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Plotinus at Work on Platonism

Author(s): John Dillon

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Oct., 1992), pp. 189-204
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association
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Greece& Rome, Vol. xxxix, No. 2, October1992





'These teachings are, therefore, no novelties, no inventions of today, but

long since stated, if not stressed;our doctrine here is the explanation of an
earlier, and can show the antiquity of these opinions on the testimony of
Plato himself.' This quotation, from Enn. V 1.8, where Plotinus is actually
presenting his doctrine of the three hypostases - a metaphysicalelaboration never envisaged by Plato - encapsulates the interesting relationship
which links this great original mind to the other great original mind whom
he wished to claim as his master.There is, of course, nothing strange, in the
intellectual world of late antiquity, in this desire to base one's doctrine on
some time-honouredauthority;what is unusual is the degree of originality
of the man who is doing this.
The Plotinus that I wish to present in this essay is neither the faithful
Platonist that he saw himself as being, nor yet the systematic philosopher
that he has been presented as being by most modern authoritieson him; I
want to argue for a less familar view of him (though one that is becoming
more clearly recognizedby the present generationof scholars),namely that
of a thinker with an open-ended, 'aporetic' approach to philosophy, a
mystic who is also a rationalist,for whom the intelligibleworld is more real
than the physical, but who is confident that its contours and functions can
be establishedby reasoned argument.'
I will proceed (after a brief survey of his life and works) by, first,
isolating certain guiding principlesin Plotinus' system, and then surveying
its various components - the three 'hypostases' and the relations between
them, problems of the soul and its relation to the body and the material
world, and questions of personal identity and personalfreedom, in all cases
concentrating on the 'aporetic' rather than the dogmatic aspect of his
A. Life and works
In this area we are, on the one hand, most fortunate in having what we
have for no other of the great philosophersof antiquity:a personalmemoir



written by a pupil (Porphyryof Tyre, Plotinus' successor and editor of his

works), and one which must rank very high among survivingspecimens of
ancient biography.On the other hand, however, there is no denying that
Porphyry'sLife (traditionallyprefixedto his edition of the Enneads)leaves
a host of questions unanswered.I will run through briefly what we learn
from him about Plotinus, while noting at the same time some annoying
Plotinus was born in Lycopolis, in Upper Egypt (even this detail we learn
not from Porphyry, but from Eunapius and the Suda), in 204 A.D. About
his family circumstances and early life (up, indeed, to the age of 27) we
know nothing substantial,since it was not somethinghe cared to talk about
(Porph. Vit.Plot. ch. 2), but from his name - which is a Roman cognomenand from the way in which his career developed, we can conclude that he
was of good family.
He seems to have taken up philosophy only at the age of twenty-seven,
when (as he later related to his students, ibid.,ch. 3) he came to Alexandria
to find a teacher. None of the establishedteachers pleased him, but then a
friend introducedhim to the circle of a teacher rather on the fringe of the
establishment, called Ammonius Saccas, and he was so captivated by his
ideas that he remainedwith him for eleven years (232-243 A.D.).
At this point, however, in the spring of 243, he embarkedon a remarkable adventure. Study with Ammonius, Porphyry tells us (ibid.), had
instilled in Plotinus a great desire to inform himself about the doctrines of
the Persians and the Indians (no doubt the consequence of a certain
'orientalizing'streak in Ammonius'philosophy,which he will have derived
from Numenius).He thereforecontrivedan appointmenton the staff of the
Emperor Gordian III, who was organizing an expedition against the
Persians.How well this method of approachwould have commended him
to the Magi or the Brahmanswas never put to the test, however, since the
emperor was murdered in Feb. 244 by members of his staff, led by the
Praetorian Prefect, Philip the Arab (who thus succeeded to the throne).
Plotinus escaped back to Antioch, and thence, in the autumn of the same
year, made his way to Rome, where (helped,no doubt, by suitableintroductions, though Porphyry gives us no clue as to his motivation or his means)
he set up as a philosopher.
He stayed in Rome, or at least in Italy (he spent the summers in
Campania), so far as we know, until his death twenty-five years later, in
269. He lived (at least when Porphyryknew him, Vit. Plot. 9) in the house
of a wealthy widow named Gemina, and built up an impressive circle of
prominent followers, including many senators, and even the emperor



