Plotinus (A.D. 204–70), the founder of Neoplatonism, is the last of the great philosophers of antiquity. His life is almost co-extensive with one of the most disastrous periods in Roman history. Shortly before his birth, the army had become conscious of its power, and had adopted the practice of choosing emperors in return for monetary rewards, and assassinating them afterwards to give occasion for a renewed sale of the empire. These preoccupations unfitted the soldiers for the defence of the frontier, and permitted vigorous incursions of Germans from the north and Persians from the East. War and pestilence diminished the population of the empire by about a third, while increased taxation and diminished resources caused financial ruin in even those provinces to which no hostile forces penetrated. The cities, which had been the bearers of culture, were especially hard hit; substantial citizens, in large numbers, fled to escape the tax-collector. It was not till after the death of Plotinus that order was re-established and the empire temporarily saved by the vigorous measures of Diocletian and Constantine.
Of all this there is no mention in the works of Plotinus. He turned aside from the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world, to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty. In this he was in harmony with all the most serious men of his age. To all of them, Christians and pagans alike, the world of practical affairs seemed to offer no hope, and only the Other World seemed worthy of allegiance. To the Christian, the Other World was the Kingdom of Heaven, to be enjoyed after death; to the Platonist, it was the eternal world of ideas, the real world as opposed to that of illusory appearance. Christian theologians combined these points of view, and embodied much of the philosophy of Plotinus. Dean Inge, in his invaluable book on Plotinus, rightly emphasizes what Christianity owes to him. 'Platonism,' he says, 'is part of the vital structure of Christian theology, with which no other philosophy, I venture to say, can work without friction.' There is, he says, an 'utter impossibility of excising Platonism from Christianity without tearing Christianity to pieces'. He points out that Saint Augustine speaks of Plato's system as 'the most pure and bright in all philosophy', and of Plotinus as a man in whom 'Plato lived again', and who, if he had lived a little later, would have 'changed a few words and phrases and become Christian'. Saint Thomas Aquinas, according to Dean Inge, 'is nearer to Plotinus than to the real Aristotle'.
Plotinus, accordingly, is historically important as an influence in moulding the Christianity of the Middle Ages and of Catholic theology. The historian, in speaking of Christianity, has to be careful to recognize the very great changes that it has undergone, and the variety of forms that it may assume even at one epoch. The Christianity of the Synoptic Gospels is almost innocent of metaphysics. The Christianity of modern America, in this respect, is like primitive Christianity; Platonism is alien in popular thought and feeling in the United States, and most American Christians are much more concerned with duties here on earth, and with social progress in the everyday world, than with the transcendental hopes that consoled men when everything terrestrial inspired despair. I am not speaking of any change of dogma, but of a difference of emphasis and interest. A modern Christian, unless he realizes how great this difference is, will fail to understand the Christianity of the past. We, since our study is historical, are concerned with the effective beliefs of past centuries, and as to these it is impossible to disagree with what Dean Inge says on the influence of Plato and Plotinus.
Plotinus, however, is not only historically important. He represents, better than any other philosopher, an important type of theory. A philosophical system may be judged important for various different kinds of reasons. The first and most obvious is that we think it may be true. Not many students of philosophy at the present time would feel this about Plotinus; Dean Inge is, in this respect, a rare exception. But truth is not the only merit that a metaphysic can possess. It may have beauty, and this is certainly to be found in Plotinus; there are passages that remind one of the later cantos of Dante's Paradiso, and of almost nothing else in literature. Now and again, his descriptions of the eternal world of glory
To our high-wrought fantasy present
That undisturbed song of pure concent
Aye sung before the sapphire-coloured throne
To Him that sits thereon.
