The Philosophy of Plotinus: Part Six

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

Plotinus called the grasp by Intellect of the immaterial object – their  immediate identity and unity – ‘intuitive thought’.

‘(Intellect)…is the level of intuitive thought which grasps its object immediately and is always perfectly united to it, and does not have to seek it outside itself by discursive reasoning: and we at our highest are Intellect, or Soul perfectly formed to the likeness of Intellect …’1

As with every aspect in his distinction between the universe of matter and the senses and the universe in Intellect, Plotinus made the logic of discursive reasoning (which he equated with sense perception) the deficient copy of intuition (dialectic) in Intellect.2

In order to use language, discursive thought has to consider things sequentially, it passes from one point to another, it endlessly divides.3 This is the method of description. Such reasoning is utterly inadequate to address the relationship between soul and the One – it is a hindrance to the love which desires beyond Form. Discursive thought is inseparable from the burden of sensory life. The need to reason thus results in a diminution of the independence of ‘thought’:

‘Does the soul use discursive reasoning before it comes and again after it goes out of the body? No, discursive reasoning comes into it here below, when it is already in perplexity and full of care, and in a state of greater weakness; for feeling the need of reasoning is a lessening of the intellect in respect of its self-sufficiency…’4

Dialectic is the method of Intellect. Dealing with the truths of the higher cosmos, it involves a surrendering to the illumination of God’s light in which Intellect ceases a

‘wandering about the world of sense and settles down in the world of intellect, and there it occupies itself, casting off falsehood and feeding the soul in what Plato calls “the plain of truth,” using his method of division to distinguish the Forms, and to determine the essential nature of each thing, and to find the primary kinds…and then, keeping quiet…it busies itself no more, but contemplates, having arrived at unity. It leaves what is called logical activity, about propositions and syllogisms, to another art, as it might leave knowing how to write…whatever is submitted to it it perceives by directing intuition…’5

Intuitive reasoning ‘is a static activity and a kind of reflection of Intellect…’.6 It is practised separate from the body, because the body would only impede its inquiry.7 It is an activity of our true self in which it moves with a motion which is not bodily but of its own life.8

The desire for a unifying intuition underlies Plotinus’ doctrine. Not only can we intuit being, Plotinus theorised on the direct intuition of the Good:

‘…our power is that of knowing the intelligible by means of the intelligence: but this Entity (the First Existent or The Good) transcends all of the intellectual nature; by what direct intuition, then, can it be brought within our grasp?’9

He answered:

‘But possess yourself of it by the very elimination of Being and you hold a marvel. Thrusting forward to This, attaining, and resting in yourself, seek to grasp it more and more – understanding it by that intuitive thrust alone, but knowing its greatness by the Beings that follow upon it and exist by its power.’10

He believed that any intuition, particularly that of the Good, depends on how much of what is being intuited we have within ourselves. An intuition is a ‘direct intellectual act’, an intellection of self. In being known, the subject is excluded.11 Soul therefore holds that act not as a memory in time, dependent on an external source, which memory can be easily lost, but as a possession of its eternal essence.12

In its intuition in Intellect, Soul looks first to what is a unity and then to what is multiple, to all that is.13 It possesses and becomes the totality of things, but imperfectly. It grasps not a pure unity, but

‘all the intellectual facts of a many that constitutes a unity. For since the object of vision has variety (distinction within its essential oneness) the intuition must be multiple and the intuitions various, just as in a face we see at the one glance eyes and nose and all the rest.
But is not this impossible when the object to be thus divided and treated as a thing of grades is a pure unity?
No: there has already been discrimination within the Intellectual-Principle; the Act of the Soul is little more than a reading of this.
First and last is in the Ideas not a matter of time, and so does not bring time into the Soul’s intuition of earlier and later among them. There is a grading by order as well: the ordered disposition of some growing thing begins with root and reaches to topmost point, but, to one seeing the plant as a whole, there is no other first and last than simply that of the order.’14

