Category Archives: Philosophy – History of

Summary of Plotinus

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.[1] He is generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism,[2] 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.

Matter – The third emanation results in matter, the lowest level of being, and is thus the least perfected level of the cosmos.

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 an 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 backward. 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.

Summary of Hobbes’ Political and Ethical Theories


Hobbes and the Social Contract

Moving in western culture from the ancient and medieval periods into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we approach modernity. The discovery of the new world, developments in commerce and industry, the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the rise of the secular alongside the decline of Christianity transformed western civilization. Inevitably, natural law theory would be scrutinized. The major figures of the period—Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), John Locke (1632-1704) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)—all tried, in one way or another, to reconcile the new secular ideas with traditional Christian morality. But the most revolutionary of all the new theorists was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believed that ethical norms were not to be found in God’s cosmic plan but in our social and political agreements.

Hobbes detested violence. He had read Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and had personally witnessed the decades of English civil war which culminated with the beheading of Charles II. The desire to avoid war motivated both his moral and political thought. Hobbes’ philosophy began by considering what the world would be like without morality. He believed that it would be a state of nature; a terrible place without art, literature, commerce, industry, or culture. Most terrifying of all, it would be a place of “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of [humans] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But why would it be so bad?

In the first place, Hobbes believed that human beings endeavor desperately to fulfill their desires for food, clothing, shelter, power, honor, glory, comfort, pleasure, self-aggrandizement, and a life of ease. Unfortunately, such things do not exist in abundance; they are scarce. In addition, he believed that persons were relatively equal in their power. Given desires, scarcity, relative power equality, and the predominant sense of self-interest all human beings exhibit, Hobbes concluded that human beings, in a state of nature, would be engaged in a fierce struggle over scarce resources. Individuals would attack, steal, destroy and invade to protect themselves and prove their status. Thus, Hobbes’ first thesis: the state of nature is a state of war.

Hobbes’ second thesis was that individuals in a state of nature have no a priori (natural, before experience) moral law that obligates them to constrain their behavior. For Hobbes, self-preservation justified the use of force and fraud to defend ourselves in a state of nature. In this state, only the power of others limited what we can do. Hobbes called this the right of nature. But this state is antithetical to our survival and so the desire for self-preservation expressed itself in another way which was Hobbes’ third thesis: fear of death and the desire for a good life incline us toward peace. Hobbes called this the law of nature. Morality was defined by articles of peace, essentially, the rules to which any rational self-interested person would agree. The state of nature demands that we follow one of the two formulations of the self-preservation principle. In the state of nature, we should exercise our right of nature; in the state of peace, we should follow the law of nature. These laws of nature bear no resemblance to the medieval concept of natural law; they simply demand self-preservation. In other words, morality is the set of rules that make peaceful living possible.

This led to Hobbes’ fourth thesis: though it is in our own interest to agree to the articles of peace; it is not rational to comply with our agreements unless some coercive power forces us. Otherwise, we might feign agreement and, when the other complies, violate the accord. To prevent this, a coercive power must ensure that we comply with our agreements. This agreement between individuals to establish the laws that make communal living possible and an agency to enforce those laws is called the social contract.

A Theory of Morality

While issues surrounding the nature of the coercive agency which guarantees compliance with the social contract leads to political theory, the agreed-upon rules constitute morality. Morality is the agreed-upon, mutually advantageous conventions which, assuming others’ compliance, make society possible. Thus, self-interest ultimately justifies morality. We can easily see that killing, lying, cheating, and stealing are prohibited since they threaten society and are not in anyone’s self-interest. Whether the moral prohibitions against homosexuality, prostitution, abortion, or euthanasia are justified in terms of individual and societal interest is more debatable.

But whatever the agreed-upon rules, according to the theory they do not exist prior to human contracts. We create morality by our agreements within the constraints demanded by self-preservation and self-interest; we do not discover antecedent moral truths. Prior to the contract, actions are neither moral nor immoral. But after the contract is signed, society forbids some actions, allows others, remains undecided on a few, and continually renegotiates the contract to satisfy rival parties. Therefore, the moral sphere is one of continual bargaining and power-struggling where conflict is resolved through moral discourse, a political mechanism, or violence. Hobbes’ detested the latter option.

