Article abstract: As the founder of Neoplatonism, Plotinus exerted a profound influence on Western philosophical and religious thought, from his own day to the present.
Plotinus was born in 205, but almost nothing is known about his origins or his early life. His nationality, race, and family are unknown, and information about his birthplace comes from a fourth century source that may not be reliable. Plotinus told his disciples little about himself; he would not even divulge the date of his birth. Only one thing can be said with certainty: Plotinus’s education and intellectual background were entirely Greek. This fact can be deduced from his writings; Plotinus shows little knowledge of Egyptian religion and misinterprets Egyptian hieroglyphic symbolism. Porphyry, Plotinus’s pupil and biographer, reports that Plotinus had a complete knowledge of geometry, arithmetic, mechanics, optics, and music, and he must have acquired some of this knowledge during the early years of his education.
Porphyry reports that in 232, when Plotinus was twenty-seven, he felt a strong desire to study philosophy. He consulted the best teachers in Alexandria, but they all disappointed him. Then a friend recommended a teacher named Ammonius Saccas. Plotinus went to hear him and immediately declared, “This is the man I was looking for.” Little is known, however, of Ammonius’s philosophy; he was self-taught, wrote nothing, and made his followers promise not to divulge his teachings.
Beginning in late 232 or early 233, Plotinus studied with Ammonius for eleven years. Plotinus’s long stay in Alexandria may be the only reason for the common belief that he was originally from Egypt. Plotinus wanted to learn more of the philosophy of the Persians and the Indians, and he joined the army of Emperor Gordianus III, which was marching against the Persians.
It is not known in what capacity Plotinus served; he may have been a scientific adviser, or he may have occupied a lower position. The expedition, however, did not achieve its objective. Gordianus was assassinated in Mesopotamia, and Plotinus escaped with difficulty to Antioch. He made no attempt to return to Ammonius (nor did he ever return to the East). Instead, in 245, at the age of forty, he traveled to Rome, where he was to remain for twenty-five years, until shortly before his death. The stage was set for him to emerge as the last great pagan philosopher.
For the next ten years, Plotinus established himself in Rome. He accepted private students and based his teaching on that of Ammonius. During this time, he wrote nothing, but by the time Porphyry joined him in 264, Plotinus no longer considered himself bound by the restrictions on publication that Ammonius had imposed (other pupils of Ammonius, such as Origen and Erennius, had already published). Plotinus had therefore written twenty-one treatises by 264, although none of them had circulated widely. Porphyry urged him to write more, and twenty-four treatises followed during the six years that Porphyry was his pupil.
Only one story survives about Plotinus’s life in Rome before Porphyry’s arrival. A philosopher named Olympias, from Alexandria, who was also a former pupil of Ammonius, attempted to “bring a star-stroke upon him [Plotinus] by magic.” Plotinus, who apparently believed in the power of magic, felt the effects of this attack, but Olympias found his attempt recoiling on himself. He ceased his attack and confessed that “the soul of Plotinus had such great power as to be able to throw back attacks on him on to those who were seeking to do him harm.”
During the time that Porphyry was his pupil, Plotinus lived comfortably in what must have been a large house, owned by a wealthy widow named Gemina. He earned a reputation for kindness and gentleness and was always generous in offering help to others. Many people entrusted their sons and daughters to his care, “considering that he would be a holy and god-like guardian.” Although Plotinus was an otherworldly philosopher, he also believed in the importance of the social virtues, that the practice of them contributed to the soul’s ultimate liberation. He was therefore practical, wise, and diplomatic in daily affairs, taking good care of the worldly interests of the young people in his charge. For example, they would be encouraged to give up property only if they decided to become philosophers, and even this was a decision that they would have to make for themselves. The same was true of Plotinus’s attitude toward the...
(The entire section is 1874 words.)