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.
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.
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.
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.”
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...
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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 those who care about Plotinus, books are appearing which treat his thought as something alive, of significance to us to-day and deserving serious philosophical and theological consideration, and not as something of purely historical interest.
In France, in particular, there has recently appeared a pair of books which should do a great deal to make Plotinus appear alive and relevant, at least to Christians. They are La Procession Plotinienne and La Purification Plotinienne2 by the distinguished Plotinian scholar Jean Trouillard. They are, first and foremost, an extremely scholarly and well-documented interpretation of the thought of Plotinus which has led me, at any rate, to revise my views on a...
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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.]
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 as different as those of Augustine and Boethius, Dante and Meister Eckhart, Coleridge, Bergson, and Mr. T. S. Eliot. And the historian cannot but ask himself what is the secret of this transmutation by which the old is taken up in the new and given a fresh direction and significance. Such a question admits of no complete answer and none is offered here. The present paper seeks merely to illustrate a few aspects of the problem for the benefit of readers who are not deeply versed in Plotinus. It omits much that a Plotinian specialist would rightly think important; and it uses broad terms where an expert might well insist on the need for qualification.
It is natural to begin by asking what Plotinus thought of his own work and...
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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 un miroir”. After questioning, he explained that he inclined to the view that Plotinus had reformed the pessimistic dualism that can be found in his earlier treatises, if not abandoned it altogether, and he was ready to accept the implication that after the break with the Gnostics, Plotinus tended to abandon the suggestion that matter is evil.
The two treatises which appear in places to teach most clearly the inherent evil of matter are Enn. 2.4 and 1.8. The former of these is the twelfth in Porphyry's list of the treatises in chronological order, and was therefore written between 254 and 263 a.d.; the latter is number fifty-one and was composed almost at the end of Plotinus' life, probably in 269. The treatises...
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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 represent his mature and fully developed thought. We should not expect to find in them, and, in the opinion at least of the great majority of Plotinian scholars, we do not in fact find in them, any major development. The earliest of them are the fruit of over twenty years' study and teaching of philosophy. (He came to Alexandria to study philosophy at the age of twenty-seven, in 232.) There is a good deal of variation, and it is even perhaps sometimes possible to trace a genuine development, in his repeated handling of particular problems. Plotinus had an intensely active and critical mind, and was not easily satisfied with his own or other people's formulations. But in all essentials his philosophy was fully mature before he began to write;...
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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.’
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 at times either whether Plotinus can stand on his own feet, or why, if he cannot, he is worth serious attention. If he then looks at the apparatus fontium of Henry and Schwyzer's edition of the Enneads, he may find his worst fears confirmed when he sees the lists of quotations from Plato, Aristotle, or von Arnim's Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta. Then continuing his increasingly embarrassed search he will turn to the largest recent book on Plotinus and observe its title Les Sources de Plotin.1 Here he will find admirable articles dealing with the indebtedness of Plotinus to Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Numenius, Ammonius, Alexander of Aphrodisias and many others. And a summary of the results of this same...
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SOURCE: “Two Views of Freedom: A Christian Objection in Plotinus Enneads VI 8. 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 ) 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 in ways of looking at freedom, human and divine, which (though not always consciously perceived) is apparent in Greek philosophical discussions from Aristotle onwards, and has had a considerable influence on, and at times produced considerable tensions in, Christian thought about the freedom of God.
The tension or difference of emphasis which I detect here may be expressed as follows. On one side the essence of freedom is perceived as being free to be oneself, which means, in the strongly teleological forms of thought which predominate in Greek thought from Plato onwards, to be oneself at one's best, to energize according to one's full and complete energeia, to realise which is one's good and goal; and to be...
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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 continuity between past and present. And that means that a period in the past can never lose its temporality and become ‘timeless’. This comes home to us most of all when the past is made relevant to the present in a deliberate and systematic way, with the intention of gaining more insight into our own situation. I dare assert that today such interest in the past is very much alive and flourishing.
Especially now that many students of the philosophy of culture are focussing their attention on what is seen as a crisis situation in Western culture—to speak in the words of E. R. Dodds, an ‘age of anxiety’1—one is forcibly struck by the fact that in their diagnoses they are prepared to go so far back in time,...
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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.
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 before you a number of straightforward texts from the Enneads, preceded by two texts (also not too complicated) from Porphyry's biography.1 Let us start with a text in Porphyry Vita Plotini 9:
Many men and women of the highest rank, on the approach of death, brought him [Plotinus] their children, both boys and girls, and entrusted them to him along with all their property, considering that he would be a holy and god-like guardian. So his house was full of young lads and maidens … He used to say that as long as they did not take to philosophy their properties and incomes must be kept safe and untouched for them. Yet, though he shielded so many from the worries and cares of...
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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 Neoplatonists. We are told that reality is somehow constituted by this hierarchy, an idea which we presumably find quite puzzling. If we look for arguments for it as such, we do not find any: it seems to be taken for granted. And if we encounter something that looks like an argument for some part of the hierarchy, we feel that it invariably presupposes the general picture.
