Plotinus (Greek: Πλωτίνος)(ca. 205–270), the ancient philosopher, is widely considered the father of Neoplatonism. Plotinus' philosophy drew upon a mystical element while retaining a clear and logical analysis of the works of Plato. His exposition of Plato's works have shaped the development of various Western philosophies and inspired centuries of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers; his impact is evident in the theology of St. Augustine and in the works of many others who draw upon the Neoplatonist tradition. Furthermore, the universality of the works of Plotinus is attested by their effect on a wide scope of religions and philosophies.
Much of our biographical information about Plotinus comes from Porphyry's preface to his edition of Plotinus' Enneads. Porphyry believed Plotinus was sixty-six years old when he died in 270 C.E., the second year of the reign of the emperor Claudius II, thus giving us the year of his teacher's birth as around 205. Plotinus had an inherent distrust of materiality (an attitude common to Platonism), holding to the view that phenomena and forms were a poor image or mimicry (mimesis) of something "higher and intelligible" [VI.I] which was the "truer part of genuine Being." This distrust extended to the body, including his own; it is reported by Porphyry that at one point he refused to have his portrait painted, presumably for much the same reasons of dislike. Likewise Plotinus never discussed his ancestry, childhood, or his place or date of birth. Eunapius however reports that he was born in the Deltaic Lycopolis (Latin: Lyco) in Egypt, as he may have been a Hellenized Egyptian. From all accounts his personal and social life exhibited the highest moral and spiritual standards.
Plotinus took up the study of philosophy at the age of twenty-seven, around the year 232, and travelled to Alexandria to study. There Plotinus was dissatisfied with every teacher he encountered until an acquaintance suggested he listen to the ideas of Ammonius Saccas. Upon hearing Ammonius lecture, he declared to his friend, "this was the man I was looking for," and began to study intently under his new instructor. Besides Ammonius, Plotinus was also influenced by the works of Alexander of Aphrodisias, Numenius, and various Stoics.
Expedition to Persia and return to Rome
He spent the next eleven years in Alexandria when, by now 38, he decided to investigate the philosophical teachings of the Persians and the Indians. In the pursuit of this endeavour he left Alexandria and joined the army of Gordian III as it marched on Persia. However, the campaign was a failure, and on Gordian's eventual death Plotinus found himself abandoned in a hostile land, and only with difficulty found his way back to safety in Antioch.
At the age of forty, during the reign of Philip the Arab, he came to Rome, where he stayed for most of the remainder of his life. There he attracted a number of students. His innermost circle included Porphyry, Gentilianus Amelius of Tuscany, the Senator Castricius Firmus, and Eustochius of Alexandria, a doctor who devoted himself to learning from Plotinus and attended to him until his death. Other students included: Zethos, an Arab by ancestry who died before Plotinus, leaving him a legacy and some land; Zoticus, a critic and poet; Paulinus, a doctor of Scythopolis; and Serapion from Alexandria. He had students amongst the Roman Senate beside Castricius, such as Marcellus Orontius, Sabinillus, and Rogantianus. Women were also numbered amongst his students, including Gemina, in whose house he lived during his residence in Rome, and her daughter, also Gemina; and Amphiclea, the wife of Ariston the son of Iamblichus. Finally, Plotinus was a correspondent of the philosopher Cassius Longinus.
While in Rome Plotinus also gained the respect of the Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonica. At one point Plotinus attempted to interest Gallienus in rebuilding an abandoned settlement in Campania, known as the 'City of Philosophers', where the inhabitants would live under the constitution set out in Plato's Laws. An Imperial subsidy was never granted, for reasons unknown to Porphyry, who reports the incident.
Porphyry subsequently went to live in Sicily, where word reached him that his former teacher had died. The philosopher spent his final days in seclusion on an estate in Campania which his friend Zethos had bequeathed him. According to the account of Eustochius, who attended him at the end, Plotinus' final words were: "Strive to give back the Divine in yourselves to the Divine in the All." Eustochius records that a snake crept under the bed where Plotinus lay, and slipped away through a hole in the wall; at the same moment the philosopher died.
Plotinus wrote the essays that became the Enneads over a period of several years from ca. 253 until a few months before his death seventeen years later. Porphyry makes note that the Enneads, before being compiled and arranged by himself, were merely the enormous collection of notes and essays which Plotinus used in his lectures and debates, rather than a formal book. Plotinus was unable to revise his own work due to his poor eyesight, yet his writings required extensive editing, according to Porphyry: his master's handwriting was atrocious, he did not properly separate his words, and he cared little for niceties of spelling. Plotinus intensely disliked the editorial process, and turned the task to Porphyry, who not only polished them but put them into the arrangement we now have.
Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent "One," containing no division, multiplicity or distinction; likewise it is beyond all categories of being and non-being. The concept of "being" is popularly perceived as being derived by us from the objects of human experience, and is an attribute of such objects, but the infinite, transcendent One is beyond all such objects, and therefore is beyond the concepts that we derive from them. The One "cannot be any existing thing," and cannot be merely the sum of all such things (compare the Stoic doctrine of disbelief in non-material existence), but "is prior to all existents." Thus, no attributes can be assigned to the One.
The One, being beyond all attributes including being and non-being, is the source of the world not through any act of creation, willful or otherwise, since activity cannot be ascribed to the unchangeable, immutable One. Plotinus resorts to a logical principle that the "less perfect" must, of necessity, "emanate," or issue forth, from the "perfect" or "more perfect." Thus, all of "creation" emanates from the One in succeeding stages of lesser and lesser perfection. These stages are not temporally isolated, but occur throughout time as a constant process. Later Neoplatonic philosophers, especially Iamblichus, added hundreds of intermediate beings as emanations between the One and humanity; but Plotinus' system was much simpler in comparison.
Emanation by the One
Plotinus offers an alternative to the orthodox Christian notion of creation "ex nihilo" ('out of nothing'), which would make God suffer the deliberations of a mind and actions of a will, although Plotinus never mentions Christianity in any of his works. Emanation "ex deo" ('out of God'), confirms the absolute transcendence of the One, making the unfolding of the cosmos purely a consequence of its existence; the One is in no way affected or diminished by these emanations. Plotinus uses the analogy of the Sun which emanates light indiscriminately without thereby "lessening" itself, or reflection in a mirror which in no way diminishes or otherwise alters the object being reflected.
The first emanation is "Nous" (Thought), identified with the "demiurge" in Plato's Timaeus. Its function is to contemplate on the "One" and on all thoughts derived from the divine "One." In other words, "Nous" relates with the realm of Platonic forms. From "Nous" proceeds the "Soul," which Plotinus subdivides into "upper" and "lower," identifying the upper aspect which is that which constantly relates to the "Nous," and the lower aspect of Soul with Nature. From the Soul proceed individual human souls, and finally, matter, at the lowest level of being and thus the least perfected level of the cosmos. Despite this relatively negative assessment of the material world, Plotinus asserted the ultimately divine nature of material creation since it ultimately derives from the One, through the mediums of "Nous" and the "Soul."
The essentially devotional nature of Plotinus' philosophy may be further illustrated by his concept of attaining "ecstatic" union with the One. Porphyry relates that Plotinus attained such a union several times during the years he knew him. This may be related, of course, with "enlightenment," "liberation," and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions. Some scholars have compared Plotinus' teachings to the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta ("advaita" "not two," or "non-dual"), and of presecular Buddhism: "Gotama is a teacher of Monism (advayavada)"-Kathavatthu 204; also: "Gotama teaches the path to union with the One (Ekam)"- Itivuttaka.
Neoplatonism was sometimes used as a philosophical foundation for paganism, and as a means of defending the theoretic of paganism against Christianity. However, many Christians were also influenced by Neoplatonism, most notably St. Augustine who, though often referred to as a "Platonist," acquired his Platonist philosophy through the mediation of Plotinus' teachings. Indeed, Plotinus' philosophy still exerts influence today in the twenty first century, American philosopher Ken Wilber has drawn heavily upon the Enneads in his cosmology, reaching some metaphysical conclusions comparable to Plotinus' own.
Indian philosophers such as S. Radhakrishnan, Dr. A.K. Coomaraswamy and others used the writing of Plotinus in their own texts as a superlative elaboration upon Indian Monism, specifically Upanishadic and Advaita Vedantic thought.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Berchman, Robert M. From Philo to Origen: Middle Platonism in Transition, Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984.
- Plotinus. Enneads, 7 vols., translated by A.H. Armstrong, Loeb Classical Library.
- Plotinus. The Enneads, translated by Stephen MacKenna and John Dillon. London: Penguin, 1991.
- Porphyry. On the Life of Plotinus and the Arrangement of his Works in Neoplatonic Saints: The Lives of Plotinus and Proclus by their Students. Mark Edwards (ed.), Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.
- Scholem, G. "Kabbalah". Keter Publishing House Jerusalem, 1974.
- Taylor, T. Collected Works of Plotinus, Promethues Trust (revised in 2000), 1994.
- Tripolitis, A. The Doctrine of the Soul in the thought of Plonitus and Origen. Libra Publishers, 1978.
- Wallis, Richard T. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. University of Oklahoma, 1984.
All links retrieved March 29, 2019.
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paideia Project Online
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Project Gutenberg
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