“There must be those who see this beauty . . . and when they see it they must be delighted and overwhelmed and excited. . . . These experiences must occur whenever there is contact with any sort of beautiful thing, wonder, and a shock of delight and longing and passion and a happy excitement . . . you feel like this when you see, in yourself or in someone else, greatness of soul, a righteous life, a pure morality, courage . . . he who sees them cannot say anything except that they are what really exists. What does “really exist” mean? That they exist as beauties.”
(Ennead 1.6.4–5 – The Enneads (Greek: Ἐννεάδες), The Six Enneads, is the collection of writings of the philosopher Plotinus,)
“For all there are two stages of the path, as they are making upwards or have already gained the upper sphere.
The first degree is the conversion from the lower life; the second- held by those that have already made their way to the sphere of the Intelligibles, have set as it were a footprint there but must still advance within the realm- lasts until they reach the extreme hold of the place, the Term attained when the topmost peak of the Intellectual realm is won.
But this highest degree must bide its time: let us first try to speak of the initial process of conversion.”
Section 1, Enneads
The Pagan Paradigm
The philosophy of Plotinus has provided the foundation for much of Christian thought. His mystical experiences and insightful writing indicate a degree of realization that goes beyond the development of discrimination, strength of intention, and functional integrity that characterize maturity in the third stage of life. However, as a teacher he deemphasized conventional religious and spiritual practices and he did not assume the guru function. Rather, he systematized the metaphysical thought of his time. Although he expanded the horizons of Greek philosophy with insights derived from his mystical experiences, his teaching tended to emphasize conceptual thought over experiential realization. thus his philosophical orientation has tended to encourage and reinforce the discriminative intelligence that characterizes the third stage of life.
THERE IS NO ONE OF GREATER IMPORTANCE than Plotinus in the entire tradition of Western Mysticism. He expanded on the work of all those of known importance who came before him—often to their advantage—and every significant philosopher or theologian who followed owes him a debt, whether knowingly or not.
A seminal thinker and a gifted teacher, Plotinus left legacies that include an excellent synthesis of classical antiquity, a detailed scenario for living with purpose and dedication, an effective outline of what the transcendental experience is, and guidelines for achieving it.
He was urged on in his own studies by personal mystical experiences unlike any others described in Greek philosophical religion. He is the only scholar, the only thinker in the history of later Greek philosophy to bear close comparison with Plato, whom he revered, and with Aristotle, with whom he frequently disagreed. Plotinus is the last major thinker of the Common Era to develop and expand a body of ethical thought that owed no debt to Christianity nor even made mention of it. So far as he was concerned, Christianity might not have existed, although the reverse is demonstrably not so.
The amazing vision of this man is preserved in one large work, The Enneads, a set of nine treatises, each divided into six sections, all of which were taken down from actual lectures, edited, and arranged by Plotinus’s most devoted and successful pupil, Porphyry, himself a gifted mystic who wrote the only reliable biography of the master. (Good translations of The Enneads which include Porphyry’s biography are available, notable among them the Loeb Classical Library version by Arthur H. Armstrong.) No writing outside the Bible has more determined the direction the mysticism of the West was to take; The Enneads has clearly been a wellspring of influence for mystical philosophers of pagan, Jewish, Moslem, and Christian beliefs.
Modest in lifestyle and habits, Plotinus evokes comparison to the holy men and wandering sages of the East in such things as his refusal to allow Carterius, the best portraitist of the age, to do a likeness of him (Porphyry quotes him as snapping, “Is it not enough to have to carry the image in which Nature has encased us without your requesting me to leave behind me a longer-lasting image of that image?”), a strong wish to find a teacher who could give him the direction he so earnestly sought, and a dissatisfaction with the limitations the body places on the true stuff of the self. Later, when he had disciples of his own, Plotinus taught them that as philosophers, they must neither covet nor seek material rewards beyond immediate shelter and modest comfort. Although his school was his only source of income, he allowed any who wished to attend lectures at no cost; students who could not afford tuition were allowed to work in exchange for it.
Plotinus possessed by birth something more than is accorded to other men. An Egyptian priest who had arrived in Rome and, through some friend, had been presented to the philosopher, became desirous of displaying his powers to him, and he offered to evoke a visible manifestation of Plotinus’ presiding spirit. Plotinus readily consented and the evocation was made in the Temple of Isis, the only place, they say, which the Egyptian could find pure in Rome.
