Plotinus was a Platonist philosopher from Egypt who lived in Rome during the third century CE. His Enneads were edited by his disciple Porphyry and include diverse themes. Porphyry also bequeathed a biography of relevance. The well known conflict of Plotinus with Gnostic trends admits of various complexities.
1. Obscure Origins
2. Ammonius Saccas
3. A Celibate Platonist in Rome
4. His Circle and Rivals
5. The Love of Wisdom
6. Classical Intellectualism and the Unio Mystica
7. Against the Gnostics
8. Aftermath and Pierre Hadot
1. Obscure Origins
The life and teaching of Plotinus (c. 204/5-270 CE) are still of relevance to investigate, especially in view of some recent and confusing popular versions. The "Neoplatonist" tag needs qualifying in some respects, as Plotinus did not say the same things as some later exponents in that category.
The Vita Plotini is the only source of consequence for the reconstruction of his activity.That biography was composed by his disciple Porphyry (Malchus of Tyre) many years after his death. Specialist scholars have regarded the Vita Plotini (Life of Plotinus) as a basically reliable document, though a hagiological component may have percolated the narrative.
His date of birth is uncertain. That is because of the notable reticence of Plotinus in describing his early years. (1) Assimilation of his outlook is not easy for contemporary inclinations and appetites.
"He would never allow his birthday to be celebrated, and as a consequence, the day and month of his birth are entirely unknown. He literally blotted out his early years... which has been thought to reflect his ascetic and world-denying characteristics, a disposition utterly foreign to modern tastes in the mystical. That conclusion is strengthened by the remark of Porphyry that Plotinus was 'ashamed of being in a body,' which is the opening remark of the Vita Plotini. Plotinus was a figure not even remotely typical of Rome, the scene of his mature years." (2)
Nothing is known about his family. His racial origin is uncertain. On the basis of a reference by Eunapius, Plotinus is often stated to have been born in Lycopolis, identified with Assiut in Upper Egypt. Greek, Roman, and Egyptian descent have all been postulated. One version says that "he was almost certainly of Greek or at least entirely hellenized stock." (3) So he might have been a Hellenised Egyptian, a cultural identity possessing characteristics that could differ from the typical Roman attitudes. His originating milieu has been thought to comprise a leisured social class, perhaps even aristocratic, but nothing is definite.
2. Ammonius Saccas
Plotinus was reputedly twenty-seven when he began the quest for a teacher amongst the Greek-educated philosophers of Alexandria. These tutors were virtual professors, giving formal lectures to students; they appear to have differed substantially in the doctrines they favoured, and were divided into different schools. They were part of the conventional discourse on philosophy as recognised in Alexandria. Plotinus was disappointed with this milieu until he encountered Ammonius, whose dedicated disciple he became for over ten years.
The philosopher Ammonius is unfortunately obscure; later authors called him by the nickname of Saccas, but the meaning of that appellation is uncertain. He was apparently self-taught, and does not appear to have been in any way a member of the philosophical establishment. Ammonius may initially have been a Christian before becoming a Platonist. "Learning philosophy with Ammonius was a much more dynamic activity than attending the lectures of the established professors; Porphyry refers to the conventional method of exegesis and a contrasting method which Ammonius transmitted to Plotinus." (4) Yet "exactly what these pupils learned from Ammonius we do not know." (5)
According to the ecclesiastical historian Eusebius, the Christian savant Origen (c.186-255) was a student of Ammonius. Some scholars affirm that there were two students of Ammonius with the name of Origen, the other being known as "pagan Origen" by modern commentators. The matter has been disputed. The later career of the Christian Origen made him a very unusual theologian with Middle Platonist affinities, and effectively a "Christian philosopher." Origen met with opposition in clerical ranks at Alexandria, and was exiled to Palestine. He is indirectly associated with the asceticism that later emerged in monastic Christianity. There was also a strong renunciate streak in Plotinus, whose outlook has been described in terms of a "moderate asceticism." (6)
"We have the testimony of the Neoplatonist Hierocles that Ammonius maintained an affinity or harmony between the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. This theme of 'harmony' was later much favoured by philosophers in the Islamic world, and also by some Greek Platonists, yet it was apparently sufficient to have placed Ammonius at odds with the official Platonist school, who viewed their figurehead as being vastly superior to the rival." (7)
Plotinus is noted for expressing a critical attitude to Aristotle, though he resorted to the latter's Metaphysics in his own writings and did assimilate a number of Aristotelian arguments. Porphyry later stressed the "harmony," a theme which should not avoid recognition of some disagreements between Plato and Aristotle.
It is relevant to underline here that Plotinus would not have recognised the blanket term of "Neoplatonism," which was applied to his teaching many centuries later. "The term 'Neoplatonism' is an invention of early 19th century European scholarship and indicates the penchant of historians for dividing 'periods' in history. In this case, the term was intended to indicate that Plotinus initiated a new phase in the development of the Platonic tradition. What this 'newness' amounted to, if anything, is controversial." Quotation from Lloyd P. Gerson, "Plotinus" (2008), Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (accessed January 2011).
3. A Celibate Platonist in Rome
Ammonius died circa 242. That event was evidently the cue for Plotinus to move on, and he left Alexandria in 243. According to Porphyry, his objective was to learn more about the wisdom of the Persians and Indians; this disposition reflected a liberal trend that had created a rather romantic version of antique religious traditions in Greek-speaking circles. The Iranian magi and the Indian brahmans were regarded with respect, though much legendary portrayal was in accompaniment. More context was needed. The quest for Persian and Indian wisdom became a standard theme in some biographies, and may amount to a convenient abbreviation in the instance of the main subject here.
Plotinus joined an expedition of the young Roman emperor Gordian III against the Persians; suggestions have been made that he was a "court philosopher" or made a member of the scientific staff such as frequently accompanied armies in that era. He probably needed permission from senatorial circles in Rome to gain inclusion in the expedition, which transpired to be ill-fated. Enemies conspired against Gordian, who was murdered by his soldiers in Mesopotamia. Plotinus narrowly escaped to safety at Antioch. Political conditions were unstable, Gordian being merely one in a long series of assassinated emperors.
He moved on to Rome by 245, where he remained for the rest of his life. He may already have gained patrons in senatorial ranks.
The lifestyle of Plotinus was celibate, and it is clear that he opposed orators who expressed sensual preoccupations. He gained a cosmopolitan circle of students, some of them from the Roman senatorial class. Yet these individuals were predominantly of "Oriental" origin, as in the case of Porphyry (a Phoenician). They included Syrians, Alexandrians, and at least one Arab, namely Zethos. Three women are also mentioned, two of them apparently Romans, though Amphiclea was possibly of Syrian origin. Amongst the Roman male pupils was Rogatianus; he was presented with the high rank of praetor, but declined that social honour for philosophical reasons.
Plotinus had a dislike of rhetoric, taught as a separate subject in the classical curriculum, and which was elaborately exhibited by the very vocal orators. His own public "lectures" were innovative; he resorted to an informal procedure departing from the set speeches maintained by Platonist tradition. He would discuss texts of Platonist and Aristotelian (Peripatetic) complexion, including those of the "Middle Platonist" (and "NeoPythagorean") Numenius. He tolerated queries and objections in a rational manner, and did not claim originality in his exposition of Plato. He evidently felt that the antique Platonist tradition was in danger of being usurped by novelties, varied other doctrines having become popular. His essential teaching was expressed in his writings, which were relatively secret and not publicly available; he taught a purification and illumination, and his own orientation has been described as contemplative.
