Aristotle, theology, contemplation and matter

Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’, 1509-11, fresco, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’, fresco, 1509-11, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

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Russell wrote that philosophy lies between science and theology. Aristotle wrote in the Metaphysics that first philosophy is the science of theology. I would like to make a couple of points before discussing Aristotle’s theology in that book and some points regarding Aristotle on contemplation.

It has been argued that the central doctrine of the Metaphysics is that the foundation of the world is natural ‘substance’ and not some separate and ideal entity, whether mathematical or other. For Aristotle, the subject of his book was those things that lie beyond process and change, the science of things transcending what is physical or natural. In my view, the central doctrine of the Metaphysics is that the foundation of the world is an eternal substance beyond process and change.

Nothing lies beyond process and change.

Nothing transcends what is physical and natural.

Lenin wrote that the scholastics took all that was dead in Aristotle and left what was questioning, what was living. An example of brilliance in Aristotle’s thought is the following quotation:

‘It is…impossible that movement should either come-to-be or be destroyed. It must always have been in existence, and the same can be said for time itself, since it is not even possible for there to be an earlier and a later if time does not exist. Movement, then, is also continuous in the way in which time is – indeed time is either identical to movement or is some affection of it. (There is, however, only one continuous movement, namely spatial movement, and of this only circular rotation.)’

Yet he denied the heart of dialectics and the engine of movement: ‘it is not possible for the same thing both to be and not to be at one and the same time, or indeed harbour any other such pair of contraries.’ Again, for Aristotle, nothing that has matter can be eternal.

More than referring to what can be seen, heard, etc., ‘matter’ indicates what exists independently of us, of our consciousness and ability to think – and of which we are its products. Matter, space, time and motion are inseparable.

Aristotle’s theology and the role that contemplation plays in relation to it is at both the core and the pinnacle of his Metaphysics – they cannot be passed off while we get into the meat of the text. He wrote that divinity is ‘the primary and fundamental principle.’ God or the Unmoved Mover, the ‘eternal actual substance’, not subject to process of any kind, is the object of desire and the focus of memory for the world and everything in it. As such the Unmoved Mover is the final cause of the world. Because of it there is motion in the world.

It is essential to understand the most significant place that theology plays in philosophy in general. Aristotle did not understand its place in Plato’s philosophy. He wrote, amongst his numerous criticisms of Plato in the Metaphysics: ‘it was perceptible particulars that the Forms were postulated to explain.’

I disagree – the Forms were postulated to justify Plato’s theology. In his criticism of the Forms, Aristotle gave the appearance of having been blind to their theological purpose – he has analysed them ‘logically’ – the very criticism he made of Plato, that he thought ‘logically’. This also points to the weakness of his metaphysics – that they, like Plato’s Forms, are built on contemplative reason, reason divorced from testing in practice.

Aristotle believed that contemplative philosophy brings a philosopher as close as possible to a divine state – that philosophy nurtures the divine fragment in us. He wrote that ‘contemplative study is to be chosen above all other sciences, but it is this First Science of Theology that we must prefer to all other kinds even of contemplation.’ He drew on his ethical theory to argue that the highest form of life is contemplative thought.  The prime mover enjoys that life, necessarily.

For Aristotle, God is permanently engaged in the contemplation of contemplation (noesis noeseos), in thinking about thinking. In activating thought, God activates life (compare this with John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the word [my emphasis], and the word was with God and the Word was God.’).

Contemplation (matter reflecting on matter, objective reality reflecting on itself) and its determinations, divorced from testing in practice, is the greatest, most pernicious failure of philosophy.

Its etymology, appropriately, traces to a place apart, for the observation of auguries – con-templum.

It has always played into dominant ideologies, been used by the ideologues of dominant classes to guide away from the world, as their masters exploit it.

As Lenin wrote: ‘from living perception to abstract thought and from this to practice, such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality.’



The Advice of a Concealed Priest, Motivated by a Love for Truth

‘…what is philosophy? To answer, we must know just where the boundaries of philosophy lie. A great deal that gets counted as philosophy we exclude; if we just went by the name, we would have to bring in much material that we nevertheless disregard. In the same way we could say about religion that, on the whole, we can leave it alone, although in history, religion and philosophy have not left one another alone. …Neither has left the other untouched; hence we may not do so either.

We have to speak about two main subjects that are connected to philosophy; the first is science as such, and the second is religion in particular and the relationship of philosophy to it; there must be open, direct, and honest consideration of this latter point.’

G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume I: Introduction and Oriental Philosophy, Together With the Introductions from the Other Series of These Lectures, Trans. Robert F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2009, 69-70

The Ethics and the Enneads on Virtue: the Perfection of Self by a Self-focused Man – Part Two

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence)

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

Where contemplation is the culmination of the Ethics, it is the substance of The Enneads. For both Aristotle and Plotinus, contemplation is the highest and perfect form of activity.19 It is non-discursive and self-contained, but whereas for Aristotle it is an aesthetic and intellectual appreciation by the perfect man20 of knowledge already acquired – the full experience of what it is to be eudaimon, for Plotinus it is the means for the attainment of ‘knowledge’ in the hypostasis of Intellect21 and for the aesthetic perfection of self. For Aristotle, unlike practical activity, nothing is to be gained from contemplation except the pleasure of its own act,22 for Plotinus contemplation, which for him was creative, carries Soul to its source. For both, it is the manifestation of the divine within.23

Aristotle wrote about ‘good’, ‘virtue’, ‘moral’ and the less complete ‘eudaimonia’ in relation to practical life, but these concepts only find their meaning in Plotinus’ system in the shadow of his understanding of contemplation. In The Virtues (I.2) Plotinus equated virtue with attaining likeness to God24 – by ‘becoming just and holy, living by wisdom’. Any possible misunderstanding that this might be in reference to practical life is denied by the conclusion of the first sentence – ‘we must escape hence.’25 He wrote that there are civic and purificatory virtues. The civic virtues (prudence, fortitude, sophrosyny and rectitude) are a principle of beauty in us as long as we remain focused on this life but they are inferior to the purificatory virtues, those same virtues, when they are focused away from this life and on God. As purificatory virtues, they enable the paring away from the Soul of not only the body’s moods and passions but of the body itself.26 His thought on eudaimonia drew the same conclusion.27

In his definition of ‘virtue’ Aristotle used the term ‘rational principle’. Plotinus used the same term, mystically – Soul carries rational-principles (or reason-principles or Forms) from Intellect to the quasi-hypostasis of Nature. Again, production in Nature is the expression of contemplation.

