Plotinus is considered to be the father of Neo-Platonism, that period of time during the third century AD when Plato's thought was enjoying a revival of interest due to the growth of Christianity. Plotinus was born in Egypt about AD 204. He became impassioned for philosophy at the age of twenty-eight, and sought out the most highly respected professors teaching in Alexandria. He always came away discouraged until a friend suggested the philosopher Ammonius Saccas. Plotinus attended a lecture, and explained to his comrade: "This is the man I was looking for." Plotinus studied for eleven years under Ammonius until becoming eager to investigate the philosophies adopted by the people of the Indies. He joined Emperor Gordian's expedition against the Persians, but escaped to Antioch after Gordian's death. At forty he settled in Rome where he lived and taught the rest of his life. He passed over in his sixty-sixth year proclaiming that he was striving to give back the divine in himself to the divine in the cosmos.
It is said that Plotinus bridged the gap between Eastern religions and Western thought. His work is thoroughly grounded in Greek philosophy, and his debt to Plato is without question. But Plotinus' great contribution to philosophy was inspired through his own interior experiences. This 'inner illumination' became the means of explicating the architecture of the universe, which is but a reflection or image of the divine within every human soul.
The system in which all reality participates is a graded system of three hierarchies or hypostases, and is often called the Divine Triad. Two movements or acts characterize each movement of the triad, and is thought of as an emanation, or radiation, or outpouring accompanied by reversion-to-source or return upon principle. All phases and forms of existence flow from this trinity, and all strive to return and remain there. Each hypostasis is variously named; the ultimate first principle being simply called the ONE, in some instances the Supreme, the Absolute, the Good, or the Father. The intermediate principle or second hypostasis is called Mind, Intellectual-Principle, or Intelligible Realm, and in Greek--Nous. The last or lowest third principle is then called the World Soul or the All Soul. The universe proceeds from an eternal first principle, the ONE, from which arises Mind or Intellect, and in turn centers on the World Soul, the formative principle of the material world.
The ONE has a strange characteristic about it. It cannot be known. Its nature transcends all the knowable; hence we cannot properly attach any name to it. We are only able to speak of what it is not, not what it is: "We do not grasp it by knowledge," Plotinus says, "but that does not mean that we are utterly void of it; we hold it not so as to state it, but so as to be able to speak about it... unable to state it we may still possess it." 6 What Plotinus seems to be saying is that the ONE is too near to us to become an object for our thought, and when we try to make it an object, we lose sense of it. As he says, "We hover about it trying to interpret our own feelings about the ONE, sometimes drawing near and sometimes falling away in our own complexities about it." 7
The ONE is a cause only in that its perfection implies an act, and the most perfect form of expressive act is thought or Intellection. In other words, perfection is not something that comes out of nothing; as a process it must be active or it could not become what it is. Perfection, as an active process, is realized as a product of thought.
The ONE does not remain self-enclosed, but radiates its abundance. As the ONE over-flows, it turns back upon itself, and in the act of contemplating, knows itself. The result of this act is Mind or Intellect--the second hypostasis of the Divine Triad. This is really the first thing which, if only in some vague sense, may be affirmed. As the act, offspring, and image of the Supreme, it is a sort of mediation to us of the unknowable ONE. Mind, or the Intellectual Universe, as the totality of thoughts, are the eternal originals, Archetypes, Intellectual Forms of all that exists in the lower spheres. This is the realm of Plato's world of forms, or his intelligible world of which the sensible world is but an image. The Intellectual World or Mind does not remain unproductive. Intellect "engenders a power apt to the realization of its thought," apt, that is, to "creation." This engendered power is the third hypostasis of the Divine Triad. The third hypostasis is, then, the World Soul. As mentioned, each member of the triad has two acts--that of emanation from, and reversion to, source. As Mind has two acts--that of upward contemplation of the ONE and that of generation toward the lower--the World Soul also has two acts. It at once contemplates the Intelligible realm, and generates in its own bounty the lower forms of beings, that is, the things of the physical world. Plotinus considers this the creative principle of our world.
Plotinus stresses the transcendence of the ONE to an extreme degree, but he is careful to exclude all ideas of a quasi-spatial sort about this transcendence. The ONE is not a God outside the world or remote from us, but present within us, or rather we are in Him, for Plotinus prefers to speak of the lower as in the higher rather than the other way around; body is in Soul, Soul in Mind, and Mind in the ONE. This hierarchical order does not imply the remoteness of the ONE, because the levels are not spatially separate from each other, but present together everywhere.
