment’ of religious experience, but when he meets it in the Parmenides, describes it as ‘a highly-enjoyable philosophical jest.’19 Professor Taylor cannot well have it both ways: what is sauce for all the little Neoplatonic and medieval geese should also be sauce for their parent, the great Platonic gander.

But is Plato indeed the parent, or only the putative father of these theological bantlings? It may be urged that the Plotinian interpretation of the Parmenides is a complete misunderstanding; that important philosophies are not built solely on the misunderstanding of other philosophies, or, if they are, the misunderstanding is not accidental; that the Neoplatonists notoriously found in Plato whatever they wished to find (‘Hic liber est in quo quaerit sua dogmata quisque’); and that, in fine, the Neoplatonic interpretation of the Parmenides is subsequent to the rise...

(The entire section is 4304 words.)

A. Hilary Armstrong (lecture date 1956)

SOURCE: “Salvation, Plotinian and Christian,” in Plotinian and Christian Studies, Variorum Reprints, 1979, pp. 126-39.

[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture in 1956, Armstrong contrasts the beliefs of Plotinus with those held by Christians.]

Plotinian studies are certainly at the moment in a lively and flourishing condition. Not only is very solid work being done on the foundations, the text of the Enneads, but there is a great deal of active investigation going on of the relationship of the thought of Plotinus to that of his predecessors and successors and of the ideas current in the world in which he lived. And, which is encouraging to...

(The entire section is 5558 words.)

E. R. Dodds (lecture date 1959)

SOURCE: “Tradition and Personal Achievement in the Philosophy of Plotinus,” in Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 50, 1960, pp. 1-7.

[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture in 1959, Dodds outlines how Plotinus's ideas broke from Platonic doctrines.]

I

The collected philosophical essays of Plotinus—to which we still unfortunately give the senseless and unplotinian title Enneads—constitute a nodal point in the evolution of Western ideas. In this book converage almost all the main currents of thought that come down from 800 years of Greek speculation; out of it there issues a new current, destined to fertilize minds...

(The entire section is 4943 words.)

John M. Rist (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” in Phronesis, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1961, pp. 154-66.

[In the following essay, Rist attempts to defend Plotinus against the charge that his writings about the relationship between matter and evil are inconsistent.]

In The Discussion which followed his paper “Plotien et les Gnostiques”,1 M. Puech suggested that the language and thought of Plotinus concerning matter could be said to have developed. Before the break with the Gnostics which is revealed in Enneads 3.8, 5.8, 5,5, and 2.9, thinks M. Puech, Plotinus conceived of matter as a kind of evil substance, whereas he later came to regard it as “imaginée comme...

(The entire section is 5186 words.)

A. H. Armstrong (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: A preface to Plotinus, translated by A. H. Armstrong, Harvard University Press, 1966, pp. vii-xxxiii.

[In the following excerpt, Armstrong summarizes Plotinus's system of thought and provides some background on the history of his writing.]

I. THE ENNEADS

Plotinus, as Porphyry tells us in his Life (ch. 4), did not begin to write till the first year of the reign of Gallienus (253/4), when he was forty-nine years old and had been settled at Rome and teaching philosophy for ten years. He continued to write till his death in 270 in his sixty-sixth year. His writings thus all belong to the last sixteen years of his life and...

(The entire section is 7433 words.)

John M. Rist (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “The Originality of Plotinus,” in Plotinus: The Road to Reality, Cambridge University Press, 1967, pp. 169-87.

[In the following excerpt, Rist outlines how Plotinus's ideas differ from those of Plato and Aristotle.]

‘It is necessary to take the notable opinions of the ancients and consider whether any of them agree with ours.’

(Enneads 3.7.7.15)

It will not have escaped the reader's attention that, in discussing various ideas of Plotinus, it has apparently been necessary to refer frequently to those of earlier thinkers, especially Plato. He may therefore have begun to wonder...

(The entire section is 7512 words.)

A. H. Armstrong (lecture date 1979)

SOURCE: “Two Views of Freedom: A Christian Objection in Plotinus Enneads VI 8. [39]7, 11-15?,” in Hellenic and Christian Studies, Variorum, 1990, pp. 397-406.

[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture in 1979, Armstrong examines Plotinus's ideas concerning freedom and free will.]

The treatise “On the Voluntary and the Will of the One” (Enneads VI 8 [39]) is the profoundest discussion of the metaphysic of will and freedom in ancient Western philosophical literature. A careful study of it, especially of … ch. 7, 11-12 and Plotinus' exasperated but thorough and serious reply to it, seems to me to bring out an important difference...

(The entire section is 3951 words.)

A. P. Bos (lecture date 1984)

SOURCE: “World-Views in Collision: Plotinus, Gnostics, and Christians,” in Plotinus amid Gnostics and Christians, edited by David T. Runia, VU Uitgeverij / Free University Press, 1984, pp. 11-28.

[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture, Bos analyzes the conclusions Plotinus reached concerning contemplation and rationality.]

