Plotinus 205-270

"And we must consider that humans have forgotten That which from the beginning, and now still, they want and long for. For everything reaches out to That and longs for It by necessity of nature, as if divining by instinct that it cannot exist without It."

Plotinus was a Roman philosopher and the originator of neoplatonism. Plotinus was born in Asyut, Egypt, though his education and cultural background were completely Greek. In 232 he went to Alexandria and studied with the philosopher Ammonius Saccas (who flourished in the 1st half of 3rd century) for ten years and in about 244 went to Rome, where he established a school. Plotinus spoke on Pythagorean and Platonic wisdom and on asceticism; such was the impression made upon his hearers that some of them gave their fortunes to the poor, set their slaves free, and devoted themselves to lives of study and ascetic piety.

At the age of 60, with the permission of the Roman emperor Gallienus, Plotinus planned to establish a communistic commonwealth on the model of The Republic by Plato, but the project failed because of the opposition of Gallienus's counselors. Plotinus continued to teach and write until his death. His works comprise 54 treatises in Greek, called the Enneads, 6 groups of 9 books each, an arrangement probably made by his student Porphyry (c.232-304), who edited his writings.

Plotinus developed an interpretation of Plato’s philosophy that changed the position of the Platonic Academy from one of skepticism into a new religious view. He agreed with the skeptics that knowledge is required in order to grasp the Platonic Forms that are “beyond” the physical heavens. He argued, however, that humans do have knowledge and concluded that in order to acquire it souls must somehow journey to this “transcelestial” place to see the Forms there.

Plotinus’s system was based chiefly on Plato’s theory of Ideas, but whereas Plato assumed archetypal Ideas to be the link between the supreme deity and the world of matter, Plotinus accepted a doctrine of emanation. This doctrine supposes the constant transmission of powers from the Absolute Being, The Good, or The One, to the creation through several agencies, the first of which is nous, the Divine Intellect, whence flows the soul of the world; from this, in turn, flow the souls of humans and animals, and finally matter. The One is beyond all determination or limitation and hence beyond description. Language can only point the way toward him (Plotinus almost always uses the masculine in speaking of his First Principle), though he is not merely a negation or abstraction. He is present to all who have the capacity to receive him. The process of emanation and the generation of reality is both free and necessary, free in the sense of being spontaneous, necessary since it is not conceivable that it should not happen. The process is also timeless, and all the stages of reality are eternal. True being for Plotinus is the nous, which is the totality of Platonic Forms or Ideas. In the nous thought and being are one, and the Ideas are living intelligences. In terms of our consciousness Intellect is the level of intuitive thought which is identical with its object and does not see it as in some sense external to it. Plotinus departs from Plato in admitting individual as well as universal Forms, though accepting that the Forms are finite in number by adopting the Stoic idea of cyclic world periods repeating themselves endlessly. From Intellect comes Soul, which forms and orders the visible universe. At its highest Soul is fully illuminated and formed by Intellect and raised to its level; its lower phase, Nature, is the immanent animating principle of the material universe and all animal and plant life. From Nature come the forms of bodies, the lowest and weakest of realities. All levels of Soul are in us and we have to choose whether we will remain on the level of the lower soul, immersed in the concerns of body, or whether we wake to the consciousness of the higher realities present in us. Matter, though it proceeds from The Good, is the principle of evil because it is the lowest level of being from the descent of The Good.

Human beings thus belong to two worlds, that of the senses and that of pure intelligence. Inasmuch as matter is the cause of all evil, the object of life should be to escape the material world of the senses, and hence people should abandon all earthly interests for those of intellectual meditation; by purification and by the exercise of thought people can gradually lift themselves to an intuition of the nous, and ultimately to a complete and ecstatic union with The One. Plotinus claimed to have experienced this divine ecstasy on several occasions during his life.

The doctrines of Plotinus, which rejected the despairing materialism and compulsive search for luxury of the Roman Empire, became the official position of the Platonic Academy and exercised strong influence on both Christian theology and Islamic thought.

“The philosopher--lover of wisdom--is naturally ready to respond and ‘winged,’ we may say, and in no need of separation like the others. She has begun to move to the higher world, and is only at a loss for someone to show her the way.”


Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.
The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, J. O. Urmson and Jonathan R?e, editors. London: Unman Hyman, 1991.