Roy Lotz's Reviews > The Essential Plotinus

The Essential Plotinus by Plotinus
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bookshelves: footnotes-to-plato, oldie-but-goodie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 10, 2015 – Shelved
March 10, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
July 26, 2015 – Finished Reading
June 2, 2016 – Shelved as: footnotes-to-plato
June 2, 2016 – Shelved as: oldie-but-goodie

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Manny (last edited Jul 26, 2015 11:14PM) (new)

Manny I wonder why exactly it is that this kind of view of the world is so seductive? And I didn't realize that Plotinus was one of the key thinkers involved in developing it... thank you, another person I clearly need to look at some time :)


message 2: by Matt (new)

Matt Did you know that you can reach the article on Philosophy from any other article on Wikipedia?
Here's how: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikiped...


message 3: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Manny wrote: "I wonder why exactly it is that this kind of view of the world is so seductive? And I didn't realize that Plotinus was one of the key thinkers involved in developing it... thank you, another person..."

You're welcome! I don't know why exactly this worldview is so seductive. I thought William James's chapter on mysticism, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, was quite good, even if it is only descriptive. I'm reading The Theory of Almost Everything now, and it's striking how often progress in physics is marked by a unification of things that before seemed completely unrelated. Feynman also has a line in his Character of Physical Law where he says that the laws of physics are beautiful because they are simple. So I guess Plotinus was onto something with his One thing?

Matt wrote: "Did you know that you can reach the article on Philosophy from any other article on Wikipedia?
Here's how: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikiped..."


Cool!


ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos) Another great review. I'm not sure I need to read the book now. Read some Plotinus years ago at school but only references since.

I think we read this kind of thing with such fascination because it twists our worldview. We're not looking for Truth or the Way. We simply want to smell the flowers in other people's gardens.


message 5: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Thanks!

RK-ique wrote: "I think we read this kind of thing with such fascination because it twists our worldview. We're not looking for Truth or the Way. We simply want to smell the flowers in other people's gardens."

And yes, very well put.


message 6: by Glenn (last edited Jul 28, 2015 06:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Glenn Russell Fine review, Lotz. What's the sound of one clapping?

Love his philosophy of beauty, which is Chapter 9, if I recall correctly. Also, if I recall correctly from the books I've read (but gave away so I can't double-check) the number 9 held a special significance for later neoplatonists in their theurgy as it was tied to beauty and harmony.


message 7: by Roy (last edited Jul 28, 2015 06:35AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Ha, thanks! I don't know what chapter the section on beauty was in the original, but this volume begins with that chapter. I remember O'Brien saying in the introduction that Plotinus's writings were edited into The Enneads by his student Porphyry. Porphyry chose the number nine, I believe, because it had a special significance in Pythagorean philosophy, which held that certain numbers held a mystical significance. I'm not sure if Plotinus himself believed that, however.


message 8: by Glenn (last edited Jul 28, 2015 07:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Glenn Russell Lotz wrote: "Ha, thanks! I don't know what chapter the section on beauty was in the original, but this volume begins with that chapter. I remember O'Brien saying in the introduction that Plotinus's writings wer..."

Porphyry chose the number nine, I believe, because it had a special significance in Pythagorean philosophy, which held that certain numbers held a mystical significance. I'm not sure if Plotinus himself believed that, however. ---- That's my understanding also. Also, to my recollection, I read where Plotinus was a goddess worshipper and hated Christianity, which is ironic since his thinking had such a great influence and impact on Christian thinkers. Peter Adamson goes into detail on this subject in his 'Philosophy Without Any Gaps' podcasts.


message 9: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Really? A goddess worshiper? How odd!


Glenn Russell Lotz wrote: "Really? A goddess worshiper? How odd!"

Actually, from what I've read, goddess worship by those Greek philosophers in the ancient world was quite common, which in a certain way makes sense -- Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom; Athena, Goddess of Beauty. Also, recall the prominence of Diotima in teaching Socrates in Plato's Symposium.


message 11: by Roy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz True. It just seemed that the worship of some supernatural, human-like being would be opposed to Plotinus's mysticism, which is aimed towards the unknowable.


message 12: by Glenn (last edited Jul 28, 2015 07:26AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Glenn Russell Lotz wrote: "True. It just seemed that the worship of some supernatural, human-like being would be opposed to Plotinus's mysticism, which is aimed towards the unknowable."

In that sense you are absolute correct. My take is the philosophers were goddess worshipers in the sense of valuing certain energies in the universe -- the energy of wisdom; the energy of beauty; the energy of love.


message 13: by Brad (new)

Brad Lyerla Thank you for this fine review. I know the effort required to review a book of this nature and it is wonderful of you to to share it with us.

