The second stage  – the Cataphatic – has purgative effects, but is more positive as one separates from reasoning itself. This can be compared to the more familiar experience of being so absorbed in reading or watching a movie that one is unaware one is reading a book or viewing a film. This stage breaks the barrier between self as knower and the object of knowing, by situating oneself at the interior of the object. At this point there is no reasoning, evaluating, or judging; only an absorbed state called pathema 5 The first and second stages lead “toward” but not “to” The One. The highest achievement in the second stage is still only envelopment in the Intellectual Principle.6 .

The third stage – Ekstasis – entails the intellect-free desire for or love of The One. By a path of introspection, our wish becomes “father to the thought,” that is a “sentiment overlaid with speculation.”7 Our soul as the source of desire, deploys the intellect and progressive eliminations so that we reach the point where there remains nothing but the assimilative capacity of intellect and where the soul becomes wholly unfettered and caught out of itself. At last the ego is penetrated by the One and fixed on the plentitude in which it shares.8 Plotinus tells us that, phenomenologically, this state is more a presence felt than a thing known – a union of the soul and the One, unconsciousness without vacuity  – a  stable perfect unitive.9 Other features or descriptions include self-surrender, simplicity, touching, “flight from the alone to the alone.”10 Plotinus tells us the ultimate experience of happiness for us is in this contemplation and union.

In his own words, Plotinus describes the experience and suggests its availability:

“Many times it has happened: Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentred; beholding a marvelous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine; stationing within it by having attained that activity; poised above whatsoever in the Intellectual is less than the Supreme; yet, there comes the moment of descent from intellection to reasoning, and after that descending, how did the soul ever enter into my body, the Soul which even within the body, is the high thing it has shown itself to be.” (Enneads IV, 8, 1)11


The mystical description of ultimate reality and the path to union presented by Plotinus may appear utterly speculative and subjective to those of us more anchored to physical reality, science, and logic. The reader may wonder if I have entered this transcendental realm, and to answer candidly, I have not. Like you perhaps, I wonder if this is nothing more than ancient superstition. Nonetheless I believe the practical philosopher should entertain such seemingly far-flung practice, if only to be as sure as possible not miss out on what Plotinus would likely argue is the greatest meaning possible in human life. The reader will simply have to decide for himself or herself.


5O’Brien, Elmer, The Essential Plotinus.The New American Library, New York, N.Y., 1964, page 30

6Ibid., page 22.

7Ibid., page 31.

8Ibid., page 21.

9Ibid., page 31.

10Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 6, page 355.



18Ibid., page 26.

11Ayer, A.J. and O’Grady, Jane (editors), A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations. Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1994. ISBN 0-631-19478-9, page 355.


“Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful; he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also; cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is in shadow,; labor to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiseling your statue until there shall shine out on you from it you the godlike splendor of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness established in the stainless shrine. ” – Plotinus, Enneads.1

In the last three posts I summarized ultimate reality as presented by the third century philosopher and father of Neo-Platonism, Plotinus. In brief, Plotinus describes two realms; first the transcendental consisting of a hierarchy with The One at the pinnacle over The Intellectual Principle which in turn is above the Soul. The second realm, the material world, is lower than the Soul, but a beautiful symbol of the transcendental domain. Human beings traverse these dimensions as physical beings with an immaterial soul and free will.

Unlike earlier Western philosophers, Plotinus also reveals the means by which we can connect to the transcendental realm and achieve mystical union with The One, a journey he calls the Dialectic of the Return. It begins simply enough as an innate desire to know the higher realm. This desire, which he suggests is universal among people, originates in the center of the soul (also the ‘Eye of the Soul’) or  Kentron in Biblical Greek – the peak or apex of human being, the point where the soul links to God.2 This we learn is the area of mystic experience. Plotinus goes on to identify a three stage process.

