The philosophy of Plotinus: on contemplation

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Wilhelm Uhde, 1910. Oil on canvas, private collection. 'No doubt the wisdom of the artist may be the guide of the work; it is sufficient explanation of the wisdom exhibited in the arts; but the artist himself goes back, after all, to that wisdom in Nature which is embodied in himself; and this is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unity but rather a unity working out into detail.’ Enneads V.8.5. The ‘faceting’ of ‘Analytic Cubism’ could be interpreted as depicting the ghostly, fragmentary nature of material existence at the same time as seeking to evoke the second hypostasis, Intellect.

The object dissolved in the unity of consciousness: Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Wilhelm Uhde, 1910. Oil on canvas, private collection. ‘No doubt the wisdom of the artist may be the guide of the work; it is sufficient explanation of the wisdom exhibited in the arts; but the artist himself goes back, after all, to that wisdom in Nature which is embodied in himself; and this is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unity but rather a unity working out into detail.’ Enneads V.8.5.
The ‘faceting’ of ‘Analytic Cubism’ could be interpreted as depicting the ghostly, fragmentary nature of material existence at the same time as seeking to evoke the second hypostasis, Intellect.


But how are you to see into a virtuous Soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.

The Enneads I.6.9

Plotinus’ Enneads are built on contemplation. Its practice enables Soul to rise to Intellect. Inseparable from the notion of will, contemplation is the self-directed and self-contained thought of the higher realm. For Plotinus contemplation, thought and life are synonymous. They are most true and perfect in Intellect. The contemplation of Ideas is above the contemplation of images and the contemplation of the Good is above the contemplation of Ideas.

Plotinus differentiated between contemplation and reasoning,1 defining ‘reasoning’ as ‘the research into what a thing has in itself’, into that which exists independently. He asked whether ‘research’ means not yet possessing.2 Again, contemplation is not concerned with the mass, size or shape of matter perceived by the senses. It draws upon a higher vision which nurtures the Soul in its purpose3

Plotinus wrote of ‘creative contemplation’.4 Contemplation is perfect creative activity, and the latter occurs spontaneously when the former is entered into. In its activity, contemplation creates what is contemplated – from the weak and dreamlike contemplation underlying creation by Nature to that by Soul which in its contemplating (since it is more complete and therefore more contemplative than Nature) gives birth in a way and to a product superior to that of Nature.

‘And my act of contemplation makes what it contemplates, as the geometers draw their figures while they contemplate…What happens to me is what happens to my mother and the beings that generated me, for they, too, derive from contemplation, and it is no action of theirs which brings about my birth; they are greater rational principles, and as they contemplate themselves I come to be.’5

Contemplation is the true source of all production6 and activity and it is the goal to which these aspire at every level, from the earth and plants of Nature, upwards to the Soul’s contemplation in Intellect of the One.7 Because it is not perfect, Soul is eager to penetrate and unite with the object of its contemplation which is for it an object of knowledge.8

Plotinus distinguished between creative activity in Intellect and in this world. Though also – like the Soul(s of the strong) – driven by recollection, a longing for inward vision, and the desire to share that vision, those with weak souls create an object in the sensory world as a focus for outward sight – a poor imitation of the object of inward vision and of the contemplative process of and in the other world. We contemplate in that one in order to create all else, by becoming One.9

‘Men, too, when their power of contemplation weakens, make action a shadow of contemplation and reasoning. Because contemplation is not enough for them, since their souls are weak and they are not able to grasp the vision sufficiently, and therefore are not filled with it, but still long to see it, they  are carried into action, so as to see what they cannot see with their intellect. When they make something, then, it is because they want to see their object themselves and also because they want others to be aware of it and contemplate it, when their project is realised in practice as well as possible.’10

In Intellect, contemplation (thinking), substance and being are the same. In it, there are no parts but there is complete unity and identity of the ‘knowing faculty’ (Soul – become the activity of knowing) and the non-physical, known object of its knowledge (Being). Soul enters Idea as Idea infuses Soul.11

Plotinus proposed a method for ‘dematerialising’ by contemplation the visible universe comprised of separate elements in order to ‘see’ that of the spiritual intelligible in which all elements have no perceptible shape, magnitude, temporal or spatial difference – since each is all, and all, though distinct, are an infinite one.

