Plotinus is infinitely important and influential in philosophy despite his limited name recognition and readability. Plotinus was a 3rd century Greek philosopher who is the founder of Late Platonism, or Neoplatonism. Plotinus’s only published work is The Enneads, which read like a teacher lecturing his students. And that’s what he was; Porphyry – one of Plotinus’s students – is the one who published Plotinus’s Enneads. That said many of Plotinus’s students travelled far and wide, to Rome, Alexandria, Athens, and Tyre.
Plotinus represents a monumental shift in philosophy, the turn toward ontology and anthropology which Christianity later codified and bequeathed to the world of philosophy. Nevertheless, Plotinus’s pivot toward the study of soul, which is the study of what it means to be human, far outweighs those of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero and is reminiscent of the epistles of Paul in the New Testament (who himself has Platonic elements and inheritances in his writings, though obvious not from Plotinus). Plotinus’s most important influences are twofold: his influence over the development of Christianity (both the Cappodocian and Latin Fathers were strongly influenced by Plotinus’s writings) and also his reading of Plato which turned Plato’s philosophy toward mysticism and metaphysics and away from political philosophy (which would be influential over the development of Christianity).
The First Tractate of Enneads is the beginning of Plotinus most important and widely read Ennead, the First Ennead. In the first Ennead Plotinus examines the nature of the self, soul, dialectic, virtue, happiness, virtue, and participate with beauty and primal goodness. Plotinus’s doctrine of the soul is also widely influential, and it is Plotinus’s linkage of the soul with what it means to be human which is the origo of philosophical anthropology. Though Christian Neoplatonists will engage in far more exhaustive and extensive study as to what it means to be human in this context, Plotinus is the one who is seen as the important starting point in the pivot toward anthropology in classical philosophy. The first tractate deals with the descent of soul to the material body, and then also moves into a discussion of animate being and human being (second half).
I: Animate Man & Human Nature
Plotinus begins the first tractate by asking a question, “Pleasure and distress, fear and courage, desire and aversion, where have these affections and experiences their seat?” Thus, Plotinus is asking about the inward study of the human – where do our desires and awareness of our desires and emotions come from? In more simplistic language, the first question and first sentence of Plotinus’s masterful work can be a question of: Who am I?
It is important to remember that in Greek philosophy, soul is seen as being related to psyche, nous, or “mind.” Plato had a dichotomized view of the soul: the rational and the passionate. For Plato, the thinking soul is the living soul. Aristotle presented a tripartite view of the soul: (1) the vegetative, (2) sensitive, and (3) rational. In Aristotle’s hylomorphic metaphysic and ontology, we have all three aspects in our mind. At the same time, however, there is a gradation of the tripartite soul. Plants only have the vegetative aspect of the soul. Animals have the vegetative and sensitive but not the rational. That is, animals aren’t capable of critical self-reflection but they are sensitive and therefore possess some form of awareness even if not capable of rational self-introspection and correction (i.e. they lack intellectualism). Christianity would go further in suggesting that animals experience happiness through the sensitive soul but that their happiness is not in coming to know truth but in enjoying the sensitivity of life (see especially St. Francis of Assisi). (Dante places those who willingly and knowingly abuse nature in the “seventh” circle of hell – so there is a special place in hell for those who are abusive to animals and the earth.)
Furthermore, the Latin word for soul: anima, means life. So the Greeks and Romans identify “soul” with the living, and as it pertains to humans, that means we’re rational. St. Augustine summarized the whole of Greco-Latin philosophy of the soul in De Trinitate, “the soul is the rational and the intellect” (14.2.6). Soul is not the “ghost in the machine” idea that we have from post-Cartesian and post-Hobbesian philosophy. Soul is linked to the mind, and the critical and reflective mind seeking truth and understanding in particular (not merely about the world, but also about oneself).
Plotinus is inheriting this traditional of philosophy of soul but he makes a decisive move that has forever influenced how we understand soul. For Plotinus, the soul is not vegetative, but purely in the sphere of the sensitive and the rational. We are vegetative, sensitive, and rational according to Plotinus, but the “Soul,” properly understood, only applies to the sensitive and rational (awareness to self-realization). In essence, before the soul’s descent from the One to the material body, we were all vegetative bodies. We just “did,” in other words.
We were causal bodies incapable of not only self-reflection, but we had no awareness or consciousness at all. We were just lumps of matter that, while rationally ordered and formed, just did without awareness and reflection. Thus, in this sense, we were like the plants before the descent of the soul to bring life (sensitivity and rationality) to the material world. Therefore, Plotinus’s account of the soul and its relationship to desire (affections) and experiences is confusing since it is, in a sense, the seat of desire, but really isn’t the seat of desire at the same time.
