History of Philosophy and Christian Thought - Lesson 24


Plotinus lived in the third century AD and is considered the founder of Neoplatonism.

Ronald Nash
History of Philosophy and Christian Thought
Lesson 24
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Hellenistic Philosophy

Part 6

VI. Plotinus

A. His Life

B. His System

1. Highest Being - God, The One or the Good

a. Pantheism vs. Panentheism

b. God is unknowable.

c. God's being overflows.

2. Emanation

a. Nous (Mind)

i. Higher Mind

ii. Lower Mind

b. Soul

i. Higher (World) Soul

ii. Middle Soul

iii. Lower Soul

3. Two Paths

a. Downward - Becoming

b. Upward - Salvation

  • Thales and Anaximander were two philosophers in the sixth century BC that lived in Miletus.

  • Heraclitus and Pythagoras lived into the 5th century BC.

  • Any worldview addresses the subjects of God, ultimate reality, human knowledge, ethics and human persons.

  • Fundamental beliefs of a naturalistic worldview is that nothing exists outside the physical universe and that all things evolved.

  • Plato was a student of Socrates and lived into the fourth century BC. He opposed hedonism, empiricism, relativism, materialism, atheism and naturalism.

  • Plato described the universe as having three levels: the world of particulars, the world of forms, and the form of the good.

  • Plato's view of the universe was dualistic.

  • One of Plato's fundamental arguments is that the human soul is immortal.

  • Evaluation of Plato's arguments and comparison of Plato's philosophy with biblical theology.

  • Empiricism teaches that all human knowledge arises from sense experience. Rationalism teaches that some human knowledge does not arise from sense. experience

  • Aristotle was a student of Plato and lived in the fourth century BC.

  • Aristotle rejected Plato's doctrine of two worlds.

  • Discussion of Aristotelian philosophy as it relates to the incarnation.

  • Aristotle's philosophy as it relates to attributes of God and fundamental assumptions about psychology.

  • Aristotle made a distinction between passive intellect and active intellect.

  • Discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the law of non-contradiction.

  • Discussion of the nature and substance of matter.

  • Hellenistic philosophy was an approach that was popular from the fourth century BC to the fifth century AD.

  • Stoics were determinists who believed in living according to nature.

  • Hedonism emphasized pleasure as the greatest good. "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we might be dead."

  • Philo's philosophy was based on a synthesis of Stoicism and Platonism.

  • Implicit "Logos" Christianity is an underlying theme in the book of Hebrews.

  • Plotinus lived in the third century AD and is considered the founder of Neoplatonism.

  • Augustine is a Latin church father, is considered by many to be one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity.

  • Augustine wrote Confessions as an autobiographical work to record his experience as a sinful youth and his experience becoming a follower of Christ.

  • Augustine wrote to refute some heresies of the day by focusing on the concepts of faith and reason.

  • Augustine writes about the problem of evil and describes evil as the absence of good.

  • Augustine writes to refute Pelagianism by focusing on the biblical teaching about sin.

  • Augustine writes to refute Donatism.

  • The fundamental idea of skepticism is that no one can know anything. Augustine this statement contradicts itself because the skeptic is claiming that you can know that you can't know anything.

  • When Augustine wrote "The City of God," he had a linear view of history.

  • In Augustine's theory of knowledge, he says that eternal reason and human reason are two different levels of reason.

  • Augustine was personally convinced of the importance of divine illumination.

  • The intellectual background of Thomas Aquinas was influenced by the discovery of ancient manuscripts, the rise of universities, the rise of religious brotherhoods and the rise of Muslim philosophy.

  • Aquinas describes faith as whatever a human can know through special revelation, and reason as whatever a human can know outside of special revelation.

  • Aquinas attempts to prove God's existence.

  • Aquinas describes four kinds of law as eternal, divine, natural and positive.

  • The rationalists and empiricists set the stage for Kant and other philosophers of the modern era.

  • Kant argued that moral requirements are based on a standard of rationality he dubbed the “Categorical Imperative."

