Plotinus—The Man of the One and Unborn

All Platonic notions reached their Zenith in the teachings of Plotinus (205-270 AD). Philosophy for men like Plotinus was a full-time professional occupation and religious vocation that demanded withdrawal from worldly affairs. He disregarded physical hardships, right up to the point of his death by a form of Leprosy-ailment:

The illness has been identified as a form of leprosy: how he bore it we can imagine from reading what he has to say about suffering and death in his last nine treatises, written in the last two years of his life. They are full of that noble courage, that clear-sighted refusal to regard pain and death as great evils even when suffering severe pain and very near to death, which all the great ancient philosophies, Platonist, Stoic, and Epicurean alike, could inspire in their best adherents. (A.H. Armstrong, Plotinus, pg. 15)

His philosophy can be likened to a twofold movement: an emanational pattern of production from a Primal-Principle and the ascetical return of the soul back to its Original source by way of purification and a higher unification. Although much of his thought is compartmentalized, it actually flows in majestic fashion.

The philosophy of Plotinus is an account of an ordered structure of living reality, which proceeds eternally from its transcendent First Principle, the One or Good, and descends in an unbroken succession of stages from the Divine Intellect and the Forms therein through Soul with its various levels of experience and activity to the last and lowest realities, the forms of bodies: and it is also a showing of the way by which the soul of man which belongs to, can experience and be active on every level of being, is able, if it will, to ascend by a progressive purification and simplification to that union with the Good which alone can satisfy it. There are two movements in Plotinus’s universe, one of outgoing from unity to an ever-increasing multiplicity and the other of return to unity and unification. (ibid, pg. 27-28)

Of course, for Plotinus, everything boils down to a transcendent One.

The definition of One for Plotinus, is simply ‘oneness’, and those ‘attributes’ which portray the One simply as a one, are outlined as follows. The One is primarily simple (haplous), it is the ‘simply one’ who is at the same time the cause of all multiplicity. Simplicity for Plotinus also means that the One must be understood as unmixed, single, and pure. The One must be simple, because if it were composite it would be dependent on its parts; since it is before all things as their cause, it cannot be a part of any “thing”, therefore it is the First of all things. (Deirdre Carabine, The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena, pg. 111)

Within our own school this One is identified as the Unborn Mind. For Plotinus, IT was a very close affiliation with the sense of a Transcendent Father.

The notion of the One as Father is, I think, a very forceful expression of the intimacy which Plotinus conceived to exist between the Father and the individual soul. His frequent use of the term pater to signify the One in relation to the fallen soul is striking, and explains why Plotinus would have been read with much approval by Christians from the fourth century onwards. In his treatise Against the Gnostics (. 9), Plotinus is opposed to the idea that only some people are special to God: rather, every soul is a child of that Father. The One is not, therefore, simply an abstract, impersonal principle; although in the Enneads, ‘there is a continual tension and interplay between personal and impersonal ways of thinking about God’ (ibid, pg. 106)

Striking how his thought is diametrically opposed to the Gnostics in our last blog. Although in terms of Union they really are not far apart. The One for Plotinus is so totally beyond any form of Beingness. It has no “this” or “that” about IT. He even went to the extent that the One does not even have Self-thought. If the One were able to know Itself intellectively, IT would cease to be simple and become two. We’ve discussed this in other forums in our blog.

[The knower] implies some cognitive entity that “knows”, observes and makes an analysis of what it perceives. The Unborn is not an objective or subjective knower–IT transcends all such cognitive interplay–IT is not some “Perfect Knower” [who] discerns dharmata. IT is beyond any such cognitive interplay, i.e., not some “giant brain” that perceives and makes qualitative judgments on phenomena. This being so, who has any thoughts? Who hears”?

Plotinus goes further and asks the next question.

Plotinus then asks how we can speak of a One who is void of self-knowledge and self-awareness, for even if the Good were to say ‘I am the Good’, that would be an affirmation of being which would posit a distinction between the Good and his knowledge of himself.” According to Plotinus, if self-intellection is the awareness of the self as something distinct, then the One cannot possess it – he must remain above duality in a ‘majestic rest’.

We call it One, he says, in order to indicate it by a designation which conveys its partlessness; the implication is that even the term One is not an adequate term and is used simply as a pointer to its unity. In Ennead V 5, Plotinus suggests that the name One, which we use because we want to indicate it to ourselves in the best possible way, is perhaps only a denial of multiplicity. (ibid, pg. 124)

Yet, for our purposes in this series, we can say that the One has a “form of knowing” apart from AS IT IS in Itself, and that is through the Function of the Soul. This has to do with “interior-turning.”

This interior turning is critical in Plotinus; by going within itself, the soul can discover both the way and the means to begin its journey to its source. Interiority is the primary spiritual vector for the contemplative soul. Yet this interior focus is no self-affirmation. For the soul has become what it now is – a painfully distinct entity cut off from its true life above and embodied in a physical frame – precisely because of its initial desire for individuality.

This higher unity, this presence superior to knowledge, completes the self’s interior transcendence in Plotinus. For within the soul the tacit presence of the One can be uncovered. Only by an interior pilgrimage through and beyond the self, both empirical and eternal, can the Good be recovered. The soul can thus ascend out of the scumbled darkness of its incarnate life – something it had once chosen by an act of insolent audacity. Theoria is the soul’s necessary and sufficient means for salvation; it is the practice of transcendence that secures its deliverance. This is the principal desideratum of Plotinian spirituality. (John Peter Kenney, The Mysticism of Saint Augustine, pgs. 31, 33)

This self-turning interiorization is carried out through [Contemplation].

Interior contemplation thus discloses to the soul a multi-layered transcendence: first of its embodied self, and then – paradoxically – of its true and eternal self. Both are superseded by a unitive vision of the final principle, the Good.  (ibid, pg. 33)

Thus, on the soul’s journey home to the Source the One-Knows. Quite an intimate affair for the Absolute. Plotinus exclaims, ‘Let us fly to our dear country’; for us in the Unborn this is the Journey Home to the other Shore of Undiscovered Suchness. It becomes an affair of “Familiar-Friends”.

In the Enneads Plotinus describes how the soul achieves an inner realization of its intimacy with the One. There is a vatic vastness to the classical cosmos, with its ranks of daemons, gods, and powers in the foreground, and its remote but hidden source behind. Contemplation in the Enneads serves as a counter-balance to this sense of religious remoteness. It is as an act of spiritual magnification, disclosing the soul’s underlying relation to the One. Contemplation is not a transformation of the self, merely its sudden grasp at how deep – as it were –the self goes. In contemplation the Plotinian soul discovers that it is rooted in the One, and that it has never really departed from it…

When the soul attends only to what is interior within itself, it discovers, not its own independent nature, but rather the One, at the depth of the soul. To be a “familiar friend” of the One is to concentrate on this presence. That allows the center of the self, though still embodied, to do what “the souls of the gods always do,” to center on this link to the ultimate “center of all things” (VI.9.8, 7–8 and 20). (ibid, pg 36, 39)

Hence, for Plotinus, the vehicle of the soul is all about a journey home to the One and Unborn.

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