ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

85. The Philosophic Phase of Neo-Platonism. Plotinus. -- Plotinus was an Egyptian by birth (204-5 A.D.). After having spent eleven years attending the lectures of Ammonius Saccas, who is regarded as the founder of Neo-Platonism, he came to Rome where he conducted a school of philosophy with extraordinary renown until his death in 270. His works were collected by Porphyry under the title of the Enneads. Plotinus has given its fullest development to Neo-Platonism. We will follow his working out of the two fundamental ideas which, in his view, sum up all philosophy.

(1) The Process of Emanation from a Supreme Principle, the one source of all existing things, explains the physical and the metaphysical worlds. According as this principle gives out its energy, it exhausts itself; its determinations follow a descending scale, becoming less and less perfect. The following are the successive steps in the process: --

(a) The One. -- At the head of the intelligible world, far removed from the world of sense (Plato), reigns One Supreme Essence. To safeguard its transcendence, Piotinus states it to be absolutely indeterminate (apeiron). No quality marks or defines it; nothing can determine it, for all determination implies limitation (negative theodicy). The Supreme Being has no attribute, not even intellect or will: knowledge and volition suppose a duality of knower and thing known, of that which wills and that which is willed; and all duality is irreconcilable with the infinitely perfect. However, as this negative concept has for basis the Divine perfection, Plotinus has recourse to positive descriptions, the insufficiency of which, moreover, he fully recognises. By preference he describes the Supreme Being as the First (to prôton), the One, the Universal Cause, Goodness (Plato), Light. Immutable in itself, this First Unitary Being does not diffuse its substance into other beings, as the advocates of substantialist pantheism maintain; but it permeates them by its activity (dynamic pantheism); and what we call the proper, specific substantiality of things is simply the product of this activity. Furthermore, this outflow of the Divine activity into all other beings is not direct and immediate; it is effected through the agency of intermediary forces which emanate successively from one another. And as the effect is always less perfect than the cause, these activities are arranged in gradation according to their respective degrees of perfection, each one occupying a position which is lower the greater the number of intermediate steps by which it communicates with the Divine energy. What are these intermediaries into which the Divine energy flows, as it were, by cascades? Plotinus reduces them to three: Intelligence and the World-Soul in the suprasensible order; and, in the sensible order, Matter.

(b) Intelligence. -- The One Primary Being by knowing Itself gives birth to a second principle, Intelligence (nous), the generation of which introduces duality into the Deity. The nous is its own proper object, and under this aspect its object is one; nevertheless, this unity admits a plurality of representations. This must be the case, because in virtue of the principle of progressive decadence, the nous, less perfect than the One, cannot absorb in one single act of knowledge the energy communicated to it by the First Being; this energy is dispersed and radiated into a multitude of ideas. Here we have the kosmos noêtos of Plato, with this essential difference, that with Plato the ideas are substances (22), whilst with Plotinus they are forces (noerai dunameis), clustering together in the unity of the nous, but destined to become in turn generative principles of further activities.

(c) The World-Soul. -- The nous or second principle necessarily produces a third, the Soul of the World. This World-Soul is of a hybrid nature, on the one hand intelligent like the nous in which it contemplates the ideas, on the other hand tending to realize in the sensible world the image of those same eternal ideas.{1} The plurality which it embodies is still held together, just as in the nous, but it is on the point of scattering itself abroad in the outer world.

The universal World-Soul generates the particular souls or plastic forces (logoi spermatikoi cf. 62, 3), which are the forms of all things. These forces are themselves wavelets of the universal life which circulates through all things, and whose primordial source is ultimately found to be the First Being (to prôton).