Why the Social Contract Theory is Attractive

First, it takes the mystery out of ethics, ethics has to do with all of us being able to live well. Second, it says that morality is objective, there are objective reasons we shouldn’t kill or lie, but there are no mysterious moral facts from on high. Third, moral rules aren’t meant to interfere in people’s lives. Fourth, it doesn’t assume we are altruistic, it assumes we are self-interested, probably a more realistic assumption. And finally, it gives us a reason to be moral—morality is in our self-interest.

The Problem of the Free Rider

Contract theory answers the question of why “we” should be moral, but not why “I” should be moral? Instead, why not be a free rider? That is, why shouldn’t I be immoral if I can get away with it? Yes, it is good collectively for us all to be moral, but individually it seems I always do best by being immoral if I can get away with it. [The prisoner’s dilemma.] This is the toughest question for a contract theory of morality. Hobbes’ believed that we should penalize the non-cooperative move in order to deter individuals from choosing it. But this raises the problem of corruption and injustice among the coercive agencies—governments and their law enforcement departments. Perhaps then this problem is intractable, and there will be no solution until we change the hard-wiring of our brains.

Summary of Modern Philosophy – Descartes to Kant in Two Pages

In almost thirty years of college teaching, I wrote many things for my students, most of which are long since lost. I have been perusing the surviving material and have found a piece that might be of interest. (It originally came with this disclaimer: “This overview was written hastily this morning without consulting the book. If any of it conflicts with the book’s explanation, favor that explanation.”) I still issue the disclaimer.

Descartes wants to know what’s true. He begins by doubting everything and argues that knowledge derives from the certainty of the existence of one’s own consciousness and the innate ideas it holds. Primary among these innate ideas are mathematical ideas and the idea of a God. Upon this foundation, he claims all knowledge is built.

Locke argues that innate ideas are just another name for one’s pet ideas. Instead, he argues, knowledge is based on sense-data. Locke realizes that we only know things as we experience them, we don’t know the essence of the substances that make up the world. Retreating from the skepticism this implies, he accepts the common sense view that our perceptions correspond to external substances that are in the world.

Berkeley realizes that we can have perceptions without there being an external world at all. He believes that things exist only to the extent they are perceived, and thus non-perceived things don’t exist. All reality may be in the mind! Recognizing the implications of this radical philosophy, Berkeley claims that his God constantly perceives the world and thus the world is real after all.

Hume follows this thinking to its logical conclusion. We have perceptions, but their source is unknown. That source could be a god or gods, other powerful beings, substances, the imagination, etc. He also applies this skepticism about the existence of the external world to science, morality, and religion. Scientific knowledge is not absolute because there are problems with the idea of cause and effect as well as with inductive reasoning. Still, Hume believes that mathematics and the natural sciences are sources of knowledge.

Hume’s attack on religion is one of the most famous in the history of philosophy, and he ranks with Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Russell as a great critic of religion. His argument that miracle stories are almost certainly untrue is the most celebrated piece on that subject ever written.

For example, take the case of virgin births or resurrection from the dead. Such stories are found in many religions and throughout pagan mythology. But Hume asks whether it is more likely that such things actually happened, or that these are myths, stories, lies, deceptions, etc. Hume argues that its always more likely that reporters of miracles are deceiving you or were themselves deceived, than that the supposed miracle actually happened. Lying and being lied to are common, rising from the dead not so much.

Hume’s philosophy set the stage for the greatest of the modern philosophers, a man who said that Hume had “awakened him from his dogmatic slumber.” This thinker wants to respond to Hume’s skepticism and show that mathematics, science, ethics, and the Christian religion are all true. His name was Immanuel Kant.

Kant was one of the first philosophers who was a professor. He was a pious Lutheran, a solitary man who never married, and the author of some of the most esoteric works in philosophy. Troubled by Hume’s skepticism, Kant looked at both rationalists like Descartes and empiricists like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume for answers. Kant believed that the problem with rationalism is that it ultimately established great systems of logical relationships ungrounded in observations. The problem with empiricism was that it led to the conclusion that all certain knowledge is confined to the senses.

Kant thought that if we accept the scientific worldview, then belief in free will, soul, God, and immortality was impossible. Still, he wanted to reconcile rationalism and empiricism, while at the same time show that God, free will, knowledge, and ethics are possible. In fact, much of western philosophy since Descartes has tried to reconcile the scientific worldview with traditional notions of free will, meaning, God, and morality.

