Author: Fr. William Most


Fr. William Most

St. Augustine in His confessions tell how he came upon "certain Platonic books"—most likely the "Enneads" of Plotinus. , a great Neoplatonist. The founder of Neoplatonism was Ammonius Saccas, a day laborer in Alexandria, Egypt (c 175-240). Plotinus was born in Egypt in 203 or 204, studied under Ammonius Saccas when he was 28, remained his pupil till around 240. Then he joined the Persian expedition of Emperor Gordian, to learn Persian philosophy. Gordian was assassinated, and Plotinus went to Rome, arriving about at age 40. He opened a school, enjoyed much favor even from Emperor Gallienus. When Plotinus was about 60, Porphyry became his pupil, who later wrote the life of Plotinus. Porphyry tried to arrange the writings of Plotinus in systematic form, into 6 books, each with nine chapters (hence called "Enneads", from Greek "ennea", 9). Plotinus even took in orphaned children, was ascetic, gentle and affectionate. Porphyry says that Plotinus experienced ecstatic union with God four times in 6 years. Died in 269/70. His last words: "I was waiting for you [the physician Eustochius] before that which is divine in me departs to unite itself with the Divine in the universe." He attacked Gnosticism, was silent on Christianity.

His teaching:

1) God is the One. "Enneads". 4.1 (516 b-c): "Of whom there is no word, nor knowledge, who is even beyond being." (Cf. Plato "Republic" 409b, speaking of the Good, which he probably identified with God: "In like manner the Good may be said to be not only the author of knowledge to all things known, but of their being and essence, yet the Good is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power." Neither essence nor being nor life can be predicated of Him—He is beyond these. "Enneads" 6.8.9 (743 e): "He is other than all things." This is a strong concept of transcendence. A says in "On Order" 2.16.44: "that supreme God who is known best by not knowing". This is not pantheism—the One is not identical with the sum of individual things as Parmenides said, for these need a source, which must be distinct and logically prior. So Plotinus even said we cannot ascribe thought or will or activity to Him. Not thought—for that implies a distinction between thinker and object of thought, but He is One. Similarly for will and activity: he is beyond all distinctions whatsoever, is beyond self-consciousness.

He did not create the world, for we cannot ascribe activity to Him, it would impair His unchangeability. So God emanates things. Copleston, "History of Philosophy" I, 466 says "emanate" is a metaphor. The Greek is usually "rhein" or "aporrhein". He seems to say every nature should make that which is less perfect than itself, as a seed unfolds itself. He also uses the metaphor of "perilampsis", "ellampsis", comparing the One to the sun, which illuminates, yet stays undiminished in its own place.

2) Nous, thought, mind—This is the first emanation. It has a twofold object: the one and itself. In the Nous are Ideas not only of classes but of individuals: "Enneads" 5.7.1ff, though the whole multitude of Ideas is contained indivisibly in Nous. So the Nous is the intelligible world, the "kosmos noetos": "Enneads" 5.9.9. It is in the Nous then that multiplicity first appears, for the One is above all multiplicity. The Demiurge of Plato and the "noesis noeseos" [thinking of thinking] of Aristotle thus come together in the Plotinian Nous. Nous in Beauty. A thought the Nous was like the Divine Word [Logos], and so this attracted him.

3) World-soul—it proceeds from Nous. It is incorporeal and indivisible, but forms the link between the super-sensual world and the sensual world. Plato had supposed there was just one World-soul—Plotinus put in two, higher and lower—the latter is the real soul of the phenomenal world. Plato calls the second soul nature ["physis"]. The phenomenal world owes all its reality to participation in the Ideas that are in Nous. Since the Ides do not operate in the sensible world, Plotinus put reflections of the Ideas in the World-soul: "logoi spermatikoi" [seminal reasons]—an adaptation of a Stoic idea. The "protoi logoi" [primary reasons] are in the higher of the two souls, the derivative "logoi" are in the lower soul.

4) Individual human souls come from the World-soul, and are subdivided into two elements: a higher one which belongs to the sphere of Nous, and a lower one which is directly connected with the body. The soul preexisted before union with the body [as in Plato]. That union is a fall. It survives death of the body, but without memory of the period of earthly existence. There is transmigration of souls.

