Plotinus - union with the One.

A history of pantheism and scientific pantheism by Paul Harrison.

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A sympathy pervades this single universe, like a single living creature,
and the distant is near.
Every interval, both large and small, is filled with Soul.

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Starburst galaxy NGC 1808
HST photo March 22 1998, J. Fllod, M. Mutchler and NASA.

Little is known about Plotinus' life. He was born in AD 204-5 in Egypt. In his twenties he moved to the great centre of learning, Alexandria, to study philosophy. There he read the works of Aristotle and Plato, both of whom had a strong influence on his thought.

He was also intrigued by the philosophies of Persia and India. Hoping to visit these countries, he joined the emperor Gordian's campaign against the Parthians, in 243 AD. The campaign ended in catastrophe when the emperor was assassinated in Mesopotamia.

Plotinus escaped to Antioch. From there he made his way to Rome and opened an academy. He seems to have enjoyed intellectual discussion as much as lecturing. His star pupil Porphyry once questioned him about the relation of the soul to the body for three days on end. A man called Thaumasius complained that he had come to hear a lecture. Plotinus replied: "But unless we solve the problems raised by Porphyry's questions, we shall have nothing to say to put in the lecture." His great work, the Enneads, is made up of essays composed in response to problems raised in his seminar.

He was highly honoured by the emperor Gallienus (253-268AD). At one point he put forward a plan to found a model city in Southern Italy, called Platonopolis and based on Plato's Laws, but the proposal came to nothing.

Plotinus was a vegetarian, and shunned public baths with their promiscuous nudity. "Plotinus seemed ashamed of being in a body," Porphyry wrote in his biography. We can only speculate on the psychological sources of his habits and beliefs. Up to the age of eight he had a compulsion to suck his nurse's breast, and only gave this up when his friends ridiculed him. This may be evidence of maternal deprivation. The time in which he lived was chaotic, marked by famines, plague, wars and civil wars, and the near-collapse of the Roman empire.

He died in 270 of a long and disfiguring illness, perhaps leprosy.

Plotinus was a pantheist of the world-rejecting type. He envisaged God as an impersonal Unity - infinite, eternal, with no spatial location, and (curious, but consistent) without thought, knowledge or movement. This conception is strikingly close to that of Taoism.

The One created the universe by progressive emanation, first into a purely spiritual form, Intellect, then into Soul, which in turn animated the physical world. Soul is present even in the lowest forms of existence, but these are so far removed from divinity that Plotinus sometimes calls matter evil. Like Plato, he believed that the body had to be suppressed and overcome before the soul could attain unity with the One.

He experienced states of mystical union.

Often I have woken to myself out of the body, become detached from all else and entered into myself; and I have seen beauty of surpassing greatness, and have felt assured that then especially I belonged to the higher reality, engaged in the noblest life and identified with the Divine. [Enneads, iv.8]

However, he enjoyed this experience only four times in the five or six years that his biographer Porphyry knew him. Only after death could this unity become permanent and definitive.

Despite this marked world rejection, Plotinus' careful writing is infused with images that betray a close perception of the real world, and an appreciation of its beauty - though he himself believed that this was only a reflection of a higher Beauty.

The quotations are from John Gregory, The Neo-Platonists, Kyle Cathie, 1991.

Selected passages from The Enneads.

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The One, perfect in seeking nothing, possessing nothing and needing nothing, overflows and creates a new reality by its superabundance. [5.2.1.]

The process is like the unfolding of a seed, moving from simple origin to termination in the world of sense, the prior always remaining in its place, while begetting its successor from a store of indescribable power - power that must not halt within the higher realm . . but continue to expand until the universe of things reaches the limit of its possibility, lavishing its vast resources on all its creatures, intolerant that any one should have no share in it. Nothing is debarred from participation in the Good, to the extent of its receptivity. [4.8.6]

The One is omnipresent.

This All is universal power, of infinite extent and infinite in potency, a god so great that all his parts are infinite. Name any place, and he is already there. [5.8.9.]

It has not deserted its creation for a place apart; it is always present to those with strength to touch it. [6.9.7]

Soul is present in all things.

