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§ 30 – Neo-Platonism

Platonism was revived by an Alexandrian named Ammonius Saccas, of whom little else is known except that he was the teacher of Plotinus (presently to be spoken of), and must have flourished in the early part of the third century A.D. He is said to have regarded the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle as substantially one and the same, and to have taught both in their purity. Other leading Neo-Platonists are Plotinus, Porphyry, Jamblichus, and Proclus.


Life of Plotinus

Plotinus (circa 205-270 A.D.), a native of Lycopolis, in Egypt, studied philosophy eleven years in the school of Ammonius Saccas, and went, at about the age of forty, to Rome and opened there a school of philosophy, which was attended by a large number of persons of learning and eminence, both male and female.

Here he taught for twenty-six years. He was of ascetic habits, was ashamed of his body, ate neither flesh nor bread, despised medicine, was averse to giving information of his personal history. He appears to have aimed at a philosophical culture that should, as far as possible, strip the outward individual as such of his attributes; and one of his practical projects was the founding of a state with a constitution such as that expounded in Plato’s Laws.

In the ascetic and mystic character of his ideals he resembled, it would seem, the Pythagoreans; and yet there can be no doubt that he regarded the theoretical as far above the level of the practical,—philosophical contemplation as above narrow moral discipline. His works, fifty-four in all, were arranged and edited by his pupil Porphyry, in a collection of six groups, of nine works each, whence the name Enneads (έννεα = nine) (1). Plotinus was a violent opponent of the pugnacious Christianity of his age; but both m his life and in his writings there stands out in full relief the desire and purpose to hold the mind above the things of mere sense and in the light of its own pure nature.

Plotinus. Dialectic

Plotinus, as did his master Plato, particularly in the middle period of his philosophizing (2), held philosophy or, rather, perhaps, the approach to it, to consist in a mental flight from this world to a higher region, in becoming «like God,» an ascent to the Idea of the Good; and in his opuscule, On Dialectic, he explains, after the manner of Plato, the method or mode of ascent to the Idea of the Good from the level of the born musician, lover, and philosopher, who are gifted, each in a particular way, with a finer perception than most men, of the harmony that lies veiled in the sensuous world. The perception which the musician and lover have of the harmony and inner truth of things is overpowered by «astonishment,» the mere sensation of the beautiful; and these gifted natures have first to be raised to a standpoint from which they can distinguish the principles of beauty (e.g., concord, rhythm, figure) in objects of sense from the immediate environment of those principles. They may then contemplate those principles in a higher grade of development (e.g., beautiful pursuits and laws) and then pass on through the study of the sciences to dialectic, or the science of thought and being, which is the «immediate instrument» of the Good itself. The born-philosopher does not require to be disengaged from meshes of sense and feeling; he is naturally quick to perceive thought-distinctions, but is somewhat dubious and only in want of some one to »indicate the way». He passes readily from the particular to the universal, and, after having received a training m the sciences, finds dialectic to be his native element. What then is dialectic? «It is a habit enabling its possessor to reason about everything, to know what each thing is, in what it differs from other things, what the common something is in or of which it participates, where each of these is, if a thing is, what it is, what the number of beings is, and of non-beings (which are not nothing but different from beings). It also discusses the Good and the contrary of it, the Eternal and its contrary. All these things it discusses scientifically and not from opinion». «It employs division, obtains knowledge of the first genera of things, intellectually connecting that which results from them till it has proceeded through the whole of an intelligible nature, and again by an analytic process it arrives at that to which it proceeded from the first»(3). Dialectic is not merely the instrument of philosophy: «it is concerned with being and what lies beyond being: it knows the motions of the soul, what the soul admits and what it rejects»; it understands manner, virtues, habits, passions, actions. It is the «most honorable part» of philosophy, but it presupposes, and is presupposed by, the other parts. It is not possible to know dialectic without knowing «inferior concerns»; but though these may be in a manner understood «without dialectic,» the knowledge of them is perfected by dialectic. The first principles of dialectic have their origin in intellect and not in any faculty or activity of the soul relating particularly to «inferior concerns». Dialectic in its highest form stands above, and «surveys,» logic, or the principles of the understanding, or dianoetic faculty, which immediately govern the sciences relating to inferior concerns. The foregoing, which, it is to be observed, is quite Platonic in quality, elevates us to the standpoint of Plotinus, the standpoint of speculation (vision), or pure thought, or self-consciousness. Another account of the steps leading to this standpoint (which should be added to the foregoing, not only because it is more scientific but also because the meaning of Plotinus’s philosophy is easily missed without care in the attempt to approach his standpoint) is the following(4): The standpoint of sense is, naturally and necessarily for most men, prior to that of thought. Some never get beyond this; considering the things of sense «as the first and last of things and apprehending that whatever is painful among these is evil and whatever is pleasant is good». «Others are in a small degree elevated from things subordinate, the more excellent parts of the soul recalling them from pleasure to a more worthy pursuit». «Others through a more excellent power and with piercing eyes, acutely perceive supernal light, to the vision of which they raise themselves above the clouds and darkness, as it were, of the lower world, and there abiding despise these regions of sense, being no otherwise delighted with the place which is truly and properly their own, than he who after many wanderings is at length restored to his lawful country». Concisely stated, the steps of progression in the love and knowledge of the beautiful are: first, love of sensible beauty; second, «love of the beauty of science and virtue and of beauty of soul»; third, love of the «cause of beauty of soul»; fourth, love of «that which is first and which is beautiful from itself». In this last alone is there complete satisfaction («liberation from parturiency») for the soul that is in intellectual travail.

