Plotinus († 270 on an estate in Campania) was an ancient philosopher. He was the founder and most famous representative of Neoplatonism. He received his education in Alexandria under Ammonios Sakkas, from whom he received decisive impulses. From 244 he lived in Rome, where he founded a school of philosophy, which he directed until his fatal illness. He taught and wrote in Greek; his writings were intended for the circle of students and were not made known to a wider public until after his death. In circles of the political ruling class of the Roman Empire he achieved high reputation.
Plotinus did not regard himself as the discoverer and proclaimer of a new truth, but as a faithful interpreter of Plato”s teaching, which in principle, he was convinced, already contained all essential knowledge. From his point of view it only needed a correct interpretation of some disputed details and the exposition and justification of certain consequences from its statements. As a representative of an idealistic monism, Plotinus traced all phenomena and processes back to a single immaterial basic principle. The goal of his philosophical efforts consisted in the approach to the “One”, the basic principle of the whole reality, up to the experience of the union with the One. As a prerequisite for this, he regarded a consistently philosophical way of life, which he considered more important than discursive philosophizing.
Plotinus” writings do not contain any biographically usable information. The philosopher”s biography, written by his student Porphyrios about three decades after Plotinus” death, is the only contemporary source; the later tradition is based on it. This biography contains numerous anecdotes. It is considered credible by scholars, especially for the period between 263 and 268, which Porphyrios reports as an eyewitness.
Youth and study time
The year of birth 205 has been calculated on the basis of the data of Porphyrios. Plotinus kept his birthday secret, because he did not wish to celebrate his birthday; he also never said anything about his origin, because he did not consider such information worth communicating. The late antique Neoplatonist Proclus assumed Egyptian descent; this has also been suspected in modern research. Eunapios mentions Lyko as his birthplace, which probably means Lykonpolis, today”s Asyut. However, the credibility of this information is very doubtful. Porphyrios only reports that Plotinus told him that he was suckled by his nurse until he was eight years old, although he already went to school.
Plotinus did not begin his philosophical education until 232 in Alexandria. Since none of the famous teachers there appealed to him, a friend took him to the Platonist Ammonios Sakkas. Already Ammonios” first lecture, which he heard, pleased him so much that he joined him immediately. For eleven years, until the end of his education, Plotinus remained with Ammonios, whose teaching shaped his philosophical convictions. Then he left Alexandria to join the army of Emperor Gordian III, which set out from Antioch in 243 on a campaign against the Persian Sasanid Empire. His intention was to familiarize himself with Persian and Indian philosophy in the Orient. However, after the Romans suffered a defeat at the Battle of Mesiche and the emperor died in early 244, Plotinus was forced to flee to Antioch. From there he soon went to Rome, where he settled permanently.
Teaching in Rome
In Rome, Plotinus gave philosophical instruction to an initially small number of students. At first, he adhered to an agreement he had made with two other students of Ammonios, Origen and Herennios. The three had agreed not to publish anything they had heard in their late teacher”s lectures. The question of the exact content and purpose of this agreement of secrecy has been the subject of intense debate among scholars. When first Herennios and later Origen broke the agreement, Plotinus also no longer felt bound by it. 253
Plotinus emphasized interaction with his listeners during the lessons and encouraged interposed questions. His lectures were therefore not mere lecturing, but rather had a discussion character. The problems that arose in the course of these discussions gave him and his students cause to compose individual writings. From his interpretation and further development of the teachings of Ammonios arose a philosophical system of special character, Neoplatonism. The critical discussion of the doctrines of the Middle Platonists and Peripatetics formed an important part of the teaching.
Outstanding students of Plotinus were Amelios Gentilianos (from 246) and Porphyrios (from 263). Porphyrios had previously studied in Athens with the famous Platonist Longinos. There were differences in doctrine between the Neoplatonic school of Plotinus and the Middle Platonic school of Longinos, which gave rise to a controversial literature and a lively exchange of opinions. Plotinus did not take Longinos seriously; he did not consider him a philosopher, but a philologist. In the circles of distinguished Romans, Neoplatonism found favor. Plotinus” listeners included a number of senators, including Rogatianus, Marcellus Or(r)ontius, and Sabinillus (ordinary consul in 266 along with the emperor), as well as the wealthy philosopher Castricius Firmus, a particularly dedicated Neoplatonist. Women were also enthusiastic about Neoplatonism and became zealous followers of Plotinus.
Philosophical way of life and social action
The emperor Gallienus, who ruled as sole ruler from 260 and was open to cultural concerns, and his wife Salonina appreciated and supported Plotinus. Under the impression of the imperial favor, Plotinus conceived the plan of a new settlement of an abandoned city in Campania. It was to be governed according to the laws drafted by Plato and called Platonopolis. He himself wanted to move there with his students. Porphyrios reports that, thanks to Plotinus” influence with the emperor, this plan had a good chance of being realized, but failed due to court intrigues.
Plotinus was respected among the political elite not only as a teacher of philosophy. In cases of dispute, he was often chosen as an arbitrator. Before their deaths, many noble Romans appointed him guardian of their children who were still minors. His house was therefore full of adolescents of both sexes, whose property he conscientiously administered. In his educational work, he benefited from his extraordinary knowledge of human nature, praised by Porphyrios.
As was customary among the ancient philosophers, Plotinus understood philosophy not as a non-binding preoccupation with intellectual constructs, but as an ideal way of life that was to be consistently realized in everyday life. For him, this included an ascetic diet, little sleep, and unrelenting concentration on one”s own mind in all activities. The striving for knowledge was for him at the same time a religious striving for salvation. His religious life, however, did not take place within the framework of communal activity according to the traditional customs of a cult, but formed a strictly private sphere. He did not participate in the traditional religious festivals, rites and sacrifices. Well known is his programmatic statement that he did not participate in worship, because “those (the gods) must come to me, not I to them.” His attention was directed to the “formless” deity with whom he strove to unite. Porphyrios writes that this union was granted to Plotinus four times in the five years they spent together. Such an experience is called by the Greek technical term “henosis” (union, becoming one).
Last years of life
In 268, Porphyrios moved to Sicily on Plotinus” advice to cure his melancholy. In the same year, Emperor Gallienus was assassinated. Soon after, Amelios also left the school and departed for Syria. Plotinus, who was seriously ill, had to stop teaching. Since his illness – probably leprosy or tuberculosis – was associated with disgusting symptoms, most students now avoided dealing with him. In 269 he moved to Campania to the estate of his already deceased student Zethos, from where he never returned. The physician Eustochios from Alexandria, who belonged to the circle of students, took over the medical care of the seriously ill. Castricius Firmus had the philosopher supplied with food from his landed estate located near Minturnae.
When Plotinus died in 270, Porphyrios was still in Sicily, but he was later informed of the events by Eustochios. His account of the philosopher”s death is famous. He transmits the last words of the dying man, who said that his aim was “to raise the divine in us to the divine in the universe”. Then a snake had crawled under his bed and slipped into a hole in the wall. In this way Porphyrios alludes to the serpent of the soul. The soul escaping at death used to be imagined in the form of a bird or a snake.
As Porphyrios reports, Plotinus refused to be portrayed by a painter or sculptor, because his body, as a material object, was only a transient image of a spiritual reality and as such not worth seeing; to make an image of this image was absurd. Plotinus thus placed himself in the tradition of Platonic criticism of the visual arts. Amelios, however, induced the painter Carterius to paint a picture of Plotinus from memory, which, in Porphyrios” judgment, turned out to be true to life.
