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Neoplatonic philosopher; b. probably in Upper Egypt, a.d. 205; d. Rome, 270. Plotinus's race is not known, but by education and cultural background he was thoroughly Greek, as the evidence of his own writings shows. He came to Alexandria to study philosophy in

232, but could find no one to hold his interest until someone took him to hear Ammonius Saccas, a former Christian, with whom he remained 11 years. Fellow pupils of his were the two Origens, one a pagan Neoplatonist, and the other a future Christian theologian. Thus, Christianity was in some way associated with the very beginnings of neoplatonism, but too little is known of Ammonius Saccas to ascertain how much his Christian upbringing may have influenced his teaching and, indirectly, the works of his more famous pupil, Plotinus. At any rate, Ammonius seems to have reconciled the teachings of plato and aristotle, perhaps after the manner of the Middle Platonists (see platonism).

Character of Thought. In 243 Plotinus joined an expedition by the Emperor Gordian to the East, in the hope of making contact with Persian and Indian philosophers; but Gordian was murdered and Plotinus escaped to Antioch. He never made any contact with Eastern thought, and the balance of opinion among modern Neo-platonic scholars seems to find his entire system readily intelligible in terms of Greek philosophy, without postulating the introduction of Eastern elements. Plotinus came to Rome in 244 and taught philosophy until his death from a painful form of disease. From 254 onward he wrote, not a complete system, but tentative discussions of central points in his system, which have been rather arbitrarily arranged by his pupil porphyry into six groups of nine treatises called Enneads.

The thought of Plotinus is a final synthesis of various elements of greek philosophy. It expressly claims to follow the philosophy of Plato and merely to make explicit what was already implicit in his Dialogues and Letters (cf. 5.1.8), but it incorporates a great deal from Aristotle (especially through his great 2d-century commentator, Alexander of Aphrodisias), and from stoicism, Neo-Pythagoreanism, and Middle Platonism. In fact, it may be regarded as the culmination of a movement toward the conflation of the various Greek schools of thought that began in the 1st century b.c., and gradually developed over the 1st and 2d centuries a.d. Hence Plotinus is not in the literal sense a Platonist, but in the wider sense of tradition, influence, and general viewpoint he most certainly is.

Teaching. For Plotinus the first substantial principle or hypostasis is the One or the Good. The double title reflects the influence of both Neo-Pythagoreanism and Middle Platonism, and ultimately of Plato himself, whose preoccupations were both ethical and mathematical. This first principle is also termed God and is beyond Being (following the Republic 509B).

Emanation. Next, by a process of necessary emanation, comes nous or intellect, also referred to as divine, in which the whole world of ideas or forms is contained. It is on this level that being, which always entails some multiplicity, and life appear. From intellect, in turn, comes soul, which at its highest level belongs to the world of intellect. The world-soul forms and rules the material universe, and at its lower level, where it acts as a principle of life and growth, receives the name of nature, which is almost a distinct fourth hypostasis. Each of these principles has proceeded from the previous, and then turned back in contemplation of it in order to be fully constituted, according to a law of abiding, procession, and reversion. But the last principle is too weak to produce anything further than the forms immanent in bodies, beneath which exists only formless matter.

Matter. This material visible world is therefore good, as emanating ultimately from the Good, but unformed matter is evil, in the ontological sense of lacking form, definition, or shape (1.8.3). Moral evil consists in the assimilation of the soul to matter, with all that this entails in terms of deficiency. Evil is simply the complete lack of good (1.8.5; 2.4.16). Some critics have taken matter in Plotinus to be a separate principle of evil that almost introduces a Manichaean dualism into his system, but a careful reading of the relevant texts does not seem to justify this conclusion (e.g., 4.8.6, 1824).