Again, a philosophy may be important because it expresses well what men are prone to believe in certain moods or in certain circumstances. Uncomplicated joy and sorrow is not matter for philosophy, but rather for the simpler kinds of poetry and music. Only joy and sorrow accompanied by reflection on the universe generate metaphysical theories. A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist. Perhaps Samuel Butler may serve as an example of the first; Plotinus is an admirable example of the second. In an age such as that in which he lived, unhappiness is immediate and pressing, whereas happiness, if attainable at all, must be sought by reflection upon things that are remote from the impressions of sense. Such happiness has in it always an element of strain; it is very unlike the simple happiness of a child. And since it is not derived from the everyday world, but from thought and imagination, it demands a power of ignoring or despising the life of the senses. It is, therefore, not those who enjoy instinctive happiness who invent the kinds of metaphysical optimism that depend upon belief in the reality of a super-sensible world. Among the men who have been unhappy in a mundane sense, but resolutely determined to find a higher happiness in the world of theory, Plotinus holds a very high place.
Nor are his purely intellectual merits by any means to be despised. He has, in many respects, clarified Plato's teaching; he has developed, with as much consistency as possible, the type of theory advocated by him in common with many others. His arguments against materialism are good, and his whole conception of the relation of soul and body is clearer than that of Plato or Aristotle.
Like Spinoza, he has a certain kind of moral purity and loftiness, which is very impressive. He is always sincere, never shrill or censorious, invariably concerned to tell the reader, as simply as he can, what he believes to be important. Whatever one may think of him as a theoretical philosopher, it is impossible not to love him as a man.
The life of Plotinus is known, so far as it is known, through the biography written by his friend and disciple Porphyry, a Semite whose real name was Malchus. There are, however, miraculous elements in this account, which make it difficult to place a complete reliance upon its more credible portions.
Plotinus considered his spatio-temporal appearance unimportant, and was loath to talk about the accidents of his historical existence. He stated, however, that he was born in Egypt, and it is known that as a young man he studied in Alexandria, where he lived until the age of thirty-nine, and where his teacher was Ammonius Saccas, often regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism. He then joined the expedition of the Emperor Gordian III against the Persians, with the intention, it is said, of studying the religions of the East. The Emperor was still a youth, and was murdered by the army, as was at that time the custom. This occurred during his campaign in Mesopotamia in A.D. 244. Plotinus thereupon abandoned his oriental projects and settled in Rome, where he soon began to teach. Among his hearers were many influential men, and he was favoured by the Emperor Gallienus.1 At one time he formed a project of founding Plato's Republic in Campania, and building for the purpose a new city to be called Platonopolis. The Emperor, at first, was favourable, but ultimately withdrew his permission. It may seem strange that there should be room for a new city so near Rome, but probably by that time the region was malarial, as it is now, but had not been earlier. He wrote nothing until the age of forty-nine; after that, he wrote much. His works were edited and arranged by Porphyry, who was more Pythagorean than Plotinus, and caused the Neoplatonist school to become more supernaturalist than it would have been if it had followed Plotinus more faithfully.
The respect of Plotinus for Plato is very great; Plato is usually alluded to as 'He'. In general, the 'blessed ancients' are treated with reverence, but this reverence does not extend to the atomists. The Stoics and Epicureans, being still active, are controverted, the Stoics only for their materialism, the Epicureans for every part of their philosophy. Aristotle plays a larger part than appears, as borrowings from him are often unacknowledged. One feels the influence of Parmenides at many points.
The Plato of Plotinus is not so full-blooded as the real Plato. The theory of ideas, the mystical doctrines of the Phaedo and of Book VI of the Republic, and the discussion of love in the Symposium, make up almost the whole of Plato as he appears in the Enneads(as the books of Plotinus are called). The political interests, the search for definitions of separate virtues, the pleasure in mathematics, the dramatic and affectionate appreciation of individuals, and above all the playfulness of Plato, are wholly absent from Plotinus. Plato, as Carlyle said is 'very much at his ease in Zion'; Plotinus, on the contrary, is always on his best behaviour.
The metaphysics of Plotinus begins with a Holy Trinity: The One, Spirit and Soul. These three are not equal, like the Persons of the Christian Trinity; the One is supreme, Spirit comes next, and Soul last.2
The One is somewhat shadowy. It is sometimes called God, sometimes the Good; it transcends Being, which is the first sequent upon the One. We must not attribute predicates to it, but only say 'It is.' (This is reminiscent of Parmenides.) It would be a mistake to speak of God as 'the All', because God
transcends the All. God is present through all things. The One can be present without any coming: 'while it is nowhere, nowhere is it not'. Although the One is sometimes spoken of as the Good, we are also told that it precedes both the Good and the Beautiful.3Sometimes, the One appears to resemble Aristotle's God; we are told that God has no need of His derivatives, and ignores the created world. The One is indefinable, and in regard to it there is more truth in silence than in any words whatever.
