Philosophy

Plotinus and the Philosophy of Neoplatonism

Plotinus is arguably the most influential philosopher few people know about, and even fewer have read.  His most famous work, The Enneads, established the systematic philosophy known as Neoplatonism.  Plotinus’s metaphysics, ontology, and aesthetics would later become very important to Christianity, Humanism, medieval mysticism, the revival of Neoplatonism during the Renaissance, and also German Idealism and Romanticism (especially Hegel).  From this lineage, Plotinus is even a hidden influencer upon Marxism.  Furthermore, much of our inherited predisposition to understanding Plato comes through the lens of Plotinus and how he understood Plato.

Admittedly, Neoplatonism is a rather poor name for those not trained in philosophy.  Although Plotinus was a devotee of Plato, Neoplatonic philosophy equally owes a great deal to Pythagoreanism and Aristotelianism too; in some sense, Plotinus can be seen as a reaction against the empiricism of Aristotelianism while still retaining a strong Aristotelian influence.  Plotinus’s philosophy is also a direct challenge to Epicurean materialism, placing emphasis back on the primacy of one’s soul (the seat of rational intellect) against sensation and bodily pleasure.

Plotinus’s metaphysics is rooted in Plato’s metaphysics, but he ultimately builds upon Plato rather than recoursing back and promoting strict Platonism.  Where Plato promoted the Theory of Forms, Plotinus embraces “the One.”  The One is “the good” and the beautiful, it is ultimately the source of the Forms.  The problem with the traditional Platonist Theory of the Forms is there are many Forms.  Plotinus ultimately understood this to mean the Forms are the single foundation of reality, hence why Plato is recognized as a metaphysic monist.  However, Plotinus felt that Plato’s Forms was left unfinished.  Just like how Aristotle thought Platonic philosophy only grasped the material and formal causes, Plotinus’s return to Plato is to advance Plato to the Final Cause that Aristotle speaks of in his Metaphysics.  Thus, we can already identify Aristotelian influences upon Plotinus – though Plotinus rejects the quasi-utilitarianism of Aristotle.  Plotinus, then, identifies the One as the Final Cause, so to speak, the source that all the Forms are rooted in – the “Absolute Idea.”

Plotinus’s metaphysics is also hierarchal.  But it is classical pyramidal in nature, rather than vertical.  That is, the One situates itself at the top of the pinnacle.  Emanation proceeds downward, expanding horizontally (becoming wider as it emanates downward).  The bottom of the hierarchal emanation schema is the widest horizontally, but as one moves back upward toward the One, the path narrows back to ultimate source.  Owing to Aristotle, the One is simultaneously Arche (beginning) and Telos (end).  Everything has its ultimate source in the Good that is the One, and this goodness of the One (and beauty of the One) is what draws everything back to it to reflect and embody life, goodness, and beauty.

Plotinus’s understanding of evil is influential – though it reached fuller crystallization in St. Augustine.  Ultimately, nothing can be evil (strictly speaking) since everything is sourced in the One.  However, as Plotinus recounts in Enneads 1.6, the rational intellect that debases its rationality by focusing only on material things, becomes the “ugly soul.”  That is to say, concentration on things material (material cause only) eventually leads to the debasement of the intellect, which is the soul, and leads to ugliness because the materially obsessed intellect foolishly believes that the material cause is all there is – in this reason suppresses its own desire for wisdom.  The lack of rationality, which exhausts itself in ignorance and low beauty, is the basis of what we come to “evil” on the understanding that “evil” is a destructive force which destroys that which is good and beautiful precisely because of the lack of rational cultivation.

Perhaps more confusingly, the One is entirely self-sufficient.  It does not need to cause anything.  But since the One embodies goodness, it emanates goodness and beauty from itself, bringing into being the source of everything in the world (though it by no means was compelled to do so).  Here begins Plotinus’s most famous doctrine – the doctrine of Emanation (which replaces Plato’s Forms in Neoplatonic thought).

II

Plotinus’s metaphysics is undergirded by the doctrine of emanation.  Emanation is difficult to understand for non-readers of Plotinus.  Emanation does not mean A to B to C in a linear and ablating manner (i.e. A ceases to be when it reaches and begets B).  Plotinus, here, really follows Aristotle’s metaphysical logic: A to B, B subsumes A, B(+A) leads to C, which subsumes B(+A), etc.  Plotinian emanationism is a scheme of ontological dependency and greater fulfillment in dependency.