Gallienus himself, and his wife Salonina (ibid. 7, 12). His chief disciple,
until Porphyry arrived in 263, was Amelius Gentilianus, from Etruria.
Very little of Amelius' work has survived, and from what we know of it, it
would not seem that his contributions to philosophy were substantial.
Porphyry, on the other hand, who came, via study in Athens with the
Platonist Longinus, from Tyre, is an important figure in the subsequent
history of Platonism, apartfrom his service in both provokinghis master to
set down his thoughts on paper, and then editing them, as a set of six books
of nine treatises, or enneads.
Plotinus, it seems, was hesitant about setting down his teachings (ibid.4).
He only began to write at all in his fiftieth year, ten years after arrivingin
Rome - a fact that must be born in mind when one is tempted to speak of
'early' tractates - and even when Porphyry arrived,ten years later again,
only twenty-one tractates had been composed, and those not generally the
most substantial. The bulk of the Enneads was in fact composed when
Plotinus was over sixty.This does not mean that he was a late developer.It is
rather the case that he had to overcome a considerableaversionto literary
composition. The tractates are by no means polished literary works, but
rather streams of consciousness, records of Plotinus' argumentswith himself, or with his associates, usually arisingfrom his reading of some text of
Plato or Aristotle,or some commentaryon such a text. He did not, it seems,
give titles to these works himself (ibid.),and he was much averse to reading
over what he had written (ibid.8), so that Porphyryhad a considerablejob of
editing even to bringthem to the state in which we have them.Porphyryfortunatelyprovidesus with both a chronologicallistingof the tractates(ibid.46), as well as his own arrangementby themes, so that we can see in some cases
where he has divided essays which Plotinus had composed together, partly
for thematicreasons,but partlyalsoto bringthe total up to his magic number
of six nines. The most notable instance of this Porphyrianpractice is the
sequence Enn. III 8, V 8, V 5, II9, which are almostcertainlypartsof a single
majorstatementof Plotinus'position,provokedby the intellectualchallenge
of some Gnostic enthusiastswithin his circle.Other key tractates would be
VI 9 [9], 'On the Good or the One';V 1 [10] 'On the Three PrimaryHypostases'; II 4 [12], 'On the Two Kinds of Matter'; VI 4-5 [22-3], 'On the
Reasonwhy Beingis everywhereall present,One andthe Same';IV 3-5 [279], 'Problemsof the Soul';VI 7 [38], 'How the Multitudeof Forms came into
Being, and on the Good'; VI 8 [39], 'On Free Will';III 7 [45], 'On Eternity
and Time'; III 2-3 [47-8], 'On Providence'; V 3 [49], 'On the Knowing
Hypostasesand That which is Beyond';I 8 [51], 'Onthe Nature of Evils';and
I 1 [53], 'Whatis the Living Being?'.



Plotinus died in 269/70, of a protracted and painful illness, at the

Campanianvilla of his old friend, the ArabdoctorZethus, attendedonly by
one of his companions, Eustochius. Amelius had retired to Apamea in
Syria, and Porphyry was in Sicily, recovering from a bout of suicidal
depression. What, if anything, happened to his school we do not know,
though it is assumed that Porphyry took it over - in so far as there was
anything to take over - on his return from Sicily. His influence on later
Platonist doctrine was profound, though his distinctive method of
philosophizing does not seem to have been taken up by any later
philosopher. He stands out on his own as the one distinctively original
philosophicalmind of late antiquity.

B. Some general principles3

The first thing generally emphasized about Plotinus' system is that it
presents a hierarchical view of reality. His first principle, 'the One', or
Absolute Unity, is superior to, 'above', Intellect, his second principle, and
intellect is similarlysuperiorto Soul; at the bottom of the scale comes the
physical world and Matter.
It is certainly reasonable to view it in these terms. It is a feature of the
system which he inheritedfrom Plato, and which had been elaboratedover
the years by generations of Platonists. The contrast between a realm of
immaterial, intelligible Being and one of material, sensible Becoming is
basic to Platonism, and a further distinctionhad become accepted, at least
from the first centuriesA.D.,but perhapsgoing back to the Old Academy in
the generations immediately after Plato, between a supreme principle or
God, who would be a transcendent,self-thinking,intellect, and a secondary
divinity, a World-Soul, or Logos (best rendered, perhaps, as 'reasonprinciple'),which is at least partly immanent in the physical world, though
itself immaterial.On this scheme Plotinus actuallyimposes a further layer,
in the shape of the One, above Intellect and Being.
Hierarchy is, then, a palpablefeature of his thought. But is also notable
that Plotinus in many places shows that he regards this hierarchy as, not
only vertical, but also somehow concentric.The One is actually at the core
of reality, like the centre of a circle. Plotinus is quite fond of the image of
centre and circle, e.g. Enn. IV 3, 17, 12ff.:
There is, we may put it, something that is a centre;about it, a circle of light shed from it;
round centre and first circle alike, another circle, light from light; outside that again, not
another circle of light but one which, lacking light of its own, must borrow. (trans.