We now come to the Second Person, whom Plotinus calls nous. It is always difficult to find an English word to represent nous. The standard dictionary translation is 'mind', but this does not have the correct connotations, particularly when the word is used in a religious philosophy. If we were to say that Plotinus put mind above soul, we should give a completely wrong impression. McKenna, the translator of Plotinus, uses 'Intellectual-Principle', but this is awkward, and does not suggest an object suitable for religious veneration. Dean Inge uses 'Spirit', which is perhaps the best word available. But it leaves out the intellectual element which was important in all Greek religious philosophy after Pythagoras. Mathematics, the world of ideas, and all thought about what is not sensible, have, for Pythagoras, Plato, and Plotinus, something divine; they constitute the activity of nous, or at least the nearest approach to its activity that we can conceive. It was this intellectual element in Plato's religion that led Christians—notably the author of Saint John's Gospel—to identify Christ with the Logos. Logos should be translated 'reason' in this connection; this prevents us from using 'reason' as the translation of nous. I shall follow Dean Inge in using 'Spirit', but with the proviso that nous has an intellectual connotation which is absent from 'Spirit' as usually understood. But often I shall use the word nous untranslated.
Nous, we are told, is the image of the One; it is engendered because the One, in its self-quest, has vision; this seeing is nous. This is a difficult conception. A Being without parts, Plotinus says, may know itself; in this case, the seer and the seen are one. In God, who is conceived, as by Plato, on the analogy of the sun, the light-giver and what is lit are the same. Pursuing the analogy, nous may be considered as the light by which the One sees itself. It is possible for us to know the Divine Mind, which we forget through self-will. To know the Divine Mind, we must study our own soul when it is most god-like: we must put aside the body, and the part of the soul that moulded the body, and 'sense with desires and impulses and every such futility'; what is then left is an image of the Divine Intellect.
'Those divinely possessed and inspired have at least the knowledge that they hold some greater thing within them, though they cannot tell what it is; from the movements that stir them and the utterances that come from
them they perceive the power, not themselves, that moves them: in the same way, it must be, we stand towards the Supreme when we hold nous pure; we know the Divine Mind within, that which gives Being and all else of that order: but we know, too, that other, know that it is none of these, but a nobler principle than anything we know as Being; fuller and greater; above reason, mind, and feeling; conferring these powers, not to be confounded with them.'4
Thus when we are 'divinely possessed and inspired' we see not only nous, but also the One. When we are thus in contact with the Divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later. 'At the moment of touch there is no power whatever to make any affirmation; there is no leisure; reasoning upon the vision is for afterwards. We may know we have had the vision when the Soul has suddenly taken light. This light is from the Supreme and is the Supreme; we may believe in the Presence when, like that other God on the call of a certain man, He comes bringing light; the light is the proof of the advent. Thus, the Soul unlit remains without that vision; lit, it possesses what it sought. And this is the true end set before the Soul, to take that light, to see the Supreme by the Supreme and not by the light of any other principle—to see the Supreme which is also the means to the vision; for that which illumines the Soul is that which it is to see just as it is by the sun's own light that we see the sun.
But how is this to be accomplished?
