Having presented his metaphysics of ultimate reality, we turn now to Spinoza’s explanation of how we connect with it. First we need to have a rational understanding which for Spinoza means the ability to recognize that features of the universe necessarily have their roles as essential properties of the one substance which is causa omnium rerum and causa sui (the explanation or cause of all things and of itself).

Since the one substance is a single system or whole, we must grasp the system as a whole before we can hope to grasp the nature of the parts including ourselves whose roles are determined by the system.3 “The supreme Good consists in the enjoyment of a human nature which, because it is perfectly aware of its place in and its unity with the whole natural scheme of things, accepts the inevitability and necessity of the natural order.”4 This grasping includes a deep understanding that nothing can exist outside of the one substance to limit it and thus it is unbounded or infinite. We come across a reformulation of the equation of ultimate reality: Existence = Unity = Infinity. God is not a first cause and there is no teleology since God has no purpose; God is inherently complete. God is facies totius universi or the “face of the whole universe.5

A final ethic arises from Spinoza’s conception of ultimate reality and human connection. Spinoza argues our traditional moral codes are artificial and derive from human erroneous belief in free will and arbitrary concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ which are merely what humans see as things which cause pleasure or pain. In fact the conatus suo esse perseverandi (the striving to persist as a being) is the foundation of virtue which in turn derives not from action, but knowledge. As we free our thinking from the impact of externals, our ideas become key parts of the infinite idea of God. At last we reach Spinoza’s supreme connection of true blessedness, “the love of God to man and the intellectual love of man to God are one and the same.”6

While following a more logical, mathematical process, Spinoza, like Plotinus, seems extremely sincere in his presentation and almost mystical in his description of the experience of ultimate reality. Connection with ultimate reality is utterly simple and entirely within the control of each of us. In his words, “Although the love of God has no beginning, it nevertheless has all the perfections of love, just as if it had originated. Nor is there any difference, excepting that the mind has eternally possessed these same perfections which we imagined as now accruing to it, and has possessed them with the accompanying idea of God as the eternal cause. And if joy consist in the passage to a greater perfection, blessedness must indeed consist in this, that the mind is endowed with perfection itself.”7

A lot to think about…


3 I am reminded of Zen teaching which also emphasize a global grasping of things.

4Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 7, page 531.

5Ibid., page 535.

6Ibid., page 540.

7Ratner, Joseph (editor), The Philosophy of Spinoza. The Modern Library, New York, 1927. Page 370.


“But the creator is Himself knowledge, the knower and the object known. His knowledge does not arise from His directing His thoughts to things outside of Him, since in comprehending and knowing Himself, He comprehends and knows everything that exists.” – Moses Cordovero, A Garden of Pomegranates.1

On our journey to define the many human conceptions of ultimate reality, we have worked through the scientific understanding and last time finished our review of the ancient Western philosophical tradition ending on Plotinus who was active in the third century C.E. In the West for the next 14 centuries, philosophy is submerged within Christian theology (theological understandings of ultimate reality or God make up the third portion of the section on Ultimate Reality and the Meaningful Life) until we arrive at Baruch De Spinoza (later Benedict Spinoza), the first strictly philosophical thinker in this area since antiquity.

In his opus magnum, The Ethics, Spinoza attempts to create a metaphysics of certainty using geometric-like axioms and proofs to support his positions. While his presentation is not entirely convincing and at times seemingly confused, we can extract a speculative position wherein he appears to pick up from Aristotle with ‘substance’ as ultimate reality. However unlike Aristotle, Spinoza believes there is only one substance in the sense of a genuinely individual thing with intelligibility and not derived from other things. Its existence follows from its essence, not an act of creation rather that of which the laws of Nature are the operation. In other words, God is Nature!

All other things in the universe are finite modes of the one substance which itself has an infinite number of attributes. However we are only aware of physical and mental attributes of substances due to our limitations. In addition all finite things are united by the feature of conatus or striving to exist. Spinoza believes the laws of Nature are all-governing, hence prior conditions determine subsequent events, thus humans have no free will. Our sense of free will derives from an intense conatus opposed to external influences.2

(continued next post)


1 Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 7, page 534.

2Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 pages 888-892.



