Analysis

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Plotinus is a writer from the third century CE who engaged in reflection on and philosophical critiques of Plato, thus fashioning himself a Neoplatonist. These writings are titled the Enneads by virtue of having been published by Porphyry (later in the third century) having divided the fifty-four treatises into nine (Greek: “ennea”) groups of six precepts each.

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There are several primary aims of the Enneads. One is to validate and extend Plato’s conceit of the difference between forms and reality as well as the concept of “goodness.” Plato (who lived in the fifth century BCE) was a watershed thinker in antiquity for believing that abstract thoughts can be modeled as ideas (or “Forms”). Plotinus extends this theory of Forms to introduce his concept of "the One," a supernatural being from which all things emanate.
Like Plato, Plotinus was a metaphysical philosopher who believed that human experience can be divided into and discussed in terms of the One (or "the Good"), the Soul (Greek: "Psuche"), and Mind (Greek: "Nous"). All of human experience, according to Plotinus, can be explained by means of one of these concepts. Plotinus is less concerned with the individual experience as with the idea of being and the unifying principle that obtains to all living things (including humans, plants, and matter). Plotinus also distinguished (like Plato) between the ontological (viz., the theoretical nature of being) and empirical (observed experience). By giving an elegant organization to these ideas, Plotinus's text championed Plato's ideas for his third-century audience (and beyond).
The second major significance of the Enneads is as mystical textual guide to recipients of the idea of the One. In addressing itself to initiates in this way, Plotinus's text serves as a guide to his readers to address themselves to the spiritual world, and he himself proposes, acting in much the same way as the Eleusinian rites initiated people yet unacquainted with the Eleusinian mysteries (a set of secret rites established to celebrate the cult of Demeter and Persephone, for which people traveled to the town of Eleusis outside of Athens. To this day, little is know about exactly how these rites were conducted in antiquity).

Context

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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.

The intellectual principle when considered in relation to soul appears as the rational structure of the world order, but in itself it is sheer intellection, involved with no motion or change and retaining no distinction except that between thought and object. All, then, has been hierarchically arranged in the Plotinian metaphysical scheme, beginning with the soul and ascending and descending according to the degree of unity. As far removed from the multiplicity of the physical world as the intellectual principle is, it still embodies the necessity of at least a distinction between thought and its object, as well as the distinctions between the various intellectual forms themselves.

Because unity has operated all along the way to delineate the various structures, Plotinus found himself driven to seek unity itself, beyond even the division between thought and its object. Such a first principle Plotinus called the One (sometimes the Good), and it stands at the pinnacle of the hierarchy as unity itself, from which all of the lower gradations of unity are in turn derived. These three central principles, One, intellectual principle, and soul (body is not given equal status), are nowhere simply defined, but they are refined through constant reference throughout the writings.

Evil

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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 natural order, but the soul has become aware of something higher, something perfect that is possible to attain. Trained properly, the soul requires no guide for the last steps. The soul that wants the vision of beauty must first make itself beautiful through discipline and order. Action and effort are preparation for achieving a level beyond act. The Good, which is Plotinus’s other name for the One, is self-sufficient, and through virtuous effort, people reach a level of essential rest.

Despite the absolute determinism of the natural structure as a whole that is eternal and without alternative, Plotinus still allowed for an area of freedom in human affairs. Some causation is due to environmental factors, but some causes originate from the soul, and this is the area of self-determination. Plotinus defined a free act as essentially one that springs from the individual’s own nature, neither reflecting outside forces nor representing accidental features. It is the soul’s clear vision of its own essential nature. Here the soul is guided by the reason principle above it, so that fate (freedom’s opposite) prevails when action is contrary to reason. Thus Plotinus stands within the tradition: freedom means self-determination guided by rational apprehension of the structure of things.

In the intellectual principle above the soul, no spatial distinction can be found, no division, no incompleteness. It is a living intellection as one act within a unity, whereas the soul’s intellection is a more multiple and temporal affair. In keeping with the classical idea of perfection, any widespread activity would represent defeat. The various ontological levels are thus characterized by a decreasing activity as well as by an increasing unity the nearer people move toward the One. Not that all activity is missing, but it here becomes fully realized activity.

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 suggestion in Timaeos (last period, 360-347 b.c.e.; Timaeus, 1793), Plotinus developed the view that the natural order is like an organism. As unity “fissures out,” it reaches out to the furthermost extent of things and yet embraces all in one system; but with all its differentiation, it is still one organized living thing. Not everything can be equal; there must be levels from the highest to the lowest, but the overall scheme is that of the natural order as a living, self-sustaining organism.

In considering love, Plotinus made it clear that, once one has discovered the basic ontological levels and gained control over oneself through discipline, there is no reason why the beauties of the natural order may not be enjoyed. Viewed properly as the descendants of yet higher orders, natural beauties may be instructive and are not to be shunned. The usual picture of Plotinus as an ascetic and as rejecting the everyday world is not accurate. One must study and discipline oneself for metaphysical insight, but although the levels above the soul are to be preferred, the natural world and human life are to be enjoyed fully as representing the best possible expression of those higher principles.

