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Only in recent years has the full importance of Plotinus been widely recognized. Previously, Neoplatonism, of which Plotinus is the greatest representative, and Platonism had not been clearly distinguished. Lacking the original writings to compare, scholars in the Middle Ages blended the two forms of thought together without a clear notion of their distinctive qualities. Historical research and the availability of the sources themselves have produced a growing awareness of the distinctiveness of Plotinus’s thought and of his unique contributions in The Enneads. Its intimate connection with the Platonic tradition is readily admitted by Plotinus himself, but such closeness in origin need not mean similarity, as Plato’s famous student Aristotle made clear.

In a strict sense, The Enneads are unsystematic. Neither Porphyry’s ordering of the scattered writings nor scholarly reconstruction of possible temporal sequence can make the writings form any strictly logical order. Plotinus discussed with his students a few very central philosophical problems, each of which he returned to many times, and The Enneads represent in content but not in form the consistency of this continual development of certain central themes.

The Soul

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Plotinus’s metaphysical interest in the problems of the one and the many is well known, but his central interest in ethics and his fully developed aesthetic theory, which is one of the first to be elaborated, are not always so widely recognized. Most important of all, however, are Plotinus’s explorations into philosophical psychology. The soul is central in all Plotinian thought, and he was the first major writer to put the analysis of the soul at the center of philosophical investigation.

The soul in Plato’s world held an important place, and Plato devoted considerable time to describing it in Politeia (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701) and Phaedros (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Phaedrus, 1792). Yet somehow “soul” was never reconciled with “form” as a metaphysical principle. Plotinus began where Plato left off, making soul central, and the analysis of it is more direct and extended than Plato’s mythical framework could allow. Despite the importance of Plato both as to the problems Plotinus treated and as to style, what many are surprised to find upon reading Plotinus is the large amount of Aristotelianism present, as well as a wide variety of other views. In some sense, Plotinus began with Platonic problems, but his scope takes in almost all previous philosophy.

Just as Plato had a strong interest in sense perception, so also Plotinus was led by the problems of sense perception to consider the soul as of first importance. Soul is intimately related to the body and clearly is combined with it. After considering most known theories of the soul, Plotinus went on to make the soul more perfect than the body in virtue of the soul’s greater unity. Soul centralizes perception and is not subject to physical division as the body is.

The Intellectual Principle

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In Plotinus’s philosophy, sensation is only the beginning of knowledge. Above that stands the soul’s grasp of intelligible forms. Sensation is dependent upon the soul’s close association with a physical body, but because the soul in virtue of its greater unity stands higher in the order of being than the body, its grasp of intelligible form indicates that something in turn stands above it in the ontological order. This is the intellectual principle, the locus of the intelligible forms of all things and of the principle of thought itself. This principle, which is superior to the soul, is often called the divine mind because it exemplifies the union of universal thought with all the intelligible forms of thought. This is a level of unity that exceeds that possessed by the soul, just as the soul surpasses that of the physical world.

Physical body, as it looks away from soul’s guidance, tends to become sheer disorganized matter; on the other hand, as the body is subject to the soul’s direction, it exemplifies harmony and order to the highest degree possible for it. As the soul’s attention is absorbed by physical matter, it tends to forget itself and to be overcome with sensual desires; it goes out of itself seeking a multitude of things. However, when the soul considers the intellectual principle above it, then it tends to be drawn away from physical concerns and to regain its original and essential integrity, absorbed in contemplation.


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Evil was both a moral and a metaphysical problem for Plotinus. The deficiencies that the individual finds in this world are precisely what drove him to seek an order of existence higher than this world. Contrary to much popular opinion, Plotinus did not despise this world. Rather, he regarded the world as the fullest expression of beauty above. The natural world holds all the perfection that its lower order allows, and as such, it is the very embodiment and evidence of that from which it descends, its higher origin. Yet this is not necessarily a temporal origin because Plotinus never questioned the fact that the world is eternal. It is “origin” in the sense of the dependence of the lower orders upon the higher for the power of their existence.

Metaphysically speaking, evil was difficult for Plotinus. Because all must be accounted for by means of one principle that is without defect, the problem is to show how what is essentially perfect can eventually become bad. Plotinus did this through the image of gradually diminishing light and through increasing multiplicity. What is in itself One and perfect (the divine unity) as it goes out from itself to create lower orders, becomes in the process increasingly multiple and less perfect, until its final outreach is sheer matter (the negative of being), its moral equivalent, evil.

However, the process that leads down from the One to the creation of matter and evil also leads upward. The soul, by looking to itself and discovering its essentially higher nature through its essential difference from its body, grasps the basic distinction that can lead it away from matter toward matter’s perfect and unitary source. Seeing the gradations of unity represented in the various levels, the soul may rise by intelligence to the intelligible world and then beyond it, at least momentarily, to the One beyond intellectual distinctions.

The One

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The description of the One itself, of course, was an even more difficult problem for Plotinus than accounting for matter and evil. No explanation of evil is ultimately possible in a world that is eternal and whose structure is necessary. However, the description of the One is of necessity baffling, and both Plotinus and his interpreters have been painfully aware of this fact. The One as the first principle of all transcends all multiplicity and therefore all distinctions, whereas an intellectual grasp depends on the presence of at least a minimum of distinction.