The important treatise Enn. VI 4-5 is an extended meditation on this

theme (cf. esp. VI 5, 5). In this Plotinus is much more penetratingly
analytical than his predecessors, even perhaps than Plato himself, and it
profoundly affects his view of the world of Forms, as can be seen particularly in the first part (chs. 1-15) of Enn. VI 7. There is just one universe,
not two or more, but we can either consider it superficially,as a congeries
of physical objects, or we can see in it the workings of Soul, or we can
penetrate to its Being, as a system of Forms, or ultimately we can apprehend it, mystically and ecstatically, as Absolute Unity.
This Plotinian universe is held together by a two-way process of interaction between levels of reality, one for which the commonly used terms
are 'procession' (proodos)and 'return' or 'reversion' (epistrophe).Procession is not exactly emanation,as it was traditionallydescribedas being, but
rather a sort of illumination or irradiation of the lower by the higher,
without anything essential from the higher flowing into the lower, as would
be implied by the term 'emanation'. It is important, before we come to
examine the separate levels of reality in Plotinus' system, to appreciate
properly this dynamic aspect of it.
Plotinus is essentially a monist, and for any philosopher who holds the
view, as he does, that basically reality is one, the problem must be faced of
how the multiplicityof a universe arises from this. If one starts from a first
principle which is at a pinnacle both of unity and of excellence, how can
one assert that anything else should ever arise from it? To explain this
Plotinus reasons in the following way. Making use of a principledeveloped
by Aristotle in biological contexts, to the effect that every entity, when it
comes to perfection, is naturally generative or productive, he lays down
that the One, his first principle,being perfect, must be productive.It must,
to use a favourite metaphor of Plotinus', 'overflow' into the production of
something other than itself. This 'other' must, for logical reasons, be worse
than itself (it cannot be either better - there can be nothing better - or the
same, since then there would be no production at all), and 'worse' means
slightly less unified, and slightly less perfect. This process takes place
without any conscious intention on the part of the first principle - such
would be incompatible with its simplicity, as we shall see; it is a purely
instinctive act, though it is an act brought to completion by an element of
reflexivity on the part of the product - the new level of reality createsitself
by reverting on its source, in a way that will be discussed further below.
This process of production repeats itself at various lower stages of
reality, resulting in ever greater degrees of multiplicity and imperfection,
until the process reaches a logical end in the production of an entity



('matter') so feeble that it is unable to revert, and thus cannot attain any
degree of real existence, though it can form a substratum on which the
products of the next lowest degree of reality can be projected.
All this is, I realize, extremely abstract,and badly in need of fleshing out,
but I want at the outset to focus on this basic process of the Plotinian
universe, before going on to examine the various products of it. We may
now proceed to 'put faces on' them. In this connection, what I wish to
emphasize is the extent to which Plotinus' philosophical positions arise
logically from his acute questioning of the tradition which he inherited,
which is basically that of second-centuryA.D. Platonism.It would be quite
wrong to assume for instance, as was comfortablydone in the past, that his
postulation of a first principle'above' being and intellection is some sort of
concession to 'orientalirrationalism'or 'mysticism'.Plotinus was a mystic,
as we have seen, but he arrivesat his philosophicaldoctrinesin response to
certain long-standingproblems within Platonism, which he is not able, as
his predecessorsapparentlywere, to ignore or sweep under the carpet.

C. The System of Hypostases: (i) The One

One major problem which Plotinus inherited from his tradition was a
contradiction between the Platonic-Pythagorean doctrine of the first
principleas a radical unity - One, or a monad - and the belief, enunciated
most notably by Aristotle (but going back to Anaxagoras) that the first
principlewas an intellect (nous), and specifically an intellect thinkingitself.
That the first principle was both a monad and an intellect was accepted
already in the Old Academy by Xenocrates, third head of the School after
Plato (Frs. 15, 16 Heinze) - though not, we may note, by his predecessor,
Plato's nephew Speusippus, who seems to have postulated a One above
being - and became the accepted position in Middle Platonism, no contradiction being apparently observed between absolute unity and selfintellection.However, even in the Middle Platonic period, certain tensions
in this conception did become apparent.
These tensions may best be viewed in the form in which they surface in
Numenius (fl.c. 140 A.D.) a thinker who had a particularly strong
influence on Plotinus. Plato had bequeathed to his successors both the
intimation, at least , of a supreme principle,the Good of Republic VI-VII,
manifested in various other forms in other dialogues (and thought, at least
in later times, to be the subject of the first hypothesis of the latter part of
the Parmenides),which is the goal of all striving,and in some way the cause