On the subject of contemplation, intellect and reason – even when Aristotle wrote about contemplative intellect, about the contemplation of ‘those things whose first principles are invariable’,28 his use of ‘contemplation’ and ‘intellect’ were not intended to have mystical content. Similarly with his use of the term ‘reason’ – they were all applied to this world – but not so for Plotinus, whose philosophy was based on an antipathy to matter.29

Although the word ‘love’ occurs seven times in the quotation from the Ethics but only twice in that from The Enneads, Aristotle in the Ethics regarded as far superior a life ruled by reason than one ruled by feeling30 – the stronger the emotion, the more critical he was of it. Plotinus was at the other end of the spectrum on this matter – never have the emotions pressed more forcefully against the constraints of reason and rationalisation than in The Enneads.

But there are underlying connections between the person Aristotle and Plotinus most favoured in these books. Not only was the focus of each, in different ways, on the perfection of an individual self, those who could be most eudaimon were recognised as an elite31 who could not contribute to their community’s life with that activity. Further, Kathleen Wilkes wrote ‘The contemplative life is fully attainable only insofar as man (my italics) can become god-like, and the constant and irremovable block to this is that he is biologically an animal.’32

Both Aristotle and Plotinus believed that eudaimonia is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue and that through virtue one can attain the highest good. That attainment for Aristotle was to be in this world, for Plotinus, in the world ‘beyond’.



19. Ethics 1177a5-25

20. Ibid., 1176a10-29

21. Paul Henry suggested that the hypostases of One, Intellect and Soul should be considered less as entities than as spiritual attitudes. Paul Henry. ‘The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought’. In The Enneads, op. cit., li

22. Ethics 1177a25-b13

23. Ibid., 1177b13-33

24. Plotinus quoted Plato ‘Likeness to God is a flight from this world’s ways and things’, Theaetetus 176AB

25. The Enneads I.I.I

26. Ibid., 1.2.3 Also ‘the man will work for the final Disengagement; he will live, no longer, the human life of the good man – such as Civic Virtue commends – but, leaving this beneath him, will take up instead another life, that of the Gods.’ I.2.7

27. ‘a life of mingled good and ill…could not be deserved to be called a life of happiness; it misses the Great, both in the dignity of Wisdom and in the integrity of Good. The life of true happiness is not a thing of mixture. And Plato rightly taught that he who is to be wise and to possess happiness draws his good from the Supreme, fixing his gaze on That, becoming like to That, living by That.’ Ibid., 1.4.16

28. Ethics 1138b35-1139a16

29. Plotinus, like Plato, confusingly used the term ‘reason’ both in reference to an activity of the physical body and the activity of Soul. For the two, the former activity is concerned with the material world and the latter with contemplation of and in the spiritual. As with 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, 84-85.

30. Ethics 1168b32-1169a23, 1179b7-1180a15

31. Aristotle: Discourses on ethical theory ‘are incapable of impelling the masses towards human perfection.’ ibid., 1179b7-29, Plotinus: ‘to those of power to reach, it is present; to the inapt, absent.’ The Enneads VI,9,7. Barnes op. cit. referred to Aristotle’s ‘egoistic eudaimonism’. Ibid., 31

32. Wilkes op. cit., 352

The Ethics and the Enneads on Virtue: the Perfection of Self by a Self-focused Man

‘Apollo (of the) Belvedere’, marble, after lost bronze original by Greek sculptor Leochares, c. 350-325BC, Vatican Museum, Vatican City

‘Apollo (of the) Belvedere’, marble, after lost bronze original by Greek sculptor Leochares, c. 350-325BC, Vatican Museum, Vatican City

‘Every craftsman loves the work of his own hands more than it would love him if it came to life. Probably this happens most of all with poets, because they are exceedingly fond of their own poems, loving them as if they were their children. Well, the case of the benefactor is much the same. What he has benefited is his own handiwork; so he loves it more than the work loves its maker. The reason for this is that existence is to everyone an object of choice and love, and we exist through activity (because we exist by living and acting); and the maker of the work exists, in a sense, through his activity. Therefore the maker loves his work, because he loves existence. This is a natural principle; for the work reveals in actuality what is only potentially.’
Ethics Book IX 1167b28-1168a18

‘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

These two quotations are from equally dense, austere texts which have resonated through Western culture – the former by a man with a passion for this world, the latter by one with equal passion for another, ‘beyond’ it.1

My argument will be that despite the many and sometimes immense differences in their thinking, these men in the two texts from which the quotations have been drawn had focused on the same subject – what a man should do to achieve the perfection of self – for the former, in this world, for the latter, in that ‘beyond’.