“This vision achieved, the acting instinct pauses; the mind is satisfied and seeks nothing further; the contemplation, in one so conditioned, remains absorbed within as having acquired certainty to rest upon. The brighter the certainty, the more tranquil is the contemplation as having acquired the more perfect unity…” (III, 8, 6)14


“The space open to the soul’s resort is vast and diverse; the difference will come by the double force of the individual condition and of the justice reigning in things. No one can ever escape the suffering entailed by ill deeds done: the divine law is ineluctable, carrying bound up, as one with it, the fore-ordained execution of its doom. The sufferer, all unaware, is swept upwards towards his due, hurried always by the restless driving of his errors, until at last wearied out by that against which he struggled, he falls into his fit place and, by self-chosen movement is brought to the lot he never chose. And the law decrees, also, the intensity and duration of the suffering while it carries with it, too, the lifting of chastisement and the faculty of rising from those places of pain – all by power of the harmony that maintains the universal scheme.” (IV, 3, 24)15

“…in all his pain he [the Sage] asks no pity; there is always the radiance in the inner soul of the man, untroubled like the light in a lantern when fierce gusts beat about it in a wild turmoil of wind and tempest.” (I, 4, 8)16



“[It] is simply a human error which assumes wisdom to be what in fact is unwisdom, taking the search for wisdom to be wisdom itself. For what can reasoning be but a struggle, the effort to discover the wise course, to attain the principle which is true and derives from real-being? …What reasoners seek, the wise hold; wisdom in a word, is a condition in a being that possesses repose. Think what happens when one has accomplished a reasoning process: as soon as we have discovered the right course, we cease to reason; we rest because we have come to wisdom.” ( IV, 4, 12)17


“That the soul is of the family of the diviner nature, the eternal, is clear from our demonstration that it is not material…but there are other proofs…Let us consider a soul, not one that has appropriated the unreasoned desires and impulses of the  bodily life, or any other such emotion and experience, but one that has cast all this aside and as far as possible has no commerce with the bodily. Such a soul demonstrates that all evil is accretion, alien, and that in the purged soul the noble things are immanent, wisdom and all else that is good…any one of us that exhibits these qualities will differ but little as far as soul is concerned from the Supernals…This is so true that, if every human being were at that stage, or if a great number lived by a soul of that degree no one would be so incredulous as to doubt that the soul in man is immortal, It is because we see everywhere the spoiled souls of the great mass that it becomes difficult to recognize their divinity and immortality” (IV, 7, 10)18


“…to those that approach the Holy Celebrations of the Mysteries, there are appointed purifications and the laying aside of the garments worn before, and the entry in nakedness  – until, passing, on the upward way, all that is other than the God, each in the solitude of himself shall behold that solitary-dwelling Existence, the Apart, the Unmingled, the Pure, that from Which all things depend for Which all look and live and act and know, the Source of Life and of Intellection and of Being.”(I, 6, 7)19

Of course there is so much more, but I have already treaded on the reader’s patience, so I propose to move on – next to Spinoza.


14Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), Plotinus. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 17, pages 131-132.

15Ibid., page 154.

16Ibid., page 16.

17Ibid., page 164.

18Ibid., pages 198-199.

19Ibid., page 24.



“Our task, then, is to work for our liberation from this sphere, severing ourselves from all that has gathered about us; the total man is to be something better than a body ensouled… There is another life, emancipated, whose quality is progression towards the higher realm, toward the good and divine, towards the Principle which no one possesses except by deliberate usage but so may appropriate, becoming, each personally the higher, the beautiful, the Godlike, and living, remote, in and by It…” (II, 3, 9)8

“A man’s one task is to strive towards making himself perfect- though not in the idea- really fatal to perfection – that to be perfect is possible to himself alone.” (II, 9, 9)9


“In sum, evil belongs to the sequence of things, but it comes from necessity. It originates in ourselves; it has its causes no doubt, but we are not, therefore, forced to it by Providence: some of these causes we adapt to the operation of Providence and of it subordinates, but with others we fail to make the connection; the act instead of being ranged under the will of Providence consults the desire of the agent alone or of some other element in the Universe, something which is either itself at variance with Providence or has set up some state of variance in ourselves.” (III, 3, 5)10

“Wrong-doing from man to man is wrong in the doer and must be imputed, but, as belonging to the established order of the universe is not a wrong even as regards the innocent sufferer; it is a thing that had to be, and, if the sufferer is good, the issues is to his gain. For we cannot think that this ordered combination proceeds without God and justice; we must take it to be precise in the distribution of due, while, yet, the reasons of things elude us, and to our ignorance the scheme presents matter of censure.” (IV, 3, 16)11