notonlyof theknowability,
of alltruebeing;andan
of the Timaeus
activecreatorgod,the 'Demiurge'
divinefigurein themythof theStatesman
who,if one
wasplainlynota supreme
he is
portrayed contemplatingpre-existing
relationship this
creating physicalworld,
As theycontemplated
to the Stoiclogos,or
aspect god,
beingits contents,but
otherschoseto taketheDemiurgeas a secondgod,intermediate
other,bothof thelatterof whichit creates(thoughnotatanypointintime)
froma (logically)
a sequenceof threegods:
as 'atrest'and'free
the Father,who,while
fromalllabours'(Fr.12DesPlaces),asopposedto theDemiurge
whois an intellect'inmotion',andis the creatorof theworld(ibid.),and
lastly,the worlditself,viewedas the WorldSoulimmanentin Matter.
firstgod,though,is stillan intellect.It is explicitlyidentified
asthecreatorof Being,evenas
withPlato'sGood(Fr.16),andis described
is thecreatorof therealmof Becoming
If oneis the
of Being,however,
Fr.16 that 'thebeingof the primal(god)is differentfromthat of the
second'(whois alreadyidentified
that we have only
We can see from this (andwe must appreciate
conceptof thefirstgodas
an intellectwasalreadyunderstrainwhenPlotinus(whatever
cameto analyseit.ForPlotinustheproblem
is this,as
set out veryclearly,for instance,in latterpartof Enn.V 3 (chs.10-17):
anysortof intellection,
cannotbe predicated
of thefirst
(thoughit is properto a secondary
Thereis nothingherethatneedbeseenasun-Hellenic
is the outcomeof a rigorousanalysisof the implications
of postulating
unity as the basic reality in the universe. That one must do this is well
arguedin the (relatively)early treatise VI 9 [9]. Admittedly,Plotinus is left



with some nagging problems as to what form of 'inner life' might be

enjoyed by the One (he is determinedthat it should not be regardedas inert
or 'dead' - it is, after all, the inexhaustible source of existence for everything else). So, while he emphasizes its transcendence and radical 'otherness', its superiorityto Being and Intellect, and its unknowabilityby any
normal faculty of cognition, nevertheless, in a number of passages, most
notably V 4 [7], VI 7 [38], and VI 8 [39], 16, he makes some attempt to
explore what sort of apprehensionthe One might have of itself.
For Plotinus, after all, the One, as I say, is not really a negativity, despite
the 'negative theology' to which he frequently resorts in speaking of it;
indeed, it is boiling with activity. The problemis how to express this without assimilatingit to the self-intellection of his second principle,Intellect,
or any sort of activity of lower entities, from Soul on down. In V 4, 2, he
actually speaks of the One as follows:
'The object of (Intellect's) intellection (to noeton, i.e., in this context, the One) remains by
itself, and is not deficient, like that which sees and thinks (i.e. Intellect) - I call that which
thinks deficient as comparedwith the Intelligible,but it is not like something senseless; all
things belong to it and are in it and with it. It is completely able to discern itself (pante
diakritikonheautou);it has life in itself and all things in itself, and its cognition (katanoesis)
of itself takes place by a kind of immediate self-consciousness (hoionei synaisthesei),in
everlastingrest and in a manner of thinking different from the thinking of Intellect.' (trans.
Armstrong,slightly adapted.)

This passage is from an 'early' tractate, and is therefore sometimes

dismissedor downplayedfor this reason, as if Plotinus were here still under
the influence of Numenian formulations.But we must bear in mind that no
tractate of a man who began writing in his fifties can really be considered
'early'. It is more plausible to argue that he became more cautious in his
language on this subject as he began to write more, but he was always
anxious to avoid the impression that the One was some kind of blank or
negativity. In the fully mature essay VI 8, where he is concerned to argue
that the One is neither constrained by necessity nor yet random or
'accidental',we find this passage, in ch. 16:
'And then, further, if he (sc. the One, though referred to in the masculine) is supremely
because he so to speak holds to himself and so to speak looks to himself, and this so-called
"being"of his is his looking to himself, he as it were makes himself and is not as he chanced
to be but as he wills, and his willing is not randomnor as it happened;for since it is willing of
the best it is not random' (trans. Armstrong).

