|Died||270 (aged 64–65)|
Campania, Roman Empire
|Platonism, metaphysics, mysticism|
|Emanation of all things from the One|
Three main hypostases: the One, Intellect, and Soul
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Plotinus (//; Greek: Πλωτῖνος, Plōtînos; c. 204/5 – 270 CE) was a major Hellenistic Greek philosopher born and raised in Roman Egypt, regarded by modern scholarship as the founder of Neoplatonism. His teacher was the self-taught philosopher Ammonius Saccas, who belonged to the Platonic tradition. Historians of the 19th century invented the term "Neoplatonism" and applied it to refer to Plotinus and his philosophy, which was vastly influential during Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Much of the biographical information about Plotinus comes from Porphyry's preface to his edition of Plotinus' most notable literary work, The Enneads. In his metaphysical writings, Plotinus described three fundamental principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. His works have inspired centuries of Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, and Islamic metaphysicians and mystics, including developing precepts that influence mainstream theological concepts within religions, such as his work on duality of the One in two metaphysical states.
Porphyry reported that Plotinus was 66 years old when he died in 270, the second year of the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius II, thus giving us the year of his teacher's birth as around 205. Eunapius reported that Plotinus was born in Lyco, which could either refer to the modern Asyut in Upper Egypt or Deltaic Lycopolis, in Lower Egypt. This has led to speculations that he may have been either native Egyptian, Hellenized Egyptian, Greek, or Roman.
Plotinus had an inherent distrust of materiality (an attitude common to Platonism), holding to the view that phenomena 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. 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-eight, around the year 232, and travelled to Alexandria to study. There he was dissatisfied with every teacher he encountered, until an acquaintance suggested he listen to the ideas of the self-taught Platonist philosopher Ammonius Saccas. Upon hearing Ammonius' lecture, Plotinus declared to his friend: "this is the man I was looking for", began to study intently under his new instructor, and remained with him as his student for eleven years. Besides Ammonius, Plotinus was also influenced by the philosophical works of Aristotle, the pre-Socratic philosophers Empedocles and Heraclitus, the Middle Platonist philosophers Alexander of Aphrodisias and Numenius of Apamea, along with various Stoics and Neopythagoreans.
After having spent eleven years in Alexandria, he then decided, at the age of around 38, to investigate the philosophical teachings of the Persian and Indian philosophers. In the pursuit of this endeavor he left Alexandria and joined the army of the Roman emperor Gordian III as it marched on Persia (242-243 C.E.). 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 Emperor 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, Amelius Gentilianus of Tuscany, the Senator Castricius Firmus, and Eustochius of Alexandria, a doctor who devoted himself to learning from Plotinus and attending 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 Salonina. 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.
Plotinus subsequently went to live in Sicily. He 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: "Try to raise 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 (from Greek ἐννέα (ennéa), or group of nine) over a period of several years from c. 253 C.E. 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; beyond all categories of being and non-being. His "One" "cannot be any existing thing", nor is it merely the sum of all things (compare the Stoic doctrine of disbelief in non-material existence), but "is prior to all existents". Plotinus identified his "One" with the concept of 'Good' and the principle of 'Beauty'. (I.6.9)
His "One" concept encompassed thinker and object. Even the self-contemplating intelligence (the noesis of the nous) must contain duality. "Once you have uttered 'The Good,' add no further thought: by any addition, and in proportion to that addition, you introduce a deficiency." (III.8.11) Plotinus denies sentience, self-awareness or any other action (ergon) to the One (τὸ Ἕν, to hen; V.6.6). Rather, if we insist on describing it further, we must call the One a sheer potentiality (dynamis) without which nothing could exist. (III.8.10) As Plotinus explains in both places and elsewhere (e.g. V.6.3), it is impossible for the One to be Being or a self-aware Creator God. At (V.6.4), Plotinus compared the One to "light", the Divine Intellect/Nous (Νοῦς, Nous; first will towards Good) to the "Sun", and lastly the Soul (Ψυχή, Psyche) to the "Moon" whose light is merely a "derivative conglomeration of light from the 'Sun'". The first light could exist without any celestial body.
The One, being beyond all attributes including being and non-being, is the source of the world—but not through any act of creation, willful or otherwise, since activity cannot be ascribed to the unchangeable, immutable One. Plotinus argues instead that the multiple cannot exist without the simple. 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.
