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.