Neoplatonism, Plotinus and the One

Neoplatonic thought was originated sometime in the 3rd century AD by the philosopher Plotinus. The name “neoplatonism” is a modern invention by scholars who saw Plotinus’ works as sufficiently dissimilar to Plato’s to warrant the title New Platonism, although Plotinus himself saw his philosophy as a continuation of the Platonic tradition. Neoplatonism is highly influential even today, but its zenith was during late antiquity.

Like Plato, Plotinus taught that there was a transcendent reality – there he departs. Plotinus’ God was called the One, and was completely transcendent, so much so that it couldn’t be described using the traditional categories of being and non-being. The One can only be described as perfect (i.e. having no deficiency and lacking nothing); and any attempt to go further (like to say that the One thinks or is mindful) would only result in placing the One within categories that diminish it.

Neoplatonic and Gnostic cosmology bear some striking similarities. As in Christian theology, the universe is an act of creation. However, the One does not create consciously because it is not conscious – it simply generates from itself without any effort or act on its part. In this way, all that is is an emanation from the One, and because it is not the One (and therefore not perfect) it is lacking and deficient.

The first of these emanations is called in Greek the nous or the Intellect. Plotinus identifies the Intellect as Plato’s demiurge. This demiurge is an image of the one and is the archetype for all things. The nous is the highest level of reality accessible to the human mind (and contains the forms that are the thoughts of the nous). As the Intellect thinks, it is further and further divided, generating more and more emanations – and thus the universe. Matter is the lowest form of emanation and it is degraded – and like the Gnostics Plotinus describes it as evil or a type of unreality. Because of his affirmations of the Intellect as the highest knowable form of reality, Plotinus’ neoplatonism is a purely idealistic philosophy.

5 responses to this post.

  1. […] About « Neoplatonism, Plotinus and the One […]

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  2. […] he arrived in Milan, Augustine began to abandon Manichaeanism. He dabbled variously in Neoplatonism and the skepticism of Plato’s Academy. However, under the influence of the bishop of Milan, […]

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  3. […] his ideas regarding the will and evil, Augustine is clearly influenced by Plotinus and Neoplatonism. Plotinus taught that while evil is certainly real it is not something that exists ontologically, […]

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  4. […] The Matrix is a modern exposition of Plato’s allegory of the cave. For more on that, see this previous post. However, the film’s two sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, eschew Plato and rather delve deeply into the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. […]

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  5. […] went beyond a revitalised interest in Aristotle and Plato. The ancient texts of the Stoics, Neoplatonists, Epicureans and the Skeptics were all plumbed deeply for any long-lost wisdom they may contain. In […]

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