Plotinus (c.205-270), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Plotinus (c.205-270), A Perspective

Who was this man? He was born in Egypt. However, he was later educated by the Greek intellectuals. Having gone on an expedition with the Emperor Gordian, he decided to live in Rome. But once the Emperor was assassinated by the Roman army, he was abandoned. He lived at the times when the sun was setting on the Roman Empire. Rome was under attack by its enemies. The fall of this great Empire was imminent. Rome was finally divided into Eastern and Western Empires. In fact, Plotinus is regarded as the last grand and celebrated philosopher of the Roman age.

Plotinus is known to have worked on Plato’s philosophy, which finally it produced what is called as ‘Neo-Platonism’ even though his philosophy was influenced by Aristotle and the Roman Stoics.

One of his students by the name of Porphyry collected his many writings, which were called ‘Enneads’. This title means ‘nine’ in Greek, which tells us that there’re nine chapters or treatises to every one of the six books existing in the collection.

His philosophy unites mystical with the practical, which influenced Christian theology. His thoughts are to assist his students to go back, in union or communion, to the One or the Ultimate Reality. It is my humble opinion that the Ultimate Reality for him is not Being. I believe the Ultimate Reality to him is beyond any duality. I maintain that this was the case for Plato himself, though he needed Being in order to explain becoming. Plotinus argued that through meditation we can become united with the Ultimate Reality.

Plotinus believed in three vertical levels of divinities: the One, the Intellect and the Soul. However, unlike Christian Holy Trinity, these are not on a disk like setting but they’re a hierarchy of ‘stages’ or emanations of contemplative being.

The One or ‘the Good’ using Plato’s philosophy is beyond description. In fact, as I see it, it doesn’t even exist, because it is beyond being and non-being, existence and non-existence. Language is able to only point to the One. There’re many names for the One, which are not its real names. It is rather the indescribable, unutterable, inexpressible mystical source of reality.

The lower level belongs to the Intellect or ‘Nous’, which corresponds to intuitive knowledge. This is not Kant’s pure reason. The Intellect is also hard to explain in language. However, Plotinus gives us different analogies. The Intellect, he says, is like the light of the Sun, illuminating the One, and is the way whereby the One contemplates itself. If we decided to accept this, then we have a problem on our hands, because to do that there must be a duality. When I say I contemplate myself, I’m introducing a duality. So I don’t think it would make sense to explain the Ultimate Reality this way. The Intellect is fountain head and the foundation of archetypes, or Platonic Forms, of material things. Thought and its objects are combined in the Intellect and there’s no distinction between subject and object or perceiver and perceived. This reminds us of ‘Atman’ in Hinduism. Atman is like a ray of the Sun (Brahman) or the Ultimate Reality within us in which duality has no meaning.

The next stage of reality is Soul, which corresponds to rational or discursive way of thinking. There’s a higher and lower compartment, between the higher and inward-facing Soul, looking towards the divine through the Intellect, and the lower and outward-facing Soul. Plotinus names this lower part Nature. It is this lower, outer-facing Nature, which is accountable for the material world.  Being human, both of these levels are present in us and we have the freedom to choose between being concerned with the lower part regarding the body, or to look inward and contemplate the higher realities of the Intellect.

For a moment imagine you were among the Church fathers in 300AD studying Plotinus’ philosophy, while you were also thinking of the story of God’s creation of Adam. God is the One and His Spirit is the Intellect, which is in Adam. The other part of him is from nature or earth. The One is beyond the personal God of Abraham. The Intellect is Jesus, which is not soul. Spirit is not soul. Soul and the body were one in early Hebrew belief. There was no distinction between the two. If the Intellect or the ray of the Sun or the light of the Sun is Christ, then we could put Jesus on the same level as God the Father. This is exactly where Plotinus would disagree with the Church Fathers, because there’s a difference between the ray of the Sun and the Sun itself. Thus, it should be located on a lower level than God the Father not on the same level.  Of course, soul needs to be put below the Intellect. The soul or psyche or mind is one in touch with the world or nature. According to Plotinus there’s no duality of subject and object or perceiver and perceived in the Intellect. However, even though we mentioned that in the early belief there was no division between the soul and the body, we wonder whether the early Hebrew people were referring to the Intellect or the Spirit of God when they discussed this matter. In the ‘Axial’ age we say, though we’re in this world we’re not of it. This was an idea put forward by a scholar years ago. Well, either there’s a distinction between the two or not, we seem to be placed here on earth like a tree roots in the ground and branches towards the sky. The lotus flower has roots in the mud and once out of the surface of the water reaches for the Sun. Does this sound like Plotinus’ philosophy? No wonder why he had an urge to visit the East and learn from its wisdom tradition.

To understand Plotinus’ cosmology we ought to regard the three stages of reality, the One, the Intellect and the Soul as logical developments, or stages of contemplation, of a singular eternal reality. This is not about temporal successions of coming into being. It concerns the vertical ascent to the Ultimate Reality not a horizontal achievement.

He said time was created through insufficient power of Nature to contemplate the divine. Does this make sense to you? Well, time is an illusion in Hinduism. Time stands between us and the real and objective world. I personally think that we have created time to be the measure of motion. If the earth doesn’t revolve around the Sun, then what is time? Time has no substantiality what so ever.

According to Plotinus, time is about the lower order of material existence, because Soul, unlike the Intellect, cannot contemplate the Forms without a medium. However, it has to contemplate them as disconnected objects perceived in moments of succession and not as a whole.

When I look at the geometric shape of a tetrahedron, I can see the Church Fathers’ positions at the bottom, which is a triangle, God the Father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit. At the top, namely the apex or summit I see the Ultimate Reality. In this sketch we have Plotinus with his hierarchy and at the bottom we observe the Church Fathers and their all on the same level realities. As you can see, there’s a major difference between the two positions. The Church Fathers’ map of the Holy Trinity gave us Hegel and his philosophy of history. However, Plotinus’ hierarchical picture still stands challenging the Christian theology, which reached a dead end in the 19th century Europe. Plotinus’ thoughts influenced Muslim philosophers a great deal throughout centuries.

( Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers by Philip Stokes)