Plotinus

205-270. Originator of Neoplatonism.* A Greek-speaking Egyptian educated in Alexandria, he established a school in Rome in a.d. 245 which had a wide influence in antiquity and later notably on Augustine of Hippo* (for the later history of Neoplatonism, see Porphyry).

As in Middle Platonism, religious motives prevail, but as one of the more successful examples of philosophical monism, Plotinus's system was a useful ally against the dualism of Gnosticism.* He also influenced orthodox explanations of the Trinity, complementing Philo* in many ways, although direct dependence cannot be proved.

Plotinus's single ultimate being serves primarily as a focus for mystical meditation (religious ecstasy), but combines the transcendence of Aristotle's* Unmoved Mover with a creative role as sole cause of the universe, which however avoids the ambiguities attaching to divine Fire in Stoicism. He postulates distinct but inseparable levels (“hypostases”) of being, the lower both proceeding from the higher and in turn aspiring toward it. At the top is the One (or the Good), pure Unity without any trace of duality, and therefore strictly nameless and engaged solely in self-contemplation, but producing as a necessary by- product (as the sun by being itself necessarily radiates light) the second hypostasis, the Divine Mind. This has two aspects: Intelligence and its object Truth (the Platonic Forms); it aspires towards Unity, but in doing so necessarily produces the third level, Soul (or Spirit). Soul has a higher aspect which contemplates Truth, and a lower on which the physical world, though itself eternal, depends for existence. This hierarchical “trinity” produces a universe in which neither evil nor matter is an independent principle, but is seen negatively as the point where, because of its distance from the One, creativity (inexplicably) fails.

The individual soul, like the cosmic, must aspire to Truth and avoid bodily indulgence. Because of an original “fall,” our souls are subject to reincarnation until completely purified by asceticism, thought, and ecstasy (the soul transcending itself and achieving momentarily direct communion with the One).