1. INTRODUCTION: BOEHM'S CRITIQUE OF MODERN CULTURE

The past is not necessarily ‘passé’. Of course, the great figures of the past are no longer with us, but that need not mean that the times in which they lived are no longer of any relevance. The interest we have in history is based on the...

(The entire section is 6888 words.)

R. Ferwada (lecture date 1984)

SOURCE: “Pity in the Life and Thought of Plotinus,” in Plotinus amid Gnostics and Christians, edited by David T. Runia, VU Uitgeverij / Free University Press, 1984, pp. 53-72.

[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture, Ferwada considers the question of whether Plotinus showed inconsistency in the matter of pity.]

When you have gone beyond giver and gift and recipient, you have reached compassion.

Buddhist saying

Plotinus is a difficult philosopher. This I know from personal experience. But it is not my intention to let that show this afternoon. What I want to do today is put...

(The entire section is 7626 words.)

Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Plotinus' Metaphysics,” in Plotinus on Sense-Perception: A Philosophical Study, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 10-22.

[In the following excerpt, Emilsson explores the concept of hierarchy in Plotinus's picture of reality.]

The most striking feature of Plotinus' philosophy, and of Neoplatonism generally, is its hierarchical picture of reality. This is also the feature that is most baffling for modern readers. In Plotinus' philosophy we come across a hierarchy of three so-called hypostases” that are called “the One”, “Intellect” and “Soul”, followed by matter at the bottom. Similar ideas characterize the writings of the other...

(The entire section is 7458 words.)

Frederic M. Schroeder (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Love,” in Form and Transformation: A Study in the Philosophy of Plotinus, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992, pp. 91-113.

[In the following excerpt, Schroeder investigates what Porphyry meant in describing Plotinus as being “present at once to himself and to others.”]

Porphyry describes Plotinus' relationship to his circle with these words: “He was present at once to himself and to others …”1 Hadot remarks,2 “On the subject of the philosopher's rapport with others, about his ‘presence to others’ of which Porphyry speaks, we find no theoretical information in the treatises of Plotinus.” In the present chapter, we...

(The entire section is 8877 words.)

Steven K. Strange (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Plotinus on the Nature of Eternity and Time,” in Aristotle in Late Antiquity, edited by Lawrence P. Schrenk, The Catholic University of America Press, 1994, pp. 22-53.

[In the following essay, Strange analyzes how, in Ennead 3.7, Plotinus attempts to overcome problems concerning eternity and time.]

Plotinus's treatise on eternity and time, Ennead 3.7 in Porphyry's edition of his master's works, has been among the most widely read of his treatises, not only due to its intrinsic philosophical interest and historical importance, but also because it is one of the most accessible and self-contained of Plotinus's writings. Unlike most of Plotinus's...

(The entire section is 15173 words.)

Georges Leroux (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Human Freedom in the Thought of Plotinus,” in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, edited by Lloyd P. Gerson, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 292-314.

[In the following essay, Leroux attempts to clarify some of the more difficult aspects of Plotinus's ideas regarding freedom.]

Freedom belongs to the category of issues that affect the whole of Plotinus's metaphysics. Insofar as they are not merely beings ranged in a hierarchy but also moments in an infinite process by which the One expresses itself and infinitely offers itself as the Good, all aspects of this metaphysics, whether subjective or objective, are brought into play by freedom. Metaphysics...

(The entire section is 9479 words.)

Frederic M. Schroeder (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Plotinus and Language,” in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, edited by Lloyd P. Gerson, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 336-55.

[In the following essay, Schroeder explores how Plotinus dealt with the limitations of language in describing the principle of the One.]

I REPRESENTATION

Plotinus's highest metaphysical principle, the One or Good, is ineffable (V.3.13.1; cf. V.3.14.1-8; V.5.6.11-13; VI.9.5.31-2).1 Indeed, Plotinus is hesitant to attribute “good,” “is” (VI.7.38.1-2), or even “one” (VI.9.5.30-3) to it. If the heart of his philosophical enterprise is to make meaningful statements about this...

(The entire section is 7694 words.)

Th. G. Sinnige (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The Human Person,” in Six Lectures on Plotinus and Gnosticism, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999, pp. 86-100.

[In the following essay, Sinnige examines Plotinus's conception of the nature of individuality.]

I.

The problem of being an autonomous person in one's own right is as old as Greek philosophy. In a text by Anaximander, given as a literal quotation by Simplicius (DK 12 B 1), being an individual is described as a rebellion against the Infinite. All things are generated from the Infinite, and, when they are dissolved, are taken up again into the Infinite. It is cosmic law which has ordered this. The generated beings pay penalty...

(The entire section is 7150 words.)

Sara Rappe (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “The Symbolism of the Enneads,” in Reading Neoplatonism: Non-Discursive Thinking in the Texts of Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 91-114.

[In the following excerpt, Rappe contends that Plotinus used metaphorical language in the Enneads to help readers to understand difficult concepts.]

The significance of imagery or symbolism in the Enneads has long been a source of scholary contention.1 In 1961 Beierwaltes published his well-known article, “Plotins Metaphysik des Lichtes,”2 in which he studied Plotinus' extensive employment of the image of light. Beierwaltes starts out...

(The entire section is 9066 words.)