  • Kants two worlds are the phenomenal world and the noumenal world.

  • Discussion of criticisms and questions about Kant's ideas.

  • Similarities between Kant's ideas and postmodernism.

  • The dialectic is a central idea in Hegel's philosophy.

  • Ideally, Marxism begins with class struggle, then revolution, dictatorship of the proletariat, withering away of the state, and a utopian classless society.

  • Discussion of four faces of Marxism.

  • Nietzsche proclaimed that, "God is dead." His cure was to live life knowing there is no ultimate meaning. Kierkegaard emphasized a worldview based on true faith.

In this class, you will explore the rich history of philosophy and its relationship with Christian thought. The course begins with an introduction to the definition and importance of philosophy in Christian theology. You will then delve into the evolution of philosophical thought from the Pre-Socratic era, through the Classical Greek philosophers, and into the Hellenistic period. As you progress, you will discover how early Christian thought emerged and developed during the Patristic period, with a special focus on Augustine. The class continues with an examination of medieval Christian thinkers, such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, and concludes with an analysis of modern philosophers like Descartes, Kant, and Kierkegaard, and their influence on contemporary Christian thought.

Dr. Ronald Nash

History of Philosophy and Christian Thought



Lesson Transcript


Let me talk about Plotinus. Plotinus was born in 205 A.D. He died in 270 A.D.. He was born in Upper Egypt, which means he was born in southern Egypt. You know, Upper Egypt is the area of where the Nile originates. And the Nile is born from a lake south of Egypt. So he was born in that part of the world. He was educated in Alexandria, Egypt. So he was grounded in a lot of the same ideas that phyla was grounded in. Only Plotinus was a pagan. He was neither a Christian or a Jew. After he finished his education in Alexandria, where incidentally, I understand he studied under one of the same thinkers that origin the early Christian father who had multiple heresies in his system. He then journeyed to the he journeyed into the areas of present day Iran and Iraq with some general, some Roman general or other. And then he finally ended up all of maybe the last ten or 15 years of his life in Rome, where he began to compile a school of disciples. He finally died in 270 A.D.. Here are reasons why Plotinus deserves one entire chapter in my book and also deserves at least 30 minutes of our time in this class. He is probably the third greatest thinker of the ancient world. The only two thinkers in the ancient world who would surpass Plotinus. Well, the only three thinkers who would surpass or Plotinus would be Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. But of course, Socrates never wrote anything. So that's one reason he if you're looking at thinkers before Saint Augustine, Plotinus is the third greatest thinker.


[00:02:40] Third or fourth. Secondly, he's important because you cannot understand at least two great Christian thinkers and at least one great Muslim thinker without understanding Plotinus the two great Christian thinkers who were influenced by Plotinus in a way that does not compromise their theology. Okay, were Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. And I'll talk about the connections with Augustine and Aquinas. Eventually, a third thinker who was influenced by Plotinus was the Muslim thinker of Veronese. And we will talk more about him in a week or two. Now, I have let's look let's think about my chapter on Plotinus. It's chapter five. I've read Plotinus. He's very difficult to understand. Hard to understand. In fact, reading people who are writing about plotinus can be very difficult. I believe my chapter on Plotinus is probably the easiest thing that you can read to start with. I must warn you that a plotinus wrote a very difficult kind of classical Greek, beautiful Greek. He's often regarded, often described as the greatest Greek writer. This is classic classical Greek, not Koine Greek, but his Greek is very difficult to translate because he he he has mastered the nuances of classical Greek. Consequently, many of the efforts to translate plotinus fail. I'm sure in our library there's a big six volume set of plotinus writings. But translator's name starts with AM. I probably refer to it in a footnote. I do not recommend that the quotations I give in my chapter from Plotinus are translated by a Roman Catholic priest named O'Brien. His translations are really good. Now Plotinus a system can be described, can can be described in terms of diagrams that I have in your book. If you have one of the first printings of this book, unfortunately, some of the lines are missing and it's not my fault Zondervan admitted that somebody goofed.