Various attempts have been made to identify Plotinus with philosophers depicted in surviving works of ancient sculpture without names. Among these are five marble heads, three of which were found in Ostia Antica. Four of them are copies of the same type, the fifth shows a different person. According to current research, however, they date from the time of the Severans and therefore cannot be considered chronologically. Because of the assumption that they were Plotinus, they were often depicted as Plotinus busts in the 20th century. Therefore, the erroneous opinion was widespread that Plotin”s appearance was known.
On a sarcophagus in the Museo Gregoriano Profano, part of the Vatican Museums, a philosopher can be seen in a group that may be Plotinus, but this assumption is speculative.
Plotinus” literary activity did not begin until 253
As an author, Plotinus concentrated on the content of his expositions and did not strive for a literary-stylistic elaboration. He did use stylistic devices, but only to illuminate the philosophical trains of thought, not for the sake of pleasing expression. He was indifferent to spelling. Although his teaching formed a coherent system of thought, he never attempted to give an overall systematic exposition, but only discussed individual topics and problems. When he had clarified a question for himself, he wrote down his thoughts fluently in one go; he never read through what he had written in order to correct and revise it. Because of his weak eyesight, reading was difficult for him. Therefore, he entrusted Porphyrios with the task of collecting, arranging, and publishing his writings. It was not until about three decades after Plotinus” death that Porphyrios fulfilled this commission, when he himself was already approaching the end of his life.
As editor, Porphyrios decided against a chronological order; he preferred a grouping according to content. For this purpose, he divided Plotinus” legacy into 54 individual writings and formed six groups of nine writings each. According to this order, Plotinus” collected works are known as Enneads – “Nines”, “Groups of Nines”. Thanks to the conscientious editing of Porphyrios, the complete works of Plotinus have been preserved in their entirety and even a chronological grouping has survived. In his biography of Plotinus, which he prefixed to the collection, Porphyrios enumerates the writings and assigns them to the author”s creative periods. Since the titles of the individual writings do not come from Plotinus, they are not mentioned in the citations.
Plotinus did not consider himself an innovator and inventor of a novel system. Rather, he attached importance to being a faithful follower of Plato”s teachings. In his connection to Plato, he relied above all on his dialogue Parmenides. He was convinced that his philosophy was consistently derived from Plato”s expositions, that it was an authentic interpretation and unbroken continuation of the original Platonism, and that he formulated explicitly what was expressed in Plato in an “undeveloped” way. The validity of this view has long been disputed among historians of philosophy. Only since the late 18th century has Neo-Platonism been referred to as such and distinguished from the older tradition of Platonic interpretation.
In support of his preference for Platonism, Plotinus claimed that Plato had spoken clearly and at length and that his expositions were masterly, whereas the Presocratics had contented themselves with obscure hints. Moreover, he claimed that Plato was the only one who recognized the absolute transcendence of the highest principle. He dealt with the ideas of other schools of philosophers – the Stoics and the Peripatetics. He took over from them approaches which seemed to him compatible with Platonism, other ideas he rejected. Unplatonic ideas from oriental religious movements (Gnosis, Zoroastrianism, Christianity) he emphatically fought, either by formulating a written rebuttal or by commissioning a student to refute them. Unlike other Platonists, he never invoked Oriental wisdom, but only the Greek tradition.
Ontology and Cosmology
Fundamental for Plotinus is the division of the entire variety of things into a superior, purely spiritual (intelligible) world (kósmos noētós) and a subordinate, sensually perceptible world (kósmos aisthētós). The subordinate relation of these two realms is the most striking expression of the hierarchically graded ontological order of the total reality. In the detailed elaboration of this system of order, Plotinus proceeds from relevant indications of Plato. The part of the total reality inaccessible to the senses is divided according to his teachings into three areas: the One, the absolute, supra-individual spirit (nous or nus) together with the Platonic ideas and the soul (world soul and other souls). The sensually perceptible world is the result of an influence from the spiritual world on the formless primeval matter, in which thereby the forms of the different sense objects appear.
The starting point for the existence of the distinguishable, which is assigned to the principle of plurality or multiplicity, must, according to Plotinus” conviction, necessarily be something simple, undifferentiated. Cognition progresses from the more complex to the more simple. Everything composite and manifold can be traced back to something simpler. The simpler is superior to the more complex in the sense that it forms the cause of its existence. Therefore the simpler is the superior, because it does not need the more complex in any way, while vice versa the more complex cannot exist without the more simple. Compared with the simple, the complex is always deficient. Ultimately, a mental progression from the more complex to the simpler must lead to the simplest. The simplest can no longer be traceable to anything else; here one must “stop”, otherwise an infinite regress (progress into the endless) would occur. Thus, with the simplest the highest possible area of the total reality is reached. Plotinus calls this par excellence simple “the one” (Greek τὸ ἓν to hen). It can contain no distinction, neither a duality nor any other plurality, as the outermost contrast to the differentiated and manifold. In this context, Plotinus recalls that the Pythagoreans, referring to the name of the god Apollo, also called the One the “non-many.” They also wanted to justify the idea of divine unity with an etymology (however wrong) of the name of the god, deriving “Apollo” from a, “not”, and polloí, “many”. Since Plotinus attributes everything that exists spiritually or physically to the One without exception, his philosophy is monistic.
As the origin and reason of existence of all things, the One is the highest that there can be. In a religious terminology the role of the supreme deity would be assigned to it factually. However, such a determination would already be an inappropriate differentiation, because every determination implies a difference and thus a non-unity. For this reason, it is also inadmissible to ascribe to the One characteristics that are considered divine, such as to identify it with the good or with being. Rather, the One is neither being nor non-being, but super-being, and neither good nor bad, but beyond such conceptuality. From the point of view of the thinker, it appears as something higher, desirable, and therefore good, but for itself it is not good. One cannot even truthfully state that the One “is,” for being as the opposite of non-being or perfect being as opposed to diminished being already presupposes a distinction and thus something subordinate to the One. Strictly speaking, also the determination of the One as “One”, as simple or unitary in the sense of an opposition to plurality is a misjudgment of its true, counter-sentence-free nature, about which paradoxically no true statement is possible at all. The One is “unspeakable” (árrhēton). When Plotinus nevertheless makes statements about the One, he is wont to provide such statements with qualifications such as “as it were,” “to some extent” (hoíon). Thus he makes clear that these terms are not meant here in their ordinary meaning, but are only meant to indicate something that he can only inadequately express.
The One thus remains principally withdrawn from an intellectual, discursive comprehension. Nevertheless, according to Plotinus reason forces the acceptance of the One. Moreover, he thinks that there is a supra-reasonable access to the One, since it can be experienced. This becomes possible when one turns inward and leaves behind not only the sensual, but also everything spiritual. According to Porphyrios, Plotinus claimed such a process of approaching the One and uniting with it as a repeated experience for himself. Because of his assertion that there is an experience of a supreme reality that transcends thought, Plotinus is often called a mystic. It should be noted, however, that this term (in the modern sense) did not exist at that time and that no such self-designation of Plotinus has survived.
In the ontological hierarchy, the One is immediately followed by the Nous (spirit, intellect), an absolute, transcendent, supra-individual instance. The Nous emerges from the One in the sense of a supra-temporal causality. What is meant here is not a bringing forth as creating in the sense of a willful doing of the One, but a natural necessity. The nous as a certain something flows out of the undifferentiated One (emanation), but without the source itself being affected by it and changing somehow. Thus, at the same time, since One and Nous are two things, the principle of twoness and difference arises. Activity words like coming forth, overflowing or arising, which point to a becoming, are not to be understood literally in this context, however, but only metaphorically. The “coming forth” (próhodos) is not to be understood as a temporal process in the sense of a beginning of existence at a certain time or in a certain period of time. Plotinus means by it only that what comes forth owes its existence to that from which it comes forth, and is therefore subordinate to it. Plotinus illustrates the emanation with the image of the sun or also of a source. From the sun light rays go out incessantly, without it thereby (according to the conception of that time) suffers a loss or other change.
