Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Plotinus.
Plotinus is something of an odd figure in the history of philosophy. Any way you look at it, he is one of the most influential thinkers who ever lived. But he said very little that was actually original. He considered himself to be a true Platonist. Basically his goal was to interpret, clarify, and spread Plato’s ideas. He also spent a considerable amount of time defending Plato’s ideas against non-Platonists like Aristotle, the stoics, and the Gnostics. He was born in Egypt in 204 or 205. He moved to Rome where he did most of his writing and teaching until his death in 270. His writings are collected into a work known as the Enneads.
Alfred North Whitehead has a famous quote, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” It’s hard to overstate how important Plato’s ideas are. The reason Plotinus is so influential is that he is the lens through which most people have viewed Plato over the last 2,000 years. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all incorporated Platonic ideas, and they found those ideas in Plotinus. I know a lot of people don’t really think about the philosophical concepts that underpin their religions, but the idea of a singular, perfect god is just one of many that we can thank Plato and Plotinus for.
As for his actual philosophy, Plotinus believed in three fundamental metaphysical principles (That may sound familiar to some Christians). These were The One (aka The Good), Intellect, and Soul. The One is simple and perfect. It is being. Intellect is the rational contemplation of The One or the eternal forms. It is essence. Soul is desire, particularly desire for things external to the desiring being. The three together are what give structure, order, and meaning to the universe.
Plotinus’ ethics are tied up with his metaphysics. This will sound familiar to anyone who has read Plato, but Plotinus believed that evil was essentially distance from The One (The Good). In practice, this means that overly strong desires for physical things are bad. This is where he quarreled with the Gnostics. They believed that the Soul had fallen and this world was bad, whereas Plotinus didn’t believe the physical world was bad, just misplaced desires.
His ideas of beauty are similar. The Good and the forms are beautiful. We recognize beauty when we can see some of the eternal forms in something. This meant that, like in Plato, physical beauty is the lowest type of beauty. It’s only a distant image of the form itself. The highest forms of beauty are seen through contemplation.
That’s a very brief overview. As I said, this is some of the most influential stuff ever written down. Personally, I prefer reading Plato if I want some Platonism, but that hasn’t always been an option for most people. I suppose we’re lucky that both of them are so readily available. But if intellectual history interests you at all, I recommend spending some time with Plotinus.
Gerson, Lloyd, “Plotinus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/plotinus/>.