It is evident that the essential teachings were considered difficult, or impossible, to project in public. Only those candidates intellectually and psychologically prepared could make effective use of what was being taught. The orators merely got paid for their services; their contributions did not amount to real philosophy.
Plotinus was partial to study of the sciences, though in a Platonist manner. However, he would not practise those extensions, viewing the sciences as a support for training of the mind, which was all-important. In this perspective, too much attention given to pursuit of sciences distracted from the basic objective of the philosophical quest. Nevertheless, Plotinus was conversant with the theory of geometry, mechanics, and optics (and also music, then considered a science).
His attitude to astrology was very critical. Both in his lectures and writings, he frequently attacked the popular subject of horoscopes, which he regarded as unreliable. In his tract Are the Stars Causes?, "his main concern is to refute the doctrines of astrologers, that stars cause sublunar or human events." (9) His version of celestial operation avoided horoscopy.
In his conflict with astrology, Plotinus exalted the soul above the cosmos and fate. Astrologers had devised an elaborate lore which divided countries into astrological zones affiliated to signs of the zodiac. Their interpretations of Fate involved an unyielding determinism. Plotinus was concerned to contest the doctrines of astrologers about the planets, including the belief that Mars and Saturn were adverse influences. He believed that wrongdoing was caused by external circumstances of the soul, not by planets.
Plotinus basically taught that humans have a dual nature, meaning the higher soul and the lower life of the body, and necessarily exercise free will. The objective is to live by the standards of "virtue," a complex theme denoting affinity with the hypostasis of "Divine Mind" or Intellect, and facilitating freedom from cosmic processes. "Intellectual contemplation" is a deep accomplishment.
"Plotinus ridicules astrological technical doctrine for what he sees as a belief in the direct causality of the planets and stars on the fate of the individual. He also finds offensive the attribution of evil or evil-doing to the divine planets." In contrast, his disciple Porphyry had more affinity with astrology, a tendency which may have originated in his earlier years prior to meeting Plotinus. "Both Porphyry and Plotinus discuss the Myth of Er [composed by Plato] and the stars as giving divinatory signs, but Porphyry accepts the astrological tradition filled with complicated calculations and strange language, while Plotinus rejects it." Quotations from Marilynn Lawrence, "Hellenistic Astrology" (2005), Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (accessed January 2011).
4. His Circle and Rivals
The circle of Plotinus apparently did not constitute any official school. When Porphyry (c. 232-305) joined that circle, Plotinus had been teaching for twenty years in Rome. "Porphyry was unable to gain immediate access to his teacher's writings, which were circulated only amongst a select circle of students." (10)
The element of secrecy has been attributed to the concern of Plotinus at publicly revealing the teaching of his master Ammonius. Disciples of the deceased philosopher had apparently made an agreement not to divulge what they had learnt; the agreement was later broken, and so Plotinus followed suit. One explanation is that the rivalry comprised by professional Platonist orators was countered in this manner; those orators may have had vested interests in narrowing down the Platonist heritage.
As a foreigner living in Rome, Plotinus was careful not to make enemies; he gained the reputation of being an arbitrator, according to Porphyry (who, however, is thought to have minimised the resistance factors). Plotinus evidently did have an enemy in Olympius, an Alexandrian pupil of Ammonius who also taught philosophy at Rome. According to Porphyry, the cause of this friction was jealousy on the part of Olympius, who eventually resorted to sorcery, seeking to destroy Plotinus with astrological spells. This bizarre episode may have contributed to the latter's dislike of astrological superstition. Plotinus parried the assault, and Olympius afterwards desisted.
I have elsewhere observed that "the mere teaching of Ammonius was not sufficient to transform disciples." (11) As with all "esoteric" teachings, the enthusiast psychology can fall prey to negative emotions in the absence of due mental improvements.
Plotinus did not agree with the sensual inclinations of the orator Diophanes, who is reported to have expressed a justification for the dubious attitude of Alcibiades in Plato's Symposium. Diophanes maintained that the pupil, in the pursuit of virtue, should surrender to the teacher without reservation, even if the submission involved a carnal relationship.
"This incitement to homosexuality met with a stern and angry rebuff from Plotinus, who was present in the audience. He got up several times to leave, an action of disdain, but each time forced himself to remain. When the assembly broke up, he directed Porphyry to write a refutation. Diophanes then refused to lend a copy of his speech for citation, but Porphyry relied on his memory and delivered a refutation to the same audience (Vita Plotini, 15). This time Plotinus repeatedly expressed vocal approval by quoting a phrase from Homer's Iliad: 'So strike and be a light to men.' " (12)
Paederasty was a serious flaw among professional philosophers and orators in the Greek tradition. The prevalence of this practice is supported by many surviving bawdy anecdotes. Satirists like Juvenal and moralists like Plutarch denounced the practice as evidence of hypocrisy. Paederasty developed amongst the wealthy leisured class of urban Greeks, and was resisted by the Romans. The problem was probably more difficult to offset in Athens, though the scale of occurrence is unknown. However, it is not difficult to believe that a substantial number of "philosophers" were effectively rhetors pursuing career status and attractive juniors to corrupt.
In contrast, Plotinus cultivated a teaching which stressed that "men who live according to the horizons of sensuality stunt the potentiality of their daimon to such a degree that they fall below the evolutionary par of humans and become animals; the latter theme was standard in some Greek circles, and was a Platonic teaching often treated in a literal fashion, though Porphyry and others regarded it as metaphorical." (13)
Unpopular today are such themes of Plotinus as: "We must break away towards the High; we dare not keep ourselves set towards the sensuous principle." (14) Though Plotinus does not say so, this principle was basically the one that furthered excessive wealth, slavery, and military conquest.
Some affluent Roman senators were probably horrified when Rogatianus (the Roman pupil of Plotinus) renounced all his property and set free all his slaves. He refused the office of praetor bestowed upon him by the Senate. Instead Rogatianus opted for a simple and disciplined life involving the absence of all social status and elitism. That was an ideal of the exacting philosophy approved by Plotinus. One may repeat in commendation: "So strike and be a light to men."
The Roman Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina are said to have become admirers of the austere philosopher from Egypt. The Senate had made Gallienus co-emperor with his father Valerian in 253 CE, after whose death in 260 he reigned alone. The Roman empire struggled to remain intact under the impact of foreign invasions. Gallienus has been described as an intellectual with sophisticated Greek tastes; for this reason, he was unpopular with army generals. Nevertheless, Gallienus proved a capable military commander, being victorious in battles against the Goths and other enemies. He is sometimes viewed as instigating an intellectual revival at Rome.
Plotinus proposed that Gallienus should rebuild a ruined city in Campania, believed to have been a city of philosophers according to tradition. The city was to be called Platonopolis, and would be governed according to the laws of Plato, with Plotinus and his circle residing there.
