The Monistic Theory

by Nhân Tử Nguyễn Văn Thọ

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Chapter 8

Plotinus and the Monistic Theory


Plotinus (v. 205-270 A.D) was a philosopher and a religious genius who transformed a revival of Platonism in the Roman Empire into what modern scholars called Neoplatonism and exercised great influence on the thoughts of the Islamic world and on European thought until the late 17th century. The real founder of Neoplatonism (250-529) was Ammonius Saccas (175-242), the teacher of Plotinus.


The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines Neoplatonism as: "A philosophical and religious system developed at Alexandria in the third century A.D., based on the doctrines of Plato and other Greek philosophers, and combined with elements of Oriental mysticism and some Judaic and Christian concepts."

In brief, Plotinus taught that the cosmos is made of emanations from the One, and that man's goal is to return to the One by mystical experience through which he transcends the limitations of matter and the intervening mental emanations - the world-soul, the archetypes.[1]


Ammonius Saccas

Plotinus was not a Christian, but his influence on Christian mystics was enormous; he compares human beings to the choir standing around a choir master but with their attention distracted by things going on about them, so they fail to sing in tune or in time. He held that creation was a series of steps leading away from the One (or God); he called those steps emanations. (The Kabbalists later borrowed his ideas, as William Blake was to borrow from the Kabbalah). This is definitely a non-Christian view, for Plotinus' evil is a negative thing, depending upon how many steps you have taken away from the One; it is like someone walking away from a lighted house at night, moving further into the darkness of the garden. But why should people walk away, unless tempted by the Devil? Because, says Plotinus, we are empty-headed, and easily distracted. The philosopher is a man who determinedly ignores distractions and multiplicity, and tries to see back towards the One. "Such", he concludes, "is the life of Gods and of Godlike men; a liberation from all earthly bonds, a life that takes no pleasure in earthy things, a flight of the alone to the Alone." [2]

At the center of all reality in the universe, in Plotinus' system of thought, set forth in the Enneads, is the Godhead, the One, The Absolute Good, the Source, which transcends thought and concrete being and utterance, an undivided and undifferentiated Unity. From this ultimate One, by an overflow from the superabundant Godhead, a succession of emanations radiate out in stages of decreasing splendor and reality. First in Order is the Nous, Mind and Spirit, which radiates from the One as light emanates from a luminous body. This is the Over-Mind of the Universe, the World of Ideas, Patterns or Forms, of which all minds, and everything real and intelligible, partake. The Third Order of Plotinus' Trinity, and the second emanation is the Over-Soul, which is the principle of life, of activity and process. It is the life of all life and enfolds all souls. It floods out and makes the concrete world. Matter by itself is unreal. It is the limit or barrier against which the overflowing reality of soul is broken and splashes into multiplicity and differentiation. Soul is amphibious and may live downward in the lower world or live upward in the World Yonder.

For Plotinus there is "a way down", by emanation, and "a way up", or return to Source. The Soul must first of all come to itself, withdraw from desires, objects of sense, and contemplate the true patterns of things, and rise to the height of thinking God's thoughts, and so attain the realm of Spirit-Nous. The last stage of the journey to the Fatherland, the Divine Center, or Source, can be reached only by a leap of ecstatic mystical experience, which Plotinus called "the flight of the alone to the Alone." [3]

This theory is similar to the Kabballah. According to this document, the development of the Infinite to the finite carries in itself the degradation of the perfect to the imperfect...In that case, the development of things progresses from the Center to the periphery, and in successive orders. These orders are disposed in concentric circles. Each order is at the same time, the shell, the rind, the matter of the order immediately superior to it, and the spirit for the order immediately inferior to it... So for the mystic Jews, God is considered as the Center. The development of Sephiroth and their actions are in concentric circles: The inferior envelops the superiors and serves as its protecting ring. The whole created universe, including the Sephiroth, is then only the rind of God, exactly as the peel of an onion is the garment of the bulb, or as the shell of the nut is the garment of the grain... And one day will come, when the multiple will return to the One, when everything will plunge again in the primeval fullness. "One day, the Saint will take off all the rind, and will reappear under the aspect of a substantial core." [4]

The founder of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria, as we have said, is supposed to have been Ammonius Saccas. But the Enneads of his pupil Plotinus are the primary and classical document of Neoplatonism. The doctrine of Plotinus is mysticism, and, like all mysticism, it consists of two main divisions. The first or theoretical part deals with the high origin of the human soul and shows how it has departed from its first estate. In the second part the way is pointed out by which the soul may again return to the Eternal and Supreme. Since the souls in their longings reach forth beyond all sensible things, beyond the world of ideas even, it follows that the highest being must be something super-rational. The system thus embraces three heads:- (1) The primeval Being, (2) The ideal world of the soul, (3) the phenomenal world.