Soul. Individual human souls are one with the universal soul, but with distinct identity, and descend by destiny into the body. Plotinus harmonizes the seemingly opposed views that the soul's entry into the body is somehow a fall, and yet at the same time for the benefit of the universe (4.8.5). But human souls are only expressions on the level of Soul of particular intellects within the sphere of intellect, and so man's highest and most real point never descends into union with the body. Each human soul has three levelsthe transcendent intellect, the intermediate soul, and the lowest soul that immediately gives life to the body. Whether one's life is to be virtuous or not depends upon the decision of the intermediate soul, either to return in contemplation to the sphere of intellect, or to devote itself to the needs and cravings of the body.

Contemplation. The process of return to contemplation is much as Plato described it, the most suitable souls being those of the musician, the lover, and the philosopher. The first two still need to learn detachment from particular images of beauty, but the last can go straight on to the study of mathematics and then dialecticthe complete knowledge of the world of forms within the unity of intellect. One is led to this state of intellectual contemplation by the practice of the virtuespractical wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. In their normal exercise these are civic virtues, but as specially directed toward detachment from the body they become higher virtues or purifications (1.2.3). The purified soul can rise still higher and be united to the One by the intellect, although only intermittently while it is still in this life (4.8.1). This union is beyond thought or expression in word; it is a unity of love in which the lover is no longer conscious of any distinction between him and the beloved. It is the simplicity of a single glance, and once attained all else seems worthless in comparison with it (6.7.3436).

Influence. The philosophy of Plotinus immediately became dominant in the Greco-Roman world of the later Empire. Its terminology was used in the definitions of the Trinity at Constantinople in a.d. 381 with this difference: that for Plotinus procession entails inferiority, whereas the Christian Trinity is a procession of equals. St. augustine found his inspiration in Plotinian thought, which led him out of the despair of manichaeism and skepticism. Perhaps most important of all, the psychology of Plotinus became, via the medium of proclus and pseudo-dionysius, the accepted framework of mystical theology, again with a difference. For Plotinus, the human soul at its highest level never descends into union with the body (a point upon which Proclus, following iamblichus, disagreed with him); thus it can by its own efforts return to the contemplative life of Intellect and even to union with the One, whereas, for the Christian mystic, the mind may be raised to the contemplation of God only by the freely bestowed grace or gift of union. However, the faculty of Nous was widely accepted as the nurtural vehicle of this grace by such authors as hugh of saint-victor and richard of saint-victor, St. bonaventure, J. tauler, and the Flemish and Spanish mystics.

See Also: neoplatonism; emanationism; monism.

Bibliography: Opera, ed, p. henry and h. r. schwyzer, 2 v. (Paris 195159); The Enneads, tr. s. mackenna (3d ed. New York 1962); The Enneads, tr. a. h. armstrong (Loeb Classical Library; London-New York-Cambridge, Mass. 1912). h. r. schwyzer, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 21:471592. a. h. armstrong, Plotinus (London 1953); The Architecture of the Intelligible Universe in the Philosophy of Plotinus (Cambridge, Eng. 1940). É. brÉhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, tr. j. thomas (Chicago 1958). m. p. de gandillac, La Sagesse de Plotin (Paris 1952). j. trouillard, La Procession Plotinienne (Paris 1956); La Purification Plotinienne (Paris 1956). p. merlan, From Platonism to Neo-platonism (2d ed. The Hague 1960); Monopsychism, Mysticism, Metaconsciousness (The Hague 1963). e. r. dodds et al., Les Sources de Plotin (Geneva 1960).

[w. h. o'neill]


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PLOTINUS (205270), founder of Neoplatonism. The Life of Plotinus, philosopher and mystic, was written by his pupil, Porphyry, who edited his master's lectures into six groups of nine treatises (Enneads ). Completed in 309, the work comprises ethics, physics, the human and world souls, the Three Principal Hypostases (the One, the Nous, the Soul), and logical categories.