The first stage – the Propadeutic or Apohatic – is crossed by separation from the realm of multiplicity and entry into the realm of The Intelligence (Forms).3 It begins with withdrawal into the purified self (see introductory quote). Next comes a twofold purgation of the mind: (1) qualitative – successive transposing of the object of one’s thoughts to a plane progressively more immaterial and spiritual; more disengaged from the sense realm and more aligned with the Intelligible, and (2) quantitative – progressive detachment from the singular or individualities, separation from the changing and incidental to the immovable, essential, and fixed.4

(continued next post)


1Abhayananda, S. History of Mysticism. Atma Books, Olympia, Washington, 1996.ISBN 0-914557-09-2, page 148.

2O’Brien, Elmer, The Essential Plotinus. The New American Library, New York, N.Y., 1964, pages 29-30.

3Ibid., page 21.

4Ibid., pages 16-17.


Last time we discussed the first two of three hypostases of ultimate reality described by Plotinus – The One and the Intellectual Principle. We pick up there today.


The third hypostasis is Soul, the offspring of the Nous, and author of all things. It is double: both interior-facing and exterior-facing. Unlike Socrates and Plato, Plotinus does not see the Soul as fallen since the material world with which it is connected is a beautiful mirror of the higher realm. The Soul, including the soul of man, is not matter or form, but an eternal essence.14 All souls are incorporeal, substantial, and immortal, but a soul can be embodied or disembodied. Plotinus assumes a cosmic soul – i.e. all souls comprise one soul, with intercommunication between them occurring via extrasensory means.15

A key corollary to Plotinus’ understanding of the soul is the notion of the ego or the self which he appears to have extracted from the later Stoics and perhaps others. We learn that for the soul of a person to connect with the One, a person must silence cognition and achieve ekstasis where “the mystic ‘stands outside’ himself. He has gone beyond the contingency of the ego and is fixed upon something immovable that intimately penetrates the ego while infinitely transcending it.”16  But then what is this ego?

Plotinus adopts the idea of ‘man-as-microcosm’ or the human as “somehow a world in little, a complex and obscurely explanatory summary of the universe.”17 In other words each of us is an intelligible cosmos within which “the cyclic rhythm perceptible throughout the universe-at-large, the macrocosm, is to be recurrently played.”18 Plotinus teaches that our intelligence is most properly the self and is linked to The Intelligence which is reached by withdrawal from the multiple and lowest in us. Thus our highest essence – intelligence, ego, or self – is the vehicle to the highest levels of reality.


Plotinus offers two additional tenets of his metaphysics. First Nature and the World are the best logically possible and a copy of the eternal world. The cosmos then is a symbol of the eternal realm. Second, humans have free will, and one freedom of which they should partake is the ability to look within themselves to understand the higher realm.

Next time we will look at the techniques taught and by Plotinus to do that.


14 Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1972. ISBN-13 978-1-4165-5477-6, pages 291-293

15 Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 6, page 354.

16 O’Brien, Elmer, The Essential Plotinus. The New American Library, New York, N.Y., 1964, page 24.


18Ibid., page 26.


Having completed our introduction to Plotinus in the last post, we now examine his synthesis of ultimate reality factoring in the influences we discussed. Plotinus is a dualist, telling us the material world is subordinate to a higher realm which is composed of a hierarchy (in Bertrand Russel’s words, a “Holy Trinity”) with The One over the Intellectual Principle which is in turn over the Soul.


The One is the “clef de voûte6 of ultimate reality for Plotinus. The One is epekeina or beyond being, equivalent to Plato’s ‘the Good,’ and tantalizingly close to the theologian’s concept of God. The One is omnipresent or immanent in everything, but is itself absolutely transcendental, entirely undifferentiated and quality-less,7 and as such represents absolute simplicity. It transcends essence, thought, form, and knowledge. Plotinus also calls it ‘Unity’ because it transcends all multiplicity, however he makes clear it is not a number but the measure of number itself, “the transcendence of separability rather than the negation of plurality” to quote Dean Inge, the famous scholar of Plotinus.8 Moreover The One is not intelligence but rather awareness and self-awareness.