The first emanation from the One is Intellect.  That is to say, intellect (reason) is the first principle of existence (wisdom is the first principle of being and existence in Plotinus – this view is also very important to understanding the Christian doctrine of creation, especially as passed down by Augustine in Confessions and De Genesi Ad Literram).  Everything in existence is brought into existence by reason.  Intellect is where the sources of the Forms are located.  This is how one has innate ideas.  Intellect is the source of knowledge, goodness, wisdom, etc.  From intellect emerges the material.  Here we should see Plotinus’s inheritance of Aristotle:

  1. Intellect is the first principle of being and knowledge.
  2. Intellect brings into existence being.
  3. Intellect also brings into existence materiality.
  4. Material existence is rationally ordered and structured by Intellect .

Therefore, Intellect is the efficient cause of structures (formal cause) and materiality (material cause).  This implies that everything is understandable because everything is rational.  Plotinus is another classical rationalist, much like Plato – to be rational is what it means to be human (the unrational person devolves into sub-humanness – the “ugly soul”).  Ultimately, then, intellect must be cultivated to know itself and the innate ideas one has which can be sourced back to the One which would represent the fulfillment of knowledge (and happiness).  If I am reason then I must be reasonable to know myself.  (In some way even Descartes’s cogito ergo sum is influenced by Plotinus – as is the entire European and Catholic rationalist traditions.)

Intellect, or rational thought, for Plotinus, constitutes life.  The thinking intellect (much like the active intellect in Aristotle) is the intellect fully functioning.  Thinking is the first principle of the intellect.  The second principle of the intellect is the actualization of thinking, which is the coming to know our innate ideas.  In other words, intellectual actualization is the coming to understand knowledge and truth.  Intellectual actualization is also how one comes to know thyself.  In this manner too, the intellect “reunites” in union (henosis) with its ultimate source: The One/Good.  Hence, the end to intellect is union with the One, which is the Good, which is how one achieves knowledge and self-actualization (which is higher than simple self-awareness).  Self-awareness can be understood as the intermediary principle between thinking and actualization.

The second emanation of the One is soul, which, properly, is actually an emanation of intellect but in being an emanation of intellect is contingently still related to the One.  Soul is the root of desire in Plotinus, but only insofar that the soul brings awareness of bodily desire, which is to say, life to the material, moreover the soul desires goodness, knowledge, and beauty as part of the innate want for wisdom and happiness.  But only the soul in harmony with intellect can achieve the end of its desire: happiness.  Happiness derives from goodness, knowledge, the fully active intellect, and Beauty, etc.  At first the soul desires material things, or things external to itself, to attempt to satisfy its wants and understand innate ideas.  (Again, Plotinus follows Aristotle in that understanding material cause is the first stepping stone to moving up to knowledge of Final Cause.)  The soul will not be satiated until it returns in union with the One.  Love, then, is an ontological state of being in Plotinus.  It is not mere action.  Actions reflect the desire for love, which is the upward dialectic ascent of the soul back to the One.  The fulfillment of want of love is love (by definition).  Plotinus, here, engages in a primitive form of anthropology.

Just as intellect desires union with ultimate goodness, which is its source, soul desires knowledge and the understanding of desire itself which ties it to intellect and then the intellect is the rope, so to speak, pulling the soul back up to the One.  In this manner the soul is related in dependency to the intellect.  The One is the source of intellect, intellect is an emanation of the One and therefore dependent upon the One, intellect emanates the soul which is dependent on intellect, and contingently related to the One as well since the One is the source of ontological dependence of intellect.

“The good soul” or “beautiful soul” is the soul that desires knowledge, and in the desiring of knowledge, leads to the first principle of the intellect: thinking.  Desire propels the thinking intellect to self-reflect, understand its own desires, and then proceed to intellectual actualization.  In intellectual actualization, the intellect and soul are united in harmony with the knowledge of the Forms, which then proceeds into a union with the One.

Thus, we should be able to understand Plotinus’s ontological dependency.  There are many desires of the soul (base).  These desires find fulfillment in intellect understanding why the soul desires (middle).  Understanding desire demands the ordering nature and cultivation of rationality (high).  This leads to understanding of self, desire, and knowledge (higher).  Eventually, intellect “returns to the Fountain of the Good.”  Desire is dependent upon the intellect for its fulfillment.  Intellect is propelled into thinking by desire.  The intellect’s thinking moved by desire leads to actualization.  Actualization is coming to understand truth and wisdom.  Therefore, Intellect is dependent upon the truth and wisdom which is dimly lit in all persons through innate ideas which emanate from the One.  Knowledge leads to intellectual union with the Source of Wisdom, knowledge, goodness, and beauty – which is the One.

