The Greek philosopher Plotinus (205-270) was the founder of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy, which became the most formidable rival of Christianity in the declining years of the ancient world.

Plotinus was born perhaps in the Egyptian town of Lyco, or Lycopolis. He turned to philosophy at the age of 28 and studied for 11 years with the eminent philosopher Ammonius Saccas at Alexandria.

In 243, desiring to learn about Eastern philosophy, Plotinus joined the expedition led by the Roman emperor Gordian III against the Persians. However, Gordian was murdered, and Plotinus was forced to flee to Antioch and then Rome.

Upon his arrival in Rome, Plotinus began to take students, and his influence in the city soon became great among both professional philosophers and other intellectuals. The emperor Gallienus held Plotinus in such high esteem that he considered founding a philosophers' city in Campania on the ruined site of an early Pythagorean settlement. Plotinus's habits of life were austere. He ate and slept only as much as necessary, and he never married. When he fell ill late in life, he left Rome and retired to Campania, where he died.

Plotinus did not begin to write until he was 50 years old. His work, the Enneads, was arranged and published some 30 years after his death by his most famous pupil, Porphyry. It consists of six groups of nine essays and deals with the whole range of ancient philosophical thought with the exception of political theory. Ennead 1 deals with ethics and esthetics; Enneads 2 and 3 deal with physics and cosmology; Ennead 4 treats psychology; and Enneads 5 and 6 deal with metaphysics, logic, and epistemology. The style of these essays is highly personal—sometimes brilliant, sometimes concise to the point of obscurity—but at all times fascinating and indicative of Plotinus's keen and sensitive mind.

His Philosophical System

At the heart of Plotinus's religiophilosophical system is a supreme divinity which is infinite, unitary, and good. It is the ultimate but not the direct cause of all that is, although it is under no compulsion or necessity to produce anything outside itself. Indeed, it is so perfect that it lacks nothing. It simply is. Between this supreme existent and the known world is the supersensual world, made up of three types of being.

The first, produced by an overflow or radiation of the perfect One, is the World-Mind, which is conscious of multiplicity but holds all together in eternal contemplation. It is equivalent to Aristotle's Unmoved Mover and the realm of Plato's Ideas, or Forms. It is also the organizational principle of the universe.

Next comes the World-Soul, produced by the World-Mind and less unitary in that it is further removed from the One and perceives things sequentially. It is therefore the cause of time and space, although it is superior to them since it is eternal.

Finally, there is Nature, the furthest removed from the One and the least creative of the three supersensual beings. Nature corresponds to the Stoic immanent World-Soul. The physical world is a projection of its dreamlike consciousness.

According to Plotinus, man's role in this universe is a unique one. Unlike other animal and plant life, he has within himself the possibility of using his intellect to aspire to unity with the supersensual world. Indeed, through strict discipline, it is even possible to achieve union with the One, but such occurrences are rare. Plotinus claimed to have reached that height of ecstasy himself four times.

The three types of supersensual beings correspond to three types of thought which men may engage in. The lowest, corresponding to the dreamlike consciousness of Nature, is unclear and undisciplined thought. The next, corresponding to the thought of the World-Soul, is discursive thought. The third, corresponding to the unitary thought of the World-Mind, is apprehension of the whole in a single experience of the mind.

Ecstasy of Oneness

The ecstasy which Plotinus claimed to have experienced was one step further. It was a complete union with God, the infinite, unitary, and beneficent One. This experience was impossible to describe. Since God is completely self-sufficient and has no need to be conscious of anything, so the man who reaches the height of ecstatic union with Him finds himself in a state of totally indescribable self-sufficiency and oneness. It is an experience equivalent to the mystical union with God described by Christian mystics.

Plotinus's teachings attracted many followers. The most noteworthy were Porphyry and lamblichus, who carried on his teachings with slightly different emphasis. Neoplatonism, through the development of the many schools it spawned, came to embrace a great number of mystical and superstitious beliefs from the East. It proved to be a resilient and attractive rival to Christianity, and even after Justinian closed the philosophical schools in 529, Neoplatonism remained influential in the development of thought during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Further Reading on Plotinus

Original texts and readable translations of the works of Plotinus are provided in A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus (1966). An excellent commentary is émile Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, translated by Joseph Thomas (1958). See also W. R. Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus (2 vols., 1928). Originally written in the late 19th century, Eduard Zeller's Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, 13th ed. revised by Wilhelm Nestle and translated by L.R. Palmer (1957), is still useful although slightly dated. Discussions of Neoplatonism in the context of the history of Greek literature can be found in standard works on that subject, notably Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature (1966). See also Thomas Whittaker, The Neo-Platonists (1928).

Additional Biography Sources

Davison, William Theophilus, Mystics and poets, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977.

Plotinus, The essence of Plotinus: extracts from the six Enneads and Porphyry's Life of Plotinus, based on the translation by Stephen Mackenna: with an appendix giving some of the most important Platonic and Aristotelian sources on which Plotinus drew, and an annotated bibliography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976, 1934.