Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 6

Key elements in the Neoplatonism of Hegel and Plotinus

6.1 Plotinus’ phenomenology of spirit

Plotinus’ austere phenomenology, written more than one thousand five hundred years before Hegel’s, is a study of Soul’s emanation from and journey back to the philosopher’s god, to itself in its own activity –  rediscovering itself in the process – and to unity with other Souls in their One true source; a study of consciousness, as it thinks outwards and continues to develop in return through its levels or hypostases, energised by desire and recollection.

The second hypostasis Intellectual-Principle is the universe of Spirit, the unity-in-multiplicity of Divine Mind and of all ‘minds’. Everything that is in the sensory universe – including ‘matter’, now immutable – is in this universe, but mutually inclusive, far more alive and eternal.

6.2 Movement and rest

Movement that is spiritual, moral, rational and dialectical is the primary life of the Enneads. It is a marker of Neoplatonism that this movement is both activity and rest. Plotinus wrote of

a movement not spatial but vital, the movement of a single living being whose act is directed to itself, a being which to anything outside is at rest, but is in movement by dint of the inner life it possesses, the eternal life.1

Of his second hypostasis Intellectual-Principle (Intellect, Divine Mind, First Thinker and Thought) he wrote

(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.2

The greatest activity and stillness are those of God, the One, which Cusanus excellently illustrated in De possest3 with the metaphor of a spinning top – the faster it rotates, the more it is at rest. Hegel drew on this Neoplatonic relationship between activity and rest when he wrote

Reason in and for itself is eternal and at rest, but it is likewise activity, and its actions are exclusively rational. It produces itself from within itself4

6.3 A life of creative dynamism

Creation for the Neoplatonists (most importantly, of self) is a by-product of contemplation, of thought thinking itself. Many times Plotinus gave poetic expression to his vitalism. Particularly, given the importance of infinity to Hegel and his fellow Neoplatonists, Plotinus asked

How is that Power present to the universe?

As a One Life.

Consider the life in any living thing; it does not reach only to some fixed point, unable to permeate the entire being; it is omnipresent. If on this again we are asked, How?, we appeal to the character of this power, not subject to quantity but such that though you divide it mentally for ever you still have the same power, infinite to the core…Conceive it as a power of an ever-fresh infinity, a principle unfailing, inexhaustible, at no point giving out, brimming over with its own vitality.5

Life apart from God is only a shadow. Hegel often gave the same lyrical expression

The fecundity of the Earth causes life to break forth everywhere and in every way6

to the same dialectical vitalism

The things and developments of the natural and spiritual world constitute manifold configurations, and endlessly multiform existence7

As Beethoven concluded his Ninth Symphony with a paean by Schiller to Neoplatonic unity, Hegel concluded his Phenomenology of Spirit with a paean by Schiller to Neoplatonic vitalism.8

6.4 Plotinus’ sculptor

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.9

Neoplatonism, the philosophy of purification, perfection and unification – of self-making and self-knowing – is built on this simile which recurs in the writing (and in the case of Michelangelo, his sculpture!) of the Neoplatonists.10 In Hegel’s philosophy the work of this sculptor of the soul can be traced as a spiritual movement through the Phenomenology of Spirit then through the Science of Logic, finding completion in Absolute Idea and again as the complete movement of emanation and return through the Trinity of the Encyclopaedia. As one gains in (self-)knowledge, one makes and shapes oneself spiritually. For Hegel, we are self-creating as a species, and history is the mark of Spirit’s struggle to know itself. Spirit too, is Artist.11

the spirit contrives to perceive itself and to know itself as an existent world, and to have itself as its own object. As such, it is like an artist who is impelled to project is own being outside himself and to satisfy himself in his own work.12

6.5 Emanation and return

The Enneads are built on a process of emanation from unity, to distinction and the development of multiplicity, to the resolution of that multiplicity in the return to unity. Hegel maximised the number of ways he could explore this process by laying his Neoplatonic reading of the Trinity (to which I will return) over and weaving it into what he stated in the Introduction to his ‘lesser’ Logic are the three subdivisions of philosophy

I. Logic: the science of the Idea in and for itself.

II. The Philosophy of Nature: the science of the Idea in its otherness.

III. The Philosophy of Mind: the science of the Idea come back to itself out of that otherness.

In his ‘lesser’ Logic he wrote

(The Idea is) an eternal creation, eternal vitality, and eternal spirit…it forever remains reason. The Idea is the dialectic which again makes this mass of understanding and diversity understand its finite nature and the pseudo-independence in its productions, and which brings the diversity back to unity.13

in his Philosophy of Nature

the eternal divine process is a flowing in two opposite directions which meet and permeate each other in what is simply and solely one.14

in his Philosophy of Mind

the ‘I’ sets itself over against itself, makes itself its own object and returns from this difference, which is, of course, only abstract, not yet concrete, into unity with itself.15

Of God he wrote

“God creates the world.” In other words, God posits the world as something that is other, distinct from him (hence something naturally posited); [yet] the world is [also] what continues to belong to God and to be posited by him, so that it has the movement of betaking itself back to him.16

of the Absolute

The Absolute is the universal and one idea, which, by an act of ‘judgement’, particularises itself to the system of specific ideas; which after all are constrained by their nature to come back to the one idea where their truth lies.17

of Spirit

Spirit’s development is a mutual separation and, by means of it, a coming-to-itself. …Whatever takes place in heaven and on earth takes place only in order to attain this goal, which is spirit’s eternal life, its finding itself, its coming to be for itself, its coming together with itself. In its forward movement there is an estrangement, a cleavage. But it is spirit’s very nature to become estranged from itself in order to find itself once again.18

of consciousness

consciousness on its onward path from the immediacy with which it began is led back to absolute knowledge as its innermost truth. This last, the ground, is then also that from which the first proceeds19

of history

What takes shape is a multiplicity or abundance of determinations, with the unity of course remaining, but determining itself within itself, deepening itself internally. The deepening itself internally is by the same token a going-outside-itself, but one that maintains the determinations in unity.20