Why is this?
Desire and mechanical clockwork is part of the vegetative which is present before the descent of soul. However, the vegetative has no awareness of its desire. This awareness only emerges after the soul descends from the One through the emanation of intellect to reach down to the material realm and “bring life,” so to speak, to the desires of the vegetative body (but not vegetative soul which Plotinus rejects). In this manner, soul illuminates desire and brings forth awareness whereby we begin to understand affections and experiences, but that’s because soul brings rational awakening to the body. Thus, for Plotinus, the living man (person) is not simply the aware individual, but also the thinking and reflective individual. To be just the vegetative or sensitive animal, is to deny oneself one’s own humanity in other words.
Plotinus makes an important move in his synthesis of Plato and Aristotle. From his opening remarks about the nature and seat of desire, Plotinus is arguing that sense-data, phenomenological desire, is the base of awareness and the beginning of reflection (in this way, he follows Aristotle). However, sense-perception illuminates our innate ideas (in this way, he follows Plato). (This is why Neoplatonism, though more Platonic than Aristotelian, nevertheless has far more Aristotle included than strict Platonism.) Plotinus believed that Plato’s conception of innate ideas presupposed the reality of phenomenological awareness and sense perception illuminating said ideas, but Plato never really did explain this in his works. Thus, the teaching of Plato as having innate ideas confirmed by phenomenological experience is thoroughly Plotinian in origin. Thus, Plotinus avoids the possible blank slate that we find in Aristotle, which Plotinus finds dangerous as it relates to the divinity of desire, but he also unambiguously links experience with innate ideas that are the result of soul (something that Plato never explicitly did, but that which Plotinus thought to be reasonable inferred from Plato’s doctrines).
Living man, then, is the human with soul – which means the human who is aware of his desires and actions, and through desire and action, gets his mind thinking about what he is experiencing. In other words, the thinking mind is the human being fully alive. It is the human who is aware of himself and his surroundings who is alive (at the minimal level). Man becomes “more alive” – much like how Aristotle talks about nature being the acquisition of form – as man becomes more and more rational. But we should not confuse “rational” with modern rationalism here – Plotinus’s rationalism is entirely dependent upon the soul and desire; understanding our desire and our soul is what it means to be rational – not doing whatever you want.
II: The Emanation or “Fall” of Soul
The core of Plotinus’s doctrine of soul is that it emanates from the One, but principally through the emanated emanation of the intellect. This is how Plotinus locates soul as being rooted in the One, but is also that which brings reflective awareness to desire through having been an emanation of the intellect. The study of the soul as essential to the understanding of humanity is not necessarily Plotinian, since Biblical works and writers can also be said to be engaged in the same pursuit, but Plotinus is important because Plato and Aristotle, and even the Roman Stoics, just assume the soul. That is, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, among others, don’t ever attempt to understand the nature of the soul – they just explain the tripartite division of the soul, that the soul is linked to us, and that it is immortal. Plotinus, then, is the first of the major Greco-Roman philosophers to really attempt to understand the nature of the soul, its origins, and why this is important for us since we are soul (living and critically reflective animals).
For Plotinus, man is not man without the soul since soul means life – both rationally but also in awareness of action – and this is the defining feature of what it means to be a man apart from the rest of the world. According to Plotinus’s schema, the soul descends from the emanations of the One and intellect, which is why the soul is pure (from the One) but also rational (from the intellect) and brings awareness to human desire (hence, it is paradoxically the “seat” of desire insofar that the soul brought awareness to our desire). Soul is fundamentally who were are: desiring and rational persons – but the soul now desires to reunite with the One from which it came. This begins the great odyssey of life – the upward journey back to divinity, so to speak. The soul, in striving to be reunite with absolute sublimity (the One), raises up this “dead body” (so to speak) which brings greater and greater awareness, becoming intellectualization (knowledge), and eventually uniting in union (henosis) with the intellect and the One.
Thus, the soul strives to be in union with sublimity – which is the ultimate calling for humans. True happiness is only possible by becoming one – as it were – with truth, beauty, and wisdom. In this manner, humans are called to greatness through struggle in reaching back to the One through the intellect. High desire is the upward ascent of the soul to the intellect, while low desire is the sinking of the soul with the body to only material things. The upward ascent is, as Plotinus says, “is essentially the associate of the reasoning Soul, in our reasoning it is the ‘we’ that reasons, in that the use and act of reason is a characteristic Act of the Soul.” To be thoughtful and intellectual is to be soulful. Humans are capable of reflective thought – though this does not mean all humans will engage in reflective thought.
