Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 7

Hegel conflated the Neoplatonic hypostases

7.1 in the philosophy of Plotinus

In his discussion of Plotinus’ philosophy in Lectures on the History of Philosophy, having written of nothing other than the One and unity with it, Hegel continued

What is characteristic in Plotinus is his great enthusiasm for the elevation of spirit to the Good and True – to what has being in and for itself. …The main thing is to raise oneself up to the representation of pure being, for that is the simplifying of the soul through which it is transposed into blissful stillness, because its object too is simple and at rest. …In general, and according to its principal moments, this content is that what is first is essential unity, is essential being [Wesen] as such, as primary. The principle is not things as subsisting, not the apparent multiplicity of existence; on the contrary, it is strictly their unity. …The defining of the One is what matters most. …The first being [Sein] overflows…Plotinus designates this bringing forth as a going-forth, a procession. …God or the Good1 is what engenders…So what is first is what we call the absolute being [Wesen]. Understanding, nous, or thinking consists then in the fact that by returning to itself the primary being beholds itself; it is a seeing and something seen [ein sehendes Sehen]. …These are the main definitions for Plotinus. The first aspect, [that] of dunamis or energeia, is the positing by means of the idea’s returning into itself.2

Hegel’s fundamental ‘error’ repeatedly exemplified in the above – among several ‘errors’ – was to conflate Plotinus’ first and second hypostases – the One/the Good with Intellectual-Principle/Intellect/Divine Mind/Being.

Not only did Plotinus hold the One to be beyond the definition, beyond the seeming conceptual clarity so important to Hegel, the main thing for Plotinus, the goal of his philosophy, is for us to raise ourselves beyond the unity-in-multiplicity of the second hypostasis (nous/Being) and to return to unity with the One – beyond that which creates to the highest consciousness in that which generates. Plotinus wrote

It is precisely because there is nothing within the One that all things are from it: in order that Being may be brought about, the source must be no Being but Being’s generator, in what is to be thought of as the primal act of generation. Seeking nothing, possessing nothing, lacking nothing, the One is perfect and, in our metaphor, has overflowed, and its exuberance has produced the new: this product has turned again to its begetter and been filled and has become its contemplator and so an Intellectual-Principle.3

Any discussion of God’s ‘Mind’ or our ‘mind,’ of the activity of thinker, thinking and thought, of seer and seeing (which require a subject and its object – i.e. distinction) and of Ideas4 pertains to the second hypostasis – they play no part in the first

Generative of all, The Unity is none of all; neither thing nor quantity nor quality nor intellect nor soul; not in motion, not at rest, not in place, not in time: it is the self-defined, unique in form or, better, formless, existing before Form was, or Movement or Rest, all of which are attachments of Being and make Being the manifold it is.5

7.2 in the philosophy of Proclus

After his discussion of Plotinus’ philosophy, Hegel went on to that of Proclus, of whom he wrote that his main work is ‘On Plato’s Theology’. He continued

He finds it necessary to show the Many as One and the One as Many – to lead back to unity the forms that the Many assumes.6

In fact, the person who found it necessary to show the Many as One and the One as Many in the philosophy of Proclus was Hegel. Proclus was utterly consistent with Plotinus on the relationship between the One and the many – for both, the One is distinct and ‘the many’ refers to the unity-in-multiplicity of the second hypostasis, generated by the One.

