Plotinus was born in Egypt in 205 AD. It is not known if his family was Egyptian, Roman or Greek. However, according to John M. Rist, the author of Plotinus: Road to Reality (1967) "he was almost certainly of Greek or at least entirely hellenized stock." (1)
Shortly after his birth, civil war broke out between, Caracalla and Geta, the two sons of Emperor Septimius Severus. Over the next few years war and pestilence diminished the population of the Roman Empire by about a third. Badly weaken by these events, the Romans suffered invasions from the Germans in the north and Persians from the east. (2)
It is claimed that as a result of this turmoil Plotinus "turned aside from the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world, to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty." In this he was in harmony with all the most serious men of his age. "To all of them, Christians and pagans alike, the world of practical affairs seemed to offer no hope." (3)
Plotinus took up the study of philosophy at the age of twenty-seven, and travelled to Alexandria to study. He became very interested in Stoicism a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens (c. 333-262 BC) in the early 3rd century BC. Zeno divided philosophy into three parts: Logic, Physics and Ethics, the end goal of which was to achieve happiness through the right way of living. Chrysippus (c.280-207 BC), who specialized in logic and physics, was also an important figure in the first phase of Stoicism. (4)
Stoicism is predominantly a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world, and was greatly influenced by the teachings of Socrates (c. 470 - 399 BC) who said: "I spend all my time going about trying to persuade you, young and old, to make your first and chief concern not for your bodies nor for your possessions, but for the highest welfare of your souls, proclaiming as I go, wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state." He added that Athenians should be "ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honour, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul". (5)
Stoicism was by far the most important ethical schools, which formed the outlook of educated people for more than half a millennium before Christianity officially became the outlook of the Roman world. "Stocism's main doctrine was that one should cultivate indifference (in the strict sense of this term) to what one cannot alter or influence in the vicissitudes of life, and self-command in respect of all those things over which one has control - such as one's fears and appetites, desires and hopes. By this means one will courageously and serenely, exercising self-mastery and otherwise accepting the inevitable." (6)
Seneca (2 BC - 65 AD) said that adversity was sent to test us, and that it was therefore a blessing in disguise because it enables us to develop our powers of endurance and other Stoic virtues. "Why is it that God afflicts the best men with ill health, or sorrow, or some other misfortune? For the same reason that in the army the bravest men are assigned to the hazardous tasks. In like manner, all those who are called to suffer what would make cowards and poltroons weep may say, 'God has deemed us worthy instruments of his purpose to discover how much human nature can endure'. And so, in the case of good men the gods follow the same rule that teachers follow with their pupils; they require most effort from those of whom they have the surest hopes." (7)
The misfortunes of life are not really misfortunes at all but opportunities for self-improvement. Chrysippus held that even such minor irritants as mice and bed-bugs are an example of this. Mice encourage the habit of tidiness, and bed bugs prevent us from sleeping too much. According to the Stoics, all sorts of things in nature had been arranged expressly with the interests of man in mind. Indeed, so convinced were the Stoics by the apparent evidence of order and purpose in the world that they cited it as proof of the existence of God. (8)
In around 240 AD Plotinus left Alexandria and decided to travel the world to investigate the philosophical teachings of other philosophers. To make this possible he joined the army of Gordian III as it marched on Persia. However, the campaign was a failure and found his way back to safety in Antioch. He then moved to Rome. There he attracted a number of students, including Porphyry, Amelius Gentilianus, Castricius Firmus and Eustochius of Alexandria, and spent the rest of his life leading philosophical discussions in the Platonic tradition. (9)
It is claimed that Plotinus became the founder of Neoplatonism, an attempt to clarify the teaching of Plato. The metaphysics of Plotinus begins with a Holy Trinity: The One, Spirit and Soul. These three are not equal. The One is supreme, Spirit comes next, and Soul last. The One is sometimes called God, sometimes the Good. Sometimes, the One appears to resemble Aristotle's God, who ignores the created world. "The One is indefinable, and in regard to it there is more truth in silence than in any words whatever." (10)
Plotinus goes on to argue that because we have souls and the power of reason, we can in certain circumstances rise up towards the One. We do not make this journey physically, but with our minds. "Plotinus regarded the upper grades of reality as mental rather than physical and held that reality flows flows from the One in roughly the same way that thoughts flow from our minds. Our mental journey towards the One is a return, a journey home. Not only is it a pilgrimage back to the source of our existence, it also involves a discovery of our true selves." In the words of Plotinus: "When the soul begins again to mount, it comes not to something alien but to its very self." (11)
Plotinus lived an an ascetic life of celibacy and vegetarianism. He argued that the soul's purging could only be achieved only by "flight from the body". By abstinence from meat and from sexual activity, the should could be "gradually emancipated from its bodily fetters". Plotinus, like Cicero, believed that sexual indulgence does not make for mental clarity. Porphyry, a disciple of Plotinus, in a tract on vegetarianism taught that, "just as priests at temples must abstain from sexual intercourse in order to be ritually pure at the time of offering sacrifice, so also the individual soul needs to be equally pure to attain to the vision of God". (12)
