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Plotinus

Plotinus

The Greek philosopher Plotinus (205-270) was the founder of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy, which became the most formidable rival of Christianity in the declining years of the ancient world.

Plotinus was born perhaps in the Egyptian town of Lyco, or Lycopolis. He turned to philosophy at the age of 28 and studied for 11 years with the eminent philosopher Ammonius Saccas at Alexandria.

In 243, desiring to learn about Eastern philosophy, Plotinus joined the expedition led by the Roman emperor Gordian III against the Persians. However, Gordian was murdered, and Plotinus was forced to flee to Antioch and then Rome.

Upon his arrival in Rome, Plotinus began to take students, and his influence in the city soon became great among both professional philosophers and other intellectuals. The emperor Gallienus held Plotinus in such high esteem that he considered founding a philosophers' city in Campania on the ruined site of an early Pythagorean settlement. Plotinus's habits of life were austere. He ate and slept only as much as necessary, and he never married. When he fell ill late in life, he left Rome and retired to Campania, where he died.

Plotinus did not begin to write until he was 50 years old. His work, the Enneads, was arranged and published some 30 years after his death by his most famous pupil, Porphyry. It consists of six groups of nine essays and deals with the whole range of ancient philosophical thought with the exception of political theory. Ennead 1 deals with ethics and esthetics; Enneads 2 and 3 deal with physics and cosmology; Ennead 4 treats psychology; and Enneads 5 and 6 deal with metaphysics, logic, and epistemology. The style of these essays is highly personal—sometimes brilliant, sometimes concise to the point of obscurity—but at all times fascinating and indicative of Plotinus's keen and sensitive mind.

His Philosophical System

At the heart of Plotinus's religiophilosophical system is a supreme divinity which is infinite, unitary, and good. It is the ultimate but not the direct cause of all that is, although it is under no compulsion or necessity to produce anything outside itself. Indeed, it is so perfect that it lacks nothing. It simply is. Between this supreme existent and the known world is the supersensual world, made up of three types of being.

The first, produced by an overflow or radiation of the perfect One, is the World-Mind, which is conscious of multiplicity but holds all together in eternal contemplation. It is equivalent to Aristotle's Unmoved Mover and the realm of Plato's Ideas, or Forms. It is also the organizational principle of the universe.

Next comes the World-Soul, produced by the World-Mind and less unitary in that it is further removed from the One and perceives things sequentially. It is therefore the cause of time and space, although it is superior to them since it is eternal.

Finally, there is Nature, the furthest removed from the One and the least creative of the three supersensual beings. Nature corresponds to the Stoic immanent World-Soul. The physical world is a projection of its dreamlike consciousness.

According to Plotinus, man's role in this universe is a unique one. Unlike other animal and plant life, he has within himself the possibility of using his intellect to aspire to unity with the supersensual world. Indeed, through strict discipline, it is even possible to achieve union with the One, but such occurrences are rare. Plotinus claimed to have reached that height of ecstasy himself four times.

The three types of supersensual beings correspond to three types of thought which men may engage in. The lowest, corresponding to the dreamlike consciousness of Nature, is unclear and undisciplined thought. The next, corresponding to the thought of the World-Soul, is discursive thought. The third, corresponding to the unitary thought of the World-Mind, is apprehension of the whole in a single experience of the mind.

Ecstasy of Oneness

The ecstasy which Plotinus claimed to have experienced was one step further. It was a complete union with God, the infinite, unitary, and beneficent One. This experience was impossible to describe. Since God is completely self-sufficient and has no need to be conscious of anything, so the man who reaches the height of ecstatic union with Him finds himself in a state of totally indescribable self-sufficiency and oneness. It is an experience equivalent to the mystical union with God described by Christian mystics.

Plotinus's teachings attracted many followers. The most noteworthy were Porphyry and lamblichus, who carried on his teachings with slightly different emphasis. Neoplatonism, through the development of the many schools it spawned, came to embrace a great number of mystical and superstitious beliefs from the East. It proved to be a resilient and attractive rival to Christianity, and even after Justinian closed the philosophical schools in 529, Neoplatonism remained influential in the development of thought during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Further Reading

Original texts and readable translations of the works of Plotinus are provided in A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus (1966). An excellent commentary is émile Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, translated by Joseph Thomas (1958). See also W. R. Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus (2 vols., 1928). Originally written in the late 19th century, Eduard Zeller's Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, 13th ed. revised by Wilhelm Nestle and translated by L.R. Palmer (1957), is still useful although slightly dated. Discussions of Neoplatonism in the context of the history of Greek literature can be found in standard works on that subject, notably Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature (1966). See also Thomas Whittaker, The Neo-Platonists (1928).

Additional Sources

Davison, William Theophilus, Mystics and poets, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977.