(d) Matter. -- How does Plotinus pass from the suprasensible to the sensible, material world? How does he reduce the one to the other, after his having with Plato insisted on the fundamental diversity which separates the Idea from Matter? He does so by an ingenious theory which avoids the dualism into which all the Platonists had fallen: The World-Soul, with forces which are native to it, generates matter, and by uniting itself with the matter, produces corporeal and sensible beings. Matter, according to Plotinus, is merely the space which conditions all corporeal existence; it is a pure possibility of being, mere nothingness, the me on, of Plato (25), which Plotinus identifies with primitive evil, prôton kakon. But is it not contradictory to make matter the evolution-term of the idea, to make nothingness a manifestation of being, to make evil a product of good? No, answers Plotinus, for every generative process implies a decadence or inferiority in the generated product. And in the series of Divine generations there must be a final stage, at which the primal energy, weakened by successive emissions, is no longer capable of producing anything real. A limit is necessarily reached beneath which there cannot be anything less perfect: this limit is matter.

In the sensible world plurality predominates, whilst in the suprasensible world all plurality is confined within the bonds of a unity more or less perfect. The world of sense, imprisoned in matter, is only a faint reflection of suprasensible principles whose unity is as unchangeable as that of the sun reflected by many mirrors. It is engendered and sustained at each moment by the World-Soul: this explains how and why it is the prolongation of reality. Plotinus made use of this explanation to defend the beauty and order of the material universe against the attacks of the Gnostics.

All the parts of the universe are soldered together by a cosmic sympathy; and the vibrations of the World-Soul, even in the tiniest things, have their influence on the whole universe. The sensible world is eternal, as is also the generation of the Divine activities. Plotinus analyzes in detail the efflorescence of the plastic forces of the World-Soul in sensible nature: from the heavens, whose soul presents the most perfect form of sensible life, the stars or the visible gods of the universe, and the daemons who are intermediaries between celestial and terrestrial things, -- down to the organic and inorganic bodies of the earth itself.

Man occupies a definite place in this hierarchy. Souls existed before bodies; they dwelt in the bosom of the World-Soul until the needs of the cosmic evolution demanded their union with matter. On these principles Plotinus easily engrafts the Platonic theories of the survival and migration of souls, and of the extrinsic union of soul with the body (27). Those souls alone will be restored to their primitive state, which, at the moment of death, will be completely detached from sensible things; the others will animate new bodies proportionate in dignity to the degree in which each is found detached from matter. This is why the great end of life and of all philosophy is to achieve the mystic return of the soul to God.

(2) The Mystic Return of the Soul to God. -- The whole metaphysical system of Plotinus depends on this mystic union, and is a preparatory step towards its realization. Happiness results from the perfect exercise of intellectual activity; but real science is independent of experience and opinion, -- it is the fruit of thought. Hence Plotinus sees the essence of virtue in detachment from the world of sense, self-purification (katharsis) and the elevation of the soul to the invisible world.

The Understanding has being as its object; and in its subjective development it mounts in succession the different degrees of the metaphysical order. First, by way of reasoning it understands ideas and genera suprema. Then, looking inward, it contemplates directly, and without reasoning, the intelligible world. At this second stage the soul becomes united to the nous, to which it belongs: it is through the nous, and in it, that the soul arrives at this knowledge; it still, however, retains the consciousness of its separate personality. Finally, in a third stage, the soul contemplates the Primal Being itself: it becomes God. This contemplation is indistinct and unconscious, for the soul is now rapt above all knowledge and change, like the Supreme Being itself. Thus the highest form of intellectual activity is an unconscious form: the ecstasy (ekstasis) by which the ravished soul is lost in God.

We can easily understand then why Plotinus turns to religion as a means to facilitate the ecstatic union. In spite of his pantheistic monism, he adheres to polytheism and to magic, for he deifies several of the energies of the Primal Being. By their interposition man more easily raises himself up to the Absolute One. This thought became the fundamental dogma of the polytheistic mysticism of Plotinus's successors.

{1} In several passages, where he endeavours to explain how the Soul of the World serves as a transition stage from the immaterial to the material world, Plotinus distinguishes a double World-Soul, the purely suprasensible soul, and the soul already in contact with sensible matter. -- ZELLER, op. cit., iii., 2, pp. 539 sqq.

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