[00:05:33] But if you have the latest printing of Life's Ultimate questions, all of the lines are there. And besides, I'll fill in those lines as we talk. The highest being in Plotinus universe is God, but His God is is not the Christian God or the Jewish God. In fact, His God is not even a personal God. He is probably the first proponent in the history of ideas of what we call pantheism. There's a difference between pantheism and pantheism. We've encountered pantheistic before in this course. Heraclitus was a pantheistic. The Stoics were pantheistic, a pantheistic, a person who who refuses to recognize any distinction between God and the world. A pantheism is a person who denies creation because he believes that the world. And that can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. But the world is really got everything that exists is divine. Plotinus was not a pantheism. He was a pantheism. Now that comes from three Greek words pan and bass. A pantheism is a person who believes that everything is in God. A pantheism can make a distinction between God and the world. But it's a funny distinction. Here's a way to describe it. A pan in theist believes that God is the world's mind or soul. And the world is God's body. God and the world are related in the same way that a human soul and a human body are related. They are two different ways of looking at the same thing, but they're not identical. Okay. If you want a 20th century correlation or you want a 20th century incarnation of pantheism, it would be known as process theology. And let me warn you, those of you writing your paper on open theism, there is a very close proximity between open theism and process theology.


[00:08:15] Okay. Now, the highest being in Plotinus universe was his God, but Plotinus never or seldom used the word God to refer to his deity. Instead, his favorite term for God was the term the one. Okay. Now are reasons why he called God the one. And I don't know that we have to pursue those reasons. Maybe I offer some speculation on that. In the early pages of Chapter five now, Plotinus said the following things about God. First of all, he said God, the one is unknowable. Now, please. If you learn nothing else from this course, learn, please, that whenever anybody tells you that God is unknowable, you're in the presence of I want non pejorative language here. You're in the presence of an idiot. Okay, that's non pejorative. That's literally true. Why? Because everybody who tells you that God is unknowable is contradicting himself. Because every person who says God can't be known knows at least two things about this unknowable God. May I share those with you? First of all, the person who tells you God is unknowable knows that God exists. If God were really unknowable, nobody could know that He exists. Okay? Secondly, he knows that God is unknowable. He's contradicting himself. Moreover, Plotinus said, Because God, he because he is totally transcendent. Do you notice how I've just contradicted myself? Because I'm pretending to be plotinus here? He's just told us some other thing about this unknowable God. He's told us he's transcendent. What does that mean? It means that God is totally different than anything that we can encounter in our experience. That's the third thing. These people know, therefore, our language about God can never be literal. Whenever we talk about God, we're using language in a way that can never be taken literally.


[00:10:48] Okay, so here's the one. Now, let me tell you something else about this unknowable God, All right? He's totally perfect. I've just done something that can't be done. I've told you four things about a God that is unknowable. He's perfect. He is so perfect, in fact, that his being cannot be contained within himself, and thus his being sort of bubbles over. That's a fifth thing about this unknowable God I've just told you. Either I'm very good because I'm telling you all these things about the unknowable God, or I'm dealing with real nonsense here. Now, this God's being overflows in a series of layers or level. Such that the whole universe begins to look very much like an overflowing fountain. I used to go to Chicago quite often to philosophical conferences, and I, you know, I used to like the loop. That's the downtown area of Chicago. A lot of nice restaurants there. And I remember we used to go into a one of those Chicago restaurants, and there would always be a multi-tiered fountain. Where the water is is shooting up. And then there's there's a there's a little basin here and that water overflows into later basins and so on and so forth. And whenever I go into that, yeah, assuming I was there with some colleague, I'd say, Look, there's Plotinus universe. And the waiters wondered who in the world I was talking about Plotinus universe. Now I need to give you another word here. The process by which the world Emma overflows from God's being the processes known as emanation Emanation. Probably the best example of emanation is the relationship between the source of sunlight and the light itself. Think, if you will, of a lighted candle. And if you want to give my artwork some applause.