‘Let us then apprehend in our thought this visible universe, with each of its parts remaining what it is without confusion, gathering all of them together into one as far as we can, so that when any one part appears first, for instance the outside heavenly sphere, the imagination of the sun and, with it, the other heavenly bodies follows immediately, and the earth and sea and all the living creatures are seen, as they could in fact all be seen inside a transparent sphere. Let there be, then, in the soul a shining imagination of a sphere, having everything within it, either moving or standing still, or some things moving and others standing still. Keep this, and apprehend in your mind another, taking away the mass: take away also the places, and the mental picture of matter in yourself, and do not try to apprehend another sphere smaller in mass than the original one, but calling on the god who made that of which you have the mental picture, pray him to come. And may he come, bringing his own universe with him, with all the gods within him, he who is one and all, and each god is all the gods coming together into one; they are different in their powers, but by that one manifold power they are all one; or rather, the one god is all; for he does not fail if all become what he is; they are all together and each one again apart in a position without separation, possessing no perceptible shape – for if they did, one would be in one place and one in another, and each would no longer be all in himself…nor is each whole like a power cut up which is as large as the measure of its parts. But this, the [intelligible] All, is universal power, extending to infinity and powerful to infinity; and that god is so great that his parts have become infinite…’12

Everything that exists and happens in the higher universe has its poor copy in this one – objects in this universe are the replicas of Forms in the other, physical reason the replica of contemplative reason, physical sight the replica of the vision of Intellect, physical activity in the creation of an object to be seen with a vision limited to the sensation of that object the replica of contemplative activity in the creation of an object which enables vision.

One acts in and engages with this world because one’s capacity for contemplative activity, for vision, is lacking. In Intellect, through contemplation, the subject’s thought and the object of desired knowledge (that is – being, itself the product of contemplation) have identity as self-living sight and real substance, as the partless essence of what is, complete within itself.

‘…as contemplation ascends from nature to soul, and soul to intellect, and the contemplations become always more intimate and united to the contemplators, and in the soul of the good and wise man the objects known tend to become identical with the knowing subject, since they are pressing on towards intellect, it is clear that in intellect both are one, not by becoming akin, as in the best soul, but substantially, and because thinking and being are the same.’13

The wise man is so because he has become vision, directed within himself.14 In contemplating (creating and seeing) eternity within oneself, one moves towards it.15 In bringing one’s contemplation to vision, one perceives substance from within it,16 and comes to unity with oneself. One contemplates…(One)self – as the god ‘silently present’. 17

‘But whoever has become at once contemplator of himself and all the rest and object of his contemplation, and, since he has become substance and intellect and “the complete living being”, no longer looks at it from outside – when he has become this he is near, and that Good is next above him, and already close by, shining upon all the intelligible world. It is there that one lets all study go…’18

Contemplation and living Being unite in Intellect as truth, beauty, eternal life and vision. The life (activity) of ‘Mind’ is far superior, far more vital, creative and real, than life in this world.



1. On this point which is crucial not only to an understanding of this Platonic/Neoplatonic current in philosophy and its influence on the Western visual arts, but, more broadly, to an understanding of how our reasoning functions, Plotinus, like Plato, confusingly used the term ‘reason’ both in reference to an activity of the physical body and the activity of Soul. For Plato and Plotinus, the former activity is concerned with the material world and the latter with contemplation of and in the spiritual. As with everything in the two realms, the first reason is the inferior copy of the latter. Ficino’s contribution to this confusion of reason as a function of matter with (disembodied) spiritual contemplation is exemplary: ‘Reason by itself grasps the incorporeal Reasons of all things…reason investigates heavenly things, and does not have a seat of its own in any part of the body, just as divinity also does not have a particular seat in any part of the world…’ followed immediately by ‘Reason…perceives not only those things which are in the world and the present, as sensation does, but also those which are above the heaven, and those which have been or will be.’ Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, Trans. J. Sears. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1985, Speech V, Chapter 2, pp.84-85.