At the summons a Divinity appeared, not a being of the spirit rank, and the Egyptian exclaimed: “You are singularly graced; the guiding-spirit within you is not of the lower degree but a God.” It was not possible, however, to interrogate or even to contemplate this God any further, for the priest’s assistant, who had been holding the birds to prevent them flying away, strangled them, whether through jealousy or in terror. Thus Plotinus had for indwelling spirit a Being of the more divine degree, and he kept his own divine spirit unceasingly intent upon that inner presence.
Stephen MacKenna (trans.), Plotinus: The Enneads (New York: Pantheon Books, n.d.), p. 8.
IT IS EASY TO SEE PLOTINUS AS THE essential spiritual pagan; he believed that God, in giving being to mankind, had thus equipped mankind with all it needs for effective survival. A living, functional exemplar of neo-Platonism (that philosophical and religious synthesis of the latonic ideal, Eastern religions, and mysticism), Plotinus was no stranger to devotion, no shunner of reason. He did not advocate ritual or prayer “because they are not necessary,” he said. “Life should be lived as though it were ongoing ritual and prayer. What need should there be for more unless they had not been got right?” At the highest levels of his functional philosophy, there is no place for the meditative practices of focusing the mind or freeing it from attractions to sensory objects because it is already assumed that the intelligent individual will want to be suffused with direction and discrimination.
For Plotinus, Man has evolved into a being whose true self exists on purely intellectual and purely spiritual levels. These form the means for achieving the mystical state.
His method for unio mystica calls for an awareness of the three modes of the Divine (a concept that was translated into the Trinity by Christians): the prevailing aspect is The One or Source of All, which Plotinus is careful to speak of in negative terms in order to avoid limiting it (as The One without a Second, The One like no other, etc.). He sets great emphasis on the concept of the nous or primal intelligence, which he borrowed from Plato and expanded upon through his own mystical experiences. The third aspect of the Divine is the psyche or soul. To achieve mystical union with The One, the individual must merge the nous with the soul.
Unlike many of the noted Christian theologians, especially those of the Middle Ages, Plotinus did not believe in the concept of grace; he saw no saving action from God because none is necessary. He stands apart in his difference from Judaism, Eastern religions, Christianity, and much of the paganism around him in another important aspect; he neither expects nor wants a savior, guru, preceptor, minor deity, or even angel to bring Man into a relationship with God, although he is emphatic that Man ought to pursue this state. “Seek God with assurance,” he writes in The Enneads (book V, part 1, section 3), “for He is not far away and you will attain unto Him. The intermediaries are not numerous. It suffices to lay hold, in the soul which is divine, of the part which is the most divine.”
Because of his originality and independence, he was rejected by a number of philosophers—Augustine and Aquinas, however reluctantly, held him “insufficient” because he did not feel the need to seek redemption; Shankara and Chai-tanya, Easterners who resembled him in many ways, were devoted to the concepts of the guru and the power of the mantra as it was invested with guru shakti (power)—and regarded by others as a skeptic because of his descriptions of what The Self, the Ego, Good (taken from the Platonic equation of Good, where true good=God), and the Soul were not. His love of education, his quest for precision, and his overtly contemplative nature invite added comparison with Eastern mystics, particularly those who themselves appear at first blush to be skeptics, the jnana yogis. By a process of constantly questioning what is real and what is only apparent (called neti-neti in Sanskrit: not this, not this—none of this is real except the One, the Absolute, because It is unchanging), they reach a bond with the Ultimate Reality and remove the duality of Man and Godhead, thought and object. Plotinus uses the same technique to negate all illusion.
What remains after this close scrutiny is far from a void; it is something so much more a cause and a source that It transcends mere thingness to become formless, infinite and yet the very source of form. To Plotinus, source or principle is always more than, other than, and beyond what it produces. For him, the direct object of philosophy is to help Man realize he is in some sense divine. The object of philosophical life then becomes reaching and understanding this divinity within our nature, followed by a bonding relationship with the divine All. This relationship paves the way for a union with the transcendent source, which Plotinus has called The One or The Good. The world of outward senses, the world of politics, society, and material things needs to be transcended. The soul gains its higher relationship with the All by turning inward, away from the clamor and jostlings of the ego in the outer world. The inward turn brings the individual gradually to a state of discrimination from which can be heard far greater melodies, and in which can be launched adventures far more exciting than those in the material, sensate world.