In contrast to the One, the Nous belongs to the things to which certain characteristics can be assigned; in particular it can be called being. It forms the supreme realm of “beingness” or substance (ousia). In Neoplatonism, being in relation to a thing is not simply present or absent, but is graded: There is a being in the full sense and a limited or diminished, more or less “inauthentic” or shadowy being. Only the nous as the uppermost part of the realm of being is entitled to being without restriction in the full and proper sense. Therefore, for Plotinus, the sphere of mind and thought is identical with that of actual being; its essential characteristics of being and thinking coincide. “The same is thinking and being” is a principle of the pre-Socratics Parmenides quoted by Plotinus.
Plotinus combines the principle that being (in the proper sense) is thinking with Plato”s doctrine of ideas. If the human intellect does not turn to the sensually perceptible individual things in their particularity, but to the Platonic ideas on which they are based, then it enters the world of thought, the realm of the nous. There he encounters the beautiful and the good, insofar as it does not show itself in always deficient individual objects, but exists in and for itself in its perfection. When the contents of thought are grasped in their existence in and for themselves as Platonic ideas, they are thought. Such thinking is not a discursive inference, but an immediate mental grasping of what is thought. The thought is nowhere else to be found than in the world of thought. The objects of thought are the contents of the nous, which consists of nothing but the totality of Platonic ideas.
Thus Plotinus arrives at his famous doctrine, characteristic for his philosophy: The ideas exist only within the nous. Some middle Platonists had understood the ideas as something produced by the nous and thus subordinated to it and therefore located below the nous. Plotinus contradicts this with the argument that in this case the nous would be empty. Emptiness, however, would contradict its nature as a self-thinking spirit. If it had no content of its own, it could not think itself. Rather, in order to be able to think at all, it would have to turn to something subordinated to it, to the objects of thought produced by itself. Then he would be dependent on his own products with respect to his being, which consists in thinking. Thus he would be at the mercy of uncertainty and deception, since he would not have immediate access to the ideas themselves, but only to images of them which he would have to produce within himself. Plotinus considers this idea absurd. Like Aristotle, he is convinced that the nous thinks itself and that its thinking is exclusively related to itself. Unlike Aristotle, however, he connects this conviction with the doctrine of the objective reality of the Platonic ideas.
When Plotinus speaks of the nous, the term “thinking” used in this context does not mean a merely subjective mental activity. There is no analogy between the thinking of the nous and the idea of a human individual generating thoughts in the subjective act of thinking. Rather, the nous is an objective reality, a world of thought that exists independently of the thinking individuals and to which the thinking individuals have access. The individual turned towards this objective reality does not produce thoughts of his own, but seizes its contents by his participation in the realm of the spirit. In this grasping his individual thinking consists.
The nous, in so far as it is nothing but pure spirit, is unitary in its essence. Since it comprises a multiplicity of ideas, it is at the same time a multiplicity. Because only the ideas have the actual being, the nous is at the same time the totality of the really existing things. Outside of it there is only inauthentic, more or less diminished being. Plotinus considers the number of the objects of thought, which are the contents of the nous, as finite, since from his point of view an infinite number as the greatest possible separation, isolation and distance from the unity would be an impoverishment of the individual objects, which is not compatible with the perfection of the nous. He does not consider the self-consciousness of the nous as reflexive, since it cannot thematize itself. If the mind were to think that it thinks, this fact would in turn be the subject of thought, leading into an infinite regress. Rather, Plotinus assumes a compositionless unity and identity of the thinker, the thing thought, and the act of thinking. A structuring is only necessary from the perspective of a discursively comprehending observer.
While the One is not good for itself, but appears as good only from the perspective of an Other standing under it, the Nous is good in and for itself, because it exhibits the highest degree of perfection that can be proper to a being.
Whether Plotinus accepted ideas of the individual and thus granted the individual as such a presence in the nous is disputed in research. It is predominantly believed that he did so.
The nous is followed by the next lower hypostasis (level of reality), the realm of the soul. Also this area is not sensually perceptible. The soulish forms the lowest area of the purely spiritual world; directly under it the sphere of the sense objects begins. Like the Nous from the One, the spiritual emerges from the Nous by emanation; it is a self-development of the spirit outwardly. Again, emanation is to be understood only as a metaphor for an ontological relation of dependence; it is not an emergence in time. The soul exists like everything spiritual in the eternity, it is uncreated and imperishable. It relates to the nous like matter to the form.
Following the Platonic tradition, Plotinus argues for the incorporeality of the soul, which is denied by the Stoics. He also opposes the view that the soul is a mere harmony, as some Pythagoreans believed, or only the entelechy of the body, as Aristotle thought. For him, the soul is rather an unchanging substance that moves by its own power and does not need a body. This is also true for the souls of animals and plants.
The soul is the organizing principle and the animating instance of the world. Plotinus considers the soul as a unity, under this aspect he calls it the “total soul” (hē hólē psychḗ). The total soul appears on the one hand as world soul, on the other hand as the multiplicity of the souls of the celestial bodies and the different earthly living beings. The world-soul animates the whole cosmos, the single soul a certain body, with which it has connected itself. There is only one, uniform soul substance. Therefore, the individual souls are not distinguished by special characteristics, but each individual soul is identical with the world soul and with every other individual soul with regard to its essence. When Plotinus speaks of “the soul”, therefore any soul can be meant.
However, the world soul differs from a human soul in that the body of the world soul is the eternal cosmos and the body of the human soul is a transient human body. The individual souls are all closely connected with each other and with the world soul, since they form a unity by nature. However, their consubstantiality with the world soul does not mean that they are components of it; the individuality of the souls is always preserved. Despite the equality of essence of the individual souls, differences of rank exist between them, since they realize their common spiritual nature to different degrees. Besides the changing conditions of existence of the individual souls, which influence their possibilities of development differently, there are also natural, not time-conditioned differences of rank.
As a production of the nous, the soul has a share in it, which is expressed in the fact that it is able to think and to perceive the ideas. It “becomes”, as it were, that which it seeks out in each case. By “appropriation” (oikeíōsis) it unites itself with it. When she turns to the Nous and resides in its realm, she herself is Nous. She reaches the One by becoming one with it. But she does not always turn to higher things. It stands at the border between the spiritual and the sensual world and so, within the framework of the world order, it is also assigned tasks which refer to the sphere of the material, sensually perceptible things lying below it. As world soul it is the creator and controller of the physical cosmos. As a single soul it is endowed with the same creative abilities as the world soul, and through its unity with the world soul it is co-creator; seen in this way every single soul creates the cosmos.
There is an important difference between the world soul and the souls on earth with regard to their functions in that the world soul always remains in the spiritual world and from there effortlessly animates and directs the universe, while the souls on earth have descended into the physical world. The world soul is in a state of unimpaired bliss, since it does not leave its home. It orients itself exclusively to the Nous. On earth, however, the souls are exposed to dangers and are subject to many impairments, depending on their circumstances there and the nature of their respective bodies.