2. Enneads, III,8,3

3. ‘When therefore he who is embarked on the contemplation of this kind imagines size or shape or bulk about this nature, it is not Intellect which guides his contemplation because Intellect is not of a nature to see things of this kind, but the activity is one of sense-perception and opinion following sense-perception.’ VI,9,3. Thus, an attempt to accurately depict the physical appearance of a person or an object, because it would focus the viewer’s attention on the sensory world, is not only not necessary but might distract the Soul from its purpose. Porphyry wrote of Plotinus ‘He showed, too, an unconquerable reluctance to sit to a painter or a sculptor, and when Amelius persisted in urging him to allow of a portrait being made he asked him, “Is it not enough to carry about this image in which nature has enclosed us? Do you really think I must also consent to leave, as a desirable spectacle to posterity, an image of the image?”’ Porphyry, ‘On the Life of Plotinus and the Arrangement of His Work’  in  The Enneads, Third ed. Abridged. Trans. S. MacKenna. London: Penguin, 1991, cii.

4. III,8,5

5. III,8,4. Compare with Plato on birth in Phaedrus. Also compare with Rorty on Aristotle’s notion of activity: ‘An activity can only be identified as such if it has been brought to its natural fulfilment: so, for instance, the activity of reproduction has not occurred unless an offspring has been produced…’ A. Oksenberg Rorty, ‘The Psychology of Aristotelian Tragedy’. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XVI (1991), pp.70-71.

6. ‘… all things are a by-product of contemplation…the truest life is life by thought…’  III,8,8.

7. ‘… all things aspire to (the activity of) contemplation, and direct their gaze to this end – not only rational but irrational living things, and the power of growth in plants, and the earth which brings them forth…’ III,8,1. ‘…we must strike for those Firsts, rising from things of sense which are the lasts. Cleared of all evil in our intention towards The Good, we must ascend to the Principle within ourselves….It must be our care to bring over nothing whatever from sense, to allow nothing from that source to enter into Intellectual-Principle…’ VI,9,3.

8. ‘The Soul has a greater content than Nature has and therefore it is more tranquil; it is more nearly complete and therefore more contemplative. It is, however, not perfect, and is all the more eager to penetrate the object of contemplation, and it seeks the vision that comes by observation … it possesses its vision by means of that phase of itself from which it had parted.’ III,8,6.

9. Nietzsche believed that the artist of genius, inspired by the Dionysiac impulse, goes beyond physical phenomena and, through an inward vision, finds unity with the eternal One: ‘Only insofar as the genius in the act of artistic creation coalesces with this primordial artist of the world, does he know anything of the eternal essence of art; for in this state he is, in a marvellous manner, like the weird image of the fairy tale which can turn its eyes at will and behold itself; he is at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator.’ The Birth of Tragedy, (1872) Section 5, in F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, Trans. W. Kaufmann. New York, Vintage, 1967, p.52 and ‘…the tragic artist…creates his figures like a fecund divinity of individuation…and as his vast Dionysian impulse then devours his entire world of phenomena, in order to let us sense beyond it, and through its destruction, the highest artistic primal joy, in the bosom of the primordially One. The Birth of Tragedy, Section 22, in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, op. cit., p.132. The same religious belief in creativity was held by another extremely influential vitalist and Neoplatonic contemporary of Nietzsche’s – Bergson, whose best known work is titled Creative Evolution (1907).

10. III,8,4. See note 1. Superior to representational art with its referent in this world is the art of which it is desired to evoke, in the viewer’s ‘mind’ through contemplative ‘reason’, its referent in Intellect – the art of physical creation (resulting in the viewer’s critical appreciation of the work of another) contra the art of contemplative creation (in which the viewer is stimulated to complete the process, internally). On the determination of aesthetic value: ‘“Do you think that it will be a poor life that a man leads who has his gaze fixed in that direction, who contemplates absolute beauty with the appropriate faculty and is in constant union with it? Do you not see that in that region alone where he sees beauty with the faculty capable of seeing it, will he be able to bring forth not mere reflected images of goodness but true goodness, because he will be in contact not with a reflection but with the truth? And having brought forth and nurtured true goodness he will have the privilege of being beloved of God, and becoming, if ever a man can, immortal himself.”’ Symposium, 211a-212c.