Kant’s Epistemology – Kant argues that rationalism is partly correct—the mind starts with certain innate structures. These structures impose themselves on the perceptions that come to the mind. In other words, the mind structures impressions, and thus knowledge results from the interaction of mind and the external world. Thus both the mind and sense-data matter in establishing truth, as the success of the scientific method shows.

Kant’s Copernican revolution placed the mind, rather than the external world, at the center of knowledge. What we can know depends upon the validity of what’s known by the structures of the mind. But is metaphysical knowledge justified? Can we know about the ultimate nature of things, things beyond our experience? Can we know if God, the immortal soul or free will exists?

What he realizes was that all we can know are phenomena, that is experience or sense-data mediated by the mind. Since all our minds are structured similarly, we all generally have the same basic sense experiences. But we cannot know “things-in-themselves,” that is, things as they actually are. Thus there is a gap between human reality—things as known to the mind—and pure reality—things as they really are.

To bridge this gap Kant proposes regulative ideas—self, cosmos, and God—which serve to make sense of our experiences. We must presuppose a self that experiences, a cosmos to be experienced, and a cause of the cosmos which is God. Kant grants that we can’t know if any of these things are true, but he thinks it is a practical necessity to act as if they are. We cannot have experiences without there being a knower, a known, and God. Since we do have experiences, Kant concludes that these regulative ideas probably correspond to real existing things.

Summary – Descartes was responding to the faith of the Middle Ages. His skepticism led eventually to the full-blown skepticism of Hume. Kant tried to reconcile Cartesian rationalism and Humean empiricism. He tried to reconcile science with religion, reason with ethics, and more. Whether he was successful is another question.

(Tomorrow I will provide a two page summary of Kant’s ethical theory. I have also written about it in detail here, here, and here.)

The Trial of Socrates

Summary of Plato’s Apology

The Apology is Plato’s recollection and interpretation of the Trial of Socrates (399 BCE). In the dialogue Socrates explains who he is and what kind of life he led. The Greek word “apologia” means explanation—it is not to be confused with apologizing for one’s actions. The following is an outline of the argument that Socrates makes in his defense.

I. Prologue (17a-19a)

The first sentence sets the tone and direction for the entire dialogue. Socrates, in addressing the men of Athens, states that he almost forgot who he was, and that the speeches of his accusers reminded him. The dialogue will thus be a kind of “recollecting” by Socrates of who he is. That is to say, the Apology will become Socrates’ answer to the question: “Who is Socrates?

II. The First False Charges (19a – 24a)

A. The Charges and Their Assignment (19a-20c)

The first “charge” against Socrates arose from general accusations that had been directed toward him through the years. These accusations were that Socrates was: (1) a physicalist and (2) a sophist. The charge of “investigating things beneath the earth and in the skies” were also leveled at physicalists like Thales and Anaxagoras. The charge of “making the weaker argument appear the stronger” was directed to sophists like Gorgias, Hippias, and Evanus. But Socrates is neither a physicalist or a Sophist. He is not a physicalist because he believes in a non-physical soul, and he is not a Sophist because, among other reasons, he doesn’t charge for his teaching and he is interested in truth not influence.

B. Socrates’ Art and the Delphic Oracle (20c-23c)

The false image of Socrates arose because people misunderstood his true activity. Socrates explains this activity by relating a story about the Delphic Oracle. A friend of Socrates’ went to the Oracle and asked the priestess: “Who is the wisest of mortals?” and the priestess replied: “Socrates is the most wise.” When Socrates heard this he was surprised, since he thought of himself as ignorant. In response, he tried to invalidate the claim by finding someone wiser than he. He began to question various people including politicians, poets, and craftsmen. In each encounter, the various individuals claim to be in possession of some kind of wisdom or knowledge. But upon further questioning, Socrates became convinced that none of these persons possessed knowledge or wisdom.

Socrates concluded that the truth of the statement “Socrates is most wise” is that Socrates was most wise because he was aware of his own ignorance, while those around him who claimed to know were ignorant of their ignorance.

C. How the Charges Arose (23c-24a)

In the course of Socrates’ verification of the Delphic Oracle’s claims that he was most wise, he challenged many people about their cherished beliefs. The response of many individuals was confusion and anger. Over the years, this anger took the form of a general resentment toward Socrates.