5) The material world: Light comes from the centre, passes outwards, grows gradually dimmer, until it shades off into the total darkness which is matter in itself—matter is a privation ["steresis"] of light. In this way matter remotely emanates from the One. Matter is also the antithesis to the One. Inasmuch as it enters into composition of material objects and is so illumined by form, it cannot be said to be total darkness—but insofar as it stands against the intelligible and represents the "ananke" [necessity] of Plato's "Timaeus", it is unilluminated, is darkness. Plotinus in this way combined Platonic and Aristotelian themes: He saw matter as the substrate [the underlying element onto which form comes] of form: "Enneads" 2.4.6: "It is necessary that there me a substrate for bodies, other then them—the change of the elements into one another shows this—each is of matter and form.

Matter is the principle of evil inasmuch as at its lowest grade, as devoid of quality, as unilluminated privation, it is privation—which is evil. However this is not a dualism, since matter is privation, not a positive substance.

Plotinus did not thereby scorn the world like the Gnostics, but praises the world as the word of the World soul. No cosmos can be better except the intelligible cosmos in the Nous. The material world is the image or exteriorisation of the intelligible. The sensible reproduces the intelligible according to its capacity: "Enneads" 4.8.6.

The universal harmony and cosmic unity are the rational basis for prophecy and for influencing superhuman powers by magic—we will see this in the "City of God" 10.12, in connection with theurgy. In "Enneads" 4.4.40 Plotinus thinks there are three levels of things: sensory, rational, and beyond reason . Magic does not seem reasonable, but it is beyond reason. Plotinus thought there were star-gods, and also other gods and "daemones" invisible to man.

6) The ascent: We aim to become like to God, and then to reach union with God. In the ascent the ethical is subordinate to the intellectual element:

a)—First stage: "Katharsis", purification, to free man from the dominion of the body and the senses, to rise to the four cardinal virtues, the highest of which is "phronesis", prudence. Please recall the notes on the soul in 3.1.

b)—Second stage: One should rise above sense perception, turning towards Nous, occupying self with philosophy and science.

c)—Third stage: The soul goes beyond discursive thought to union with the Nous, the first beauty ["protos kalos"]. But the soul retains its self-consciousness.

d)—Final stage: "Enneads" 6.9.9: The soul comes to see both God and himself, himself made radiant and filled with intelligible light, really, grown to be one with that light in its purity, without any heaviness, transfigured to the divinity, really, being god in essence. For that point of time he is enkindled, but when once more he becomes heavy, it is as though the fire is quenched. Such a union is brief in this life, but can be permanent when we are freed from the body. There will be "a flight of the alone to the alone." "There is a fatherland for us, from whence we came, and the father is there": Enneads 1.6.8.

Augustine spoke of "certain Platonic books" translated from Greek into Latin translation was by Victorinus Afer, of whom we will see in 8.3.

Porphyry of Tyre (232 to after 301 AD) was a major Neoplatonist. He wrote a life of Plotinus and other works, of which the most famous is the "Isagoge", an introduction to the "Categories" of Aristotle. He wrote 15 books against the Christians, which were burned in 448 under Valentinian III and Theodosius II. Some suspect Porphyry had been a Christian, but dropped, wanted to stop conversion of cultured people to Christianity, and tried to show Christianity is illogical, ignoble, involved in contradictions. He attacked the Bible and Christian interpretations of it. Reminds one of the much later higher criticism. He attacked the divinity of Christ. Plotinus had shown no hostility to Christianity.

Augustine himself: had probably read at least these treatises of Plotinus: On beauty, on providence, on the soul, on the three divine hypostases, and how that which is one and the same can be everywhere. Cf. Teselle pp. 44-45.

However, Neoplatonism did great service for Augustine: it led him to see that God and the soul are spiritual, not bodily, and that evil is a privation, not a substance. But it did nothing to check his long running immorality. In fact, its demands to rise above the senses may have been counterproductive in Augustine.