Philosopher of Late Antiquity, founder of the so-called "Neoplatonic" schoοl of thought.

Life and work

Plotinus lived in the 3rd century AD. Our source of information about his life and work is the De Vita Plotini, his biography written by Porphyry, his disciple and editor, and prefixed as a sort of Inrtroduction to the edition of his master's writings. The information gathered in this biography are mainly concerned with the philosopher Plotinus, i. e. with his method of teaching, his sources and the intellectual controversies of the time. Plotinus was born in Lycopolis, in Egypt, in 204/5 AD. We know nothing of his origins, however, his being socially close with emperors and roman senators is an indication of the high social status of his family. That his education was thoroughly greek may be inferred by his opposing Greeks, as representatives of a highly rationalist tradition to the irrationalist and dangerously mythologising theories of the Gnostics (II 9.6).

At the age of 28, in Alexandria, he began an eleven-year scholarship at the school of Ammonius Sakkas. Wishing to become acquainted with the philosophy of the East, he followed the emperor Gordianus in his expedition against the Persians, but the emperor's assassination obliged him to leave for Rome at the age of 40. There he founded his own school, at which he taught until his death in 270 AD.

He had recahed 50 when he started to compose treatises. Porhyry compiled them into 6 volumes, each containing 9 treatises, and named the edition Enneads. The order of the edition does not follow the chronological order in which the treatises were actually written, but the systematic order put forth by Porphyry as reflecting his master's philosophical intention and ascending method (anagoge). The first volume thus contains the treatises dealing with the human subject as well as various ethical questions, the second and third volumes examine technical concepts and cosmological problems, the fourth contains the treatises dealing with Soul, the fifth those dealing with Intellect and the sixth the treatises which study Being and the One.

Philosophical Programme

The philosophy of Plotinus is preceded by almost 9 centuries of incessant philosophical speculations and confrontations. In his work echoes of the more important currents of ancient greek philosophy can be undoubtedly traced, however, his steady interlocutors throughout it remain Plato and Aristotle.

Plotinus considers himself as a Platonic philosopher. His platonism rests upon adopting two of Plato's central positions: first, that the Ideas constitute the real beings par excellence and, second, that soul -and intellection as the function proper to it- is immortal and separate from the body. Plotinus claims no originality towards Plato, on the contrary, he presents his own philosophy as an interpretation of platonic thought. Nonetheless, he does not regard it as an application to the word of the platonic text, but rather as the only interpretation capable of justifying Platio's philosophical intuitions and of proposing solutions to the problems which Plato had left open.

Being committed to reveal the truth of the platonic doctrines, the philosophy of Plotinus needs to refute as completely as possible Aristotle's rigorous critique of the so-called platonic 'theory of Forms', and hence it is Aristotle who becomes Plotinus' main interlocutor. The continuous discussion and confrontation with Aristotle shows that Plotinus considers him to belong to the same tradition as Plato, within which he places himself. There appears, however, no particular effort on his part to conciliate these two philosophers, an effort which will characterise the work of his disciple Porphyry.

The three primary principles

According to Plotinus three primary principles, namely the One, Intellect and Soul, suffise (II 9,1,15-16) to account for intelligible reality and its levels. These principles are discovered through an ascending process, the anagoge, from the sensible world to its principle or cause until we reach an ultimate cause which can be referred to none other but itself (III 8,10,20-23). The results of this method are compelling because every effect necessarily carries its cause within itself (III 1, 4,18-20). The starting point of the ascent is to be found in the fundamental position of plotinian philosophy: «It is by the one that all beings are beings» (VI 9,1,1).

The One, like the Good in Plato's Republic, is «beyond being». Plotinus conceives it as dunamis panton (V 1,7,9), meaning the unstoppable and unlimited activity from which the whole of reality, intelligible as well as sensible, is generated. The One is absolutely simple and hence unutterable, since thought can grasp only beings, i.e. things which possess certain determinations. The One being absolutely simple, it is totally devoid of determination, hence neither thought can apprehend it nor speech utter it. All we can do is grasp its presence as the necessary precondition of being and thought.

Intellect represents the archetype of the sensible world on the one hand, the totality of intelligible beings as well as the intellectual activity that knows them, on the other. Plotinus combines in his noology the intelligible model of Plato's Timaeus with the aristotelian doctrine of the Metaphysics about the thought which thinks itself (noesis noeseos). This is a standard combination already present in middle-platonism, Plotinus' originality resting upon his positing the intelligibles as interior to the Intellect: the Intellect in thinking its own contents is ultimately thinking itself (V 5, 1-3). That the objects of the noetic activity of Intellect are interior to it is what garantees its immediate access to truth. Truth not only requires the coexistence of the intelligibles inside the Intellect, it also requires that they be constituted into an organic network which includes them as well as all possible interconnections among them. This structuring of the Intellect into an organic network of all possible relations among intelligibles is articulated by the greatest genera of being (VI 2,7-8), according to the interpretation Plotinus gives of the corresponding doctrine of Plato's Sophist.

