Plotinus (Greek: Πλωτῖνος) (ca. 205–270) was a major philosopher in the ancient world and is widely considered the father of Neoplatonism. Much of our biographical information about him comes from Porphyry's preface to his edition of Plotinus' Enneads. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Gnostic metaphysicians and mystics.



Porphyry believed Plotinus was sixty-six years old when he died in 270, the second year of the reign of the emperor Claudius II, thus giving us the year of his teacher's birth as around 205. Plotinus had an inherent distrust of materiality (an attitude common to Platonism), holding to the view that phenomena were a poor image or mimicry (mimesis) of something "higher and intelligible" [VI.I] which was the "truer part of genuine Being". This distrust extended to the body, including his own; it is reported by Porphyry that at one point he refused to have his portrait painted, presumably for much the same reasons of dislike. Likewise Plotinus never discussed his ancestry, childhood, or his place or date of birth. Eunapius however reports that he was born in the Deltaic Lycopolis (Latin: Lyco) in Egypt, as he may have been a Hellenized Egyptian. From all accounts his personal and social life exhibited the highest moral and spiritual standards.

Plotinus took up the study of philosophy at the age of twenty-seven, around the year 232, and travelled to Alexandria to study. There Plotinus was dissatisfied with every teacher he encountered until an acquaintance suggested he listen to the ideas of Ammonius Saccas. Upon hearing Ammonius lecture, he declared to his friend, "this was the man I was looking for," and began to study intently under his new instructor. Besides Ammonius, Plotinus was also influenced by the works of Alexander of Aphrodisias, Numenius, and various Stoics.

Expedition to Persia and return to Rome

He spent the next eleven years in Alexandria when, by now 38. He decided to investigate the philosophical teachings of the Persians and the Indians.[1] In the pursuit of this endeavour he left Alexandria and joined the army of Gordian III as it marched on Persia. However, the campaign was a failure, and on Gordian's eventual death Plotinus found himself abandoned in a hostile land, and only with difficulty found his way back to safety in Antioch.

At the age of forty, during the reign of Philip the Arab, he came to Rome, where he stayed for most of the remainder of his life. There he attracted a number of students. His innermost circle included Porphyry, Amelius Gentilianus of Tuscany, the Senator Castricius Firmus, and Eustochius of Alexandria, a doctor who devoted himself to learning from Plotinus and attended to him until his death. Other students included: Zethos, an Arab by ancestry who died before Plotinus, leaving him a legacy and some land; Zoticus, a critic and poet; Paulinus, a doctor of Scythopolis; and Serapion from Alexandria. He had students amongst the Roman Senate beside Castricius, such as Marcellus Orontius, Sabinillus, and Rogantianus. Women were also numbered amongst his students, including Gemina, in whose house he lived during his residence in Rome, and her daughter, also Gemina; and Amphiclea, the wife of Ariston the son of Iamblichus. Finally, Plotinus was a correspondent of the philosopher Cassius Longinus.

Later life

While in Rome Plotinus also gained the respect of the Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonica. At one point Plotinus attempted to interest Gallienus in rebuilding an abandoned settlement in Campania, known as the 'City of Philosophers', where the inhabitants would live under the constitution set out in Plato's Laws. An Imperial subsidy was never granted, for reasons unknown to Porphyry, who reports the incident.

Porphyry subsequently went to live in Sicily, where word reached him that his former teacher had died. The philosopher spent his final days in seclusion on an estate in Campania which his friend Zethos had bequeathed him. According to the account of Eustochius, who attended him at the end, Plotinus' final words were: "Strive to give back the Divine in yourselves to the Divine in the All." Eustochius records that a snake crept under the bed where Plotinus lay, and slipped away through a hole in the wall; at the same moment the philosopher died.

Plotinus wrote the essays that became the Enneads over a period of several years from ca. 253 until a few months before his death seventeen years later. Porphyry makes note that the Enneads, before being compiled and arranged by himself, were merely the enormous collection of notes and essays which Plotinus used in his lectures and debates, rather than a formal book. Plotinus was unable to revise his own work due to his poor eyesight, yet his writings required extensive editing, according to Porphyry: his master's handwriting was atrocious, he did not properly separate his words, and he cared little for niceties of spelling. Plotinus intensely disliked the editorial process, and turned the task to Porphyry, who not only polished them but put them into the arrangement we now have.