The material world of the sense objects is produced and animated by “the soul” – the world soul and the other souls as co-creators. In doing so, the soul relies on its connectedness with the Nous, who co-operates. Since Plotinus, like numerous Platonists, does not understand the creation report in Plato”s dialogue Timaios literally, but in a figurative sense, he does not assume a creation in time for the physical world as well as for the spiritual one. The earth as center of the world and the celestial bodies exist eternally, as well as the soul, to whose natural destiny it belongs to bring forth the physical eternally. Since the soul has access on the one hand to the idea world of the Nous, on the other hand to the material sphere, it is the mediator, which provides the material with a share in the spiritual. It brings the ideas into the formless primeval matter and creates thereby the bodies, whose existence is based on the fact that the matter is given form. The visible forms, to which the soul forms the matter, are images of the ideas. For example, physical beauty comes about through the soul shaping a piece of matter in such a way that it receives a share in the spiritually beautiful.
The process of creation takes place in such a way that the soul first strings together the Platonic ideas discursively without picturing them. It accomplishes this on the highest level of its creative activity in the physical world. On the next lower level, its imagination (phantasía) is active, which makes immaterial images out of the ideas, which the soul looks at inwardly. Only on the lowest level the images become external objects, which the soul now grasps by means of sensual perception (aísthēsis).
Plotinus” conception of matter (hýlē) is based on the relevant conception and terminology of Aristotle. As with Aristotle, matter is in itself formless and therefore not perceptible as such, but everything perceptible to the senses arises from the fact that it always takes on forms. Everything physical is based on a connection between form and matter. Plotinus builds this Aristotelian concept into his Platonism. In and of itself, matter is “nothing,” in Aristotelian terms pure potency, something unrealized, existing only as a possibility. Seen in this way, matter as “non-being” is that which is most different from the spiritual world, the realm of things that exist in the proper sense. Thus it is the ontologically lowest and most imperfect. Nothing can be further away from the One than it. Like the One it is without determination, but for the opposite reason. The One cannot show determinations, but only donate them, the matter likewise cannot possess them in and for itself, but can take them up. The matter, which is the basis of the earthly things, can keep the received, however, only temporarily, it does not mix with it and it must slip away from it sooner or later. Therefore, the individual earthly phenomena are transient, while matter as such is immutable. About the matter only negative can be said because of its indeterminacy – that what it is not. It shows qualities only by the fact that forms are given to it from the outside. Because it itself is not constituted in a certain way, it can take any form – otherwise its own constitution would be an obstacle. To the negative statements belongs that matter has no limitation and that it is absolutely powerless and therefore plays a purely passive role.
Since the nous is determined as the good and being and nothing can be further away from being than matter, from the Platonic point of view the conclusion is obvious that matter is something absolutely bad or evil. This consequence was actually drawn by the Middle Platonist Numenios, whose teaching Plotinus studied intensively. It leads into dualism with the assumption of an independent evil principle. Plotinus also describes matter as bad and ugly; nothing can be worse than it. It should be noted, however, that in Plotinus” monistic philosophy, badness has no independent existence, since badness exists only in the absence of good. Thus, matter is not bad in the sense that “badness” or “malignity” can be assigned to it as a real property, but only in the sense that it is furthest from good in the ontological hierarchy. Moreover, the formless primordial matter does not really occur as such, but it is only a mental construct in Plotinus as in Aristotle. In reality the physical cosmos is always and everywhere subject to the guidance of the soul and thus to the formative influence of the forming ideas. Real there is matter only in connection with forms. Therefore, the imperfection of material objects is never absolute in practice, because through their forms they receive the influence of the spiritual world. In general, the principle is that the receiving determines the measure of the receiving. The lower can receive the higher only insofar as its limited receptivity permits.
Since there is a unity between the world soul and all other souls and the whole universe is permeated by a uniform soul principle, there is a sympathy (sympátheia) between all parts of the universe. Plotinus adopts this doctrine from the Stoa. However, despite this interconnectedness of things, he sees a fundamental difference between the intelligible and the sensually perceptible world in the fact that in the spiritual world each of its individual elements at the same time carries the whole within itself, while in the physical world the individual exists for itself.
Besides the physical, sensually perceptible matter, Plotinus also assumes a spiritual (intelligible) matter, with which he takes up a consideration of Aristotle and reinterprets it Platonically. He means that also the purely spiritual things, which are not connected with any physical matter, need a material substrate. Their multiplicity means that they differ from each other. This presupposes a separate form for each of them. Form, however, is conceivable for Plotinus only if there is something formed in addition to a forming entity. Therefore he considers the assumption of an intelligible matter common to all forms necessary. Intelligible matter, like physical matter, does not occur unformed; unlike it, however, it, like all spiritual matter, is not subject to change. Another argument of Plotinus is that everything physical, thus also physical matter, must be based on something analogous as a model in the spiritual world.
In the field of the philosophy of time, Plotinus found not only individual suggestions in Plato”s dialogue Timaeus, but also a concept that he adopted and expanded. The Greek term for eternity, aiṓn, originally denotes vitality, life and lifetime, and, in relation to the cosmos, its unlimited continuation, implying the fullness of what a long or endless period of time can yield. Plato ties in with this. However, he radically philosophically reshapes the term, since from his point of view a temporal succession does not yield fullness. Rather, everything that takes place in the course of time is characterized by lack: Past things are lost, future things are not yet realized. Unrestricted fullness is therefore only possible beyond temporality. From this arises the concept of an eternity, which is not a long or unlimited duration, but a supra-temporal totality of being. Through the abolition of the separation of the past, the present and the future, perfection becomes possible. Eternity persists in the One, while the flow of time, which means a constant succession of earlier and later, splits reality. Expressed in the language of Platonism, eternity is the archetype, time the image.
Plotinus adopts this concept of eternity. He approaches it from the aspect of liveliness, which is contained in the original meaning of the word. A common feature of time (chrónos) and eternity (aiṓn) is that both are to be understood as manifestations of life, whereby “life” means the self-development of a wholeness. The spiritual world is characterized by timeless eternity, the physical by the endless flow of time. Like all components of the physical cosmos, time is a product of the soul and thus of life, for the soul is the creating and animating factor in the physical world. The life of the soul expresses itself in the fact that its unity shows itself as cosmic multiplicity. Likewise, the eternity of the supra-temporal being is also to be understood as a kind of life. Here, too, Plotinus understands by “life” the self-development of a unified whole (the nous) into the multiplicity of its elements (the ideas). But this does not mean a splitting of the unity, because the elements remain in the unity of the whole. Just as eternity is based on the self-development of the nous, time is based on the self-development of the soul. In time, the unity of the soul”s life diverges into a multiplicity whose elements are separated from one another by the flow of time. Thus, for the soul, the interdependence of the world of ideas becomes an ordered succession of individual ideas – the soul temporalizes itself.
As a component of the spiritual world, each individual soul actually belongs to the eternal unity of the spiritual, but its nature-given will to an existence of its own is the cause of its isolation. Since this isolation as separation from the wholeness of being is necessarily an impoverishment, there is an impulse in the soul to eliminate this lack of fullness. In temporal terms, this is called a return to oneness.
The striving for return aims at a change, which must take place in the consciousness of the soul. The consciousness distinguishes between the knowing and the known and grasps separated contents like the actual state and the target state, which it brings into relation to each other. This is only possible as a discursive process and therefore requires time. For this reason the single soul needs and generates a time experienced by it individually, its specific past, present and future. Although thus the reality of the life is split up temporally, the soul does not lose thereby its nature-given participation in the unity of the Nous. Therefore, it can generate memory, bring past, present and future into a context and thus grasp time as a continuum; otherwise, time would disintegrate into an unconnected succession of isolated moments. Since the soul strives for a certain goal, the time it creates is future-oriented and the succession of events is always ordered accordingly. In contrast to human souls, divine souls (world soul, celestial souls) have no memory because they have not fallen down into time.
