Category: Persons

The circle of Plotinus

Plotinus' school in Rome, his disciples, his method of teaching, the intellectual confrotations of his time.

Plotinus' "school"

Plotinus (Lycopolis, Egypt 204/5 AD - Rome 270 AD) taught in Rome for about 24 years until his death. All our information about his stay in Rome are contained in Porphyry's De Vita Plotini (cf. lemma Plotinus). It seems that his "school" was lodged in the house of Gemina, a rich roman lady, probably the wife of Trebonianus Gallus, who subsequently became emperor. Plotinus was friendly with the emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina. His social circle also included senators and other notable inhabitants of the capital of the empire (Porph. VP, 9). The circle of his auditors, the informal organisation of his seminars and the fact that there were no successors at the head of his school are indications of the non-institutional character of the latter.

Disciples

According to Porphyry, Plotinus' seminars were frequented by two categories of students, the auditors and the zealotes. The auditors were the most numerous group. They followed the seminars either because it was fashionable to do so, or because of a general interest they had in philosophy The zealotes, who constituted the inner circle of Plotinus' friends, had a genuine interest in philosophy. The most devoted of Plotinus' disciples before Porphyry came to Rome, and his master's aide, was Amelius.

Amelius Gentilianus came from Tuscany (Etruria). He went to Plotinus' school in 246 and remained with him for 24 years. Amelius was already initiated in philosophy before his acquaintance with Plotinus' doctrines. He had studied at the school of Lysimachus of whom we know that he was a Stoic or, perhaps also, a Platonic philosopher. Amelius was greatly interested in the philosophy of Numenius whose treatises he had copied and learnt by heart, according to Porphyry's testimony.

Amelius' duties as Plotinus' assistant concerned the systematic composition of commentaries, i.e. notes from his master's seminars (VP, 3, 46-48). According to Porphyry, Amelius composed about 100 volumes of notes, of which none remains. He was also charged with the editing of Plotinus' treatises, a charge that was divided between him and Porphyry when the latter joined the school. Finally, being Plotinus' closest associate, he undertook the presentation and defence of his master's doctrines against those who contradicted them.

Amelius left Rome and Plotinus' school in 269. He went to Phoenicia where he met Longinus and handed to him some of Plotinus' treatises. It seems that he settled down in Syria, in Apamea, the homeland of Numenius. We have no information concerning his life there. It is, however, probable hat he taught there and, also, that he was the founder of the neoplatonic school of Iamblichus.

Porphyry came from Phoenicia. He studied philosophy in Athens under Longinus. Arriving at Rome he met Plotinus and remained at his school from 263 to 268. He immediately became Plotinus' assistant next to Amelius. When Porphyry joined the school, Plotinus had already composed his first 21 treatises, which were circulating in the inner circle of his disciples. During the years that Porphyry studied under Plotinus his master wrote another 24 treatises. Plotinus write his last 9 treatises after Porphyry had left for Sicily. He remained, however, the editor of the works of Plotinus, his master having sent him his last treatises to be read and corrected (VP, 6). In that way, the two best and most devoted of Plotinus' disciples were not present at their master's death.

Besides these two philosophers, Plotinus' circle of disciples and close friends included the doctors Paulinus, Eustochius and Zethos; the poet and specialist in the art of speaking (critic) Zoticus; the senators Castricius Firmus, Marcellus Orontius, Sabinillus and Rogatianus; and Serapion of Alexandria, whose penchant for usury prevented him from devoting himself to philosophy (VP, 7). Plotinus' circle also comprised women who were dedicated to his seminars: Gemina, in whose house he stayed, her daughter of the same name, and Amphiclea, who later married the son of Iamblichus (VP, 9,1-5). As a matter of fact, it was not at all unheard of for women to frequent platonic and pythagorean schools.

Teaching method

Plotinus teaching was devoid of dogmatism. Porphyry presents him as a socratic figure: the search for truth conduced him to a style of teaching that was more prone to discussing a problem than to putting forth a doctrine, and to a style of writing which was conscise and laden with meaning (VP, 14,1-4). Nevertheless, this lack of dogmatism does not denote that Plotinus was a spiritual leader rather than a philosopher in the academic acception of the term. On the contrary, he was fully acquainted with the scientific theories of his time concerning arithmetic, geometry, mechanics, optics, medicine. He was also fully knowledgeable in the philosophical theories of his predecessors, and was particularly interested in the treatises of Aristotle (cf. Plotinus). This information we gather from Porphyry (VPΒ, 14,4-9), however, any attentive reader of his works may ascertain that Plotinus was an extremely subtle and ingenious reader of previous philosophical theories. He used to begin his lessons with the reading of a commentary concerning the subject under discussion. The commentaries read in his seminars were those by the middle-Platonists Severus, Cronius, Numenius, Gaius and Atticus; by the Peripatetics Aspasius, Alexandre of Aphrodisias and Adrastus; and by others who are not named (VP, 14,10-14). For Plotinus, explaining the works of the great ancient philosophers should not amount to paraphrasing or to the faithful replication of their doctrines, but to a systematic interpretation aiming at revealing the truth that was contained in them.

Plotinus and the Gnostics

The circle of Plotinus included a number of obscure Gnostics whose theories were a compilation of christian, mythological and magic elements. The main feauture of these irrational beliefs, namely the contempt of the sensible universe and the conviction that it was the product of a senseless and evil demiurge incited Plotinus to break with those who held them. He dedicated to the refutation of these theories a long treatise which Porphyry cut into 4 parts and placed in different volumes of the Enneads (ΙΙΙ 8, V 8, V 5, II 9).

Plotinus and magic

In the circle of Plotinus there were also people who were delivered to the practice of magic and believed that the stars had the power to influence the lives of humans. In his writings we find no direct rejection of the possibility of magic, or of the influence of the stars due to the sympatheia which binds together the different parts of the universe. He held, however that magic as well as astrological predictions are to do only with the inferior, bodily, irrational part of the human subject and of nature, whereas the superior part of the soul remains unaffected by these influences, since it never leaves the intelligible realm (IV 4,43-44). The stance of the wise man, whose efforts consist in turning the entirety of his soul to the theoria of the intelligible is incompatible with religious practices (VP,10,34-38).

Platonopolis

Plotinus apparently asked the emperor Gallienus that a region in Campania, where it was said that a city of philosophers, probably Pythagoreans, had once existed, be alloted to him. Plotinus desired to have the area revived so as to found there, for himself and his companions, a city that would be goverened according to the regime put forward by Plato in the Laws. This plan was never realized, according to Porphyry, due to the emperor's conflicting relations with certain senators.

Author: Eleni Perdikouri
  • Brisson, L. Porphyre, La vie de Plotin. Paris, 1982.
  • Goulet-Cazé, M.-OBrisson, L. ed. . Porphyre: La vie de Plotin, τόμος 1ος. Παρίσι, 1982-1992.
  • Brisson, L. "Amélius: Vie, œuvre, doctrine." ANRW ΙΙ 36.2 (1987)
  • Jerphagnon, L. "Platonopolis ou Plotin entre le siècle et le rêve." Néoplatonisme Fontenay aux Roses (1981)
  • O'Brien, D. Théodicée plotinienne, théodicée gnostique. Leiden, 1993.
  • Merlan, P. "Plotinus and Magic." Isis 44 (1953)
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