Plotinus' theory

The One

Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent "One", containing no division, multiplicity or distinction; likewise it is beyond all categories of being and non-being. The concept of "being" is derived by us from the objects of human experience, and is an attribute of such objects, but the infinite, transcendent One is beyond all such objects, and therefore is beyond the concepts that we derive from them. The One "cannot be any existing thing", and cannot be merely the sum of all such things (compare the Stoic doctrine of disbelief in non-material existence), but "is prior to all existents". Thus, no attributes can be assigned to the One.

For example, thought cannot be attributed to the One because thought implies distinction between a thinker and an object of thought[citation needed]. Likewise, self-sentient willing cannot be ascribed to the One, however the One is by nature Will, and its attribute or indefinite-dyad is the attributive nature of same, the willing (to other), the Nous or 2nd hypostases[citation needed].

Plotinus implicitly denies sentience/self-aware-Being to the One [V.VI.VI], rather that the One is a sheer Dynamis which radiates outwards as the necessary resultant of its attributive nature (i.e. that wills nature is to will). At [V.VI.IV], Plotinus compared the One to "light", the Nous (will) to the "Sun", and lastly the Soul to the "Moon" whose light is merely a "derivative conglomeration of light from the 'Sun'". As Plotinus explains in [V.VI.III] and elsewhere, it is impossible for the One to be Being or a self-sentient entity/Creationist-like God.

The One, being beyond all attributes including being and non-being, is the source of the world not through any act of creation, willful or otherwise, since activity cannot be ascribed to the unchangeable, immutable One. Plotinus resorts to a logical principle that the "less perfect" must, of necessity, "emanate", or issue forth, from the "perfect" or "more perfect". Thus, all of "creation" emanates from the One in succeeding stages of lesser and lesser perfection. These stages are not temporally isolated, but occur throughout time as a constant process. Later Neoplatonic philosophers, especially Iamblichus, added hundreds of intermediate beings as emanations between the One and humanity; but Plotinus' system was much simpler in comparison.

Emanation by the One

Plotinus offers an alternative to the orthodox Christian notion of creation ex nihilo ('out of nothing'), which would make God suffer the deliberations of a mind and actions of a will (at the expense of the nous not being the will of the one), although Plotinus never mentions Christianity in any of his works. Emanation ex deo ('out of God'), confirms the absolute transcendence of the One, making the unfolding of the cosmos purely a consequence of its existence; the One is in no way affected or diminished by these emanations. Plotinus uses the analogy of the Sun which emanates light indiscriminately without thereby "lessening" itself, or reflection in a mirror which in no way diminishes or otherwise alters the object being reflected.

The first emanation is Nous ('Thought'), identified with the "demiurge" in Plato's Timaeus. From Nous proceeds the "World Soul", which Plotinus subdivides into "upper" and "lower", identifying the lower aspect of Soul with Nature. From the World Soul proceed individual human souls, and finally, matter, at the lowest level of being and thus the least perfected level of the cosmos. Despite this relatively negative assessment of the material world, Plotinus asserted the ultimately divine nature of material creation since it ultimately derives from the One, through the mediums of Nous and the World Soul.

The essentially devotional nature of Plotinus' philosophy may be further illustrated by his concept of attaining "ecstatic" union with the One (Epistrophe, the mystical 'Oneing'). Porphyry relates that Plotinus attained such a union several times during the years he knew him (4 times to be specific). This may be related, of course, with "enlightenment", "liberation", and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions. Some have compared Plotinus' teachings to the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta (advaita "not two", or "non-dual"),[2].

True Human and Happiness

Authentic human happiness for Plotinus consists of the true human identifying with that which is the best in the universe. Because happiness is beyond anything physical, Plotinus stresses the point that worldly fortune does not control true human happiness, and thus “… there exists no single human being that does not either potentially or effectively possess this thing we hold to constitute happiness.” (Enneads 1.4.4) The issue of happiness is one of Plotinus’ greatest imprint on Western thought, as he is one of the first to introduce the idea that eudaimonia is attainable only within consciousness.