Plotinus. Reason, Intellect, or Nous: the Realm of Ideas

Since the ascent to the realm of that which is «beautiful from itself» has been by a process of abstracting from the uniformities and types in things, and thinking more and more of the types in themselves, that which is «first and beautiful from itself» must be conceived as the realm of pure types or forms, which is intellect, or reason. Soul is not that which is «first and beautiful from itself,» because, if it were, one soul would not be beautiful and wise, and another unwise and base (as now is the case); soul is subject to passions, or passive changing states: it is linked with the sensible world and, as thus involved (incidentally) in motion, is in «capacity» not in «energy» (Aristotle’s distinction of δύναμις and ένέργεια). Soul is beautiful merely as participating in intellect, or reason; reason alone is in energy and always in itself, for itself, and from itself. In reason, things are known as they really are, and the knower and the known are one. Reason is the place of being, the totality of pure forms, and of knowledge. If intellectual perception were not a perception of being, then intellect were only a «capacity» or «possibility,» but we must have that which is in energy, and intellect is seen to be such only when the objects of intellectual perception are in intellect itself. If they were elsewhere, or outside of intellect, or had no being, then intellect would only be in capacity not real intellect and the objects of its perception not being. Intellect is, then, both that which is and that which knows. And, further, in so far as sensible things participate in types, they are objects of intellect; and not only so, but since intellect, or reason, has only itself for its object, they are creations of intellect. Further, still, it is the same thing to perceive intellectually and to be. In intellect all things subsist collectively, or at the same time, and yet as one, just as in the seed are contained all the potentialities of the future plant. But there is in intellect no (temporal) process as in the growth (and reality) of the seed. Reason is eternally «present with itself». «It does not extend itself to the objects of its perception as if it did not possess them, or as if it acquired them externally or obtained them by a discursive process, as if they were not already present with it…: but it stands firmly in itself. For this reason, intellect, as distinguished from being, does not exist prior to being; if it did, we should have to say that intellect, by energizing and intellectually perceiving, generated beings. Rather, intellect is posterior to being, just as the energy of fire is posterior to fire; and yet, since intellect would lack in itself being (and hence would not be intellect) if it became its object or being, we say that being and intellect are one. Considered with reference to its contents the intelligible world is or contains in it «according qualities and quantities, numbers and magnitudes, habitudes, actions, and passions, which are according to nature, motions, permanencies, both universal and particular,» «sameness, difference, the stable, essence, quality, art». On the contrary, there is in the intelligible world no art that has to do with sensible things. «Neither will the agriculture be there which is conversant with a sensible plant; nor the medicine which saves the health of the body, or which contributes to strength and a good corporeal habit. For there is another power, another health, there, through which all animals are sufficiently corroborated». Rhetoric, military art, œconomics, politics, and all natural objects are there merely by participation. «Geometry, however, by being conversant with intelligibles must be arranged in the intelligible world». The soul in its real essence is there and the true sciences and justice and temperance.