The repeated use of hoion ('so to speak') is an indication of Plotinus'

discomfort here, but he is determined not to deny the One some sort of



(ii) Intellect
With the problem of the 'inner life' of the One is connected that of its
relation to Intellect, which Plotinus postulates as the second principleof his
metaphysical scheme. The first stage or 'moment' of Intellect on proceeding from the One is a sort of indefiniteness (cf. V 4, 2; V 1, 7), which
Plotinus is prepared on occasion to identify with the Indefinite Dyad of
Platonic oral tradition, and with 'intelligible matter'. In V 1, 7, 37ff., he
speaks of the initial product of the One as follows:
'For since it was perfect it had to generate, and not be without offspringwhen it was so great
a power. But its offspring could not be better than it (this is not so even here below), but had
to be a lesser image of it, and in the same way indefinite(aoriston),but defined by its parent
and, so to speak, given a form.' (trans. Armstrong.)

It is the reversion upon its supreme principle (a tendency characteristicof

all lower principles)that first makes Intellect properly Intellect.
Plotinus is not here being wilfully obscure.He is wrestling, rather, with
troublesome logical problems. The One is not an intellect, and it is not
intentionally generating anything. What proceeds from it cannot initially
be an intellect either. The reflective, self-conscious aspect which creates
intellect is a logically secondary stage in this process.
Another troublesomeaspect of the realm of Nous is the relationbetween
Intellect as a whole and its component parts, the forms, which are also
intellects; and, allied to this, the problem of the nature of these forms. The
question of the relation of Intellect to its contents arises from later
Platonist speculation on the relation of the 'demiurge', or creator-god,of
the Timaeusto the 'paradigm',which is the model according to which, in
the myth-like scenario presented in that dialogue, he fashions the physical
world, and later Peripatetic speculation (particularlyby such a thinker as
the late second-centuryAlexanderof Aphrodisias)as to the contents of the
Aristotelian first principle, the 'unmoved mover', which is an intellect
thinking itself.
Plotinus raises these enquiriesto a new level of sophistication,especially
in the first part (chs. 1-15) of the great treatise Enn. VI 7 (but also in such
a treatise as V 9), though without solving all the problems.For him, every
individualform mirrorsthe whole of Intellect, but from its own individual
perspective. These forms are best seen, I think, as a system of quasimathematical formulae, which project themselves on matter to produce
the multiplicity of the physical world. In some sense, all aspects of this
world even earth, stones, the lower animals, mud and hair, are anticipated



in the intelligible world. The structuringprinciple of that world is seen as

being number, its role being discussed most fully in Enn. VI 6 'On
Numbers' but more briefly also at V 5, 4-5, where 'essential number' is
presented as 'the unfailing providerof substanceto the divine intellection'.
A particulartopic of considerableinterest and continuingcontroversyis
whether Plotinus actuallybelieved in all forms of individuals,a proposition
he appearsto accept in Enn. V 7. Such a notion seems to fly in the face of
the traditional theory of forms, which were necessarily of classes and
general concepts, rather than particulars, and V 7, if read carefully,
emerges as more dialectical than dogmatic in its approach, but I am
inclined to think that Plotinus did wish to find a place at its level of Soul, at
least, if not of Intellect, for the individualsoul, viewed as a kind of unique
particular corresponding to a form. How this relates to the doctrine of
reincarnation,however, in which he also believed, is not clear, though it is
possible that he envisaged a form of the sum-total of individualmanifestations of the same soul.

(iii) Soul
For Plotinus, Soul is an hypostasis quite distinct from Intellect, whose
relation with it is analogous to that of Intellect with the One. In either case,
a kind of effortless radiation from a source results in, first, an indefinite
outflowing, and then, by virtue of a process of 'reversion'upon the source,
the formation of a distinct, inferior level of reality. The essence and
activities of Soul result from its imperfect abilityto reproducethe nature of
what it contemplates. Its characteristic features are temporality and
discursive thought (dianoia).
Time is presented, in Enn. III 7, as the 'life' of Soul, in contrast to
Eternity (aion), which is the mode of existence of Intellect, and dianoia as
its proper mode of thought, as opposed to the non-discursive noesis of
Intellect, in such a passage as the first half of V 3 (cc. 1-9). However, Soul
is an entity which spans various levels of reality, and we find on occasion
the highest aspect, at least, of Soul being largely assimilatedto Intellect.In
VI 4-5, for example, where Plotinus is concerned primarilywith the omnipresence in body of incorporealbeing as a whole, very little distinction is
made between Soul, Intellect and even the One. Indeed, the distinction
between Soul in its undescended aspect and Intellect is something of a
logical problem,since what makes Soul distinctivelySoul is its 'descending'
or 'unrolling' from Intellect, a process that makes it a temporal and discursive entity (cf. III 7, 4-5), but this merely emphasizes once again the