May I say that I find Plotinus' concept of "the one" to be either entirely trivial or so abstract that I cannot get my head around it.

In the first sense, and you refer to it in your review, he could be saying that there has to be organization (of matter and energy?) for there to be things. Without organization, there is nothing. OK. So what? Isn't this where Feynman ends up too?

In the second sense, he could be saying that there is some intelligence that we can connect with that causes or explains or is the organization that results in things. But this feels completely alien to me and I cannot gain any intellectual traction. I feel a comparable lack of traction when thinking about this aspect of Wittgenstein or Heidegger.

Your review suggests that, unlike me, you have found a good deal of traction and reading Plotinus made a contribution to your understanding of the world.

Can you elaborate or point me to a secondary source that might help me? I know this could be considered an unfair sort of question from me and I apologize in advance and will understand if you decline to respond.

Thanks.


message 14: by Roy (last edited Jul 28, 2015 08:07AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz Brad wrote: "Thank you for this fine review. I know the effort required to review a book of this nature and it is wonderful of you to to share it with us."

Thanks, Brad! Well, I'm not sure how much I can help. I can't honestly say that Plotinus has helped my understanding of the world (if by "world" we mean empirical reality). As a theory, his system certainly lacks explanatory power. And I also agree that the way Plotinus defines "The One" means that it is undifferentiated from nothing at all.

Have you read Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World? In that book, he has a memorable passage where he shows that an invisible, untouchable, massless, and generally undetectable dragon is the same as no dragon at all, since it would have none of the qualities we associate with dragons. The same can be said of The One.

I have personally not had a mystical experience, so this is pure speculation. But I think that when describing intense states of mind, and how to attain them, thinkers often use philosophical or metaphysical language (intentionally or unintentionally) in non-literal ways. It's a way of talking about something that we don't have a good vocabulary for.

As far as living philosophy goes, Plotinus and Heidegger do both try to answer the question "What does it mean to be?" Now, it's disputable whether this question even makes sense; and even if it does, it's unclear whether it could possibly be answered. Certainly, it is not a valid scientific question; and some argue that it's not a valid philosophical question either.

The best way I've figured out how to read much philosophy, especially ancient philosophy, is to treat it like literature. It's a look into the imagination of a brilliant person who lived long ago. And just as one must follow the plot of a novel or drama in order to appreciate it, so one must try to understand the system of a philosopher on their own terms to have a rewarding experience. Both require a suspension of disbelief.


ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos) On Plotinus and his 'mysticism, I quote Diarmaid MacCulloch in Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, "Accounts of him [Plotinus] include what seems the first recognizable description in Western history of acute dyslexia, which probably explains why he was a reluctant writer...." "In this scheme [Plotinus' philosophy], it was the task of the individual soul by ecstatic contemplation of the divine to restore the harmony lost in the world, an ecstasy so rare that Plotinus himself admitted to achieving it only four times in his life."

The use of the term 'mystical experience' is, I believe, a limiting one. The term fits for what what Plotinus was searching for. It also fits for what young 19th century Mexican Catholic girls experienced as the appearance of the Virgin Mary or perhaps what many Buddhist monks are searching for. In 'A Secular Age, Charles Taylor suggests the term "fullness" to describe the experience, thus removing any religious or metaphysical connotations.

I have had experiences wherein I momentarily had the sense of being in a different reality. (I'm speaking of the non-drug induced variety here) What struck me about such experiences is that they presented me with an extraordinary experience while not, for a moment, giving any sense of religiousness or transcendence. I was momentarily ecstatic in sensing something new but rationally I was still of this world. There was not so much as a moment of doubt in my secular, non-enchanted reality. My sense of 'fullness' did have a sense of unity, of oneness in the universe but it was this universe.

My explanation, spontaneous eruption of ganglia in my brain brought about by visual stimulation paired with specific images arising from my high school science classes - or something of that sort.

So perhaps you have had 'mystical experiences'. You just weren't paying attention to them. Try staring at a large maple tree in the fall when the leaves are bright red after you've been reading some Carl Sagan. Just might work. Cheers.


message 16: by Roy (last edited Jul 28, 2015 02:04PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roy Lotz RK-ique wrote: "So perhaps you have had 'mystical experiences'. You just weren't paying attention to them. Try staring at a large maple tree in the fall when the leaves are bright red after you've been reading some Carl Sagan."

Strangely enough, I've done exactly that last fall! It was indeed a pleasant experience. Though probably the closest I normally get to an ecstatic feeling is when I've just finished writing something that I'm happy with.


ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos) Yeah. It's those little ripples through the middle of you.


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