11. ‘In proportion to the truth with which the knowing faculty knows, it comes to identification with the object of its knowledge. As long as duality persists, the two lie apart, parallel as it were to each other; there is a pair in which the two elements remain strange to one another, as when Ideal-Principles laid up in the mind or Soul remain idle. Hence the Idea must not be left to lie outside but must be made one identical thing with the Soul of the novice so that he finds it really his own. The Soul, once domiciled within that Idea and brought to likeness with it, becomes productive, active; what it always held by its primary nature it now grasps with knowledge and applies in deed, so becoming, as it were, a new thing and, informed as it now is by the purely intellectual, it sees (in its outgoing act) as a stranger looking upon a strange world. It was, no doubt, essentially a Reason-Principle, even an Intellectual Principle; but its function is to see a (lower) realm which these do not see.’ III,8,5. Compare with. Met., and De Anima 430a: ‘…(intellect) is itself thinkable just as the thought-objects are, for in the case of things without matter that which thinks is the same as that which is thought. For contemplative knowledge is the same as what is so known. …Each of the objects of thought is potentially present in the things that have matter, so that while they will not have intellect, which is a capacity for being such things without matter, the intellect will have within it the object of thought.’

12. V,8,9. Compare with Phaedo on Plato’s differentiation between the visible world and the true world ‘not in nature’, attainable by those who have purified themselves through philosophy (108a-114c), Ficino: ‘Therefore go ahead; subtract its matter if you can (and you can subtract it mentally), but leave the design. Nothing of body, nothing of matter will remain to you. On the contrary, the design which came from the artist and the design which remains in the artist will be completely identical.’ Ficino op. cit., pp.92-93, and Bergson’s method for bringing duration into consciousness: ‘Matter (separate from consciousness) thus resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other and travelling in every direction like shivers through an immense body. In short, try first to connect together the discontinuous objects of daily experience; then resolve the motionless continuity of their qualities into vibrations on the spot; finally fix your attention on these movements, by abstracting from the divisible space which underlies them and considering only their mobility (that undivided act which our consciousness becomes aware of in our own movements): You will thus obtain a vision of matter, fatiguing perhaps for your imagination, but pure, and freed from all that the exigencies of life compel you to add to it in external perception. Now bring back consciousness…At long, very long, intervals, and by as many leaps over enormous periods of the inner history of things, quasi-instantaneous views will be taken, views which this time are bound to be pictorial, and of which the more vivid colours will condense an infinity of elementary repetitions and changes. In just the same way the multitudinous successive positions of a runner are contracted into a single symbolic attitude, which our eyes perceive, which art reproduces and which becomes for us all the image of a man running…The change is everywhere, but inward; we localise it here and there, but outwardly.’ Matter and Memory. (1896). Trans. N. Paul, W. Palmer. New York,1988, p.208.

13. III,8,8

14. ‘The Sage, then, has gone through a process of reasoning when he expounds his act to others; but in relation to himself he is Vision: such a man is already set, not merely in regard to exterior things but also within himself, towards what is one and at rest: all his faculty and life are inward-bent.’ III,8,7.

15. ‘What then, if one does not depart at all from one’s contemplation of it (eternity) but stays in its company, wondering at its nature, and able to do so by a natural power which never fails? Surely one would be (would one not?), oneself on the move towards eternity and never falling away from it at all, that one might be like it and eternal, contemplating eternity and the eternal by the eternal in oneself…eternity is a majestic thing, and thought declares it identical with the god…’ III,7,5.

16. Bergson believed that intuition probes the flow of duration, placing one within the object, giving an absolute.

17. V,8,11

18. VI,7,36


4 thoughts on “The philosophy of Plotinus: on contemplation

  1. Here is my comment, Phil. I believe we all are reflections of the Creator. The illusion is, we don’t know it because of the maya that is found in this realm. So when a person contemplates who he is and begins to recreate himself into that form which he truly was made to be, that is where illumination comes in, a real grasp of self-power. We chip and we carve and we throw away what is no longer needed, diving deeper and deeper within in order to find our True Essence. This has been my Path for many years, seeing through the lies and deceptions in order to arrive at Truth’s Door. And then to fashion myself into that Truth, and not what others have told me Truth is.

    How is that for a comment, Phil? I found this shelf all ready and dusted for me, so I left a comment. (smile) Love, Amy


    • Hello Amy, thank you very much for your comment which resonates so well with the words of Plotinus. On being ‘approved’, it has now gone with the post on which you commented, which means that now there is another space in my blog’s ‘comments for approval’ section that I continue to dust and check daily… Very best wishes, Phil


    • Hi oneanna65,
      thanks for your sincere comment – and I really liked your latest post on less is best. Beethoven made the same point – and he composed the 9th symphony!
      Best wishes, Filippo


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