The One is not just an intellectual concept but something that can be experienced, an experience where one goes beyond all multiplicity. Plotinus writes, "We ought not even to say that he will see, but he will be that which he sees, if indeed it is possible any longer to distinguish between seer and seen, and not boldly to affirm that the two are one."
Superficially considered, Plotinus seems to offer an alternative to the orthodox Christian notion of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), although Plotinus never mentions Christianity in any of his works. The metaphysics of emanation (ἀπορροή aporrhoe (ΙΙ.3.2) or ἀπόρροια aporrhoia (II.3.11)), however, just like the metaphysics of Creation, confirms the absolute transcendence of the One or of the Divine, as the source of the Being of all things that yet remains transcendent of them in its own nature; the One is in no way affected or diminished by these emanations, just as the Christian God in no way is affected by some sort of exterior "nothingness". Plotinus, using a venerable analogy that would become crucial for the (largely neoplatonic) metaphysics of developed Christian thought, likens the One to the Sun which emanates light indiscriminately without thereby diminishing itself, or reflection in a mirror which in no way diminishes or otherwise alters the object being reflected.
The first emanation is Nous (Divine Mind, Logos, Order, Thought, Reason), identified metaphorically with the Demiurge in Plato's Timaeus. It is the first Will toward Good. From Nous proceeds the World Soul, which Plotinus subdivides into upper and lower, identifying the lower aspect of Soul with nature. From the world soul proceeds individual human souls, and finally, matter, at the lowest level of being and thus the least perfected level of the cosmos. Plotinus asserted the ultimately divine nature of material creation since it ultimately derives from the One, through the mediums of Nous and the world soul. It is by the Good or through beauty that we recognize the One, in material things and then in the Forms. (I.6.6 and I.6.9)
The essentially devotional nature of Plotinus' philosophy may be further illustrated by his concept of attaining ecstatic union with the One (henosis). Porphyry relates that Plotinus attained such a union four times during the years he knew him. This may be related to enlightenment, liberation, and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions.
The philosophy of Plotinus has always exerted a peculiar fascination upon those whose discontent with things as they are has led them to seek the realities behind what they took to be merely the appearances of the sense.
The philosophy of Plotinus: representative books from the Enneads, p. vii
Authentic human happiness for Plotinus consists of the true human identifying with that which is the best in the universe. Because happiness is beyond anything physical, Plotinus stresses the point that worldly fortune does not control true human happiness, and thus “… there exists no single human being that does not either potentially or effectively possess this thing we hold to constitute happiness.” (Enneads I.4.4) The issue of happiness is one of Plotinus’ greatest imprints on Western thought, as he is one of the first to introduce the idea that eudaimonia (happiness) is attainable only within consciousness.
The true human is an incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul, and superior to all things corporeal. It then follows that real human happiness is independent of the physical world. Real happiness is, instead, dependent on the metaphysical and authentic human being found in this highest capacity of Reason. “For man, and especially the Proficient, is not the Couplement of Soul and body: the proof is that man can be disengaged from the body and disdain its nominal goods.” (Enneads I.4.14) The human who has achieved happiness will not be bothered by sickness, discomfort, etc., as his focus is on the greatest things. Authentic human happiness is the utilization of the most authentically human capacity of contemplation. Even in daily, physical action, the flourishing human’s “… Act is determined by the higher phase of the Soul.” (Enneads III.4.6) Even in the most dramatic arguments Plotinus considers (if the Proficient is subject to extreme physical torture, for example), he concludes this only strengthens his claim of true happiness being metaphysical, as the truly happy human being would understand that which is being tortured is merely a body, not the conscious self, and happiness could persist.
Plotinus offers a comprehensive description of his conception of a person who has achieved eudaimonia. “The perfect life” involves a man who commands reason and contemplation. (Enneads I.4.4) A happy person will not sway between happy and sad, as many of Plotinus' contemporaries believed. Stoics, for example, question the ability of someone to be happy (presupposing happiness is contemplation) if they are mentally incapacitated or even asleep. Plotinus disregards this claim, as the soul and true human do not sleep or even exist in time, nor will a living human who has achieved eudaimonia suddenly stop using its greatest, most authentic capacity just because of the body’s discomfort in the physical realm. “… The Proficient’s will is set always and only inward.” (Enneads I.4.11)
Overall, happiness for Plotinus is "... a flight from this world's ways and things." (Theaet. 176) and a focus on the highest, i.e. Forms and the One.