Plotinus, The essence of Plotinus: extracts from the six Enneads and Porphyry's Life of Plotinus, based on the translation by Stephen Mackenna: with an appendix giving some of the most important Platonic and Aristotelian sources on which Plotinus drew, and an annotated bibliography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976, 1934. □

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Plotinus

PLOTINUS

(b. ca. a.d. 204; d. southern Italy, a.d. 270)

philosophy.

Plotinus’ family is unknown, but his education and culture were entirely Greek. He may have been born in Egypt; he studied philosophy at Alexandria and later taught it at Rome, where he settled about 243. A biography by his disciple Porphyry is informative about his manner of teaching and contains a reliable chronological list of his writings. His works were published shortly after his death in the form of six books, called Enneads because each contained nine tracts.

The contribution of the Enneads to scientific thought is minimal. They represent a combination, which is for the most part original and which is the broad meaning of Neoplatonism, of personal mysticism and a special interpretation of Plato’s metaphysics. In this interpretation there is an ineffable One, which is known only by mystical union with it, and two lower levels of reality (“hypostases”): Intellect, which is also the realm of the Platonic Ideas; and then Soul, which also contains nature. Each hypostasis is a reflection or, as it is often called, an “emanation,” of the one before it. Until modern times Neoplatonism was taken as the accepted philosophical meaning of Plato. But Plato’s interest, as it is shown by the Timaeus, in natural science for its own sake, and above all in the application of mathematics to it, is not shared by Plotinus. And his Neoplatonic successors in Athens and Alexandria, whose learning was transmitted to the Arabs in the sixth century, turned to Aristotle rather than to Plotinus for their physics.

By historical standards—or the standards of Greek science—Plotinus’ model of scientific explanation was backward-looking. The reason was his metaphysical theory of nature, which was in effect a kind of panpsychism. Matter as such was unreal, so that the properties of nature fell under the same type of explanation as those of conscious behavior; there was no discontinuity in the chain of being. Such a type of explanation is represented by the concept of sympathies, which Plotinus used not merely to explain psychophysical interaction, such as one’s awareness of a pain in his foot, but also to explain external sense perception: there is no need, he argued, for a medium such as air or light between sense organ and object (Enneads IV, 5). Sympathy was a Stoic concept; but according to Stoics it operated by mechanical means—exactly the explanatory mechanism that Plotinus rejected.

In a more general and more indirect way Plotinus’ metaphysics may have helped later scientists to recognize the importance of mathematics. For Neoplatonists, light was the visible manifestation of goodness and of power; effects of causes could be described as their “reflections” and knowledge as “illumination.” If this belief is combined with the fact, well-known since Euclid, that the behavior of light seems to follow the laws of geometry, it can be thought both to prompt further study of optics and astronomy and to justify the place of geometry in nature. Thus for Robert Grosseteste light was not only an analogy of the divine light but also the first form possessed by a physical solid. But it must be borne in mind that Plotinus’ writings were unknown in the Middle Ages, and the chief intermediary would have been St. Augustine, who was not interested in mathematical science.

The Enneads were first printed in a Latin translation by Marsilio Ficino 1492 and the Greek text in 1580. They were then of interest to humanists and philosophers, although through Ficino the tract on astrology (Enneads II, 13) aroused wider controversy among savants. In it Plotinus argued that the relative positions of stars were not causes but signs of future events; this significance, which was in any case limited, depended on the mutual sympathy of the parts of the universe.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The standard ed. is Plotini Opera, P. Henry and H. R. Schwyzer. eds. (Paris-Brussels, 1951–1973). English translations are by S. MacKenna, 3rd ed., rev. by B. S. Page (London, 1962), and, with Greek text, by A. H. Armstrong, in Loeb Classical Library (London–Cambridge, Mass., 1966– ); a German translation with explanatory notes is by R. Harder, R. Beutler, and W. Theiler (Hamburg, 1956–1967).

Secondary sources are Porphyry’s “Life of Plotinus,” included in all above eds.; Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, A. H. Armstrong, ed. (Cambridge, 1967), chs. 12–16; and A. C. Crombie, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science 1100–1700 (Oxford, 1953), chs. 5,6.

A. C. Lloyd

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Plotinus

Plotinus

Plotinus (c. 204270) was the leading exponent of Neoplatonic thinking, which blended Plato's philosophy with religious mysticism. Born in Egypt, he grew up in Alexandria (located on the central coast of Egypt, just west of the Nile Delta) and was educated in the classics. His own teachings quickly gained notoriety, especially in Rome. He did not begin to write until late in life, and his lectures were edited by his student, Porphyry, for the Enneads.