Plotinus was born in Lycopolis, now Asyut, in Upper Egypt. He studied in from 232 to 243 under Ammonius in Alexandria where a revival of interest in metaphysics and human non-bodily destiny had been influenced by Philo, the Middle Platonists, and the Neo-Pythagoreans in contrast to stoicism, epicureanism, and skepticism. Longing to study Persian and Indian thought, Plotinus joined an expedition of the Emperor Gordian against Persia. When the emperor was assassinated by his soldiers, Plotinus escaped to Antioch, then to Rome, where in 244 he began to teach what he learned from Ammonius. After ten years he was urged by students to write the treatises that have come down to the present. They are responses to students' questions and to teachings of Plato, Aristotle, their commentators, the Middle Platonists, Stoics, Epicureans, and Gnostics. Although he claimed to be merely an interpreter of Plato, the need to respond to the objections of non-Platonic philosophers, and his openness to whatever truth he found in their philosophy resulted in Plotinianism, called Neoplatonism in the modern period. Some main students were Amelius, Porphyry, the Emperor Gallienus, his wife, and Eustochious, a physician who was with him when he died and who reported his last words: "I am trying to bring back the divine in myself to the divine in the All."

Convinced of transcendent truth in Platonic Forms, Plotinus nevertheless agreed with Aristotle on the priority of thinking to the Forms, as well as with the Middle Platonic position that Forms are Ideas within the Divine Mind, adding his own conviction that Forms are living intelligences. Opposing Aristotle, he insisted that complexity of thinking must be preceded by a One, totally simple. Unity is needed for anything to exist, and the degrees of unity establish a hierarchy of ontological value. Influenced by Numenius, Plotinus departed from Plato's oral teaching on the forms arising from unity imposed on the Indefinite Dyad and adopted a radical metaphysical Monism.

The Plotinian First Principle, called the One or the Good, wills itself to be as it is. Thus it is from itself, and its goodness diffuses itself. Everything is a natural overflow from the One. The One is "all things and none of them" (V.2.1). Plotinus does not assume the existence of the One but argues for it.

From the One, actively self-contemplating, proceeds intelligible matter; converting and contemplating the One it becomes Nous, the Primal Intellect, and produces Essential Soul. According to its capacity this Hypostasis, Soul, contemplates the Forms, and there proceeds World Soul or Nature from which proceeds the most limited and faintest trace of the One, namely, matter. Unable to contemplate, matter is given forms by World Soul, and the physical world comes to be. Here Plotinus makes use of Aristotle's matter-form theory but only for sub-human things. The existence of the Three Principal Hypostases in the Intelligible World is eternal.

Whence human souls? They come from Essential Soul. Their individual archetypes are forms within Nous (V.9.12).The individual soul's descent into its body is both a fall and a necessity for carrying the governance of Essential Soul in parts of the world. But the soul does not wholly descend. Its intuitive intellect, its true self, aspiring for union with the One, remains in the intelligible world. It may become satisfied with living on its two earthly levels, discursive reason and perception, by over-occupation with the sensible world. The soul is a continuum of levels, the undescended Intellect intuiting the One the reason deliberating on earthly affairs, the perception of sense objects, the vegetative soul managing bodily appetites and emotions. The human soul can live on any level. Plotinus urges a return to one's true self by philosophical reflection, discipline, and a moral life leading to contemplation of one's transcendent Source, the One (V.3.3; VI.7.36). Living on this level means no return to an earthly body after death.

Contemplation, as productive, is the linchpin of the Intelligible World and of the sensible world, as well as of the return of the human soul to its true undescended self. This is made explicit in Ennead III.8.8.

Plotinus's views on the human body were influenced by Plato's Phaedo and Timaeus. Against the Gnostics (possible Sethians), he affirms the material world's goodness and beauty (Enn. II.9.8); yet he calls matter Absolute Evil (I.8.10) only because it lacks all form (Timaeus 48e52d). But never existing alone, matter somehow is involved in physical evils and immoral human actions.