This proposal was conceivably intended as a contribution to remedying the political and social problems of that era. The daring plan was opposed at the emperor's court; military interests are implied in the resistance. The response of Gallienus himself is not known. Modern commentators have theorised about this project. "Perhaps the scheme was not so impractical as it sounds... but the chances of failure were clearly enormous." (15)
In matters of religion, Plotinus was a nonconformist, and was not in the habit of making regular visits to temples. "He appears to have believed that the gods and divinities worshipped in religious rites were daimons of an inferior category, and a mere distraction to the genuine philosopher." (16) His pupil Gentilianus Amelius (a Roman from Etruria) had formerly trained under a Stoic teacher, and followed the custom of commemorating the sacred days of the New Moon and other festivals. Amelius invited Plotinus to participate in one of these celebrations, but met with a refusal (Vita Plotini, 10). In general, Plotinus evidently opposed the more bizarre concepts attaching to religious cults, and also to forms of Stoic philosophy that he rivalled.
Some opponents started to accuse him of plagiarising the ideas of Numenius. These troublemakers are thought to have been Platonist and Stoic rivals. The verbally accomplished (and ex-Stoic) Amelius countered this criticism in a treatise. Porphyry says that the accusers failed to understand the approach of Plotinus.
5. The Love of Wisdom
"He did not exhibit the professorial pomp which the establishment expected in a philosopher; his lectures were conversational and non-dogmatic." (17) Porphyry recounts how he himself had reacted to Plotinus at the first encounter (occurring in 263), to the extent indeed that he opposed Plotinus in a learned paper. The latter had the attacking paper read out to him, and then told Amelius to assist the critic in understanding the position contested.
An exchange of papers followed between Amelius and Porphyry, and eventually the newcomer saw the teaching of Plotinus in a new light. Only then was he permitted access to over twenty treatises which Plotinus had been composing for the past ten years, since about 255 CE. Porphyry then joined Amelius in petitioning Plotinus to write more, with the consequence that over thirty tracts emerged from their teacher's pen during the last several years of his life.
Plotinus did not elevate his treatises but apparently mistrusted writing, believing that confusions could too readily be created amongst persons with insufficient insight. The writing could only be useful amongst a select few who might understand it. He had little regard for grammar, and was solely concerned with expressing the concept. "His personal ideal was an unbroken concentration upon the highest, which had to be maintained throughout his waking hours.... To him, the love of wisdom was a living ideal related to metaphysical ultimates like Nous ('Divine Mind') and the abstract One." (18) Such ideals are generally foreign to the contemporary scene in academic philosophy, which treats wisdom as an outdated abstraction that cannot be achieved.
In his later years, Plotinus was lodging at the home of Gemina, a Roman woman sympathetic to his role, and who studied philosophy in his circle. She also appears to have hosted the increasing number of orphans entrusted to his care by several deceased Roman pupils. Plotinus supervised accounts for the property of his wards, insisting that their revenue must be kept intact until these boys and girls became of sufficient age to commence a philosophical life.
His diet was sparse, and he was a strict vegetarian. Plotinus would not use medicaments made of animal flesh. This was not a typical Roman observance, instead being associated with Pythagorean traditions. He was averse to birthday celebrations, and had successfully erased details of his own date and place of birth, and also his parentage (however, he held banquets at the traditional birthdays of Plato and Socrates).
He would not visit the public baths, a favoured venue of Roman recreation and gossip. He further demonstrated his aversion to superficial society by his persistent refusal to sit before a painter or sculptor. "Plotinus clearly felt that portraits were an ignoble pastime for the vain, whose proximity must have deterred him in a city where busts of celebrities were something of a craze." (19)
In other words, Plotinus was so different in his overall approach to entities like Bertrand Russell and Jacques Derrida that only contrasts can be drawn. According to Russell, "the philosophy of Plotinus has the defect of encouraging men to look within rather than to look without" (History of Western Philosophy, Routledge edn 2000, p. 300). The Caesars and their colonial soldiers made a habit of looking without, which is not necessarily the best way to live. Russell himself could not control his domestic life, despite (or because of) his extroversion.
6. Classical Intellectualism and Unio Mystica
In 268 a renewed invasion by the Goths occurred. Athens was sacked, but the Emperor Gallienus defeated the main Goth army at Naissus. Yet a plot was hatched against him by military officers, and he was tragically assassinated; his successors were military entities having no affinity with Greek culture. Plotinus must have regarded this event as a disaster. The uneducated soldiery were brutal, their leaders scheming for income, while increased taxation afflicted many inhabitants of the decadent empire. Various dire problems beset Rome at this period. The general mood of anarchy persisted. Opinion has been divided as to whether the Empress Salonina survived, or was killed in a purge by the Senate, after the murder of her husband.
The population of the Roman empire was reduced under stresses of war and disease. At the end of his life, Plotinus himself suffered from a painful illness that proved fatal. The description of Porphyry is imprecise, and has led to different explanations. A form of leprosy may have been involved, following a serious epidemic of some kind which struck Rome. His remaining circle had to leave him for fear of contagion, and he was left with only one attendant, the faithful doctor Eustochius from Alexandria. Plotinus retired from Rome to the countryside, to the villa of his deceased pupil Zethos. He had placed a high value upon solitude and silence, and now at last he was free of involvement with pupils and admirers. He was not the type of man to be afraid of death.
His last words were relayed by Eustochius, though these have been differently translated due to textual variants. He may have said: "I am striving to give back the Divine in myself to the Divine in the All." The alternative construction is: "Strive to give back the Divine in yourselves to the Divine in the All." (20)
Porphyry later edited and published the treatises of Plotinus, arranging these in an improvised format comprising six sets of nine treatises, known as the Enneads. Many linguistic difficulties are said to have been resolved in the Armstrong version. (21) Of relevance also is the earlier translation of Stephen MacKenna, described as one of the "great line of unprofessional scholars whose labours have enriched our literature," and who worked without any motive of career honours or financial reward. As late as 1930, the difficulty involved in reading Plotinus was such that there were "perhaps only twenty or thirty men alive who can read this author after a fashion." (22)
The Enneads have sometimes been read in the light of a Neoplatonist mystical contemplation, but there is also evident a degree of "classical intellectualism" endeavouring to convey "an account of everything that is in any degree real in the universe which is unchangingly true and can be demonstrated to be so by rational processes." (23)
The mystical associations of Plotinus have been deemed misleading, serving to obscure his philosophical rigour. Jacques Derrida anomalously described Plotinus' cosmology in terms of the "closure of metaphysics," which is additionally confusing. The Plotinian analyses of the One, the Intellect, and Soul are very much a presentation of metaphysics. Furthermore, "the One cannot be known through the process of discursive reasoning," and in relation to matters of ultimate validation, "Plotinus finds it necessary to appeal, not to reason, but to the non-discursive, intuitive faculty of the soul; this he does by calling for a sort of prayer, an invocation of the deity, that will permit the soul to lift itself up to the unmediated, direct and intimate contemplation of that which exceeds it." Quotations from Edward Moore, "Plotinus" (2008), Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (accessed January 2011). The elusive factor of aspiration is missing from many recent commentaries.
