Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography/Plotinus
PLOTINUS, the chief of the Alexandrian Platonists, is said to have always refused to divulge the names of his parents, and the time and place of his birth, so little reason did he think he had to congratulate himself on having been born. The secret, however, seems to have transpired, for it is related that he first saw the light at Lycopolis in Egypt in 205. At the age of twenty he went to study in Alexandria, which for long had been celebrated for its commercial prosperity, and for the variety and activity of its literary institutions. In the first centuries of the christian era, this city was the gathering-point of the learning of the East and of the West. Here were collected together, as in a vast reservoir, the Greek philosophy, the oriental mysticism, the ancient superstitions of heathendom, the rising power of christianity, the heresies of gnosticism, and the doctrines of the Jewish kabala; and in the midst of the fermentation of these elements the Alexandrian philosophy arose. Although not set up in express rivalry or antagonism to the new religion, it was no doubt inspired, in part at least, by the desire to question and reduce its pretensions. It was an effort on the part of expiring paganism to rally and organize her forces, in order to show the world that the heathen sages had not preached, and that the heathen devotees had not practised, in vain; that there was still some fire in the ancient ashes, still some life and health in the old philosophical and mythological traditions; and that they did not merit the hatred and contempt with which they were now frequently assailed. When Plotinus came to Alexandria, Ammonius Saccas was at the head of this philosophy—was, indeed, its reputed founder—although it is possible that the system had been set on foot, and had begun to take shape before his time. Some years elapsed before Plotinus made the acquaintance of this philosopher, and during that time his soul was disquieted by the thirst of knowledge unappeased. He found peace so soon as he was introduced to Ammonius, whose devoted disciple he became, and to whose instructions he listened assiduously for eleven years. In his thirty-ninth year Plotinus, being anxious to extend his knowledge by a more intimate acquaintance with the philosophy of the East, joined an expedition which the Roman Emperor Gordian had equipped for the invasion of Persia. The issue of the expedition was disastrous. Gordian was assassinated in Mesopotamia, and Plotinus with difficulty escaped with his life. This expedition having brought him into close relations with the Romans, he betook himself to Rome in the fortieth year of his age. Here he resided until his death, expounding the Alexandrian philosophy, of which he has a better title than Ammonius to be regarded as the originator. At any rate he amplified it greatly, and by him it has been handed down to posterity. He had a project of founding a city in Campania on the model of Plato's republic; but the ministers of the emperor wisely refused to give any encouragement to the scheme. He died at Rome in his sixty-sixth year, in 270.
Plotinus had many pupils and admirers. Of these the most faithful and intelligent was Porphyry, and to him he intrusted the arrangement and publication of his writings. They consisted of fifty-four books, which Porphyry divided, according to their subjects, into six parts. Each of these parts contained nine books, which he called "Enneads," from the Greek word signifying nine. The philosophy of Plotinus is styled Neoplatonism, because it is a revival of the Platonic doctrines; and also Eclecticism, because it aimed at combining with Platonism whatever was worthy of adoption in the tenets of other philosophers. Its prevailing tone, however, is derived from the element which it borrowed from the East—a mysticism which blends the Creator with the creation, and confounds the human with the divine.
The philosophy of Plotinus, divested of its mystical complexion, presents to us the following principal points, which may be shortly exhibited in the form of (question and answer:—First, What does philosophy aim at? At absolute truth. Secondly, What kind of truth is that? Truth for all intelligence; a truth which any intellect is necessarily shut out from knowing, is not an absolute truth. Thirdly, What is the truth for all intelligence? Unity—the oneness of all things. Fourthly, How so? Because while the diversity of things is addressed to what is peculiar to each order of intellect, their unity can be taken up only by what is common to all orders of intellect. Unity is thus the object of philosophical pursuit, inasmuch as it is the truth for all; in other words, the absolutely true. Fifthly, But what is this unity? The Alexandrian philosophy is driven in upon the answer that thought is the unity of the universe. Hence the knowledge of self, the thought of thought, the reflection of reason upon itself, is inculcated by Plotinus as the highest duty, and as the noblest source of purification and enlightenment. This is the sum and substance of his teaching, in so far as it can be intelligibly reported.
