Plotinus’s life and philosophical thought are known today mainly through the work of his fellow philosopher and his sometime student Porphyry, who wrote an important biography of Plotinus that forms the preface to Porphyry’s compilation of Plotinus’s philosophical discourses. In making his compilation, Porphyry was following thinkers such as Apollodorus of Athens, who collected the works of Epicharmus, and Andronicus of Rhodes, the Peripatetic, who organized the work of Aristotle and Theophrastus. Porphyry arranged the discourses by topic and separated the thinkers into six groups of nine. This organization gave rise to the title The Enneads, which comes from the Greek word ennea, the cardinal numeral nine.
In this work, Plotinus deals with a wide range of subjects and covers an array of questions concerning ethics, natural phenomena, the soul, the intellect, beauty, and the origin of evil. He does not, however, discuss politics. Constituting the earliest sources for Plotinus are Porphyry’s collection, along with another edition (now lost) that was made by one of Plotinus’s associates, a physician named Eustochius. Also, he used as a source brief comments made by Eusabius and Eunapius in the Suda, a tenth century Byzantine historical encyclopedia written in Greek.
Although Plotinus’s name attests to a Roman ancestry, he was said by Eunapius to have been born in an Egyptian city located 200 miles south of Cairo on the Upper Nile River known as Asyut, also known as Siout. This ancient city founded in the time of the pharoahs was known as Lycopolis or Lyco during the period of Roman rule. Details of Plotinus’s childhood and student life are not known, but according to Porphyry, in 232, Plotinus, in his twenties, decided to move north to Alexandria and was admitted to study with the philosopher Ammonius Saccas. After eleven years of study, Plotinus left Ammonius and headed east on an expedition against Persia that was led by the teenage Roman emperor Gordian III. Plotinus’s goal was to carry out his own firsthand investigations into Persian and Indian thought. The expedition collapsed almost immediately; Gordian III was murdered, and Plotinus escaped through Syria to Rome, where he set up his own school in 244, the same year that Emperor Marcus Julius Philippus, also known as Philip the Arab, began his reign.
In Rome, Plotinus lived as the houseguest of a Roman woman and her daughter, both of whom were named Gemina. Plotinus’s lectures, which were based for a decade or so on the precepts of his teacher Ammonius, attracted an influential group of men and women such as Amelius Gentilianus, a philosopher from Etruria and a prominent member of Plotinus’s school; Paulinus, a physician from Scythopolis; Zoticus, a critic and man of letters; Amphiclea, the wife of Ariston; and the senators Sabinillus, Castricius Firmus, Marcellus Orantius, and Rogantianus. To follow Plotinus’s precepts, Rogantianus had given up his extravagant lifestyle. As a result, he regained his health....
(The entire section is 1241 words.)