The Philosophy of Plotinus: Part Five

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

Intellect is both thought (thinking being, ‘that which primarily thinks’)1 and the objects of its creation existing in the realm of thought.2 It is eternal mind and absolute living Being.3 It contains a finite totality of non-sensory, interpenetrating beings which are both Forms and intelligences,4 and is the highest knowable reality, majestic and beautiful. It

‘…might be likened to a living sphere teeming with variety, to a globe of faces radiant with faces all living…with Intellect enthroned over all so that the place entire glows with Intellectual splendour.’5

In Intellect, there is no past nor future, only an eternal present. Though having shape (because it contains being), and despite existing as the absolute standard of measurement, it has no extension and is beyond all bound, measure, and even spatial and numerical infinitude.6 It is infinite power.

By an intensely active and stationary wandering within itself, in the universe of ‘the Meadow of Truth’,7 Intellect produces its act – everlasting Being.8 Motion (both in a creative outpouring and towards the Good, and the attainment of self-knowledge) enables the former, rest sustains the latter.9 The existence and movement of Intellect lie in the ceaseless diversity of its production.10

The lower activity of Intellect falls short of lasting unity, contemplating (thinking and looking at) the objects of its creation. As the creator of All, Intellect is unity-in-multiplicity – a unity of thought and Forms, a reflection of the whole within the part, an identicality of the whole and the part – of  thought, being and life.

‘(In) the true and first universe (of Intellect)…each part is not cut off from the whole; but the whole life of it and the whole intellect lives and thinks all together in one, and makes the part the whole and all bound in friendship with itself, since one part is not separated from another and has not become merely other, estranged from the rest…And since it is everywhere one and complete at every point it stays still and knows no alteration; for it does not make as one thing acting upon another. For what reason could it have for making, since it is deficient in nothing?’11

In a going outwards, the multiplicity of Intellect is a dissipation of self. In its higher activity – eternally loving and desiring its prior12 – and in its return, Intellect is above multiplicity. With Forms at rest, it approaches and unites in direct awareness with its source, the Good. In this process, thought (active actuality) is the bringing to completion of something prior to thought, and within it.

‘For it has something to think about because there is something else before it; and when it thinks itself it is in a way comprehending what it had from the vision of another in itself.’13

We are each an intelligible universe. Thus, to attain (or more precisely, return) to Intellect,14 because it is independent of our lower nature and the outward, we must leave the sensory world behind. Yet we can know it almost like an object of sense.15

Unlike sensation, which can only give knowledge of the images of objects existing independently of it and individually, knowledge in Intellect is undifferentiated from the object, because the objects exist as a partless unity-in-multiplicity, in which movement is both thought and primary, real and living substance. Thought cannot exist without this movement.16 The act of intellection requires the identity of subject, immaterial object and (movement in) the act of knowing.

‘The Intellectual-Principle is not something taking cognisance of things as sensation deals with sense objects existing independently of sense: on the contrary, it actually is the things it knows: it does not merely possess their images or representations: whence could it have taken them? No: it resides with its objects, identical with them, making a unity with them: knowledge of the immaterial is universally identical with its objects.’17

These objects are not abstractions but are concrete reality. Proof of their truth is neither necessary nor possible.18

Part five/to be continued…


1. II,9.1. In MacKenna’s translation, ‘Intellectual-Principle’ is the first emanation from the Good and is manifested in every Form. The term refers to the creative element of Divine Mind or Divine Intelligence. Plotinus defined thinking as a soul’s ‘…kind of seeking its substance and its self and what made it, and…in turning back in its contemplation and recognising itself it is at that point rightly and properly Intellect…’ VI,7.37.