The Plotinian system is derived from the Classical Tradition, human reasoning, and everyday experience, not excluding religious experience. Through the Cappadocian fathers by way of the translations and writings of John Scottus Eriugena, Plotinus reached the medieval West. Augustine, freed from Manichaeism by reading treatises of Plotinus and Porphyry, also transmitted Plotinian concepts to Western philosophical theory. As founder of Neoplatonism, developed by Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus, Plotinus became the source of negative theology and mystical theology, which through the works of the fifth century theologian Dionysius the Areopagite, influenced Thomas Aquinas and the Rhineland mystics, Eckhart, Suso, and Tauler. Direct knowledge of the Enneads in the modern world came through the Latin translations of Marsilio Ficino (14331499). By its refusal to confuse myths and rituals with religious philosophy, the work of Plotinus led intellectual Christians to recognize how far reason could go toward establishing divinely revealed truths, as well as how limited reason is with respect to a historically revealed and achieved salvation that requires faith in addition to reason.

See Also



Armstrong, A. Hilary, and Robert A. Markus. Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy. London, 1960. The tension and interplay of revealed doctrine and philosophical ideas, a dialogue that continues.

Armstrong, A. Hilary, ed. The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., 1957, 1970.

Blumenthal, Henry J., and Robert A. Markus, eds. Neoplatonism and Early Christian Thought: Essays in Honor of A. H. Armstrong. London, 1981. Emphasis on Plotinus's dialogue with his contemporaries, the Neoplatonic background of Augustine, and the encounter between later Neoplatonism and the Christian tradition.

Dodds, E. R. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. Cambridge, 1965. Two different responses to the breakdown of classical culture and imperial government.

Gersh, S. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism: The Latin Tradition. 2 vols. Notre Dame, 1986.

Hadot, Pierre. Porphyre et Victorinus. Paris, 1970.

Harris, R. Baine, ed. The Significance of Neoplatonism. Albany, N.Y., 1976.

Harris, R. Baine, ed. Neoplatonism and Indian Thought. Albany, N.Y., 1982.

Lloyd, A. C. The Anatomy of Neoplatonism. Oxford, 1990.

O'Meara, Dominic J., ed. Neoplatonism and Christian Thought. Norfold, Va., 1981.

Smith, A. Porphyry's Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition. The Hague, 1974.

Wallis, Richard T. Neoplatonism. London, 1972. Discusses the interrelationships of all the Neoplatonic schools of thought.

Wallis, Richard T., and J. Bergman, eds. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. Albany, N.Y., 1982.

Whittaker, Thomas. The Neo-Platonists: A Study in the History of Hellenism. 4th ed. Hildesheim, 1928, 1968. Before Wallis's book, this was the only survey of Neoplatonism.

Mary T. Clark (1987 and 2005)


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


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.


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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c. 205 c.e.–270 c.e.


Studied For Many Years.

The philosopher Plotinus is best known as the founder of Neoplatonism—the study, interpretation, and progression of the work of the Greek philosopher Plato. Plotinus, like many philosophers who studied Plato, was not born in Greece, but in Lycopolis, Egypt, around 205 c.e. Not much is known about his early life other then he had an early thirst for knowledge that prompted him to leave Egypt in his twenties in order to learn more. At the age of 28 he returned to Egypt, this time to Alexandria, in search of a contemporary philosopher by the name of Ammonius Saccas. He attended lectures given by Saccas and eventually became a personal student of the philosopher. It was Saccas that introduced Plotinus to Plato, as well as to Persian and Indian philosophy, both of which would heavily influence his later interpretations of Plato. After eleven years as a student of Saccas, he felt the need to travel again, and his newfound love of Asian philosophy led him to join up with a Roman military expedition to Persia in 243. Unfortunately, Plotinus never made it to Persia, for the leader of the expedition, Roman emperor Gordian III, was lynched by his own troops and the expedition was abandoned. It took Plotinus two years to return from the expedition, and his next recorded appearance was in Rome in 245. By this time Plotinus was forty years old, and was ready to embark on his philosophical career.

