Theosophy – September 1897

THE TEACHINGS OF PLOTINOS — Alexander Wilder

Augustine, the celebrated bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa, described Plotinos as "Plato risen from the dead." The singular probity of his character, his profound knowledge, his intuitive perception which often seemed like omniscience, his ecstatic vision of Divinity, joined with extraordinary sagacity in worldly matters, seemed to warrant such a declaration. The little that is known of his personal history has been given by his more distinguished disciple, Porphyry, who considered him divinely inspired.

The Platonic philosophy had been preserved by the Older Akademe approximating somewhat toward the Pythagorean principles and then returning to the doctrines of the great philosopher. There were also other schools, more or less amplifying his teachings all the way down to the close of the Macedonian period. The establishment of the famous Museum and Library at Alexandreia was the occasion for a new departure. The representatives of every school of thought were invited thither, Wise Men of the Far Fast, together with the Sages of the regions then known as the West. There had occurred a great upheaval in philosophic and religious thought, which added importance to the undertaking. Asoka, a Piyadarsi of India, having abandoned Jainism for Buddhism, had engaged in the most extensive work of propaganda ever known, and sent eighty thousand missionaries, Southward, Eastward, Northward, and even to the Greek-speaking countries. The Jews had their Temple in Egypt, erected by their legitimate High Priest, and not inferior to the sanctuary at Jerusalem, or its rival on Mount Gerizim. There were also Therapeutic, and sects of philosophy not necessary to enumerate. All were welcomed by the Ptolemies to the Lecture-Rooms at their capital, and their books were eagerly procured for the Great Library. There was also a purpose to surpass the similar enterprise then in active operation at Pergamos.

Under these auspices there was developed a disposition to reconcile the conflicting sentiments, and harmonize as far as might be, the several schools of belief. As the Platonic philosophy was most complete of all and included the higher speculation, metaphysical and ethical idealism, it was best suited for the foundation of an eclectic effort. Contiguity with the East and the general adoption of the occult Mithraic Rites over the Roman world operated powerfully to mitigate the hostilities incident to the various national and tribal religions. There arose at one time and another men of ability to prepare the way for a harmony of philosophic systems. Phila, Appolonios of Tyana, Alexander the Aphrodisian and others may be named in the number.

Ammonios Sakkas of Alexandria, however is generally accredited as the first teacher of what is distinctly recognized as Neo-Platonism. Like other great leaders, little is recorded of him personally. An Indian orator once addressed a missionary: "The Great Spirit speaks: we hear his voice in the winds, in the rustling of the trees, and the purling of the streams of water; but he does not write!" The great teachers seem to have been equally silent with pen and stylus. Konfusi, Gautama, Zoroaster, Sokrates, Jesus are known only through their professed disciples. It was more common to publish recondite doctrines under another name as Hermes Trismegistos, to which we may add the Sokrates of Plato's Dialogues, Zarathustra of the Vendidad, Dionysios the Areopagite, Christian Rosenkreutz, and others with which we are more familiar. The entire dogmas of Pythagoras were inculcated with the prefix of "Ipse dixit"; and Plato it was affirmed, taught a doctrine orally which his disciples promulgated in like manner, but which was not preserved in writing.

Ammonios Sakkas taught at Alexaudreia in the earlier years of the Third Century of the present era. It was his belief that true doctrines were contained in every faith and philosophic system, and he proposed to winnow them out for an Eclectic Scheme. The name selected for himself and followers was that of Philaletheans, or lovers of the truth. A Zoroastrian tendency may be perceived; the Eranian doctrines were designated as truth; all divergent systems, as "the Lie." He had a select body of disciples whom he obligated to secrecy, considering that the "Wisdom of the Ancients" was too holy to be confided to profane persons. This obligation, however, was set aside by Hercunius after his death.

Plotinos, however, became the representative and chief apostle of the new Eclectic Philosophy. He was a native of Lykopolis or Siut in Upper Egypt, and was born in the year 205. He became a student at Alexandreia in 233, but was about to leave in disappointment when he was introduced by a friend to Ammonios Sakkas. He at once in a transport devoted himself to the new philosophy, remaining with the school eleven years. At this time the amiable youth Gordian (Marcus Antonious Pius Gordianus) had become Emperor, and now set out on an expedition into the Parthian dominions. Plotinos accompanied the army with the purpose "to study the philosophy of the Parthians and the Wisdom particularly cultivated by the Indian Sages." His expectation, however, was not realized, the Emperor being assassinated by a rival.