Plotinus. The One, The First, The Good

In intellect, or reason, there is a certain duality of the knower and the known, even though these be in a manner one, and therefore, says Plotinus, reason is not the Absolute (The First, The One, The Good). The Absolute is what is One simply and without qualification. It is prior to being and intellect. It is in itself neither intelligible nor intellective. It is intelligible in the sense that, being that which alone is absolutely perfect, its presence with or to intellect or reason is essential to the perfect being and activity of intellect. If this, which is prior to intellect itself, had intellectual perception, it would have to have present with it another thing, and hence would not be sole and first, but «many» and second. The One is not one among many, nor one in or through many: it is absolutely sole. The thought of it is wholly unlike the thought of anything else. To attain to the perception of the One it is requisite to abstract totally from the world of sense, i.e., «to commit one’s soul to, and establish it in, intellect». One then perceives that which is absolutely formless and distinctionless, and it may be, becomes weary of the vision and wishes to descend again to the world of sense. «When the soul directs its attention to that which is formless, then being unable to comprehend that which is not bounded, and, as it were, impressed with forms by a former of a various nature, it falls from the apprehension of it and is afraid it will possess nothing from the view. Hence it becomes weary in endeavors of this kind, and gladly descends from the survey, frequently falling from all things till it arrives at something sensible, and, as it were, rests on a solid substance; just as sight, also, when wearied with the perception of small objects, eagerly turns to such as are larger». Nevertheless, the Absolute, or First, is to be approached only in the manner described. All intellectual perceptions proper, however pure of sense, are but conditions to the apprehension of the One. In speaking of the One we necessarily apply names to it that designate not anything that is really in the One itself, but, «something which happens to us because we possess something from it, the One meantime subsisting in itself. It is necessary, however, when speaking accurately of the One, neither to call it that nor this. But we, running, as it were, externally around it, are desirous of explaining the manner in which we are affected about it. At one time, indeed, we draw near to it, but at another time fall from it by our doubts about it… Doubt especially arises because the perception of the highest Good is not effected by science [i.e., natural, or mathematical science] nor by intelligence [the knowledge of pure types] like other intelligibles, but by the presence of him. All concrete or synthetic doctrine extends only so far as the way and progression to him». The act of perceiving the One is a complete merging into it, a perfect union of knowing subject with known object, a union which is of the nature of the One and is hence necessarily a perfect union of the knowing subject with itself. It is only after separating from the One that intellect has before it the distinction of subject and object. The One is distinct from, though present with, all else.

Plotinus. Intellect, Reason, or Nous as an Emanation

The One being thus prior for thought to all things else is the absolute prius of all things else. But in what way? How does the (our) thought of the One lead to that of intellect, soul, and sensible things? How do all things else follow from the One? When we try to hold or, we may just as well say, lose, ourselves in the conception of the One, or pure formlessness, we find spontaneously arising the thought of the opposite. This fact is the foundation of Plotinus’s theory of the «generation and order of all things after the first». «The One being perfect in consequence of not seeking or possessing, or being in want of anything… becomes, as it were, overflowing(5), and the super-plenitude of it produces something else. That, however, which is generated from it (being still under its influence) turns towards it (to become or to partake of, the One) and is filled, and was generated looking to it. But this is intellect and the permanency of it about the One produced being, but its vision intellect. When, therefore, it is established about the One in order that it may see it, then it becomes at once intellect and being»(6). In this vision of the One intellect has the consciousness of power and of itself. The One, that is to say, having produced by its overflowing an energy which it causes to turn back towards it and look at it sinks down (for that intellective power) into the realm of being, and being and intellect are thus organically distinguished and joined—immanent the one in the other by the presence of the One—as knower and known. Intellect viewing being in a light reflected from the One—seeing being by vision that it has immediately on leaving the One—sees being as one (a form of One) rather than many, and one with itself (intellect): it therefore sees itself. Viewing being as being, i.e., as established and independent, it sees it as many (rather than one). In the latter form it is discursive and scientific, not pure intellect. «By logically analyzing the conception of self-consciousness we obtain, first of all, Nous itself, or Reason, as the subject, and Existence as the object of thought. Subject and object, considered as the same with one another, give us Identity; considered as distinct they give us Difference. The passage from one to the other gives Motion the limitation of thought to itself gives Rest. The plurality of determinations so obtained gives Number and Quantity, their specific difference gives Quality, and from these principles everything else is derived»(7).