Cut away everything.5
The experience of 'ecstasy' (standing outside one's own body) happened frequently to Plotinus:
Many times it has happened: Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentred; beholding a marvellous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine; stationing within It by having attained that activity; poised above whatsoever in the Intellectual is less than the Supreme: yet, there comes the moment of descent from intellection to reasoning, and after that sojourn in the divine, I ask myself how it happens that I can now be descending, and how did the Soul ever enter into my body, the Soul which even within the body, is the high thing it has shown itself to be.6
This brings us to Soul, the third and lowest member of the Trinity. Soul, though inferior to nous, is the author of all living things; it made the sun and moon and stars, and the whole visible world. It is the offspring of the Divine Intellect. It is double: there is an inner soul, intent on nous, and another, which faces the external. The latter is associated with a downward movement, in which the Soul generates its image, which is Nature and the world of sense. The Stoics had identified Nature with God, but Plotinus regards it as the lowest sphere, something emanating from the Soul when it forgets to look upward towards nous. This might suggest the Gnostic view that the visible world is evil, but Plotinus does not take this view. The visible world is beautiful, and is the abode of blessed spirits; it is only less good than the intellectual world. In a very interesting controversial discussion of the Gnostic view, that the cosmos and its Creator are evil, he admits that some parts of Gnostic doctrine, such as the hatred of matter, may be due to Plato, but holds that the other parts, which do not come from Plato, are untrue.
His objections to Gnosticism are of two sorts. On the one hand, he says that Soul, when it creates the material world, does so from memory of the divine, and not because it is fallen; the world of sense, he thinks, is as good as a sensible world can be. He feels strongly the beauty of things perceived by the senses:
Who that truly perceives the harmony of the Intellectual Realm could fail, if he has any bent towards music, to answer to the harmony in sensible sounds? What geometrician or arithmetician could fail to take pleasure in the symmetries, correspondences and principles of order observed in visible things? Consider, even, the case of pictures: those seeing by the bodily sense the productions of the art of painting do not see the one thing in the one only way; they are deeply stirred by recognizing in the objects depicted to the eyes the presentation of what lies in the idea, and so are called to recollection of the truth—the very experience out of which Love rises. Now, if the sight of Beauty excellently reproduced upon a face hurries the mind to that other Sphere, surely no one seeing the loveliness lavish in the world of sense—this vast orderliness, the form which the stars even in their remoteness display, no one could be so dull-witted, so immoveable, as not to be carried by all this to recollection, and gripped by reverent awe in the thought of all this, so great, sprung from that greatness. Not to answer thus could only be to have neither fathomed this world nor had any vision of that other (II, 9, 16).
There is another reason for rejecting the Gnostic view. The Gnostics think that nothing divine is associated with the sun, moon, and stars; they were created by an evil spirit. Only the soul of man, among things perceived, has any goodness. But Plotinus is firmly persuaded that the heavenly bodies are the bodies of god-like beings, immeasurably superior to man. According to the Gnostics, 'their own soul, the soul of the least of mankind, they declare deathless, divine; but the entire heavens and the stars within the heavens have had no communion with the Immortal Principle, though these are far purer and lovelier than their own souls' (II, 9, 5). For the view of Plotinus there is authority in the Timaeus, and it was adopted by some Christian Fathers, for instance, Origen. It is imaginatively attractive; it expresses feelings that the heavenly bodies naturally inspire, and makes man less lonely in the physical universe.
There is in the mysticism of Plotinus nothing morose or hostile to beauty. But he is the last religious teacher, for many centuries, of whom this can be said. Beauty, and all the pleasures associated with it, came to be thought to be of the Devil; pagans, as well as Christians, came to glorify ugliness and dirt. Julian the Apostate, like contemporary orthodox saints, boasted of the populousness of his beard. Of all this, there is nothing in Plotinus.
Matter is created by Soul, and has no independent reality. Every Soul has its hour; when that strikes, it descends, and enters the body suitable to it. The motive is not reason, but something more analogous to sexual desire. When the soul leaves the body, it must enter another body if it has been sinful, for justice requires that it should be punished. If, in this life, you have murdered your mother, you will, in the next life, be a woman, and be murdered by your son (III, 2, 13). Sin must be punished; but the punishment happens naturally, through the restless driving of the sinner's errors.
Do we remember this life after we are dead? The answer is perfectly logical, but not what most modern theologians would say. Memory is concerned with our life in time, whereas our best and truest life is in eternity. Therefore, as the soul grows towards eternal life, it will remember less and less; friends, children, wife, will be gradually forgotten; ultimately, we shall know nothing of the things of this world, but only contemplate the intellectual realm. There will be no memory of personality, which, in contemplative vision, is unaware of itself. The soul will become one with nous, but not to its own destruction: nous and the individual soul will be simultaneously two and one (IV, 4, 2).
