Plotinus (c. A.D. 204 – 270) was an Egyptian/Greek/Roman philosopher of the Hellenistic period. He is widely considered the founder (along with his less famous teacher Ammonius Saccas) of the Neo-Platonism movement. Many later Christians and Muslims were influenced by his Neo-Platonism (or by Platonism acquired through the mediation of Plotinus’ teachings).
More than just a commentator on Plato, though, Plotinus was an original and profound thinker in his own right, who borrowed and re-worked all that he found useful from earlier thinkers (including Plato) to develop a complex spiritual cosmology and its related theory of morality, as well as a unique theory of sense-perception and knowledge.
Plotinus (pronounced plo-TINE-us) was born around A.D. 204, based on the report of his student, Porphyry (c. A.D. 233 – 309). The 4th Century historian, Eunapius, reported that he was born in Lycoplis, in the Nile Delta of Egypt, of Greek, Roman or possibly Hellenized Egyptian descent.
From all accounts, his personal and social life exhibited the highest moral and spiritual standards from an early age. He took up the study of philosophy at the age of twenty-seven, around the year A.D. 232, and he traveled to the great center of learning Alexandria to study. There he read the works of Aristotle and Plato (both of whom had a strong influence on his thought) and was introduced to the works of the Aristotelian Alexander of Aphrodisias, the Neo-Pythagorean Numenius, and various Stoics. But he expressed dissatisfaction with every teacher he encountered until he happened on Ammonius Saccas (considered, along with Plotinus, one of the founders of Neo-Platonism), whereupon he declared to a friend, «this is the man I was looking for». He began to study intently under his new instructor, remaining in Alexandria for the next eleven years.
Around the age of 38, he decided to investigate the philosophical teachings of the Persian and Indian philosophers. With this in mind, he joined the army of Gordian III (Jordanus) as it marched on Persia, although, when the campaign failed and Gordian died, Plotinus found himself abandoned in a hostile land, and only with difficulty found his way back to relative safety in Antioch.
At the age of 40, he made his way to Rome, where he stayed for most of the remainder of his life. There, he began to attract a number of students, although he had taught in Rome for twenty years before the arrival of Porphyry (a Phoenician Neo-Platonic philosopher and important commentator on the Logic of Aristotle), who was destined to become his most famous pupil, as well as his biographer and editor. Among his other students were Amelius Gentilianus of Tuscany, Zethos (an Arab who left Plotinus a legacy and some land), Castricius Firmus (one of several Roman Senators), Eustochius of Alexandria (a doctor who zealously attended Plotinus until his death), and also several women including Gemina (in whose Roman house he lived, along with her daughter, also Gemina).
While in Rome, Plotinus gained the respect of the Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina and tried to interest them in rebuilding an abandoned settlement in Campania, to be known as «Platonopolis» or the «City of Philosophers» and where the inhabitants would live under the constitution set out in Plato’s «Laws», although the project never materialized.
Plotinus was an ascetic and a meditative man. A vegetarian for most of his life, he also shunned public baths with their promiscuous nudity. He wrote the essays that became the famous «Enneads» over a period of seventeen years from about A.D. 253 until a few months before his death. Towards the end of his life, urged by Porphyry, he began to collect his treatises (mainly material from his lectures and debates with his students) into systematic form, and to compose new ones.
He died in A.D. 270 of a long and disfiguring illness, possibly leprosy. He spent his final days in seclusion on the estate in Campania bequeathed by his friend and student, Zethos, and attended by another of his students, the doctor Eustochius.
Plotinus’ most famous work is his «Enneads», written over the last 17 years of his life. He left them as an enormous collection of notes and essays, with poor spelling and in atrocious handwriting (partly due to his failing eyesight), requiring extensive editing. It was his student Porphyry who polished, compiled and arranged them into the six books of nine treatises each that we now know.
Plotinus’ Metaphysics is based on a chain of three hypostases (or underlying states or substances), the «One», the «Nous» and the «Soul», which are related to each other and affect each other through the plan or formative principle known as the «Logos». He was essentially a Monist and a Pantheist of the world-rejecting type (or, arguably, a Panentheist). His beliefs can also be seen as coming close to an early exposition of Idealism, although he made no attempt to discover how we can get beyond our ideas in order to know external objects.
He taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent «One», beyond all categories of being and non-being, containing no division, multiplicity or distinction. He explicitly denied sentience, self-awareness, thought or any other action to the «One», which is above all understanding, and can be best approached by negative theology. This «One» is the source of the world, although not through any act of creation, either willful or otherwise (as such an activity cannot be ascribed to the unchangeable, immutable «One»), but by a process of emanation (a view sometimes known as Emanationism). Plotinus believed that the multiple cannot exist without the simple, and so the «less perfect» must of necessity emanate from the «perfect» or «more perfect». In this way, all of «creation» emanates from the «One» in a constant ongoing process of succeeding stages of lesser and lesser perfection, with the «One» providing the ultimate foundation and location for all existents.