As Jonathan Barnes pointed out in his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of the Ethics, the title ‘ta ethika’ transliterates to ‘The Ethics’ but translates as ‘Matters to do with Character’.2 The translation of the title is well exemplified in Aristotle’s discussion of the benefactor. Aristotle was not concerned with the effects of the benefactor’s actions on the beneficiary (or from the perspective of the Ethics as a whole, particularly with that of the good man’s actions in relation to others), rather it was the character of the virtuous man that interested him. The benefactor’s benevolence is his handiwork, the product of his activity. In crafting his benevolence and loving it, he lovingly crafts his own character, taking it from potentiality to actuality.3

In Book Two of the Ethics Aristotle defined ‘virtue’ as ‘a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle’.4 He gave a list of virtues lying between excess and deficiency, magnanimity being the crown.5 But the mean has nothing to do with ‘average’ or ‘mid-way’, even relative to the individual. ‘The mean’, when addressed correctly, offers the potential not just for excellence but towards perfection of character for the man of practical reason – consider the requirements Aristotle placed on its expression – ‘to feel or act towards the right person to the right extent at the right time for the right reason in the right way – that is not easy, and it is not everyone that can do it. Hence to do these things well is a rare, laudable and fine achievement.’6

Writers have criticised Aristotle for incoherence (Ackrill),7 indecision (Nagel)8 or an irreconcilable contradiction (Wilkes),9 by presenting two versions of eudaimonia10 in the Ethics – one based on the employment of practical wisdom (phronesis) the other on the engagement in contemplation (theoria). These criticisms miss the consistency, miss what ties the practical man of The Ethics to the philosopher in Book X – it is that Aristotle was interested throughout in the perfection of character based on reason, first for the practical man then for the philosopher, who represents human perfection and the pinnacle of Aristotle’s study. Wilkes herself noted that the philosopher must apply his practical reason to secure the circumstances in which he can engage in theoria, that the success of his use of his practical reason will be measured by the opportunities it creates for the exercise of theoria.11

Where the majority would choose compulsion and punishment rather than fine ideals12 and could not be encouraged towards perfection,13 the philosopher whose life is related to a fine ideal14 becomes eudaimon in the activity of contemplation, the activity of God.15

Plotinus developed on Plato’s philosophical theology and was not so much influenced by Aristotle (Porphyry wrote that the Metaphysics were condensed in The Enneads) as he adapted what he found useful in his writing to his own purpose.16 His own theorising focused totally on the individual and the ‘world’ within – the final sentence of The Enneads spoke of ‘liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of earth, the passing of solitary to solitary.’17

The quotation at the top by Plotinus is the heart of The Enneads – the fifty four tractates are built around it. This simile, beautifully expressed in MacKenna’s lyrical translation of The Enneads had its source in Plato.18 In it Plotinus sets out the method by which Soul returns through Intellect to the One (or Good). Where Aristotle’s wise man lovingly crafts his character in its activity, from moral to contemplative – thereby perfecting it – the Soul of Plotinus’ man, energised by a remembrance of the unity-in-multiplicity of the realm of Forms in Intellect and a passionate and rationalised desire (which Plato understood so well) to return to its origin in the ineffable absolute beyond being, sheds the reason of the senses and the world of matter, concentrates on its beauty and in so doing perfects itself.

Part one/to be continued…


1. The impact of Plotinus and apophaticism on Western culture is comparable to that of Plato and Aristotle. It is the greatest (and I believe, the most deliberate) failure of philosophers to be ignorant of or to hide and deny this (as did Derrida when asked about it in relation to his philosophy). No area of learning, the practitioners of which pride themselves on their use of reason, has experienced more the influence of revealed knowledge, and the most subjective form of revealed knowledge – apophaticism – than has philosophy. As one example, the philosophy of Nietzsche (that man of ‘god’ who told us God is dead) cannot be understood without an understanding of apophaticism – it suffuses his writing, from his Birth of Tragedy to the final aphorism of The Will to Power which contains a synopsis of The Enneads. Consider ‘What is this Dionysiac exultation that thrills through your being, this straining upwards of all your soul…’ Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna. London, Penguin, 1991 1.6.5. Wherever romanticism, there apophaticism. William Franke’s groundbreaking two volume anthology On What Cannot Be Said, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 2007 traces the history of apophaticism in the West through the writing of its greats in philosophy, religion, literature and the arts. Mark Cheetham has written on its impact on the visual arts – M. Cheetham, The Rhetoric of Purity, Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1991

2. Aristotle, Ethics, trans. J.A.K. Thomson, Penguin, London, 1987, 27

3. ‘…it is right for the good man to be self-loving…’ ibid., 1168b32-1169a23. Aristotle treated friendship in a similar way: ‘a friend is another self…in its extreme form friendship approximates to self-love.’ Ibid., 1166a16-b4. Of self-love: ‘in the whole field of praiseworthy conduct the good man assigns himself the larger share of what is fine.’ Ibid., 1169a23-b11

4. Ibid., 1106b9-1107a1

5. Ibid., 1123b35-1124a23

6. Ibid., 1109a25-b15 On anger: ‘The man who gets angry at the right things and with the right people, and also in the right way and at the right time and for the right length of time, is commended; so this person will be patient, inasmuch as patience is commendable…the excess occurs in respect of all the circumstances; with the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, more than is right, too quickly, and for too long a time…’ 1125b14-1126a24

7. J.L.Ackrill, Aristotle on Eudaimonia, Oxford University Press, 1974, 4

8. Thomas Nagel ‘Aristotle on Eudaimonia’ in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed., Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980, 7

9. Kathleen V. Wilkes ‘The Good Man and the Good for Man in Aristotle’s Ethics’, ibid., 341

10. The term ‘happiness’ should never be used for ‘eudaimonia’, least because of the evocation of a smiley face, far more seriously because of its etymology which ties it to luck, fortune and chance – which Aristotle specifically rejected as playing a part. He wrote ‘That the most important and finest thing of all should be left to chance would be a gross disharmony.’ Ethics 1099b21-1100a9. Again ‘…intention is the decisive factor in virtue and character.’ Ethics 1163a19-b7. The eudaimon engages in a most serious intellectual activity – ‘the pleasure proper to a serious activity is virtuous’ Ethics 1175b22-1176a10. Preferably the word ‘eudaimonia’ should not be translated, but if it were to be, ‘fulfilment’ would perhaps come closest in meaning – Aristotle wrote ‘…the full performance of a man’s function depends upon a combination of prudence and moral virtue’ Ethics 1144a3-24

11. In Oksenberg Rorty op. cit., 350-351, Ethics 1099a7-32, 1178a21-b7

12. Ethics 1179b29-1180a15

13. Ibid., 1179b7-29

14. Ibid., 1179b29-1180a15

15. Ibid., 1178b7-29 It was only in the concluding six pages of the Ethics that Aristotle discussed the state’s role in education with regard to goodness.

