Review: The Essential Plotinus

The Essential PlotinusThe Essential Plotinus by Plotinus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after reading Glenn’s fine review, and I’m glad I did. This is an excellent volume; and although I haven’t read the complete Enneads, so I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the editor and translator, Elmer O’Brien, did an expert job in selecting the very best sections from that long tome. In just 170 pages, one finds a complete philosophical system and worldview. I’ve read few books that pack so much into so few words.

It is often remarked that Plotinus was more of a mystic than a real philosopher. But of course, those two aren’t mutually exclusive categories. I’ve heard both Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s works compared to mystical poetry, and indeed the clear demarcation between philosophy and religion is a relatively recent phenomenon. So don’t let the mysticism put you off. This is a serious and significant work of philosophy.

At both the literal and metaphorical center of Plotinus’s system is his concept of The One. The One is the source of all reality, the source of existence itself: “It is by The One that all beings are beings.” It transcends all forms of knowledge; it cannot be described in any words: “This principle is certainly none of the things of which it is the source. It is such that nothing can be predicated of it, not being, not substance, not life, because it is superior to all these things.” The One, which is the same as The Good, is the goal of Plotinus’s system: to seek, through contemplation, an experience of the wellspring of all existence. “By directing your glance towards it, by reaching it, by resting in it, you will achieve a deep and immediate awareness of it and will at the same time seize its greatness in all things that come from it and exist through it.”

Now this all sounds quite abstract and incomprehensible, but I think Plotinus’s point is rather simple. Nothing can exist without having some sort of unity; and the more unity something has, the more stable is its existence. For example, a choir only exists if all of the people composing it are organized in some way. When they disband, the unity is broken, and the choir ceases to exist. A human body exists because all of the diverse parts which compose it cooperate and coordinate their activities. Once this organization ceases, the unity of the parts is broken, and the body ceases to function and ultimately passes away. The more simple something is, the less contingency is has. To pick an inappropriately modern example, a molecule exists because the atoms which compose it are in a particular configuration; once this configuration is broken, the molecule is gone. What persists are the fundamental particles, quarks and electrons, which are (we think) absolutely simple, and therefore persist through all the shifting configurations of matter and energy that cause everything we experience through our senses.

The One is what Plotinus calls the “first hypostasis.” The One is the principle of all existence, because, without some sort of unity, nothing could exist. But by itself, The One doesn’t exist. In fact, to give it any predicate, even the predicate of “existence,” is to attribute some contingent quality to it. So just as Heidegger is fond of reminding us that Being is not a being—that is, the cause of existence cannot itself be something that exists—so does Plotinus warn us that we can know absolutely nothing about The One. It is formless, devoid of all qualities, transcendent of all thought, beyond even our categories of “real” and “unreal.”

But of course, the universe exists, and therefore cannot be identical with The One. This leads Plotinus to his “second hypostasis,” which is The Intelligence. Now, from what I understand, The Intelligence is the realm wherein dwell all the ideals and forms that comprise true reality. Plotinus, borrowing heavily from Plato and Aristotle, considers matter to be pure potentiality. What turns the potentiality into an actuality is a form or an ideal—such as Humanity or Fire in the abstract; and these can only be apprehended through the mind, or intelligence. These ideals are eternal and immaterial; hence it is these ideals that exist in the highest degree, being contingent only on The One, completely independent of matter.

But The Intelligence is static, comprising all things at once, timeless and perfect; yet the reality we know is ever-changing. This leads Plotinus to the “third hypostasis,” which is The Soul. Plotinus thinks not only that people have souls, but that The Soul is responsible for all movement and order in the universe. Just as a human is animated by an indwelling soul, so are the planets and animals and everything around us moved by The Soul, which mediates between the inactive realm of matter and the perfect world of The Intelligence. For Plotinus, each individual soul is just a part of The Soul; and like Plato, he believes in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls.