Intellect proceeds from the ONE without affecting its source. The ONE loses nothing; there is simply a giving-out that leaves the ONE undiminished and unchanged. Plotinus conceives emanation as an outgoing from the source as light from a light-source, or heat from fire, or the aroma from perfume. It is distinct from its source yet leaves its source undiminished. Plotinus also considers this giving-out or emanation from the ONE as an out-going of Goodness. The ONE or the Good is self-
overflowing; good means generosity, which is the reason there is emanation in the first place. It is the source of all goodness in the world. Plotinus states that "this principle is not to be identified with the good of which it is the source; it is good in the unique mode of being the Good above all that is good." 8
The second hypostasis--Mind or Intellect—corresponds in Plotinus to Plato's world of Forms or Ideas. Intellect is both thought [unity] and objects of thought [multiplicity]. Intellect is a whole or a unity of all thought, while each thought, as an object of thought is unique and individual. Thus we have a unity in difference, and difference in unity. But Plotinus goes beyond this in transforming Plato's Forms from a logical, mathematical structure of static universal ideas into an organic living community of interpenetrating beings. Forms and intelligences are at once all "awake and alive," in which every part thinks and in a real sense is the whole. Therefore the relationship of whole and part in this spiritual world is quite different from that in the material world, and involves no exclusion or separation. The Intellectual Realm is infinite in power, but finite because it is composed of an existing number of ideas that are definite, limited realities. From our own experience, Intellect is the level of intuitive thought, a thought that grasps its object immediately and is always perfectly united with it, and does not have to seek it outside itself by discursive reasoning.9
The material universe is the lowest stage in the cosmic order, which lies within the sphere of the third hypostasis--the World Soul. Since nothing stands between Intellect or Mind and the production of a world, there must be a formed world corresponding to the formative power. Time belongs to the World Soul as eternity to Mind. As Plotinus says: "Time is the moving image of eternity." The World Soul is produced by Mind and Mind by the Primal One. Thus the World Soul is in contact at once with eternal being, and with the temporal things that it generates by the power it receives from its cause. The World Soul has for its work not only to think, but also to order and rule the things after it. These come to be because production does not stop at Intelligibles, but must go on to the limit of all possible existence. Infinite variety is demanded that the whole in all its parts might be perfect. Plotinus identifies contemplation with production. The World Soul's production is an overflow from its quiet contemplation. But its contemplation is weak, and what it produces is a poor image or reflection of the lowest vestige of its thought.
Plotinus insists, in opposition to Aristotle, that there can be no real union between form and matter. Even the lowest vestige of Soul in body does not quite unite with matter to form the concrete material thing, but is externally superimposed upon it. The contact of matter with the Intelligible World is in "participation" by which matter receives what it can receive. Matter is the receptacle in the visible world that images the Intelligible World. Matter is completely formless and indeterminate, and communicates its indeterminateness to the form that is impressed upon it.
Matter is regarded as the principle of evil. Although the world has evil in it, Plotinus is eager to maintain that it is as good as it can be, and even that it is in essence good, and only accidentally evil. Matter is at the opposite extreme to things Intelligible, and is in its own nature ugly and evil. The degree of our participation in the material world determines the extent of the soul's involvement in evil activities.10
Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus attempted to solve the problem of the relationship between a spiritual universe and a physical world. The structure of the observable heavens served as the model upon which their theories took form. Although they did not have the benefit of telescopes, their unaided vision affirmed the belief that the stars and planets were in motion, and planetary motion seemed oddly circular. What they failed to realize, for want of a developed science and technology, was the immense size of the universe and the relative obscurity of the earth in relation to it.
In the case of Plotinus, his system was not grounded entirely on astronomical theories, but rather on the structure of his own inner or visionary experiences. If this is the case, then his thought is better understood in terms of the make-up of the heavens, as we know it today, rather than on the inadequate astronomical theories of his own time. If Plotinus' inner experiences were true for him, and the structure of his metaphysics kept firmly in accord with those experiences, then what his thought embraces is that model of the heavens we know today as the solar system.
The idea of a solar system, that is, a seemingly stationary sun with a group of planets in revolution about it, was a novel idea to the early Greeks. But philosophy at that time had little knowledge of how the heavens were constructed. Plotinus believed his system could explain everything in terms of absolutes using terms such as eternal and infinite to describe the universe of time and space. Although it's difficult to see how his system describes the universe as a whole, it does show how the three hypostases might work within a physical framework. I don't believe his system loses any of its descriptive value when reconsidered in light of our unfolding knowledge of physics and astronomy.
