The first philosophy book I ever bought—above is the exact cover—was the The Essential Plotinus. Conversations with a friend in the summer after high school in 1973 awoken me, as Hume did Kant, from my dogmatic slumber. At the time my friend was something of a devotee of Plotinus, having studied him in a metaphysics class. I eagerly bought the book and carried it around with me, although I didn’t understand much of it. But I have fond memories of the book. It marked the beginning of a long intellectual journey for, unbeknownst to me at the time, the world of the mind was beckoning.
Plotinus (c. 204/5 – 270) was a major Greek-speaking philosopher of the ancient world. In his philosophy there are three basic principles: the One , the Intellect, and the Soul. He is generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism, a mystical form of Platonism that thrived in Late Antiquity. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Pagan, Islamic, Jewish, Christian and Gnostic metaphysicians, as well as other mystics.
The One – Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, godlike, totally transcendent One containing no division, multiplicity or distinction. The One is beyond all categories of being and non-being. The One isn’t a thing or a person; it isn’t the sum of all things; and it isn’t sentient or self-aware. But the One is the first principle; it is good; and nothing could exist without it. The One is the source of the world, but it doesn’t create the world by willful action. Instead, reality emanates from the One, as an outpouring or overflowing of its nature in an ongoing temporal process. In other words, the One reflects itself onto lower planes, but these reflections represent limits on the ‘s perfection.
Nous – The first emanation from the One is Nous (Divine Mind, Logos, Thought, Reason, Intelligence.) This intelligence contemplates both the One, as well as its own thoughts, which Plotinus identifies with the Platonic Forms (eide).
Soul – The second emanation brings soul, the creative power of which is divided into the upper aspect, World Soul, which remains in contact with Nous, and the lower aspect, identified with nature, which allows for individual human souls.
Mystical Experience – To experience the is be in ecstatic union with it, a union Porphyry says that Plotinus achieved multiple times in his life. This union with the is probably related to enlightenment, and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions.
This Metaphysics – The concept of the One is similar to the concept of Brahman in Hinduism. It also has much in common with pantheism, the view that god and reality are the same thing. This idea that all reality is divine shows up throughout the history of philosophy and religion—most notably in the pantheism of Spinoza. The idea that nous contemplates Platonic ideas finds echoes in St. Augustine. And, no doubt, other parallels could be drawn between Plotinian metaphysics and other thinkers.
Happiness – Human happiness for Plotinus is beyond anything physical, attainable only within consciousness—the incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul. If we achieve true happiness, we can ignore pain and suffering, as our minds will be capable of focusing on eternal things. Thus the happiness of enlightened individuals cannot be disturbed, for in contemplation they experience the inner peace of union with the One.
Knowledge – Plotinus distinguished between: sense knowledge, which gives us little truth as it is about the changing physical world; reasoned cognition, which gives us knowledge of essences (Platonic forms); and ecstasy, which consists in intuition of, and connection with, the One. This climax of knowledge that consists in an ecstatic or intuitive mystical union with the One is something achieved by only a few.
Reflections – I am generally skeptical of this kind of metaphysical speculation. I’m just too influenced by Kant to believe that this kind of metaphysics can be sufficiently justified. I also believe that Plotinus basically has it backwards. His is a top-down system that starts with mind and ends with matter. But I’m a bottom-up or evolutionary thinker. Cosmic evolution begins with matter and mind slowly emerges. Of course this is something of a chicken or the egg question, and the issue of whether mind or matter is the eternal principle is a long-standing one in metaphysics. So I will say Plotinus does some pretty good top-down thinking.
Disclaimer – This is a very brief outline of Plotinus’ thinking, and I refer readers to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or Wikipedia for more. I also thank my old friend Dan Dunay for long ago introducing me to Plotinus.