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Development of Neoplatonism – Plotinus

PlotinusNeoplatonism is essentially, as we have already seen, a method for accessing an intelligible reality and a construction or description of this reality. The biggest mistake we could make is to believe that this reality has the essential function of explaining the sensible; it is above all a question of moving from a region where knowledge and happiness are impossible to a region where they are possible; the resemblance thanks to which we can pass from one to the other, since the sensible is the image of the intelligible, is less interesting because it explains the sensible world than because it allows us to go back to what is in itself without relation to the world. The life of the gods, in myth, is indifferent to the world of humans; neither does the intelligible reality of Plotinus know the world and does not lower itself to it; his state of mind is, subtlety to the extreme, the mythological state of mind.

The fourth century and the two following ones mark, in Paganism, an attempt to grasp the structure and articulations of this reality. The philosophy of this time is a way of describing metaphysical landscapes where the soul is transported by a sort of spiritual training.

One of its initiators was Ammonius Saccas, who taught in Alexandria at least from 232 to 243 and who revealed true philosophy to Plotinus, already twenty-eight years old: a character who is also very little known; he wrote nothing; of his disciples, we know, besides Plotinus, the philologist Longinus, Herennius, finally an Origen whom there is no clear reason to identify with Origen the Christian, although he is from the same period; but we know nothing of what was taught in the school of Ammonius. We had to wait until the 5th century before hearing about the ideas of Ammonius from Nemesius and Hierocles, and there is no rigorous proof that it is indeed Ammonius Saccas that they are talking about. We can therefore understand the role of this master in the formation of Plotinus’ mind.

Plotinus (205-270), student of Ammonius from 232 to 243, left him to follow the emperor Gordian in his expedition against the Persians; in 245 he was in Rome, where he remained until his death, he gathered together some enthusiastic disciples, and among them Porphyry who was his secretary. It was at the urging of these disciples, it seems, that he decided very late, in 255, to write and publish. He wrote very quickly and without revising, entrusting Porphyre with the care of material corrections; thus were born, in an order of succession given to us by Porphyry in his Life of Plotinus, the fifty-four treatises of which Porphyry, after the death of Plotinus, gave an overall edition by grouping them into six Enneads, or groups of nine. These treatises appear to faithfully reproduce his oral teaching. They do not at all give a sustained and propitious presentation of the doctrine, but rather a series of conferences elucidated _ particular points, the value of astrology, the manner in which the soul descends into the body and is united with it, the problem of the memory in the various species of souls from the human to the soul of the world, but studying them according to a vision of the universe which is always active and present.

Source: Émile Bréhier(1951). Histoire de la philosophie, Presses Universitaires de France. Translation and adaptation by © 2024 Nicolae Sfetcu

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