Plotinus Analysis


Plotinus (ploh-TI-nuhs) was educated in Alexandria. His mentor was Ammonius Saccas until 242 c.e., when he joined the emperor Gordian III’s Persian expedition to learn the wisdom of the Persians and Indians. By 244 c.e., he had returned to Rome, where he established a Neoplatonic school of philosophy. It was respected by high officials in the government. His attempt to found a city, Platonopolis in Campania, though initially supported by the emperor Gallienus, was never realized. He opened his home to orphans and was reported to possess keen powers of discerning the hearts of people.

Plotinus was one of the greatest original thinkers of late antiquity, whose erudite lectures on Neoplatonic themes drew a number of gifted philosophers to his school, among whom was the great polymath and anti-Christian propagandist Porphyry of Tyre. The latter systematically arranged Plotinus’s lectures into six books, each containing nine chapters, titled Enneads (c. 256-270; The Enneads, 1918). His Life of Plotinus (n.d.; translation, 1917) gives invaluable data about the great thinker.

Plotinus was a mystic who claimed to have experienced ecstatic union with the Supreme Principle, the One, several times in his life. According to his metaphysical theory of a hierarchy of reality, all lower orders of existent things emanate or process from the One, including intellect, soul, and humans. The goal of his philosophy was to purify the soul so that it could escape material reality and successfully make its ascent to the One.


Plotinus’s Neoplatonic mysticism and metaphysical system influenced both pagan (Porphyry, Iamblichus of Syria, Proclus) and Christian writers (Saint Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers) of late antiquity.

Further Reading

Dodds, E. R. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. 1965. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. This brief but wide-ranging book by a renowned classical scholar discusses the historical and social background of Neoplatonism, the conflict between Neoplatonism and Christianity, and the many types of religious and psychological experience that flourished during the period. The section on Plotinus’s mysticism is particularly valuable. Well written and scholarly, but accessible to the general reader.

Dufour, Richard. Plotinus: A Bibliography, 1950-2000. Boston: E. J. Brill, 2002. A very useful guide for further research.

Edwards, M. J., ed. Neoplatonic Saints: The Lives of Plotinus and Proclus by Their Students. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. A translation of Porphyry’s work on his teacher.

Gerson, Lloyd P., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Fifteen essays explore the facets of Plotinus’s philosophy and its legacy. Requires some familiarity with Neoplatonic philosophy.

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.

Hornblower, S., and A. Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Mayhall, C. Wayne, Steve Wainwright, and Worth Hawes. On Plotinus. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2002. A concise introduction to Plotinus’s thought and legacy. Intended for students first encountering his philosophy.

Miles, Margaret Ruth. Plotinus on Body and Beauty: Society, Philosophy, and Religion in Third Century Rome. Boston: Blackwell, 1999. This introduction to Plotinus’s philosophy explores his thought by relating his Neoplatonism to modern concerns. Bibliography and index.

O’Meara, Dominic J. Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. An introduction devoting separate chapters to important themes in Plotinus’s philosophy.

Plotinus. The Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. Burdett, N.Y.: Larson, 1994. A well-respected translation of Plotinus’s work.