The Primeval Being, the One is opposed to the many; the Infinite is opposed to the finite. It is the source of all life, and therefore the absolute causality and the only real existence. The original Being first of all, throws out the Nous, the Spirit, which is a perfect image of the One and the archetype of all existing things. It is at once being and thought, ideal world and idea. As image, the Nous corresponds perfectly to the One, but, as derived it is entirely different. What Plotinus understands by the Nous, is the highest sphere accessible to the human mind, and along with that, pure thought itself. The Nous is then the system of ideas of the intelligible world.

The image and product of the motionless Nous is the soul, which is, like the Nous, immaterial. The soul is then the image or product of the Nous, and by its motion begets corporeal matter. It stands, therefore, between the Nous and the phenomenal world, is permeated and illuminated by the former, but is also in contact with the latter. The Nous is indivisible; the soul may preserve its unity and remains in the Nous, but at the same time it has the power of uniting with the corporeal world, and thus being disintegrated. It therefore occupies an intermediate position. As a single soul (world-soul) it belongs in essence and destination to the intelligible world; but it also embraces innumerable individual souls; and these can either submit to be ruled by the Nous, or turn aside to the sensual and lose themselves in the finite.

The human souls which have descended into corporeality are those which have allowed themselves to be ensnared by sensuality and overpowered by lust. They now seek to cut themselves loose from their true being; and striving after independence, they assume a false existence. They must turn back from this; and since they have not lost their freedom, a conversion is still possible.

Here, then, we enter upon practical philosophy. Along the same road by which it descended, the soul must retrace its steps back to the supreme Good. it must first of all return to itself. It is what we call true conversion...By means of ascetic observances the man becomes once more a spiritual and enduring being, free from all sins... It is not enough to be sinless, one must become "God". This is reached through contemplation of the primeval Being, the One - in other words, though ecstatic approach, the soul may see God, the fountain of life, the source of Being, the origin of all good, the root of the soul. [5]

So, for Plotinus, we must know the One. And to know it means to become one with it, which the soul can accomplish only by becoming as simple or as "alone" as the One. In the moment of such a union the soul has become God, or, rather, is God; the soul has reascended to its original source. Among the terms Plotinus uses to describe this condition are "ecstasy", "simplicity", "self-surrender," "touching," and "flight of the alone to the Alone".

Plotinus died at the age of sixty-six, after a long illness. So modest was he that it is said he "blushed to think he had a body". He reached Samadhi (highest ecstasy or "union with God" the Divine Ego) several times during his life.

Porphyry (232-304) was his disciple and biographer. Porphyry describes him as a man of saintly character and a very attractive personality. One spoke also of him as "the most divine Plotinus".

Porphyry (232-304)

The importance of Plotinus in the history of thought can hardly be exaggerated. Among the philosophers of mysticism he holds an undisputed pre-eminence since no other writer unites, in the same measure, metaphysical genius with intimate personal experience.


[1] Robert's Ellwood, Jr., Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America,Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1973, p. 53.

[2] Colin Wilson, The Occult, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, New York, 1931, pp. 229-230.

[3] Vergilius Ferm, An Encyclopedia of Religion, The Philosophical Library, New York, 1945, p. 525.

[4] De la sorte, le développement de l'infini vers le fini porte en soi des dégradations de parfait vers l'imparfait... En ce sens, le déloppement des choses se fait du Centre à la périphérie, et par suite, aux ordres successifs; ces ordres s'échelonnent comme des cercles concentriques. Chaque ordre est à la fois "l'enveloppe, l'ecorce, la matière de l'ordre qui lui est immediatement superieur, et l'esprit pour l'ordre qui lui est immediatement inférieur"... Ainsi, pour les mystiques Juifs, Dieu est considéré comme le centre. Le developpement des Sephiroth et de leur action, impliqe des cercles concentriques: l'inférieur enveloppe le supérieur et lui sert d'écorce protectrice. L'univers crée tout entier, y compris les Sephiroth, n'est donc que l'écorce du En-sof, comme les pelures de l'oignon sont les vêtements du bulbe ou comme la coquille de la noix et le reste sont le vêtement de la graine...Mais un jour viendra,...où cette limite cessera d'être, où le multiple retournera à l'Un, où tout se replongera dans la même plénitude première...Un jour, le Saint dépouillera ses écorces et ne réapparaitra que sous l'aspect d'un noyau substantiel." -- Henri Serouya, La Kabbale, Grasset, 1957, pp. 271-273.

[5] The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1929, Fourteenth Edition, Vol. 16, art. Neoplatonism, pp. 218-218.

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