The true human is an incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul, and superior to all things corporeal. It then follows that real human happiness is independent of the physical world. Real happiness is, instead, dependent on the metaphysical and authentic human being found in this highest capacity of Reason. “For man, and especially the Proficient, is not the Couplement of Soul and body: the proof is that man can be disengaged from the body and disdain its nominal goods.” (Enneads 1.4.14) The human who has achieved happiness will not be bothered by sickness, discomfort, etc., as his focus is on the greatest things. Authentic human happiness is the utilization of the most authentically human capacity of contemplation. Even in daily, physical action, the flourishing human’s “…Act is determined by the higher phase of the Soul.” (Enneads 3.4.6) Even in the most dramatic arguments Plotinus considers (if the Proficient is subject to extreme physical torture, for example), he concludes this only strengthens his claim of true happiness being metaphysical, as the truly happy human being would understand that that which is being tortured is merely a body, not the conscious self, and happiness could persist.

Plotinus offers a comprehensive description of his conception of a person who has achieved eudaimonia. “The perfect life” involves a man who commands reason and contemplation.(Enneads 1.4.4) A happy person will not sway between happy and sad, as many of Plotinus’ contemporaries believed. Stoics, for example, question the ability of someone to be happy (presupposing happiness is contemplation) if they are mentally incapacitated or even asleep- Plotinus disregards this claim, as the soul and true human do not sleep or even exist in time, nor will a living human whom has achieved eudaimonia suddenly stop using its greatest, most authentic capacity just because of the body’s discomfort in the physical realm. “…The Proficient’s will is set always and only inward.” (Enneads 1.4.11) The importance of the soul’s reasoning capacity to a happy life for Plotinus is also seen in his consideration of suicide as understandable when the living body’s mental capacity is in question. “But if a man feel himself to be losing his reason?”, he inquires, and decides this is one possible necessary condition for just suicide. (Enneads 1.9)

Overall, happiness for Plotinus is "...a flight from this world's ways and things." (Theat 176AB) and a focus on the highest, i.e. Forms and The One.

Against causal astrology

Plotinus seems to be one of the first to argue against the still popular notion of causal Astrology. In the late tractate 2.3, "Are the stars causes?", Plotinus makes the argument that specific stars influencing one's fortune (a common hellenistic theme) attributes irrationality to a perfect universe, and eliminates moral turpitude. He does, however, claim the stars and planets are ensouled, as witnessed by their movement.


Neoplatonism was sometimes used as a philosophical foundation for paganism, and as a means of defending the theoretic of paganism against Christianity (see Porphyry, Eunapius). However, many Christians were also influenced by Neoplatonism, most notably Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite modern Russian philosophers like Nikolai Lossky and St. Augustine who, though often referred to as a "Platonist," acquired his Platonist philosophy through the mediation of Plotinus' teachings. Indeed, Plotinus' philosophy still exerts influence today: in the 20th century, American philosopher Ken Wilber has drawn heavily upon the Enneads in his cosmology, reaching some metaphysical conclusions comparable to Plotinus' own.

Many of the great Indian philosophers of great renown such as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Ananda Coomaraswamy and others used the writing of Plotinus in their own texts as a superlative elaboration upon Indian monism, specifically Upanishadic and Advaita Vedantic thought.

See also

  • Porphyry
  • Proclus
  • Numenius of Apamea
  • Neoplatonism
  • Iamblichus
  • Ammonius Saccas
  • Augustine of Hippo
  • Neoplatonism and Gnosticism
  • Emanationism


  1. ^ Porphyry, On the Life of Plotinus and the Order of His Books, Ch. 3 (in Armstrong's Loeb translation, "he became eager to make acquaintance with the Persian philosophical discipline and that prevailing among the Indians").
  2. ^ This connection is made in the works of Ananda Coomaraswamy[1] and has been elaborated upon in J. F. Staal, Advaita and Neoplatonism: A critical study in comparative philosophy, Madras: University of Madras, 1961. More recently, see Frederick Copleston, Religion and the One: Philosophies East and West (University of Aberdeen Gifford Lectures 1979-1980) and the special section "Fra Oriente e Occidente" in Annuario filosofico No. 6 (1990), including the articles "Plotino e l'India" by Aldo Magris and "L'India e Plotino" by Mario Piantelli. The connection is also mentioned in Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (ed.), History of Philosophy Eastern and Western (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952), vol. 2, p. 114; in a lecture by Professor Gwen Griffith-Dickson [2]; and in John Y. Fenton, "Mystical Experience as a Bridge for Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion: A Critique," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 1981, p. 55. The joint influence of Advaitin and Neoplatonic ideas on Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered in Dale Riepe, "Emerson and Indian Philosophy," Journal of the History of Ideas, 1967.