Such is the deduction of the primary ideas from the One and from Nous and Being. The intelligible world does not fall below the notion of organic unity. The intelligible world is an «image» of the One. It is an organism of eternal types and forms. Now, since form must have realization in matter, there is in the intelligible world a universal substratum, «incorporeal matter». This is the bond of union among the Ideas, or distinct forms, of the intelligible world. It is cognized by «indefinite» reason.

Plotinus. Soul

Out of the superabundance of the Intellect, or Nous, comes soul(8), which is an «image» of Nous, as this is of the One. It partakes of the permanent, abiding nature of Nous but has in it also the negative of permanence, the principle of motion. Nothing, however, intervenes between soul and Nous: though distinct, they are continuous one with the other. Soul, imitating Nous, looks back to its origin (as the Demiurgus of Plato’s Timæus looks to the Idea) and generates an image of itself; viz., visible nature which also is a kind of soul. From both of these are generated souls, rational and irrational. The «procession,» or going forth of souls, from Nous is neither a voluntary nor a compulsory act, but «resembles a physical leaping or the natural tendencies to wedlock, or the impulses to certain beautiful actions to which we are not excited by a reasoning process». Each individual soul has inherent in it the universal law that carries it naturally to its particular end at the time appointed by the law itself; or, to state the same fact in a different way, each soul is suspended from an intellect which rules its course (as, according to Aristotle, the Heavens are «suspended» from the Deity, or Prime Mover). «Souls fall from the intelligible world, in the the place, indeed, into the heavens, and there receiving a body they proceed through it into terrene bodies so far as their progressions are more extended in length. And some of them proceed from the heavens into inferior bodies, but others pass from certain bodies into others: these being such as have not sufficient power to raise themselves from hence on account of the great weight of oblivion which they have attracted and which draws them down by their oppressive influence». Souls differ either inherently or from the diversity of the circumstances into which they are introduced or from fortune and education. That natural and, as it were, free necessity which conducts all beings to that condition of existence to which they are adapted, «coordinating and weaving together even the smallest things, is a kind of universal justice awarding their deserts to those who have done good or evil, whether in this life or a preexistent state.