“Matter” is perhaps Plotinus’s most pressing problem in his effort to see the natural order as good and as being the best expression of the One. Matter seems to be opaque, the very opposite of the light that represents the One. However, Plotinus argued that, although matter is responsible for much evil and distortion, it is necessary to the One’s essentially good production because it furnishes a base for the imprinting of forms. Without matter, the world would be insubstantial. Thus, despite its difficult properties, matter is necessary. As necessary to the order, it is in that sense good. This is not so much to explain matter as being in itself good as it is to account for it as necessary to the whole and as being good only in that indirect sense.

Time

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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, Plotinus had a single direction: upward and beyond this world’s structure. However, it would be false to say that this goal involves a disparagement of the natural world. Plotinus did not disdain ordinary affairs. He loved nature, but only for what it could tell him about the source of all things and for the guidance it could provide for transcending it.

This is why the apprehension of beauty is such a stirring phenomenon for a Plotinian. Such experience is a taste of the realm beyond being that the soul seeks. The sense of beauty is a natural guide in detecting and in separating the higher from the lower orders within nature. Such a sensitivity to hierarchy is absolutely essential because it is by establishing orders and levels that the mind is able to orient itself and to discern realms even beyond the natural order.

Thus the lover is very close to the philosopher, and philosophy’s classical definition (the love of wisdom) fits Plotinus almost perfectly. Plato’s Phaedrus is important here. Plotinus, like his revered predecessor, found in the phenomenon of love a philosophical key. Philosophers are stirred by love and moved by beauty; both of these experiences teach them to discern the higher from the lower in nature’s sphere. Evil is not a question at this point. The natural tendency under the influence of beauty is away from evil’s home (matter) and toward beauty’s source, the intellectual sphere.

Plato described a world of forms different from the ordinary world, but Plotinus carried this transcendental tendency much further. In the ascent that the apprehension of beauty has launched, we soon discover that each level has laws of its own, until we come finally to the One itself, where even the law of identity does not hold. Above this, the intellectual principle has been found to be free of all distinctions, whereas division and partition are the essential elements of every lower order. To learn to read Plotinus is to stretch the mind’s natural habits and to learn to think and visualize in new ways. Contrast is the proper method: Bodies are exclusively many; the supreme is exclusively one.

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 trace the evolutionary cycle, now upward, now downward, is the substance of much of The Enneads. Beginning with the soul, Plotinus tried to explain how it could generate something different and inferior to it—physical body. Then the movement of the discourse turns upward to account for the soul’s generation by the intellectual principle. Finally, we reach the One, the logical terminus that the delineation of the various realms below requires.

What the modern reader gains from Plotinus is a feeling for the necessary dialectical movement between qualitatively different realms. This constant passage from the One to the intellectual principle and then to the soul takes place all the while a multitude of traditional ethical and epistemological questions are being discussed. Yet, underneath this constant recovering of old ground, the picture of the Plotinian world gradually emerges. The reader begins to see how, within such a framework as Plotinus has constructed, Plotinus could hope to deal with practical questions successfully.

In a basic sense, the Plotinian view is a contemplative one, although it is incorrect to infer from this any aversion to everyday life. In addition to his contemplative quality, Plotinus was speculative. He did not claim to know his doctrines with finality, but he attempted an answer to all of philosophy’s most fundamental and comprehensive problems. The scope is breathtaking: To grasp what Plotinus saw is still an exhilarating experience that gives life and energy to the philosophical quest.

Bibliography

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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, 1988. An examination of the arguable paradox between Plotinus’s assertion of the separation and, at the same time, combination of the soul and the body.

Gerson, Lloyd P., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An anthology of scholarly essays on a wide range of Neoplatonic subjects as well as detailed studies of particular Enneads.

Gerson, Lloyd P. Plotinus. New York: Routledge, 1994. A good introductory survey of Plotinus’s life, times, and thought.

Hadot, Pierre. Plotinus, or, the Simplicity of Vision. Translated by Michael Chase. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Explores how Plotinus arrives at and develops his distinctive view about the unity of all existence.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: The Medieval Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1969. A brief but lucid introduction to Plotinus.

O’Meara, Dominic J. Plotinus: An Introduction to the “Enneads.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. A scholarly analysis of the best-known work produced by Plotinus.

Rappe, Sara. Reading Neoplatonism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Strives to regain the metaphysical qualities of Neoplatonic authors, including Plotinus.

Rist, J. M. Plotinus: The Road to Reality. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1967. A scholarly work that includes detailed study of Plotinus’s view about God, free will, and faith.

Wallis, R. T. Neoplatonism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972. Shows how Plotinus developed his outlook from sources in Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics and then goes on to show how Plotinus influenced his own philosophical successors.

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