The soul, then, is the inward “divinity” that humans possess. Divinity, as Plotinus explains, “[is] that Divinity contained in the intellectual-principle and authentic existence.” Authentic existence is the intellectualization of the human being, in other words. Just as God is rational and all-knowledgeable, so too is it God’s “will” that man becomes rational and knowledgeable so as to be happy because man is essentially the soul that had descended from the One and is now striving to reunite with the source of its origin. Thus, the upward climb that is the “characteristic act of the soul” is almost identical to the Christian doctrine of theosis/divinization (to become like God). As Plotinus says toward the end of his first tractate, we reason “by the soul” which gave us life (e.g. awareness and calls us to intellectualization).
Therefore, the “fall of Soul” in Plotinus is something benign. The fall of Soul is reminiscent of the Judaic-Christian idea of the “breath of God” being breathed into man, whereby “man became a living soul.” We should not confuse the “fall of the soul” with the “fall of man” as in Christianity – though Christians will pick up on some parallels with this idea of the soul striving to reunite with the One (our striving to be in communion with the Trinity, etc.). Plotinus’s fall of Soul is what brings life, the fall of Soul is the moment life (awareness to realization) entered our bodies. The soul descended out of pure goodness from the One to bring true life (awareness and possibility of knowledge) to the world, we are subsequently responsible for this great gift of reason and ascend back to the One and live “new” lives with the knowledge we come to possess through reason.
III. Individuated Soul within the Body of Soul
Additionally, Plotinus examines the origins of the self in the first tractate. According to Plotinus we do not have individual souls separate from the Supreme Soul or Divine Being, rather, we have individuated souls that are part of the whole. I exist within the web of totality with other individuated souls who, when taken together to comprise totality, are really individuated parts of the larger whole. Thus, Plotinus locates the nexus of the self with the soul and not the body. The soul is in body but we are not, properly speaking, bodies. This is why Plotinian Platonism has lent itself nicely to Gnosticism and Manicheanism at times with its implicit soul-body dualism. However, we must say that Plotinus is not a gnostic or Manichean; nor is his philosophy dualistic. Rather, it is unitive. Body and Soul are bound together in a hierarchy of “higher” and “lower” as he says.
The higher realm is the intellectual realm. The lower realm is the material realm. Without the soul, or the ability to reflect and think (reason), we would be lost in the material realm as essentially unconscious brutes (drawing from Plato). With the union of the soul with the body, which brings awareness to desire instead of mere movement and sensation, we develop individual tastes and preferences. The problem is that the soul wants to return to the intellect and through the intellect to the One (God). The body, however, with its newfound awareness and tastes, becomes trapped in the world of carnal pleasures rather than ascending toward the Good. This sets up the dialectic between Reason and Desire in Plontinus and the struggle that defines the self.
Thus, Plotinus, as already stated, locates the self in the soul. I am my soul moreover than I am my body. I happen to be enclosed in a body. This is not something bad, however. But it is not the body which defines me or what I am; and it is not the body which seeks after the Supreme Good. The ascent of the soul, the becoming myself, is the transformation of the body through knowing.
IV. The Scope of Neoplatonic Rationalism
Plotinus’s first tractate is a monumental shift in the history of philosophy. While the idea of anthropology and soul is present in earlier Greek philosophical traditions, especially in Plato and Aristotle, none really give extensive treatment to the same attempt to understand what it means to be human as did Plotinus. Thus, while Christianity will become the force that really embraces the study of humanity so as to know itself – the origins of philosophical anthropology have their roots in Plotinus (which is why Plotinus was so influential on Christianity). We can summarize Plotinus’s first tractate as an exploration as to what it means to be human, and more specifically, what it means to be “alive.” Plotinus finds life in awareness of sense-data, and then attempts to understand why it is we have awareness of sense-data – to which he locates it in the soul. Then he attempts to understand what the soul is and where it came from. Thus, we can see Plotinus’s anthropology is one of rational introspection – the attempt to understand ourselves and who we are. Only in being able to answer this question can we satisfy the desires that we have awareness of.
Plotinus is a rationalist par excellence who does not deny the reality of sensation, but argues that there is more than sense-data. Thus, Plotinus is an anti-materialist and anti-reductionist insofar that life is more than matter and reduction of everything to sensation (a view now common in the post-Enlightenment West in which everything is said to be “frequencies” or “sound waves” or “sense awareness” moving at certain speeds, pitches, and so forth). Those who suppress their reason to return to the One and remain, for all intents and purposes, trapped in the world of carnality, show themselves to be animals and not humans. Those who use their gift of reason to which back to the One, in union with it, and come to know Truth, show themselves to be truly human.
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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