Diverging modern interpretations chose to view Plotinus, e.g., as heir to the Upanishads and the ancestor of Aquinas and Hegel. "In exasperation with these preferences, [Professor] Armstrong emphasised that despite the element of pantheistic or monistic idealism which so many commentators have seized upon out of context, Plotinus often writes as an objective rationalist in the best Platonic-Aristotelian tradition." (24)
There is another aspect of the interpretive analysis. "The greatest continuator of Plato among the Neoplatonists was not Iamblichus, who struggled with obscure esotericisms, nor Proclus, who ontologised and divinised numbers and relations, but Plotinus." (25)
Plotinus incorporated a well known version of "mystical union" in his Hellenistic rationalism. However, that subject does not bulk very large in his writings, indeed only perhaps twenty or thirty out of more than 800 Teubner pages. (26) The theme of a mystical union was not traditional in the Platonist school, and some classicists have viewed Plotinus as representing an aberration in this respect. Plotinus himself evidently regarded his Platonism as pristine. According to him, "these doctrines are no novelties, no inventions of today; they were stated, though not elaborated, long ago; our present teaching is simply an exposition of them" (Ennead V.1.8).
Unlike subsequent Neoplatonists, Plotinus was not an enthusiast of Pythagoras, deeming the PreSocratics to be unclear. Empedocles and Pythagoras had left axioms amounting to riddles, in this view. Yet Plotinus does recognise that Plato sometimes spoke in riddles, leaving his audience to arrive at the meaning. A relevant factor is conceivably that much argument in the Enneads was designed to negotiate conventional Platonist pedagogues, not merely Aristotle and popular Stoic corporealism. Yet "despite his fundamental opposition to Aristotle and the Stoics, he [Plotinus] was prepared to learn from them as well." (27)
The autobiographical fragment in Ennead IV.8.1 has aroused much comment and speculation. Plotinus there says:
The gnostic Platonist further describes this experience in terms of a rest in the divine, after which he had "come down from Intellect to discursive reasoning." Intellect does not have the same meaning here as it does today, being instead an ennobled form of intelligence. Plotinus further mentions Heraclitus, who had also spoken of "ascent and descent," but who apparently taught by metaphor and was thus not concerned with explicit formulations.
In the same graphic passage, Plotinus observes a strong contrast between the positive and negative representations of the material world expressed by Plato:
7. Against the Gnostics
Some passages of the Plotinian treatise Against the Gnostics (Ennead II.9) were more pointed than the same author's resistance to Epicurean doctrines. Porphyry identifies the Gnostics primarily as Christians, and including men who had abandoned the ancient philosophy of Plato, who was evidently considered inferior in such circles. In the Vita Plotini (16), the Gnostics are stated to have produced spurious revelations attributed to Zoroaster (Zarathushtra), or Zostrianos, and other names. In his lectures, Plotinus had repudiated the claims of this rival to Platonism. Porphyry relates that he himself had proved the" Zoroastrian" revelations to be a late forgery, contrived in an attempt to show that Gnostic doctrines were the same ones taught by the ancient prophet of Iran.
The identity of these Gnostics has been debated. They have variously been described as Christian Gnostics and pagan Gnostics. Plotinus evidently considered them to be a formidable rival. His first treatise, tending to see matter in terms of evil, has been thought to converge with the radical dualism of the Gnostics. However, his position on that point underwent modifications by 265-6, the time at which he became outspoken in his critique of Gnostic doctrine and behaviour. Scholars have concluded that he must have been on amicable terms with these opponents for some length of time, until perhaps their presence became more obvious in Rome. Some analysts have described Plotinus as a modified dualist.
His protest against the Gnostics was made on grounds of tradition, reason, and morality. The first factor might merely be regarded as doctrinaire, but the latter two are more pressing. For Plotinus, there was no conflict between Plato and reason; the Dialogues of Plato were not regarded as divine revelation. Yet the Gnostics were claiming such revelation, and in a mode deemed by Plotinus to be spurious "ancient wisdom." The gnostic Platonist complained that the Gnostic sectaries regarded themselves as a privileged elite possessing a special relation to the Divine. Moreover, the Gnostics taught that this prerogative of secret knowledge enabled them to take a short and easy path contrasting with "the long hard road of the practice of virtue and the exercise of intelligence which true philosophy showed to be the only way" to freedom. (30)
Plotinus disliked the exotic jargon of Gnosticism, which can still be offputting. He repudiated the use of magic and ritual in that sector. He was not a theurgist (unlike some later Neoplatonists, notably Iamblichus). Theurgy, or theourgia, signifies religious ritual, an activity that was credited in some circles as works of the gods. Gnostic theurgy appears to have employed ritual in the belief that spiritual "ascent" was thereby facilitated. Plotinus attacked the Gnostic claim to control the higher powers by theurgy, and to cure diseases by casting out demons.
"He informs that Gnostics were in the habit of writing out magical chants for their theurgic rituals, and of how they believed that diseases were evil spirits which could be vanquished by the formulae of spells and charms popular amongst them, These magicians are derided for their pretensions in impressing the vulgar crowd; in contrast, philosophers guarded against diseases through temperance and orderly living." (31)
The evidence for Gnostic antinomianism prior to the fourth century CE is considered slender by scholars. Plotinus gives the impression that he is aware of dubious undercurrents within Gnostic ranks, though he may have been polite in view of his declared friends in that sector (who conceivably attended his discussion groups). He was perhaps targeting a form of simplistic monism of a kind rather too common today. He complains that "imbeciles are found to accept such teaching at the mere sound of the words 'You yourself are to be nobler than all else, nobler than men, nobler than even gods." (32)
The attempt to trace the identity of these Gnostics has been revealing. The codices discovered at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt include treatises with titles answering to those mentioned by Porphyry. They may even have been the same texts repudiated by the circle of Plotinus. The Gnostics resisted by that circle may have been the "Sethians," who are represented in some of the Nag Hammadi documents, which denote a Coptic survival from the Greek. Most Sethian texts do not exhibit any Christian features, and have been classified in terms of non-Christian Gnosticism.
A suggestion has been made that the Plotinian attack on Gnostic "magical chants" was aimed at texts like The Three Steles of Seth, which is not actually a magical text, but a collection of hymnic prayers apparently used in a form of community worship. The Three Steles has been described as exhibiting a strong "Jewish Gnostic"and Neoplatonist complexion, a fusion possibly occurring in the Alexandrian milieu during the third century CE. There is no Christian influence discernible. (33) A Sethian "mystery of ascension" was accomodated in a basically Hellenistic sect that could easily become favoured in cosmopolitan Rome.
The Sethian rivals of Plotinus cultivated a variant of the same teaching, including ascent to a divine level of being that is followed by a descent. A significant theme of Sethian Gnosis was "the way of ascent is the way of descent," (34) the three grades of ascent involving at the apex a return to the first grade (or stele). The component of "ascent and descent" was inset into different ideological contexts by Sethians and the unio mystica of Plotinus, though the Sethian format is rather more extravagantly worded. Plotinus generally has a reputation for ascent, the factor of "descent" being frequently neglected and obscure.
"Neoplatonist" terminology is also found in related Sethian texts like Zostrianos, supposedly representing the Zoroastrian heritage, and evidencing only a slight degree of reference to Christianity. The basic myth in the Zostrianos text was given a complexion that rivalled Neoplatonist cosmology. "There is nothing discernibly immoral in such texts, which evidently originated amongst high-minded people." (35) Plotinus was perhaps objecting to the facile manner in which presumed Gnostics (knowers) could assume the status of "I became all-perfect," (36) which was an affirmation attributed to Zostrianos (associated in Greek lore with the lineage of Zoroaster). The "descent" to a starting-point could just as easily be claimed.