“It is sound, I think, to find the primal source of Love in a tendency of the Soul towards pure beauty, in a recognition, in a kinship, in an unreasoned consciousness of friendly relation.” (III, 5, 1)12

As the All-Soul contains the Universal Love, so must the single Soul be allowed its own single Love: and as closely as the single Soul holds to the All-Soul, never cut off but embraced within it, the two together constituting one principle of life, so the single separate Love holds the All-Love. Similarly the individual love keeps with the individual Soul as that other, the great Love, goes with the All-Soul; and the Love with the All permeates it throughout so that the one Love becomes many, showing itself where it chooses at any moment of the Universe, taking definite shape in these its partial phases and revealing itself at its will.” (III, 5, 4)13

(final continuation next post)


8Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), Plotinus. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 17, page 44.

9Ibid., page 71.

10Ibid., page 96.

11Ibid., page 150.

12Ibid., page 100.

13Ibid., page 102.


“The lecturer has found Plotinus a most inspiring and fortifying spiritual guide, as well as a great thinker. In times of trouble like the present he has much to teach us, lifting us up from the miseries of the world to the pure air and sunshine of eternal truth, beauty, and goodness.” – Dean Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus1

After rereading the first two parts I wrote on Plotinus, the reader may not grasp his eloquence and utter sincerity. So I thought today I would offer more segments in his own words from the Enneads. I should start by letting you know I most of the on-line translation (link below) by Stephen MacKenna and B.S. Page (the same translation used by The Great Books) in the summer of 2008.2 I reread a small part of this in preparation for these essays and also some from the 1964 translation of the ‘essential’ parts by Elmer O’Brien.3 I hope to tempt you to read some of it on your own. These selections will generally follow the order of Porphyry’s original text.


 “It would be absurd to think that happiness begins and ends with the living body; happiness is the possession of the good of life; it is centred therefore in Soul, is an Act of the Soul…” (I, 4, 14)4

“If Happiness demands the possession of the good of life, it clearly has to do with the life of Authentic-Existence for that life is the Best. Now the Authentic-Existence is measurable not by time but by eternity; and eternity is not a more or a less of a thing of any magnitude but is the unchangeable, the indvisible, is timeless Being.” (I, 5, 7)5

“To put Happiness in action is to put it in things that are outside virtue and outside the Soul; for the Soul’s expression is not in action but in wisdom, in a contemplative operation within itself; and this, this alone, is Happiness.” (I, 5, 10)6


“It is impossible to talk about bodily beauty if one, like one born blind, has never seen and known bodily beauty. In the same way, it is impossible to talk about the ‘luster’ of right living and of learning and of the like if one has never cared for such things, never beheld ‘the face of justice’ and temperance and seen it to be ‘beyond the beauty of evening or morning star.’ Seeing of this sort is done only with the eye of the soul. And seeing thus, one undergoes a joy, a wonder, and a distress more deep than any other because here one touches truth. Such emotion all beauty must induce – an astonishment, a delicious wonderment, a longing, a love, a trembling that is all delight. It may be felt for things invisible quite as for things you can see, and indeed, the soul does feel it. All souls, we can say, feel it, but souls that are apt for love feel it especially. It is the same here as with bodily beauty. All perceive it. Not all are stung sharply by it. Only they whom we call lovers ever are.” (I, 6 [1], 4)7

(continued next post)


1From Inge’s first Gifford Lecture at St. Andrews, 1917-1918 (Note: World War I took place from 1914-1918).

2The link is http://classics.mit.edu/Plotinus/enneads.mb.txt

3Mr. O’Brien’s biography (in 1964) according to that book: “Elmer O’Brien is Chairman of the Department of Theology at Loyola College, Montreal, He has been Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University Graduate School and Professor of Dogmatic Theology ad Regis College, Toronto. He is a frequent contributor to Thought, Cross Currents, America, and Commonweal and is the author of biennial surveys of Ascetical and Mystical Theology published in Theological Studies.” It seems clear the work of Plotinus, technically a pagan, was commandeered by Christian mystics and scholars after his death.

4 Hutchins, Robert Maynard (editor), Plotinus. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 17, page 18.

5Ibid., page 20. (This is remarkably similar to the thoughts of some existentialists and psychologists who come to this conclusion by different paths nearly 1700 years later.)

5Ibid., page 21.

7O’Brien, Elmer, The Essential Plotinus.The New American Library, New York, N.Y., 1964, page 37-38


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.