PLOTINUS: Class Lecture Notes


For Plotinus, man "is in some sense divine, and the object of the philosophic life is to understand this divinity and restore its proper relationship with the divine All and, in that All, to come to union with its transcendent source, the One or Good" (Cambridge, 222). Plotinus's philosophy is difficult to elucidate, precisely because what it seeks to elucidate is a manner of thinking that precedes what one terms discursive thought. Discursive thought is the sort of thinking we do most often in a philosophical discussion or debate, when we seek to follow a series of premises and intermediate conclusions to a final conclusion. In such a thinking, our minds move from one point to the next, as if each point only can be true after we have known the truth of the point preceding it. The final point is true, only because we have already built up one by one a series of points preceding it logically that are also true. In the same way, the meaning of the sentence I am now speaking only builds itself up by the addition of each word, until coming to its conclusion it makes a certain sense built of the words from which it is constituted. Because discurive thinking is within ordinary time, it is not capable of thinking all its points or saying all its words in the very same moment.

But Plotinus wishes to speak of a thinking that is not discursive but intuitive, i.e. that it is knowing and what it is knowing are immediately evident to it. There is no gap then between thinking and what is thought--they come together in the same moment, which is no longer a moment among other consecutive moments, one following upon the other. Rather, the moment in which such a thinking takes place is immediately present and without difference from any other moment, i.e. its thought is no longer chronological but eternal. To even use names, words, to think about such a thinking is already to implicate oneself in a time of separated and consecutive moments (i.e. chronological) and to have already forgotten what it is one wishes to think, namely thinking and what is thought intuitively together.

Plotinus argues: "But if we must introduce these names for what we are seeking, though it is not accurate to do so, let us say again that, speaking accurately, we must no admit even a logical duality in the One but we are using this present language in order to persuade our opponents, though it involves some deviation from accurate thought...We must be forgiven for the terms we use, if in speaking about Him in order to explain what we mean, we have to use language which we, in strict accuracy, do not admit to be applicable. As if must be understood with every term" (Armstrong, p. 53).

For Plotinus, discursive thinking always presupposes intuitive thinking, even if it seems temporally impossible to discursive thought. As discursive thinking inspects the world about it, it observes that there are beings that differ from one another. Further each of these beings has distinguishable parts. For Plotinus, even the soul which has no spatial extension still has such parts "in the form of various powers such as reasoning, perceiving and desiring. The essential thing is that the constituents of a particular being are brought into a characteristic kind of unity, for without this it would not be one being of the sort it is. Detached fragments of matter do not constitute a body; dissociated powers do not constitute a soul; there must be unified in appropriate ways if such beings are to exist. A flock of geese, for example, has considerable unity, but not as much unity as the components of an individual goose; and so we may say of the goose that she is more of a being than the flock" (Jordan 255-56).

But no being that we know is in itself perfectly unified. Perfect unity would exclude all parts distinguishable from one another, all multiplicity and diversity. "Unity pure and simple cannot coexist with any plurality of aspects or parts." The unity of the existents that we know through discursive thinking then are imperfectly unified. But an imperfect unity would fail to be a unity unless it was kept together through the power of a higher principle of unity. Thus, the all the distinct beings that surround us presuppose in their imperfect unity a perfected unity in which the imperfect being must some how participate. Ultimately, for Plotinus, the source of this perfect unity is the One, which is in its utter simplicity and non-diversity beyond being. For Plotinus, unity precedes and is distinguished from being. Or in other words, all beings are the emanation of a unity that is utterly transcendent to the diversity uncovered in beings. "As the last word in oneness, Unity must be the last word in reality, responsible for Being but standing beyond Being--beyond the diversity within particular beings, beyond the diversity of the whole cosmos of particular beings." (Jordan)

"For Plotinus as for Philo, God transcends the world completely and far surpasses human comprehension. God is beyond description, for to describe anything is to specify the predicates that belong to some subject; but in Unity--in absolute, unqualified Oneness--there is no diversity whatever and therefore no distinction between subject and predicate. In saying that God is Unity, Plotinus does not mean that Unity is a predicate or characteristic of God; he means that "God" and "Unity" (or the "One") are interchangeable names for precisely the same thing. God does not have characteristics and is Himself above and beyond them all."