Plotinus’s account of ontological dependency rests as such: desire finds its immediate fulfillment in intellect, but its ultimate fulfillment is the intellect’s coming to know wisdom, which is the union with the source of goodness, knowledge, and beauty.  Hence, A (desire/soul) finds fulfillment in B (intellect), B(+A) (intellect + desire) finds fulfillment in coming to know innate ideas (C), and knowing these innate ideas leads to C(B+A) (knowledge + intellect + soul) coming into union with D (the One), which is the ultimate fulfillment of knowledge, intellect, and soul.  The Intellect that fails to satisfy desire is the “non-thinking” intellect (or Aristotle’s “passive intellect”).  The whole ontological schema is one of dependence and enhancing fulfillment toward telos.

Evil, which is rational suppression, occurs when one deliberately attempts to cease intellectual thinking.  When this occurs, desire still operates but takes over.  Desire subsequently lashes out at the material because the intellect is not proceeding to thinking, which prevents self-actualization and coming to know the Forms, which is a suppression of knowledge and union with the One.  Plotinus writes that the evil soul is the one preoccupied with only material things, this is because the soul’s desire have no intellectual fulfillment.  It then becomes preoccupied only with material things which it can see and control.  This is the root of evil in Plotinus’s philosophy because concern only with material cause is low knowledge and fails to satisfies intellectual actualization, and, worst, the concern with just the material cuts the Intellect off from the One which subsequently leads to deformed rationality proclaiming its deformity as “truth” which ends with the destruction of beauty and failure to attain true knowledge.

III

Beauty is also central topic in Plotinus’s Enneads, and is at the heart of Neoplatonic philosophy. His commentary on Beauty, Ennead I.6, is widely recognized as one of the most influential commentaries on the nature of beauty in Western literature.  In his opening he writes, “Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues. What loftier beauty there may be, yet, our argument will bring to light.

For Plotinus, understanding beauty is the highest end of the intellect because Beauty is the highest good to be understood in relationship to the One.  In the same manner that knowledge is virtue in Aristotle, knowledge of Beauty also leads to virtue in Plotinus, “there is the beauty of the virtues” and “[t]hen again, all the virtues are a beauty of the soul, a beauty authentic beyond any of these others.”  The knowledgeable is the virtuous because the virtuous defends the Beautiful because the Beautiful is knowledge, and knowledge is what the soul desires, and is the highest order of intellectual activity (intellectual actualization).

Plotinus, here, underscores his concept of henosis.  The ultimate reason why human intellect and soul desires knowledge is because, “The Good, which lies beyond, is the Fountain at once and Principle of Beauty: the Primal Good and the Primal Beauty have the one dwelling-place and, thus, always, Beauty’s seat is there.”  The Good is synonymous with the Beautiful.  In being drawn toward Beauty, which is a form of intellectual actualization and knowledge, one comes to an understanding of the Good.  To understand the Good is to understand the One, or the source of intellect and desire.  This means that the highest good is Beauty, and Beauty draws active intellect to itself, which ends in the attainment of wisdom and the ultimate satisfaction of the desires of the soul.

However, to find fulfillment in Beauty entails rational cultivation, which will lead to excellence/virtue.  Only the actualized intellect will understand Formal Beauty and Goodness, which is rooted in the Good/the One.  Here, again, we see the emphasis upon Plotinus’s rationalism.  While desire propels intellect, desire gets nowhere without the proper cultivation of rationality and understanding of knowledge, which is the understanding of the Forms, which inevitably leads to henosis with the One.

Desire can recognize the innate idea of beauty.  One does not need to be too terribly intelligent to recognize sublimis (the Sublime) when one sees it.  As Plotinus said at the opening of Enneads I.6, “Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight.”  However, this is “only a taste of beauty,” or a “taste of knowledge.”  The taste for beauty, that is the taste for want of knowledge, becomes what consumes desire and propels the intellect to find the source and understanding of that which it desires.  This can only be satisfied with absolute knowledge.  To know beauty is to know truth, to know truth is to know beauty.

