Neoplatonism & Plotinus

Foreword

Before I can delve into the substance of this article, I must clarify a specific point that I made in my last article. I said, “I must warn the reader to not confuse this God with Jehovah, Zeus, or any other deity that comes to mind. This is the God of the Neoplatonists, the One, the Bornless Deity who created everything.” One reader claimed that the Nous or “the Cosmic Mind” is equated to the “God” of the Bible, and the Logos, “Son” with Christ. While the divine “father-son” concept goes back further to the Egyptian god Osiris and his son Horus, I will retract what I wrote that this Hermetic deity is the Neoplatonic “One,” even though there are similarities. The Neoplatonist Plotinus writes in a chapter titled, “The Three Primal Hypostases,”

That world [the intelligence or second hypostasis] is the true realm of Cronus, whose very name suggests abundance (koros) and intelligence (nous). There is contained all that is immortal, intelligent, and divine. ~ Elmer O’Brien, The Essential Plotinus, pg. 94, pr. 3

I am not suggesting that Neoplatonism and Hermetic doctrines are equal or related entirely. I posit that the content of both is older than Christianity and is not a primary derivative of ancient Judaism. The question is about monotheism, and therefore I will provide evidence for my case.

The first instance of monotheism, at least in an exoteric sense, can be found during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, who replaced the entire religious tradition of ancient Egypt with a cult to a solar god called “Aten.” There has been a tendency amongst certain intellectuals, like Sigmund Freud, to argue that Moses was a worshiper of Aten, and fled Egypt to keep the idea pure with the people known as the Israelites. Yet, there is absolutely no historical account that Moses ever existed — in fact, it seems that many characters in the Old Testament are myths based off of heroic legends from the ancient Levantine peoples, much like Heracles was for the Greeks. Furthermore, recent archaeological evidence has shown that ancient Hebrews, or their ancestors, were polytheists like everyone else at the time. But what is the proper origin of monotheism that has been carried on through the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions? I would contend that it began with the Pythagoreans. In the Introduction to The Essential Plotinus by Elmer O’Brien (which is the primary work I will be referencing in this article), there is a footnote to a passage on page 19 regarding Plotinus’ inspiration for the “One.” It follows, “The Pythagoreans refer symbolically to the One as ‘Apollo.'” O’Brien then deconstructs the word to be “Not (a-) Many (pollon).” O’Brien claims that the works of Numenius, a Neo-Pythagorean, were a vital source to Plotinus, but acknowledges that the concept of the “One,” in its basest form, came earlier from Philo, a Jewish, Platonic philosopher in Alexandria.

Apollo was considered a solar deity much like Aten, except without the exclusivity of worship. With regards to Pythagoras, the originator of Pythagoreanism, Manly P. Hall has this to say concerning his birth,

Pythais [Pythasis], the mother of Pythagoras, had a connexion with an Apolloniacal spectre, or ghost, of the God Apollo, or God Sol… which afterward appeared to her husband, and told him that he must have no connexion with his wife during her pregnancy — a story evidently the same as that relating to Joseph and Mary. ~ The Secret Teachings of All Ages, ch. XIII, pg. 191, pr. 2

In the paragraph preceding that, Hall relates the story of the prophecy regarding Pythagoras’ birth by an Oracle at Delphi, which was the seat of a temple to Apollo. It should be noted here that Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, had this to say,

I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit; that witness shall be the god of Delphi [Apollo] — he will tell you about my wisdom… Chaerephon … went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether … anybody was wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no wiser man. ~ 20e-21a (Benjamin Jowett translation; brackets added by me)

In conclusion, I cannot adequately prove that monotheism began with the Pythagoreans. However, I can show some interesting, historical coincidences that link solar worship to monotheism and thus monotheism to Pythagoreanism. But to say that Jehovah was, is, and always will be the single deity is not historically accurate, and betrays a lack of understanding regarding the evolution of the Jewish religion and its descendants.

One note on the The Essential Plotinus translated by Elmer O’Brien: O’Brien quotes directly from Plotinus’s Enneads, yet he takes bits of it in a haphazard way in order to explain the philosophy therein, so I will quote the chapter, page, and paragraph, but if it were possible I would quote directly from the Enneads. My apologies to the readers — I did my best to find an unabridged copy of the Enneads, but the used book dealer sent me a volume of Hegel as a mistake, suffice to say I did not return it.

History

Although Ammonius Saccus was long believed to be the founder of Neo-Platonism, the school had its true beginning in Plotinus (A.D. 204-269?). Prominent among the Neo-Platonists of Alexandria, Syria, Rome, and Athens were Porphyry, Iamblichus, Sallustius, the Emperor Julian, Plutarch, and Proclus. Neo-Platonism was the supreme effort of decadent pagandom to publish and thus preserve for posterity its secret (or unwritten) doctrine. In its teachings ancient idealism found its most perfect expression. Neo-Platonism was concerned almost exclusively with the problems of higher metaphysics. It recognized the existence of a secret and all-important doctrine which from the time of the earliest civilizations had been concealed within the rituals, symbols, and allegories of religions and philosophies. ~ Hall, ibid., Introduction, pg. 24, pr. 2

The above quote only tells of the early days for Neoplatonism, which had a much greater impact on Western civilization and Christianity as time progressed. It would take a book to write the entire history of Neoplatonism with its lineage spanning millennia, so it would be best to divert the reader’s attention to a website which chronicles the timeline of prominent Neoplatonists.