[00:13:19] That's okay. Okay. Because the audience listening by tape can only imagine that what I'm giving you here is Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Whatever else, consider a flame and the light that emanates from the flame. That's the relationship between God and these levels or layers of the world. I'm trying not to use the word creation because technically, for Plotinus, the whole world is eternal. God is eternal. The world is eternal. Because, you see, if this candle flame has always been burning, if this candle flame is eternal, then the light emanating from the flame must also be eternal. However, if the flame goes out, then the light will cease to be there. Thus, if God were to stop existing, then the world would stop existing. But that's impossible. So there is a kind of dependance, we call it. And I, you know, I apologize for the language. There is a kind of ontological dependance between God and the world such that if God were to cease existing, then the world would cease to exist. But that's impossible. Therefore, since God, the flame is eternal, the world is eternal. A similar example would be the sun and the light that emanates from the sun. Okay, Now the first level of being an plotinus scheme of things is what he calls news. Remember the three interpretations of Aristotle's act of intellect? And I told you that one interpretation of Aristotle's act of intellect is that it was a kind of cosmic noose. Here it is. Now, what is this cosmic noose? Let me give you several equivalent expressions. I mean, they all have a they all are saying the same thing. This is the noose of the mind. I'm sorry. The News of the World. Because Plotinus is a pan in theist.


[00:15:57] He teaches that there is a mind, a world mind, but it's not a personal mind. Okay? The cosmic news is very close to being. Not exactly, but it's very close to Filhos Lagos. This could be the mind of God. This is where Plato's forms exist. Okay. This is Aristotle's active intellect on that interpretation of Aristotle. But there are two levels of news. There is the higher news, which is the impersonal cosmic mind of God, where the forms of Plato exist and so on. And then there is the lower news and the lower news. You see these these little lines on the bottom of the news here. These lower lines, I'm going to. I'm going to make them a little sharp, sharper. These lower lines represent every particular mind that exists, every specific mind that exists. Here is where we're getting an interesting synthesis of Plato and Aristotle. Now, these on sharp nooses would represent. People whose minds are not too sharp. Okay. But you notice you notice this especially sharp news right here. That's my news. Keep your hands off my news. Okay. That's me right there. And you can pick whichever one of these other nooses you think you are. All right. Now, the relationship between particular minds and the cosmic news is this. PLOTINUS believed that every particular human mind is simply an extension of the cosmic noose. A good example of this would be a tornado. You're watching a bad storm cloud, and then all of a sudden you see you see a funnel cloud come down from that cloud and touch the earth. That's a tornado. Well, that funnel cloud represents a pic. It's a picture of the relationship between your mind and the mind of God. Every human mind is an extension of the cosmic noose.


[00:18:47] Now, guess what happens when you die? Just as that funnel cloud is absorbed back up into the cloud that gave it birth. So when a human being dies, our particular noose is reabsorbed back into the cosmic noose, and we lose all personal identity. There's a big question as to whether or not Plotinus believed in personal survival after death. And frankly, you can't know because he he he changes his mind. And maybe I ought to tell you and this is in the chapter, so I thought I could skip it. When Plotinus died, his writings were in kind of a chaotic state. And so some of his disciples got together and they they took these manuscripts and they put them together into a kind of topical way. And they ended up with nine books of six parts. Now, I hope I'm getting that right. So all of these unpublished are all of these scattered manuscripts were put together topically so that everything dealing with God or the one was put in one group of nine and everything dealing with the soul or most of the stuff dealing with the soul would be in another group of nine giving his six needs. But the problem is, there was no attention given to the order in which they were written. Maybe they didn't even know. But as you read an Aeneid, you may be skipping from something written earlier and in final and plotinus life to something written later. And there really is a contradiction because he changed his mind. But we really can't know that. See? So anyway, there are and plotinus suggestions that there is no personal identity after death that you cease to exist after death. But there are some other places where Plotinus seems to suggest the opposite of that.


