Plotinus and the Ascent

Plotinus (204-270 AD)

Keith Ward, an Anglican priest and author of God: A Guide for the Perplexed, writes: “Why is there no Platonic religion? Well, in sense there is.  It is called Christianity.  Or at least Christianity took from Plato many of the most important aspects of his thought, and attached them to its own central teaching that Jesus was the supreme manifestation of God.”[1]

Plotinus is, perhaps, one of the most influential philosophers of the ancient world that nobody has heard about today.  Through the philosophical lens of Plotinus, most of classical Christian theology has been framed.  However, because Plotinus considered himself merely an interpreter of Plato, his formulations have occasionally been credited to Plato by subsequent Christian theologians.  This has led to the surprising circumstance of a major philosopher who reformulated the whole of Western theology disappearing from modern recognition.

A philosopher of the third century AD, Plotinus became the central figure of Neoplatonism, a development of Platonism.  His writings influenced Augustine and inspired Christian, Pagan and Islamic mystics of the ancient world.  It is not known if Plotinus was Egyptian, Roman or Greek.  Plotinus wrote extensively in Greek and so obtusely that his works required extensive editing and rewriting by his pupil, Porphyry.  Porphyry not only edited and rewrote the treatise, but he added a biography of Plotinus.

Plotinus was born in Lycopolis, a city established by the Greeks in Eqypt.  At the age of 27, Plotinus traveled to Alexandria to study philosophy.  There he became a student of Ammonius Saccas, another famous Neoplatonist.  For the next eleven years, he learned and taught philosophy in Alexandria.  But when Gordian III began a military campaign against Persia, Plotinus joined the military ranks with the hope to encounter and investigate the philosophy of the Persian and Indian philosophers.  Gordian III lost his campaign, leaving Plotinus with a long and difficult struggle back to Alexandria.

Eventually, at the age of forty, he traveled to Rome and stayed there for the rest of his life.  He wrote 54 treatises that compose a systematic theology and the creation that emanates from god.  He considered himself a Platonist who merely echoes much of Plato’s original thinking.  In fact, Plotinus held such a high regard for Plato that he wanted to be known as nothing else than as an interpreter of Plato (The Enneads. V.i.8.10-14).  Only in the 19th century did philosophers rename his philosophy “Neoplatonism”.  After his death, Plotinus’ student, Porphyry, collected his notes and organized the 54 treatises into six sets of nine.  In Greek the word nine is ennea, which became the name of his book, The Enneads.

The central theme of The Enneads describes god.  Plotinus’ god consists of three hypostases of Being which were first formulated by Plato in the first hypothesis of Plato’s Parmenides.  From here Plotinus garners most of his source material for The Enneads.  The word “hypostasis” derives from the Greek hupo (ὑπό) meaning “under” and stasis (στάσις) meaning “standing”.  Hence, hypostasis means the real or true substance which underlies all living things.  Not coincidentally, the word “hypostasis” has become fundamental to Christian theology.  The Trinity consists of three persons.   Rather than the normal English understanding of “persons”, the Latin “persona” is a translation of the Greek “hypostasis”.

Neoplatonism proposes three hypostases that compose a hierarchy of being: the One (εν), the Intellect (νους) and the Soul (ψυχη).  This is not an equal partnership resembling the Christian trinity; this is a hierarchal relationship, with the One first, the Intellect second and the third Soul. The Plotinian One has many attributes comparable to the Platonic Good and the One in Plato’s Parmenides.  It is ineffable, transcendent, simple and generates all composites.  The Intellect is the divine level of the Platonic Forms.  The Intellect is eternal, thinking and immutable.  The Soul produces and animates the perceptible world.  This Soul is sometimes translated the world’s Soul to distinguish it from individual souls.

This is the reason why Plato says that all things are threefold “about the king of all”-he means the primary realities- and “the second about the second and the third about the third”.  But he also says that there is a “father of the cause”, meaning Intellect “the cause”: for Intellect is his craftsman: and he says that it makes Soul in that “mixing bowl he speaks of.  And the father of Intellect which is th cause he calls the Good and that which is beyond Intellect and “beyond being”.  And he also often calls Being and Intellect Ida; So Plato knew that Intellect comes from the God and Soul from Intellect.[2]

Plotinus uses these hypostases to explain all creation.  The souls of all living things begin with the One and proceeds (προοδος) to the Intellect then to the Soul and, finally, to the material world.  In Aristotelian terms, this procession can be described as a move from pure actuality to potentiality.  When souls begin with the One, they possesses the highest degree of ontological perfection, unity and intellection.  As they travel through each hypostasis, these qualities diminish.  Each of the lower hypostases is generated by contemplating the next higher hypostasis in itself.  The One generates the Intellect.  The Intellect looks back on the One and in turn generates the Soul.  There are two parts to the Soul: upper and lower Soul.  The upper Soul is a link between the material world and the spiritual worlds of the hypostases.  The lower Soul participates with the sensible or material world generating in hierarchical order individual humans, animals, plants and down to inorganic matter, the lowest level of being.

