Plotinus’ Impact on Civilization

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I’m nearly done reading the works of Plotinus—a simple statement, to sum up nine months of work. Plotinus’ Enneads have been, for me, the hardest material to read in my program of reading the Great Books. They are even slightly worse than Spinoza’s Ethics, which is an accomplishment indeed.

To be fair, the last thing that Plotinus thought he was writing was a basic introduction to his philosophical system. All of his written works were intended as discussion notes for seminar like classes with his advanced students. His student Porphyry did the best he could to edit them into a cohesive book, considering this was never the intended purpose. It is a shame that most of Porphyry’s own writings have been lost. For all we know, he wrote his own introductory book on Plotinian Philosophy, or at least essays that would have made his teacher’s writings more accessible. As it is, though, Plotinus is hard going.

So why take the time to read the Enneads? Well, there’s always Mortimer Adler‘s argument that reading the very hardest of the great books is the most effective way to improve your reading and, ultimately, your writing. This, or course, is my main reason for doing the Great Books project at all. But in the case of the Enneads we should also consider the incredible breath and magnitude of the work’s influence on at least two major world civilizations: our own Western Civilization and Islam.

One of the key culture complexes in Western Civ. is Christianity, and Christianity contained a major neo-Platonist strain from the very beginning, starting with the works of Paul and John. Plotinus, the greatest of the neo-Platonists, was unashamedly pagan yet, even during his own lifetime (circa 203-270 CE) many of his ideas were adopted by Christian writers. After his death his works continued to be taught in Rome and elsewhere, where they were studied by the newly converted Augustine, who saw them as the key to understanding Christianity. From Augustine to Abelard, Plotinian neo-Platonism was the dominant factor in medieval Christian theology and philosophy. After Abelard the influence other major wellspring of Western Philosophy, Aristotle, waxed while that of Platonism, including Plotinus, waned. Now, however, particularly since Jung’s writing, the balance seems to be tipping back towards Platonic idealism. Even a brief survey of the various “new thought” movements, such as Science of Mind shows them to be laden with various platonic ideas. The same is true of archetypal psychology, where frequently quote Plotinus and acknowledge their debts to him.

Meanwhile, a couple centuries after Plotinus a new religion, Islam, emerged and quickly expended into an international civilization. In the early days Mohamed and his immediate successors were more concerned with morality than with philosophy or theology. As Islam matured intellectually, however, in the seventh or eighth century, its thinkers began to get serious about theology, and especially metaphysics and eschatology. Like Augustine before them they found most of what they needed in Plotinus, adopting the idea of the Logos or World Soul as the primary force of creation and the theory that human souls, as emanations of the world soul, could be perfected through virtue to become one with God. The golden age of Islamic philosophy lasted from about 700 CE to about 1000 CE. During this time, most of the greatest philosophers in Islam such as Ibin Sina (Avicenna), al Kindi, and al Biruni, studied and were heavily influenced by Plotinus’ Enneads. Meanwhile new sects of Islam, particularly the Sufi, fastened on the mystical aspect pf Plotinus’ teaching and embedded it in their own practices.

It is impossible to overstate the contributions of Plotinus to these two religions and the civilizations to which they belong, and that alone means that it is worth it to study the Enneads…even if they take nine months to read.

Further Reading
Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster. 1944.
Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. Simon and Schuster. 1950.
Henry, Paul. “The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought” in The Enneads. Penguin. 1991.
Holmes, Earnest, The Science of Mind. Putnam.  1997.

Parmenides of Plato

The Parmenides is Plato’s account of a meeting between the Italian-Greek philosopher Parmenides, then a venerable sage of sixty-five, and a young Socrates. Unlike earlier dialogues, which tended to focus on a particular topic, usually some aspect of virtue, it is not completely clear what Plato was trying to accomplish in the Parmenides. It is clear that Plato held Parmenides himself in high esteem, even though he would have been too young to have met him personally. A simple wish to memorialize him would not have been enough reason for him to write a dialog, however–particularly one as technical as this one. It is possible that he meant it as some sort of teaching aid for the dialectal method, but this also seems unlikely since there are so many good examples of dialectic in his earlier works. In addition, this is not the best written or most dramatic of Plato’s works. It flows awkwardly and the characters are poorly developed. It is easy to see why this has traditionally been one of the less popular Platonic dialogues with readers. So is this just an example of mid-career slump, or is there a deeper message to be gained?