16. Compare Plotinus’ Good with Ethics 1094a1-22 ‘the Good has been rightly defined as “that at which all things aim” ’ and the same One with the Unmoved Mover, to which all things are motivated by desire Metaphysics 1072a-b

17. The Enneads 549. In his translation of the Enneads, A.H.Armstrong referred to this as the ‘flight of the alone to the Alone’. Plotinus, Enneads trans. A.H. Armstrong, in seven volumes. London, William Heinemann, 1966-1988

18. The shaping the statue at Phaedrus 252d7, the reductive path to true beauty in Diotima’s speech Symposium 209e-211a, also Phaedrus 253d1-256c1. This simile was used as a metaphor in The Birth of Tragedy, is the basis of Nietzsche’s aesthetics and recurs throughout his writing.


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


The Philosophy of Plotinus: Part Four

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

The One or The Good1 is the First hypostasis of the divine triad. It is logically the One, morally the Good. Plotinus also referred to it as The Formless Form, The Father, The Simple, The Absolute, The Infinite, The Transcendent, The Unconditioned, The Fountain and Principle of Beauty. Plotinus stressed its transcendence of that of which it is the source – existence, essence and life. It is the greatest of all, not in size, but in reality2 and power. Before all else, it is pure will,3 an undifferentiated power4 beyond comprehension, and is boiling with pure activity, the first of which is its goodness. Free from substance and being, it is the principle of substance and being in the intelligible world and ultimately of the becoming of the physical universe.5 It is everywhere, yet is beyond space, time, state, quantity, quality and extension – it is the source of all these.

Transcending the need for thought, the One is pure thought beyond knowledge. It can know neither itself nor anything else. Unthinking (since thinking is movement), but the cause of thinking, it exists before movement and rest, which pertain to being and make being multiple.6 Above all existence, it is not the Creator but is the source of life and generates that which creates in its image – Intellect or Divine Thought. To be precise, it is beyond even naming. Language and discursive reasoning are inadequate to it.7 Self centred, it is self-determined and self-sufficient because it is complete and has no parts. It is the goal to which all and everything aspires. Even those who have never entered the Good must acknowledge its existence because of the presence of its weak images in this world.

To find the One, we must turn inwards through silent contemplation, transcend morality, difference, and the form of intellect, and seek perfect unity with him, at the centre of our souls. Yet we are in Him and all souls find unity there. In reaching for the Good, Soul is reaching for its essence. On attaining its goal, it is beyond being and is truly (knows beyond knowing) itself. Since vision requires shape and desires its acquisition, unity with the One is the shedding of vision and a merging of seer, seeing and seen.

‘The First has no self-awareness; there is no need. It is no duality – or rather, no manifold consisting of itself, its intellective act distinct from itself, and the inevitable third, the object of intellection. No doubt since knower, knowing, and known are identical, all merges into a unity: but the distinction has existed and, once more, such a unity cannot be the First; we must put away all otherness from the Supreme which can need no such support; anything we add is so much lessening of what lacks nothing.’8

The attainment of this unity gives a unique experience higher than possible through the thought of Intellect. It is ‘an immediate intuition, self-directed.’9 Plotinus asked ‘But what if one be deceived?’ (regarding whether The Good has come to him). He answered: ‘In that case there must be some resemblance to account for the error: the good will be the original which the delusion counterfeited and whenever the true presents itself we turn from the spurious.’10

The Good is infinite productive power extending throughout creation. It is of eternal duration.

‘All derives from this: it (the Good) is the origin of the primal movement which it does not possess and of the repose which is but its absence of need; for neither rest nor movement can belong to that which has no place in which either could occur; centre, object, ground, all are alike unknown to it, for it is before all. Yet its being is not limited; what is there to set bounds to it? Nor, on the other hand, is it infinite in the sense of magnitude; what place can there be to which it must extend, or why should there be movement where there is no lacking? All its infinitude resides in its power: it does not change and will not fail; and in it all that is unfailing finds duration.’11

Like a sun before shape, it generates Intellect – its light12 and most perfect possible image.

Part four/to be continued…


1. Compare ‘“…the highest form of knowledge is knowledge of the form of the good, from which things that are just and so on derive their usefulness and value.’” Republic VI,505a, and ‘Knowing of The Good or contact with it is the all-important…’ VI,7.36. For Plato, the Good is a special Form synonymous with beauty and truth. “The truth of the matter is, after all, known only to God. But in my opinion, for what it is worth, the final thing to be perceived in the intelligible realm, and perceived only with difficulty, is the absolute form of Good; once seen, it is inferred to be responsible for everything right and good, producing in the visible realm light and the source of light, and being, in the intelligible realm itself, controlling source of reality and intelligence. And anyone who is going to act rationally either in public or private must perceive it.’” Republic Bk VII, 517b-c. Plotinus also drew on Aristotle’s definition of the Good as that ‘to which everything aspires’ (Nicomachean Ethics I.1094a3) and his Unmoved Mover, which moves all things as the object of desire (Metaphysics A7.1072a-b). Plotinus clearly parted from Aristotle on the latter’s rejection of a transcendent Good.

2. ‘…you may not hope to see it with mortal eyes, nor in any way that would be imagined by those who make sense the test of reality and so annul the supremely real. For what passes for the most truly existent is most truly non-existent – the thing of extension least real of all – while this unseen First is the source and principle of Being and sovran over Reality.
You must turn appearances about or you will be left void of God.’ V,5.11.

3. ‘So he was all will, and there is nothing in him which is not that which wills – nothing, then, before willing. So he himself is primarily his will. So then he is also as he willed and of the kind he willed, and what follows upon his will, what this kind of will generated – but it generated nothing further in himself, for he was this already.’ VI,8.21. ‘Neither can it have will to anything…’ VI,9.6.