Plotinus regarded happiness as living in an interior way (interiority or self-sufficiency), and this being the obverse of attachment to the objects of embodied desires.
Henosis is the word for mystical "oneness", "union", or "unity" in classical Greek. In Platonism, and especially neoplatonism, the goal of henosis is union with what is fundamental in reality: the One (τὸ Ἕν), the Source, or Monad.
As is specified in the writings of Plotinus on henology, one can reach a state of tabula rasa, a blank state where the individual may grasp or merge with The One.[note 1] This absolute simplicity means that the nous or the person is then dissolved, completely absorbed back into the Monad. Here within the Enneads of Plotinus the Monad can be referred to as the Good above the demiurge. The Monad or dunamis (force) is of one singular expression (the will or the one which is the good); all is contained in the Monad and the Monad is all (pantheism). All division is reconciled in the one; the final stage before reaching singularity, called duality (dyad), is completely reconciled in the Monad, Source or One (see monism). As the one source or substance of all things, the Monad is all encompassing. As infinite and indeterminate all is reconciled in the dunamis or one. It is the demiurge or second emanation that is the nous in Plotinus. It is the demiurge (creator, action, energy) or nous that "perceives" and therefore causes the force (potential or One) to manifest as energy, or the dyad called the material world. Nous as being; being and perception (intellect) manifest what is called soul (World Soul).
Henosis for Plotinus was defined in his works as a reversing of the ontological process of consciousness via meditation (in the Western mind to uncontemplate) toward no thought (Nous or demiurge) and no division (dyad) within the individual (being). Plotinus words his teachings to reconcile not only Plato with Aristotle but also various World religions that he had personal contact with during his various travels. Plotinus' works have an ascetic character in that they reject matter as an illusion (non-existent). Matter was strictly treated as immanent, with matter as essential to its being, having no true or transcendential character or essence, substance or ousia (οὐσία). This approach is called philosophical Idealism.
For several centuries after the Protestant Reformation, neoplatonism was condemned as a decadent and 'oriental' distortion of Platonism. In a famous 1929 essay, E. R. Dodds showed that key conceptions of neoplatonism could be traced from their origin in Plato's dialogues, through his immediate followers (e.g., Speusippus) and the neopythagoreans, to Plotinus and the neoplatonists. Thus Plotinus' philosophy was, he argued, 'not the starting-point of neoplatonism but its intellectual culmination.' Further research reinforced this view and by 1954 Merlan could say 'The present tendency is toward bridging rather than widening the gap separating Platonism from neoplatonism.'
Since the 1950s, the Tübingen School of Plato interpretation has argued that the so-called 'unwritten doctrines' of Plato debated by Aristotle and the Old Academy strongly resemble Plotinus's metaphysics. In this case, the neoplatonic reading of Plato would be, at least in this central area, historically justified. This implies that neoplatonism is less of an innovation than it appears without the recognition of Plato's unwritten doctrines. Advocates of the Tübingen School emphasize this advantage of their interpretation. They see Plotinus as advancing a tradition of thought begun by Plato himself. Plotinus's metaphysics, at least in broad outline, was therefore already familiar to the first generation of Plato's students. This confirms Plotinus' own view, for he considered himself not the inventor of a system but the faithful interpreter of Plato's doctrines.
At least two modern conferences within Hellenic philosophy fields of study have been held in order to address what Plotinus stated in his tract Against the Gnostics and to whom he was addressing it, in order to separate and clarify the events and persons involved in the origin of the term "Gnostic". From the dialogue, it appears that the word had an origin in the Platonic and Hellenistic tradition long before the group calling themselves "Gnostics"—or the group covered under the modern term "Gnosticism"—ever appeared. It would seem that this shift from Platonic to Gnostic usage has led many people to confusion. The strategy of sectarians taking Greek terms from philosophical contexts and re-applying them to religious contexts was popular in Christianity, the Cult of Isis and other ancient religious contexts including Hermetic ones (see Alexander of Abonutichus for an example).