In the Fourth Ennead, which is on the Soul, one section, the Seventh Tractate, is devoted to the discussion of immortality.
The body, being compound, is clearly not immortal; if, then, it is part of us, we are not wholly immortal. But what is the relation of the soul to the body? Aristotle (who is not mentioned explicitly) said the soul was the form of the body, but Plotinus rejects this view, on the ground that the intellectual act would be impossible if the soul were any form of body. The Stoics think that the soul is material, but the unity of the soul proves that this is impossible. Moreover, since matter is passive, it cannot have created itself; matter could not exist if soul had not created it, and, if soul did not exist, matter would disappear in a twinkling. The soul is neither matter nor the form of a material body, but Essence, and Essence is eternal. This view is implicit in Plato's argument that the soul is immortal because ideas are eternal; but it is only with Plotinus that it becomes explicit.
How does the soul enter the body from the aloofness of the intellectual world? The answer is, through appetite. But appetite though sometimes ignoble, may be comparatively noble. At best, the soul 'has the desire of elaborating order on the model of what it has seen in the Intellectual-Principle (nous)'. That is to say, soul contemplates the inward realm of essence, and wishes to produce something, as like it as possible, that can be seen by looking without instead of looking within—like (we might say) a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.
But this desire of the soul to create has unfortunate results. So long as the soul lives in the pure world of essence, it is not separated from other souls living in the same world; but as soon as it becomes joined to a body, it has the task of governing what is lower than itself, and by this task it becomes separate from other souls, which have other bodies. Except in a few men at a few moments, the soul becomes chained to the body. 'The body obscures the truth, but there7 all stands out clear and separate' (IV, 9, 5).
This doctrine, like Plato's, has difficulty in avoiding the view that the creation was a mistake. The soul at its best is content with nous, the world of essence; if it were always at its best, it would not create, but only contemplate. It seems that the act of creation is to be excused on the ground that the created world, in its main lines, is the best that is logically possible; but this is a copy of the eternal world, and as such has the beauty that is possible to a copy. The most definite statement is in the Tractate on the Gnostics (II, 9, 8):
To ask why the Soul has created the Kosmos, is to ask why there is a Soul and why a Creator creates. The question, also, implies a beginning in the eternal and, further, represents creation as the act of a changeful Being who turns from this to that.
Those that think so must be instructed—if they would but bear with correction—in the nature of the Supernals, and brought to desist from that blasphemy of majestic powers which comes so easily to them, where all should be reverent scruple.
Even in the administration of the Universe there is no ground for such attack, for it affords manifest proof of the greatness of the Intellectual Kind.
This All that has emerged into life is no amorphous structure—like those lesser forms within it which are born night and day out of the lavishness of its vitality—the Universe is a life organised, effective, complex, allcomprehensive, displaying an unfathomable wisdom. How, then, can anyone deny that it is a clear image, beautifully formed, of the Intellectual Divinities? No doubt it is a copy, not original; but that is its very nature; it cannot be at once symbol and reality. But to say that it is an inadequate copy is false; nothing has been left out which a beautiful representation within the physical order could include.
Such a reproduction there must necessarily be—thought not by deliberation and contrivance—for the Intellectual could not be the last of things, but must have a double Act, one within itself, and one outgoing; there must, then, be something later than the Divine; for only the thing with which all power ends fails to pass downwards something of itself.
This is perhaps the best answer to the Gnostics that the principles of Plotinus make possible. The problem, in slightly different language, was inherited by Christian theologians; they, also, have found it difficult to account for the creation without allowing the blasphemous conclusion that, before it, something was lacking to the Creator. Indeed, their difficulty is greater than that of Plotinus, for he may say that the nature of Mind made creation inevitable, whereas, for the Christian, the world resulted from the untrammelled exercise of God's free will.
Plotinus has a very vivid sense of a certain kind of abstract beauty. In describing the position of Intellect as intermediate between the One and Soul, he suddenly bursts out into a passage of rare eloquence:
The Supreme in its progress could never be borne forward upon some soulless vehicle nor even directly upon the Soul: it will be heralded by some ineffable beauty: before the Great King in his progress there comes first the minor train, then rank by rank the greater and more exalted, closer to the King the kinglier; next his own honoured company until, last among all these grandeurs, suddenly appears the Supreme Monarch himself, and all—unless indeed for those who have contented themselves with the spectacle before his coming and gone away—prostrate themselves and hail him (V, 5, 3).
