Plotinus was a Greek philosopher, author of the Aeneid, and founder of Neoplatonism, a movement that exerted great influence not only in his day, but also in medieval Europe, Islam and Judaism.
Born in Egypt and educated in Alexandria, he was a pupil of Saccas, a thinker who attempted to combine the thought of Aristotle with that of Plato. It is thanks to this thinker that Plotinus could very well combine the best of the two classical philosophers.
As a recognized Neoplatonist, Plotinus is considered to be someone who knew how to make original comments on Plato’s works and who would eventually develop his philosophy around him, incorporating some Christian elements. here we will know his life and his work through a biography of Plotinus, In which you will find the most relevant information about his career.
- Related article: “Plato’s theory of ideas”
Brief biography of Plotinus
It is not known for sure where Plotinus was born. The Greek sophist Eunapius of Sardis maintains that he was born in Lycon, while the lexicographer Suidas says he was in Lycopolis. (Current Asyut). What we do know is that he was originally from the province of Egypt under Roman rule, born in 203 or 204 AD. C. Of his childhood is relatively unknown, as is often the case with many great classical Greek thinkers. We know that as an adult, in 232, he entered the circle of the philosopher Amoni Saccas in Alexandria. This great figure was also the mentor of Origen, Longino and Erenio.
In 242, Plotinus undertook a military expedition commanded by Emperor Gordian III to Persia.. The aim was to gain a better understanding of Middle Eastern philosophical thought, but unfortunately the expedition was unsuccessful, the emperor was eventually assassinated and Plotinus was forced to take refuge in Antioch.
Shortly after, he managed to reach the capital of the empire, opening a school in Rome around the year 246. He soon enjoyed the favors of the Roman nobility, including Emperor Gallienus and his wife Cornelia Salonina.
Plotinus tried to lead as ascetic a life as possible and, therefore, he had neither great wealth nor much luxury. Despite this, he was a very generous and selfless personality, as well as charitable. It is said that he used to welcome orphaned children into the home and act as their guardian. He was a vegetarian, did not marry and never let himself be portrayed, lest this portrayal be simply “the shadow of another shadow”.
But despite not wanting to be portrayed or writing an autobiography or something like that his disciple Porphyry could not help recounting his experiences in “The life of Plotinus”. It would be this student who would be responsible for systematizing and publishing Plotí’s main work, his “Enéadas”. During the six years he was in Plotinus’s band, Porphyry claimed to have seen that his master had contact with an omnipresent God four times in total.
It was from 254 that Plotinus began to leave his works in writing. In all, he went on to write 54 treatises, classifying them into six books of nine chapters and composing his major work “Eneadas”. This book is considered one of the most important treatises of classical antiquity, alongside those of Plato and Aristotle. Plotinus died around 270 AD of complications from a painful leprosy at the age of 66 in the Italian region of Campania.
Plotinus’ main work is the “Aeneid,” a collection of treatises that he began writing from 253 until a few months before his death. As we have mentioned, the task of compiling the treatises and organizing them into books was carried out by his disciple Porphyry, grouping them into six groups of nine, for a total of 54 treatises. These Aeneas record the lessons that Plotinus taught in his school in Rome.
Plotinus developed a theological structure in which he saw the universe as the result of a series of emanations or consequences of an ultimate reality, Which is eternal and immaterial. I would call this reality “the One”. From this stems another divine principle, below this one: the New.
In turn, from the New emanates the Soul, another divine entity which is inferior to the previous two. Plotinus agree with Plato that the body is a prison for the soul and that it tries to return to the creative origin, In the U.
Then we will see more deeply these realities of the doctrine of Plotín, realities that his disciple Porfirio would call hypostasis. This term does not appear as such in the texts of the Aeneid, written from the fist and the letter of Plotinus, but is a term introduced by Porphyry to better organize the whole of the theoretical corpus of his master.
The idea of ”the One” in Plotinus’ theory is a bit difficult to describe. It was understood as a concept that refers to unity, the greatest and even an idea close to that of God as a unique and infinite entity. United to his personality and his properly mystical figure, Plotinus, far from specifying what he means by We prefer exactly to keep him with a certain air of mystery.
The One is the beginning and, at the same time, the end. It is the unity that establishes the existence of all things. The One is beyond Being, and because of this, it is not possible to define it specifically because, to begin with, it cannot be known firsthand.
Plotinus’ conceptualization of the “One” is religious, and he himself promoted a kind of monotheism around this idea. However, it differs from Christianity in that the One would rather be a kind of personal God, an entity far removed from that of God as an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent entity.
