Plotinus and the Philosophy of Purgatorial Virtue: Civic and Intellectual Virtues

Plotinus’s second tractate of the first Ennead is a commentary over the division of virtues.  This is commonplace in ancient philosophy and theology.  For instance, Christianity divides the cardinal virtues (justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance) and theological virtues (faith, hope, and love).  Plotinus, in this section of his Enneads, separates the “civic virtues” with the “purificatory” virtues.  What are the civic virtues and the purificatory virtues in Plotinus’s account you ask?

In sticking with Plotinian hierarchal metaphysics, civic virtue is the lower virtue and purificatory virtue is the higher virtue which actually purifies the soul.  This is not to say that civic virtue is pointless or useless.  On the contrary, as Plotinus says, the civic virtues allow one to catch a glimpse of the higher virtues.  At the same time, without the civic virtues life in the world would become unbearable and lawless:

The Civic Virtues, on which we have touched above, are a principle of order and beauty in us as long as we remain passing our life here: they ennoble us by setting bound and measure to our desires and to our entire sensibility, and dispelling false judgement – and this by sheer efficacy of the better, by the very setting of the bounds, by the fact that the measured is lifted outside of the sphere of the unmeasured and lawless.

Civic virtue, for Plotinus, is essentially ethical life.  It is how to conduct oneself in life, with others, and in community.  This is the closest Plotinus ever gets to discussing matters pertaining to the political within his only-known work.  But even at that his ruminations on civic virtue are sparse and abstract.  Sticking with his commentary about Hercules from the end of Ennead 1.1, where he said that because Hercules was in the shade of the lower world this was indicative of his “merit [being] action and not the contemplation which would place him unreservedly in the higher realm.”  Those who attain and live out the civic virtues are meritorious by their actions.  Civic virtue is life in the body but not life according to the intellect. In other words, civic virtue is how we live and act in the body politic with others.

Purificatory virtue, in contrast to civic virtue, is the intellectual or contemplative life.  This is what the soul properly seeks and has ramifications for the body too and purificatory virtue has an addition two-part schema to it.  In some way Plotinus is integrating Platonism with Aristotelianism here.  Purificatory virtue is the finding the golden mean through experience and knowledge—thus allowing one to know how to act precisely because they’ve dwelt on the matter.  As situations change so do our responses.  This has positive effects on the soul and life once mastered.  But this doesn’t lead to simply a good communitarian and civic life, as it did in Aristotle.  This acquisition of the golden mean, to keep with Aristotle’s language, purifies the soul.  Purificatory virtue allows you to know the world, yourself, how to live, and what matters in life.  It allows yourself to be free of carnal or bodily desires—it is the ultimate mastery of the passions.

Purificatory virtue includes the civic virtue elevated to a higher dimension through acting according to Truth.  But this is not where purificatory virtue ends.  The highest plane of purificatory virtue, the truly intellectual life, goes beyond civic virtue altogether as one unites with the One and knows truth through pure intellect.  This is the real arbiter of happiness and the good life in the Plotinian account.  (Note a dangerous path to solipsism here.)

To draw the contrast, civic virtue is akin to following laws.  Civic virtue is acting well which anyone can do.  Purificatory virtue is being good through acting according to Truth but also knowing truth through intellectual ascent and mastery.  This is entirely a self-oriented endeavor with the latter part of purificatory virtue being the highest virtue to attain.  Civic virtue simply directs the passions to good outcomes: protecting the home, protecting the family, protecting the fatherland, making products for wealth acquisition, etc.  Purificatory virtue, however, leads to true happiness insofar that happiness is tied to mastery of the passions which allows the soul to ascend back to the One and come into union with the good, true, and beautiful.  (Again we see the strong emphasis on Platonic-Plotinian rationalism here; the assertion being the contemplative life is sufficient, and really the only means, of attaining happiness and living the good life which civic virtue always falls short of.)

Lastly, Plotinus does not think that any of the virtues are transcendent or divine in the sense that they only exist in a transcendental realm.  That is, civic virtue and purificatory virtue are to be consummated in this life.  They are not to be attained in some later life or afterlife.  Civic life is the good life according to matter.  Purificatory virtue is the good life according to the soul which unites back with the Intellectual-Principle which emanated from the One which allows us to know the good, true, and beautiful and simply dwell on such intellectual majesty which provides us with the interior mastery and contentment we seek in this life.  And since we are primarily souls, as Plotinus explained in Ennead 1.1, it is to the health and well-being of our souls that we move beyond civic virtue to purificatory virtue since purificatory virtue purifies the soul for our intellectual life that has ramifications for how we live in this world. So while the virtues direct us to Transcendence, their application is in life on earth.


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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