He now came to Rome, where he engaged zealously in his esoteric studies. It was his aim to restore the philosophy of Plato in its essential character, and in short to live the life of the disembodied while yet in the body, as is set forth in the Phado. He had many disciples, many of them senators, physicians, and others of philosophic tastes. Among them was Porphyrios, a native of Tyre, who at his request afterward edited and revised his work. Though he lived a celibate and carefully abstained from public affairs, he was often made a trustee and guardian of orphan children, particularly fatherless girls, and their estates, and also an arbiter of disputes, and he always discharged these trusts with absolute fidelity. The Roman Emperor Gallienus, who greatly admired him, bestowed upon him a deserted city in Campania, to which was given the name of Platonopolis, and he made an endeavor to establish there a Platonic Politeia, but without success. The courtiers hindered his efforts.

In many respects he resembled the Yogis of India. He was ascetic in his habits, abstaining from animal food, and he is described as "ashamed that his soul was in a body." He would not let his picture be painted, or tell the name of his parents or the race to which he belonged, or even discourse about his native country. Though often dyspeptic and subject to colic, he refused medical treatment, as unfit for a man of adult years. He never bathed, but made daily use of massage. A pestilence raged at Rome with such violence that five thousand persons are said to have perished in a single day. Plotinos was one of the victims. His servants had died from the epidemic, leaving none to care for him, and he suffered terribly. His voice was lost, his eyes blinded, and offensive ulcers covered him to his hands and even his feet. He lingered in this condition till the year 270. In this condition he was carried to Campania, where friends ministered to him. Here he was visited by Eustochius from Putechi. "I have expected you," said the dying man. "I am now endeavoring that my divine part may return to that divine essence that pervades the universe." He was sixty-four years old at the time of his death.

The veneration which the disciples of Plotiuos entertained for him was almost a worship. He was reputed to possess superhuman powers. Those who became familiar with him, like those associating with Sokrates, passed thenceforward a better life. A lady named Khion with her daughters living in his house, lost a valuable necklace, and Plotinos, looking among the servants, picked out the thief. Polemo, a young man of his acquaintance, was told that he would have a loose life, and die early. Porphyry himself construed too literally the notion of hating the body, and was contemplating suicide. Plotinos perceived this, and pronouncing it the effect of disease, sent him to Sicily, where he recovered, but never saw his preceptor again.

An Egyptian priest at Rome employed a theurgic test in order to discover the guardian demon of Plotinos. It was done in the temple of Isis, but one of the higher order appeared. "Thou hast a God for a guardian," he declared. On another occasion, one Olympius attempted to bring upon him by magic art the baneful influence of the stars, but the malignant defluxion was reflected upon himself. This endeavor was several times repeated, but always with a similar result. The soul of Plotinos repelled every evil assault. It was "always tending to Divinity" says Porphyry.

The oracle was consulted, and described him as blessed of the Muses and possessing endless bliss. "By the assistance of this Divine Light," says Porphyry, "he had frequently raised himself by his conceptions to the First God who is beyond, and by employing for this purpose the Paths narrated by Plato in The Banquet there appeared to him the Supreme Divinity who has neither any form nor ideal, but is established above mind and everything spiritual — to whom also, I, Porphyry, say that I was approached and was united when I was sixty-eight years of age. . . . The gods frequently directed him into the right path by benignantly extending to him abundant rays of divine light: so that he may be said to have composed his works from the contemplation and intuition of Divinity."

Plotinos did not readily compose books. Not till Porphyry became his disciple did he begin, and he gave his compositions to Porphyry to revise. He prepared some fifty-four treatises which were comprehended in the six Enneads of nine parts each. We may surmise his estimate of his redactor by his praise of a poem, The Sacred Marriage, composed by the latter. "You have thus yourself at the same time a poet, a philosopher, and an hierophaut."

It was the purpose of Plotiuos to combine and systematize the various religious and philosophic theories, by exalting them to the higher concept. He taught the fact of three hypastases or foundation principles — the Absolute Good, Mind and Soul. "For," says Taylor, "according to Plato, the Good is superessential; Intellect is an impartible, immovable essence, and Soul is a self-motive essence, and subsists as a medium between Intellect and the nature which is distributed about bodies."

The Divine Being is accordingly designated by Plotinos, "The Good," "The One," "The First," "The First Cause." In essence he is absolutely one and unchangeable; but plurality and changeableness pertain to his workings. He is the Light shining into the darkness or chaos. The first sphere of his activity is Mind or Intellect, in which he differentiates himself into consciousness and its objects. In this Mind are the Ideas or idealities, which are at once the archetypes and moving forces of the universe. From it all things proceed.

Thus, the Divine Spirit is the self-active, creating principle, and from spirit all matter is derived. The world and the universe are the product of spirit: as also Paul declared: "All things are out from God."

