Plotinus (c. 204-270 CE) was a Platonic philosopher born in Lycopolis, Egypt. Although the story of his life was written down by his student Porphyry, few biographical details are included because Plotinus rejected the physical world of appearances in favor of the realm of the mind and considered trivialites such as his birth date, family, ancestry and personal endeavors unworthy of mention. At the age of 28 he began a course of study with the Platonist Ammonius Saccas that deeply impacted his life. Already a student of philosophy, Plotinus devoted himself fully to the discipline, absorbing Plato's Dialogues and his teacher's commentary on them. Plotinus' concept of the Divine Mind and the purpose of mortal existence exerted tremendous influence on all three of the world's great monotheistic religions and, for this reason, many consider him the most significant philosopher of the ancient world. He is the founder of the school of thought known as Neo-Platonism; a significant number of famous ancient writers, theologians, politicians, generals, and philosophers are now recognized as Neo-Platonists, although they would not have referred to themselves by that label. Plotinus' philosophy was recorded in the Enneads by Porphyry; he wrote nothing himself. He died in Rome at the age of 66.
Early Life and Travel
Plotinus' birthplace at the Greek colony of Lycopolis, Egypt suggests he was probably Greek but this is uncertain. All that is known of his life is what he allowed his student Porphyry to record. In his late twenties, pursuing an interest in philosophy, Plotinus went to Alexandria, which was then an intellectual centre which rivaled Athens. He was disappointed with the plebian philosophies he heard being taught as 'profound truths' and was steadily becoming more and more frustrated and disillusioned when a friend suggested he come to a talk by the Platonic philosopher Ammonius Saccas (who was also the teacher of the Christian theologian Origen). Plotinus went to the lecture and immediately declared that Saccas was the teacher he had been seeking all his life. After ten years of study under Saccas, Plotinus joined the military campagin of Emperor Gordian III to Persia in order to learn Persian and Indian philosophy. When Gordian was assassinated by his troops, and the campaign fell apart, Plotinus traveled to Antioch and then on to Rome where he remained for the rest of his life.
Plotinus and Neo-Platonism
Neo-Platonism is a modern term which defines the resurgence of Platonic thought, mixed with elements of mysticism and Christianity, which flourished in the 3rd century CE, with the work of Plotinus, and ended with the closing of Plato’s Academy by the emperor Justinian in 529 CE. It must be emphasized that the term 'Neo-Platonism’ is a modern designation and neither Plotinus nor those who came after him would have labeled themselves 'Neo-Platonists’ but would have simply considered themselves students and teachers of Plato’s thought. Unlike modern academic categorizations, they did not consider the study of the works of Aristotle to be fundamentally different from the study of Plato's concepts. To the ancient Neo-Platonists, Aristotle was a Platonist and an important one, as he had studied directly with the master. Aristotle, then, instead of being taught as a separate philosophy, was studied in preparation for reading Plato. Plotinus held that, just because Aristotle disagreed with his master on certain points, this did not mean the student broke from his master’s teachings and nothing was found in Aristotle’s work which fundamentally contradicted Plato’s vision, not even their disagreement over Plato's Theory of Forms.
Porphyry wrote down and edited Plotinus' teachings into six groups of nine called the Enneads (which is simply Greek for 'nine’) and also tried his best to write his master's biography but without much success. Plotinus' insistence on the life of the mind meant that small details of one's daily life were beneath notice. It is known, however, that he corresponded with a number of other philosophers, among them Cassius Longinus, friend and advisor to Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, who was executed when she was defeated by Aurelian in 273 CE.
The Philosophy of the Enneads
The Enneads develop Plato’s cosmology and his insistence on an ultimate truth that lies beyond the world of our senses. Plotinus calls this truth the 'One’ or the 'Good’ but, as this truth has no limits, it was never created, and can never be destroyed; it is really beyond the power of words to describe, though Plotinus’ label of nous, 'Divine Mind’, comes closest. The purpose of studying philosophy is to awaken the soul to the presence of this Divine Mind, this nous, and enable one to properly devote one’s life to its pursuit - a concept which would have an immense effect on St. Augustine of Hippo and his conception of the Christian God and the Christian’s duty in life. Plotinus wrote, “The God is not external to anyone, but is present with all things," which is reflected in Augustine's view of God in his work City of God.
Plotinus' philosophy is concisely explained by scholars Baird and Kaufmann:
Developing Plato's dualistic understanding of reality, Plotinus taught that true reality lies 'beyond' the physical world. This 'reality beyond reality' has no limits and so cannot be described by words, since words invariably have limits. Plotinus, again borrowing from Plato, calls this ultra-reality the 'Good' or the 'One'. The One/Good has no limits and is so supremely right that it overflows or 'emanates' to produce 'Intellectual-Principle' or 'Divine Mind' - nous. This Intellectual-Principle, in turn, overflows and 'Divine-Soul' emanates from it. This process continues as Divine-Soul generates the material world. The lowest level of emanation, at the furthest extreme from the One/Good, is the utter formlessness and unreality of matter. The goal of philosophy is to awaken individuals to the reality beyond the material world. But philosophy alone cannot take a person to the highest reality of the One. Only mystical experience can unite an individual with the One (540).
To Plotinus, that which we call 'evil’ is caused by our attachment to the things of this world that prevent our complete devotion to the Divine Mind. The objects of our desires and affections are not, in themselves, 'bad’ but are only so in so far as they keep us from the purpose of our lives: realizing the Divine Mind. In this way, the so-called 'problem of evil’ (which Christian apologists and others have wrestled with for centuries: if God is all good, why is there evil?) is solved in that, yes, 'evil’ does come from the Divine Mind but not purposefully. Human beings cause 'evil’ by choosing to attach themselves to earthly pleasures and the objects of those pleasures instead of to the Divine Mind. Human beings, then, are the cause of 'evil’ although the sense-objects which entice us are provided by the Divine Mind.
In this, Plotinus’ beliefs are similar to those of the Buddha who said, “From desire comes grief, from desire comes fear. He who is free from desire knows neither grief nor fear” and claimed that attachment to the sense-objects of this world was the whole cause of human suffering. Similarly, Plotinus posited that one’s 'goal’ in life was a mystical union with the Divine Mind (as with Buddha’s Nirvana) and claimed he had attained this union himself four times in his life.
The Neo-Platonic emphasis on rejection of the physical in favor of the spiritual, of an acknowledgement of an ultimate truth, and the recognition of certain set spiritual laws all came from the work of Plato but, under Plotinus’ keen mind, were synthesized and developed into a kind of philosophical/religious mysticism. It is through Poltinus’ work that Platonic thought would influence the belief structures of the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheistic thought did not originate with Plato, but the great thinkers who developed the structure of later monotheistic religions built upon Plato’s ideas as expressed by Plotinus and further developed by his students Porpyry and Iamblicus. The religious mysticism of Plotinus still draws people in the present day and is embraced by adherents of all faiths.
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Chicago Style Citation
1. Joshua J. Mark, “Plotinus,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified August 23, 2015, http://www.ancient.eu /Plotinus/.As Bibliography Entry:
Joshua J. Mark. “Plotinus,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 23, 2015. http://www.ancient.eu /Plotinus/.
c. 204 CE - 270 CELife of Plotinus.