Plotinus began the essays that became The Enneads in about 253. Stephen R. L. Clark, the author of Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice (2018) has pointed out: "Discussing them (The Enneads) as part of our intellectual history requires that we see them through the eyes of their interpreters and devotees: that is, we have to see how they were and might be developed. But if we do both, as Plotinus himself did when speaking even in his own favoured philosopher (Plato), we may better understand how we cannot know the world and ourselves except by changing them." (13)
Authentic human happiness for Plotinus consists of the true human identifying with that which is the best in the universe. Plotinus was one of the first to introduce the idea that eudaimonia (happiness) is attainable only within consciousness. Plotinus stresses the point that worldly fortune does not control true human happiness, and thus… there exists no single human being that does not either potentially or effectively possess this thing we hold to constitute happiness.” (14)
Real happiness comes from the use of the intellect. The human who has achieved happiness will not be bothered by sickness, discomfort, etc., as his focus is on the greatest things. Authentic human happiness is the result of contemplation and "is determined by the higher phase of the Soul.” (15) Plotinus offers a comprehensive description of his conception of a person who has achieved happiness. A happy person will not sway between happy and sad, because it is a state of mind and is not influenced by the physical world. A living human who has achieved happiness will not change "just because of the body’s discomfort in the physical realm.“ (16)
It has been argued that Plotinus was hungry for something more than knowledge and was prepared to cast off the methodology of Aristotle in order to get it. To enjoy blissful union with the One, he said, we must abandon "proof... evidence... reasoning process of the mental habit... it is something greater than reason." It is because "the philosophy of Plotinus is suffused with an intoxicated desire to express the inexpressible and to reach the unreachable, it is in one sense a religious philosophy.... but in another sense it is far removed from any religion" because "Plotinus had no interest in magical rituals or any of the other conventional methods for invoking or appeasing the gods." In other words: "Plotinus' philosophy may have been unusually religious, but it is equally true that his religion was unusually intellectual." (17)
It has been argued: "For Plotinus, the course of moral progress begins with the political virtues, which include all the duties of a good citizen; but Plotinus shows no interest in the State as a moral entity. After the political virtues comes purification. The Soul is to put off its lower nature, and to cleanse itself from external stains: that which remains when this is done will be the image of Spirit. Neoplatonism enjoins an ascetic life, but no harsh self-mortification. The conflict with evil is a journey through darkness to light, rather than a struggle with hostile spiritual powers... The desire to be invulnerable underlies all Greek philosophy, and in consequence the need of deep human sympathy is undervalued. The philosopher is not to be perturbed by public or private calamities. Purification leads to the next stage enlightenment. Plotinus puts the philosophic life above active philanthropy, though contemplation for him is incomplete unless it issues in creative activity." (18)
Plotinus believed that you should not neglect the people in it. "One should strive to appreciate the beauty in the visible world, he said, for this world is after all a manifestation or emanation of the One (God). One must be kind to everyone, because every soul is a child of God. And people should not think they can get the one without the passport of moral virtue. Plotinus attacked the idea that the soul's ascent to the One could be purely a matter of acquiring some secret about how the world works. This would not be enough on its own, because the One is also the Good and you cannot enjoy union with the Good without yourself being good." (19)
Plotinus' circle was composed of prominent Roman people, including senators, and he played a significant role in Roman society and was in considerable demand as an arbitrator and as the ward of young children. It is claimed that Emperor Gallienus, encouraged "the Plotinian school as a vanguard of a Hellenic revival." Plotinus died in Rome in 270 AD. (20)
It has been pointed out by Bertrand Russell that early Christian theologians such as Augustine of Hippo embodied much of the philosophy of Plotinus. "Plotinus, accordingly, is historically important as an influence in moulding the Christianity of the Middle Ages and of Catholic theology. The historian, in speaking of Christianity, has to be careful to recognize the very great changes that it has undergone, and the variety of forms that it may assume even at one epoch." (21)
This has been reinforced by the Anglican priest, William Inge, the author of The Philosophy of Plotinus (1918) who pointed out that there was a strong link between the ideas of Plato and Plotinus and Christianity: "Platonism is part of the vital structure of Christian theology, with which no other philosophy, I venture to say, can work without friction... It is an utter impossibility of excising Platonism from Christianity without tearing Christianity to pieces." Inge adds that if Plotinus lived a little later, he would have "changed a few words and phrases and become Christian". (22)
Perhaps, the good and the beautiful are the same, and must be investigated by one and the same process; and in like manner the base and the evil. And in the first rank we must place the beautiful, and consider it as the same with the good; from which immediately emanates intellect as beautiful. Next to this, we must consider the soul receiving its beauty from intellect, and every inferior beauty deriving its origin from the forming power of the soul, whether conversant in fair actions and offices, or sciences and arts. Lastly, bodies themselves participate of beauty from the soul, which, as something divine, and a portion of the beautiful itself, renders whatever it supervenes and subdues, beautiful as far as its natural capacity will admit.