degreeof continuity
The relationbetweenthe hypostasisSoul,the World-Soul,
and the
soulis anothervexedquestion,whichPlotinusaddresses
to counterthe Stoic view that our souls are simplypartsof an allFor him, the relationship
is muchmorecomembracingWorld-Soul.
fromSoulthe hypostasis,
so thatwe are,rather,juniorpartnersof the
in a muchmoreprecarious
is, andnot 'parts'or offshootsof it.
A furtherproblemis thedegreeto whichtheindividual
intoMatter.'InIII6, 1-5, Plotinusis concerned
to emphasize
thatSoulcannotdescendintoMatterin sucha wayasto be
of Nature(physis),
is inhabited
fromSoul.Natureitselfis presented,strangely,in V 2, 1, as 'another
butthatis notto
bySoulin its downward
betaken,I think,asmeaninganhypostasis
thereis an areaof tensionherein Plotinus'thought,boundup withthe
of thereasonsforthe'fall'of thesoul,in sofaras
it doesfall.
Thatthe soul 'falls'froma highercondition(andtherebyconstitutes
itselfas soul)is a notionwhichPlotinusinheritsfromPlatohimselfandthe
Platonictradition,but which,as usual,he probesmoredeeplythathis
thesoul'falls',inthatit declinesfromidentitywith
(cf.V 1, 1;IV3, 12-13),andthis
(III7, 11),as I havementioned,
modeof existence whichwe andthephysicalworldhaveourbeing,but
howareweto characterize
froma 'moral'pointof view?
In IV 8, Plotinusmakesclearthat,thoughsucha fall maybe a misforthecomplefortunefortheindividual
tion of the universe,and is thus ultimatelya good thing.Also, the
andthehighestpartof theindividual
soul,cannotbe saidto
descendin the strongsense.A notablestatementof thislatterdoctrine,
whichPlotinusis quiteemphatic
about(e.g.IV8, 8;V 1 10),asif conscious
thatit wascontroversial,
occursat III4, 3:
'Forthe soulis manythings,andallthings,boththethingsaboveandthethingsbelowdown
to the limitsof all life, andwe are eachone of us an intelligibleuniverse(kosmosnoetos),
makingcontactwiththis lowerworldby the powersof soulbelow,butwiththe intelligible



world by its powers above and the powers of the universe;and we remainwith all the rest of
our intelligiblepart above, but by its ultimate fringe we are tied to the world below, giving a
kind of outflow from it to what is below, or rather an activity (energeia),by which that
intelligible part is not itself lessened.' (trans.Armstrong)

This insistence that some part of the soul remains 'above' doubtless springs
from Plotinus' own experience, but its philosophicaljustificationis that it
preserves the soul's truly central role in the universe, while exempting it
from contaminationby the material element.
The major treatise Enn. IV 3-4 (Problemsof the Soul) is a series of
enquiries into questions connected with the soul which were subjects of
dispute or uncertainty in the tradition. A question of particular interest
which may be mentioned here is that of the survivalof the personalityafter
death (IV 3, 25 - 4, 12), a topic which is introducedthrough an examination of memory and imagination.What can be conceived of as remembering when we are free from the body?Can we have memory at all without a
faculty of imagination or representation(phantasia)?Is memory a faculty
proper to truly eternal beings, such as even the planetary gods? The large
question which this provokes, but which Plotinus does not address (any
more than he does in his speculationsabout forms of invididuals),is where
this leaves the traditionalPythagorean-Platonicdoctrine of reincarnation,
in which he certainly seems to have believed also.

(iv) Man, the Self, Fate, and Free Will

In keeping with Plotinus' deeper analysis of traditionalPlatonist concepts,
such as the higher and lower soul, is his development of a doctrine of the
self. As far as we can discern,this is an originalcontributionof his.6As E. R.
Dodds points out,' Plotinus seems to be the first to have clearly distinguished the concepts of soul and ego (for which later concept Plotinus
actually has to invent a term, using the Greek for 'we', hemeis).'For him',
says Dodds, 'the two terms are not co-extensive. Soul is a continuum
extending from the summit of the individual psyche, whose activity is
perpetualintellection, through the normal empiricalself, right down to the
"image"(eidolon), the faint psychic trace in the organism;but the ego is a

fluctuatingspotlightof consciousness

A majortext for the analysis of this 'floating spotlight' is the late tractate
Enn. I 1 [53], 'The Animate and the Man', which Porphyry chooses to
place first in his edition, but the question also arises in such a tractate as
III 4 [15], 'On our allotted GuardianSpirit', and indeed in the first part of