The task then is to conceive Plotinus' system of three hypostases, the Divine Triad, in terms of the structure of the solar system. At the summit of Plotinus' system is the ONE; he constantly refers the ONE by analogy to the sun. As the ONE "over-flows" producing the Intellectual-Realm, so too the sun issues forth the planetary spheres, a unity in diversity. As the planetary spheres turn to contemplate their source--the ONE, the World Soul or the Earth, belonging essentially to the Intellectual Sphere, generates in its own contemplative power the things of the physical world. The planetary spheres, each distinct in their own orb, together keep and hold the divine intelligence as they circle in contemplation of their source--the Sun.
Plotinus was without the knowledge of what a solar system might have been, but his thought points to the idea of a solar system. In his words:
"". . .The entire intellectual order may be figured as a kind of light with the ONE in repose at its summit as its King: but this manifestation is not cast out from it--that would cause us to postulate another light before the light--but the ONE shines eternally, resting upon the Intellectual Realm; this, not identical with its source, is yet not severed from it nor of so remote a nature as to be less than Real-Being "" 11
Plotinus conceives the Intellective powers as circling around the ONE as the planets circle the sun. The ONE being at the summit is also at the center; as the sun shines, so does the ONE. The planets represent diversity within unity, and maintain the individual characteristics of the ONE as defined by
Plato's mathematical forms. The planetary Beings, as the second hypostasis, while identical with the One, nonetheless encompass the diversity within the totality of their Source. As Plotinus has said, the three hypostases are not separate or exclusive from each other, but are together everywhere, with the ONE, or the sun, at the center. The sun is thought of as the physical manifestation of the ONE. The planets are the physical manifestation of the Intellectual Realm. The Earth is considered the third hypostasis or World Soul, and the means Intellect and Being come to exist as things and life in the physical world.
The ONE expresses its Idea of creation through the power of the star. As the ultimate unity, and undifferentiated source of totality, it is not known, discursively, even to itself. It does not remain self-contained, it goes out of itself into its "otherness;" its over-flowing is an over-flowing into diversity and multiplicity. As the Intellectual Realm turns to contemplate its source the ONE comes to know itself as Self, and assumes Self-Hood.
It is one system of three hierarchies, with contemplation and generation as the dynamics of each stage. Plotinus even alludes to planets as if moving in a solar system with these words:
""Thus the Intellective power circles the Supreme which stands to it as archetype to image. The archetype is intellect-in-unity; the image in its manifold movement about its Prior [the ONE] has produced the multiplicity by which it is constituted Intellect or Mind; that prior has no movement; it generates Mind by its sheer wealth. The planets are divine in virtue of cleaving to the ONE because they remain linked with the Primal Soul, and through it possess the vision of the Intelligible
My major premise is that the universe is a Spiritual universe; that the power of stars generates life. Plotinus' words become figurative and even dramatic when he says: "... By the power of Soul the manifold and diverse heavenly system is a unit: through Soul this universe is a God: and the sun is a God because it is ensouled, so too the stars; and whatsoever we ourselves may be, it is all in virtue of Soul . . . ." 13
The sun represents the ONE, a unity that Plotinus speaks of as un-nameable and un-knowable because it contains potentially all that can be known without distinction or differentiation. The ONE does not remain self-locked, it pours forth its radiant energy as a star. Just as consciousness seems independent of the elements of which the body is composed, so too the heat of the sun must be akin to creative power. It must be independent of the material of which the sun is composed. This radiant energy is focused within the planetary orbs as an image of the ONE, and each planet represents a distinct and diverse characteristic that makes the One knowable. Here the unity of thought as bestowed by the ONE becomes manifest as multiplicity or objects of thought. Reasoning is at once potential and possible.
The planetary spheres, as the Intelligible Realm, and second hypostasis of the Divine Triad, manifest that unity-in-diversity through which each contains and radiates its own unique character and quality. The Earth, or third hypostasis, represents birth, growth; the fertile womb of humanity in which reasoning takes on actuality. The sun transmits life to the Earth through light, heat, and magnetism, and the planets share in the work by blending their fields with the solar radiation. We might even say that the Earth is our divine mother, and that we have been sired by that celestial power that is the ultimate source of all life--the SUN.
Creation is not without a purpose. We are divine through that which has given us life, and our purpose can only be realized through that process which sustains the very existence of the universe itself.
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