The power and nature of Soul encompasses heaven and guides it according to its will. To all this vast expanse, as far as it extends, it gives itself, and every interval, both large and small, is filled with Soul… Soul enlivens all things with its whole self and all Soul is present everywhere… And vast and diversified thought this universe is, it is one by the power of soul and a god because of soul. The sun is also a god, because ensouled, and the other stars, and if we ourselves partake of the Divine, this is the cause. [5.1.2.]

Nothing is detached or severed from its prior, so that the higher soul seems to extend as far as plants; and in a way it does so extend, because the life in plants belongs to it. Not that soul is wholly within plants, but only to the extent that they are the lower limit of its advance, another level of existence created by its decline towards the worse. [5.2.1.]

Every participant partakes of the power of Being in its entirety, while Being is unchanged and undivided. [4.4.8]

Soul in its unity is not extended by fragmentation into bodies, but is entirely present where it is present, and omnipresent and undivided throughout the universe. [6.4.12]

The universe is a living being.

This universe is a single living being embracing all living beings within it, and possessing a single Soul that permeates all its parts to the degree of their participation in it. Every part of this sensible universe is fully participant in its material aspect, and in respect of soul, in the degree to which it shares in the World Soul. [4.4.32.]

A sympathy pervades this single universe, like a single living creature, and the distant is near… Like parts lie not in contact but separated, with other parts between, yet by their likeness they feel sympathy . . and in a living and unified being there is no part so remote as not to be near, through the very nature that binds the living unity in sympathy. [4.4.32]

Matter is evil.

[Matter] is an image and phantom of corporeal mass, a mere tendency to substantial existence, static but without position; it is invisible in itself, eluding all attempts to observe it, present yet unseen… Images of intelligible beings pass in and out of it . . without cutting, as if through water, or like shapes floating through the Void. [3.6.7.]

If evil exists, it exists in non-being … Such is the whole world of sense and all experience of the senses. [1.8.1]

[Matter] is the substrate which underlies figures, forms, shapes, measures and limits . . a mere shadow in relation to real Being, the very essence of evil, if such is possible. [1.8.2]

Rejection of the body and sense experience.

Sense-perception belongs to the sleeping soul, the part of the soul immersed in body; and the true awakening is a rising up, not with the body, but from the body… To rise up to very truth is altogether to depart from bodies. Corporeality is contrary to soul and essentially opposed to soul. [3.6.6.]

If life and soul survive death, then there will still be good, and the more so now that soul acts purely according to its nature, unimpeded by body. [1.7.3.]

What else could true moderation be but to avoid association with bodily pleasures, and to shun them as impure affections of a thing impure? . . The soul when purified becomes pure form and formative power, all disembodied and intellective, and wholly within the Divine. [1.6.6.]

The One transcends the Universe.

The source is not fragmented into the universe, for its fragmentation would destroy the whole, which would not longer come to be if there did not remain by itself, distinct from it, its source. [3.8.10.]

The One is all things and yet no one of them. It is the source of all things, not itself all things, but their transcendent Principle… So that Being may exist the One is not Being, but the begetter of Being.

The ascent to union with God.

Intellect can veil itself from the world and concentrate its gaze within, and though it sees nothing, it will behold a light - not an external light in some perceived object, but a solitary light, pure and self-contained, suddenly revealed within itself… We must not enquire whence it comes, for there is no "whence"… He does not come as one expected, and his coming knows no arrival; he is beheld not as one who enters but who is eternally present. [5.7-8.]

Our thought cannot grasp the One as long as any other image remains active in the soul . . To this end, you must set free your soul from all outward things and turn wholly within yourself, with no more leaning to what lies outside, and lay your mind bare of ideal forms, as before of the objects of sense, and forget even yourself, and so come within sight of that One. [6.9.7]

Beyond duality.

A bolder course would be to abandon the duality of seer and seen, and count both as one. In that vision the seer does not see or distinguish, or even imagine, two; he is changed, no longer himself nor owning himself there, but belongs to God, one with him, centre joined with centre. [6.9.10]

If he remembers who he became when he merged with the One, he will bear its image in himself. He was himself one, with no diversity in himself or his outward relations; for no movement was in him, no passion, no desire for another, once the ascent was accomplished. Nor indeed was there any reason or though, nor, if we dare say it, any trace of himself. [6.9.11.]



is the belief that the universe and nature are divine.
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides the most realistic concept of life after death,
and the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
no guru other than your own self.

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© Paul Harrison 1996.