This descent causes a problem.  Lower souls, such as humans, enjoy being independent of
God.  Plotinus uses the image of God as the Father and evil as separation from God.  But this descent is a descent into evil.  The enlightened soul desires to be separated from this evil and to return to the One.

What is it, then, which has made the souls forget their father, God, and be ignorant of themselves and him, even though they are parts which come from his higher world and altogether belong to it?  The beginning of evil for them was audacity and coming birth and the first otherness and the wishing to belong to themselves.  Since they were clearly delighted with their own independence, and made great use of self-movement running the opposite course and getting as far away as possible, they were ignorant even that they themselves came from that world… [3]

These concepts were not meant to be pure abstraction by armchair philosophers.  Rather, these concepts composed the core of Neoplatonic mysticism.  A Neoplatonist practices his religion by returning (επιστροφη) up the hierarchy of being from the Soul to the One.  Augustine will call the procession “the descent” and the return “the ascent”.  It is a form of transcendental meditation which the Christian mystics call contemplation.  The Platonic mystic must prepare himself for the ascent by practicing purification, separating oneself from physical needs like sex or food.

Mystical practices throughout the world practice contemplation similarly.  In India, mantra means to liberate the mind, consciousness, and soul from the cycle of repeated birth and death.  It is an essential part of the Sikhm, Hindu, Buddhist and Jainism tradition.  In the mantra, one empties the mind by concentrating on a sound.  In the Platonic ascent, one empties the mind by searching for the One in nondiscursive thoughts.  Mantra mystics attempt to unite with god in the mantra.  Plotinian mystics attempt to unite with the One.

To unite with the One, a person must become like the one.  Purification is the process of ridding oneself of the evil inherent in the body and escaping into the noncorporeal world of the spirit.  The body is enslaved by evil.  To escape this slavery, it is necessary to practice the higher virtues.  Of course the three hypostases are spiritual beings and do not require the passions of the body: sex and food.  Plotinus says this unabashedly:

But we must state the extent of this purification; in this way it will become clear what god we are made like to and identified with…It gets rid of passion as completely as possible, altogether if it can, but if it cannot, at least it does not share its emotional excitement…It will obviously not desire anything bad; it will not itself have the desire of food and drink for the relief of the body, and certainly not of sexual pleasure either.  [4]

As a soul ascends the ladder of being the soul, becomes more and more like the hypostasis at the end of the ladder.  The One is an impersonal god without emotions or passions.  The soul loses contact with his personal relatives and acquaintance and withdraws into his own world.  Plotinus insists that solitary life is most godly.

But if it runs the opposite way, it will arrive, not at something else but at itself…but in itself; but when it is in itself alone and not in being; it is in that ; for one becomes, not substance, but “beyond substance”….

This is the life of god and of godlike and blessed men, deliverance from the things of this world, a life which takes no delight in the things of the world, escape in solitude to the solitary.[5]

If this sounds unnatural, a person must ask, what is your opinion on convents and nunneries?  Do the persons who withdraw into these institutions become more godly or less?  In the opinion of Plotinus and subsequent Christian theologians, the answer is more.

Since it is here that evils are, and “they must necessarily haunt this region,” and the soul want to escape from evils, we must escape from here.  What, then, is this escape?” “Being made like god,” Plato says.  And we become godlike “if we become righteous and holy with the help of wisdom,” and are altogether in virtue.  [6]

The end of the ascent is the escape into the self.  The Platonist will see in himself the god portrayed in The Enneads, a god who is impassionate, immutable, simple, infinite, and ineffable.  The mystic concept of this union with the one is emptying oneself from all thought and becoming one with the one.  Contrast this with the God of the Scriptures, a God of revelation.  God has content and reveals himself in a discursive way, not in a contemplative manner.  The visions of God seen by the prophets are not immaterial, ineffable events, but rather effable events capable of being understood through discursive thought.

If God portrays himself through effable events in the Scriptures, why is it so important to the philosophers and later theologians that God be ineffable?  The answer comes from their method of interpretation.  Ineffability of God determines how the speak of, indeed, how to think of God’s very essence.


[1] Hines, Brian. Return To The One: Plotinus’s Guide To God-Realization, Adrasteia Publishing, Salem, Oregon, 2009 p. xvi

[2] Plotinus. Ennead V. Trans. A. H. Armstrong. Loeb Classical Library 444. 1984. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001.  P 39-41 (V,1,8)

[3] Ibid.  P 11 (V,1,1)

[4] Ibid. P 141 (I,2,5)

[5] Ibid. P 345 (VI,9,11)

[6] Ibid. P 127 (I,2,1)

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