The Gnostic teachings may have become a strong influence in Rome by circa 266, forcing Plotinus into a confrontation with the rival mysticism and attendant forms of ritualism that conceivably constituted a cult trend by that time. "Sethian texts afford ritual references and allusions; ritual chanting is thought to have been involved, along with baptism, and possibly the use of wax images and imitations of precious stones; some have detected breathing exercises in Gnosticism; it is easy to envisage how such preoccupations could obscure insight into the fundamental 'Sethian' mystery." (37)
Plotinus described the salvation of the soul from the world as a "flight," using Homer's Odyssey as an allegory of a spiritual quest (Ennead I.6.8). He advocates a flight to the inner world, stating that Odysseus is a parable of this flight in evading "the sorceries of Circe or Calypso - not content to linger for all the pleasure offered to his eyes and all the delight of sense filling his days." (38) This is not an emphasis in current fashion; an "embrace" is preferred by American transpersonalism. (39)
Plotinus also stressed the "rule of our Mysteries" that nothing should be divulged to the uninitiated (Ennead VI.9.11), meaning those who have not struggled to to gain due insight, no matter what their pretension might be. Philosophical use of Mystery language is a subtle issue; such activities as the Eleusinian mysteries had evidently become a ritual circus, whatever the nature of origins. "The Supreme is not to be made a common story," (40) though the devaluation is discernibly what occurs in cults and superficial mysticism.
8. Aftermath and Pierre Hadot
The subsequent generations of "Neoplatonism" did not present a uniform complexion in terms of outlook and doctrine. From Porphyry and Iamblichus to Proclus and others, the vista is complex. The Enneads were not always represented to any extent, even though Plotinus did become a point of reference. The Neoplatonists superseded the Stoic and Epicurean rivals.
A thousand years later, the Enneads were rediscovered by the Italian Renaissance, being translated into Latin by Marsilio Ficino and published in 1492. During the nineteenth century, further translations into French and German became noted for inaccuracies and obscurities. The "literary" version in English of Stephen Mackenna proved more viable, though the process of textual clarification continued.
A twentieth century doyen was Pierre Hadot (1922-2010), an expert on Plotinus who furthermore attributed an anonymous commentary on Plato's Parmenides to Porphyry, creating an erudite and lengthy work which has been called "the most complete exposition of Neoplatonist metaphysics." (41)
Professor Hadot has gained repute for being an exceptionally democratic academic, with nothing of the elitist attitude that is sometimes found within the philosophy establishment. "Although he had reached the highest echelons of the hierarchical French academic scheme, he never let it go to his head: in his lectures he spoke clearly, without excess rhetorical flourish." See Michael Chase, Remembering Pierre Hadot Pt 2.
Indeed, a basic point emphasised is that "Hadot's work, written in a plain, clear style that lacks the rhetorical flourishes of a Derrida or a Foucault, represents a call for a radical democratisation of philosophy" (Chase, Remembering Pierre Hadot Pt 1). The philosopher Jacques Derrida (d. 2004) is particularly noted for a difficult style of exegesis, which claimed to be "deconstructing" diverse texts. In contrast, Hadot initiated a far less ambiguous series (Les Ecrits de Plotin) of scholarly translations and commentaries for all the treatises in the Enneads.
Of course, such committed scholarly activity does not usually recommend itself to popular consumption. The commercial market is something quite different to more viable projects. Yet it is possible to predict that Plotinus will outlive much of the contemporary scene, just as Plato and Aristotle will also. With such citizen optimism in mind, one may cite an uncommon academic reflection on elite philosophy discourse:
There are various barriers to due understanding. The more comprehensible Pierre Hadot left controversies in his wake. Correctly enough, he concluded that Christianity had relegated philosophy to a servile position as a satellite of theology. This was well known to Bertrand Russell and others, though Hadot also insisted that the medieval European Universities created an enduring drawback, one in which "doing philosophy" was confused with mere discourse on philosophy. In contrast, ancient ideals were rooted in philosophy as a way of life and experience, an outlook quite distinct from activities of lecturing and scholarship.
A citizen analyst can easily concede this argument. However, a problem arises in defining what the appropriate way of life is now with regard to philosophy. There appear to be at least three basic formats of academic philosophy, while citizen philosophy is not always recognised as existing by elite parties. Hadot's "third" approach was ventured in two distinctive books that effectively marked a departure from his former commitment to Plotinus. (42)
In 1963, Hadot composed a well known book on Plotinus in only a month. I am referring to Plotin ou La simplicité du regard (fourth edn, Paris, 1997), also available in translation. Subsequently, Hadot "gradually became detached from Plotinus' thought, feeling that Plotinian mysticism was too otherworldly and contemptuous of the body to be adequate for today's needs" (Chase, Hadot Pt 1). Contemporary needs include resistance to AIDS; a little more "moderate asceticism" would surely go a long way. The friction between Plotinus and Diophanes is significant, and to an extent generally neglected.
In his form of experiential philosophy, Hadot switched attention from Plotinus to the Stoics and Epicureans. (43) He pursued the theme of "spiritual exercises," though here meaning philosophical exercises. Hadot emphasised that the well known Exercitia Spiritualia of Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) was not an exclusively Christian formulation, but instead heir to pagan Greek and Roman concepts. (Loyola was founder of the Society of Jesus, and not a deliberate subscriber to pagan exercises.) Hadot was keen on the distinctive Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and duly stressed that interests of the human community at large are crucial, and a due objective of individual action.
The Hadot phrase "spiritual exercises" means an attitude of mind rather than the physical exercises more recently in popular fashion. For instance, equanimity or tranquillity (ataraxia) is one aspect of the ancient exercise (askesis) in self-awareness, which extended to an examination of the conscience. The figure of Socrates is stressed by Hadot, in a context of the philosopher in pursuit of wisdom, and also in the sense of living contact between a teacher and disciple that furthers a change of lifestyle. Hadot urges that the ancient philosophers were intent not merely upon rational thought, but also a rational lifestyle informed by spiritual priorities since neglected. His exegesis also emerged with the theme that "a Socratic dialogue is a spiritual exercise." (44)
Academic reviewers have acknowledged the relevance of Hadot's erudite contribution, though some matters are not resolved. For instance, "he [Hadot] assumes but fails to show, however, that Plato's lofty descriptions of the philosophical life formed the basis or goal of a regimen of spiritual exercises, regularly practiced by members of the Academy." (Donald Zeyl, 2003 review of Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?) Other reservations apply to Hadot's version of Aristotle's Lyceum. "Given that the research programs Aristotle assigned to his students were in large part empirical investigations, how is such research connected with theoria, which is the contemplative understanding of divinity?" (Zeyl, review art.cit.). More deference is here given to the situation of rival schools which purportedly shared the same spiritual objective, including Stoics, Epicureans, and even Skeptics.
During the Roman Empire era of philosophy, the exegesis of primary texts became a dominant feature, along with commentaries. According to Hadot "each commentary was considered a spiritual exercise," the study of a text being considered to produce a transforming effect. Both ethical and metaphysical texts were regarded in this light, though a gradation occurred. Porphyry's editing of the Enneads is presented accordingly, i.e., the ethical treatises preceding the metaphysical.