As a first step towards approaching the Neoplatonic hierarchy, let us consider the ideas of a principle and of a hierarchy of principles. Let us suppose that there is a need to explain in general terms some phenomenon that is taken to be a fact of common experience. This may lead to the supposition of a level of entities or properties or forces, that are taken to...
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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 shall see, on the contrary, that there is abundant evidence of a theoretical background, both metaphysical and ethical, for Porphyry's statement.
The presence portrayed in Porphyry's sentence is twofold: Plotinus is present both to himself and to others. What is presence to oneself? What is presence to others? What, if any, is the relationship between these two aspects of presence? We may begin with presence to oneself, as this relationship is ostensibly more difficult to explain than presence to others. Plotinus says little of human relationships as a subject of interest in itself. However, intersubjective relationships do appear as figures of speech. He uses such figurative language to discuss the psychology of the...
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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 treatises, Ennead 3.7 does not at first seem to presuppose on the part of the reader either an extensive knowledge of the inner workings of Plotinus's metaphysical system or an intimate familiarity with specific issues of scholastic controversy in the first centuries a.d. It takes the form of a detailed philosophical commentary on the fundamental texts about eternity and time from the classical period of Greek philosophy. These are texts that even now retain their central interest for us: Plato's distinction between eternity and time in the Timaeus (37c-39a), Parmenides' argument for the timeless nature of being that lies behind Plato's distinction (B8.1-22), and Aristotle's account of the nature of time in the Physics...
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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 must give an account of this process; it must express its dynamic and offer an explanation of its principal stages in narrative form. Consequently, what is at issue is nothing other than the freedom of each being to evolve or act, depending on its nature, within the context of the whole conceived systematically as depending upon and manifestating the One. “Freedom” has the same meaning at every level: that of a being to be what it is. This meaning pertains to the identity of the Good and Being: “It is obvious that the Good is in being, and in being it would clearly be for each individual in himself” (VI.5.1.23-5). One can legitimately ask, therefore, in what sense can we say that freedom is not identical with necessity? Indeed, in...
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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.]
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 principle, and furthermore our understanding of all else is informed by it, we may well ask why, in the light of this apparent despair of language, he would continue in his quest (his work extends to nine hundred and seventy-four pages of Oxford text).2
Of course, in saying that the One is ineffable, Plotinus has already made a statement, albeit negative, about the One. So at least this negative statement is permissible. Further examination of the possibilities of negative language offers more fruitful ways out of the closure apparently imposed by the stricture of ineffability. Before we consider further the question of the One's ineffability, it will be useful to examine the uses that Plotinus makes of negation....
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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.]
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 to each other for their injustice. The separate existence, maintained by individuals in the face of their divine origin, is seen as a transgression of cosmic laws.
The image and its cosmic landscape is recognizable in Plotinus' doctrine about the fate and condition of the human soul. In a different terminology his explanations reproduce the basic concepts of Anaximander's theory. The souls have separated themselves from the divine world when they descended and went creating. The cause of this was their audacity and self-affirmation (V 1  1, 1-5; VI 9  5, 29; II 9  11, 22). By alienating themselves from their origin they committed a transgression, and they must bear the penalty (IV 8  5, 16-27), but they are...
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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 with an assumption that governs the way he looks at the metaphors in the Enneads. He assumes that figures of speech can be more or less adequate to the task of representation, and that representational adequacy depends upon the ontological approximation of image and archetype. Since it is incorporeal, light turns out to be the most appropriate image for the task of representing philosophical truth.
In Beierwaltes's view, light is not merely a metaphor when it is used to describe intellect, since it can succeed as an image of the intellect only when “there is a presence of the original in the image.”3 Visual seeing differs from intellectual seeing because the visual object is external to the subject...
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Armstrong, Hillary A. “Elements in the Thought of Plotinus at Variance with Classical Intellectualism.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 93 (1974): 13–22.
Explores Plotinus's ideas concerning consciousness and the Divine Intellect.
Bussanich, John. The One and Its Relation to Intellect in Plotinus. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1988, 258p.
Provides detailed exegetical commentary on many of Plotinus's texts.
Hadot, Pierre. Plotinus: or, The Simplicity of Vision. Translated by Michael Chase. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993, 138p.
Attempts to create a spiritual portrait of Plotinus. Originally published in French in 1963.
Martin, R. M. “On Logical Structure and the Plotinic Cosmos.” Studies in Neoplatonism 4 (1982): 11-23.
Attempts to explain Plotinus's ideas in terms of present-day science and logic.
Meijer, P. A. Plotinus on the Good or the One (“Enneads” VI, 9): An Analytical Commentary. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1992, 381p.
Offers non-mainstream analysis of Plotinus's writing on the One.
O'Meara, Dominic J. An Introduction to the “Enneads.” Oxford Oxford University Press, 1993, 142p.
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