Let us, therefore, re-ascend to the good itself, which every soul desires; and in which it can alone find perfect repose. For if anyone shall become acquainted with this source of beauty he will then know what I say, and after what manner he is beautiful. Indeed, whatever is desirable is a kind of good, since to this desire tends. But they alone pursue true good, who rise to intelligible beauty, and so far only tend to good itself; as far as they lay aside the deformed vestments of matter, with which they become connected in their descent. Just as those who penetrate into the holy retreats of sacred mysteries, are first purified and then divest themselves of their garments, until someone by such a process, having dismissed everything foreign from the God, by himself alone, beholds the solitary principle of the universe, sincere, simple and pure, from which all things depend, and to whose transcendent perfections the eyes of all intelligent natures are directed, as the proper cause of being, life and intelligence. With what ardent love, with what strong desire will he who enjoys this transporting vision be inflamed while vehemently affecting to become one with this supreme beauty! For this it is ordained, that he who does not yet perceive him, yet desires him as good, but he who enjoys the vision is enraptured with his beauty, and is equally filled with admiration and delight. Hence, such a one is agitated with a salutary astonishment; is affected with the highest and truest love; derides vehement affections and inferior loves, and despises the beauty which he once approved. Such, too, is the condition of those who, on perceiving the forms of gods or daemons, no longer esteem the fairest of corporeal forms. What, then, must be the condition of that being, who beholds the beautiful itself?
What measures, then, shall we adopt? What machine employ, or what reason consult by means of which we may contemplate this ineffable beauty; a beauty abiding in the most divine sanctuary without ever proceeding from its sacred retreats lest it should be beheld by the profane and vulgar eye? We must enter deep into ourselves, and, leaving behind the objects of corporeal sight, no longer look back after any of the accustomed spectacles of sense. For, it is necessary that whoever beholds this beauty, should withdraw his view from the fairest corporeal forms; and, convinced that these are nothing more than images, vestiges and shadows of beauty, should eagerly soar to the fair original from which they are derived. For he who rushes to these lower beauties, as if grasping realities, when they are only like beautiful images appearing in water, will, doubtless, like him in the fable, by stretching after the shadow, sink into the lake and disappear. For, by thus embracing and adhering to corporeal forms, he is precipitated, not so much in his body as in his soul, into profound and horrid darkness; and thus blind, like those in the infernal regions, converses only with phantoms, deprived of the perception of what is real and true.
Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer. ... Cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow or beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue.
When the soul has descended into generation (from its first divine condition) she partakes of evil, and is carried a great way into a state the opposite of her first purity and integrity, to be entirely merged in which, is nothing more than to fall into a dark mire. ...The soul dies as much as it is possible for the soul to die: and the death to her is, while baptized or immersed in the present body, to descend into matter, and be wholly subjected by it; and after departing thence to lie there til it shall arise and turn its face away from the abhorrent filth. This is what is meant by falling asleep in Hades, of those who have come there.