Plotinus” ethics is always related to the salvation of the philosopher, who has a decision to make. In all deliberations about what one should or should not do, the central question is what consequences a certain behavior has for the philosopher himself, whether it inhibits or promotes his philosophical pursuit. To this point of view everything else is subordinated. As in all ethical theories of the ancient Platonists, the attainment and cultivation of the virtues (aretaí) is a central concern. A major difference from Plato”s thought, however, is that the philosopher is not envisaged in his capacity as a citizen and part of a social community. The service to the state, which was important to Socrates and Plato, the subordination of personal aspirations to the good of the state, plays no role in Plotinus” teaching. His intention, attested by Porphyrios, to found a settlement organized according to Plato”s ideas of the ideal state is not echoed in his writings. Famous is his formulation, often quoted in philosophical literature, that the philosophical way of life is a “seclusion from everything else that is here,
For Plotinus, all action ultimately aims at a consideration as a cause of purpose. Man acts, because he strives to win the created or procured by him as a visual object. If he is not able to see the ideas internally (theōría), he procures representational objects in which the ideas are depicted as a substitute. Since the need for contemplation is the motive of all action, contemplation, and thus the inner world of the subject, has priority over any practical reference to the outer world.
For Plotinus, the good of the person is identical with the good of the soul, because the soul alone is the person. Since the body is not an integral part of the person, but only externally and temporarily connected to it, Plotinus urges avoiding the pursuit of bodily pleasures. In general, he views earthly destinies with detached serenity, comparing the vicissitudes of life to the staging of a play. No event he considers so important as to offer a legitimate reason for abandoning the philosopher”s equanimous basic attitude. External goods are not important for happiness (happiness is rather based exclusively on the “perfect life”, the optimally realized philosophical way of life.
The bad and with it also the evil in the moral sense – for both the word to kakón was used in the ancient Greek – does not show an own being, but is only absence of the good. The absence of good is never absolute; it is only a greater or lesser limitation of its effectiveness, for the action of good reaches even matter. Therefore, evil is not an independent power, but something void, needy and powerless. It is overcome by ceaselessly directing one”s attention to the good.
Plotinus attaches great importance to the freedom of will. He emphasizes that the activities of the soul are not by nature effects or links of external cause chains. Rather, the soul draws the criteria of its decisions from itself. Only through its connection with the body is it subject to external constraints, and even from these its actions are only partially affected. According to its nature it is a self-determined being. Plotinus does not see freedom of will in the ability to choose arbitrarily between different options, that is, to be subject to no determination. Rather, freedom of will consists in being able to do precisely what the agent”s own being spontaneously strives for, if he is not subject to external pressure and error. The non-arbitrary, but spontaneous acting, with which the soul consistently follows its own insight according to its spiritual nature, is an expression of its autarky (self-sufficiency). It does not insert itself into an already existing causality, but sets itself the beginning of a series of causes. Following this conviction, Plotinus opposes deterministic and fatalistic doctrines that conceive human destiny as the result of external influences. In particular, he opposes an astrological worldview that attributes human character traits and destinies to the influence of the stars and thus limits the freedom of the soul. He admits an influence of the stars, but he considers it insignificant. He denies the possibility of blind chance, since nothing in the world happens arbitrarily, but everything is well ordered.
Plotinus generally rejects suicide. He justifies this with the fact that the motive for such an act is usually connected with affects, to which the philosopher should not submit. In addition, one cuts off thereby still existing development possibilities. Only in special cases, for example if mental confusion threatens, he considers the voluntarily chosen death as a way out, which is to be considered.
The soul in the body world
Plotinus assumes that every soul, due to its immaterial nature, is at home in the spiritual world from which it originates. However, it has the possibility to descend into the body world and to connect there with a body, which it then directs and uses as a tool. In this role she can again choose whether to direct her attention and striving predominantly to the purely spiritual or to orient herself to body-related goals. On earth, she finds material images of ideas that remind her of her home and are therefore enticing. However, these images, unlike the timeless ideas, are transient and therefore deceptive. Moreover, as images they are always very imperfect in comparison with their original images.
Plotinus does not understand the connection of the soul with the body in the common sense that the soul resides in the body and inhabits it, but he means the other way around that it encloses the body. At the death of the body, the soul leaves it. The separation from the body, however, does not mean for the soul a farewell from the body world, because according to the Platonic doctrine of transmigration of souls it looks for a new body. This can be according to Plotins opinion also an animal or even a vegetable body. Thus one rebirth follows the other. In principle, however, the soul has the possibility to interrupt this cycle and to return from the body world to its spiritual home.
A central role in Plotinus” thinking plays the question why a soul ever decides to leave its natural place in the spiritual world and to go into exile. The connection with a body subjects it to a multitude of limitations and disadvantages which are contrary to its nature, and is therefore in need of explanation. Plotinus makes a detailed effort to explain it. The descent of souls from the spiritual world into the physical world and their possible return is the core theme of his philosophy. He asks about the causes and conditions of both processes.
The explanations and assessments of descent that he finds and discusses in his writings do not present a consistent picture. In general, he evaluates every turn to a lower state negatively. The higher is always the desirable and everything strives by nature towards the good. That the consistent turning away from the physical and toward the spiritual and the ascent to the homeland region should be the goal of the soul is undoubted for Plotinus. He explicitly expresses his view according to which it is better for the soul to sever its ties to the corporeal world and to leave the earthly existence; thus it attains bliss. Life with the body is an evil for it, the separation from it something good, the descent the beginning of its disaster. Porphyrios reports his impression that Plotinus was ashamed of having a body. Such remarks seem to suggest the conclusion that the descent of the soul is contrary to nature and a mistake that should be undone. Plotinus, however, does not draw this conclusion, for it contradicts his basic conviction that the existing world order is perfect and necessary to nature. Within the framework of a consistently perfect world order, the soul”s stay in an environment that is actually alien to it must also have a meaning. He tries to find this sense.
He finds the solution in the assumption that what is an evil for the individual soul is meaningful and necessary under the superordinate aspect of the cosmic total order. The soul suffers a considerable loss of knowledge and cognitive abilities through its descent. It forgets thereby its origin and its own being and exposes itself to many hardships. But the body world profits thereby, because it receives by the presence of the soul share in the life and in the spiritual world. Such participation can only be conveyed to it by the soul, since the soul is the only instance which, as a member of the border area between the spiritual and the physical world, can establish the connection between the two parts of the total reality. In a perfect total order also the lowest area of the whole must be perfected as far as this is at all possible. This task falls to the souls, who thus participate in the care for the All. Therefore the souls cannot and should not free themselves finally from the physical mode of existence. A return to the spiritual home can only be temporary, because the physical world always needs ensoulment, not only by the world soul and the celestial souls, but also by the individual souls on earth. The descent of the souls is a necessity within the framework of the entire world order, but they are not forced to it by an external power, but follow an inner urge. The factor that motivates them to do so is their boldness or audacity (tólma). When souls descend, they do not fundamentally turn away from the good and toward the bad or worse. They continue to strive for the good, but now they seek it in areas where it can emerge to a lesser degree.
In addition, Plotinus presents other arguments for his assumption that the descent of souls into the physical world is not a flaw in the world order. The soul is by nature so predisposed that it can live both in the spiritual and in the material world. Therefore it must correspond to its nature to also live out this double disposition. By experiencing badness in earthly existence, the soul gains higher appreciation for goodness. Moreover, through the connection with a body it can bring its own powers to an effectiveness which is excluded in the spiritual world for lack of opportunity to unfold. In the spiritual world these forces exist only potentially and remain hidden; they can reach realization only through the confrontation with matter. The soul, which has descended into the body world, wants to be for itself. It wants to be something other than the spirit and to belong to itself; it takes pleasure in its self-determination. It is enthusiastic about the different earthly and values it out of ignorance higher than itself.