Lectured in Rome.

Plotinus's first lectures did not relate to Plato directly but instead focused on the teachings of his old mentor Ammonius. According to a biography written by Plotinus's student Porphyry, Plotinus spoke all over Rome about Eastern philosophies in relation to Plato's work, but did not put down on paper any of his theories or interpretations for close to ten years. However, by 263, Plotinus had moved on to the direct study and interpretation of Plato's work and had written 21 treatises on philosophical issues. These writings, along with 33 other treatises which he would write over the last seven years of his life, would make up his most famous compilation of work, the Enneads. The 54 treatises in the Enneads cover a wide variety of subjects and were later arranged by Porphyry in the following order: Ennead I dealt with issues of ethics; Enneads II and III looked into natural philosophy and cosmology; Ennead IV delved heavily into psychology; Ennead V concerned itself with epistemological issues, especially those of the intellect; and Ennead VI covered a variety of topics from numbers to the issue of a higher being above the intellect. These writings are not so much musings on these topics as they are responses to questions that Plotinus received during his lectures about different areas of Plato's philosophy.

Suffered Ailment in Later Years.

During his later years, Plotinus also heavily studied the works of Aristotle, another pupil of Plato. While most of Plotinus's written work is original, many of his lecturers and many of the positions from which he starts his writings were taken directly from Aristotle's interpretation of Plato's work. By 268, Plotinus had retired from lecturing and his writing also seemed to stop completely. This has been attributed to an ailment he suffered, possibly leprosy, which disfigured him. It is unclear whether it was this ailment or simply old age that caused Plotinus's death in 270 at the age of 66. His final words that were reported were, "Try to bring back the God within you to the Divine in the universe." The Enneads which Porphyry edited were published thirty years after his death, and they are the main surviving work that produced Neoplatonism centuries later.


John Gregory, The Neoplatonists (London, England: Routledge, 1999).

J. M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967).

Andrew Smith, "Plotinus," in Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic Tradition. Ed. Graham Speake (London, England: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000): 1339–1340.


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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


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.



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205-270 c.e.

Neoplatonic philosopher


A Deep Thinker. Although a Roman, Plotinus was possibly born in Egypt, though he also seems to have been fluent in Greek. He became a philosopher in his late twenties, and even traveled east to improve his knowledge of philosophies in that region. Around 235 he settled in Rome. A teacher and social activist, he had a large following during his years in Rome. A late member of the Academy, in the period of thought known as “Neoplatonism,” Plotinus composed his teachings into a comprehensive work called the Enneads, or The Book of Nines when he was about fifty. Plotinus’s conception of reality held that all things proceeded outward from the “One” in concentric circles, like the ripples on water when a stone is thrown in a pool. These rings represent the various states of reality as they progress further and further from their origin. In the innermost ring, for example, is “Mind,” the next “Soul,” and finally, furthest out, “Nature,” that is, simple material reality with neither mind nor soul. Plotinus’s revival of Platonic thought remained the principal philosophical influence in late antiquity, until the emperor Justinian closed down the Athenian schools of philosophy in 529 c.e.


Émile Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, translated by Joseph Thomas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953).

Lloyd P. Gerson, Plotinus (London & New York: Routledge, 1994).

John Peter Kenney, Mystical Monotheism: A Study in Ancient Platonic Theology (Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press; Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1991).


views updated May 17 2018

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.


views updated Jun 11 2018

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.


views updated Jun 11 2018



Greek philosopher whose writings were posthumously published in six books called the Enneads. Plotinus studied at Alexandria and went on to teach in Rome. His writings reinterpreted the ideas of Plato, which led many later thinkers to misunderstand the original works. The ideas of Plotinus and his followers became known as Neoplatonism, and the early Christian Church adopted some of their ideas. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to found a model city to be called Platonopolis.