Plotinus. Soul and Body

As being an «intelligible nature and divine allotment» the soul is not body nor the harmony in incorporeal natures, nor the entelechy, or perfection, of the body. The soul is «present with» the body; and, as the One is with intellect and intellect with the soul, it is not in the body; rather the body is in it, as the air is and shines in the light. As intermediate in nature between the perfectly indivisible (the One and intellect) and the divisible (the sense world), the soul is present with the body as whole and as part. The whole soul is in each part, but has a difference of function in the different parts by virtue of its adaptability to differences in the organs of the body. If the soul were not (as thus) an organism, all synthesis of the findings of the separate senses would be an impossibility and so, likewise, would all distinguishing and mental registering of sensations, for there will be no locating of them. The order and beauty of the cosmos, to take a quite analogous case, show that there must be a single power which wisely connects and governs all things in it. This power is the soul of the world. The soul in the body, by virtue of its (relative) divisibility, supplies all parts of the body with life and «power of sensation»; by virtue of its indivisibility it «conducts all things wisely». In the case of the sense of touch the whole body is present as instrument with the soul; in that of the other senses only limited parts of the body. The central seat of sensation is the brain. Though the sensitive soul is bodily in nature, it is, to some extent, «judicial,» or intellective. The phantasy, or imagination (in the widest sense), is permeated by reason; impulse and appetite are not entirely beyond the influence of reason and phantasy. Memory has its roots partly in the intellect, partly in the phantasy. The soul is throughout, therefore, dominated by reason, or intellect. But because of the natural deterioration of intellect that takes place in the passing of intellect into soul, the intellect in the soul is not pure, or intuitive, but discursive, or rationalistic, intellect. Only rarely does the soul while in the body attain to the summit of intellect and merge into the Divine Being. It always possesses, however, though it does not always energize according to them, the innate ideas which it brought with it from the intelligible world. The soul, after its separation from the body, retains its powers, and has, if it has been deeply attracted by its bodily life, a recollection of everything done or suffered in the body. Evidence of the truth of the supposition that memory is not purely bodily in origin and will continue after death is to be found in the fact that the soul remembers, while in the body, some things that are not bodily in their origin. «In course of time after death the recollection of other things from former lives will arise, so that some of the bodily recollections will be dismissed and be despised. For, the soul becoming in a greater degree purified from the body will recollect those things, the remembrance of which she lost in the present life». The intellect, as well as the memory, undergoes a process of purification after death. Then the ratiocination and the use of discourse which are made necessary now by the irregular diversity of beings, or existences, give place to a pure intuition. «If, however, souls live in the intelligible world without (discursive) reasoning, how can they be any longer rational? They are still rational because they are able to employ a reasoning process whenever circumstances render it necessary. It is necessary to assume a ratiocination of this kind… we must not think voice is employed by them there so long as they entirely subsist in the intelligible world. But where they have bodies in the heavens they do not use the dialect which they employ here through indigence or ambiguity; but performing everything in an orderly manner and according to nature they neither command anything to be done nor consult about it. They also mutually know the objects of their knowledge through a conscious perception; since even here, likewise, we know many things through the eyes, pertaining to those that are silent. There, however, every body is pure and each inhabitant is, as it were, an eye. Nothing, likewise, is there concealed or fictitious, but before one can speak to another the latter knows what the former intended to say». The Plotinic spirit-realm is thus completely determined, or organized, according to the conception of pure self-consciousness.

Plotinus. The Individual Soul and the Soul of the World

The individual soul is en rapport with the soul of the world and receives influences from it; but is, by virtue of its rational part, a different soul from that of the universe—just as the soul of the child in the womb is different from that of the mother. The soul of the world, which produces the beauty and order of the cosmos, is (in part, at least) transcendent. Man may rise to a true sense of his own inherent worth and dignity by the contemplation of the soul of the world as manifested in the cosmos.