PLOTINUS WAS BORN SOMEWHERE IN Egypt in 205 of the Common Era, was educated in the Greek language, and undertook Greek studies. As a young man, he moved to Alexandria, then a hive of philosophical and mystical activities including those of the Gnostics, Stoics, Peripatetics, Zoroastrians, Manichites, and Christians.
His activities and aspirations abound in the well-rounded biography left by Porphyry, and because of Porphyry’s own success and his obvious regard for his teacher, we can attach considerable weight to the commentary.
After an extended search for a teacher to guide his studies, Plotinus found Ammonius, a teacher of some reputation who had other notable pupils. “This is the man I was looking for,” Plotinus recounted to Porphyry, describing how he stayed with Ammonius for eleven years, then set off on his own, eager to acquaint himself at first hand with Persian philosophers and sample the thoughts of various Indians he had heard of through Ammonius. After a brief stay in Persia with the forces of Emperor Gordian, Plotinus, then thirty-nine, went to Rome, where he remained for the rest of his life.
He may have been plagued with dyslexia. Porphyry tells us he was a poor speller, made mistakes in certain words, transposed syllables, and did not break syllables in the approved, grammatical manner. Nevertheless, he was a charming man and when he spoke,
“. . . his intellect visibly lit up his face: there was always a charm about his appearance, but at these times, he was still more attractive to look at: he sweated gently, and kindliness shone out from him, and in answering questions, he made clear both his benevolence to the questioner and his intellectual vigor.”
He was not, Porphyry tells us, a man much given to revising his work. For one thing, he was disciplined enough in his thinking that he did not have to, and for another “. . . even to read the writing through once was too much for him, as his eyesight did not serve him well for reading. In writing, he did not form the letters with any regard for appearance, nor did he divide his syllables correctly, and he paid no attention to spelling. He was wholly concerned with thought; and, which surprised us all, he went on in this way right up to the end. He worked out his train of thought from beginning to end, and then, since he had already set it in order in his mind, he wrote as continuously as if he was copying from a book.”
Plotinus was no stranger to the mystical experience, and there are at least five major entries in The Enneads in which he gives some detail, a good case in point being from the section entitled “Descent into the Visible World.”
“Often I have woken up out of the body to myself and have entered into myself, going out from all other things. I have seen a beauty wonderfully great and felt the assurance then that most of all, 1 belonged to the better part. I have lived to the full the best life and have come to identify with the Divine. Set firm in It, I have come to That Supreme Actuality, setting myself above all else in the realm of the nous. Then after the rest in the Divine, when I have come down from the nous to discursive reasoning, I am puzzled how I ever came down, and how my soul has come to be in the body when it is what it has shown itself to be by itself, even when it is in the body.”
Porphyry saw Plotinus caught up in the absorption of the mystical experience; he called it a union with “the God who is over all things.” On four separate occasions Porphyry recalls seeing Plotinus this way.
“Four times while I was with him, he attained that goal, in unspeakable actuality and not in potency only. Also it is said that the gods often set him straight when he was going on a crooked course, sending down a solid shaft of light, which means that he wrote under their inspection and supervision.”
On his deathbed, Plotinus, now sixty-five and close to finally ridding himself of the body consciousness he had decried for much of his adult life, and on the verge now of permanently shedding a physical shell that had been wracked by mounting illness, spoke of the kind of immortality that had become a goal for him and for his students and friends. Speaking to his faithful friend and physician, Eustochius, he uttered words that could very well be used to sum up his life’s teachings: “Try,” he said, “to bring back the god within you to the divine in the All!”