For the many so far as many, and the one so far as one are different from each other. And so far as neither is from neither, they have no sympathy with each other.7

the one itself will not be different from itself; for it would be many and not one. Nor will it be the same with itself. For this thing which is same is in another, and same is not the one itself. For the one is simply one, because it is not many.8

The one therefore is exempt from the many. The many however subsist primarily in the summit of the first intellectual Gods, and in the intelligible place of survey, as we are taught in the second hypothesis. The one, therefore, entirely transcends an order of this kind, and is the cause of it.9

Further, in both On the Theology of Plato and in his Elements of Theology, Proclus’ writing again repeatedly exposed Hegel’s fundamental ‘error’ in his discussion of Plotinus’ philosophy by restating Plotinus’ position regarding the relationship between the One and being

there is a certain one prior to being, which gives subsistence to being, and is primarily the cause of it; since that which is prior to it is beyond union, and is a cause without habitude with respect to all things, and imparticipable, being exempt from all things.10

the First Principle…has unity only, which implies that it transcends Being11

Hegel continued his conflation of the first and second hypostases into his discussion of Proclus’ triad in the second hypostasis. Hegel wrote ‘As for the definition of the triad, its three moments are the One, the Infinite, and the Limit.’ Again, the One is distinct from this triad. Proclus wrote

Hence it is necessary to arrange the one prior to the one being, (my italics) and to suspend the one being from that which is one alone. For if the one and the one being were the same, and it made no difference to say one and being (since if they differed, the one would again be changed from the one being,) if therefore the one differs in no respect from the one being, all things will be one, and there will not be multitude in beings, nor will it be possible to denominate things, lest there should be two things, the thing and the name.12

7.3 and in his own philosophy

Hegel’s conflation of the hypostases in his discussion of the philosophies of Plotinus and Proclus is repeated in his own system which he then structured under a Neoplatonic reading of the Christian Trinity. For maximum philosophical and creative potential, Hegel collapsed the first hypostasis down into the second – he made Being the first ‘definition’ of the Absolute13 and used ‘One’, ’God,’ ‘Being’ and ‘Mind’ interchangeably. He wrote in his Encyclopaedia Logic ‘the One forms the presupposition of the Many: and in the thought of the One is implied that it explicitly make itself Many.’14

Where Proclus sought to bridge a perceived gap between the transcendent, unparticipated One and the beings it generated by using participated henads, three of the most important uses of Christianity to Hegel (in addition to its poetic potential as metaphor and allegory) were that he both solved this problem, with Christ as God’s participation in the world – the reverse of the world participating in its creator – and, in the process had his first necessary negation and with Christ’s death and resurrection, its negation.15

Hegel also brought the third hypostasis Soul and its product the material world up into this realm. As if in response to Plotinus asking

what reflection of that world could be conceived more beautiful than this of ours? What fire could be a nobler reflection of the fire there than the fire we know here? Or what other earth than this could have been modelled after that earth? And what globe more minutely perfect than this, or more admirably ordered in its course, could have been conceived in the image of the self-centred circling of the World of Intelligibles?16

Hegel argued that

The sensible in general has as its fundamental characteristic externality, the being of things outside each other. Space-time is the externality in which objects are side by side, mutually external, and successive. The sensible mode of consideration is thus accustomed to have before it distinct things that are outside one another. Its basis is that distinctions remain explicit and external. In reason this is not the case.17

In the realm of reason, of Neoplatonic Life, ‘the perfect life, the true, real life’ is unity-in-multiplicity where

the simple substance of Life is the splitting-up of itself into shapes and at the same time the dissolution of these existent differences; and the dissolution of the splitting-up is just as much a splitting up and a forming of members. With this, the two sides of the whole movement which before were distinguished, viz. the passive separatedness of the shapes in the general medium of independence, and the process of Life, collapse into one another.18