4. ‘Power, There (in the Good), is no producer of opposites; it is that steadfast constant which is most decidedly power by inability to depart from unity: ability to produce opposites is inability to hold by the perfect good…’ VI,8.21.

5. ‘For the trace of the shapeless is shape; it is this which generates shape, not shape this, and it generates it when matter comes to it. But matter is necessarily furthest from it…If then what is loveable is not the matter, but what is formed by the form…one must assume that the first nature of beauty is formless.’ VI,7.33.

6. ‘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.’ VI,9.3. ‘That which can make all can have, itself, no extension; it must be limitless and so without magnitude…’ VI,7.32. Sources for these negations include the Parmenides 138b5-6 (on motion and rest), 139b3 (on place) and 141a5 (on time); also the Symposium 211b1.

7. ‘strictly speaking, we ought not to apply any terms at all to It; but we should, so to speak, run round the outside of It trying to interpret our own feelings about It, sometimes drawing near and sometimes falling away in our perplexities about It…’ VI,9.3.

8. VI,7.41

9. VI,7.38. Also ‘Since the Supreme has no interval, no self-differentiation, what can have this intuitional approach to it but itself? Therefore it quite naturally assumes difference at the point where Intellectual-Principle and Being are differentiated’ VI,7.39.

10. VI,7.26

11. V,5.10. Note that Plotinus associated movement with lack.

12. ‘The only reasonable explanation of act flowing from it lies in the analogy of light from a sun…the One shines eternally…’ V,3.12. ‘A circle related in its path to a centre must be admitted to owe its scope to that centre; it has something of the nature of that centre in that the radial lines converging on that one central point assimilate their impinging ends to that point of convergence and of departure, the dominant of radii and terminals: the terminals are of one nature with the centre, feeble reproductions of it, since the centre is, in a certain sense, the source of terminals and radii impinging at every point upon it; these lines reveal the centre; they are the development of that undeveloped.
In the same way we are to take Intellectual-Principle and Being. This combined power springs from the Supreme, an outflow and as it were development from That and remaining dependent upon that Intellective nature, showing forth that, so to speak, Intellect-in-Unity which is not Intellectual-Principle since it is no duality. No more than in the circle are the lines or circumference to be identified with that centre which is the source of both: radii and circle are images given forth by indwelling power and, as products of a certain vigour in it, not cut off from it.
Thus the Intellective power circles around the Supreme which stands to it as archetype to image…’ VI,8.18. Intellect cannot exist in the Good – to do so (adapting from Nietzsche on virgin birth) would make the One maculate.

The Philosophy of Plotinus: Part Three

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

The creative process is a result of illumination from the One which from its superabundance, overflows and generates its image, Intellect. Living Mind in turn, stable beyond change, spontaneously and eternally pours forth the multiple power of the Forms in its image, Soul. It does so without reason, calculation, imagination or memory.1

Soul, like Mind, is moved and aspires to and returns into its prior. There it is filled and in the movement of its own excess, creates through its image Nature, the universe of sensation. As the lowest part of Soul, Nature does not know, but only gives form to matter. Because it brings form into being, creation is both contemplation and consummation,2 the divine contained in every act. Yet man,3 having ceased to be Intellect, cannot produce true images of himself. On the contrary, restoring himself to Intellect, he again becomes creator of everything, he again becomes God.4

Plotinus valued the dynamic creative soul5 and the principle (power) of creation over the created object.6 The two-way dynamism of his doctrine – the flowing from, return to, and absorption in the Absolute – is a complex dialectics of ‘mind’ involving a simultaneity of identity and difference, rest and movement. Plotinus theorised a dual activity on each level of being: one activity that is internal to it and one that goes out from it. The dynamism and fluidity of his doctrine is paramount.7

In the Enneads, movement is not the sign of life, it is the primary life. It is common to all life in ‘the sleepless light’8 of Intellect. It is the life of ‘mind’ and the active actuality of being and substance. It is being and substance itself.9 Being and movement are a unity since movement, in taking being from potentiality to actuality, makes it perfect, makes form awake.10 The artificial separation of being from movement occurs in discursive reason.11

Movement occurs through elevation, introversion (intensification and concentration), and a flowing outwards (dispersion and diminution). The fourth method of ‘thought’ which produces movement is in the dialectical opposition between the one and the many. This underlies the other three. Plotinus’ usage of the term is spiritual and moral,12 and he emphasised its importance with many metaphors:

‘…the Good stays still in himself; but intellect moves about him in its activity, as also it lives around him. And soul dances round intellect outside…’13

Movement, rest and being are the inseparable genera of real beings.14 When Intellect thinks these, they therefore exist, beyond the physical universe. Rest is not the opposite of movement, but is different to it. It is not a passive state of being.

‘…it is impossible to say that rest is the abolition of movement because it does not exist when movement has stopped, but when movement exists rest also exists. And rest there in the intelligible does not consist in the fact that something which is naturally adapted to move is not moving, but in so far as rest has a hold on it, it stands still, but in so far as it is in motion it will always be moving: therefore it stands still by rest and moves by movement. But here below it moves by movement, but when movement is not there it stays still because it is deprived of the movement which it ought to have.’15

For Soul, knowledge of itself is self-movement aspiring towards its purity.16 In bringing the copy of Intellect to this world, Soul originates the copies of movement and rest – motion17 and stillness.

Part three/to be continued…


1. This function of Intellect, the true creator of this universe, is based on the Demiurge or Craftsman of the Timaeus, in which thought in its movement is creation. In this dialogue Plato argued that the elements of the universe – earth, air, fire, and water – are composed of planes, which are in turn made out of elementary triangular shapes. Bergson, who thought that we are all born Platonists (Selections from Bergson. op. cit., 64), that there exists nothing positive outside Ideas (Creative Evolution.1907, trans. A. Mitchell, New York, 1911, reprint., 1983, 316), and that ‘consciousness does not spring from the brain’ (Creative Evolution. op. cit., 262), thought that there are ‘thousands of different planes of consciousness’ (Matter and Memory. 1896. Trans. N. Paul, W. Palmer. New York,1988, 241). Aristotle attributes a highly mathematicised account of the Forms to Plato’s later years.

