Date of publication: 2017-08-28 19:45
The causality of the One was frequently explained in antiquity as an answer to the question, &lsquo How do we derive a many from the One?&rsquo Although the answer provided by Plotinus and by other Neoplatonists is sometimes expressed in the language of &lsquo emanation&rsquo , it is very easy to mistake this for what it is not. It is not intended to indicate either a temporal process or the unpacking or separating of a potentially complex unity. Rather, the derivation was understood in terms of atemporal ontological dependence.
The role of Intellect is to account for the real distinctness of the plethora of Forms, virtually united in the One. Thus, in the above mathematical example, the fact that numbers are virtually united does not gainsay the fact that each has an identity. The way that identity is maintained is by each and every Form being thought by an eternal Intellect. And in this thinking, Intellect &lsquo attains&rsquo the One in the only way it possibly can. It attains all that can be thought hence, all that can be thought &lsquo about&rsquo the One.
If matter or evil is ultimately caused by the One, then is not the One, as the Good, the cause of evil? In one sense, the answer is definitely yes. As Plotinus reasons, if anything besides the One is going to exist, then there must be a conclusion of the process of production from the One. The beginning of evil is the act of separation from the One by Intellect, an act which the One itself ultimately causes. The end of the process of production from the One defines a limit, like the end of a river going out from its sources. Beyond the limit is matter or evil.
To understand Plotinus in the fullest fashion, don't forget to familiarize yourself with Plato's Symposium , Phaedrus , Phaedo , the Republic , and the Letters (esp. II and VII), not to mention Aristotle , the Stoics and the Epicureans , the Hellenistic Astrologers , the Gnostics , the Hermetic Corpus, Philo and Origen.
However, the process that leads down from the One to the creation of matter and evil also leads upward. The soul, by looking to itself and discovering its essentially higher nature through its essential difference from its body, grasps the basic distinction that can lead it away from matter toward matter’s perfect and unitary source. Seeing the gradations of unity represented in the various levels, the soul may rise by intelligence to the intelligible world and then beyond it, at least momentarily, to the One beyond intellectual distinctions.
Armstrong, A. H., ed. The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 6975. A good introduction to Plotinus that provides a concise but rich exposition of his thought.
Porphyry's biography reveals a man at once otherworldly and deeply practical. The former is hardly surprising in a philosopher but the latter deserves to be noted and is impressively indicated by the fact that a number of Plotinus' acquaintances appointed him as guardian to their children when they died.
Porphyry informs us that during the first ten years of his time in Rome, Plotinus lectured exclusively on the philosophy of Ammonius. During this time he also wrote nothing. Porphyry tells us that when he himself arrived in Rome in 768, the first 76 of Plotinus' treatises had already been written. The remainder of the 59 treatises constituting his Enneads were written in the last seven or eight years of his life.
Only in recent years has the full importance of Plotinus been widely recognized. Previously, Neoplatonism, of which Plotinus is the greatest representative, and Platonism had not been clearly distinguished. Lacking the original writings to compare, scholars in the Middle Ages blended the two forms of thought together without a clear notion of their distinctive qualities. Historical research and the availability of the sources themselves have produced a growing awareness of the distinctiveness of Plotinus’s thought and of his unique contributions in The Enneads. Its intimate connection with the Platonic tradition is readily admitted by Plotinus himself, but such closeness in origin need not mean similarity, as Plato’s famous student Aristotle made clear.