Soul is a dual entity («amphibious» IV 8,4,32). Its duality is due both to its intelligible nature and to its presence in the sensible. Its intelligible nature renders it capable of contemplating the intelligible forms, whilst through its creative contemplation (theoria) of them it informs the sensible universe (III 8,4-5). The presence of soul in bodies entails the problem of its divisibility, both in the sense of its individuation and in the sense of its multiple functions due to its connection with the body. Another originality of Plotinus' is the doctrine according to which soul never completely 'descends' into the sensible world, meaning that it has permanent access to the intelligible realm and to truth.

Intellect is generated from the One and Soul from Intellect through a necessary, descending, chain causality, the procession (proodos). Plotinus' committment to a monist conception of reality is utterly inflexible because he considers that the slightest dualism at the level of first principles would abolish the very notion of principle. The necessity of the procession would in fact make of Plotinus' system an utterly deterministic one, had he not introduced a reverse movement, the conversion (epistrophe). This movement entails that each level of reality becomes aware of its being other that its generating principle, thus constituting itself into a separate level, although dependant on the cause which generated it.

Human subject

The central aim of the philosophy of Plotinus is contained in the phrase «we are, each one of us, an intelligible universe» (ΙΙΙ 4,3,22-23). Combining three fundamental acceptions of his philosophy, this position of his can be understood as the plotinian interpretation of the platonic anamnesis (V 9,5,29-32). The first acception is that the intelligible is what is real. The second, that the intelligible is the locus of truth (V 9,1,20) since only in the intelligible the object of thought is interior to the subject of thought and, consequently, truth is grounded upon self-intellection. The third that I, as an individual subject, being able to attain a kind of self-intellection and self-consciousness, can thereby discover that I belong to the relm of real things (V 3,4).

Matter and evil

Matter is the ultimate product of the procession and the only thing which is utterly incapable of conversion to the One. It represents universal non-being in the sense that it is other than every other being, and thus coincides with absolute evil. The concept of matter in Plotinus presents feautures reminiscent of the platonic chora and of aristotelian matter. Nevertheless, its fundamental feature, impassibility (apatheia), is found neither in Plato nor in Aristotle. In Plotinus matter becomes dematerialised in a certain way, because it is conceived as pure privation. (ΙΙ 4, 16).


After Plotinus' death neoplatonic schools were founded in all the important philosophical centres of the roman empire. Although his two most original doctrines, namely that the intelligibles are interior to the Intellect and that each human individual is potentially the intelligible world, were not accepted by his successors, his conception of reality and the questions he raised constituted the conceptual framework of philosophy in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Echos of his questioning are also to be found in the philosophy of Rennaissance and Modernity.

Author: Eleni Perdikouri
  • Blumenthal, H. J. Plotinus' Psychology. Χάγη, 1971.
  • Bussanich, J. The One and its Relation to Intellect in Plotinus. Leiden, 1988.
  • Chiaradonna, R. Plotino. Ρώμη, 2009.
  • Emilsson, E. Plotinus on Sense-Perception. Cambridge, 1988.
  • Emilsson, E. Plotinus on Intellect. Οξφόρδη, 2007.
  • Gerson,, L.P. Plotinus. Νέα Υόρκη, 1994.
  • Gerson, L.P. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus. Cambridge, 1996.
  • O' Meara, D. Structures hiérarchiques dans la pensée de Plotin. Leiden, 1975.
  • O' Meara, D. An Introduction to the Enneads. Οξφόρδη, 1992.
  • Remes, P. Plotinus on Self: the Philosophy of the 'We'. Cambridge, 2007.
  • Rist, J. Plotinus: The Road to Reality. Cambridge, 1976.
  • Stamatellos, G. Plotinus and the Presocratics. Νέα Υόρκη, 2007.
The Neoplatonic School of Alexandria

The Neoplatonic School of Alexandria

The late Platonic philosophical school active fromca....

The myth of Protagoras

The myth of Protagoras

In the Platonic dialogue Protagoras the renowned sophist...

Plato (life and work)

Plato (life and work)

Plato (428-347 BCE) fashioned his intellectual outlook in...



Epinomis is the dialogue putatively concluding the Laws. It...