Although there was a massive influence on Christianity via the doctrines espoused by earlier Neoplatonists, the original school of thought was ended, principally by the closing of the Platonic academy in Athens by the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I.

The inheritance from Plato as well as a look into the pagan aspects should be examined in order to grasp the real significance of this ideology and religion. In the Introduction to O’Brien’s work it states,

Porphyry [a Phoenician student of Plotinus] … is our informant that it was “by meditation and the method that Plato teaches in the Banquet [Symposium]” that Plotinus “lifted himself … to the first and all-transcendent divinity.” ~ ibid., pg. 16, pr. 3 (brackets added)

Luckily for the author of this essay, O’Brien kindly gives this “method” verbatim from Plato in his appendix, “These are the lesser mysteries of love, into which even you, Socrates, may enter; to the greater and more hidden ones which are the crown of these…” (210a). First, one must contemplate beauty in a single form. Next, to identify it in various forms. Once the aspirant comes to a general conclusion about beauty, he will understand that beauty is but one and the same for each other form wherein it takes expression. He will ascend to the contemplation of the beauty in mind, government, and science. At last, there will be a singularity reached, like a great mountain that has been climbed, where beauty is perceived in its essential idea, with all the veils of mortality falling away to reveal the truth of the matter. The mystic should not fail to recognize the important, spiritual nature of this writing by Plato. There is a rising above the “lesser mysteries” to the greater and beyond. It is to rise above the material plane of existence to the higher reaches of intelligence, and this influences Plotinus’ notion of a salvation or return to the One, which will be explained later on.

Plato was not Socrates in his outward form, coming from a very wealthy and influential family in Athens, but in his thought he is simple. He takes the theology of older pagans, who were at their religious zenith during this time, and condenses it into philosophic principles. Thus, the pantheon of ancient Greece becomes a grand cosmology that is only hinted at by Plato through the discussions of Socrates. The mystery institutions at this time became civic affairs that were wholly interconnected with the state, this inevitably bred superstition in gross form and the students of Plato, Platonists, rebelled against this through the use of philosophy. But alas, the efforts of these wisest of men were too inconsequential at the time to stop the ever declining, pagan religions from their doom. The Neoplatonists came and like Noah in Genesis, sought to build an ark to preserve the remaining purities before the destructive flood that would change Western civilization forever. Their effort was totally successful, but only posthumously, for the forty days and nights lasted longer than any of them were alive.

The One

It is unnecessary to go into the history of this concept (see Foreword), so the following will be a clear explanation of Plotinus’s view on the subject;

It is by The One that all beings are beings… Not a one, a thing is not. No army,  no choir, no flock exists except it be one. ~ ibid., The Good or The One, pg. 73, pr. 1

The One cannot be multiplicity, The One must differ from Being. Man is animal, rational, and many things besides… ~ ibid., pg. 75, pr. 3

Here Plotinus shows that it is by one that all composites are unified, yet the One is not composite unlike man. This establishes a hierarchy whereby the singular and first cause is put above the multiple and effects.

In general, then, The One is the first existent. But The Intelligence, the Ideas, and Being are not the first. Every form is multiple and composite, and consequently something derived because parts precede the composite they constitute. ~ ibid., pg. 75, pr. 3

The abstract concept has been established regarding the One, but is that it? If man so wishes to seek the divine and commune with this imperceptible deity, how does he go about it? It should be noted that the following quote has a particularly Platonic tone;

Because what the soul seeks is The One and it would look upon the source of all reality, namely the good and The One, it must not withdraw from the primal realm and sink down to the lowest realm. Rather must it withdraw from sense objects, of the lowest existence, and turn to those of the highest. It must free itself from all evil since it aspires to rise to the Good; from the multiplicity that it was it must again become one. Only thus can it contemplate the supreme principle, The One. ~ ibid., pg. 76, pr. 3

Has the One been defined totally? Can it be grasped now, compartmentalized, and stored away to be called to mind whenever one so chooses? The answer, according to Plotinus, is a definite “No.”

The One is infinite not as extension or a numerical series is infinite, but in its limitless power. Conceive it as intelligence or divinity; it is more than that. Compress unity within your mind, it is still more than that. Here is unity superior to any your thought lays hold of, unity that exists by itself and in itself and is without attributes. ~ ibid., pg. 80, pr. 3

The Three Primal Hypostases

The transcendent rulership of the One is proven, according to Plotinus, but he does not neglect the “lower realms” and shows that there are three in toto: the One, the Intelligence, and the Soul. The first has been shown, the second is the world of “Ideas” or a place where likenesses exist before form imitates them, and the third is the physical plane where exist all forms united in multiplicity from their creation. As one world proceeds from the other, there is a clear degradation of purity.