All of this is to say that the One is de facto indefinable; there is more truth in silence,9 as “no sound or word can convey [it].10 Plotinus considers the One utterly unknowable: “Only the contemplative knows it and even he, should he seek to see a form, would know it not,” says Plotinus.11 The phrase, “The One,” serves only to orient one’s efforts, the process of understanding the One is ultimately through negatives.12 But it is generative and the Principle at the origin of ‘the return’ which draws the soul to the cause.12 page 19-20


The Intellectual Principle – the Nous, or the Intelligence, also referred to as ‘Spirit’ by Dean Inge – is the second hypostasis, itself coming directly from the One and the image of it, or the vision of itself, the light by which it sees itself. Nous is the separate and supreme intelligence of the world of Forms. Multiplicity appears here- but the Intelligence is itself singular and corresponds to Plato’s ream of Ideas or ‘true being’, except for Plotinus this realm is not independent of Intelligence. Its realm also includes Soul and matter, number and being.

We can know the divine mind (Intelligence) by studying our own soul when it is most god-like putting aside the body at which point we find what remians is divine intellect. When we are divinely possessed and infused we see not only Nous, but also the One. This is only possible when everything is cut away and one achieves ‘ecstasy’ or being outside oneself. We will discuss this in more detail in Part II.

(further continued next post)


6O’Brien, Elmer, The Essential Plotinus. The New American Library, New York, N.Y., 1964, page 16.

7Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 6, page 353.

8 O’Brien, Elmer, The Essential Plotinus. The New American Library, New York, N.Y., 1964, page 18.

9 Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1972. ISBN-13 978-1-4165-5477-6, page 288. We are reminded of Laozi’s paradoxical definition of Tao.

10 O’Brien, Elmer, The Essential Plotinus. The New American Library, New York, N.Y., 1964, page 18.



13Ibid., pages 19-20


“Generative of all, The Unity is none of all; neither thing nor quantity nor quality nor intellect nor soul: not in motion, not at  rest, not in place, not in time; it is the self-defined unique in form or, better, formless, existing before Form was, or Movement, or Rest, all of which are attachments of Being and make Being the manifold it is.” – Plotinus, Enneads (VI, 9, 3)1

So far we have seen that concepts of ultimate reality developed during Western antiquity include: (1) Pre-Socratic – the  one existing intelligible world governed by logos and pervaded by energy, thought, and opposites; (2) Plato – the supremely Good, plus mind, and the Forms; (3) Aristotle – “Being” as substance plus change as motion and actualization of potentiality, a final cause or essence for all things, and the timeless first mover; and (4) Stoic – Providence, Fate, an infinitely cycling material world, and the shared divinity of all rational creatures. We come now to Plotinus, “the last of the great philosophers of antiquity,”2 who is also generally regarded as the father of Western mysticism.

Plotinus (204-270 C.E.) appears to have been a Hellenized Egyptian who turned to philosophy at age 28, studied for 11 years under Ammonius Saccas (no writings exist, but he was also the teacher of Origen). After a misadventure with the army of Emperor Godianus in Persia, he ended up in Rome where he founded a school of philosophy known as Neo-Platonism. His written teachings come to us through his pupil, Porphyry, who arranged the works of the master into six sections called enneads meaning “nine” as there are nine treatises in each section.3

Scholars believe Plotinus was influenced most by Plato, particularly the Phaedo, Book IV of The Republic, and his discussion on love in Symposium.4 Porphyry tells us that “by meditation and the method that Plato teaches in the Banquet,” Plotinus “lifted himself…to the first and all-transcendent divinity.”5 However Plotinus was familiar with much of the ancient Western philosophic tradition and is thought to have been influenced to a lesser extent by Parmenides, Aristotle, the Stoics, and possibly even Philo and some lesser known figures such as Albinus and Numenius. He also was aware of the Gnostics with whom he disagrees vigorously in some of his writing.

(continued next post)


1Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), Plotinus. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 17, page 355

2Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1972. ISBN-13 978-1-4165-5477-6, page 284.

3Citations from the enneads are numbered with a Roman numeral to designate the number of the ennead followed by an Arabic number reflecting the treatise number, followed by a bracketed number based on Porphyry’s chronology (which may or may not be accurate). Sometimes these are followed by a fourth number for the chapter within the treatise and a fifth number to designate the line in the chapter quoted. (See Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 6, page 352).

4Ibid., p. 288.

5O’Brien, Elmer, The Essential Plotinus.The New American Library, New York, N.Y., 1964, page 16.