But even as the one precedes and is distinguished from beings, it serves as their source. "The One is all things and not a single one of them: for the Source of all is not all things; yet It is all things, for they all, so to speak run back to It: or rather, in It they are not yet but will be....In order that being may exist, the One is not being but the Generator of being....The One, perfect because It seeks nothing, has nothing, and needs nothing overflows as it were, and Its superabundance makes something other than Itself" (Armstrong, 51). Plotinus argues that the Hypostasai comes into being because "the One, perfect because It seeks nothing, has nothing and needs nothing, overflows, as it were, and Its superabundance makes something other than Itself. Its halt and turning towards the One constitutes being, its gaze upon the One, Nous. Since it halts and turns towards the One that it may see, it becomes at once Nous and being. Resembling the One thus Nous produces in the same way, pouring forth a multiple power. Just as That, Which was before it, poured forth its likeness, so what Nous produces is a likeness of itself. This activity springing from being is Soul, which comes into being while Nous abides unchanged: for as a necessary consequence of its own existence: and the whole order of things is eternal: the lower world of becoming was not created at a particular moment but its eternally being generted: it is always there as a whole, and particular things in it only perish so that others may come into being" (Enneads, V.2.1).

We can note here that Augustine will take issue with Plotinus's notion that God is beyond being and will argue instead that God is perfected Being. Further, rather than arguing the world exists from a series of emanations that are occuring eternally from out of a certain logical necessity, Augustine will emphasize the world is the outcome of an act of creation ex nihilo, from out of nothingness. Thus, Augusine's God is given a radical responsibility for the existence of a world that might not have been and one that is certainly not generated from out of eternity.

The Plotinian overflow of the one into being is termed a hypostasis by Plotinus (literally that which "stands under") and sets in motion a series of further hypostasai or emanations, each lower than the last, each more distant from the One and thus possessing a unity that grows more and more discursive, imperfect, non-immediate, non-intuitive.

 Schematic Diagram of the Hypostasai (Emanations)

THE GOOD To Hen The One

A:  BEING (What Can Be Integrated (What Returns to the One))

I. Nous  Mind

 II. Psyché  Soul

IIa. Nature

III. Body

B: NON-BEING (Beyond What Can Be Integrated: The Indeterminate)

EVIL  Hulé  Matter

Nature has been added to Plotinus's own listing, since it is implied in the discussion of the generation of bodies. The One is not a hypostasis but the source of all the others. Neither is Hulé a hypostasis. Rather it is a "formless darkness on which form is merely superimposed." For this reason it is considered without being and thus evil since it resists or negates the overflowing of the one into Being. This equation of the negative with evil will also be appropriated by Augustine. For Plotinus, Logos (Word) names the formative force proceeding from a higher principle which expresses or represents that principles in a lower plane of Being. Thus Logos holds the key to the unity and continuity of the various levels of Being emanating from The One. For Augustine, Logos will be appropriated as that aspect of the Trinity involved in the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ. The Logos's Plotinian role is signified in the diagram by a series of arrows indicating the generation of each lower plane from out of the reality of the higher one. This generation is itself the outcome of a pure overflow of reality from one level to the next.

But one must not conclude from this schema that the One is spatially "outside" of our world. Rather, the One is "intimately present in the centre of our souls; or rather we in him, for Plotinus prefers to speak of the lower as in the higher" (Armstrong, 30). This inness of the One is an inadequate spatial metaphor but provides us with the sense that we are not removed from the one, but it is already totally with us, sustaining our being. This notion of interiority is exploited by Augustine, especially in Chapter ten of his Confessions.

The hypostasis of Nous is without body--it is utterly intellectual and so with no extension, an infinitely small point which is all the same infinite in its being (precisely because it is exceeds any spatial or temporal measurement). It is, however, less than the one, since in Nous a finite set of plural forms are introduced into reality--these forms interpret the perfect infinity of the one with a less perfect infinity (i.e. pure intellection without spatial or temporal limitation) limited by a finite plurality of forms. For Plotinus, Nous is both thought and object of thought, i.e. it is a perfect intuitive thinking that transcends infinitely the discursive thinking we must resort to insofar as we are bodily creatures. In it there is no division between knowing and what is known. This Nous is not the world of eternal Platonic forms that provide intelligences with the strucutres, the logical archetypes, by which the truth of things are measured. Rather, the Plotinian forms (as they are found in Nous) are an organic, living community of interpenetrating beings at once form and intelligence. Thus, the relationship of the whole to its parts in this spiritual world produces no sense of the separateness of parts or of the exclusion of one part by means of another part--rather, all diversity is immediately made unified by an infinitely quick interpenetration of every distinction by every other distinction. One could think of Nous as an infinitely quick boiling in which every part of the whole is every where else all at once. In this boiling, diversity and unity are totally congruous. Plotinus: "Everything is clear, altogether and to its inmost part, to evrything, for ligth is transparent to light. Each There has everything in itself and sees all things in every other, for all are everywhere and each and every one is all, and the glory is unbounded...One particular kind of being stands out in each, but in each all are manifest" (Plotinus, V.8.3-4).