2. ‘And lovers, too, are among those who see and press on eagerly towards a form.’ III,8.7

3. I use this gender consciously, both because Plotinus did, and in order not to disguise the patriarchal nature of his philosophy.

4. ‘…To me, moreover, it seems that if we ourselves were archetypes, Ideas, veritable Being, and the Idea with which we construct here were our veritable Essence, then our creative power, too, would toilessly effect its purpose: as man now stands, he does not produce in his work a true image of himself: become man, he has ceased to be the All; ceasing to be man – we read – “he soars aloft and administers the Cosmos entire”; restored to the All he is maker of the All.’ V,8.7. Beyond this, ‘The vision has been of God in travail of a beautiful offspring, God engendering a universe within himself in a painless labour…’ V,8.11.

5. IV,3.10

6. ‘What we long for is the originating power, not the originated thing. For this reason, nature, having an immediate relationship to the creative power, also has a precedence over art.’ In Barasch, M. Theories of Art, From Plato to Winckelmann, New York, 1985, 37.

7. Plotinus drew on the Stoic notion of a dynamic power diffuse throughout the universe, which he concentrated in the One.

8. VI,1.8

9. ‘For if movement is the activity of substance, and being and the primary genera altogether are actively actual, movement could not be something incidental, but, being the activity of what is actively actual, could not any longer be called something which contributes to the completion of substance, but is substance itself: so that it has not entered some subsequent genus, not even quality, but is ranked as simultaneous.’ VI,2.15.

10. On this particular point, compare Republic Bk VII 529-530 in which Plato argued ‘that the true, philosophical astronomer should not seriously study the motions of the visible heavenly bodies, which, being material, are imperfect and changeable, but devote his attention to the laws of motion perceived by the intellect alone.’ Armstrong, op. cit., Vol. II, 12. The text around that to which Armstrong refers is ‘“Isn’t the true astronomer in the same position when he watches the movements of the stars?” I asked. “He will think that the heavens and heavenly bodies have been put together by their maker as well as such things can be; but he will also think it absurd to suppose that there is an always constant and absolutely invariable relation of day to night, or of day and night to month, or month to year, or, again, of the periods of the other stars to them and to each other. They are all visible and material, and it’s absurd to look for exact truth in them.”’ At 529d2-3 Plato equated ‘the true realities’ of the stars with their ‘true relative velocities’. As I have stated previously, the precedent for Plotinus regarding movement and motion was clearly in the import and text of Plato’s writing. See Note 40.

11. ‘…(movement) is found in being not as inhering in a subject; for it is its active actuality and neither of them is without the other except in our conception of them, and the two natures are one nature: for being is actual, not potential…discursive thought says that they are separate…’ VI,2.7.  ‘…if we bring in also Intellect and its life, we shall posit as common to all life a single genus, movement. And we shall posit substance and movement, which is the primary life, as two genera. For even if they are one, [the observer] separates them in thought, finding the one not one; otherwise it would not have been possible to separate them. But observe in other things also how movement and life are clearly separated from being, even if not in the true being, yet in the shadow and that which has the same name as being. For as in the portrait of a man many things are wanting, and especially the decisively important thing, life, so in the things perceived by sense being is a shadow of being, separated from that which is most fully being, which was life in the archetype.’ VI,2.7.

12. ‘When the soul begins again to mount, it comes not to something alien but to its very self; thus detached, it is in nothing but itself; self-gathered it is no longer in the order of being; it is in the Supreme.’ VI, 9.11.

13. I,8.2.

14. In VI,2 Plotinus expounds the Platonic doctrine of the categories of the Intelligible World (Sophist 254D-257A), Being, Rest, Motion, Same and Other.

15. VI,3.27. In the Timaeus is an encapsulation of a process and purpose which is of the greatest importance to Western philosophy, Christian theology and Western art theory and practice. ‘And (the Demiurge) gave each divine being two motions, one uniform in the same place, as each always thinks the same thoughts about the same things, the other forward, as each is subject to the movement of the Same and uniform; but he kept them unaffected by the other five kinds of motion, that each might be as perfect as possible.’ (my Italics) Timaeus, 8,40. Timaeus and Critias, op. cit., 52. (‘And he bestowed two movements upon each, one in the same spot and uniform, whereby it should be ever constant to its own thoughts concerning the same thing; the other forward, but controlled by the revolution of the same and uniform: but for the other five movements he made it motionless and still, that each star might attain the highest completeness of perfection.’ The Timaeus of Plato. Ed. R. D. Archer-Hind. New York: Arno, 1973, 131-133.) This little group of words summarises the pathway Plato established and Plotinus maintained – comprising at the same time identity and difference, stasis and movement – between perfection, its divine medium, and creation. It asserts that creation and ‘thought’ in its motion are equivalent and defines the nature of that process. The motions of Plato’s divine beings differ from those of the sensory world – they are effects of the soul in its activity. Plato is too often simplistically remembered as having given us eternal Forms (Plato as an eternal Form?). This quotation again exemplifies the importance and complexity of motion in his philosophy.

16. III,7.4. ‘…knowledge is self-movement, since it is a sight of being and an active actuality, not a state; so that it also comes under movement – but, if you like, under rest, or under both; but if under both, it is as something mixed…’ VI,2.18. Plotinus considered the ‘unchanging’ stars as part of Soul – therefore their movement is not spatial as in this universe, but one of divine life and vitality. It is therefore a self-referential and eternal movement of being which, to anything outside, would appear to be at rest. (my Italics) ‘This is the origin of the fixed stars, which are living beings divine and eternal and remain always rotating in the same place and the same sense…’ Timaeus 8, 40.