To begin with, The Intelligence dwells entire within that region of thought we call the intelligible realm, yet it comprises within itself a variety of intellective powers and particular intelligences. The Intelligence is not merely one: it is one and many. In the same way is there both Soul and many souls. From the one Soul proceeds a multiplicity of different souls, as from one and the same genus proceed species of various ranks, some of which are more rational and other (at least in their actual existence) less rational in form. ~ ibid., The Descent of The Soul, pg. 65, pr. 1

One example could be the idea of “beauty.” In the Soul, there are many different forms of beauty, some more beautiful than others; but in the Intelligence there are superior ideas from which came the forms, and the ideas are closer to the One. If the Soul is a more physical aspect derived from the Intelligence, than the Intelligence must be a more perceptible aspect derived from the One.

We call The Intelligence image of The One. This we must explain. It is its image because what is begotten by The One must possess many of its characteristics, be like it as light is like the sun. But The One is not an intellectual principle. How then can it produce an intellectual principle? In turning towards itself The One sees. It is this seeing that constitutes The Intelligence. ~ ibid., The Three Primal Hypostases, pg. 98, pr. 2

Parallels can be drawn between the “Three Hypostases” and the Trinitarian doctrines of Christianity, the authors of which were influenced partly by the writings of Plotinus. Although, it is a labor to decide post hoc where to put the Holy Trinity in this work.

Man’s Return to The One

We may take it as agreed that our goal is the Good, the first hypostasis; this has already been demonstrated in many different ways, the demonstrations themselves being initiations of a sort. ~ ibid., Dialectic, pg. 120, pr. 1

Plotinus does not hide anything from the seekers of wisdom; he is ever-revealing in his writing and initiates the reader into mysteries too great for the faint-of-heart. On Earth, humans have souls — within the Soul of course — but they also have bodies, which presents a dialectic of the material and spiritual. Humans are here and not where they came from, which is the goal of reasoning people. Death, for Plotinus — and also for Plato in his Phaedo — is not the end, instead it is an opportunity to ascend or descend according to one’s grasp of true knowledge.

The philosopher, by nature, is disposed to rise to the intelligible realm. Being, you might say, “endowed with wings,” he flies to it without the need of disengaging himself from sense objects… His sole uncertainty will be in what direction to go; his sole need, a guide. Therefore he must be shown the way, having as he does the desire by his very nature and being already detached. For this purpose he will be asked to study mathematics to acquire a notion of and a belief in the bodiless. ~ ibid., pg. 121, pr. 2

As has been shown previously (see The One), communion with the One requires a certain amount of reasoning via philosophy and “a belief in the bodiless.” The two points seem contradictory — and they are — but so is the nature of the One itself! To even call it “the One” is sacrilegious as it is beyond any thought, to go to it there must be a first understanding of knowledge, then a complete separation from the intelligible. O’Brien, in the introduction to his aforementioned work, writes of three trials of the soul’s return: the first is to detach from the world as a philosopher would; the second is “attained by separation from a more lofty multiplicity, from reasoning itself…” — but what is the point of all of this?

The second stage completes the first and is never achieved without it. The first — propaideutic — is the via negativa, apophatic as the later mystical writers will say; it is the area of the rejection of images. The second, an interim stage is, despite its purgative effects, positive and cataphatic. ~ ibid., pg. 22, pr. 2

The third and final trial is the return to the One, which is not described in any detail and the aforementioned process is only a way of pointing out the direction of the One to the soul.

Author’s Recommendations

This may seem like a laborious and a perhaps unnecessarily lengthy piece, but I am justified in the great amount of content that Plotinus wrote alone, completely regardless of the vast numbers of other Neoplatonists. I have yet to study many others, and I claim to be no expert on the subject; just an amateur intellectual with a great interest in all things spiritual. I recommend people start with Plotinus, specifically with The Essential Plotinus by Elmer O’Brien. In addition, Manly P. Hall recorded an excellent audio series on Neoplatonism which is available for free on YouTube.

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CygnusX

Reactionary American, my chief interests are: religion, metaphysics, history, and politics to a lesser degree.

5 thoughts on “Neoplatonism & Plotinus

    1. Sorry mate, but if you could please make a formatting guide I would make it a lot easier on you!

      Anyways thanks for the editing and compliment.

  1. One has to get to Proclus and Iamblichus. One does not understand Christianity if one does not understand their criticisms of Plotinus. I had a professor tell me that, for his own sake, Damascius has to be read too. At any rate, one can’t stop at Plotinus.

    1. Thanks for your comment and feedback. I am aware of the other Neoplatonists and the primary reason I chose Plotinus was to write about the abstract ideas regarding monotheism.

      That being said, I live an eccentric life and have not been studying the Neoplatonists further. I have school and work as well as my many other interests. But I will eventually come back to this (maybe later this year) and I will keep your recommendations in mind.

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