2. IV,8.3

3. Cf. Timaeus 31B1 and 39E7-9

4. Each Form, as being and intellect, is both one and a composite of many parts existing prior to it. Consistent with Platonism, Plotinus understood the Forms to be the thoughts of God (see V,9.7). He used the metaphor of a circle and its radii to explain the multiplicity of beings in the universe of Mind: ‘Often for the purpose of exposition – as a help towards stating the nature of the produced multiplicity – we use the example of many lines radiating from one centre; but while we provide for individualisation we must carefully preserve mutual presence. Even in the case of our circle we need not think of separated radii; all may be taken as forming one surface: where there is no distinction even upon the one surface but all is power and reality undifferentiated, all the beings may be thought of as centres uniting at one central centre: we ignore the radial lines and think of their terminals at that centre, where they are at one. Restore the radii; once more we have lines, each touching a generating centre of its own, but that centre remains coincident with the one first centre; the centres all unite in that first centre and yet remain what they were, so that they are as many as are the lines to which they serve as terminals; the centres themselves appear as numerous as the lines starting from them and yet all those centres constitute a unity.
Thus we may liken the Intellectual Beings in their diversity to many centres coinciding with the one centre and themselves at one in it but appearing multiple on account of the radial lines – lines which do not generate the centres but merely lead to them. The radii, thus, afford a serviceable illustration for the mode of contact by which the Intellectual Unity manifests itself as multiple and multipresent.’ VI,5.5. For Plotinus, the bodies of the celestial living beings are spherical. Although Plotinus held that the Form of man exists in Intellect as a universal, in some sections of the Enneads, counter to traditional Platonic doctrine, he allowed the existence of Forms of individuals (see V,7). Thus we are each the All. ‘…to become Intellect does not involve the destruction or absorption of the particular personality but its return to its perfect archetypal reality…’ Armstrong, op. cit., vol. I, xxii. The universe of Intellect contains or in a sense is all particular minds or intelligences.

5. VI,7.15. Intellect is a ‘bulkless power’ in us, beyond sense-perception, ‘standing on itself, no feeble shadowy thing but the most living and intelligent of all, than which nothing is livelier or more intelligent or more substantial…’ VI,6.8. ‘…the perfect life, the true, real life, is in that transcendent intelligible reality, and…other lives are incomplete, traces of life, not perfect or pure and no more life than its opposite.’  I,4.3. Being and beauty are identical.

6. Because thought is common to all and is not physical, it has no need of these qualities. The unity of real beings would not be possible otherwise. Similarly, we all share the same Good.

7. Of the intelligible Plotinus wrote there is an ‘…endlessness for ever welling up in it, the unwearying and unwearing nature which in no way falls short in it, boiling over with life…’ VI,5.12. ‘Beings could not exist save by the activity of Intellectual-Principle; wandering down every way it produces thing after thing, but wandering always within itself in such self-bound wandering as authentic Intellect may know; this wandering permitted to its nature is among real beings which keep pace with its movement; but it is always itself; this is a stationary wandering, a wandering within ‘the Meadow of Truth’ from which it does not stray.
It holds and covers the universe which it has made the space, so to speak, of its movement, itself being also that universe which is space to it. And this Meadow of Truth is varied for that movement through it may be possible; suppose it not always and everywhere varied, the failing of diversity is a failure of movement; failure in movement would mean a failing of the Intellectual Act; halting, it has ceased to exercise its Intellectual Act; this ceasing, it ceases to be.
The Intellectual-Principle is the Intellectual Act; its movement is complete, filling Being complete; and the entire of Being is the Intellectual Act entire, comprehending all life and the unfailing succession of things. Because this Principle contains Identity with Difference its division is ceaselessly bringing the different things to life. Its entire movement is through life and among living things. To a traveller over land all is earth but earth abounding in difference: so in this journey the life through which Intellectual-Principle passes is one life but, in its ceaseless changing, a varied life.’ VI,7.13. The ‘Meadow of Truth’ is from Phaedrus 248B. Plotinus’ usage of the Greek for ‘wandering’ (pláne), applied to the life of Intellect, is from Parmenides 136E. The ‘planes’ of ‘Analytical’ Cubism can be analysed from this perspective. Real numbers (of which quantitative numbers are an image) are prior to and generate beings. They are also a particular kind of beings and forms with the same reality and causative power as other Forms. (Armstrong) Number is a structuring principle in the intelligible world and the Forms can be considered as a system of quasi-mathematical formulae, which project themselves onto Matter to produce the multiplicity of the physical world. (J. Dillon in his Introduction to Plotinus, The Enneads, Third ed., Abridged. Trans. S. MacKenna. op.cit.).

8. ‘Intellect, to act at all, must inevitably comport difference with identity; otherwise it could not distinguish itself from its object by standing apart from it, nor could it ever be aware of the realm of things whose existence demands otherness, nor could there be so much as a duality.’ VI,7.39. Plotinus defined being as the self-directed activity of thought. ‘The Being of Intellect, therefore, is activity, and there is nothing to which the activity is directed; so it is self-directed. Thinking itself, it is thus with itself and holds its activity directed to itself.’ V,3.7. Being is an image, but of an original so great that the very copy stands as a reality.