That the souls follow their urge to descend means for Plotinus a fault that results in unfortunate experience, but in the context of the world order it is meaningful and necessary. This ambivalence of the descent, which Plotinus presents on the one hand as culpable, on the other hand as necessary for nature, is an open problem and has given rise to various attempts of interpretation in research.
A distinctive feature of Plotinus” teaching is his conviction that the soul does not bind itself to a body in its entirety, but only partially. Not only does it maintain the connection with the nous through its ability to think, but its highest part always remains in the spiritual world. Through this highest part, even if its embodied part suffers calamity, it constantly shares in the whole fullness of the spiritual world. This explains for Plotinus the relation of the soul to the sorrowful affects (emotions of the mind). The soul experiences the manifold sufferings and insufficiencies of the earthly existence, but the affects, which arise thereby, do not concern it in reality. According to its own nature and with regard to its highest part, the soul is free from suffering. Also the body as such cannot suffer. The bearer of affects is the organism consisting of the body and the embodied part of the soul. It is also the subject of sense perception.
As a way to liberate the soul, Plotinus considers the philosophical way of life. Here, too, the principle applies that the soul attains or realizes that to which it turns. When it turns upward, it ascends. The guidance is to be provided by Plato”s teaching, which Plotinus expands upon from this point of view. Cultivation of the virtues and incessant orientation of attention to the nous are prerequisites for the attainment of the goal. The impetus for this striving is provided to the soul by its longing for the beautiful, because the longing directs it to the source of beauty, the nous. The beautiful does not consist, as the Stoics think, in the symmetry of parts among themselves and to the whole, for even the undivided can be beautiful. Rather, it is a metaphysical reality to which the sensually perceptible beautiful points as its image. By pointing to the spiritually beautiful, the sensually beautiful delights and shakes the soul, for it reminds it of its own being. Beauty is causally related to animateness; anything living is more beautiful than anything inanimate by the mere presence of the soul, even though a pictorial work may be far superior to a living person in terms of symmetry. Thus beauty in the proper sense is an aspect of the spiritual world and as such is not subject to judgment based on sense perception.
In order to perceive the metaphysical beautiful, the soul must make itself beautiful and thus God-like by purifying itself. This is done by means of virtue, for virtue is the expression of striving for the good, and the approach to the good leads at the same time to the beautiful, since the “light” of the good is the source of all beauty. The soul has defiled itself by ugliness, but only externally; when it removes the defilement, its already existing natural beauty can emerge. The path leads from the physically beautiful, a very inadequate image, to the soul-beautiful, and from there to the intrinsically beautiful, which is found in the spirit. The Eros present in every soul is directed in the unphilosophical man to beauty in the sense objects, in the philosopher to the spiritual world. Even higher than the love for the metaphysical beauty is the love for the absolute good.
The return of the individual souls into the spiritual world does not mean that their individuality is cancelled by the omission of the corporeality and they become an indistinguishable component of the world soul. The individuation principle (the cause of individuality) is namely for Plotinus not matter, but a predisposition to individuality as a natural characteristic of the individual souls.
Confrontation with gnosis
Usually Plotinus discusses different positions calmly and matter-of-factly. An exception is his argument with gnosis, which he conducts with great vehemence. In this regard, he remarks that actually an even more drastic form of expression would be appropriate. He holds back, however, in order not to offend some of his friends who were formerly Gnostics and now, as Platonists, incomprehensibly continue to insist on Gnostic views.
The reason for this massive need for demarcation was that Plotinus thought that the thought of gnosis was a dangerous temptation for his disciples. Gnosis was a challenge for Platonism because, on the one hand, its thought had similarities with Platonic thought and the Gnostic striving for redemption seemed to be similar to the main concern of Neo-Platonism, but, on the other hand, the Gnostics drew consequences from the common basic assumptions that were incompatible with the Neo-Platonic worldview.
Both Gnostics and Neoplatonists were convinced that attachment to the body was detrimental to the soul and that it should turn away from the temptations of the sense world and strive to ascend to its spiritual home. The Gnostics, however, whom Plotinus opposed, evaluated this finding differently from him. From the misfortune that befalls the soul in its earthly existence, they concluded that the descent into the body world was due to an original error. This wrong decision had to be definitely reversed. A final liberation from the material misery, which is unnatural for the soul, is to be striven for. The physical sphere is not the lowest area of an eternal, altogether optimal universe, but the misshapen work of a misguided creator. The visible cosmos is not guided by a benevolent providence; rather, it is a hostile environment that deserves no respect.
Plotinus opposed this criticism of the visible world with his defense of the universal order, which also included the visible cosmos. This was a divine creation, an admirable component of the best possible world, filled with beauty and oriented in its entirety to the good. What may appear to be reprehensible in it at a superficial view is in reality necessary, because in a hierarchically graded world not everything can equally participate in the fullness of being. The world order is just, because everyone receives what is due to him. A proof for wise divine guidance is the order and regularity of the processes in the sky. The Gnostics had taken over everything that was true in their teachings from Plato and the Greek philosophers of the early times, but without understanding and appreciating their insights correctly. What they themselves had added was nonsensical and sacrilegious. It was impossible, as they thought, to reach the goal without effort and philosophical endeavor.
Plotinus argues within the frame of reference of his own system, into which he also inserts the opposing worldview. His argumentation is addressed to readers who share his basic position.
In Logic, Plotinus criticizes Aristotle”s theory of categories because it does not live up to its claim to offer a universally valid classification of being. He argues that this system was devised only for the description of the sensually perceptible world; the Aristotelian scheme of ten categories is not applicable to the far more important spiritual world. The category Ousia (substance, literally “beingness”) could not include both because of the principle difference of the spiritual and the physical mode of being. A definition of this category is missing, which indicates a special characteristic of the being, which is equally present with all kinds of being. The category of relation, he said, was partly produced by the ideas, partly originated only with human thought, and was therefore unsuitable for the world of ideas. The categories of the qualitative, of the place, of the situation, of the time, of the doing, of the suffering and of the having are useless for the spiritual world, since nothing corresponds to these concepts there. Moreover, the ten categories of Aristotle are mere propositions and not the highest kinds of being. Thus, Plotinus opposes Aristotle”s conviction that being appears in the various forms of proposition itself. He emphasizes the difference between being and its discursive expression.
For the spiritual world, Plotinus adopts a scheme of five categories instead of ten: Beingness (ousía), motion (kínēsis), changelessness (stásis), identity (tauton), and diversity (heteron). These correspond to the “greatest genera” (megista genê) that Plato names in his dialogue Sophistes. Plotinus considers movement to be a necessity in the spiritual world, since it is a characteristic of the living and necessary for thinking – being is “nothing dead”. For the world of the senses, other categories are necessary, not ten, as Aristotle thought, but also only five: beingness in the inauthentic sense (whereby “becoming” would be a more appropriate designation), quantity, quality, relation and movement. One cannot speak of beingness in the actual sense, since the physical “being” is only a variable connection of matter and form (qualities). Place and time are to be assigned to the relation, the position belongs to the place. Doing and suffering are not categories of their own, but only special cases of change and thus belong to the category of movement. The category of having is superfluous.
Plotinus also criticizes the Stoic theory of categories in detail. In particular, he considers it nonsensical to assume a superordinate category “something” (ti), because it is heterogeneous and includes different beings (corporeal and incorporeal, being and becoming).