Reaction to the Hadot themes has included annoyance at Christian theology being considered a channel of philosophical decline. In another sector, there are insinuations that advanced practice was furthered by such recent entities as Nietzsche and Foucault, thus seeking to negate the emphasis of Hadot that contemporary philosophy is deficient.
The French academic radical (Hadot) was moved to assimilate some contemporary vocabulary from the existential sphere, and made a gesture towards Nietzsche. "This [Stoic] attitude is, of course, the ancestor of Nietzsche's 'Yes' granted to the cosmos" (Michael Chase, blog entry above, and citing Hadot, La philosophie comme maniére de vivre, 2001). In contrast, some citizens take the view that the yes of Nietzsche was too heavily admixed with a remorseless "will to power" negative in terms of his attitude to the human community at large, including the Indian untouchables and other low class sectors. See Romanticism and Nietzsche, which resists academic and popular glorifications.
Hadot came to believe that the major schools of Greek philosophy (named by Chase as Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism) were convergent in the sense of spiritual exercises. The metaphysical and epistemological dimensions "were mere superstructures, intended to justify the basic philosophical attitude" (Chase, Hadot Pt 1). A cautious citizen can interpret such deductions in terms of an unfortunate relativism that renders Plotinus on the same existential level as the Epicureans he opposed. Hadot was prepared to overlook ideological differences, and stressed that "both Stoics and Epicureans recommended the exercise of living in the present" (ibid.).
In the contemporary era, the concept of living in the present (endorsed by Hadot) can too easily be associated with commercial public trends. Still influential are the "new age" indulgences of "Be Here Now," the title of a well known book (published in 1971) by the psychedelic hero Richard Alpert, alias Baba Ram Dass. In more NeoPlatonist terms, the Plotinian flight from the alone to the alone contrasts with the Hadot endpoint of "only the present is our happiness, " (45) a concept associated with Goethe and some ancient thinkers.
The sense of present happiness cultivated by Pierre Hadot was rather different to that of the professional philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-84). The former criticised the latter's interpretation of ancient spiritual exercises as being too narrow, contracting the ethical dimension and drastically missing out logic and physics. (46)
Foucault took an interest in the experiential angle of Hadot. As a consequence, and at the invitation of Foucault, in 1982 Hadot was elected to the most prestigious academic status in France, meaning a Chair at the Collége de France. For ten years at that establishment, he held the Chair of History in Greek and Roman Thought. Whereas Foucault had acquired the Chair of Philosophy. They were doubtless both well paid for their services.
For some years, Professor Foucault had been demonstrating a version of present-centred indulgence at the San Francisco venues permitting activities in sadomasochistic eroticism, a feat that is indelibly associated with death by AIDS. Foucault also created a version of "spiritual exercises" in his "care of the self" theory, the latter phrase appearing as the title of the third volume in his controversial History of Sexuality (1984).
The present happiness is an ambivalent theme, and not necessarily the best gauge to psychological health or social progress. Quite apart from disconcerting academic exercises, there are so many counterfeit "spiritual exercises" and "therapeutic techniques" in the contemporary "workshop" milieux, maintained by new age entrepreneurs, that human interests at large suffer from chronic exploitation.
The "intellectual contemplation" attested by the Enneads cannot appropriately be reduced to a superficial technique, which is perhaps what so many visible and contemporary "spiritual exercises" amount to, appealing to reductionist psychologies who are too easily satisfied.
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 2011 (modified December 2011)
(1) T. D. Barnes, "The Chronology of Plotinus' Life," Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies (1976) 17: 65-70.
(2) Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (Dorchester: Citizen initiative, 2004), p. 161.
(3) J. M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 4, and adding that "scholars have sometimes suggested that the name Plotinus may be Roman, sometimes Hellenistic; in truth we do not know" (ibid.). The theory of a Roman name has led to conjectures of a Roman ethnicity. Yet "it is not unlikely that Plotinus was an Egyptian of strong Hellenic culture," here citing from Dominic J. O'Meara, Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 4.
(4) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 163.
(5) Rist, op. cit., p. 5, and deducing that Ammonius "was markedly less conservative and less of a commentator than the majority of his contemporaries" (ibid.).
(6) Ibid., p. 15, referring to "his patience, his moderate asceticism, his strict sense of morality." See also John Dillon, The Middle Platonists (London: Duckworth, 1977), pp. 381-2, suggesting that the Christian Origen would have studied as a young man with Ammonius in the first decade of the third century; Ammonius must have been born not much later than 170 CE. Cf. Henri Crouzel, Origen, trans. A.S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989) pp. 10ff., observing that many students of Origen remain unconvinced by the theory of two Origens, introduced in the seventeenth century by Henri de Valois in a note to his edition of the Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius. Divergent opinions apply to Porphyry's treatise Against the Christians.
(7) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 163. See also Lloyd P. Gerson, Aristotle and other Platonists (Cornell University Press, 2005). Cf. the review by John Bussanich at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2006), observing: "Gerson begins with the assumption, widely shared by Middle Platonists, Neoplatonists, and the Aristotelian commentators, that the philosophies of the two thinkers [Plato and Aristotle] are complementary and harmonious, which is not to say that they are identical." See further Gerson, "What is Platonism?" Jnl of the History of Philosophy (2005) 43(3): 253-76, and observing that "Platonists, for the most part, did not regard Aristotle as an anti-Platonist," and querying the developmentalist approach of Werner Jaeger in the direction of an anti-Platonist Aristotle. Professor Gerson confirms that "the first concrete information we possess that Platonists of this [Late Platonist] period were prepared to argue for the harmony of Aristotle and Plato is contained in a reference in Photius' Bibliography to the Neoplatonist Hierocles' statement that Ammonius of Alexandria, the teacher of Plotinus, attempted to resolve the conflict between the disciples of Plato and Aristotle, showing that they were in fact 'of one and the same mind'." See page 17 of the web version. Gerson adds in note 61 that "Plotinus' (sometimes severe) disagreements with Aristotle on various issues did not preclude his assuming a harmony between the two on a deeper level." Porphyry strongly indicated the underlying affinity in his assertion that "Aristotle's Metaphysics, especially, is condensed in them [the Enneads], all but entire" (Mackenna trans., The Enneads, 1991 edn, p. cxii). Hierocles was an exponent of the fifth century CE who significantly disagreed with astrological fatalism, and who allied himself with the Plato-Aristotle harmony theme. See further Hermann S. Schibli, Hierocles of Alexandria (Oxford University Press, 2002).
(8) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 165. See also A. H. Armstrong, "Plotinus" (195-268) in idem, ed., The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1967). In relation to the campaign of Gordian III, Plotinus may have been "a court philosopher of the sort Roman emperors sometimes liked to have in their entourage" (O'Meara, op. cit., p. 4).
(9) Stephen MacKenna, trans., The Enneads, abridged John Dillon (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 75 (summary by Dillon).
(10) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 167. Porphyry says that he was thirty when he met Plotinus, who was then about fifty-nine. "The distribution [of the treatises] was still grudging and secret; those that obtained them had passed the strictest scrutiny" (Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, in Dillon abridgment of MacKenna, The Enneads, p. cv).
