The Philosophy of Plotinus: Part Three

Movement and rest in ‘thought’, the most intense activity and stillness in unity

The creative process is a result of illumination from the One which from its superabundance, overflows and generates its image, Intellect. Living Mind in turn, stable beyond change, spontaneously and eternally pours forth the multiple power of the Forms in its image, Soul. It does so without reason, calculation, imagination or memory.1

Soul, like Mind, is moved and aspires to and returns into its prior. There it is filled and in the movement of its own excess, creates through its image Nature, the universe of sensation. As the lowest part of Soul, Nature does not know, but only gives form to matter. Because it brings form into being, creation is both contemplation and consummation,2 the divine contained in every act. Yet man,3 having ceased to be Intellect, cannot produce true images of himself. On the contrary, restoring himself to Intellect, he again becomes creator of everything, he again becomes God.4

Plotinus valued the dynamic creative soul5 and the principle (power) of creation over the created object.6 The two-way dynamism of his doctrine – the flowing from, return to, and absorption in the Absolute – is a complex dialectics of ‘mind’ involving a simultaneity of identity and difference, rest and movement. Plotinus theorised a dual activity on each level of being: one activity that is internal to it and one that goes out from it. The dynamism and fluidity of his doctrine is paramount.7

In the Enneads, movement is not the sign of life, it is the primary life. It is common to all life in ‘the sleepless light’8 of Intellect. It is the life of ‘mind’ and the active actuality of being and substance. It is being and substance itself.9 Being and movement are a unity since movement, in taking being from potentiality to actuality, makes it perfect, makes form awake.10 The artificial separation of being from movement occurs in discursive reason.11

Movement occurs through elevation, introversion (intensification and concentration), and a flowing outwards (dispersion and diminution). The fourth method of ‘thought’ which produces movement is in the dialectical opposition between the one and the many. This underlies the other three. Plotinus’ usage of the term is spiritual and moral,12 and he emphasised its importance with many metaphors:

‘…the Good stays still in himself; but intellect moves about him in its activity, as also it lives around him. And soul dances round intellect outside…’13

Movement, rest and being are the inseparable genera of real beings.14 When Intellect thinks these, they therefore exist, beyond the physical universe. Rest is not the opposite of movement, but is different to it. It is not a passive state of being.

‘…it is impossible to say that rest is the abolition of movement because it does not exist when movement has stopped, but when movement exists rest also exists. And rest there in the intelligible does not consist in the fact that something which is naturally adapted to move is not moving, but in so far as rest has a hold on it, it stands still, but in so far as it is in motion it will always be moving: therefore it stands still by rest and moves by movement. But here below it moves by movement, but when movement is not there it stays still because it is deprived of the movement which it ought to have.’15

For Soul, knowledge of itself is self-movement aspiring towards its purity.16 In bringing the copy of Intellect to this world, Soul originates the copies of movement and rest – motion17 and stillness.

Part three/to be continued…


1. This function of Intellect, the true creator of this universe, is based on the Demiurge or Craftsman of the Timaeus, in which thought in its movement is creation. In this dialogue Plato argued that the elements of the universe – earth, air, fire, and water – are composed of planes, which are in turn made out of elementary triangular shapes. Bergson, who thought that we are all born Platonists (Selections from Bergson. op. cit., 64), that there exists nothing positive outside Ideas (Creative Evolution.1907, trans. A. Mitchell, New York, 1911, reprint., 1983, 316), and that ‘consciousness does not spring from the brain’ (Creative Evolution. op. cit., 262), thought that there are ‘thousands of different planes of consciousness’ (Matter and Memory. 1896. Trans. N. Paul, W. Palmer. New York,1988, 241). Aristotle attributes a highly mathematicised account of the Forms to Plato’s later years.

2. ‘And lovers, too, are among those who see and press on eagerly towards a form.’ III,8.7

3. I use this gender consciously, both because Plotinus did, and in order not to disguise the patriarchal nature of his philosophy.

4. ‘…To me, moreover, it seems that if we ourselves were archetypes, Ideas, veritable Being, and the Idea with which we construct here were our veritable Essence, then our creative power, too, would toilessly effect its purpose: as man now stands, he does not produce in his work a true image of himself: become man, he has ceased to be the All; ceasing to be man – we read – “he soars aloft and administers the Cosmos entire”; restored to the All he is maker of the All.’ V,8.7. Beyond this, ‘The vision has been of God in travail of a beautiful offspring, God engendering a universe within himself in a painless labour…’ V,8.11.

5. IV,3.10

6. ‘What we long for is the originating power, not the originated thing. For this reason, nature, having an immediate relationship to the creative power, also has a precedence over art.’ In Barasch, M. Theories of Art, From Plato to Winckelmann, New York, 1985, 37.

7. Plotinus drew on the Stoic notion of a dynamic power diffuse throughout the universe, which he concentrated in the One.

8. VI,1.8

9. ‘For if movement is the activity of substance, and being and the primary genera altogether are actively actual, movement could not be something incidental, but, being the activity of what is actively actual, could not any longer be called something which contributes to the completion of substance, but is substance itself: so that it has not entered some subsequent genus, not even quality, but is ranked as simultaneous.’ VI,2.15.

