Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 11k Being, being and nothing

Dillon wrote

One major problem which Plotinus inherited from previous Platonism was a contradiction between the Platonic-Pythagorean doctrine of the first principle as a radical unity – One, or a monad – and the belief, enunciated most notably by Aristotle (but going back to Anaxagoras) that the first principle was an intellect (nous), and specifically an intellect thinking itself1

Plotinus’ ‘solution’ (modified by Proclus, Cusanus and Hegel) was to make the One and intellect the first and second hypostases (the latter generated from the first – followed by the third, Soul, created by the second). Dillon continued

That the first principle was both a monad and an intellect was accepted already by Xenocrates in the Old Academy (Frs. 15, 16 Heinze) – though not, we may note, by his predecessor Speusippus – and became the accepted position in Middle Platonism, no contradiction being apparently observed between absolute unity and self-intellection.2

Hegel drew on this flexibility, maximising the philosophical and creative potential of his first principle by not only conflating Plotinus’ One with the first element Being in Proclus’ triad Being/Life/Intelligence in the second hypostasis Intellect, but also by overlying the Christian Trinity across that triad. The first principle could now, with a range of philosophical and religious meanings to use creatively, be known as One, Absolute, Mind, Being and God – forming the first element both in a single reality (Hegel’s ‘reason-world’) and in the stages in the unfolding of ‘reality’.3

For Plotinus the activity of Intellectual-Principle is thinking. It is the author of being and Plotinus equated Intellectual-Principle with it.4 Hegel began his Science of Logic and Encyclopaedia with this thinking, the first element in Proclus’ triad.5

Not only does Being think,6 that thinking, as Hegel indicated in a quote in Greek from the Metaphysics at the culmination and close of his Encyclopaedia, is divine, is God7 which Hegel described using the same expressions – ‘essential being’ and ‘absolute being’ – he had used when discussing the One in Plotinus’ philosophy (7.1).

Hegel’s God and Plotinus’ Intellectual-Principle are only truly what they potentially are having ‘emanated’ and returned, and in that process become fulfilled and complete.

Hegel wrote

in our thinking, our first thinking, God is only pure being, or even essence, the abstract absolute, but not God as absolute spirit, which alone is the true nature of God.8

and Plotinus expressed the result of the same Neoplatonic process thus

It is now Intellectual-Principle since it actually holds its object, and holds it by the act of intellection: before, it was no more than a tendance, an eye blank of impression: it was in motion towards the transcendental; now that it has attained, it has become Intellectual-Principle9

The divine activity of thinking requires an object to initiate that process and it finds that object by creating a distinction within itself

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.’10

Redding identifies that initial object

As the Logic is an investigation into the categorial structure of thought, its starting point will be the most immediate thought determination, that presupposed by all others: being, or das Sein.11

and thinking about that initial object is the basis of all further development

Being seems to be both immediate and simple, but it will show itself to be, in fact, only something in opposition to something else, nothing. The point seems to be that while the categories being and nothing seem both absolutely distinct and opposed…they appear identical as no criterion can be invoked which differentiates them. The only way out of this paradox is to posit a third category within which they can coexist as negated (Aufgehoben) moments. This category is becoming, which saves thinking from paralysis because it accommodates both concepts. Becoming contains being and nothing in the sense that when something becomes it passes, as it were, from nothingness to being.12

The dialectical cognition of God is underway, to which process negation is essential

There is…a technical, logical sense in which the second concept or form is the “opposite” or negation of—or is “not”—the first one—though, again, it need not be the “opposite” of the first one in a strict sense.13

Theorising the relationship between contradictories, between a concept and its other is fundamental to Neoplatonism. Proclus discussed being, non-being and the negation of being and Cusanus discussed both the relationship between creation, being and nothing and Being, being and not-being. (8.4.5)

Plotinus described the process whereby Intellectual-Principle comes to know its prior14 – the same process whereby divine Being comes to cognise itself in the Science of Logic

Thus the Intellectual-Principle, in the act of knowing the Transcendent, is a manifold. It knows the Transcendent in very essence but, with all its effort to grasp that prior as a pure unity, it goes forth amassing successive impressions, so that, to it, the object becomes multiple: thus in its outgoing to its object it is not (fully realised) Intellectual-Principle; it is an eye that has not yet seen; in its return it is an eye possessed of the multiplicity which it has itself conferred: it sought something of which it found the vague presentment within itself; it returned with something else, the manifold quality with which it has of its own act invested the simplex.

If it had not possessed a previous impression of the Transcendent it could never have grasped it, but this impression, originally of unity, becomes an impression of multiplicity; and the Intellectual-Principle in taking cognisance of that multiplicity knows the Transcendent and so is realised as an eye possessed of its vision.15



1. Dillon, ‘Plotinus: an Introduction,’ The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., xcii
2. Ibid.
3. ‘Are Being, Life and Intelligence to be regarded as three aspects of a single reality or as three successive stages in the unfolding of the cosmos from the One? Proclus characteristically answers that both views are true: they are aspects, for each of them implies the others as cause or as consequent; they are successive, not coordinate, for each is predominant (though not to the exclusion of the others) at a certain stage of the process.’ Dodds’ commentary, Proclus, The Elements of Theology, op, cit., 254
4. ‘Intellectual-Principle is Being,’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.3.16; ‘Thus it is true that “Intellection and Being are identical”,’ Ibid., V.9.5; ‘The Being of Intellect…is activity, and there is nothing to which the activity is directed; so it is self-directed.’ Plotinus, Enneads, Trans., A.H.Armstrong, op. cit., vol. V, V.3.7
5. ‘the beginning…has the significance and form of abstract universality. …it is…thinking,’ Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 827
6. ‘the absolute Being is just this being that is thought,’ Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 371
7. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 315; translation from Aristotle, The Metaphysics xii, 7, 1072b, Trans. and Introduction by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin, London, 2004, 374: ‘And God also has life; for the activation of thought is a life, and He is that activation. His intrinsic activation is supreme, eternal life. Accordingly we assert that God is a supreme and eternal living being, so that to God belong life and continuous and eternal duration. For that is what God is.’; ‘God, far from being a Being, even the highest, is the Being,’ Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 164
8. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, op. cit., 527
9. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., V.3.11
10. Ibid., VI.7.39
11. Redding, Hegel’s Hermeneutics, op. cit., 145
12. Redding, ‘Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hegel/, op. cit.
13. Julie E. Maybee, ‘Hegel’s Dialectics,’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyhttp://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hegel-dialectics/
14. Neoplatonic theory is anything but hard and fast. Plotinus’ position regarding the One’s transcendence is an instance. Dillon wrote ‘(Although Plotinus) emphasises the transcendence and otherness of the One, its superiority to Being and Intellect, and its unknowability by any normal faculty of cognition…in a number of passages…he makes some attempt to explore what sort of apprehension the One might have of itself. For Plotinus, after all, the One is not really a negativity…,’ Dillon, ‘Plotinus: an Introduction,’ The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., , xciii-xciv. He then quoted from V.4.2: ‘The intellectual object (i.e. the One) is self-gathered, and is not deficient as the seeing and knowing principle (i.e. Intellect) must be – deficient, I mean, as needing an object – it is therefore no unconscious thing…it is, itself, that self-intellection which takes place in eternal repose, that is to say, in a mode other than that of the Intellectual-Principle.’ Ibid., xciv
15. Ibid., V.3.11

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