Plotinus (204/5 -270CE), born in Lycopolis, Egypt, when it was part of the Roman Empire, was a major figure in the philosophical school later called Neoplatonism. Neoplatonists viewed reality as deriving from a single force or figure expressed as 'the One'. Two further concepts from Plotinus, 'the Intellect' and 'the Soul', are also principal features of his philosophy. These proposals led to the work of Plotinus forming a bridge between Plato and the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well as Gnosticism. Yet Plotinus, who spoke Greek, did not actually leave a written legacy of his ideas. His work was written down and compiled by a pupil, Porphyry of Tyre (c234-c305 CE). Porphyry presented Plotinus' work in six Enneads, each containing nine Tractates (ennea = nine in Greek), amounting to 54 treatises in all. They were originally arranged into three volumes, but in this Ukemi recording they are divided into two equal parts, Volume One and Volume Two. Volume One contains the first three Enneads prefaced by the fascinating biography written by Porphyry, who describes Plotinus as a highly singular figure - he declined to sit for a painter or sculptor, he wouldn't eat meat from animals reared for the table, and he 'caught philosophy at the age of 20'. This recording is Volume Two, which contains The Enneads 4-6. The Fourth Ennead concerns epistemological matters, opening with 'On the Essence of the Soul' (First Tractate) and concludes with 'Are All Souls One?' The Fifth Ennead is concerned with intellectual matters, opening with 'On the Three Primary Hypostases' and concluding with 'On Intellect, the Forms and Being'. The Sixth Ennead concerns being in general and the One above intellect, opens with 'On the Kinds of Being' and concludes with 'On the Good and the One'. Translated by Stephen MacKenna.
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Volume II is even better than Volume I and surprisingly one does not need to have read the first Volume in order to fully appreciate the second volume. There is no doubt that this is a complex and hard to follow book, but it’s well worth the effort, and the narrator does such a good job narrating at times I thought I was in Rome in 250 C.E. and was listening to Plotinus himself giving me a lecture.
People often say that all of philosophy is a commentary on Plato. I would have to make a modification to that statement after having read the Enneads. There is a reason why Peter Brown in ‘Through the Eye of the Needle’ (available at audible) said that Augustine takes Cicero’s civic duty and combines that with Plotinus’ metaphysics and the teachings of St. Paul and makes a religion. Plotinus does subsumes Plato and Aristotle but he definitely takes their thoughts through his own filter and firms them up in such a way that this book stands firmly on its own.
Yes, this is an incredibly complex book to follow, but it’s obvious that this book dominated medieval thought well past Thomas Aquinas (1250ish C.E.), and if one has read Aquinas one sees the debt he owes to Plotinus (and of course Aristotle). In the 800 page book, ‘The Selected Writings of Thomas Aquinas’, Aquinas will cite Plotinus in his arguments repeatedly and when he wasn’t directly quoting him one could see the same structure within his other arguments. Plotinus’ Paganism was structurally sound enough to allow Augustine to dominate the medieval age by reworking Plotinus and was fluid enough when coupled with Aristotle to allow Aquinas to make faith subordinate to reason thus allowing science (knowledge, where truth equals being) to ultimately take a foothold.
As to structure, Plotinus will appeal to the ‘laws of thought’: identity, exclusion, and contradiction. The last of the three can be hard to follow since Plotinus would assume the contra to show the absurdity and one could lose the original point the author was trying to make, but once I got into what the author was really trying to say everything started to click. I’ve read Spinoza’s Ethics and Hegel’s Phenomenology multiple times and when I would get confused (which was often) I would put Plotinus into those authors system because there is a definite overlap between all three thinkers. That’s why I would say that all of Philosophy is a commentary on Plato and Plotinus not just Plato.
Identity as a law of thought depends on the nature of the substance and the essence for the object. This relates to Aristotle’s four (be)causes, in particular ‘form’ and ‘matter’. The middle ages will turn the concepts into ‘whatness’ and ‘thatness’ (the Latin was ‘quiddity’ and ‘haecceity’ and nobody remembers the latter today, that’s why I had to look it up before I wrote it!). Does justice come before the thought of the word within the One or is it only a definition for convenience sake? (It’s somewhat like the Euthyphro dilemma and Plotinus will offer his answer for it. Unfortunately, he’ll do it by fiat and it is with ‘fiat’ how Bertrand Russell will explain the Euthyphro dilemma).
The moment Plotinus said that what Parmenides really meant with his One was that knowing is being and being is truth and truth is the Good this book clicked for me. It took about 10 hours before he said that, but after that I was able understand what was going on. This book is antithetical to one of my most favorite books ‘On the Nature of Things’, by Titus Lucretius. That book dealt with understanding the world by being composed of atoms, this book deals with the Good, the source of all, the One, where ‘the intellectual principal’ springs from giving ‘the reason principal’ leading to the creation of the soul and being. What is meant by the Good? The Rational, the Moral and the Beautiful make up the Good and spring from the source of the One, he’ll say.
Our soul is a copy from the One by way of the 'intellectual principal' and as with all copies it is not as good as the original. All souls are of the One and are one and the same soul and as all geometrical truths are a reworking of the definitions, axioms and theorems each soul is part of the same soul, he’ll say. There is definitely an Eastern Buddhist/Hindu vibe within Plotinus’ version of Paganism and a modern reader will connect Schopenhauer’s Volume I of ‘Will and Representation’ to Plotinus without too much effort.
This is a complex book, but not impenetrable. Its influence is obvious. This book stands on its own and gives a peek into Paganism and is well worth the effort that is required in reading it. Most of what we do while experiencing being human we do ‘for the sake of which’ of something outside of itself, but Plotinus will convincingly argue that of which we do for its own sake is of the highest good or as Hannah Arendt will say, sometimes we just want to play chess for the sake of playing chess itself. In case it’s not obvious from what I said above, my highest Good, after life’s mundane chores have been taken care of, is learning about the real world through studying Philosophy, History and Science for their own sake. A book like this one belongs on anyone’s list who shares a similar goal to mine, but this book needs to be read in its proper context to be fully appreciated and probably should not be dismissed unceremoniously.
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