The most immediate product of Spirit, as Plotinos taught, is Soul, which in its turn shapes matter into corporeal conditions. Receiving from the Spirit the world of Ideas and the image or archetype, it forms and fashions the world of Sense.

All existence, therefore, is an emanation and projection from the Divine One — not in time, however, but in Eternity. There is also, he inculcated, a returning impulse, attracting all again to the centre and source. Hence he made less account of external knowledges, but regarded the real truth as to be apprehended by an immediate divine illumination. He held revelation to be a perception which the individual attains, by coming in touch with the Deity. This is Ecstasy — an absence and separation of the spirit or superior intellect from the sensation and consciousness of the body and from the external memory, being rapt in contemplation of the Absolute Good.

Sokrates himself was frequently in this enthusiastic condition. Alkibiades describes him in the Banquet as one day during the Athenian expedition to Potides, standing by himself in contemplation, from early dawn till mid-day and on through the night till next morning, when he performed an invocation to the Sun and went away. Xenokrates was also thus absent from the body. Paul describes a similar rapture when he was himself in the third heaven or paradise hearing things unspeakable. In the initiations at the ancient mysteries, particularly at Eleusinia, it was attempted to produce or develop an analogous condition.

Sokrates in the Phado describes the philosophic soul as retiring within itself, pushing aside the body as far as possible, having no communication with it, and so aiming at the discovery of that which is. Plothios also teaches that the wise one cognizes the ideal of the Divine Good within him by withdrawing into the Sanctuary of his own soul. Others seek to realize it, as in the Theurgic Rites, by laborious effort of an external character. The true aim is to concentrate and simplify. Instead of going out into the manifold, the true way is to forsake it for the One, and so to float upward toward the Divine fountain of being which flows in each of us.

He declares we cannot attain to this knowing of the Infinite by the exercising of the reasoning faculty. It is the province of that faculty to distinguish and define; and the Infinite may not be thus brought within limitations. Only by a faculty superior to the understanding can we apprehend the Infinite; and this may be done by entering into a state in which the individual is no longer his finite self, and in which the Divine Essence is communicated to him. This is Ecstasy — the liberating of the mind from the finite consciousness. Like can only apprehend like; thus ceasing to be finite we become one with the Infinite. In the reducing of the Soul to this simple condition, its divine essence, this union or identity is realized.

The mind is thus illumined with divine light. The person cannot tell whence it comes or whither it goes.(1) It is he, rather, who approaches to it or withdraws. One must not pursue it, but abide waiting for it patiently, as if looking for the sun to rise above the ocean. The soul, blind to all beside, gazes intently on the ideal vision of the Beautiful, and is glorified as it contemplates it.

This condition, Plotinos says, is not one that endures permanently. Our common human nature is not sufficient for it. It may be enjoyed now and then. All that tends to purify the mind will assist in the attainment, and facilitate the approach and recurring of these felicitous experiences.

There are different paths to the Sublime Height. Every one may take the one that is best suited to him. There is the love of beauty and excellence which inspires the poet; the devotion to the Supreme One and the pursuit of the Superior Knowledge which impel the philosopher; the piety and love which characterize the ardent soul. These are so many paths conducting to the heights above the actual and the particular; and then we stand in the immediate presence of the Infinite, who shines out as from the deeps of the soul.

It will be perceived that Plotinos extends human consciousness from the physical and psychic, of which we all know, to a supra-consciousuess or apperception in which the higher intellect or spirit is brought into communion with its like, and to the realization of being one with Divinity itself. This is the acme of Neo-Platonism. The Mysticism of later centuries which Dionysius, Eckart, Boehmen and Molinos inculcated, and which Sa'adi and others diffused in the Moslem body, took from this an inspiration. The Apostle Paul himself recognized the doctrine. He describes the entirety of man as "spirit and soul and body," and "delights in the law of God after the inner man." He also treats of the "psychic man" that does not receive the things of the spirit, and "one that is spirited, who knoweth the All, but is not himself known by any."

Iamblichos of Coelosyria mingled with these doctrines a Theurgic Initiation after the manner of the Egyptian priests and Theosophers and was followed by Proklos and others. But in its simplicity as taught by Plotinos and Porphyry, there were no such secret observances, but only a general conforming to the customs instituted for the general public. It was enough for the philosopher to contemplate excellence and by a pure and true life realize it in himself. Such are they of whom the world is not worthy.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Jesus says to Nicodemus: "The pneuma or spirit moves whither it will, and thou canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth: So is every one that is born of the Spirit." (return to text)


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