Plotinus (c. 204–270) was the leading exponent of Neoplatonic thinking, which blended Plato's philosophy with religious mysticism. Born in Egypt, he grew up in Alexandria (located on the central coast of Egypt, just west of the Nile Delta) and was educated in the classics. His own teachings quickly gained notoriety, especially in Rome. He did not begin to write until late in life, and his lectures were edited by his student, Porphyry, for the Enneads.

Plotinus was attracted to the Platonic metaphysics of transcendence; that is, the location of reality outside of this physical, sensory world, in a suprarational, spiritual world of the "Good." Plotinus used religious/mystical phrases to refer to this reality, such as "the One," "All-Transcending," "Author at once of Being," "The First," and the "Indefinable." His religious views have typically been described as pantheistic, which holds that the divine principle is present in and throughout the entire universe, although a dualistic representation (where the divine and the created universe are seen as separate) could also be supported, given the subtleties of Neoplatonic thought.

Plotinus saw life in the universe as a double movement—first as an emanation from the source (as light emanates from the sun), and then a return back to the divine. The human soul lives in exile on this earth, and desires the return home. One can achieve "home" in this life through a mystical union with God. Porhyry relates that his master had achieved a mystic state quite often in his life, and that this experience could not be given a completely rational account. One can also reach home through reincarnation (another Platonic influence) —where one can achieve higher forms of life until eventually passing out of the cycle of birth and death. This "emancipation of souls" is accomplished only by a "purification" whereby the soul avoids attachments to the body, in particular, lusts and sensual desires and impulses.

Neoplatonism was one of the chief ways in which the Platonic philosophy was introduced to Medieval thinkers like Augustine, and therefore had major impact on the Christian world.

See also: Philosophy, Western ; Plato


O'Daly, J. P., Plotinus' Philosophy of The Self. Shannon, Ireland: Irish University Press, 1973.

Plato. The Republic. In Benjamin Jowett trans., The Dialogues of Plato. New York: Random House, 1937.

Plotinus. Enneads. In G. H. Turnbull trans., The Essence of Plotinus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1934.


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