An excellent example of the manner in which Plotinus used negation to describe his vision of God is found in his treatise “Against the Gnostics” (written because this movement of early Christian times propounded doctrines of faith based on three of Plotinus’s favorite targets—salvation, knowledge revealed by a savior, and dogma):
“It has been made clear to us that the nature of The Good is simple and primary (for all that is not primal is not simple either), and contains nothing in itself, but is a unity: the same nature belongs to what we call The One. It is not something else, and then, as a result of that, One, nor is the Good something else and then, as a result, Good. When we speak of the One and when we speak of the Good, we must think and speak of It as one and the same Nature, not applying predicates to It, but explaining It to ourselves as best we can. We still call It First because It is the simplest, and Self-Sufficing because It is not a compound (which would make it dependent on its constituent parts): we speak of It as That which is in nothing else, because everything which is in something else is derived from something else. If it is neither derived from nor in something else, nor any sort of compound, there cannot be anything above It. We need not then go looking for other principles. We set This first, then nous, the Primal Intelligence, then Soul after nous. This is the order according to the nature of things. We must not assume more or fewer than these in the intelligible realm.” (Enneads book II, section 9, part 1)
Our concern is not merely to be sinless but to be God . . . For, at this height, the man is the very being that came from the Supreme. The primal excellence restored, the essential man is There; entering this sphere, he has associated himself with the reasoning phase of his nature, and this he will lead up into likeness with his highest self, as far as earthly mind is capable, so that if possible it shall never be inclined to, at least never adopt, any course displeasing to its overlord.
What form, then, does virtue take in one so lofty?
It appears as wisdom which consists in the contemplation of all that exists in the Divine Mind, and as the immediate presence of that Divine Mind Itself. . . .
As he reaches to loftier principles and other standards these in turn will define his conduct . . . he will live no longer the human life of the good man, such as civic virtue commends, but, leaving this beneath him, he will take up instead another life, that of the gods.
For it is to the gods, not to good men, that our likeness must look; to model ourselves upon good men is to produce the image of an image; we have to fix our gaze above the image and attain likeness to the Supreme Exemplar.
Grace H. Turnbull (ed.), The Essence of Plotinus (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948), pp. 26-27.
THE PROSE OF PLOTINUS IS FILLED WITH his descriptions of the philosophical flights he has taken, and the terrain he has experienced once there. Ethical, moral, and persistent, Plotinus teaches that every soul desires to make the ascent to the Good. “Anyone who has seen it knows what I mean when I say that it [the Good] is beautiful,” he comments in Book I, section 6 and thereafter. The Good “is desired as good, and the desire for it is directed to good, and the attainment is for those who go up to the higher world and are converted and strip off what we put in our descent . . . passing in the ascent all that is alien to God, one sees with one’s self alone That alone, simple, single, and pure, from which all depends and to which all look arid are and live and think; for it is the cause of life and mind and being. If anyone sees it, what passion he will feel, what longing in his desire to be united with it, what a shock of delight!”
The more one considers the step-by-step process Plotinus erected, the more likely the prospect for some tingle of recognition on a primal level. However we come to him, Westerner or Easterner, dogmatist, agnostic, or existential explorer, the closer we get, the more we see that Plotinus has been there before us, influencing not only the traditions from which we came but our own concepts of our individuality. He invites us upward to our greater individual vision.
“Because the Divine is not to be revealed,” he writes in book VI, part 9, section 11, “it forbids us to declare It to anyone who has not himself had the good fortune to see. Since there were not two, but the Seer himself was one with the Seen (for It was not really seen, but united to him), if he remembers who he became when he was united to That, he will have Its image in himself.” It is a nourishing process and a self-sustaining one, explaining why, even though Plotinus has been used, the unenlightened have allowed him to fall into the interstices of formal history. “If one sees what one has become,” he writes, “if one sees that one’s self has become This, one has a likeness of the Divine, and if one goes from it, as image to original, one reaches the end of one’s journey. And when a man falls from the vision, he wakes again the virtue in himself and considers in all his order and beauty, and is lightened and rises through virtue to nous, and through wisdom to the Divine.”
Plotinus may be lost in the formal histories, or passed off with an embarrassed nod to his pagan sensibilities and authentic voice, but sooner or later, all sincere mystics must become aware of his special radiance that focuses the spotlight of enquiry on dogma, doctrine, and guilt.
Shelly Lowenkopf is adjunct professor of Professional Writing in the University of Southern California Graduate Program at Los Angeles. He has been a book editor for twenty-five years, during which time he edited a series on metaphysics. He has written over thirty volumes of fiction and nonfiction. Presently he is working on a study of Western mystics titled Mystics in the West and a large textbook on humor, The Laugh’s on Me. He is a disciple of Swami Aseshananda.