When they (Gnostics) write incantations, and utter them as to the stars, not only to the bodies and souls of these, but also to things superior to soul, what do they effect? They answer, charms, allurements, and persuasions, so that the stars hear the words addressed to them, and are drawn down; if any one of us knows how in a more artificial manner to utter these incantations, sounds, aspirations of the voice, and hissings, and such other particulars as in their writings are said to possess a magical power... They likewise pretend that they can expel disease. And if, indeed, they say that they effect this by temperance and an orderly mode of life, they speak rightly, and conformably to philosophers. But now when they assert that diseases are daemons, and that they are able to expel these by words, and proclaim that they possess this ability, they may appear to the multitude to be more venerable, who admire the powers of magicians; but they will not persuade intelligent men that diseases have not their causes either from labours, or satiety, or indigence, or putrefaction, and in short from mutations which either have an external or internal origin. This, however, is manifest from the cure of diseases. For disease is deduced downward, so as to pass away externally, either through a flux of the belly, or the operation of medicine. Disease, also, is cured by letting of blood and fasting... The disease... is something different from the daemon... The manner, however, in which these things are asserted by the Gnostics, and on what account is evident; since for the sake of this, no less than of other things, we have mentioned these daemons... And this must every where be considered, that he who pursues our form of philosophy, will, besides all other goods, genuinely exhibit simple and venerable manners, in conjunction with the possession of wisdom, and will not endeavour to become insolent and proud; but will possess confidence accompanied with reason, much security and caution, and great circumspection.
The paths of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty all lead up the hill of the Lord. Plotinus shows us all three. Dialectic is the study of first principles, which leads to intuitive wisdom. It shows us that the common source of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty must be beyond existence and beyond knowledge. The duality in unity of Spirit and the Spiritual World points to an absolute unity behind them. This unity is beyond knowledge and existence, and is revealed only in the mystical experience. In considering this train of reasoning, we must remember that (i) the nature of the Godhead is certainly unknown to us; (2) we are not cut off from the highest form of life; (3) we have in the mystical state an experience of formless intuition....
The connexion of Ethics with Metaphysics became closer all through the course of Greek philosophy, and at its latest stage the fusion is almost complete. For Plotinus, the course of moral progress begins with the political virtues, which include all the duties of a good citizen; but Plotinus shows no interest in the State as a moral entity. After the political virtues comes purification. The Soul is to put off its lower nature, and to cleanse itself from external stains: that which remains when this is done will be the image of Spirit. Neoplatonism enjoins an ascetic life, but no harsh self-mortification. The conflict with evil is a journey through darkness to light, rather than a struggle with hostile spiritual powers. Repentance is not emphasised. The desire to be invulnerable underlies all Greek philosophy, and in consequence the need of deep human sympathy is undervalued. The philosopher is not to be perturbed by public or private calamities. Purification leads to the next stage enlightenment. Plotinus puts the philosophic life above active philanthropy, though contemplation for him is incomplete unless it issues in creative activity. “We have the activity of Spirit.” His disparagement of mere action which is not based on spiritual enlightenment is quite defensible. Free will means spiritual activity; we are not free until our highest selves are liberated.
Freedom does not belong to our desires or passions, nor can we control the general order of the world. But our true selves are not cogs in a machine; we are the machine itself and the mind which directs it. “Exaggerated determinism” destroys the idea of causation. Each Soul is a little “first cause,” and the Universal Soul is above the antithesis of freedom and necessity. “Necessity includes freedom.” The highest stage unification hardly belongs to ethics; but the noble doctrine that “there is progress even yonder,” depends on the doctrine of the One. Love, the activity of the Soul desiring the Good, is never transcended. In spite of this, the moral isolation of the sage may be regarded as a defect in Neoplatonic ethics.
(1) John M. Rist, Plotinus: Road to Reality (1967) page 4
(2) Adrian Goldsworthy, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (2009) pages 74-76
(3) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 289
(4) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 308
(5) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)
(6) Anthony Grayling, Ideas that Matter (2009) pages 181-182
(7) Seneca, On Providence (c. AD 64)
(8) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 320-321
(9) Stephen R. L. Clark, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice (2018) page 3
(10) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) pages 326
(11) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) pages 320-321
(12) Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (2001) pages 21 & 25
(13) Stephen R. L. Clark, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice (2018) xvi
(14) Plotinus, The Enneads (Book I: 4.4)
(15) Plotinus, The Enneads (Book III: 4.6)
(16) Plotinus, The Enneads (Book I: 4.11)
(17) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 370
(18) William Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus (1918)
(19) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 369
(20) John M. Rist, Plotinus: Road to Reality (1967) pages 6-7
(21) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 290
(22) William Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus (1918)