Excavation area of Velia (Elea), Parmenides' Birthplace, near Ascea in Campania, Italy [Wikimeida Commons user AlMare CC BY-SA 2.5]

Excavation area of Velia (Elea), Parmenides’ Birthplace, near Ascea in Campania, Italy [Wikimeida Commons user AlMare CC BY-SA 2.5]

The dialog begins in a somewhat convoluted manner as a recollection by Cephalus of a recollection by Adeimantus (Plato’s older half-brother) of the meeting. Parmenides and Zeno are in town and Socrates and his friends have gone to see Zeno recite one of his own dialogues. Afterward, Socrates begins asking questions and, in the course of the conversation, starts arguing for an early version of his (Plato’s?) theory of ideas. Parmenides breaks in and offers several objections which Socrates is unable to answer. He then advises the young philosopher to be more rigorous in exploring all the implications of his hypotheses to their ultimate conclusion. Socrates then convinces Parmenides to provide a demonstration of his dialectal methods which he does, with Adeimantus as interlocutor.

Zeno has been speaking about “the One” (as opposed to “the Many”) so Parmenides chooses to examine the null hypothesis “The One does not exist”. There follows a rather long and tortuous dialog, the main structure of which are summarized in Jowett’s preface to his translation of the dialog):

1. One is.
2. One is not.
If one is, it is nothing.
If one is not, it is everything.

But is and is not may be taken in two senses:

Either one is one,
Or, one has being,

from which opposite consequences are deduced,
1.a. If one is one, it is nothing.
1.b. If one has being, it is all things.

To which are appended two subordinate consequences:
1.aa. If one has being, all other things are.
1.bb. If one is one, all other things are not.

The same distinction is then applied to the negative hypothesis:
2.a. If one is not one, it is all things.
2.b. If one has not being, it is nothing.

Involving two parallel consequences respecting the other or remainder:
2.aa. If one is not one, other things are all.
2.bb. If one has not being, other things are not.

This is barely more easy to follow than the dialog itself. In the end, though, Parmenides proves that the one must exist:

Parmenides: Then may we not sum up the argument in a word and say truly: If one is
not, then nothing is?

Adeimantus: Certainly.

Parmenides: Let thus much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.

Adeimantus: Most true.

We are told that after this Adeimantus gave up philosophy and focused on training horses.

The existence of “The One” or Unity is certainly an important part of number theory and (much later) abstract algebra, but I don’t think Plato had math on his mind when he decided to write this dialog. We don’t know as much about Parmenides as we would like, but it seems from what we do know that his primary interest was cosmology. “The One” has a central place in Platonic and neo-Platonic cosmology as the First Hypostasis of the godhead: The One, The First Existant, The Unknowable, Infinite Unity which Christian theologians would eventually equate with The Father.

The first half of the dialog might have been a chance to memorialize a respected philosopher, but I think that Plato, who was himself turning more to metaphysics and cosmology in his later career, deliberately used the second half of the dialog to record an important proof that he knew would be useful in later work by himself and his students.

Perils of Reading Great Books out of Order (Pre-Plotinus)

I am now more than a year into my program of reading the Great Books to improve myself as a writer. At the onset I promised myself that, as much as was practical, I would try to read the the books in the order they were written. This is the advice that Grand Great Books Guru Mortimer Adler gives in How to Read a Book and elsewhere, since going in order allows you to trace the development of the “great conversation” of Western thought.

I was doing pretty well until I began working my way through Plato, but then I got bogged down. After reading seven dialogues plus the book-length Republic and writing seven blog posts on Platonic philosophy, I decided to skip ahead–surely eight works were enough to give me a taste of Plato’s work, and the dialogues would still be there when I got back to them, right?

All was well until I went to read Plotinus’ Enneads. I’ve been looking forward to Plotinus: not only was he the greatest of the neo-Platonists, and a fundamental influence on early Christian philosophy, but he was the last important pagan philosopher. I knew that as soon as I finished his works I could sail merrily into the middle ages. I knew he had a reputation as a tough author, but I didn’t see how much worse he could be than those I had already read.

Unfortunately, Plotinus is not only hard to read, his work is heavily based on that of Plato and Aristotle. By the time I had made it through the introductory matter in the Penguin edition, I realized that I had gone too far too fast. Plotinus continually references The Republic, Phaedo, and The Nicomachaean Ethics–all of which I had read quickly without bothering to study them deeply or writing blog posts, as well as Timaeus, Parmenides, The Sophist, The Categories, De Anima, and The Metaphysics–all of which I had skipped in my impatience. Therefore, regretfully, I am now putting my Plotinus aside for a few weeks and going back to classical Greece. Look for more Plato and Aristotle posts in the near future.