For Plotinus” posthumous fame and the aftermath of his life”s work, the efforts of Porphyrios, by far his most famous student, became seminal. Porphyrios wrote a biography of his teacher in which he reported that after Plotinus” death, Amelios consulted the Oracle of Delphi about the fate of the deceased”s soul and learned that it had been admitted to a realm of the blessed. By arranging, editing and publishing his teacher”s writings, Porphyrios saved them for posterity. He also compiled a collection of quotations and paraphrased statements of Plotinus, the “Sentences Leading to the Intelligible.” In addition, he wrote explanations (hypomnḗmata) of Plotinus” writings and also referred to his teachings in other of his numerous works. Thus, Porphyrios played a decisive role in the survival of the new school of thought founded by Plotinus, which is today called “Neoplatonism”.
However, Porphyrios rejected some of Plotinus” positions. In particular, he rejected his teacher”s criticism of Aristotle”s system of categories and thus contributed significantly to the fact that it found little appeal in late antique Neoplatonism and could not influence medieval logic. In contrast to Plotinus, Porphyrios considered a final separation of the soul from the material world to be possible and desirable. Thus he came closer to the Christian conception of redemption than his teacher. On the other hand, he strongly criticized Christianity with his polemic “Against the Christians” and thus triggered sharp reactions among the church fathers; Plotinus had given him the impetus for this approach.
Amelios Gentilianos, the second most famous student of Plotinus, compiled his notes from Plotinus” courses. When he moved to the east of the Roman Empire, he took with him this collection, which had grown to about a hundred books. It attained a certain circulation. Longinos, a Platonist who first taught in Athens and later served as an advisor to Zenobia, the ruler of Palmyra, had copies of Amelios” copies of Plotinus” writings made. Although Longinos rejected most of the basic assumptions of Neoplatonism, he expressed his deep respect for Plotinus” philosophical approach.
Iamblichos, the most prominent student of Porphyrios, also lived and taught in the East. He emphatically contradicted various views of his teacher and thus again gave a somewhat different direction to the further development of Neoplatonism. Iamblichos turned against Plotinus with his rejection of the latter”s view that a part of the soul always remains in the spiritual world even during its stay on earth and enjoys its fullness without restriction. He argued that then also the embodied part of the soul would have to be constantly partaking of the bliss connected with it, but this was not the case. Thus the soul would lose the connection with the spiritual world by its descent. Therefore, Iamblichos did not estimate the soul”s ability to redeem itself by its own power as optimistically as Plotinus, but considered an effort for divine assistance by means of theurgy to be necessary. Later neo-Platonists echoed his view.
Despite widespread rejection of individual positions of Plotinus, his teachings remained present in late antique Neoplatonism; the Neoplatonists quoted him in their commentaries on Plato and Aristotle. His writings also had an indirect impact through the extensive œuvre of Porphyrios, now largely lost, which contained numerous Plotinus citations. Macrobius paraphrased passages of the Enneads in his commentary on Cicero”s Somnium Scipionis. In the 5th century, the famous Neoplatonist Proclus commented on the Enneads; only a few fragments of his work have survived. He acknowledged Plotinus as an important Platonist, but rejected his doctrine of the substantial equality of human and divine souls and the identification of matter with evil par excellence.
Late antique Plotinus citations were often not taken directly from his works, but came from second or third hand. Therefore, their frequency does not indicate a corresponding distribution of the original works. Some quotations contain statements which are not found in the Enneads or only in a strongly deviating form. Therefore, it has been assumed in research that they originate from the records of Amelios from Plotinus” teaching. Proclus can be shown to have consulted these records.
Despite the weighty contrasts between the Neoplatonic and Christian views of the world and of man, emphasized by Porphyrios, there were already rapprochements in the 4th century. The Neoplatonist Marius Victorinus, who converted to Christianity and translated the Enneads into Latin, played an important role in this process. His translation may have been incomplete and has not survived. The highly influential Church Father Augustine used the Latin translation; he may also have had access to the original text, but his knowledge of Greek was poor. He was intensely involved with Platonic neo-Platonism. Other patristic authors also received inspiration from Plotinus. The church father Ambrose of Milan included extensive excerpts from the Enneads in some of his works, without naming the source. Other Christian writers who quoted Plotinus or used his thoughts or formulations for their own purposes were Eusebios of Caesarea, in whose Praeparatio evangelica there are extensive quotations from the Enneads, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret, Aineias of Gaza, Synesios of Cyrene, and John of Scythopolis. However, individual correspondences in content or even in wording with Plotinus” texts do not prove that the Christian author in question actually read the Enneads, for he may have relied on quotations and reproductions of content in later literature.
In the Byzantine Empire, the original text of the Enneads was preserved; however, it seems to have received little attention in the early Middle Ages. Interest did not awaken until the 11th century, when Michael Psellos sought to revive the Neoplatonic tradition. Psellos, a good connoisseur of plots, exploited the Enneads extensively in his works and produced excerpts from Proclus” Ennead Commentary. In the late Middle Ages, Nikephoros Gregoras quoted the Enneads, and the scholar Nikephoros Choumnos, arguing from an ecclesiastical point of view, wrote a polemic against Plotinus” doctrine of the soul. In the 15th century, the scholar and philosopher Georgios Gemistos Plethon, an ardent supporter of Platonism, advocated some of Plotinus” teachings.
In the Latin-speaking scholarly world of the West, Plotinus” writings were not available in Greek or in Latin translation. The vast majority of Porphyrios” works, including the biography of Plotinus, were also unknown. Therefore, Plotinus” reception was limited to indirect influence of his thought, which was mainly through the very influential writings of Augustine, the Christian Neoplatonist Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, and Macrobius. After all, thanks to Augustine and Macrobius, some of Plotinus” teachings were known, including his classification of the virtues. In the 12th century, the theologian Hugo Etherianus went to Constantinople, where he apparently could read the Enneads; he quoted them, albeit inaccurately, in a Latin theological treatise.
Arabic paraphrases of parts of the Enneads circulated in the Arabic-speaking world, all of which can be traced back to a work written in the 9th century in the circle of the philosopher al-Kindī, whose original version has not survived. The “Arab Plotinus” influenced Muslim and Jewish thinkers. Particularly popular was a treatise circulated in a longer and a shorter version, known by the misleading title “The Theology of Aristotle.” It contains rambling expositions that are largely translations or paraphrases from Books IV-VI of the Enneads, but Plotinus” statements are mixed with extraneous material and sometimes falsified. Numerous scholars, including Avicenna, wrote Arabic commentaries on the “Theology.” A “Letter on Divine Wisdom,” falsely attributed to the philosopher al-Fārābī, contains paraphrases of parts of the Fifth Ennead. A fragmentary surviving collection of sayings attributed to an unnamed Greek wisdom teacher (aš-Šayḫ al-Yūnānī) is also material from the Enneads. Nowhere in any of these Arabic surviving works is Plotinus named as the author of the thought. His name occurs very rarely in medieval Arabic writing.
Early modern times
In the Renaissance, knowledge of Plotinus initially continued to be limited to the quotations in Augustine and Macrobius; more was not available to Petrarch in the 14th century and to Lorenzo Valla as late as the 15th century. But already in the first quarter of the 15th century, some humanists succeeded in obtaining Greek Ennead transcripts. Among them were Giovanni Aurispa, Francesco Filelfo, and Palla Strozzi. However, an intensive reception of Plotinus did not begin until the end of the 15th century. The work of Marsilio Ficino was groundbreaking. Ficino translated the Enneads into Latin in 1484-1486 and then wrote a commentary on them. The translation, together with the commentary, first appeared in print in Florence in 1492 and immediately attracted much attention in humanist circles. In his major work, Platonic Theology, published in 1482, Ficino made Plotinus” doctrine the foundation of his ontological system. He also used Plotinus” ideas in his commentary on Plato”s dialogue Symposion. In the preface to his translation of the Enneads, he drastically expressed his view that Plotinus was an excellent interpreter of Plato: He wrote that Plato”s judgment of Plotinus would be like the words of God at the Transfiguration of the Lord: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased everywhere; listen to him!” (Mt 17:5 LUT). Ficino”s friend Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in his speech on the dignity of man, remarked that in Plotinus, who speaks divinely about the divine, there is nothing to admire in a special way, because he shows himself admirable on all sides.
