Platonic Poltinus

Next up on the list is a brutal seven-volume slog through Plotinus' six Enneads. Plotinus was a 3rd-century AD Greek-speaking Neoplatonist philosopher. He also marks the end of the pre-Christian philosophers in the Great Books list. In many ways, his school of philosophy and his place in time allow him to serve as a sort of bridge between ancient and medieval philosophy or between pagan philosophy and Christian theology.

Like most of the other schools of philosophy from the waning days of the Roman Empire covered in the Greek Books list, Plotinus' brand of Platonism had become arguably monotheist. Plotinus' philosophies revolves around the idea of the One, the original driving force and source of all levels and aspects of reality. A.H. Armstrong, the translator of the edition I linked above, does not believe that the One qualifies as a god because the One is not external to our universe, but rather an integral part of it. I, however, am unsure about such a fine distinction.

And somewhat analogously to the Stoics, Plotinus advocates rejection of the base material world for a life of the mind. Armstrong translates this higher world as the realm of Intellect. Readers of Plato will be more familiar with the concept under a different name in English: the World of Forms.

To put these two things another, more familiar, way: reject the flesh and turn your eyes toward God. These disparate schools were definitely sharing in a common zeitgeist. And it further reinforces my view of a strong intellectual continuity between the pre-Christian antiquity and the Christian medieval period.

The new surprise for me when reading Plotinus was finally understanding how Platonism ended up tied to magical practices as time went on. My realization came from reading Plotinus' refutation against the astrologers. Much akin to the Stoics and their concept of logos, Plotinus viewed the One as a sort of organizing principle behind the whole universe, through which all things were connected in some way. Now, if we assume that all things are connected, then it is possible that any one thing can have some degree of influence on any other thing in the universe, even if the influence is unintelligible to the senses. Astrologers believe that stars and planets influence things to a large degree in exactly this way. And the sympathetic magic of later esoteric schools is meant to work in a similar manner. Christian prayer could be viewed as working through a similar mechanism, though I am not aware of any real theological argument along those lines.

Plotinus takes the view that although such influences are possible, they are too slight to be worth thinking about. He makes an essentially empirical argument that the degree of influence claimed by the astrologers simply does not correspond to observable outcomes. But it is notable that Plotinus feels that he has to make this argument at all. It tells us that this was a significant view in Plotinus' time. It is also possible that Plotinus was unconsciously motivated by the narcissism of small differences. In other words, he could feel this idea creeping into the greater Platonist community andbecoming a threat to his own beliefs.

Unfortunately, after reading the Stoics, I feel compelled now to ask myself one question when reading any new philosophy: How does this help me live a better life? While Plotinus has helped me understand the continuity between late antiquity and the medieval period, I do not think any of his writing has provided me with any tools for actual personal growth. It is not sufficient for me anymore to read something like, "reject the world of the senses and seek the word of the Intellect." Even if I were to accept this as a valid and worthy goal, Plotinus does not spend any ink on discussing how this is actually achieved. The Stoics, in contrast, want nothing more than to show you exactly how to achieve your full human potential through a lived and practiced, rather than purely theoretical, philosophy.