Plotinus. The Sensible World and Matter

The sensible world begotten and fashioned by the soul of the universe, is an «imitation» of that soul immediately and of the intelligible world indirectly, for the soul receives from the intelligible world the principles of all things. These principles, or forms, it is the function of the soul to objectify. The result, the objectification of forms, is just the world of sensible objects. Form, however, requires for its objectification that in which it shall receive real existence, and this is termed matter(9). Sensible objects as such are constantly passing into and out of existence. Since form is intelligible, and as such permanent, these changes must be due to the matter of such objects. Corporeal matter takes on now one form, now another, is potentially all things and «always some different thing». All theories, therefore, that represent matter as fixed, or determined, in any respect, as are the elements of Empedocles and atoms of Democritus, or as having form, as do virtually the «seeds» of Anaxagoras, are false. Matter is absolutely without quality of any sort —without even magnitude— all qualities, or determinations, being given to it by form, which alone possesses definiteness or distinguishableness. If matter possessed magnitude, for example, the creator would be subservient to that, and «his production would not possess the quantity [nor the quality?] which he wished it should, but that which matter is capable of receiving». «Every form possesses magnitude and the quantity which it contains is accompanied with reason (i.e., with a productive principle) and subsists under this. Hence in every genus of things quantity is defined together with form. For there is one magnitude of a man and another of a bird». Matter is indefinite and perceived by the indefinite reason. «If, however, everything is known by reason and intelligence, but here reason indeed says what it is requisite to say about it, and wishing to become intelligence is not intelligence but, as it were, a privation of intellect,—if this be the case, the conception of matter will rather be spurious, and not genuine; be composed of an imagination which is not true and another kind of reason (compare Plato’s «spurious reason» in the Timæus(10)). What, therefore, is the indefiniteness of the soul? Is it not all-perfect ignorance, such as the absence of knowledge? Or does the indefinite consist in a certain negation in conjunction with a certain affirmation, and is it like darkness to the eye, obscurity being the matter of every invisible color?» The notion of matter is not exactly that of nonentity, if it be possible to think nonentity. The soul is pained, shrinks, at the thought of indefiniteness, and instinctively affirms seeming nonentity as a kind of entity. But matter is, nevertheless, not magnitude nor quality of any sort but merely the capacity for the objectivity of the quality that is in form. Form, in other words, just as, seemingly, about to pass into nothingness suddenly develops into magnitude and every other quality. Matter is merely then the subject of the qualities and has no reality if there be no form. But as far as matter is concerned, there is between matter and form no relation prior to their union, matter being entirely «indifferent to quality». Matter is mere externality, or otherness. When we term it the infinite, or indefinite, we can mean only that it is not something possessing the attribute of indefiniteness, but the indefinite itself. Corporeal matter is «perfect poverty,» «necessarily evil,» and the cause of evil.

Plotinus. Virtue (11)

The world of sense is, for man, evil; for it is the world of indefiniteness and change, whereas man is, by his very essence,—intellect and soul,—pure and permanent. He must fly hence and become like God; in this lies his virtue. It is doubtful if all the so-called virtues are virtues. Temperance and fortitude, for example, imply that man is subject to fear; but pure reason knows no dread. The so-called «political virtues»(12) are founded on deliberation, but deliberation is not a purely intellectual act or function. Temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice possess, indeed, a certain efficacy in assimilating man to the divine; but God has no need of any of these virtues as such. Assimilation is of two sorts: one requiring an approach of two things towards each other in quality; the other, that one of the two things approach in similitude the other, this other ranking as «first» and remaining unchanged. The assimilation upon which perfect virtue depends is assimilation to that which is unchanged. Such assimilation must result in a purification of the soul of all passion, and in making necessary sensations of pleasure remedies and means of liberation from pain, in causing the irrational part of the soul to be obedient to the rational part. In accordance with this idea, the «political virtues» must be transformed so that wisdom «will consist in a contemplation of what intellect contains»; true justice will be that «energy of one thing towards itself in which there is not another and another (i.e., the unity of self-consciousness); temperance, inward turning to intellect; fortitude, apathy, according to a similitude of that to which the soul looks (i.e., the One shining in Reason), and which is naturally impassive» (i.e., pure reason). The virtue and end of man is that perfect felicity which is to be found only in intellectual contemplation. The soul’s growth in this virtue is its return to God, the source from which it ultimately emanated, the One. The proper virtue of the individual soul is of like nature with the «virtue» of all else that emanates from the One. Nous, Soul, Nature have their being and produce their works in acts of «contemplation»; that is to say, in their natural aspiration and return towards the One(13).

