Plotinus’ theory



Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent “One”, containing no division, multiplicity or distinction; likewise it is beyond all categories of being and non-being. The concept of “being” is derived by us from the objects of human experience called the dyad, and is an attribute of such objects, but the infinite, transcendent One is beyond all such objects, and therefore is beyond the concepts that we derive from them. The One “cannot be any existing thing”, and cannot be merely the sum of all such things (compare the Stoic doctrine of disbelief in non-material existence), but “is prior to all existents”. Thus, no attributes can be assigned to the One. We can only identify it with the Good and the principle of Beauty.

For example, thought cannot be attributed to the One because thought implies distinction between a thinker and an object of thought (again a dyad). Even the self-contemplating intelligence (the noesis of the nous) must contain duality. “Once you have uttered ‘The Good,’ add no further thought: by any addition, and in proportion to that addition, you introduce a deficiency.”  Plotinus denies sentience, self-awareness or any other action (ergon) to the One . Rather, if we insist on describing it further, we must call the One a sheer Dynamis or potentiality without which nothing could exist.  As Plotinus explains in both places and elsewhere, it is impossible for the One to be Being or a self-aware Creator God.  Plotinus compared the One to “light”, the Divine Nous (first will towards Good) to the “Sun”, and lastly the Soul to the “Moon” whose light is merely a “derivative conglomeration of light from the ‘Sun'”. The first light could exist without any celestial body.

The One, being beyond all attributes including being and non-being, is the source of the world—but not through any act of creation, willful or otherwise, since activity cannot be ascribed to the unchangeable, immutable One. Plotinus argues instead that the multiple cannot exist without the simple. The “less perfect” must, of necessity, “emanate”, or issue forth, from the “perfect” or “more perfect”. Thus, all of “creation” emanates from the One in succeeding stages of lesser and lesser perfection. These stages are not temporally isolated, but occur throughout time as a constant process. Plotinus here resolves the issues between Plato’s ontology and Aristotle’s Actus et potentia. The issue being that Aristotle, through resolving Parmenides’ Third Man argument against Plato’s forms and ontology created a second philosophical school of thought. Plotinus here then reconciles the “Good over the Demiurge” from Plato’s Timaeus with Aristotle’s static “unmoved mover” of Actus et potentia. Plotinus does this by making the potential or force (dunamis) the Monad or One and making the demiurge or dyad, the action or energy component in philosophical cognitive ontology. Later Neoplatonic philosophers, especially Iamblichus, added hundreds of intermediate beings as emanations between the One and humanity; but Plotinus’ system was much simpler in comparison.

Emanation by the One

Plotinus offers an alternative to the orthodox Christian notion of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), which attributes to God the deliberation of mind and action of a will, although Plotinus never mentions Christianity in any of his works. Emanation ex deo (out of God), confirms the absolute transcendence of the One, making the unfolding of the cosmos purely a consequence of its existence; the One is in no way affected or diminished by these emanations. Plotinus uses the analogy of the Sun which emanates light indiscriminately without thereby diminishing itself, or reflection in a mirror which in no way diminishes or otherwise alters the object being reflected.

The first emanation is Nous (Divine Mind, logos or order, Thought, Reason), identified metaphorically with the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus. It is the first Will toward Good. From Nous proceeds the World Soul, which Plotinus subdivides into upper and lower, identifying the lower aspect of Soul with nature. From the world soul proceeds individual human souls, and finally, matter, at the lowest level of being and thus the least perfected level of the cosmos. Despite this relatively pedestrian assessment of the material world, Plotinus asserted the ultimately divine nature of material creation since it ultimately derives from the One, through the mediums of nous and the world soul. It is by the Good or through beauty that we recognize the One, in material things and then in the Forms.

The essentially devotional nature of Plotinus’ philosophy may be further illustrated by his concept of attaining ecstatic union with the One. Porphyry relates that Plotinus attained such a union four times during the years he knew him. This may be related to enlightenment, liberation, and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions.

The True Human and Happiness

Authentic human happiness for Plotinus consists of the true human identifying with that which is the best in the universe. Because happiness is beyond anything physical, Plotinus stresses the point that worldly fortune does not control true human happiness, and thus “… there exists no single human being that does not either potentially or effectively possess this thing we hold to constitute happiness.” The issue of happiness is one of Plotinus’ greatest imprints on Western thought, as he is one of the first to introduce the idea that eudaimonia (happiness) is attainable only within consciousness.

The true human is an incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul, and superior to all things corporeal. It then follows that real human happiness is independent of the physical world. Real happiness is, instead, dependent on the metaphysical and authentic human being found in this highest capacity of Reason. “For man, and especially the Proficient, is not the Couplement of Soul and body: the proof is that man can be disengaged from the body and disdain its nominal goods.” The human who has achieved happiness will not be bothered by sickness, discomfort, etc., as his focus is on the greatest things. Authentic human happiness is the utilization of the most authentically human capacity of contemplation. Even in daily, physical action, the flourishing human’s “…Act is determined by the higher phase of the Soul.” Even in the most dramatic arguments Plotinus considers (if the Proficient is subject to extreme physical torture, for example), he concludes this only strengthens his claim of true happiness being metaphysical, as the truly happy human being would understand that that which is being tortured is merely a body, not the conscious self, and happiness could persist.

Plotinus offers a comprehensive description of his conception of a person who has achieved eudaimonia. “The perfect life” involves a man who commands reason and contemplation. A happy person will not sway between happy and sad, as many of Plotinus’ contemporaries believed. Stoics, for example, question the ability of someone to be happy (presupposing happiness is contemplation) if they are mentally incapacitated or even asleep- Plotinus disregards this claim, as the soul and true human do not sleep or even exist in time, nor will a living human who has achieved eudaimonia suddenly stop using its greatest, most authentic capacity just because of the body’s discomfort in the physical realm. “…The Proficient’s will is set always and only inward.”

Overall, happiness for Plotinus is “…a flight from this world’s ways and things.” and a focus on the highest, i.e. Forms and The One.

Against causal astrology

Plotinus seems to be one of the first to argue against the still popular notion of causal Astrology. In the late tractate, “Are the stars causes?”, Plotinus makes the argument that specific stars influencing one’s fortune (a common hellenistic theme) attributes irrationality to a perfect universe, and invites moral turpitude. He does, however, claim the stars and planets are ensouled, as witnessed by their movement.


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