VI 7 [38]. Plotinus is in fact particularlyinterestedin the status of the 'we',

as he calls it, even to the extent of causing difficultiesfor the traditonalPlatonic doctrine of the soul as the seat of the personality (the doctrine of
Plato's Alcibiades1)8 and of reincarnation.These difficulties he does not
really resolve, but it is in his explorationof such difficultiesthat a good deal
of his greatness lies.
Another problem not resolved, but wrestled with most productively, is
that of free will, dealt with most extensively in Enn. III 2-3. Plotinus, as a
Platonist, is committed to the autonomy of at least the highest part of the
soul (taking his guidance from the Myth of Er in RepublicX, and in
particularthe strikingphrase, 'Virtue owns no master', at X 617E), but he
had also to take cognizance, as did his predecessors,of the powerful Stoic
challenge to theories of free will laid down by Chrysippusin particular'no effect without a cause'.9
Plotinus' predecessorshad produced various rather facile formulations,
side-stepping rather than meeting the Stoic challenge. Plotinus does not
shirk the difficulties, but does not really resolve the problems.If anything,
he comes down on the Stoic side, in the process producing some observations that appearto us distinctly harsh.People are generallyresponsible,he
feels, for the misfortunes that befall them, even perhaps through sins in a
previous existence;and yet evil-doerstoo are responsiblefor their crimes.A
passage from III 2, 8 illustrates his attitude:
'If some boys, who have kept their bodies in good training,but are inferiorin soul to their
bodily condition because of lack of education, win a wrestle with others who are trained
neither in body nor soul, and grab their food and make off with their dainty clothes, would
the affair be anything but a joke?' (trans.Armstrong.)

This takes a pretty tough line with the 'innocent'victims of violence and
injustice, but that is a consequence of Plotinus' contempt for the accidents
of the sublunar world. The philosopher will be armed against these little
problemsby having convinced himself that what concerns only one's body
or one's possessions is ultimately trivial.This is essentially a Stoic attitude,
but with a Platonist belief in an immortal rational soul superimposed.
Even for the rational soul, however, free will in the usual sense is not
regarded as an ideal. The ideal is rather to liken oneself to God, and to act
in accordancewith the divine.In the importanttractate VI 8 [39], 'On Free
Will and the Will of the One', Plotinus makes it clear that free will, in the
sense of choosing between alternative courses of action, is not characteristic of the gods or of higher beings, let alone of the One, and that our
exercise of 'free will' is simply an index of our ignorance and imperfection.



If oneknowsthebest,whichis whatwe arestrivingfor,thenonecanonly

actin accordance
withit, notoutof anyexternalcompulsion,
butby the
operationof one'sownwill.Andso it is withthe One.10Thisis onlyan
of the doctrineof Socrateshimself,that'nomandoeswrong

willingly'.A god, acting with perfect knowledge, cannot do other than the

best,but is not thereforeconstrained,becausenot limitedby any external

force. The One itself is completelyfree, but not for that reasonto any
extent random or accidental.

(v) Matter and Evil

We come now to the lowest element in Plotinus' universe, Matter. On this
topic the main area of tension in his thought is the question how far Matter
is evil and the source of evil. In the relatively late tractate Enn. I 8 [51],
'The Nature and Source of Evil', the source of evil is identified firmly as,
not body, nor yet any form of soul, but Matter. On the other hand, Matter
can be evil in no positive or purposive sense, since it is absolutely nonexistent and formless. It is also necessary for the completion of the
It is the concept of 'evil' that must be probed further, if we are to
uncover Plotinus' meaning. Kakon is just that element in our world which
causes things to fall short of perfection, whether this results in mass
murder, drought, plague, or merely a shoelace breaking at a critical
moment. It is an inevitable concomitant of soul's procession to its lower
level, which produces an emanation that can only imperfectly revert upon
its source - more like Murphy's Law, one might say, than the Devil of
Christian or other dualist systems.
A question of peculiar interest in connection with Matter is the precise
manner of its generation (since Matter, in so far as it exists, is dependent,
like everything else, ultimately upon the One). In one way, Matter is
generated by Soul, or rather by that aspect of Soul which descends, or at
least illuminates what is below it; but in another way it can be seen as
ungenerated.The darkness at the edge of this illumination,so to speak, is
what we regardas 'matter',and it comes into being (in so far as it does) as a
by-product of the illumination.
On the other hand, as a potentiality of illumination,it was always there.
Plotinus is in a difficulty here, which is reflected in various apparently
inconsistent accounts which he gives of Matter's situation.A descriptionof
it in I 8, 4 has been taken to imply that it is ungenerated.His treatise on



Matter (II 4 [12]) complicates the issue by discussing Matter at the

intelligiblelevel as well as at the physical, but in fact, I think, we should see
Matter at all levels as essentially the same phenomenon, absolute otherness, absolute non-being, but yet an essential component of the infinite
variety of the universe.