According to A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus and the neoplatonists viewed Gnosticism[clarification needed] as a form of heresy or sectarianism to the Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy of the Mediterranean and Middle East.[note 2] Also according to Armstrong, Plotinus accused them of using senseless jargon and being overly dramatic and insolent in their distortion of Plato's ontology."[note 3] Armstrong argues that Plotinus attacks his opponents as untraditional, irrational and immoral[note 4][note 5] and arrogant.[note 6] Armstrong believed that Plotinus also attacks them as elitist and blasphemous to Plato for the Gnostics despising the material world and its maker.[note 7]
For decades, Armstrong's was the only translation available of Plotinus. For this reason, his claims were authoritative. However, a modern translation by Lloyd P. Gerson doesn't necessarily support all of Armstrong's views. Unlike Armstrong, Gerson didn't find Plotinus to be so vitriolic against the Gnostics. According to Gerson:
As Plotinus himself tells us, at the time of this treatise’s composition some of his friends were ‘attached’ to Gnostic doctrine, and he believed that this attachment was harmful. So he sets out here a number of objections and corrections. Some of these are directed at very specific tenets of Gnosticism, e.g. the introduction of a ‘new earth’ or a principle of ‘Wisdom’, but the general thrust of this treatise has a much broader scope. The Gnostics are very critical of the sensible universe and its contents, and as a Platonist, Plotinus must share this critical attitude to some extent. But here he makes his case that the proper understanding of the highest principles and emanation forces us to respect the sensible world as the best possible imitation of the intelligible world.
Plotinus seems to direct his attacks at a very specific sect of Gnostics, most notably a sect of Christian Gnostics that held anti-polytheistic and anti-daemon views, and that preached salvation was possible without struggle. At one point, Plotinus makes clear that his major grudge is the way Gnostics 'misused' Plato's teachings, and not their own teachings themselves:
There are no hard feelings if they tell us in which respects they intend to disagree with Plato [...] Rather, whatever strikes them as their own distinct views in comparison with the Greeks’, these views – as well as the views that contradict them – should be forthrightly set out on their own in a considerate and philosophical manner.
The neoplatonic movement (though Plotinus would have simply referred to himself as a philosopher of Plato) seems to be motivated by the desire of Plotinus to revive the pagan philosophical tradition.[note 8] Plotinus was not claiming to innovate with the Enneads, but to clarify aspects of the works of Plato that he considered misrepresented or misunderstood. Plotinus does not claim to be an innovator, but rather a communicator of a tradition. Plotinus referred to tradition as a way to interpret Plato's intentions. Because the teachings of Plato were for members of the academy rather than the general public, it was easy for outsiders to misunderstand Plato's meaning. However, Plotinus attempted to clarify how the philosophers of the academy had not arrived at the same conclusions (such as misotheism or dystheism of the creator God as an answer to the problem of evil) as the targets of his criticism.
Plotinus seems to be one of the first to have argued against the then popular notion of causal astrology. In the late tractate 2.3, "Are the stars causes?", Plotinus makes the argument that specific stars influencing one's fortune (a common Hellenistic theme) attributes irrationality to a perfect universe, and invites moral depravity. He does, however, claim the stars and planets are ensouled, as witnessed by their movement.
The emperor Julian the Apostate was deeply influenced by neoplatonism, as was Hypatia of Alexandria. Neoplatonism influenced many Christians as well, including Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. St. Augustine, though often referred to as a "Platonist," acquired his Platonist philosophy through the mediation of the Neoplatonist teachings of Plotinus.
To the Christian, the Other World was the Kingdom of Heaven, to be enjoyed after death; to the Platonist, it was the eternal world of ideas, the real world as opposed to that of illusory appearance. Christian theologians combined these points of view, and embodied much of the philosophy of Plotinus. [...] Plotinus, accordingly, is historically important as an influence in moulding the Christianity of the Middle Ages and of theology.
The Eastern Orthodox position on energy, for example, is often contrasted with the position of the Roman Catholic Church, and in part this is attributed to varying interpretations of Aristotle and Plotinus, either through Thomas Aquinas for the Roman Catholics or Gregory Palamas for the Orthodox Christians.
Neoplatonism and the ideas of Plotinus influenced medieval Islam as well, since the Mutazilite Abbasids fused Greek concepts into sponsored state texts, and found great influence amongst the Ismaili Shia and Persian philosophers as well, such as Muhammad al-Nasafi and Abu Yaqub Sijistani. By the 11th century, neoplatonism was adopted by the Fatimid state of Egypt, and taught by their da'i. Neoplatonism was brought to the Fatimid court by Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, although his teachings differed from Nasafi and Sijistani, who were more aligned with the original teachings of Plotinus. The teachings of Kirmani in turn influenced philosophers such as Nasir Khusraw of Persia.