Even when writing of the ‘four elements,’ he discussed them using the Neoplatonic model, sustained by the implication of Christ’s coming into the world and crucifixion

In the same way that Nature displays itself in the universal elements of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth: Air is the enduring, purely universal, and transparent element; Water, the element that is perpetually sacrificed; Fire, the unity which energises them into opposition while at the same time it perpetually resolves the opposition; lastly, Earth, which is the firm and solid knot of this articulated whole, the subject of these elements and of their process, that from which they start and to which they return21

Using different concepts, every one of these quotations describes the same Neoplatonic process of emanation and return in the ‘world’ of consciousness, in the ‘world’ of the ‘I.’

The systematic philosophy that Plotinus presented unsystematically in his fifty-four tractates is a study of spiritual and moral development, of the One and the Good, a logic of divine thought, a philosophy of nature and of ‘mind.’ Hegel pulled these strands apart and reworked the same Neoplatonic process in each.

He wrote that philosophy is ‘a going-within-itself, a becoming more internally profound’22 and that the point of departure and goal of philosophy is to know that truth is only one, ‘to know it as the source from which all else, all laws of nature, all phenomena of life and consciousness, just issue forth, and to know that they are only reflections of it.’23 Plotinus’ philosophy, as does Hegel’s, holds that that truth is the whole.24 While the philosophy of the latter is much more detailed, that detail was, far more often than not, a development on what was already present or implicit in that of the former.



1. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., IV.4.8
2. Plotinus, Enneads, Trans., A.H.Armstrong, op. cit., vol. II, II.2.3. Plotinus also referred to the ‘static activity’ of Intellect (II.9.1)
3. ‘God, who is not only maximal motion but also minimal motion (i.e., motion which is most at rest),’ Nicholas of Cusa, De Possest (‘On Actualised-Possibility’), 1460, in A Concise Introduction to the Philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1986, 914-954, 10, 18-19
4. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, op. cit., 209. Again, drawing on Plotinus’ One, ‘(Science exists solely in) the self-movement of the Notion which pulsates within itself but does not move, inwardly vibrates, yet is at rest. It is self-identical, for the differences are tautological; they are differences that are none.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 100 
5. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.5.12
6. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, op. cit., 416
7. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. I, 369. From the notes of one person who attended Hegel’s lectures: ‘The law of the vitality of things is what activates nature. But this law is only in the inner being of things; in space and time it exists only in an external manner, for nature knows nothing of the law.’ Ibid., 384
8. ‘from the chalice of this realm of spirits/foams forth for Him his own infinitude,’ Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., #808
9. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., I.6.9
10. ‘For the wise thought as if [along the following line]: a craftsman [who] wants to chisel a statue in stone and [who] has in himself the form of the statue, as an idea, produces – through certain instruments which he moves – the form of the statue in imitation of the idea,’ Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (‘On Learned Ignorance’), 1440, in Nicholas of Cusa On Learned Ignorance, A Translation and an Appraisal of De Docta Ignorantia, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1990, 3-151, II, 151; ‘Finally, there remains within yourself a pathway of seeking God, viz., [the pathway] of removing boundaries. For when in a piece of wood a craftsman seeks the face of a king, he removes all things bounded otherwise than is that face. For through faith’s conceiving, he sees in the wood the face that he seeks actually to behold with his eye. For to his eye that face is future—[that face] which, in his intellectual conception, is present to his mind by faith. Therefore, when you conceive God to be something better than can be conceived, you remove all that is bounded and contracted,’ Nicholas of Cusa, De Quaerendo Deum (‘On Seeking God’), 1445, in A Miscellany on Nicholas of Cusa, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1994, 314-330, V, 49. Of ‘The living work of art’ Hegel wrote ‘Although each individual knows how to play the part of at least a torch-bearer, one of them comes forward who is the patterned movement, the smooth elaboration and fluent energy of all the participants. He is an inspired and living work of art that matches strength with its beauty; and on him is bestowed, as a reward for his strength, the decoration with which the statue was honoured, and the honour of being, in place of the god in stone, the highest bodily representation among his people of their essence.’ (my italics) Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 438. The philosophy of Nietzsche was profoundly influenced by Neoplatonism – from The Birth of Tragedy to the final ‘aphorism’ in The Will to Power which, beneath the Nietzschean drama, is a synopsis of the Enneads – ‘Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: the artistic power of the whole of nature reveals itself to the supreme gratification of the primal Oneness amidst the paroxysms of intoxication. The noblest clay, the most precious marble, man, is kneaded and hewn here, and to the chisel-blows of the Dionysiac world-artist there echoes the cry of the Eleusinian mysteries, “Do you bow low, multitudes? Do you sense the Creator, world?”,’ Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, (1872), Trans., Shaun Whiteside, Ed., Michael Tanner, Penguin, London, 1993, 18. 
11. Ibid., 424
12. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, op. cit., 101
13. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 278
14. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, op. cit., 26
15. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 11
16. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. I, 323
17. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 275
18. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 215
19. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 71
20. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 266
21. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 300
22. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. I, 174
23. Ibid., 172
24. ‘The authentic and primal Cosmos is the Being of the Intellectual Principle…(it is) a life living and having intellection as one act within a unity: every part that it gives forth is a whole; all its content is its very own, for there is here no separation of thing from thing, no part standing in isolated existence estranged from the rest, and therefore nowhere is there any wronging of any other, even among contraries. Everywhere one and complete,’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., III.2.1

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