Plotinus & Neoplatonism

Plotinus lived in the 3rd century AD during one of the most disastrous periods of the Roman Empire. It is not surprising that he turned away from the real world to contemplate Plato’s perfect and eternal world of ideas. His influence on Christian philosophy was enormous, and the ‘other world’ would become the Christian kingdom of heaven. ‘Platonism’ (including Neoplatonism) forms a key part of the foundation of Christianity, and without it Christianity would be unrecognisable or may not have existed. Russell describes Plotinus as a ‘melancholic optimistic’. In the kind of world in which he lived, if happiness from thought and imagination can be achieved at all, it is through reflection on things that are remote from the senses and not derived from the everyday world. Plotinus is someone who was unhappy in a mundane sense but succeeded in finding happiness in the world of theory. In an intellectual sense he can also be credited with clarifying and developing Plato’s teachings.

The Holy Trinity

Plato as reflected in the work of Plotinus is narrower than the real Plato. Plotinus focuses on the theory of ideas, and largely ignores subjects such as politics and mathematics (although Plotinus did attempt unsuccessfully to setup a new city based on Plato’s republic to be called Platonopolis, but the project did not get the support of the Emperor). Plotinus’ metaphysics starts with a Holy Trinity: The One, Spirit and Soul. As with Christianity these are not equal; The One is most important, followed by Spirit and then Soul. The One is also referred to as God, but is unknowable and indefinable, so we should not try to describe it. We can only say that it transcends being, and is present in all things. Spirit is next, but Russell tells us this is an imperfect translation of the original Greek word ‘nous’, as it doesn’t sufficiently communicate the intellectual connotation. Spirit is the means in which God sees itself and the world. To use an analogy, if God is the Sun, then Spirit is the light of the Sun. Spirit can also be thought of as the Divine Mind or Intellect. We can get closest to understanding the Divine Mind when we focus our minds not on the sensible world (things that we can detect with our senses) but on the super-sensible world. The true goal of our souls is to admit the light of the spirit, and therefore to experience divine inspiration. Plotinus refers to this feeling as ‘ecstasy’ (which means standing outside one’s own body).

Soul & Matter

Soul can be thought of as the offspring of The One, and it is Soul that creates the material (or sensible) world. It does this from memory of the intellectual (or super-sensible) world to form a copy, which is why the material world is inferior to the intellectual and doesn’t capture its full beauty. There is also a duality to Soul. The inner soul faces upwards towards Spirit and the outer soul faces downwards towards the material world. The outer soul is the inferior part, and represents Soul when it is not acting as it should. The question of which part of the soul is dominant varies with each soul. Matter is made when a part of Soul descends and enters it (thereby becoming separate from Soul in general), and it does so through a desire to recreate the intellectual world on earth. This is somewhat analogous to a composer who hears a new piece of music in their mind and tried to recreate it on paper. When Soul leaves a body it will return to the intellectual world, unless it has sinned in which case it will enter another body until it has repented. Soul is immortal, but when it returns to the intellectual world it forgets its experiences in the material world.

Neoplatonism is full of hope and idealism, but requires both moral and intellectual effort. This helped to ensure that early Christianity was not a purely superstitious doctrine. Neoplatonism also had a negative legacy. It encouraged people to look inward and to ignore the material world, which discouraged attempts to better understand and improve the world. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century marked the end of philosophy in the style of Greek culture, to be replaced by thinkers whose purpose was to provide intellectual weight to the doctrines of Christianity.

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