As with Islam and Christianity, neoplatonism in general and Plotinus in particular influenced speculative thought. Notable thinkers expressing neoplatonist themes are Solomon ibn Gabirol (Latin: Avicebron) and Moses ben Maimon (Latin: Maimonides). As with Islam and Christianity, apophatic theology and the privative nature of evil are two prominent themes that such thinkers picked up from either Plotinus or his successors.
In the Renaissance the philosopher Marsilio Ficino set up an Academy under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici in Florence, mirroring that of Plato. His work was of great importance in reconciling the philosophy of Plato directly with Christianity. One of his most distinguished pupils was Pico della Mirandola, author of An Oration On the Dignity of Man.
In Great Britain, Plotinus was the cardinal influence on the 17th-century school of the Cambridge Platonists, and on numerous writers from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to W. B. Yeats and Kathleen Raine.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Ananda Coomaraswamy used the writing of Plotinus in their own texts as a superlative elaboration upon Indian monism, specifically Upanishadic and Advaita Vedantic thought. Coomaraswamy has compared Plotinus' teachings to the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta (advaita meaning "not two" or "non-dual"). M. Vasudevacharya says “Though Plotinus never managed to reach India, his method shows an affinity to the “method of negation” as taught in some of the Upanishads, such as the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, and also to the practice of yoga.
Advaita Vedanta and neoplatonism have been compared by J. F. Staal, Frederick Copleston, Aldo Magris and Mario Piantelli, Radhakrishnan, Gwen Griffith-Dickson, and John Y. Fenton.
Plotinus (born 205 CE, Lyco, or Lycopolis, Egypt?—died 270, Campania), ancient philosopher, the centre of an influential circle of intellectuals and men of letters in 3rd-century Rome, who is regarded by modern scholars as the founder of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy. [...] In his 28th year—he seems to have been rather a late developer—Plotinus felt an impulse to study philosophy and thus went to Alexandria. He attended the lectures of the most eminent professors in Alexandria at the time, which reduced him to a state of complete depression. In the end, a friend who understood what he wanted took him to hear the self-taught philosopher Ammonius Saccas. When he had heard Ammonius speak, Plotinus said, “This is the man I was looking for,” and stayed with him for 11 years. [...] At the end of his time with Ammonius, Plotinus joined the expedition of the Roman emperor Gordian III against Persia (242–243), with the intention of trying to learn something at first hand about the philosophies of the Persians and Indians. The expedition came to a disastrous end in Mesopotamia, however, when Gordian was murdered by the soldiers and Philip the Arabian was proclaimed emperor. Plotinus escaped with difficulty and made his way back to Antioch. From there he went to Rome, where he settled at the age of 40. [...] Plotinus's own thought shows some striking similarities to Indian philosophy, but he never actually made contact with Eastern sages because of the failure of the expedition. Though direct or indirect contact with Indians educated in their own religious-philosophical traditions may not have been impossible in 3rd-century Alexandria, the resemblances of the philosophy of Plotinus to Indian thought were more likely a natural development of the Greek tradition that he inherited.
Plotinus (204/5 – 270 C.E.), is generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism. He is one of the most influential philosophers in antiquity after Plato and Aristotle. The term ‘Neoplatonism’ is an invention of early 19th century European scholarship and indicates the penchant of historians for dividing ‘periods’ in history. In this case, the term was intended to indicate that Plotinus initiated a new phase in the development of the Platonic tradition. What this ‘newness’ amounted to, if anything, is controversial, largely because one's assessment of it depends upon one's assessment of what Platonism is. In fact, Plotinus (like all his successors) regarded himself simply as a Platonist, that is, as an expositor and defender of the philosophical position whose greatest exponent was Plato himself. [...] The three basic principles of Plotinus' metaphysics are called by him ‘the One’ (or, equivalently, ‘the Good’), Intellect, and Soul. These principles are both ultimate ontological realities and explanatory principles. Plotinus believed that they were recognized by Plato as such, as well as by the entire subsequent Platonic tradition. [...] Porphyry informs us that during the first ten years of his time in Rome, Plotinus lectured exclusively on the philosophy of Ammonius. During this time he also wrote nothing. Porphyry tells us that when he himself arrived in Rome in 263, the first 21 of Plotinus' treatises had already been written. The remainder of the 54 treatises constituting his Enneads were written in the last seven or eight years of his life.
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