Plotinus (d. 270 CE) was born in Egypt around 204 CE and is generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism. He would have viewed himself as a Platonist (“Neoplatonism” is a category applied by later scholars to refer to a specific philosophical tradition beginning with Plotinus and ending in 529 CE) and thus a defender of the philosophical views of Plato.
We know that Plotinus studied much philosophy; he studied in Alexandria and later engaged Persian and Indian philosophy. He eventually relocated to Rome in 244 CE where he founded a school. What we know of Plotinus’ metaphysical thought comes from the Enneads consisting of six sets of nine treatises arranged by his disciple Porphyry. The Enneads can be considered the first collection of Neoplatonic writings and from them we learn that Plotinus had an interest in various topics including natural philosophy, cosmology, psychology, epistemology, the intellect, numbers, and the One. His writings include various discussions, thoughtful answers to questions, and proposed solutions to problems presented.
The concept Plotinus is well-remembered for is the One, or the Good, inspired by the Republic where Plato presented the Idea of the Good. Plotinus views the One as a positive reality beyond the world of senses and description in language. It is the incomprehensible, transcendent principle that is absolutely simple as it lacks division and attributes (perhaps the title “the One” signifies this complete simplicity). It is all-sufficient, self-caused, and the cause of being for everything else in the universe. Plotinus speculated that through emanation the One gave rise to the Logos or Divine Mind (“Nous”) believed to contain all the Forms and thoughts of a universal intellect. The Divine Mind reflects the unitary perfection of the One and below the Divine Mind is the World Soul linking the intellectual and material worlds. Plotinus thus posited various levels of being arranged in descending order. At the top is the One and at the bottom is the physical universe of space and time perceptible to the senses. Humans have a leg in two realms: one in the realm of the physical world and the other in the Divine Mind.
Plotinus taught that it is possible for the human intellect to rise through these levels or emanations: through contemplation one’s intellect can rise to the Divine Mind and then through mystical union find absorption into the One itself. Alternatively, by not focusing on the One a person will limit himself to his lower nature and desires, which means that the physical body is seen to be an obstacle to the intellectual and spiritual life. Rather, one ought to rise above his desires as Plotinus himself attempted to do. Plotinus engaged in philosophy because he believed by gaining knowledge he awakened himself to the One that existed beyond the physical world; in fact, Plotinus purportedly attained a mystical union with the One several times throughout his life.
Plotinus’ thought was influential for a number of Christian writers and thinkers of later periods, especially mystics such as Meister Eckhart (d. 1327). Plotinus seemed a good choice for the mystical minded because of his belief that the human is partly like the One (for he has a soul) and partly like matter, and who has the goal of returning to the One through contemplation and asceticism. For many Christians and Muslims, Platonism seemed the best match for their own theologies when it came to Greek philosophy and Plotinus was the major source for their understanding of Platonism.
Some Later Neoplatonists
Plotinus, of course, wasn’t the only Neoplatonist. We already noted his disciple Porphyry (d. 305 CE) who promoted a radical spiritualism and authored more than sixty works on various topics including vegetarianism, logic, philology, philosophy, religion, and science. Like Plotinus, Porphyry believed that philosophy could connect the intellect to the intelligible realm or Divine Mind. It is through thinking that the soul is detached from passions to focus its activity on real things. Porphyry also believed that his master Plotinus and such figures as Pythagoras were wonder-workers or “thaumatourgoi” with theurgic (magic) powers. Porphyry had an interest in Aristotle and Homer, wished to defend pagan religiosity, and critiqued Christianity, in particular the Old Testament, in his book Against the Christians. Porphyry’s work on Aristotle seemed to have had a great influence on the rise of Christian scholasticism of the Middle Ages.
Iamblichus (d. 325 CE) was a disciple of Porphyry who later influenced thinkers such as Proclus, Damascius, and Simplicius, as well as Christian writers. Iamblichus is thought to have turned Plotinus’ Neoplatonism into a pagan religious philosophy. He also ascribed to belief in the One existing beyond human knowledge with whom one could have a mystical union. He identified below the One a triad of Limit, the Unlimited, and the One-Being.
Finally, there is Proclus (d. 485) who also wrote widely on Plato, mathematics, and composed hymns to the gods. Importantly, he intended to explain Neoplatonism through Aristotelian logic and proposed a process of emanation of three subordinate stages: the original, emergence from the original, and return to the original. The first emanation of the One are henades or supreme gods who control worldly affairs. From the henades stem the triad of the intellectual, intelligible, and intelligible-intellectual corresponding to being, thought, and life. Beneath these are deities that operate within the natural world.