(11) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 168. The episode of attack from star-spells has met with some incredulity. "What Olympius is said to have told his friends was that Plotinus' soul was so strong as to throw magical assaults back on their originators" (Rist, op. cit., p. 17). O'Meara is critical of Porphyry's casting of the Vita Plotini, and urges "that neither Amelius nor Porphyry understood Plotinus' attitude to religion and its rites" (Plotinus: An Intro. to the Enneads, p. 3). For Porphyry's Life of Plotinus, see A. H. Armstrong, ed. and trans., Plotinus Vol. 1 (Loeb Classical Library, 1966), pp. 2-85.
(12) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 169. see also MacKenna, trans., The Enneads (abridged edn, 1991), p. cxiii. The episode of Diophanes apparently occurred on the premises of the Plotinian school. He was evidently not expected to provide such a controversial speech. Professor Rist suggested that the offending ideas of Diophanes "may have been not unconnected with Gnosticism" (Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality, p. 17).
(13) Shepherd, op. cit., pp. 168-9. According to Dillon, "Plotinus here (Ennead 3.4) accepts the possibility of metempsychosis into animals, and even plants, a Platonic doctrine which Porphyry and later Platonists declined to take literally" (Mackenna trans., The Enneads, abridged edn, 1991, p. 167 note 39). The subject of transmigration is complex in the sources, and confusions can easily arise. On another controversial subject, see Rist, op. cit, p. 15, observing that "condemnation of 'Greek vice' [i.e., paederasty] was particularly strong" at Rome. The term daimon has been differently defined, and including the renditions of "indwelling spirit" and "guardian spirit." Plotinus devoted a treatise to the subject, which has antecedents in texts by Plato. One of the concepts appended is that "if one lives well [i.e., wisely], one may live at a higher level in the next life" (from the summary by Dillon in the abridged Mackenna translation, 1991, p. 166).
(14) MacKenna, trans., The Enneads (abridged edn, ed. J. Dillon, 1991), p. 167.
(15) Rist, op. cit., p. 14. Scholarly efforts to explain the Platonopolis project have varied. Rist says that the problem of finding settlers was a major factor against the project. "It would have been hard to find veterans of the Roman army willing to live under Plato's laws" (ibid., p. 13). The army was a major cause of social problems. Although it has often been thought that Plotinus veered away from political philosophy, a reappraisal has recently been made of the Neoplatonist era from Plotinus to the sixth century schools in Athens and Alexandria. The new argument urges that Neoplatonist mysticism incorporated political ideas, as distinct from excluding these. See Dominic J. O'Meara, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2003). Amongst the ingredients of this "Late Platonist" orientation, Plato's conception of philosopher-queens was taken seriously and defended by Neoplatonists, a position reflecting the important place of women in their schools, though Proclus is viewed as adopting a weaker position in terms of political reform (ibid., p. 200).
(16) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 169. A curious anecdote is related by Porphyry, who says that his teacher consented to attend the rite of an Egyptian priest who had petitioned him to be present at the temple of Isis in Rome. The ceremony comprised an evocation of the daimon of Plotinus, which the priest proclaimed to be of an advanced and divine nature. Some suspect that much of the context is missing. Certainly, when Plotinus declined to celebrate sacred festival days, he did so with a rejoinder that the gods should come to him, and not vice versa (Mackenna, The Enneads, abridged edn, pp. cx-cxi). One interpretation of this tactic states that "the divinities worshipped in religious ceremonies are lower daemons, to whom the philosopher is superior" (ibid., p. cxi, note 9 by J. Dillon).
(17) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 171;.
(18) Ibid., pp. 171-2, and stating that "it is therefore inappropriate to analyse Plotinus from the standpoint of modern academic philosophy," to which one should add the phrase postmodern philosophy also. Bertrand Russell was more generous than some postmoderns, though still bleak in such conclusions as "the philosophy of Plotinus has the defect of encouraging men to look within rather than to look without" (History of Western Philosophy, 1946; Routledge edition, 2000, p. 300). The strictures of Russell interpret Plotinus as an influence upon Christianity, to which the British sceptic was so opposed. However, Russell did allow that "like Spinoza, he [Plotinus] has a certain kind of moral purity and loftiness, which is very impressive" (ibid., p. 291). The same writer observes that Plotinus lived during a disastrous period in Roman history, when the army "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" (ibid., p. 289).
(19) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 185. However, a portrait was acquired without the knowledge of the subject by Amelius, who enlisted the unobtrusive services of an artist, who painted from memory and not in the presence of Plotinus (MacKenna, The Enneads, abridged edn, p. cii).
(20) Ibid., p. ciii. Cf. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality, p. 20. Cf. O'Meara, Plotinus: An Intro. to the Enneads, p. 8, and reporting the last words as: "Try to lead the god in you up to the divine in the universe."
(21) See A. H. Armstrong, ed. and trans., Plotinus (7 vols, Harvard University Press: Loeb Classical Library, 1966-88). See also M. Atkinson, Plotinus: Ennead VI (Oxford University Press, 1983).
(22) This quotation comes from the foreword of E. R. Dodds to MacKenna, trans., The Enneads (third edn, London: Faber, 1962). The first edition of MacKenna appeared in five volumes (London, 1917-30). I have elsewhere observed that "the Armstrong translation is considered more literally faithful to the original Greek, though MacKenna's contribution remains distinctive" (Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, p. 299 note 503).
(23) A. H. Armstrong, "Elements in the Thought of Plotinus at Variance with Classical Intellectualism," Journal of Hellenic Studies (1973), 93: 13-22, p. 13, and stating that Plotinus was a classical intellectualist "up to a point."
(24) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 166, and citing Armstrong, "Plotinus and India," The Classical Quarterly (1936) 30: 22-28. Armstrong was in disagreement with E. Brehier, La Philosophie du Plotin (Paris, 1928), since translated into English. Brehier attempted to find similarities between the Enneads and the Upanishadic teaching of atman-Brahman. The Brehier thesis, and other views, aroused strong repudiation in J. M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality, 1967), pp. 213ff., and including the complaint that "although innumerable commentators have handled this subject [the mysticism of Plotinus], we find that, however learned they may be in other aspects of Neoplatonism, here they become amazingly confused, woolly, and sometimes even too impatient to put up with the difficulties of their author" (ibid., p. 213). Cf. Brehier, The Philosophy of Plotinus (University of Chicago Press, 1958). The complexities in Plotinus are prodigious. A recent analysis has traced back to Plotinus a tactic favoured by Descartes (and Augustine) in which sceptical arguments were employed to counter forms of "dogmatic philosophy." See D. J. O'Meara, "Scepticism and Ineffability in Plotinus," Phronesis (2000) 45(3): 240-51.
(25) Maria L. Gatti, "Plotinus: The Platonic Tradition and the foundation of Neoplatonism" (10-37) in L. P. Gerson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 19. The innovation of the Plotinian hypostases is here emphasised, meaning the One, Intellect, and Soul.
(26) E. R. Dodds, "Tradition and Personal Achievement in the Philosophy of Plotinus," Journal of Roman Studies (1960) 50: 1-7, pp. 5-7. According to Professor Dodds, Plotinus worked out implications for psychology that Aristotle left provokingly vague.
