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Plotinus (204-270)

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Age of Death
65
Birth Place
Lycopolis, Egypt, Roman Empire
Death Place
Campania, Roman Empire
Gender
Male
IQ Score
170
Fields of Expertise
Philosophy
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Latin
Ocupation
Philosopher
Plotinus

I am striving to give back the Divine in myself to the Divine in the All.

Plotinus was a major Hellenistic philosopher who lived in Roman Egypt. In his philosophy, described in the Enneads, there are three principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. His teacher was Ammonius Saccas, who was of the Platonic tradition. Historians of the 19th century invented the term Neoplatonism and applied it to Plotinus and his philosophy, which was influential during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Much of the biographical information about Plotinus comes from Porphyry's preface to his edition of Plotinus' Enneads. His metaphysical writings 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.

Biography

Porphyry reported that Plotinus was 66 years old when he died in 270, the second year of the reign of the emperor Claudius II, thus giving us the year of his teacher's birth as around 205. Eunapius reported that Plotinus was born in the Deltaic Lycopolis in Egypt, which has led to speculations that he may have been either native Egyptian, Hellenized Egyptian, 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-seven, 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 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

After spending the next eleven years in Alexandria, he then decided, at the age of around 38, to investigate the philosophical teachings of the Persian philosophers and the Indian philosophers. In the pursuit of this endeavor 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, 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.

Later life

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.

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: "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 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.

Major ideas

One

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 En; 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."

Emanation by the 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 true human and happiness

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.

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

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.

Henosis

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. 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.

Relation with contemporary philosophy and religion

Plotinus's Relation to Plato

For several centuries after the Protestant Reformation, Neo-Platonism was condemned as a decadent and 'oriental' distortion of Platonism. In a famous 1929 essay, E. R. Dodds showed that key conceptions of Neo-Platonism could be traced from their origin in Plato's dialogues, through his immediate followers e.g., Speusippus and the Neo-Pythagoreans, to Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists. Thus Plotinus' philosophy was, he argued, 'not the starting-point of Neo-Platonism 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 Neo-Platonism.'

Since the 1950s, the Tübingen School of Plato interpretation has argued that the so-called 'unwritten doctrines' of Plato debated by Aristotle and the Early Academy strongly resemble Plotinus's metaphysics. In this case, the Neo-Platonic reading of Plato would be, at least in this central area, historically justified. This implies that Neo-Platonism 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.

Plotinus and the Gnostics

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 as a form of heresy or sectarianism to the Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy of the Mediterranean and Middle East. Also according to Armstrong, Plotinus accused them of using senseless jargon and being overly dramatic and insolent in their distortion of Plato's ontology." Armstrong argues that Plotinus attacks his opponents as untraditional, irrational and immoral and arrogant. Armstrong believed that Plotinus also attacks them as elitist and blasphemous to Plato for the Gnostics despising the material world and its maker.

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:

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. 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.

Against causal astrology

Plotinus seems to be one of the first to argue against the still 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.

Influence

Ancient world

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.

Christianity

Plotinus' philosophy had an influence on the development of Christian theology. In A History of Western Philosophy, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that:

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.

Islam

Neoplatonism and the ideas of Plotinus influenced medieval Islam as well, since the Sunni 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.

Judaism

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.

Renaissance

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.

Great Britain

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.

India

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.

The joint influence of Advaitin and Neoplatonic ideas on Ralph Waldo Emerson was considered by Dale Riepe in 1967.

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