17. ‘…soul is the “origin of motion” and is responsible for the motion of other things, and it is moved by itself, and gives life to the ensouled body…’ IV,7.9. The quotation within the quotation is from Plato’s Phaedrus 245C9. Plato believed soul to be the ultimate cause of motion: Laws Bk X 895-897 – ‘Athenian: So what’s the definition of the thing we call the soul? Surely we can do nothing but use our formula of a moment ago: “motion capable of moving itself”. Cleinias: Do you mean that the entity which we all call “soul” is precisely that which is defined by the expression “self-generating motion”’?…Athenian: Very well, then. So soul, by virtue of its own motions, stirs into movement everything in the heavens and on earth and in the sea. The names of the motions of soul are: wish, reflection, diligence, counsel, opinion true and false, joy and grief, cheerfulness and fear, love and hate…Soul also uses all related or initiating motions which take over the secondary movements of matter and stimulate everything to increase or diminish, separate or combine…’. Notice that Plato cited emotions as motion(s of soul).

The Philosophy of Plotinus

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome


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

Plotinus, the main expositor of Neoplatonism, was critical of democracy, had friends in the Roman aristocracy, and, despite the rejection of his proposal for the construction of Platonopolis, to be a city of philosophers functioning according to Plato’s Laws, was highly regarded by the emperor Gallienus. His writings, in the Enneads (according to Porphyry, from the age of forty nine), represent his mature thought.

Within this body of pacific austerity, Plotinus’ mysticism builds to a rationalised ecstasy. Reflecting this tension, his equation between contemplation and activity is central to his doctrine. By turning away from the external world1 and an inward concentration of spiritual energy through ‘reason’, the aim of his philosophy was that his soul and the souls of others might re-discover their true self and ascend to union with it and with their common source in god.

Although he was the last great philosopher of Western antiquity, developments on his treatment of spiritual freedom and purpose have continued to the present.2  His work is a blend of the writings of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers (particularly the Stoics.3 Major sources from his own time were Numenius of Apamea and Ammonius Saccas, of whom he was a pupil. His dominant influence, however, was clearly Plato.

Plotinus was open in his regard for Plato – ‘that godlike man Plato’,4 ‘the illustrious Plato’.5 His debt to Plato, as revealed in the Enneads, was always in his thoughts. He regarded his own writing as following and interpreting Plato’s philosophy, even attributing his mysticism to him.

The Plotinian scholar Paul Henry believes that the continued life of Plato’s philosophy is borne within that of Plotinus, in which dialectic becomes metaphysics – and that as a mystic, Plotinus has been perhaps a greater inspiration for Western philosophy than even Plato himself.6

Such distinctions between Platonic dialectic and Neoplatonic metaphysics are misleading since the differences which exist lie essentially in points of form not in the process of the philosophers’ intent.7 Plotinus developed on a philosophy which itself underwent significant development by Plato. The shift by the latter in his treatment of non-discursive elements (particularly the emotions) in relation to ‘reason’ – first banishing them, then in his later dialogues, allowing them a role in the soul’s aspiration to truth8 – is carried further by Plotinus, in whose philosophy they were central to the attainment of the Good.

Both Plato and Plotinus distinguished between the realm of Ideas beyond time, and the sensible world of matter, existing in time. They also held to a transcendent God, beyond even Ideas and, following from Socrates, both considered the soul to be immaterial and immortal.

One variation between the philosophies of the two men concerns the location of the Forms. For Plato, they exist in the ‘place above the heavens’9 but for Plotinus they are more forcefully tied to the nature of soul. Yet, both in the general inward tenor of his philosophy, and overtly, Plato prepared the ground for Plotinus believing that the Forms can exist within the individual.10

Movement and the tension between it and the Good is central to Plotinus’ philosophy and is considered to be another difference between the doctrines of the two men,11 but again, Plotinus developed on what lay in the work of his predecessor. ‘Thought’s’ double movement of ascent to and descent from the most general concepts of the higher world, around which the Enneads were written, was established in the Republic.12 The importance Plotinus accords to the emotions, in both his style – eager and inspired with spiritual purpose – and in his method, is reflected in the significance movement has in his philosophy.  His positioning of vitality and intuition as non-discursive means embodies this.

In order of rank and emanation, the three hypostases around which the Enneads are built are the One (the Good – for which Plotinus frequently used masculine pronouns), Intellect (Divine Mind or Thought – the realm of Forms) and Soul (All-Soul, the Principle of Life). Nature is a quasi-hypostasis. The Gods are frequently mentioned. Beneath the universe of Intellect is the universe of matter. Each hypostasis is inferior to the one preceding it and good to that which follows it, matter having the lowest standing.13

Part one/to be continued…


1. Porphyry wrote that Plotinus ‘laboured strenuously to free himself and rise above the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life’. Porphyry, ‘On the Life of Plotinus and the Arrangement of His Work’  in  The Enneads. Third ed. Abridged. Trans. S. MacKenna. London: Penguin, 1991, cxxi.

2. Ficino’s translation into Latin of Plotinus’ philosophy in 1492 was pivotal to this. (He produced the first Latin translation of all Plato’s dialogues in 1484.)

3.‘In style Plotinus is concise, dense with thought, terse, more lavish of ideas than of words, most often expressing himself with a fervid inspiration. He followed his own path rather than that of tradition, but in his writings both the Stoic and Peripatetic doctrines are sunk; Aristotle’s Metaphysics, especially, is condensed in them, all but entire.’ Porphyry, op. cit., cxii. (Porphyry wrote a [lost] commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, known to Arab scholars.) MacKenna, consistent with his lyricism, wrote that the Enneads embody the pouring of new wine into very old bottles. See MacKenna’s notes in Plotinus. The Enneads. Third ed. Trans. S. MacKenna.  London: Faber and Faber, 1962.