Thus, Plotinus’s proto-humanism, which later comes to influence Augustine and the Catholic Humanist tradition, typified most explicitly in the Renaissance Humanism of the likes of Giovanni Pico Mirandola, is that humanity’s capacity for reason plays an integral role in the cultivation of virtue, the shaping of the good, or beautiful, soul, and ultimately the coming to knowledge of the One and the attainment of the happiness that desire seeks.  Augustine, for instance, draws explicitly upon Plotinus in that logos harmonizes in union with desire to attain wisdom and happiness.  In the more theological nature of Christianity, this is remembered as intentio unionis (intention of union) and intentio communis (intention of communion).  Furthermore, Plotinus produces an early account of weltgeist, or World Spirit – which is the universal allure of our innate ideas back to what Hegel calls “Absolute Idea” (which is can be understood as analogous to Plotinus’s the One).

IV

The ultimate end to Plotinus’s philosophy is the primacy of reason to life, wisdom, and happiness.  Since reason is the first emanation and the first principle of existence, rational cultivation is required to actually understand existence and being in the first place.  The pull to rational cultivation is the result of the innate ideas that humans possess, which is an ontological emanation from wisdom itself.  In other words, wisdom draws the soul to propelling intellect into self-actualization (which, again, is higher than simple self-awareness).

Plotinus’s rationalism became a major influence upon Augustinian Christianity, but it was also prominent in certain Islamic circles as well (Islamic Neoplatonism) which was best reflected in the likes of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Avempace (Ibn Bâjja).  Avicenna was a Persian Muslim Neoplatonist, while Avempace was a North African Mulsim Neoplatonism (Neoplatonism in Islamic North Africa remained prominent because of the role of the Maliki School of Fiqh recoursing back to ancestral customs and traditions – and having inherited, through conquest, the lands that were most heavily indebted to Augustinian Christianity, the Maliki School drew heavily from Augustine’s own Neoplatonism).  In fact, most scholars already know that Umayyad Islamic theology and philosophy (in North Africa and Spain) was heavily inspired and influenced by Augustinianism.

Unconsciously most of the Western tradition’s understanding of Plato comes from Plotinus, whom was Plato’s most devoted disciple despite living in the 3rd century C.E.  Plotinus also established the fullest doctrine of dependent emanationism in philosophy.  Plotinus also systematized classical rationalism in a very codified and laid out manner, which is contingently related to his philosophy of dependent emanationism and ontological dependency.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Plotinus elevated the place of Beauty to the highest and most absolute good in Western philosophy.  Beauty permeates in all things.  This was Plotinus’s most significant influence upon Augustine, and as a result, the doctrine of sublimis (the sublime) in Christianity

Despite being the founder of Neoplatonism, Plotinus’s Neoplatonism owes much to Aristotle and not just adjustments to Platonism.  Neoplatonism is not simply Platonic.  Furthermore, Plotinus is a monist since all things have the being, existence, and dependence, upon the One.  (This aspect of Plotinus is ultimately rejected by orthodox Catholicism because of the plurality of the Godhead which also means creation is pluralistic in Christianity rather than monistic as in Plotinus, e.g. reason alone.)  Plotinus’s doctrine of emanation, especially ontological dependence, along with his strong emphasis on the primacy of Beauty, and the role that rational intellect plays in coming to know knowledge and satisfy desire, are among his most longstanding influences and legacies in the Western philosophical tradition, even if virtually no one has heard of him, let alone read him if they vaguely are familiar with the name.

Plotinus’s influences are far reaching.  As Bertrand Russell explained in his History of Western Philosophy, Plotinus’s greatest influence is ultimately in Catholicism.  There are additional influences from the Plotinian-Augustinian-North African Islamic inheritance as well.  While Augustine is usually seen as the father of humanism, almost all see Plotinus as a stepping stone to Augustine’s humanism, as well as Augustine’s emphasis on ontological and anthropological philosophy (things that are scattered throughout Plotinus’s own works).  St. Bonaventure’s work The Mind’s Road to God, which discusses the role of human intellect coming to know God and this supreme knowledge being the source of full happiness, also shows the extensive influence of Neoplatonism had well into the Middle Ages and beyond.  After all, Renaissance Humanism, which was marked by a revival of Neoplatonism, had two primary influences: Augustine and Plotinus.

At end, then, we can see Plotinus’s greatest contribution to the history of philosophy as being his union of reason with knowledge as leading to the highest happiness possible: knowledge.  Essentially, then, happiness is an intellectual endeavor – the attainment of wisdom is the ultimate happiness that a human can have because it satisfies all the desires of the self.  Wisdom, then, is the universal spirit that calls all into union with it.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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