  • Robert M. Berchman, From Philo to Origen: Middle Platonism in Transition (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984).
  • Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy: Vol. 1, Part 2. ISBN 0-385-00210-6
  • Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures. SCM, 1987. ISBN 0-334-02022-0
  • P. Merlan, "Greek Philosophy from Plato to Plotinus," in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, edited by A. H. Armstrong. Cambridge, 1967. ISBN 0-521-04054-X.
  • Plotinus. Enneads, 7 vols., translated by A.H. Armstrong, Loeb Classical Library.
  • Plotinus. The Enneads, translated by Stephen MacKenna. London: Medici Society, 1917-1930.
    • Revised by B.S. Page. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1952. With a foreword by E.R. Dodds, London: Faber, 1957.
    • Abridged by John Dillon. London: Penguin, 1991. ISBN 0-14-044520-X
  • Porphyry, On the Life of Plotinus and the Arrangement of his Works in Neoplatonic Saints: The Lives of Plotinus and Proclus by their Students, Mark Edwards (ed.). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.
  • J.M. Rist, Plotinus, the Road to Reality
  • Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah Jerusalem: Keter, 1974.
  • N. Joseph Torchia, Plotinus, Tolma, and the Descent of Being. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. ISBN 0-8204-1768-8 US-ISBN 0-8204-1768-8
  • Thomas Taylor, The fragments that remain of the lost writings of Proclus, surnamed the Platonic successor. London, 1825. (Selene Books reprint edition, 1987, ISBN 0-933601-11-5.)
  • Thomas Taylor, Collected Writings of Plotinus. Frome, Somerset, UK: Prometheus Trust, 1994. ISBN 1-898910-02-2.
  • Antonia Tripolitis, The Doctrine of the Soul in the thought of Plotinus and Origen. Libra Publishers, 1978. Library of Congress Catalog No. 76-1616321.
  • Richard T. Wallis, Neoplatonism and Gnosticism University of Oklahoma, 1984. ISBN 0-7914-1337-3 ISBN 0-7914-1338-1
  • Giannis Stamatellos (2007) Plotinus and the Presocratics, State University of New York Press

Further reading

  • Introductory texts in translation, with annotations
    • Kevin Corrigan, Reading Plotinus: A Practical Introduction to Neoplatonism. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2005.
    • John M. Dillon and Lloyd P. Gerson, Neoplatonic Philosophy: Introductory Readings. Hackett, 2004.
  • Major commentaries in English
    • Michael Atkinson, Plotinus: Ennead V.1, On the Three Principal Hypostases. Oxford, 1983.
    • Kevin Corrigan, Plotinus' Theory of Matter-Evil: Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander of Aphrodisias (II.4, II.5, III.6, I.8). Leiden, 1996.
    • W. Helleman-Elgersma, Soul-Sisters (IV.3). Amsterdam, 1980.
    • P.A. Meijer, Plotinus on the Good or the One (VI.9). Amsterdam, 1992.
    • H. Oosthout, Modes of Knowledge and the Transcendental: An Introduction to Plotinus Ennead V.3. Amsterdam, 1991.
    • A.M. Wolters, Plotinus on Eros (III.5). Amsterdam, 1972.
  • Greek text
    • A.H. Armstrong, Plotinus: Enneads (with English translation), Loeb Classical Library, 1966-1988.
    • Emile Bréhier, Plotin: Ennéades (with French translation), Collection Budé, 1924-1938.
    • Paul Henry and Hans-Rudolf Schwyzer, Editio maior (3 vols., Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1951-1973) and Oxford Classical Text (1964-1982).

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