Plotinus was attracted to the Platonic metaphysics of transcendence; that is, the location of reality outside of this physical, sensory world, in a suprarational, spiritual world of the "Good." Plotinus used religious/mystical phrases to refer to this reality, such as "the One," "All-Transcending," "Author at once of Being," "The First," and the "Indefinable." His religious views have typically been described as pantheistic, which holds that the divine principle is present in and throughout the entire universe, although a dualistic representation (where the divine and the created universe are seen as separate) could also be supported, given the subtleties of Neoplatonic thought.

Plotinus saw life in the universe as a double movementfirst as an emanation from the source (as light emanates from the sun), and then a return back to the divine. The human soul lives in exile on this earth, and desires the return home. One can achieve "home" in this life through a mystical union with God. Porhyry relates that his master had achieved a mystic state quite often in his life, and that this experience could not be given a completely rational account. One can also reach home through reincarnation (another Platonic influence) where one can achieve higher forms of life until eventually passing out of the cycle of birth and death. This "emancipation of souls" is accomplished only by a "purification" whereby the soul avoids attachments to the body, in particular, lusts and sensual desires and impulses.

Neoplatonism was one of the chief ways in which the Platonic philosophy was introduced to Medieval thinkers like Augustine, and therefore had major impact on the Christian world.

See also: Philosophy, Western; Plato

Bibliography

O'Daly, J. P., Plotinus' Philosophy of The Self. Shannon, Ireland: Irish University Press, 1973.

Plato. The Republic. In Benjamin Jowett trans., The Dialogues of Plato. New York: Random House, 1937.

Plotinus. Enneads. In G. H. Turnbull trans., The Essence of Plotinus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1934.

WILLIAM COONEY

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Plotinus

Plotinus (plōtī´nəs), 205–270, Neoplatonist philosopher. A native of Egypt, perhaps of Roman descent, he went to Alexandria c.232 to devote himself to philosophy. For 10 years he was a dedicated disciple of Ammonius Saccas. To study the philosophies of India and Persia, Plotinus in 242 traveled in the Eastern expedition of Gordian III, the Roman emperor. From 244 he lived in Rome, where his school attracted wide attention. Many followed his advice and example; they gave their wealth to those in need and turned to contemplative thought. However, Plotinus never taught or practiced extreme asceticism. His pupil Porphyry wrote a biography of him and was responsible for the arrangement of his works, which were written after 253, into six Enneads, or groups of nine treatises.

The theories of Plotinus were fundamentally those of Plato but included elements of other Greek philosophies as well, all drawn together into an original system that rapidly won followers and in time had considerable influence on the thinkers of the Christian Church, although Plotinus himself opposed Christianity. His development of the idea of emanation was fuller than that found in the teachings of the Stoics and of Philo. This cosmological conception is the chief point of Neoplatonism, which received its form from Plotinus. All else, even his ethics, depends upon this view of the world.

Among the virtues set forth by Plotinus are political or social virtues, concerning a human being's relations to others; the higher purifying virtues, needed to help the soul become like God by removing from it as much as possible that which is of the senses; and the still higher deifying or enlightening virtures, through the exercise of which a human being may attain to the fulfillment of his or her true nature. But unification with the highest, with God, is not possible through thought. It is attained only when the soul, in an ecstatic state, loses the restraint of the body and has for a time an immediate knowledge of God (see mysticism).

See The Essence of Plotinus (extracts from the six Enneads and Porphyry's life of Plotinus, comp. by G. H. Turnbull, 1934); E. Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus (tr. 1958); J. M. Rist, Plotinus (1967); G. J. O'Daly, Plotinus' Philosophy of the Self (1972).

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Plotinus

Plotinus (c.205–70). Founder of Neoplatonism and mystic. His works were published after his death by his pupil Porphyry in six ‘Enneads’ (Groups of Nine). The major theme of Plotinus' thought is the relation of the One (to hen) or the Good at the summit of the chain of beings to the realm of multiplicity. Beneath the undifferentiated One is the intelligible world of ideas (nous) and, beneath it, the World Soul (psyche). This latter is the creator and orderer of the material world. The aim of the Plotinian scheme is to attain knowledge of the One by a return to it through contemplation.

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Plotinus

Plotinus (205–270) Ancient philosopher, the founder of Neoplatonism. In c.244, he opened a school in Rome. In essence, Plotinus conceived of the universe as a hierarchy proceeding from matter, through soul and reason, to God. God was pure existence, without form. His pupil and biographer, Porphyry, compiled and edited Plotinus' writings into six books of nine chapters each, known as the Enneads.

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Plotinus

Plotinus (c.205–70), philosopher, probably of Roman descent. He was the founder and leading exponent of Neoplatonism; his writings were published after his death by his pupil Porphyry.

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Plotinus

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