To start, Plotinus considers that “the One” cannot be defined, no attribute can be preached about it. To try to define is to make a vulgar imitation of this entity, imperfect and limited, something far removed from what it really is.
The One is an entity which creates, but does not do it of its own accord, but by emanation. One, insofar as he is like God, is the cause of everything else, and in creating him he does not lose a drop of his own substance. The creations that arise from their emanation are structured in a hierarchical manner, by successive degrees of imperfection: Nut, soul and matter. Matter is the antithesis of the idea of the One.
But despite being its antithesis, matter is reflected in “the One”, since the latter never ceases to be its source, and tries to return to it. Human beings also feel the need to return to the One, but according to Plotinus to avoid the self-deception into which he has fallen by abandoning himself to the plurality of objects and actions., And must seek the truth in itself and deny all object and mediation.
New is the second level of reality or hypostasis. This idea is difficult to translate, although some call it “mind” and others “intelligence”. Plotinus explains the “new” on the basis of the resemblance between the Sun and the Light. The One would be the equivalent of the Sun, while the New would be the equivalent of the Light.
The function of the new as light is that the One can see itself, but since the new is the image of the One, it is the door through which we can contemplate the U. Plotinus states that the “new” can be observed simply by focusing our minds on looking in the opposite direction to that of our senses.. To better understand it, the new is this intelligence which would allow us to approach the particular idea that Plotinus of God has, in this case the One.
The third reality set out in Plotinus’ proposition is the soul, which is of dual nature. At one end, this is related to the new, that is, to pure intelligence, which draws from it. At the other extreme, however, the soul is associated with the world of the senses, of which it creates and shapes.
As we have discussed, according to Plotinus’ view of realities or hypostases, we have three levels: the One, the New, and the soul. These are hierarchical and transform the cosmos into an ordered structure. In fact, Plotinus considers the cosmos to be a living, eternal, organic, perfect and beautiful reality and that as long as it has life it must have movement out of necessity.
The movement that can be found in the cosmos takes place in two phases. One would be that of development, which comes from unity and appears the multiplicity of things through the emanation of the U. The other phase is the retreat, which is the moment when the multiple things created, from lower levels like matter, try to return to unity, to the One.
Form of knowledge and virtue
According to Plotinus, knowledge can only be authentic if it is linked to mystical contemplation in the One. The problem here is that human beings, until we are the One, cannot understand it. The One is such a perfect and complete idea that our soul and our material bodies cannot harbor a reliable representation of it since any representation of it is still an imperfect imitation.
This is where we come into a contradiction: How can we have pure knowledge, represented in the idea of the One, if we cannot at least understand this concept? For Plotinus, the only way to overcome this apparent contradiction is not to lose the knowledge that indeed the One is unknowable. Understanding that this idea is not possible to know but to approach it is the real acquisition of knowledge.
Idea of happiness
The idea of happiness is one of the most interesting aspects of Plotinus’ philosophy and is considered to be the vision that inspired our Western concept of happiness. He was one of the first to introduce the idea that “eudaimonia” (happiness) can only be achieved in consciousness.
According to him, an individual has a happy life when in his life he reigns over reason and contemplationContrary to what the rest of the philosophers of his time thought, who thought that happiness was more an absence of sadness or a state of mind between normal joy and sadness.
Later influence of his thought
Plotinus may not have been one of the most famous figures in Greek philosophy like Socrates, Aristotle or Plato, but his Aeneas greatly influenced the thinking of all the cultures settled around the Mediterranean, Coming to the present. Already in his time he exerted an influence on such figures as the Roman Emperor Julia, the Apostate, deeply marked by Neoplatonism, and Plotinus also inspired Hypatia of Alexandria.
He also later influenced Christian thought, To be able to notice neoplatonic dyes coming from Plotín in the Dionisio Areopagina and Agustí de Hipona philosophy. In the Muslim world, it has not gone unnoticed either, and is particularly studied in Egypt under the Fatimid regime in the 11th century, with many Da’i adopting Neoplatonism. As for Judaism, we find Avicebron and the famous Maimonides who could not help but consult the doctrine of Plotinus, very intrigued by his way of seeing God with the idea of the One.
- García-Bazán, F. (2011). Plotinus and the mysticism of the three hypostases. Sophia Collection. 536 pp. Editorial El fil d’Ariadna: Malba & Fundació Costantini. ISBN 978-987-23546-2-6.
- Ponsatí-Murlà, O. (2015). Plotinus. The One is the beginning of all things, that from which everything begins and to which everything returns. RBA. ISBN 978-84-473-8731-1.