“The universe is one living organism”
Plotinus (204-270) was a highly influential metaphysician who has been described as “not only historically but also logically the culmination of Greek philosophy”. (1)
He put forward a holistic vision of reality, famously declaring in The Enneads that “the universe is one living organism”. (2)
Plotinus’s work was rediscovered during the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino and later, writes Paul Henry, by “such religious thinkers as the Cambridge Platonists, such philosophers as Berkeley and Hegel, such poets as Novalis and Goethe“. (3)
Novalis was particularly enthused by Plotinus’s pantheistic metaphysics, declaring that he had been the first philosopher “to enter the sacred temple”, and that no one after him had penetrated so far inside it. (4)
Although regarded as the founder of neoplatonism, Plotinus was not just influenced by Plato, but also by Artistotle, the Roman Stoics and much wider cultural sources.
He was a Greek-speaker, born in Egypt, and enjoyed a lifelong friendship with an Arab doctor by the name of Zethos.
At Alexandria, that great North African centre of ancient pagan wisdom, he investigated Indian and Persian metaphysics and later travelled in Asia before settling in Rome.
His philosophy was very much an expression of the old gnosis, the perennial philosophy of cosmic unity. Stephen MacKenna writes that Plotinus, in his writing, conveyed a “general assumption that all his system is contained already in the most ancient knowledge of the world”. (5)
Although Plotinus’s metaphysics has influenced Christianity, and indeed Islam and Judaism, he himself was not impressed with Christian theology.
Henry writes that Plotinus “has no use for a Saviour who ‘comes down‘ to liberate man, or even for a Supreme Being which would in any way concern itself with man or with the world”. (6)
In this respect, he says, Plotinus was voicing “a radical opposition to Christianity” (7) with its emphasis on an individual salvation which can only be gained by devotion to Christ.
Plotinus’s metaphysics – like all metaphysics in fact – is also entirely incompatible with modern philosophies which take the individual subject as their starting point, rather than the Whole of which they are part.
For him, individuals were temporary particularisations of the Whole, whose task was to become aware of their ultimate belonging and allow the light of the All-Soul to shine through them.
He wrote: “In that you have entered into the All, no longer content with the part; you cease to think of yourself as under limit but, laying all such determination aside, you become an All… By the lessening of the alien in you, you increase. Cast it aside and there is the All within you”. (8)
The Whole imagined by Plotinus was totally all-inclusive, the Universe in its fullest sense: “All parts, thus, exist in regard to each other: the essence is all-embracing, complete, entire; the excellency is inbound with the cause and embraced by it; the being, the essence, the cause, all are one”. (9)
As such, it provided for Plotinus – as it was later to do for Hegel – the logical basis for the overcoming of all contradictions, the reconciliation of all polarities within one all-containing reality.
He wrote: “In the Universe at large we find contraries – white and black, hot and cold, winged and wingless, footed and footless, reasoning and unreasoning – but all these elements are members of one living body, their sum-total; the Universe is a self-accordant entity, its members everywhere clashing but the total being the manifestation of a Reason-Principle.
“That one Reason-Principle, then, must be the unification of conflicting Reason-Principles whose very opposition is the support of its coherence and, almost, of its Being”. (10)
From the point of view of the Universe itself, all the differentiation and particularities of its physical reality constituted its organic dynamism – its life.
Plotinus explained: “We see the Unity fissuring, as it reaches out into Universality, and yet embracing all in one system so that with its differentiation it is one multiple living thing – an organism in which each member executes the function of its own nature while it still has its being in that One Whole”. (11)
He saw this same flow of essential meaning, out from the Whole into the diversity of physical reality, as describing the artistic process.
He argued: “The artist himself goes back, after all, to that wisdom in Nature which is embodied in himself; and this is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unit but rather a unity working out into detail”. (12)
His understanding was, again, the mirror opposite of the fragmented modern approach which spurns any holistic idea of overall unity and can only regard a wood as an accidental collection of separate individual trees.
Plotinus also displayed a thoroughly non-modern way of thinking when he stressed the need for authenticity and equated that authenticity with beauty: “We ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being; our ugliness is in going over to another order; our self-knowledge, that is to say, is our beauty; in self-ignorance we are ugly”. (13)
His concept of “Reason-Principle” is close to Paracelsus’s notion of the Gestirn, which informs particular physical forms; to Goethe’s theory of a teleological principle in nature and to Constantin von Monakow’s idea of the horme, an all-pervading intrinsic motivating and guiding force.
Plotinus wrote: “This power is sometimes designated as Nature in the seed-life; its origin is in the divine and, outgoing from its priors as light from fire, it converts and shapes the matter of things, not by push and pull and the lever of work of which we hear so much, but by bestowal of Ideas”. (14)
Video link: Plotinus – Life and Philosophy (6 mins)
1. Paul Henry, ‘The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought’, in Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. by Stephen MacKenna (London: Penguin, 1991), p. lxxv.
2. Plotinus, p. 143.
3. Henry, Plotinus, p. xliii.
4. Frederick. C. Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 420.
5. Stephen MacKenna, ‘Extracts From the Explanatory Matter in the First Edition’, Plotinus, p. xxxv.
6. Henry, Plotinus, p. lxix.
8. Plotinus, p. 467.
9. Plotinus, p. 472.
10. Plotinus, p. 153.
11. Plotinus, pp. 157-58.
12. Plotinus, p. 416.
13. Plotinus, p. 424.
14. Plotinus, p. 431.