[00:21:01] So if every human mind were to cease existing, you would just have the upper noose, which is the impersonal mind of God. But in the meantime, specific minds exist. Now, the next emanation from God and this is again, like the fountains is the level of soul. The level of soul. What is that? That's the level of life. Here again, Plotinus is taking Plato and Aristotle, and he's integrating them, okay? He's trying to synthesize them. Now, there are three levels of soul, and I urge you to read the book. There is the higher soul. And that would be kind of. Well, if we all had spent more time on Plato's view of creation, we'd have we'd have we'd have paid more attention to Plato's so-called world soul. Plato believed that there is a soul that inhabits the whole physical universe, and something like that is what's going on up here. Okay. And then you have the middle soul, and I'll come back to that in a moment. And I don't think you have to worry too much about that. And then there are lower souls. There's a part of the picture that falls apart here out of. And I'm not going to take the time to look it up in the book out of either the middle or the lower soul calms the realm of body. Okay. Bodies. So that's an overflow from the middle or the lower soul. Read the book. But then there are specific souls. And those souls would be would be would be manifested in plants, the vegetative soul or animals or human soul. But and here again, we're speculating on plotinus intended, meaning when a human soul dies, the implication seems to be that it is reabsorbed into the world soul the same way particular minds are absorbed into the cosmic snooze.


[00:23:18] Okay. Now, here's the contradiction. Here's the problem. We know that Plotinus wanted to find a way in his system to occur to keep Socrates immortal. He wanted to believe that the particular person, Socrates, who lived on this earth, would continue to live forever. But the whole drift of plotinus seems to be towards a denial of personal immortality or personal survival for anybody. So if you try ever to understand, you know, the whole or plotinus system, you're going to find people differing as to whether there really is an immortal Socrates somewhere, or whether the Socrates that Plato knew when he died was simply reabsorbed back into the cosmic noose. Now, a couple of other points. There are two paths in Plotinus system. There is the downward path of becoming. This is metaphysics. This is ontology. This is being. All of being is a is a downward progression from the one. Everything is in the universe is tied back on to logically that is using the concept of ontology or being. Everything is tied back to the one in this kind of way. And it's all an emanation from God. But there is also an upward path of salvation and upward path of salvation. Human beings are down here and they're trapped in a body. They are a soul and a mind. Remember, for Plotinus, the soul and the mind are different. There is a soul in the mind trapped in the body. And for us to achieve salvation, that is our ultimate purpose in life. We must climb the ladder back to God. But we can only go back so far. Those of us who go back the farthest are those of us who are. Philosophical. Okay. And I'm wiggling my hips here. Some of your souls are in serious, serious jeopardy here.


[00:25:54] Okay. And you know, I'm kidding. You know I'm kidding. But the only way you get up here and this is a little bit like the pythagoreans this is a little bit like Plato's cave. This is like the bottom of the cave. This is leaving the cave. But the human mind and philosophy can only get you so far. That would be right about here. The forms. And then between you and God, there is a great golf fixed. And the only way in which you can leap that golf is through a mystical experience. A mystical experience which language cannot explain. Now, Plotinus himself admitted that he had only had this experience, this mystical union, with the one on one, two or three occasions in his life. So he there is an element of mysticism here. And what we're going to do when we get to Augustine is see that there are similarities, but there are also major differences. As for the rest, you're going to have to read chapter five for yourself. Do the best you can. Look at the diagrams and I hope you have diagrams that have all of the missing lines and understand that in in the hands of some authors, Plotinus is far more intelligent, unintelligible than in my experience. My bibliography mentions a number of places that you and other number of sources you can read. The best translation of. Plotinus is titled The Essential Plotinus. It's a nice little paperback if it still exists. Translated by a Jesuit priest named Elmer O'Brien, the best author on Plotinus is A.H. Armstrong. He wrote several books on Plotinus. Two of them are cited here. A.H. Armstrong is or was when he was alive. A Christian. And so his writings on Plotinus are very interesting.