Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Plotinus
Extremely little is known of Plotinus’ life. Far more is known of his doctrines, which greatly influenced early Christianity and which live today in the creeds of the churches.
Plotinus was born in Egypt in 204 C.E. He died in Campania in 270 C.E.
In his 28th year, the desire to study philosophy awoke. He was brought to Ammonius Saccas, a Christian, who had written works on Christian theology, but had returned to the Hellenic faith. He remained with him for over 10 years.
In 242 he joined the expedition of the Emperor Gordian to the East. There he hoped to learn more about the philosophy of the Persians and Indians. After Gordian died he returned to Rome. There he subsequently lived and taught.
Around the year 254 he put his doctrines in writing. The works of Plotinus were esteemed by the philosopher Longinus, (although he was in no sense a Plotinist). They are distinguished by energy and enthusiasm. One might say he was a preacher. Among those who did not receive Christianity, his teaching secured him great respect and popularity. One source says that parents left their children to his care. And his house was full of orphans of both sexes entrusted to his guardianship. Although neglectful of his own temporal interests, he showed no want of shrewdness in looking after the estates of his wards.
The source continues by stating that Plotinus enjoyed the favor of the Emperor Gallienus. And from whom he obtained the privilege of rebuilding, at government expense, two destroyed towns in the Campania. He wanted to try governing these according to the laws of Plato.
Plotinus was one of the greatest masters of philosophy. The historical value of the system is due partly to the circumstances out of which it arose and partly to the genius and originality of its founder.
The Encyclopedia Americana has the following to say about Plotinus’ system:
“It had its source at the junction of two independent streams of thought; mysticism and dialectics, which, already fortuitously united, received a new direction from the individual energy of the mind of Plotinus. He was well acquainted with the older Greek philosophy, the Ionian and the Eleatic schools, and according to the eclectic tendencies of his day believed there was a fundamental unity in these various systems.
“It was Plato, however, that he looked to as his greatest authority. He believed himself a strict follower of Plato; uses Plato’s term, the Good, for his highest generalization; but with Plotinus it is an abstraction from which every determinate quality has been eliminated and would rather be described in modern philosophical language as the Absolute.”
Neo-Platonism carried the tendency to make God transcendent as far as it could go. It was a fully developed system, Platonic in its main inspiration, but incorporating Aristotelian, Stoic and even Oriental elements. All of which flourished from the middle of the third century.
A leading patristic scholar has this to say about Plotinus and his doctrines. He was, philosophically speaking, a monist, conceiving of reality as a vast hierarchical structure with grades descending from what is beyond being to what falls below being. His highest principle, or ‘hypostasis’, is God, more properly designated as the One. Itself beyond being, and even beyond mind (with which, it will be recalled, the Middle Platonists equated God), the One is the source from which being derives, the goal to which it ever strives to return.
The process is described analogically as emanation, but it leaves the One undiminished and unchanged, just as the radiation of light from the sun does not cause it to suffer any loss. Ineffably simple, the One cannot be the subject of any attributes; we can call It good, not in the sense that it possesses goodness as a quality, but that It is goodness.
Immediately below the One in the hierarchy comes the second hypostasis, Mind or Thought; and below and issuing from it comes the third hypostasis, Soul.
Mind comprises the world of Forms, which it contemplates in its effort to return to the One; and thus multiplicity is introduced into the universe. It is the casual principle, being identified with Plato’s Demiurge.
Soul is divided into two: the higher soul, which is akin to Mind and transcends the material order, and, the lower soul, or Nature, which is the soul of the phenomenal world. All individual souls are emanations from the World-Soul, and like it they have a higher element which is related to Mind, and a lower element which is directly connected with the body. Matter in itself, that is, un-illumination by form, is darkness or non-being, and as such is evil.
Two features of Neo-Platonism deserve to be stressed. As expounded by Plotinus, it represents an optimistic attitude to the universe. Material though it is, the world so we know it is good in his eyes;
it is created and ordered by the higher soul, and is held together by Nature. Though matter in itself is evil, the visible universe reflects the intelligible order, and as such should be accepted as the best of all possible worlds.
Secondly, the religious bias of the whole Neo-Platonic conception is patent. Whatever exists is an ‘overflow’ of the One, and pervading all reality, at its different levels, is the ardent longing for union with what is higher, and ultimately with One itself. So the human soul, fired by the heavenly Eros of which Plato spoke in his Symposium, is challenged to undertake this accent. The first stage is one of purification; it must free itself from the body and the beguilements of sense-perception. At the second stage, it rises to the level of Mind and busies itself with philosophy and science, retaining, however, its self-consciousness.
The final stage consists in mystical union with the One; it is mediated by ecstasy, and when this occurs, the awareness of the distinction between subject and object is lost. In this present life, of course, the state of ecstasy is rarely, if ever, attained and is bound to be short-lived; Plotinus, we are informed by his biographer Porphyry, was himself granted this experience four times only in five years.
Plotinus’ system was so good that even St. Augustine followed him just before his full conversion to Christianity.
Not only did the Christian church find much merit in its doctrines, but so did many of the mystery schools who adopted it in its near entirety.
Much of the mysticism taught by the modern secret schools is Neo-Platonism, even though many of the teachers of these societies either do not realize it or will not admit it.
M.P. Hall states that, Neo-Platonism was the supreme effort of decadent pagandom to publish and thus preserve for posterity its secret (or unwritten) doctrine. In its teachings ancient idealism found its most perfect expression. Neo-Platonism was concerned almost exclusively with the problems of higher metaphysics. It recognized the existence of a secret and all important doctrine which from the time of the earliest civilizations had been concealed within the rituals, symbols, and allegories of religions and philosophies. To the mind unacquainted with its fundamental tenets, Neo-Platonism may appear to be a mass of speculations interspersed with extravagant flights of fancy. Such a viewpoint, however, ignores the institutions of the Mysteries – those secret schools into whose profundities of idealism nearly all of the first philosophers of antiquity were initiated.
When the physical body of pagan thought collapsed, an attempt was made to resurrect the form by instilling new life into it by the unveiling of its mystical truths. This effort apparently was barren of results. Despite the antagonism, however, between pristine Christianity and Neo-Platonism many basic tenets of the latter were accepted by the former and woven into the fabric of Patristic philosophy. Briefly described, Neo-Platonism is a philosophic code which conceives every physical or concrete body of doctrine to be merely the shell of a spiritual verity which may be discovered through meditation and certain exercises of a mystic nature. In comparison to the esoteric spiritual truths which they contain, the corporeal bodies of religion and philosophy were considered relatively of little value. Likewise, no emphasis was placed upon the material sciences.
The spiritual beauty of Neo-Platonism cannot be denied. Also, it is more logical than the absolute dualism of Plato’s teachings, for here at least was an explanation of matter’s relationship to the perfect source, the infinite existence.