Historical Sources of the System of Plotinus

If we say that the system of Plotinus is, historically considered, an attempt to mediate between, or «reconcile,» the systems of Plato and Aristotle, rather, however, from the standpoint of the former than of the latter, we shall indicate at one and the same time the main historical sources and the essential character of the system in itself. In the one we have the Idea of the Good which Plato affirmed (in the Republic(14)) to be above both knowledge, or science, and essence, or being. In the conception of reason and being as the unity of subject and object we have the God of Aristotle, and in the intelligible world Plato’s realm of Ideas given rather the psychological character of Aristotle’s God. Plotinus’s theory of the soul, with its doctrines of preexistence, the imprisonment of the soul in the body, and its immortality, is Platonic and not Aristotelian; but Plotinus’s arguments relating to the unity of the soul, its relation to the body, the unity of subject and object, etc., seem to be traceable to Aristotle’s De Anima. In Plotinus’s account of the sensible world and of matter, we find a combination of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic views combined. Again, Plotinus’s ethics, if such it may be termed, is, in its subjectivity, asceticism, and impassivity, somewhat Stoic; in its purely theoretic tendency, Aristotelian; in its purism, enthusiasm, and aspiration towards supra-mundane perfection, Platonic. Finally, in the deduction from the One of all things else, we have an attempt similar to that of the Pythagoreans to deduce all things else, from mere number up to self-consciousness, from the primal One(15). Plotinus himself very frequently speaks with veneration of the «ancient philosophers,» and freely acknowledges obligations to them.


Notwithstanding, however, the obvious indebtedness of Plotinus to earlier philosophers, it seems clear, even from our brief sketch of his real system, that he had a standpoint and a full, firm grasp upon the philosophical conceptions that he had borrowed, that were quite his own. By bringing together Plato’s Idea and Aristotle’s Thought of Thought, he, in the first place, openly converted the former from an idea, or thought-object, to a conception, or thought-function, or, better, a thinking-subject, and so made the Idea more distinctly an intelligent, synthetic power,—the One, that is to say, is Plato’s Idea become inner, spiritual; and, in the second place, made the latter, Thought of Thought, which is a more or less dual self-consciousness, more distinctly absolute spirit. Viewed externally, or as idea, the One of Plotinus seems, indeed, but a mere abstraction, indistinguishable from mere matter; but, comprehended from within, it is the opposite of that,—it is pure intellectual power, absolute self-determination. If it seems to lack content, we have to remember that its content is merely held in abeyance, is to be developed by the system: the One is in reality fulness of power, which goes forth spontaneously—overflows—into existence, or concrete actuality. Psychologically considered, Plotinus possesses a certain unique excellence that even places him, in a certain respect, above both Plato and Aristotle —the one a master of dialectic thinking and the other of discursive reflection,—viz., a singularly sustained purity and loftiness of insight and peculiar power of keeping the mind’s eye ever fixed in the direction of the sole truth. This appears particularly in his masterly attempt at a synthesis of the Idea and the Thought of Thought, and the completeness with which the conception of the One dominates his mental attitude; and constitutes a new force in the history of Greek thought.—As regards the perfection of the system of Plotinus as a system, one point seems to demand attention here. The system is a system of emanation, and there is, logically, no return of the first principle upon itself: the system is a straight line instead of circle, a fact that seems at first sight peculiarly inconsistent with the fact that its first principle is the One. The solution of the antinomy seems to lie in the consideration that, just because the One is absolute, it can be «mediated» by nothing else. A return into self is not necessitated. It overflows naturally, spontaneously, and is in no way dependent in its emanations. There is, it may be said, a certain «return» towards the One on the part of the soul and of nature in the act of contemplation; but the One is in no way affected by this, though the return may be considered as a natural, spontaneous consequence of the working of the One in the soul and in nature.


(1) See Ueberweg’s History of Philosophy for subjects, grouping, and chronological order of the works.

(2) See Teætetus, p. 176; also, Phædrus and Republic.

(3) Select Works of Plotinus ( T. Taylor)

(4) See On Intellect, Ideas, and Being (Taylor’s trans.).

(5) In all other natures desire or want is the cause of their putting forth energy.

(6) On the Generation and Order of Things after The First (Taylor’s trans.).

(7) Benn’s The Greek Philosophers, Vol. II. P. 321.

(8) See On the Essence of the Soul, a Discussion of Doubts relative to the Soul.

(9) See Plotinus’s On Matter.

(10) Timæus, p. 52. See above, p. 92.

(11) See On the Virtues.

(12) That is, the virtues described by Plato and Aristotle as necessary to the good citizen, the member of the ideal state.

(13) See On Nature, Contemplation, and the One.

(14) See above, p.87.

(15) See above, p.7.