There is a Tractate on Intellectual Beauty, which shows the same kind of feeling (V, 8):
Assuredly all the gods are august and beautiful in a beauty beyond our speech. And what makes them so? Intellect; and especially Intellect operating within them (the divine sun and stars) to visibility….
To 'live at ease' is There; and to these divine beings verity is mother and nurse, existence and sustenance; all that is not of process but of authentic being they see, and themselves in all; for all is transparent, nothing dark, nothing resistant; every being is lucid to every other, in breadth and depth; light runs through light. And each of them contains all within itself, and at the same time sees all in every other, so that everywhere there is all, and all is all and each all, and infinite the glory. Each of them is great; the small is great; the sun, There, is all the stars; and every star, again, is all the stars and sun. While some manner of being is dominant in each, all are mirrored in every other.
In addition to the imperfection which the world inevitably possesses because it is a copy, there is, for Plotinus as for the Christians, the more positive evil that results from sin. Sin is a consequence of free will, which Plotinus upholds as against the determinists, and, more particularly, the astrologers. He does not venture to deny the validity of astrology altogether, but he attempts to set bounds to it, so as to make what remains compatible with free will. He does the same as regards magic; the sage, he says, is exempt from the power of the magician. Porphyry relates that a rival philosopher tried to put evil spells on Plotinus, but that, because of his holiness and wisdom, the spells recoiled on the rival. Porphyry, and all the followers of Plotinus, are much more superstitious than he is. Superstition, in him, is as slight as was possible in that age. Let us now endeavour to sum up the merits and defects of the doctrine taught by Plotinus, and in the main accepted by Christian theology so long as it remained systematic and intellectual.
There is, first and foremost, the construction of what Plotinus believed to be a secure refuge for ideals and hopes, and one, moreover, which involved both moral and intellectual effort. In the third century, and in the centuries after the barbarian invasion, western civilization came near to total destruction. It was fortunate that, while theology was almost the sole surviving mental activity, the system that was accepted was not purely superstitious, but preserved, though sometimes deeply buried, doctrines which embodied much of the work of Greek intellect and much of the moral devotion that is common to the Stoics and the Neoplatonists. This made possible the rise of the scholastic philosophy, and later, with the Renaissance, the stimulus derived from the renewed study of Plato, and thence of the other ancients.
On the other hand, the philosophy of Plotinus has the defect of encouraging men to look within rather than to look without: when we look within we see nous, which is divine, while when we look without we see the imperfections of the sensible world. This kind of subjectivity was a gradual growth; it is to be found in the doctrines of Protagoras, Socrates, and Plato, as well as in the Stoics and Epicureans. But at first it was only doctrinal, not temperamental; for a long time it failed to kill scientific curiosity. We saw how Posidonius, about 100 B.C., travelled to Spain and the Atlantic coast of Africa to study the tides. Gradually, however, subjectivism invaded men's feelings as well as their doctrines. Science was no longer cultivated, and only virtue was thought important. Virtue, as conceived by Plato, involved all that was then possible in the way of mental achievement; but in later centuries it came to be thought of, increasingly, as involving only the virtuous will, and not a desire to understand the physical world or improve the world of human institutions. Christianity, in its ethical doctrines, was not free from this defect, although in practice belief in the importance of spreading the Christian faith gave a practicable object for moral activity, which was no longer confined to the perfecting of self.
Plotinus is both an end and a beginning—an end as regards the Greeks, a beginning as regards Christendom. To the ancient world, weary with centuries of disappointment, exhausted by despair, his doctrine might be acceptable, but could not be stimulating. To the cruder barbarian world, where superabundant energy needed to be restrained and regulated rather than stimulated, what could penetrate in his teaching was beneficial, since the evil to be combated was not languor but brutality. The work of transmitting what could survive of his philosophy was performed by the Christian philosophers of the last age of Rome.