10. On this particular point, compare Republic Bk VII 529-530 in which Plato argued ‘that the true, philosophical astronomer should not seriously study the motions of the visible heavenly bodies, which, being material, are imperfect and changeable, but devote his attention to the laws of motion perceived by the intellect alone.’ Armstrong, op. cit., Vol. II, 12. The text around that to which Armstrong refers is ‘“Isn’t the true astronomer in the same position when he watches the movements of the stars?” I asked. “He will think that the heavens and heavenly bodies have been put together by their maker as well as such things can be; but he will also think it absurd to suppose that there is an always constant and absolutely invariable relation of day to night, or of day and night to month, or month to year, or, again, of the periods of the other stars to them and to each other. They are all visible and material, and it’s absurd to look for exact truth in them.”’ At 529d2-3 Plato equated ‘the true realities’ of the stars with their ‘true relative velocities’. As I have stated previously, the precedent for Plotinus regarding movement and motion was clearly in the import and text of Plato’s writing. See Note 40.

11. ‘…(movement) is found in being not as inhering in a subject; for it is its active actuality and neither of them is without the other except in our conception of them, and the two natures are one nature: for being is actual, not potential…discursive thought says that they are separate…’ VI,2.7.  ‘…if we bring in also Intellect and its life, we shall posit as common to all life a single genus, movement. And we shall posit substance and movement, which is the primary life, as two genera. For even if they are one, [the observer] separates them in thought, finding the one not one; otherwise it would not have been possible to separate them. But observe in other things also how movement and life are clearly separated from being, even if not in the true being, yet in the shadow and that which has the same name as being. For as in the portrait of a man many things are wanting, and especially the decisively important thing, life, so in the things perceived by sense being is a shadow of being, separated from that which is most fully being, which was life in the archetype.’ VI,2.7.

12. ‘When the soul begins again to mount, it comes not to something alien but to its very self; thus detached, it is in nothing but itself; self-gathered it is no longer in the order of being; it is in the Supreme.’ VI, 9.11.

13. I,8.2.

14. In VI,2 Plotinus expounds the Platonic doctrine of the categories of the Intelligible World (Sophist 254D-257A), Being, Rest, Motion, Same and Other.

15. VI,3.27. In the Timaeus is an encapsulation of a process and purpose which is of the greatest importance to Western philosophy, Christian theology and Western art theory and practice. ‘And (the Demiurge) gave each divine being two motions, one uniform in the same place, as each always thinks the same thoughts about the same things, the other forward, as each is subject to the movement of the Same and uniform; but he kept them unaffected by the other five kinds of motion, that each might be as perfect as possible.’ (my Italics) Timaeus, 8,40. Timaeus and Critias, op. cit., 52. (‘And he bestowed two movements upon each, one in the same spot and uniform, whereby it should be ever constant to its own thoughts concerning the same thing; the other forward, but controlled by the revolution of the same and uniform: but for the other five movements he made it motionless and still, that each star might attain the highest completeness of perfection.’ The Timaeus of Plato. Ed. R. D. Archer-Hind. New York: Arno, 1973, 131-133.) This little group of words summarises the pathway Plato established and Plotinus maintained – comprising at the same time identity and difference, stasis and movement – between perfection, its divine medium, and creation. It asserts that creation and ‘thought’ in its motion are equivalent and defines the nature of that process. The motions of Plato’s divine beings differ from those of the sensory world – they are effects of the soul in its activity. Plato is too often simplistically remembered as having given us eternal Forms (Plato as an eternal Form?). This quotation again exemplifies the importance and complexity of motion in his philosophy.

16. III,7.4. ‘…knowledge is self-movement, since it is a sight of being and an active actuality, not a state; so that it also comes under movement – but, if you like, under rest, or under both; but if under both, it is as something mixed…’ VI,2.18. Plotinus considered the ‘unchanging’ stars as part of Soul – therefore their movement is not spatial as in this universe, but one of divine life and vitality. It is therefore a self-referential and eternal movement of being which, to anything outside, would appear to be at rest. (my Italics) ‘This is the origin of the fixed stars, which are living beings divine and eternal and remain always rotating in the same place and the same sense…’ Timaeus 8, 40.

17. ‘…soul is the “origin of motion” and is responsible for the motion of other things, and it is moved by itself, and gives life to the ensouled body…’ IV,7.9. The quotation within the quotation is from Plato’s Phaedrus 245C9. Plato believed soul to be the ultimate cause of motion: Laws Bk X 895-897 – ‘Athenian: So what’s the definition of the thing we call the soul? Surely we can do nothing but use our formula of a moment ago: “motion capable of moving itself”. Cleinias: Do you mean that the entity which we all call “soul” is precisely that which is defined by the expression “self-generating motion”’?…Athenian: Very well, then. So soul, by virtue of its own motions, stirs into movement everything in the heavens and on earth and in the sea. The names of the motions of soul are: wish, reflection, diligence, counsel, opinion true and false, joy and grief, cheerfulness and fear, love and hate…Soul also uses all related or initiating motions which take over the secondary movements of matter and stimulate everything to increase or diminish, separate or combine…’. Notice that Plato cited emotions as motion(s of soul).

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