The Nous is formed in a outpouring that recoils upon itself. It must recoil upon itself in order to turn back toward the one and so receive a content since its initial outpouring from the One would otherwise dissipate, since the Nous without the sustaingin power of the One would be so infected with nothingness that it would have no way of continuting to exist. The "initial" outpouring can be thought of as intellect and the recoil of this outpouring upon the one, so that it might interpret its outpouring by means of the one, can be thought of as the objects of thought, the platonic forms. Thus, in itself, Nous is nothing and does not have even being. It is only in the turn of the outrushing from the One back toward the One that Nous comes to have any reality. This doubled motion, an outrushing the recoils upon itself in order to become what it is meant to be, characterizes all beings. This means that the hierarchy of emanations from the One must also be thought of as a hierarchy of returns toward the one. However, at the level of Nous the rcoil is not separable from the outpouring. Since Nous is characterized by the utter immediacy of thinking with its objects, there is no moment between outpouring and recoil--rather they are simulataneous.

The Hypostasis of Psuche or Soul, forms a bridge between the immediate intuitive thinking of Nous and the lowest hypostasis of Sense (or Body) where individual, embodied humans emerge. The extra-sensory realm of Psuche, articulates, generates, our individual soul which then descends into Body, which for Plotinus is "both a fall and a necessary compliance with the universe and the plan of Universal Soul" (Armstrong, 35). The hypostasis of Psuche "does not possess being as a whole, but only one part at a time, and must always be moving from one to the other; it is the level of discursive thought, which does not hold its object in immediate possession but has to seek it by a process of reasoning; and its continual movement from one thing to another produces time, which is "the life of the soul in movement," and is the cause of all physical movement in space and time" (Armstrong, 35). Notice that physical time is the outcome of a mental time which is in turn the outcome of a way of reasoning that interprets the yet more perfect intuitive reasoning found in Nous. For Plotinus, the interior reality of our thinking and the "subjective" time in which it is articulated is more real than the exterior world of physical bodies in which a purely linear, chronological time is at play. The precedent of internal over external time radically upsets our 20th century views in which our internal sense of time (in which expectations of the future, memories of the past and the presencing of entities) is derived from an external time that ticks away one moment after another. But for Plotinus, the more real time preceeding external, chronological time is a tri-partite tension between past, present and future that characterizes the experiences of the thinking, human soul. Thus the reality of Plotinian time springs from the interior of beings.

The Hypostasis of Body is so removed from the One that it is little more than a dream and indeed, our dream states that occur as the mind sleeps are indicative of the weak, barely existent nature of our body. Bodies are atomistic, so isolated from one another that they have little idea of the whole. This hypostasis is so weak that it has lost the capability to generate yet another lower hypostasis. Thus, it is subject to degeneration and corruptibility. The souls who are lodged here in their bodies must ascend back toward the one to escape the infection of non-being, its resistance to the outpouring of the One. Nevertheless, "the mere fact of being in a body does not imply imprisonment in body. That only comes if the soul surrenders to the body; it is the inward attitude which makes the difference" (Armstrong, 36). Thus, insofar as the soul turns toward the inward, it turns toward the One and so escapes the formless darkness lurking in matter. This turn inward consists of "rediscovering one's true self by the most vigorous intellectual and moral discipline, and then waiting so prepared for the One to declare His presence, for the final illumination and union." The rediscovery of one true self leads us beyond the level of Soul to that of Nous. But the rediscovery only shows us what was always already the case--all human beings already are in some sense in the Hypostasis of Nous. Beyond nous we are called into an ultimate union with the One, although a union that utterly exceeds our capability of understanding it. This union with the One does not mean that we disappear, even as we experience a total affirmation of unity in which there is no longer even a difference between seer and seen, thinker and thought.