4. Enneads  III,5,1. Further citations from the Enneads will omit the title.

5. IV,8,1.

6. P. Henry. ‘The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought’. In The Enneads. Third ed. Abridged, op. cit., xlii – lxxxiii.

7. Compare the best-known ‘distinctions’ between the two philosophies – alternately, Plotinus’ division of reality into levels and his postulation of a One superior to the realm of Forms – with the sub-sections in Plato’s analogy of the Divided Line (Intelligence, Mathematical Reasoning, Belief and Illusion) Republic VI, 509d-511e, reflected in the hierarchy of both Plato’s ideal state and model of the soul, and ‘“The good therefore may be said to be the source not only of the intelligibility of the objects of knowledge, but also of their being and reality; yet it is not itself that reality, but is beyond it, and superior to it in dignity and power.”’ Republic VI, 509b. Further, ‘…on at least one occasion (Plato) lectured to a general audience. We are told by Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, that many in Plato’s audience were baffled and disappointed by a lecture in which he maintained that Good is one.’ The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Ed. R. Audi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 623.) Panofsky, for example, accepted Plato at his word, confusing the reason of cognition with the non-discursive ‘reason’ of dualist contemplation, contributing to the maintenance of both a false distinction between Plato and Plotinus and a barrier to an understanding of their philosophies, of the relationship between them, and of their impact on Western culture. ‘Ultimately the theory of Ideas, originally a philosophy of human reason, was transformed almost into a logic of divine thought.’ E. Panofsky. Idea: A Concept in Art Theory. 1924. Reprint. Trans. J. Peake. New York: Harper and Row,1968, 38. Nietzsche made the same error, regarding Platonic dialectic as a development on Socratic rationalism (The Birth of Tragedy (1872) Section 13, in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. Trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967, 88-89). Similarly Deleuze, who, despite noting Bergson’s ‘obsession with the pure’ and that his method of intuition was Platonic in inspiration, distinguished between Bergson and Plato on the point of the latter’s dialectic (writing that Bergson considered Platonic dialectic to be valid only in the beginning of philosophy). G. Deleuze. Bergsonism. Trans. H. Tomlinson, B. Habberjam. New York, 1988, 22, 120. Again, Stern-Gillet: ‘He (Plotinus) locates selfhood in the soul, further specifying that the inner core of our being is that ‘part’ of the soul which is capable not only of discursive thinking directed at the forms immanent in this world, but also of the intuitive understanding of intelligible realities as such.’ S. Stern-Gillet. “Plotinus and His Portrait.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 37, 3 (July 1997): 211-225, 214. In the Timaeus, Plato distinguished between the ‘rational’ and the scientific. He equated dialectic with ‘pure thought’, ‘intelligence’, and the direct apprehension of truth. Republic VI, 511b. Plotinus regarded Platonic dialectic as ‘authentic science’ which he opposed to ‘seeming-knowledge (‘sense-knowledge’)’ I,3,4, and defined it as ‘the Method, or Discipline, that brings with it the power of pronouncing with final truth upon the nature and relation of things – what each is, how it differs from others, what common quality all have, to what Kind each belongs and in what rank each stands in its Kind and whether its Being is Real-Being, and how many beings there are, and how many non-Beings to be distinguished from Beings.’ I,3,4. He correctly believed that Platonic dialectic is concerned with ‘realities’ (the Forms) and not with ‘words’ (the logic of discursive reasoning). I,3,5. For Plotinus, the hypostasis of Intellect is the site of reason. Intellect makes Soul rational by giving it a copy of what it has. The rational soul is the true man, within.

8. ‘The cultivation of Reason remained at the centre of the Platonic life-style, but non-intellectual elements were now incorporated into the life of the soul, as energising psychic forces on which Reason draws. On the other hand, it also complicated Reason’s struggle for purity. Both aspects of the divided-soul model emerge in the Phaedrus metaphor of the soul as a pair of winged horses, joined together in natural union with their charioteer. One horse is white, noble and easily guided; the other is a dark, crooked, lumbering animal, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.’ G. Lloyd, The Man of Reason, ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy. London: Methuen, 1984, 20. In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that conflicting desires enables the love of wisdom. ‘The later Plato…thus saw passionate love and desire as the beginning of the soul’s process of liberation through knowledge’. Ibid. 21. In the Symposium, ‘in Diotima’s version of the lover’s progress Reason does not simply shed the perturbations of passion but assimilates their energising force. Reason itself becomes a passionate faculty and a creative, productive one.’ Ibid. 22. As an example of the function of another non-discursive element, the Republic’s myth of Er exemplifies Plato’s belief in the truth-revealing power of imagination.

9. Phaedrus 247d5ff. Here Plato was referring to the moral Forms. For Plotinus, righteousness is a beautiful ‘active actuality’, like a statue in intellect.

10. ‘“On the other hand, to say that it pays to be just is to say that we ought to say and do all we can to strengthen the man within us…’”. Republic IX, 589a. On his ideal society Plato wrote ‘“Perhaps,” I said, “it is laid up as a pattern in heaven, where he who wishes can see it and found it in his own heart. But it doesn’t matter whether it exists or ever will exist”’. Republic IX, 592b. Plato believed that the Forms are sources of moral and (particularly from the perspective of my thesis) religious inspiration.

11. See, for example: Plotinus. Enneads Trans. A.H. Armstrong. In seven volumes. London: William Heinemann, 1966-1988, vol. V, 25

12. Republic VII, 514-521. Plato argued that we should develop the motion of our (non-discursive) ‘thought’ as much as possible to reflect (restore to likeness with) the motion of the universe and of divine thought. ‘Among movements, the best is that we produce in ourselves of ourselves – for it is most nearly akin to the movement of thought and of the universe…’ Timaeus 47, 89, in Timaeus and Critias. Trans. D. Lee. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977, 120, and ‘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…’ 48, 90, ibid., 121-122.

13. Armstrong described the often obscure Enneads as ‘an unsystematic presentation of a systematic philosophy’. Armstrong, op. cit., vol. I, xv