Therefore, the One may be approached and may be grasped, but neither directly nor intellectually. Here the “negative method” comes to its fullest classical use. We may deny qualities inappropriately attributed to the One more easily than we can say what its characteristics are. Indirectly, from the process of denial and of paring away, we come to some grasp of the One, but this is not a discursive understanding. Such an apprehension does not induce conversation, and Plotinus said that if we are tempted to speak about the One, to give it a set of positive characteristics, then silence is more appropriate.

This difficulty leads to what is often called Plotinus’s “mysticism.” If the term is used carefully, it is quite accurate as applied to the Plotinian view. Plotinus was not needlessly vague, and surely he did not belittle the powers of reason. Everything discerned is grasped through reason’s light. Yet above reason’s highest level stands a more ultimate realm, the source of intelligence and all below it, a realm not itself subject to the distinctions that reason requires for its operation. Not that the One is empty; the One is the source of all below it, containing the power of all but without itself being any single thing.

Raising the Soul

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The ethical aims of Plotinus were high. After he had devised this hierarchical scheme of the nature of things, each level determined by the multiplicity of its distance from the One, the goal then becomes to raise the soul in its considerations to the highest possible level. To do this, however, in some sense means that knowers must become the very level they contemplate. The soul ceases to be like the indefinite multiplicity below and actually becomes what it finds above it. Thus the soul tends not only to become good as it turns from matter and evil; it becomes godlike. Thus, the soul recovers the “essential humanity.”

Beauty has a part in this conversion from the lower to the higher, and Plotinus here admitted his dependence on Plato’s analysis of the use of beauty in Phaedrus. The apprehension of beauty draws the soul upward, reminding it of its true self and of the higher levels open to it. Beauty represents purity, and the truly happy and virtuous life is not a thing of mixture; it is an unchanging state. By its nature, beauty is present where a diversity has become a unity, which is why the pleasure derived from such beauty is itself essentially an unchanging state.

The whole process is not an easy one. It requires training and discipline. People must learn to cut away and to detach themselves from multiple concerns. Not that these concerns are in themselves bad or that beauty is not found in the multiplicity of the...

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The Natural Order

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The inequality within the natural world and the inequality of the various ontological orders all are necessary. They are, in fact, the best expression possible to the One. Gradations and completeness of every possible kind from highest to lowest, from best to worst, are the fullest expression possible for the One as the first principle of all things. Its fullness requires expression, and the widest possible variety actually expresses its perfection best. In this way, Plotinus justified the presence of evil in a world that is essentially of good origin. Individual objects or events may be bad, but viewed as a part of the total panorama, their place can be seen to be within a necessarily good order.

Following Plato’s...

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In accounting for time, Plotinus foreshadows Saint Augustine’s famous discussion of time in the Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620). The intellectual principle is not temporal, although time lies, so to speak, self-concentrated there. Soul, on the other hand, must by nature move and produce, and thus soul’s activity is the essential origin for time. This is not the soul perceived as a cosmic principle produced immediately by the intellectual principle, this is soul as it turns away from its origin to produce physical structures below it. In the process of producing the other orders below it, soul clothes itself with time. If soul withdrew and turned itself entirely toward its primal unity, time would once again disappear.

Augustine’s dependence on Plotinus for his doctrine of time is one major illustration of the now recognized importance of Plotinus for all medieval philosophy and theology. Because Plato’s own writings were unavailable, Plotinus was accepted as the representative of Platonism, with no distinction drawn between Platonism and Neoplatonism. Augustine’s debt to Plotinus is heavy, as Augustine acknowledges. Through Plotinus, the Neoplatonic strain became extremely influential, particularly because it formed such a natural background for the rapidly developing Christian doctrine. For instance, Plotinus’s ontology is based on a trinitarian concept, although the doctrine developed by Christian theologians differs from it in detail.

Philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel are also much in Plotinus’s debt; in this sense, much modern thought is Plotinus’s heir. Wherever soul is stressed as a prime object of philosophical analysis, there is a strong kinship to Plotinus. Wherever reason is powerful but is ultimately to be transcended, there rational mysticism begins and has links to Plotinus. Whenever people are urged to seek their authentic existence and to turn back from multiple pursuits, the philosophical psychology and the metaphysics of Plotinus are not far away.

Upward Vision and Beauty

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Contrary to some popular opinion, Plato actually stressed the practical application of philosophy, together with the constant necessity to blend practical skill with philosophical insight. Plato had his moments as a visionary, but Plotinus is far more visionary. Plato described his realm of forms in their perfection, but Plotinus’s almost lyrical praise for the purity and repose of his intellectual principle is unrestrained and unqualified. Toward this vision all thought bends, and it is not modified as it is for Plato by the necessity for return to the practical world. Plotinus knew that that vision cannot be sustained, but the return to the sense world is simply a necessity; it is never a goal.

Ethically, then,...

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Climb to the One

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In some genuine sense, Plotinus was an evolutionist. That is, because his theory was based on levels, each of which is different in kind from the others, his primary task was to explain how the levels are related; that is, how each lower order came from a higher principle. Plotinus’s theory differs from modern evolutionary theory in that this succession is not a temporal affair. The world and all its orders were, for Plotinus, eternal. However, each order is derived constantly from its superior, so that if each ontological realm exhibits basically different properties, then an evolutionary theory is required to show how something generated by one level can become unlike its origin in kind.

This continual attempt to...

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Sources for Further Study

Armstrong, A. H., ed. The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970. A good introduction to Plotinus that provides a concise but rich exposition of his thought.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. Copleston offers a brief but helpful chapter on Plotinus and the context in which his philosophy and theology emerged.

Emilsson, Eyjólfur K. Plotinus on Sense-Perception. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press,...

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