Plotinus defined ‘intuition’ as ‘knowledge with identity’.15 It is by such a method that Soul might attain the highest, and a complete unity with the One – in which it cannot distinguish itself.16 He made the greatest possible distinction between Soul’s intellection and the body’s sensory perception:

‘…the Soul is unfailingly intent upon intellection; only when it acts upon this image-making faculty does its intellection become a human perception: intellection is one thing, the perception of an intellection is another: we are continuously intuitive but we are not unbrokenly aware: the reason is that the recipient in us receives from both sides, absorbing not merely intellections but also sense-perceptions.’17

Consciousness is the reflection of the life of Intellect, through the soul’s engagement with body. Plotinus criticised conscious awareness as being

‘likely to enfeeble the very activities of which there is consciousness; only when they are alone are they pure and more genuinely active and living; and when good men are in this state their life is increased, when it is not spilt out into perception, but gathered together in one in itself.’18

Not all outside Intellect seek to attain it because the requisite motives are ‘reasoned’, but all look to the Good because it is before all ‘reason’.



1. Armstrong, op. cit., vol. I, xxi

2. In the analogy of the Divided Line in Bk VI of the Republic, illustrating the relation between the two orders of reality and states of ‘mind’, Plato allowed knowledge by the direct apprehension (vision) of truth through Intelligence (Dialectic) or by Mathematical Reason. Belief and illusion function in the physical realm, giving mere opinion.

3. Plotinus believed that the language of numbers may help us to a direct apprehension of the realities of the intelligible universe and the One.

4. IV,3.18. In a most interesting sentence, implying a relationship between intuition and ‘pre-reason’, Plotinus wrote: ‘And again the reasoning thing is not of that realm: here the reasoning. There the pre-reasoning.’ VI,7.9.

5. I,3.4

6. IV,3.18

7. ‘But what about reasoning and intellect? These no longer give themselves to the body; for their work is not done through the instrument of the body: for this gets in the way if one uses it in rational investigations.’ IV,3.19. Plotinus wrote of his experience of descending from Intellect to discursive reasoning. IV,8.1.

8. Plotinus referred to this as ‘…the superior life of reason…’ III,4.6. Reason functions above chance. Cf. Bergson.

9. III,8.9

10. III,8.10

11. See following note.

12. ‘(A self-intellection is not)…something entering from without, to be grasped and held in fear of an escape…’ IV,3.25. ‘When we seize anything in the direct intellectual act there is room for nothing else than to know and to contemplate the object; the subject is not included in the act of knowing, but asserts itself, if at all, later and is a sign of the altered; this means that, once purely in the Intellectual, no one of us can have any memory of our experience here. Further, if all intellection is timeless – as appears from the fact that the Intellectual beings are of eternity, not of time – there can be no memory in the intellectual world, not merely none of earthly things but none whatever: all is presence. There; for there is no discursive thought, no passing from one point to another.’ IV,4.1.

13. IV,4.1. ‘…the unity of the Soul’s faculty (of intuition) is not incompatible with multiplicity in the object; it does no possess all its content in a single act of thought; each act is incomplete in itself, but all are being constantly exercised; the faculty is permanently there and its effects are external. The object itself is no unity and can therefore harbour a multiplicity which previously it did not contain.’ Ibid.

14. IV,4.1

15. IV,4.3

16. ‘Soul must see in its own way; this is by coalescence, unification; but in seeking thus to know the Unity it is prevented by that very unification from recognising that it has found; it cannot distinguish itself from the object of this intuition. None the less, this is our one resource if our philosophy is to give us knowledge of The Unity.’ VI,9.3. Plotinus distinguished between Soul’s understanding given by contemplation and Intellect’s apprehension of presence: ‘Wisdom and understanding consist in the contemplation of all that exists in the Intellectual-Principle, and the Intellectual-Principle itself apprehends this all (not by contemplation but) as an immediate presence.’ I,2.6.

17. IV,3.30

18. I,4.10

I will soon begin a series on the philosophy of the Neoplatonist Henri Bergson.

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.