The first emanation from the «One» is the «Nous» (which can be variously translated as «intelligence», «thought», «the divine mind», «logos», «order» or «reason»), the true first principle, which Plotinus identified (at least metaphorically) with the Demiurge of Plato’s «Timaeus». The «Nous» is not a self-sufficient entity like the «One», but rather possesses the ability to contemplate both the «One» (as its prior) as well as its own thoughts and the ideas which are in its spiritual nature (which can be identified with Plato’s Forms or Ideas).
From «Nous» proceeds the «Soul» (or «Psyche»), the dynamic, creative, temporal power, which itself is subdivided into two: the upper aspect (or «World Soul»), the contemplative part which governs the Cosmos and remains in contact with the «Nous», ensuring that the individual embodied souls eventually return to their true divine state within the «Nous»; and the lower aspect (identified with «Nature») which allows itself to be multiply divided into individual human souls.
Finally, after the first three degrees which form a sort of trinity, the third level of emanation is the universe itself (i.e. the sky, the stars, good and evil spirits, human souls and matter). Matter and the world of the senses is the lowest and least perfected level of being, so far removed from divinity that Plotinus sometimes identified matter with «evil». Human souls (which were in a state of pre-existence in the «Nous»), are now imprisoned in material bodies although, like the «Soul», they have two levels of activities, the rational (which tends to the formation of ideas) and the informative (which tends to the informing of the body). Later Neo-Platonic philosophers added hundreds of other intermediate beings as emanations between the One and humanity, but Plotinus’ system was relatively simple in comparison.
Unlike the orthodox Christian notion of creation ex nihilo («out of nothing»), then, Plotinus’ 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, and in no way affecting or diminishing itself by these emanations, similar to the emanations from the sun. Plotinus held that we can recognize the «One» by the Good or through Beauty, and that it is even possible to attain an ecstatic or mystical union with the «One» (a kind of enlightenment or liberation common in many Eastern religions), which Porphyry claims that Plotinus attained four times during the years he knew him.
Plotinus saw Ethics and morality as a kind of upward progression from the world to God, the reverse of the downward progression of the emanations. Man is able to make this return by means of catharsis (purification from matter), which is marked by three types of virtues, the ethical (or practical), the dianoetic (or contemplative) and the ecstatic. The ethical virtues (such as temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice) assure us of the practical domination of the sensible world, and open the way toward the operation of the superior contemplative virtues. The dianoetic virtues are the aesthetic and rational virtues which separate intelligible ideas from matter and contemplate them as they exist in either the «World Soul» (which is the residence of beauty) or in the «Nous» (which is the location of truth). The ecstatic virtues, however, are the only ones which can lead us to the absolute perfection of the «One» and the supreme state of happiness. In the state of ecstasy, man remains passive and unconscious of everything except his union with the «One».
In his ethical system, then, authentic human happiness (or eudaimonia) consists of identifying with that which is the best in the universe (a focus on the Forms and the «One») or with the highest capacity of Reason. Plotinus held that happiness is beyond anything physical (the «true human» being an incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul, and superior to all things corporeal), and so potentially available to all people (this was the first real introduction of a Eudaimonism attainable only within consciousness). A happy person will not sway between happy and sad, as the Stoics believed, because the body (whether mentally incapacitated, asleep or even undergoing torture) is irrelevant to the source of happiness. The «perfect life, therefore, involves a person who commands reason and contemplation.
In Epistemology, Plotinus also offered a well-developed theory of knowledge. He distinguished four kinds of knowledge: sense knowledge, which is an obscure representation of truth; reason cognition, which gives us knowledge of the essences of things; intellectual cognition, which gives us knowledge of ourselves; and ecstasy, which consists in a supernatural intuition of God, in which our natural knowledge ceases in the divine unconsciousness.
He held that, although sensations or sense knowledge provide a direct, realistic perception of material things, because they are ever-changing, such knowledge is not actually reliable or valuable. In internal sense perception, the imagination also functions actively, and memory can be attributed to the imaginative power, which serves not only in the recall of sensory images but also in the retention of the words or verbal formulae in which intellectual concepts are expressed. Rational knowledge is a cognition of intelligible realities, roughly equivalent to Plato’s Forms or Ideas, in the Divine Mind or «Nous». The climax of knowledge consists in an ecstatic or intuitive mystical union with the «One» which is experienced by few.
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