(27) Lloyd P. Gerson, introduction to Gerson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus (1996), p. 7. See also A. Graeser., Plotinus and the Stoics (Leiden: Brill, 1972), p. XIII, observing the anomaly posed by the strong Plotinian repudiation of Stoic doctrines in accompaniment to what seems a tacit acceptance of some of these latter. Cf. R.T. Wallis, Neoplatonism (London: Duckworth, 1972), pp. 42-3, who describes the Enneads in terms of "a philosophical shorthand," one in which it is not always clear as to whether the views represented are those of the author. See also Giannis Stamatellos, Plotinus and the PreSocratics (State University of New York Press, 2008), who contests the prevailing dismissal of PreSocratic influence on the Enneads, finding that PreSocratics are significant in the thought of Plotinus, including Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, the early Pythagoreans, and the early Atomists.
(28) A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus Vol. 4 (Loeb Classical Library, 1984), pp. 396ff. According to Professor Gerson, "what some philosophers have in mind when they allude to Plotinus' mysticism is the report by Porphyry in his Life of Plotinus that, while he was with him, his master achieved his goal of being united with god [small g] four times." Quote from Lloyd P. Gerson, Plotinus, (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 188. Gerson tends to mitigate the mystical element. "Much of what Plotinus has to say about the One is inspired by Plato and based on arguments which have a lot more to do with scientific realism than they do with mysticism" (ibid.). In the same passage of the Life abovementioned, Porphyry adds that he also "was once admitted and entered into Union" (MacKenna trans., The Enneads, 1991 edn, p. cxxii), which means that the mystical factor cannot be discarded.
(29) Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (2004), p. 175. See also the exegesis in Pierre Hadot, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, trans. M. Chase (University of Chicago Press, 1993).
(30) Armstrong, "Plotinus" (195-268), in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1967), pp. 205ff.
(31) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 181, and citing Armstrong, Plotinus Vol. 2, pp. 278ff., and MacKenna trans., The Enneads (third edn, 1962), pp. 146-7.
(32) MacKenna, trans. (1991 edn), p. 120.
(33) James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (third edn, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988), pp. 7-9 (editorial introduction); 396-7.
(34) Robinson, trans., The Three Steles of Seth (396-401), in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, p. 401. The quotation is found near the end of the brief text.
(35) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 183.
(36) John N. Sieber, trans., Zostrianos (402-30), in J. M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (1988), p. 429.
(37) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 184, and commenting that "in contrast, Plotinus upheld the necessity for 'simplicity of character and honest thinking,' in which reverence for the gods of the classical era did not converge with any temple worship, and in which care was taken to create an atmosphere in which 'boldness is balanced by reason, by careful proof, by cautious progression, by the utmost circumspection' " (and citing MacKenna trans., 1962 edn, p. 147).
(38) Mackenna trans. (1991 edn), p. 54.
(39) Ken Wilber, the exponent of "integral spirituality," has contributed a version of Plotinus which arouses disagreement. Ignoring much of the scholarly literature, in his longest work Wilber formulated an "integral" version of the Plotinus versus Gnostics conflict which demoted the latter from serious consideration. Unfortunately, Wilber misrepresented both Plotinus and the Gnostic adversary, interpreting the former in terms of "Nondualism" and the latter in terms of extremist asceticism. His basic point of reference was W. R. Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus (2 vols, London 1918), though Dean Inge was not responsible for the new interpretations devised. Wilber's argument shows no cognisance of textual complexities in the Gnostic quarter, and insists upon rather eccentric criteria for Plotinus himself, such as the theme of bringing the latter "back to the unconditional embrace of this and any world, and a houseful of wayward orphans" (Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Boston: Shambala, 1995, p. 336). My own response included the remarks: "Though it is quite true that the subject was a benefactor of orphans, he is almost certain to have resisted the unconditional embrace forced upon him by transpersonal commentary.... the present author forbears to keep referring to 'the One' in the metaphysical idiom that can become so fluent, save to stress here that for Plotinus, the One was not the same as the world. He [Plotinus] did not teach that the world is the same as the One; to do so would be to invalidate the transcendent experience he (restrainedly) referred to. Nirvana is definitely not samsara, he would have said, which is the crux of the matter." (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, p. 166). See also my web commentary at Plotinus and the Gnostics (2009). Another web criticism of Wilber's version of Plotinus is Brian Hines, What Wilber gets wrong about Plotinus. Hines presents an argument that the monism of Plotinus is not equivalent to the non-dualism of Advaita Vedanta (and the more tenuous extension claimed for Mahayana Buddhism); he pointedly remarks that "by no means does Plato give equal emphasis to the One and the Many as Wilber claims." Further, "Wilber has a habit in SES [Sex, Ecology, Spirituality] of making broad-brush statements about Plato and Plotinus that aren't backed up by direct citations from these philosophers." Hines ventures the conclusion: "I get the impression that Wilber's Buddhist leanings are a big part of the reason his interpretation of Plotinus is so askew." There is nothing wrong with Buddhist leanings, but Plotinus was not a Buddhist and has to be interpreted in due (neo)Platonist context. According to Hines, Wilber's contention that "the Kosmos is composed of holons" is incompatible with the Enneads. Hines also observes that the Plotinian attack on the Gnostics was misinterpreted by Wilber in terms of a non-dual outlook, and that a "Stoic cast" is instead discernible in the attitude of Plotinus to the nature of the lower world. The complaint of Plotinus in Ennead II.9 "against those that affirm the Creator of the Cosmos and the Cosmos Itself to be Evil" is certainly evocative, and has led to various misunderstandings; the outlooks of both Plotinus and the Gnostics were far more complex than simplified phrases might suggest.
(40) MacKenna trans. (1991 edn), p. 547. For supplementary studies of the subject, see H. J. Blumenthal, Plotinus' Psychology: His Doctrines of the Embodied Soul (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1971); E. Emilsson, Plotinus on Sense-Perception: A Philosophical Study (Cambridge University Press, 1988); K. McGroarty, Plotinus on Eudaimonia: A Commentary on Ennead 1.4 (Oxford University Press, 2006); P. Remes, Neoplatonism - Ancient Philosophies (University of California Press, 2008).
(41) Pierre Hadot, Porphyre et Victorinus (2 vols, Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1968). The verdict is not unanimous as to Porphyry's authorship of the Parmenides commentary, and some opinions have implied an earlier origin amongst the Middle Platonists, meaning an era closing at circa 250 CE. Hadot's study is amplified by his research in Latin Patristics and Marius Victorinus.
(42) Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, trans. M. Chase (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995); Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, trans. M. Chase (Harvard University Press, 2002). These books were first published in French in 1981 and 1995 respectively.
(43) Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995), p. 280.
(44) Ibid., p. 20, from the introduction by Arnold I. Davidson.
(45) Ibid., p. 217ff. See also Hadot, The Present Alone is Our Happiness - Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, trans. M. Djaballah (Stanford University Press, 2008), which includes reference to the Epicurean theme of limiting personal desires as the condition for happiness.
(46) Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, pp. 24-5, from the intro. by Davidson. In contrast to Foucault, Hadot synthesised ethics, logic, physics, and metaphysics. In his view, the ancient study of physics amounted to a spiritual exercise, and with a moral objective lacking in modern technology.
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