This elaborate metaphysical doctrine is the backdrop of Plotinus’s spiritual practices. Plotinus shares with many other Western mystics a scorn for the body. The senses are the source of nothing but illusion and suffering, and drag the soul down into petty considerations and vain pursuits. The first step is to appreciate the beauty in sensible objects, for beauty is not raw sensation, but consists of an order or organization in our sensations. The next step is to move beyond the senses altogether, engaging in dialectic to examine the pure ideals through thought alone. But unlike Plato, for whom philosophy was largely a social enterprise, the last step in Plotinus’s system is an introspective voyage to The One, a state of perfect blissful peace, a contemplation of the source of all reality, that transcendent origin which has no qualities and which cannot be grasped in words or thought.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this, especially for one such as myself, a secular rationalist. Of course, Plotinus is worth reading from a purely historical perspective, for his deep influence on St. Augustine, and thence on Christianity itself. And if you are religious or spiritual in any way, be it Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or simply fond of meditation, I’m sure that you can find something of value in Plotinus. From a modern perspective, as philosophy pure and simple, Plotinus’s system isn’t very compelling; for Plotinus does not make strict arguments, but rather grounds his thought in introspective experiences. Yet if you are like me, or like Bertrand Russell—a man who could hardly be more secular or averse to nonsense—you will nonetheless find something beautiful in Plotinus, even if it is perhaps just an elaborate dream, a philosophical fancy, an extended description of one brilliant man’s lonely meditations.

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6 thoughts on “Review: The Essential Plotinus

  1. So where to begin? Shall we drag over the former question to here or how about we just jump in instead? In the second paragraph you stated: “So don’t let the mysticism put you off.” Am I to assume that the bulk of your readers are opposed to mysticism? Should we avoid this term in particular or would you like to share your personal thoughts on this concept? Did The Essential Plotinus allow you to walk away with a better understanding of mysticism in a positive or negative light? Please explain?

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    1. Well, I did assume that most of my readers weren’t particularly interested in mysticism, or at least had less respect for mysticism than for philosophy. Considering who I know through Goodreads, this is a safe assumption.

      There’s nothing wrong with the term mysticism. It denotes something quite specific. The best analysis of mysticism I know is from William James’s excellent book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. There he sets forth some of its essential qualities. First is the belief that all reality is one; in other words, everything apparently contradictory is actually a unity. The yin-yang symbol is the classic visual illustration. Another quality of mystic thought is the belief that you can have a direct experience of God. Mystics don’t pray; they have ecstatic encounters with the divine. Many different methods are used to achieve this: meditation, music, dancing, drugs.

      Mysticism is in general somewhat incompatible with traditional, organized religion, for a variety of reasons. First, mystics believe that they can directly access the divine; they don’t need priests or shamans to intercede for them. Second, the whole emphasis is on transcending one’s own perspective and seeing the unity of existence. And since they emphasize oneness so strongly, dichotomies like good/bad, holy/unholy, right/wrong begin to be seen as two sides of the same coin, and therefore false dichotomies. Thus mystics tend not to be very interested in moral codes or theoretical dogma.

      Of course, mysticism takes on a different form wherever it pops up. Here in Plotinus it is underpinned by a metaphysical view of the universe inspired by Plato. And the practice for achieving this glimpse of the divine is meditation. But in many respects it fits the general pattern outlined above.

      I suppose this book did deepen my understanding of mysticism, since Plotinus is one of the most influential and characteristic examples of a particular Western variety.

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  2. That was really well put; you have no loose ends for me to pull on, except for a few minor details, such as the notion that ‘Mystics don’t pray’, but all in all that was well communicated, so, with your permission I should like to continue to inquire into other aspects of your review?

    JY

    PS: Here is a link to one of my video lessons dealing with Plotinus’ mystic experience, adapted from Dr. Kevin Corrigan’s text titled: Reading Plotinus: A Practical Introduction to Neoplatonism. Corrigan seems to show that the mystical experience for Plotinus is just as intellectual as it is spiritual.

    PSS: By the way, one of best of friends is an English teacher too, we often spend hours on end in philosophical dialogue. He has a bunch of degrees and is always learning new things so we never tire.

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