III. The Specific Charges (24b – 28a)

The charges made were that Socrates was guilty of: a) corruption of the youth; and b) impiety or not believing in the gods. And the penalty they demanded was death.

Regarding the Charge of Corruption of the Youth Socrates Responds:

  1. Meletus says that Socrates is the person in Athens who is responsible for the corruption of the youth. Yet it is absurd to say that only Socrates corrupts the youth. This implies that everyone else helps the youth. But just as there are few horse trainers, so there are few who really “train” the youth. Socrates is of these “trainers.”
  2. Who would voluntarily corrupt the youth? (25c-26a) If Socrates voluntarily harmed the youth, then (since evil begets evil) they would harm him. And no rational person voluntarily harms himself. But if he harmed the youth involuntarily, then he should be educated not punished. So either he is intentionally harming the youth which is self-destructive, or he is unintentionally harming them in which case he should be taught how not to do so, not punished.

Regarding the Charge of Impiety

Could a person believe in things like clothes and yet not in human beings who wear them? So too with divine things: Since Socrates believes in a Diamon (a divine thing), it follows that he believes in divinities. He also says that believes in spiritual activities so he obviously believes in spirits.

IV. Socrates’ Interpretation of his Art (28b – 32e)

Socrates is unpopular, but not ashamed of his occupation even if it brings death. One should not fear death, for that is to claim one knows what one does not know—that death is bad.) Socrates encourages people to care not for their possessions or bodies, but for their souls.

Socrates, far from being an impious corrupter of the youth, is actually a blessing sent by the gods. To show this, Socrates likens himself to a gadfly (a horsefly). Just as a gadfly constantly agitates a horse, preventing it from becoming sluggish and going to sleep, Socrates converses in the marketplace to prevent the city from becoming sluggish, careless and intolerant. Ultimately, Socrates’ whole life has been a service to the city begun out of a pious response to the saying of the gods. He is their gadfly.

V. Socrates Answers the Charges (33a-34b) 

Finally he asks if any present in the court felt that he had corrupted them. Plato and others indicate that, to the contrary, they have been helped by Socrates not corrupted by them.

VI. Epilogue (34c-35d)

Socrates tells the men of Athens that he wants to be judged according to his account of himself and not by any other standard—such as appealing to his old age or the fact that he has children. Thus Socrates wishes to be judged and not exonerated for any other reason than the demands of justice. A vote is taken and Socrates is found guilty.

VII. The Conviction and Alternate Penalties (36a – 38c)

The penalty proposed is death by hemlock. At this point, Socrates has the opportunity to propose an alternate penalty. Socrates argues that since the penalty should be something he deserves, and since he has spent his life in service to the city without pay, he deserves free meals for the rest of his life. (He does appear to offer that his friends will pay a small fine for him.)

VIII. Final Speeches (38c-42a)

There are two final speeches. The first are to those who voted for his death; the second are for those who voted for his acquittal.

To those who voted for his death (38c-39d)

At his age of 70 death would have soon arrived naturally. But now these people will bear the responsibility for it—and they will have allowed Athens to be condemned for my execution. Socrates notes that he could have won his case if he had appealed to their emotions if he had practiced Sophistry, but he chose instead to speak the truth. He prophecizes that there will be others to take his place when he is gone. After all, it is not the particular person of Socrates which is at issue here, but the activity of philosophy itself.

To those who voted for his acquittal (39e-42a)

Socrates notes that his Daemon never attempted to dissuade him from anything that he said. So this outcome must be for the good. After all, death is either one of two things: a deep sleep or a change of place. A deep sleep is more peaceful than most of our waking time. If he were to enter Hades—if death were a change of place—he would have the opportunity to meet all of the great Greek thinkers and heroes. And here he could ask them the same questions that he asked the men of Athens. So he has in no way been harmed, for he will either sleep soundly or continue talking. [He omits the ideas of some eternal punishment. Obviously, such an outcome was unthinkable.]

[In the next dialogue, the Crito, Socrates rebukes his friends who want to help him escape. Socrates has been found guilty and believes he should abide by the laws of the state that has nurtured and educated him. Finally the dialogue The Phaedo will describe the scene of Socrates’ death. After he has gone Plato writes movingly:

“Such was the end of our comrade … a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and the most just.”