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Plotinus (204/5-270 c.e.) was an Egyptian by birth but Greek (or Hellenistic) by upbringing.  He studied philosophy in Alexandria under Ammonius Saccus, before joining a military campaign against Persia, where he encountered Indian ideas.  He went to Rome c 244, where he taught until about 268.  His lectures were only committed to writing later in life.  As the central figure of Neoplatonism, Plotinus was the representative of a spiritual-philosophical tradition that begins with Plato or before, and passes through the stages of early post-Platonism and Middle Platonism.

Plotinus' metaphysics


Central to Plotinus' metaphysics is the process of ceaseless emanation and outflowing from the One.  Plotinus gives metaphors such as the radiation of heat from fire or cold from snow, fragrance from a flower or light from the sun. [1]

This basic theme reappears in the scholastic maxim that "good diffuses itself" (bonum diffusivum sui); entities that have achieved perfection of their own being do not keep that perfection to themselves, but spread it out by generating an external image of their internal activity [2]

This then leads to the idea that Arthur Lovejoy, in his book The Great Chain of Being, calls "the principle of plenitude".  What this means is that emanation from the One cannot terminate until everything that has possibly come into existence has done so.  Creation cannot stop at the world of the Gods, but must continue downwards through all possible levels of being and imperfection.  Things cannot all be good, and indeed, as Plotinus says, the universe would be less perfect if they were, just as it may be necessary for a beautiful work of art that not all its parts are beautiful in isolation [3]

In contrast to the monotheistic idea of a God who creates through a deliberate act of will, Plotinus sees the activity of the Divine Hypostases is more like the spontaneous operation of nature than the laborious deliberations of a human craftsman [4]

Plotinus' Mysticism

For Plotinus, and other Greek mystics, such as Plotinus' predecessors Plato and Pythagoras, Spirituality means the ascent from the lower sense-reality to the higher spiritual reality.  Like twentieth century scientists such as Albert Einstein, these ancient Greek mystics derived meaning and purpose from the contemplation of nature.  But instead of contemplating the wonder of visible physical reality, they contemplated the wonder of the invisible spiritual reality which they saw as the cause and ultimate meaning behind the physical reality.

  Plotinus believed that man should reject material things and should purify his soul and to lift it up to a communion with the One.

The Hypostases

Also central in Plotinus' cosmology is the a chain of hypostases.

 "...With regard to the existence that is supremely perfect [i.e. "The One"], we must say it only produces the very greatest of the things that are found below it.  But that which after it is the most perfect, the second principle, is Intelligence (Nous).  Intelligence contemplates the One and needs nothing but it.  But the One has no need of Intelligence [i.e. being the Absolute Principle, it is totally self-sufficient].  The One which is superior to Intelligence produces Intelligence which is the best ex-istence after the One, since it is superior to all other beings.  The (World-)Soul is the Word (Logos) and a phase of the activity of Intelligence just as Intelligence is the logos and a phase of the activity of the One.  But the logos of the Soul is obscure being only an image of Intelligence.  The Soul therefore directs herself to Intelligence, just as the latter, to be Intelligence, must contemplate the One....Every begotten being longs for the being that begot it and loves it..." [5]

The Logos

As the relationship between a Hypostasis and its products, the Logos denotes the plan or formative principle from which the lower realities evolve and by which their development is governed [6]

Plotinus uses the term not to indicate a separate hypostasis (contra Philo, Christianity, etc), but to express the relationship between a Hypostasis and its source or its products or both [7]

For Plotinus therefore, the relation between the grades of being, or hypostases, is a two-fold process.  There is a downward process of Emanation or "outflowing", and a corresponding upward process of return through Contemplation.  This can be represented diagrammatically as follows:

The Absolute and Source
emanation     contemplation 
N O U S 
The "Divine Mind"; 
Eternal and Transcendent.
emanation     contemplation 
P S Y C H E 
"Soul"; the dynamic, creative temporal
      power, both cosmic ("World-Soul") and
     individual (e.g. human consciousness).

         The world of the senses. 

Procession and Reversion

Plotinus distinguishes two stages of emanation.  The first, prohodros or Procession is the formless, infinite stream of life that flows forth from the One.  But it is impossible for beings to receive any shape as long as the descent into multiplicity continues unchecked; they must turn back upon themselves and imitate the perfection of their Origin to the best of their ability.  Hence in the second stage, epistrophe, Reversion, being turns back, contemplates the One, and so receives form and order [8].  In the subdivision of the second hypostasis into Being, Intelligence, and Life, Life the Second Hypostasis in its unformed stage (Procession), and Intelligence to the second stage, Reversion, when it has received form and limit


This theme has been more recently taken up in the Theosophical idea of "Life-waves" or "monadic essence" that have emanated from the Absolute, but are still on the involutionary or descending arc, and hence still formless.

The Three Hypostases

The One
The Nous
The Soul

Plotinus's Influence - the Islamic Connection

Plotinus' teachings were to exert an influence not only on later Neoplatonists and Gnostics, but on the Islamic world too.  This happened quite by accident.  An Arabic translation of a section of Plotinus, padded out with his student Porphyry's commentary, appeared, titled the Theology of Aristotle [10].  Since the medieval islamic thinkers thought very highly of Aristotle, this work exerted a strong formative influence on Islamic philosophical thought.  Thus, whereas Neoplatonism is no longer respected in the West, except as an intellectual curiosity or historical movement, the same is most definitely not the case with the intelligent and the mystic Moslem.  An Islamicised neoplatonism has retained its popularity among progressive philosophers down to the present day.  Indeed, anyone who reads the works of Frithjof Schuon, the important contemporary Sufi-inspired theologian and Traditionalist, will notice the strongly Plotinian bent to his metaphysics.

Plotinus Links

web page Plotinus - listing in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - a good summary of Plotinus and his teachings.

web page The Enneads of Plotinus - links to each tractate, chapter, and ennead.


(Click on the reference number to return to essay at that point)

[1] R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism, p.61

[2] Ibid, p.61

[3] Ennead III. 2. 11; & R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism, p.65

[4] (Ennead IV. 3. 10; IV. 4. 11), R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism, pp.63, 65.

[5] Ennead V:i:6; translated by Joseph Katz, The Philosophy of Plotinus, pp.15-6 (Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc, New York, 1950)

[6] R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism, p.68

[7] Ibid, p.68

[8] Ibid, pp.65-66

[9] Ibid, p.67

[25] R. T. Wallis, Neoplatonism, p.163

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page uploaded 28 May 1998, last modified 9 April 2020