Plotinus was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Lycopolis, Egypt in 204 AD, the founder of Neoplatonism, and the greatest philosopher of late Antiquity. As a Neoplatonist, he believed that all truths were contained in Plato’s philosophy, both his dialogues as well as his unwritten teachings. Plotinus combined reason and spirituality, mysticism and philosophy, contemplation and action in order to create an understanding of reality (metaphysics) and way of life which would deeply influence later developments in Christian, Jewish and Islamic philosophy, theology and mysticism. Central to the Western philosophical tradition, Plotinus’ understanding of the world as existing in fundamental unity, his belief in a One beyond words, and the soul’s path to enlightenment share similarities with Indian philosophies as well as have influenced Kabbalah.
Born in Egypt, Plotinus was disappointed by the philosophers of Alexandria until one day he met Ammonius, a Platonist (i.e. someone who follows in the traditions of Plato). After learning Plato’s philosophy from Ammonius, Plotinus sought knowledge of Persian and Indian philosophy. He joined a military expedition to Persia, which unfortunately failed. Upon returning, he went to Rome where he would present his understanding of Plato’s philosophy as a way for the philosophical individual to achieve self-awareness, and ultimately enlightenment.
In Greek thought, there was a long tradition of trying to understand how it is possible that all the things of the worlds had come to exist. Plotinus explains that there is a One, which like the sun, is capable of continuously emanating energy or being. As a result of these emanations, progressively the world as we know it came into being. He refers to this as the three hypostases: the One, Intelligence, and Soul. These three things are different aspects of reality, which exist in unity with each other, and both explain the way the world came into being as well as how one can reunite with this divine source.
For Plotinus, the One is the source of life. It is a perfect thing without any limitations. It is so unlimited, it can’t even be described other than to say that it is indescribable. This is known as negative theology, that one can only know what the divine isn’t, and not what it is. This One represents the unity in the world before there is any distinction between this or that, subject and object, man and God. The One transcends the world as this perfect unity, which exists in perpetual self-contemplation. By understanding that there is a One, and not that the world was created by some intelligent and intentional designer, we can start to identify with our higher nature.
From the One, a next level of being was emanated which he called the realm of Intelligence. Intelligence is the aspect of reality where everything is understood in terms of Forms, Plato’s Forms. For example, Intelligence consists of the Forms of Beauty and Truth and Justice and the Good. The Intelligence represents our intuition, the understanding of these Forms that underlie the things of the world and make up their eternal nature.
After Intelligence, there is the level of Soul. Soul is where individual things come into being. There is a higher soul, and a lower soul. The higher soul, man’s higher nature, remains in contemplation of the Forms in the realm of Intelligence. The lower soul, man’s lower nature, is contained in the world of senses and matter. The soul is the place where rational thought occurs, however, because the lower aspect of the soul is contained in the world of nature, emotions and other such things can cause us to act irrationally. Matter, lacking divine being, is therefore the source of evil and the reason why we fall into error.
In this way, Plotinus is able to explain both why the world is the way it is, for example why there is evil in the world (in philosophy known as the Problem of Evil or theodicy), and he is also able to provide a path to enlightenment and salvation. When man forgets his true nature, his higher self, and instead focus his energies exclusively on things in the material world, he is lost. He does not recognize that he is in unity with reality and the One, but rather sees himself as an isolated individual who is at the whims of the constantly changing material universe. However, through philosophical training, one can learn to recognize the unity of the world, and to therefore identify with one’s higher nature.
When one focuses on his higher nature, he is able to progressively identify with his higher soul, with Intelligence, and with the transcendent One. Moral virtue is important (i.e. doing good things in the world) because it allows one to be at peace with himself and therefore in a position to contemplate the higher realities of the world. Plotinus believes that through such contemplation it is possible to have a vision of the One, and he is said to have had several mystical experiences in his lifetime. For him, this was not just an abstract philosophy, but something real based on personal experience of what he considered to be divine.
Common to both Plato and Pythagoras, as well as certain Indian philosophies, Plotinus believed in reincarnation. He explains that depending on where one’s focus is, one will be reincarnated in one of several different life forms. If one is focused solely on material concerns, they will be reincarnated as an animal or even a plant. If they focus on what is rational, they will come back as a human being. And if they are able to identify with Intelligence, the realm of Forms, they can escape this cycle of reincarnation and unite with the One.
Plotinus’ metaphysical philosophy, mysticism, and way of life was very influential in his time as well as since in the history of Western thought. As a Neoplatonist, he saw Aristotle (Plato’s student) as integral to helping one understand Plato’s true philosophy. Most developments in Western philosophy, either Platonic or Aristotelian, used Plotinus’ writings (the Enneads), as their source. In this way, his philosophy influenced Islamic philosophers such as al-Ghazali and the Persian mysticism known as Sufism. He would deeply influence St. Augustine, as well as later Christian thinkers such as Aquinas and Nicholas of Cusa.
Plotinus’ writings were reintroduced into Europe by Renaissance thinkers. He would influence the author of the Kabbalistic text the Zohar, Moses de Leon, as well as scientists such as Kepler interested in an otherworldly, “perennial” (enduing) philosophy. His understanding of the unity of the world is seen in Spinoza’s Ethics and Leibniz’ Monadology. Neoplatonic philosophy would also inspire the Romantic writers of Europe, and the imagination of Christian writer such as C.S. Lewis. In the 20th century, William James created an understanding of theology rooted in religious experience in the same way that Plotinus grounded his philosophy in his mystical experiences. In his ability to unite traditional Greek thought with original understanding, and to connect rationality and philosophy with mysticism and spirituality, Plotinus stands out as an incredibly interesting and influential figure in Western history.