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Plotinus (205-270) - Coptic Wiki

PLOTINUS (205-270)

A philosopher and founder of Neoplatonism in Egypt. At the age of twenty-eight he became a pupil of Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria. In 242-243 he was a member of the emperor Gordianus III’s expedition to the East. From 245 until his final illness, he taught philosophy in Rome, where his circle of influence included intellectuals and men of affairs. His writings were essays that grew out of his classes or discussions and that were collected and arranged by his pupil Porphyry in six groups of nine. They were therefore called Enneads (from Greek ennea, nine) and dealt, respectively, with the topics ethics and aesthetics, physics and cosmology, psychology, metaphysics, logic, and epistemology.

Plotinus links his metaphysics with Plato’s Parmenides, putting forth the concepts of a One that is nothing but one and is beyond all language and logic, a One that is all things and to which no limit may be fixed, and a One that is also many. These three concepts point to the hypostases of the One, nous (mind), and soul. It is considered by many that this interpretation of Plato, while useful in understanding Neoplatonism, cannot be an accurate account of Plato’s meaning. Plato was concerned with setting out logical distinctions and puzzles that are attached to the concept of unity. He was not metaphysical entities.

The problems of the ultimate One and man’s way to it are elucidated in extended discourse. How can the One produce what it does not contain? How can the One be described positively? It has no common term with anything beyond itself (Enneads, 5.5.13). It can have no limiting condition (5.5.6 and 6.8.11). This means that it cannot be part of a hierarchy or a series.

Yet the One must produce plurality because plurality is inferior to it (5.3.15). The One is all things in a transcendental mode, and analogies can therefore be drawn. The One is “all things and none of them” (5.2.1 and 6.7.32). It is the power of all things (3.8.10, 5.1.7, 5.3.15).

The account of nous is more straightforward than that of the One. Plotinus, like the middle Platonists, distinguished between discursive thought, which he placed within the soul, and intuitive thought, which he placed within the mind. Discursive thought is what moves from premise to conclusion or from one object to another; intuitive thought sees all things at once and is the special prerogative of , which shares the simultaneousness that is in the One (1.8.2). While soul moves (5.1.4) and divides the life of Nous, itself is a unity that embraces all. Soul cannot achieve unity, but nous possesses unity of subject and object (3.8.8, 5.3.2).

Soul deals with images and words (4.3.30), while deals with forms. These may be distinguished but never separated (5.9.6; 3.9.2). Nous is alive and contains individuals, intelligences, and forms within its unity. Plotinus identified nous with the perfect living creature of Plato’s Timaeus 30C (5.9.9, 6.2.21, 6.6.7, 6.7.8). The forms are themselves living, conscious, intelligences (5.1.4, 5.9.8, 6.7.9). The intelligible world is “brimming over with its own vitality” (5.5.12). In the mind, subject and object are not separate, but the contents of vision are still plural, and therefore nous may be separate from the One (5.3.13).

The One may have a self-apprehension, an awakening, or a superior kind of thought (6.7.38), but it remains a pure concept prior to the emergence of subject and object (6.7.37, 6.9.6). For Plotinus, a mystic experience of nous is possible, just as such an experience is possible with the One (5.8.10, 6.7.15). There is a way to the One through nous (6.9.3) and the highest level of nous is united to the One (6.7.35). This is described as “ in love” or “nous drunk with nectar” (6.7.35).

The soul and nous are easily joined, since every soul contains the intelligible world. Spiritual entities are not cut off from one another. Just as the highest level of soul remains in union with , so the highest level of nous remains in contact with the One (6.7.35).

For Plotinus, the union of the individual soul with the One is the final goal of man. By turning from the world of sense, man comes to know himself and the One that is his source (6.9.7). This is, in the final exhortation of Plotinus, the flight of the alone to the alone through the stripping away of all things—that is, removing the multiplicity that is foreign to the One (6.9.8). The soul moves through the nous and beyond the forms.

The division of subject and object is removed, and the soul reaches that high level of nous that is not distinguishable from the One. Here the soul waits calmly until the One appears (5.5.7, 6.7.34, 6.7.36). Contact with the One is made through the center of man’s soul (2.2.2, 5.1.11). The One is the transcendent source of man’s innermost self, and to this transcendent source man is joined from within. This experience takes man beyond knowing, because knowing involves plurality (6.9.3f). Although it is a union of the alone with the alone, it is also a joining in a chorus at the end of man’s journey (6.9).

While in the Cappadocian fathers there are Plotinian echoes, there is no influence on their presentation of the tradition that stemmed from Nicaea. The Greek fathers Justin, Athenagoras, and Clement of Alexandria were already influenced by Platonic thought before the time of Plotinus. The influence of Neoplatonism on Augustine is openly acknowledged in his Confessions. Two concepts were crucial to his rejection of materialism and dualism. The notion of spiritual being freed Augustine from the material deity of Manichaeism. The private theory of removed any ground for dualism, since evil was merely the absence of good.

Four factors have strengthened the affinity of Plotinus with Christian thought. First, he may be seen as a monist, bringing the three hypostases together, so that all are one ultimate first principle. Later Platonism, as in Iamblichus, developed more elaborate hierarchies on the false grounds that many rungs on a ladder make the summit more transcendent and more accessible. Second, Plotinus attacked the vigorously for their denigration of the material world (2.9). Third, Plotinus gave less place to magic than did many of his successors, and insisted on the importance of reason and argument; he has been respected as a thinker who lived in a world where many had forgotten how to think. Fourth, the mysticism of Plotinus is finally directed to the One, not to the self, and is theistic. The unity of the soul with the One is more like the unity of lovers than the fulfillment of a self. Because of Plotinus and his followers, monism, respect for creation, rationality, and union with God have become elements of the Christian intellectual heritage.


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  • . The Cambridge History of Latin, Greek, and Early Medieval Philosophy, pp. 195-271. Cambridge, 1967.
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  • Inge, W. R. The Philosophy of Plotinus, 2 vols. London, 1939. Rist, J. M. Plotinus: The Road to Reality. Cambridge, 1967.