1. While both Plotinus and Proclus did refer to the One as ‘God,’ Plotinus also wrote ‘We must therefore take the Unity as infinite not in measureless extension or numerable quantity but in fathomless depts of power. Think of The One as Mind or as God, you think too meanly; use all the resources of understanding to conceive this Unity and, again, it is more authentically one than God,’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.9.6
2. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. II, 334-337
3. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.2.1
4. ‘What is new (in Plotinus’ system)…is the notion of making the ‘Ideas’ states of being of the Intellect and no longer distinct objects, of bringing the very subject of thought into the intelligible world, of considering the hypostases less as entities than as spiritual attitudes. His theology is a synthesis of cosmogony (world) and psychogony (soul).’ Henry, ‘The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought,’ op. cit., li-lii.
5. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.9.3; ‘we know the divine Mind within, that which gives Being and all else of that order: but we know, too, that other, know that it is none of these, but a nobler principle than anything we know as Being; fuller and greater; above reason, mind, and feeling; conferring these powers, not to be confounded with them.’ Ibid., V.3.14
6. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol. II, 341-342. In the footnote, the editor wrote ‘The dialectic of the One and the Many is its (The Elements of Theology) opening theme: “Prop. 1. Every manifold in some way participates in unity”…’ Proclus, as I show, was absolutely clear on this point. The unity to which he was referring in Prop. 1 was not that of the One but the unity-in-multiplicity of the second hypostasis. Not only does the editor quote Prop. 5 ‘Every manifold is posterior to the One,’ Prop. 4, which he failed to quote is ‘All that is unified is other than the One itself.’
7. Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, Trans., Thomas Taylor, 1816, The Prometheus Trust, Frome, 1995, Bk. II, Ch. I
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid., Bk II, Ch. XII. Of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology, Helmig and Steel wrote ’The work is a concatenated demonstration of 217 propositions, which may be divided into two halves: the first 112 propositions establish the One, unity without any multiplicity, as the ultimate cause of reality…,’ Christoph Helmig, Carlos Steel entry, ‘Proclus,’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/proclus/
10. Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, op. cit., Bk. III, Ch. III
11. Proclus, The Elements of Theology, Trans. E.R. Dodds, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, Prop. 115. Redding noted ‘Proclus…wanted to say that the One couldn’t be thought of as a type of knowable object, couldn’t even be thought of as having being.’ University of Sydney tutorial 17.09.10
12. Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, op. cit., Bk. III, Ch. XX. This ‘one being’ became the Divine Mind and Being that creates being of Cusanus and Hegel. More on this later.
13. ‘If we enunciate Being as a predicate of the Absolute, we get the first definition of the latter. The Absolute is Being.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 125. Inwood wrote that Cusanus was the first to use ‘Absolute’ as a noun (in De docta ignorantia), Michael Inwood, A Hegel Dictionary, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, 27. Plotinus used ‘Absolute’ repeatedly as a noun: ‘Certainly this Absolute is none of the things of which it is the source,’ III.8.10 [in the tractate ‘Nature, Contemplation, and the One,’ translated by Creuzer in 1805]; ‘a defined One would not be the One-Absolute: the absolute is prior to the definite.’ V.3.12; ‘And how does the secondarily good (the imaged Good) derive from The Good, the Absolute? What does it hold from the Absolute Good to entitle it to the name?’ V.3.16, Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit. Inwood, like so many academics – particularly in philosophy – would benefit in so many ways from studying the writing of Plotinus, a philosopher every bit the equal of and as important as Plato and Aristotle (Hegel described Alexandrian Neoplatonism as ‘the consummation of Greek philosophy’ [Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, op. cit., vol I, 202]) – but that would mean confronting his careerism and ideological prejudice – both challenges beyond academic lovers of wisdom and truth. 
14. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 142
15. ‘God…is the foundation, the beginning point, the point of departure, though at the same time it is simply the abiding unity and not a mere soil out of which the distinctions grow. Instead all distinctions remain enclosed within this universal.’ Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. I, 374; ‘(God distinguishes) himself from himself while [remaining] at the same time the eternal sublation of the distinction.’ Ibid., vol. III, 278
16. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., II.9.4. Cusanus also conflated the hypostases. Hence his brilliant pronouncements on the world in De docta ignorantia were based in metaphysics not science.
17. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 280
18. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 108; ‘…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.’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.9.5. The reference for the second last quote in the text is Plotinus, Enneads, Trans., A.H.Armstrong, op. cit., vol. I, I.4.3 

Contents of Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist posts

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