In 1519, a Latin translation of the “Theology of Aristotle” appeared in Rome, which from then on was also considered in the West as an authentic work of Aristotle and was included in editions of his works. This error led to Aristotle being wrongly accused of a Neoplatonic way of thinking. Although his authorship was disputed as early as the 16th century, including by Luther and Petrus Ramus, it was not until 1812 that Thomas Taylor was able to show that the “Theology” was based on the Enneads.
The first, very flawed Greek Enneads edition was not published until 1580 in Basel. This text remained authoritative until modern times.
In the 16th century, Plotinus” doctrine of the soul provided Christian philosophers and poets with arguments for the individual immortality of the human soul. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, however, his reputation, which had initially been very high as a result of Ficino”s authority, diminished. However, his philosophy found resonance with Henry More († 1687) and Ralph Cudworth († 1688), who belonged to the Cambridge group of Platonists. In the 18th century, Plotinus was usually held in low esteem: theologians criticized the fusion of Christianity and Neoplatonism initiated by Ficino, and the religious-metaphysical questions of the ancient Neoplatonists were mostly foreign to Enlightenment thinkers. Moreover, Neo-Platonism was now distinguished as a special phenomenon from the older traditions of Platonism and classified as a falsification of Plato”s teachings. However, George Berkeley did engage with Plotinus and quoted him frequently in his writing Siris.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Plotinus” thought had many repercussions, although it was often a general reception of Neoplatonism without direct reference to its founder.
Already in the late 18th century, a new interest in Neoplatonism had sporadically begun in Germany, which intensified around the turn of the century. Novalis became enthusiastic about Plotinus in 1798. In 1805 Goethe had the Greek text of the Enneads obtained for him, since he was interested in the authentic terminology and was not satisfied with Ficino”s translation. Goethe was particularly impressed by Plotinus” remark: No eye could ever see the sun if it were not sunny; so also no soul sees the beautiful unless it has become beautiful. This comparison inspired him in 1805 to write a poem based on Empedoclean ideas, which he published in 1828 in the Zahmen Xenien: wär” nicht das Auge sonnenhaft,
Hegel read the Enneads in the original Greek text; however, only the inadequate edition of 1580 was available to him. He regarded the emergence of Neo-Platonism as an important caesura in intellectual history, comparable to the rise of Platonism and Aristotelianism. However, he considered Plotinus” doctrine to be a preliminary stage of his own idealism and thus truncated it. Hegel passed over a central aspect of Plotin”s philosophy, the absolute transcendence of the “overseeing” One. For him, thought equated with being was the supreme principle and therefore the nous was not distinct from the One. By determining the supreme reality as pure being, he denied the complete indeterminacy of the One, which was important for Plotinus. He criticized Plotinus for expressing the emergence of the Second (Nous) from the One only in ideas and images instead of representing it dialectically, and for describing as reality what should be determined in concepts. The absolute of Hegel steps out of itself and then returns to itself, which is impossible for Plotin”s unchangeable One.
In contrast to Hegel, Schelling understands the One (God) in the sense of Plotinus as “absolute indifference”. God never goes out of himself, otherwise he would not be absolute and therefore not God. This shows Schelling”s special closeness to Plotin”s thinking, which was also noticeable to his contemporaries. However, unlike Plotinus, he allows the Absolute to think itself. Schelling”s conception of emanation ties in with Plotinus”, but he regards the transition from transcendence to immanence as a free act of creation, whereas Plotinus attributes the supratemporally conceived movement from the absolute to the emergent to a lawful necessity. Like Plotinus, Schelling assumes not only a distance from the origin but also a counter-movement leading back to the starting point. Also with regard to the interpretation of matter he follows the ancient philosopher.
It was common to judge Plotinus from the point of view of those aspects of his philosophy that had similarities with Hegel”s system. Thinkers who rejected Hegel also made disparaging remarks about Plotinus. Arthur Schopenhauer, in his Parerga and Paralipomena, criticized the Enneads; he complained that the thoughts were not ordered, that their presentation was boring, prolix, and confused. Plotinus was “by no means without insight,” but his wisdom was of foreign origin, coming from the Orient. In 1876, the philosopher Franz Brentano, an opponent of German Idealism, made a sharp attack on Plotinus” doctrine in his essay Was für ein Philosoph manchmal Epoche macht (What a Philosopher Sometimes Makes an Epoch), which consisted entirely of unproven assertions.
In France in the 19th century, the cultural philosopher Victor Cousin did much to deepen interest in Plotinus and in Neoplatonism. Among the thinkers there who received inspiration from Plotinus was above all Henri Bergson. Bergson”s judgment of Plotinus” philosophy was ambivalent: On the one hand, he shared its basic concept of unity as the cause of the existence of any multiplicity; on the other hand, he considered the Neoplatonic disregard for the material world to be mistaken. Émile Bréhier, Bergson”s successor at the Sorbonne, held that Plotinus” statements, formulated as objective metaphysical doctrines, were in fact descriptions of inner experiences and processes. Since Plotinus had been unable to express mental facts other than in this way, he had elevated his states of consciousness to states of being. Bréhier”s interpretation met with some approval, but it is opposed by the embedding of Plotinus” teaching in the tradition of ancient Platonism.
In the period 1787-1834, Thomas Taylor translated half of the Enneads into English. His translations of writings of ancient Neoplatonists created an important condition for the popularization of Neoplatonism in the English-speaking world. With the influence of German Idealism, interest in Plotinus grew there as well.
In the 20th century Karl Jaspers dealt with Plotinus. He called him “an eternal figure of the Occident” and his life and thought “one of the great examples of the power of philosophy that cannot be inhibited by anything”. On the other hand, he criticized Plotinus” disregard for historicity as a limitation. Hans Jonas placed Plotinus in the intellectual current of gnosis. He thought that Plotinus” philosophy was a gnosis transformed into metaphysics. Ernst Hugo Fischer compared questions and perspectives of modern philosophy with Plotinus” approach.
From a philological point of view, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff thought that the Enneads were an “unhellenic” work; they lacked “everything artistic, indeed everything sensual, one might say everything corporeal of language”; Plotinus” writing was characterized by “devotion to the object alone.”
Paul Oskar Kristeller emphasized the presence of two aspects in Plotinus” thought, one “representational” (objective-ontological) and one “actual” (subject-related).
Plotinus” lack of interest in the philosophical part of Plato”s teachings prompted Willy Theiler to use the catchphrase “Plato dimidiatus” (not only politics, but “the actual Socratic” as a whole was missing).
A critical edition of the Enneads that met modern requirements was a long time coming. It was published only in 1951-1973 by Paul Henry and Hans-Rudolf Schwyzer. In the research discussion of the 20th century, the question of Plotinus” relationship to the older traditions of Platonism played an important role. Hans Joachim Krämer, in his study Der Ursprung der Geistmetaphysik (1964), emphasized the similarities between Plotinus” teachings and those of earlier Platonists back to the time of the “Old Academy.” Controversial is the question of the extent of Plotin”s independence.
The asteroid (6616) Plotinos, discovered in 1971, is named after the philosopher.
Studies in philosophy