9. ‘(Intellect) is both at rest and in motion; for it moves around Him [the Good]. So, then, the universe, too, both moves in its circle and is at rest.’ II,2.3. Plotinus also referred to the ‘static activity’ of Intellect.  II,9.1.

10. ‘…we must think of it as a quiet, unwavering motion; containing all things and being all things, it is a multiple but at once indivisible and comporting difference.’ VI,9.5. Multiplicity in Intellect is not evil because Intellect is unified. Since Intellect has multiplicity, it is less than the One.

11. III,2.1. Also ‘From everything which has been said this is perfectly clear, that each thing in the All, according to how it is in nature and disposition, contributes to the All and is acted upon and acts, just as in each individual living thing each of the parts, according to how it is in nature and condition, contributes to the whole and serves its purposes and has its own proper rank and utility; it gives what comes from it and receives as much of what comes from the others as its nature is capable of receiving; and all has a kind of common awareness of all; and if each of the parts was a living being, it would have functions as a living being different from its functions as a part.’ IV,4.45. ‘Intellect is many, intelligible, intelligent and in motion because it thinks and each thought, to be a thought, must be something multiply various – i.e. in Intellect, thought thinks of another. Substance thinks in Intellect, but the greatest substance (the Good) stands still in majesty since it transcends thought….Thinking brings substance into being. Thinking is a power of generation itself. Thought and substance are the same things. The Good is beyond substance and thought and is alone by itself with no need of the things which come from it. it did not act before it generated activity, nor did it think before it generated thought. There is no thought in the Good itself, otherwise the Good would be in a unity with that which is less than it. Thus thought and substance are together.’ Armstrong, op. cit., vol. VII, 209-211.

12. I.e. Formless Form. ‘…in Intellect there is desire and a movement to convergence with its form.’  III,8.11. Intellect always needs, desires and attains the Good; but the Good, as the one productive power, needs nothing.

13. VI,7.40

14. Plotinus believed we must first acquire the moral and intellectual perfection necessary to attain Intellect before aspiring to the One. He referred to both the One and Intellect as God. For example, we originally existed in Intellect, in which some were even gods: ‘…pure souls and intellect united with the whole of reality…’. VI, 4.14. ‘But if someone is able to turn around, either by himself or having the good luck to have his hair pulled by Athene herself, he will see God and himself and the All…’ VI,5.7.

15. VI,9.5

16. ‘But if someone were to say that “in immaterial things the knowledge and the thing are the same”, one must understand what is said in the sense that it does not mean that the knowledge is the thing nor the reason contemplating the thing the thing itself, but the other way round, that the thing itself when it is without matter is object of thought and thought, not thought in the sense of being a definition of the thing or an intuition of it, but the thing itself in the intelligible is nothing else but intellect and knowledge. For the knowledge is not directed to itself, but the thing there makes the knowledge, which does not stay like the knowledge of a thing in matter, to be different: that is, makes it true knowledge: that is, not an image of the thing but the thing itself. So the thought of movement has not made absolute movement, but absolute movement has made the thought of it, so that it has made itself as movement and thought; for movement there is also the thought of that thing itself, and it itself is movement, because it is the first movement – for there is no other before it – and real movement, because it is not incidental to something else, but is the active actuality of what is moved, which exists in actuality. So, again, it is substance…’ VI,6.6. ‘…if it (Intellect) stands still, it does not think; so that if it came to a standstill, it has not thought; but if this is so, it does not even exist. It is, then, thought; that is, all movement filling all substance, and all substance is all thought encompassing all life…’ VI,7.13.

17. V,4.2. Plato argued for the same pathway to unity with real Being. By developing the divine within us – ‘thought’ in its movement – we can unite our understanding with what is understood. ‘There is of course only one way to look after anything and that is to give it its proper food and motions. And the motions that are akin to the divine in us are the thoughts and revolutions of the universe. We should each therefore attend to these motions and by learning about the harmonious circuits of the universe repair the damage done at birth to the circuits in our head, and so restore understanding and what is understood to their original likeness to each other. When that is done we shall have achieved the goal set us by the gods…’ Timaeus 48, 90. The One’s inability to see itself as external is the supersession of intellection. Plotinus made frequent use of the metaphor of light to express the unity of the subject and the object of contemplation: ‘…shining down upon all, the light of godlike Intellection.’ I,6.5.

18. The real beings of Intellect exist in the ‘thinking’ subject. ‘In its (Intellect’s) thinking, then, there is activity and motion, and in its thinking itself, substance and being: for, existing, it thinks itself as existent…’ VI,2.8.

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