To the system thus concisely exhibited, some explanation must be appended, showing, first, the grounds on which Plotinus and the ancient philosophers generally refused to acknowledge the material world as the absolutely real; secondly, in what respect the Alexandrian philosophy differs from antecedent systems; and, thirdly, how Plotinus was led to lay down thought as the absolutely real, and as constituting the unity in all things. First, The consideration that the truth which philosophy aims at is truth for all, disposed at once of the claim of the material world to be regarded as absolutely true; for matter is not a truth for all intellect, but only for intellect furnished with such senses as ours. Matter was thus put out of court, as being not the absolutely true. Secondly, The absolute had now to be looked for elsewhere, and, accordingly, philosophers proceeded to search for it, not in the region of sense, but in that of intellect. Pythagoras proclaimed Number as the truth for all. The Eleatics took their stand upon Being, Heraclitus contended for Becoming, or change. Plato advanced his theory of Ideas—resemblance, difference, the good, &c. It is obvious, however, that these are rather the objects of thought, than thought itself. There is some distinction between Number and the thought of Number, between Being and the thought of Being; and on this ground it might be argued that Number, Being, and the others, might, perhaps, not be absolute truths. Whatever is different from thought is not necessarily true for all thought. This position was the stronghold of scepticism, the fortress from which it strove to break down the strength of Platonism, and to strip all philosophy of its assured conviction that it had reached the ultimately real. It was necessary, therefore, to shift the ground of the absolutely true from the thing thought of to the thought itself of the thing. This was what Plotinus did; and it is in this respect that the Alexandrian scheme differs from all the systems which preceded it. They placed the absolute truth in something which thought embraced; this system placed it in the thought itself by which this something is taken hold of. Thirdly, Such appears to be the leading position occupied by Plotinus when the mists of his system are blown aside. He was led to it by the inconsequence of which scepticism had convicted all antecedent systems. A paralogism might be involved in the assertion, that the contents of any thought is a truth for all intellect; but no paralogism could be involved in the assertion that thought itself is the truth for all intellect, because thought and intellect are one. Here, to speak the language of modern philosophy, the object thought of and the thinking subject are the same, and that interval between the two does not exist which scepticism represents as an impassable gulf, separating reason from the truth. Thought, then, is the unity in all things, the only absolute and assured reality in the universe; because it is a truth, and the only truth which every intellect must entertain, and which no scepticism can invalidate. So reasoned Plotinus. In recommending self-reflection, or the study of thought, as the noblest of all pursuits, Plotinus intended that men should habituate themselves to the contemplation of thought in its universality, that they should see and understand that it is not properly their own. The passions and desires of men are subjective and their own; but thought is objective still more than it is subjective; it is the common medium which brings the human mind into relation with an intelligence infinitely higher, from which all things are emanations, just as the infinite intelligence itself is an emanation from a unity still more inconceivable and ineffable. But here the system loses itself in mysticism, and we shall not attempt to follow it through its fantastic and unintelligible processions of spiritual and material creation. The works of Plotinus, edited by Creuzer, were published at Oxford in 1835. An edition has been recently published at Leipsic (Teubner), under the editorship of Adolphus Kirchhoff, in which the arrangement of Porphyry is departed from, and a chronological order of the "Enneads" attempted in its room. Of translations, an excellent French one, by M. N. Bouillet, with ample commentaries, has been recently published at Paris. The English version, by Taylor, of several of the "Enneads" is utterly execrable. For the history generally of the Alexandrian philosophy, Matter, Simon, and Vacherot (Histoire Critique de l'Ecole d'Alexandrie), may be referred to.—J. F. F.