(vi) Conclusion
This survey of problematictopics is not intended, as I have said, to give a
complete conspectus of Plotinus' philosophy,but ratherto emphasizewhat
it is that makes him a great thinker within his tradition, his restless
questioning of the dogmas which he inherited.Each of these topics merits
more extended treatmentthan space permitsin the presentcontext;my aim
has been at least to indicate the areas within the fabric of Platonism where
Plotinus is making his most distinctive intellectual contribution.
A word in conclusion on the influence of Plotinus, and his importancein
European thought." His influence on modern Anglo-Americanlinguistic
analysis or logical positivism is certainly not great, but on other traditions
in European thought his influence has been considerable,though he was
not as often read, perhaps, as some of his more scholastic successors, such
as Proclus.In the MiddleAges and the Renaissance,of course, Plotinus and
Neoplatonism in general were of paramountimportance,though generally
mediated through such figures as St. Augustine and 'Dionysius the
Areopagite'.John Scottus Eriugena (c.810-c.877) and Nicolaus of Cusa
(1401-64) were more directly influenced by Proclus and the tradition
stemming from him, but Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) translated Plotinus
into Latin and made the Enneads one of the basic texts of the Platonist
Academy in Florence. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was also significantly
influenced by Plotinus.
In more modern times, the whole tradition of German idealism,
beginning with Hegel (1770-1832) and Schelling (1775-1854), derives
much of its inspiration from the Neoplatonist tradition, though it is
Schelling who is more directly influenced by Plotinus, Hegel inclining
rather to the scholasticism of Proclus. Even the thought of Heidegger,
though he had little use for Plotinus, or the Platonic tradition in general,
exhibits interesting affinities with Plotinus, particularly in respect of
Plotinus' doctrine of the One and our intuition of it, as comparedwith his
doctrine of Dasein and the intuition of Being.
In the English-speakingworld, Plotinus' influence has been more on



literature than on philosophy, such figures as William Blake, Coleridge,

and later W. B. Yeats drawinginspirationin variousways from his writings,
largley through the influence of the remarkablefigure of Thomas Taylor,
'the Platonist'.
1. Some useful books in English on Plotinus' philosophy are:A. H. Armstrong, TheArchitectureof
the Intelligible Universe in the Philosophy of Plotinus, Cambridge, 1940 (repr. Amsterdam, 1967);
H. Blumenthal,Plotinus'Psychology:His Doctrineof theEmbodiedSoul, The Hague, 1971; E. Emilsson,

Plotinuson Sense-Perception:
A PhilosophicalStudy, Cambridge,1988; G. P. O'Daly, Plotinus'

Philosophyof theSelf, Shannon, 1973;J. M. Rist, Plotinus, TheRoad to Reality, Cambridge,1967; R. T.

Wallis, Neoplatonism,London and New York, 1972.
2. All aspects of Porphyry'sLife of Plotinus are very fully discussedin the excellent French volume,
ed. Luc Brisson et al., Paris, 1982.
Porphyre,La Vie de Plotin I: Travauxpre'liminaires,
3. What follows essentially correspondsto my introductoryessay to the Penguin edition of Stephen
MacKenna's translationof Plotinus' Enneads (Harmonsworth,1991).Note that, in what follows, I use
capital letters (e.g. the One, Intellect, Soul) to designate 'hypostases'or other basic realitiesof Plotinus'
4. A certain overlap and tension ensues between the concept of this second god, who is an active
intellect, and Soul, since the rational aspect of Soul is hardly distinguishablefrom Intellect.
5. For a good discussion of Plotinus' doctrine of the embodied soul, see H. Blumenthal, Plotinus'
Psychology,The Hague, 1971.
6. See on this G. P. O'Daly, Plotinus' Philosophyof the Self, Shannon, 1973.
7. In Les Sources de Plotin (Entretiens Fondation Hardt, V), Vandoeuvres/Geneva, 1960,


8. Whetheror not this is a genuine work of Plato's is irrelevant,since it was universallyaccepted as

genuine by later Platonists.
9. On Stoic determinism,see for instanceJ. M. Rist, Stoic Philosophy,Cambridge, 1969, ch. 7.
10. On this question see J. M. Rist, Plotinus, TheRoad to Reality, Cambridge, 1967, ch. 10.
11. On this see R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism,London and New York, 1972, ch. 6.


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