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To what extent, if any, can Plotinus’s notion of being be understood as a trinity?
I intend to explore the individual components of Plotinus’ notion of being and discuss whether the varying aspects interrelate to the extent where they are undeniably a triad in nature. I shall, therefore, begin this essay by exploring the three aspects of his metaphysical notion, metaphysics being the study of understanding the nature of the world around us. I shall follow this by an exploration of any potential parallels between the hypostases contained in Plotinus’ notion of being with that of the Christian Trinitarian doctrine. Finally, I intend to delve into alternative arguments, both in favour and against, that present themselves as being evidence for what the nature of Plotinus’ notion is. The overall intention of this essay is to enforce the idea that Plotinus’ philosophy can indeed be explained as a Trinitarian form of thinking.
THE BROADER CONTEXT OF PLOTINIAN THOUGHT
A primary concern of Plotinus’ was ‘ontology’, the philosophical study of what ‘being’ is. The idea of ‘being’ stems from his philosophical predecessor’s such as Parmenides who tackled the question of what it means to attribute the description ‘it is’ to something. Rationality played an important part for Plotinus’ method of reasoning by not relying purely upon empirical evidence for his modes of though. Through utilizing observational methods and incorporating elements of mysticism he arrived at bold conclusions that had previously not existed. For example, the notion that one cannot truly discover the nature of the world around us was a unique thought, that predecessors such as Plato and Aristotle never drew the conclusion of. Plotinus’ answer to the primary Greek metaphysical question of ‘how does one become so many’ is the basis of much of his work. Plotinus, in part, explained his answer to this question the means of his three tiered cosmological system of the one, nous and the soul. ‘The Enneads’, edited by his student Porphyry, is the surviving book today that helps us gain an insight into his description of what these three hypostases are. The three elements contain different essences and compositions which make up the world as we, as individuals, experience it.
THE THREE TEIRED NOTION OF BEING
In order to gauge further knowledge of Plotinus’ metaphysical understanding I will begin by exploring what constitutes the three tiers of his notion as explained in the ‘Enneads’. Beginning with the ‘Soul’, which refers to the lowest realm of his cosmological system. The Soul can be understood as referring to all life forms in the material world, including mankind, which it creates from the memory of the divine. The soul is in a continual state of becoming, never achieving true actuality, and is thus dependent on the existence of ‘Nous’ for it’s fixed order of being, also known as ‘the great chain of being’. Nous, or ‘intellect’ as it is often referred to, is an intermediary component that is perceived through mankind’s rationality in the lower realm but represents the qualities of the good and the beautiful of the divine. The divine mind represents the intellect that is inherent in mankind, which is the accessible aspect of ‘The One’ for humans. Finally, the integral facet of the triad is referred to by Plotinus as ‘the One’ which is thought to be absolute goodness. This goodness is extended into all lower beings without compromising any aspect of itself in the process. However, in practice the One has no need of the lower emanations of the Nous and Soul and thus ignores the created world. For Plotinus, there is no philosophical or absolute language that is adequate when trying to define what the One is. Accounting for the limited nature of human understanding means that the strategy of describing what it is not is more realistic than the impossible task of trying to depict what it truly is.
THE ONE, INTELLECT, SOUL & UNITY
Despite the fact that Plotinus’ primary philosophical influence was Plato, he created a significantly different outlook and worldview to that of his predecessor. Whilst Plato believed there to be a demiurge, an abstract notion of something that created the world, Plotinus strongly disagreed with this belief. In opposing Plato’s dualistic understanding Plotinus presented a monistic account of the world. The One is portrayed as the ultimate being although it is not described as being the creator of the universe. The nature of the One is therefore difficult to conceptualize in that it is described as having always existed and being continually present but it said to not be the creator of the world and as not having a primary cause. This description differs from the philosophical standpoints presented by Aristotle who asserted the existence of an unmoved mover as the origin of the universe. By entitling the One with an ambiguous name Plotinus allowed for the little pre-existing knowledge mankind has of what the one is. Utilizing comparisons and deductive reasoning are useful in trying to formulate an overview of what the One is. However, it is arguably easier to form an understanding of the one’s presence through its the descendants; the Nous and the Soul.
The Intellect, the nous, was caused by the One meaning that it has residual aspects of the one within it. This tier of the three-part ontological explanation contains the capacity for human beings to gain a higher understanding, and as such become ever closer to the One itself. Plotinus held the belief that we all have the inherent capability to move towards the One given that the intellect and the One exist in conjunction with each other and thus cannot be separated. The combination of these two factors implies an element of causation from the Intellect, a by-product of which is that through the means of cause and effect we can trace back to the origin of the One itself. The intellectual realm is a fundamental aspect of the One, although it is a derivative given that the One cannot have created intellect itself by Plotinus’ reasoning. However, the practical aspect being that it enables the One to become increasingly more knowable to us as human beings.
The concept of unity is used throughout Plotinus’ explanation of his notion of being, the soul itself described as having the ultimate aim of being reunited with the One. The unity, and multiplicity, of the soul and the intellect differs from the singularity notion of the One. This is due to any form of derivative having the potential to weaken the One’s definition of being a perfect existence and thus preventing it from being an independent force. Plotinus held the belief that every person has the inherent capability of moving towards the One. This outcome can be achieved by rejecting desires of basic impulses and in turn pursuing intellect to become more unified. Plotinus utilized the metaphor of a choir (?) to portray how a choir has a singular purpose of music despite there being differing souls within the choir containing their own individual purposes. This is an explanation as to how the soul might begin to split itself and follow in differing directions. However, when a person chooses to focus on intellect, their potential to develop their soul and become increasingly unified heightens. The theory of unification gives an indication as to how a person needs to embrace each aspect of the three hypostases in order to achieve their full potential and happiness in becoming ever closer to the One.
COMPARING THE CHRISTIAN AND PLOTINIAN NOTIONS OF THE TRINITY
The trinity is a central tenant within Christianity and forms the basis of many of the doctrines and beliefs within the religion. I intend to explore whether by using similar justifications for the terminology one can conclude that Plotinus’ theory, by the same reckoning, is also a Trinitarian concept. In the Christian sense, the trinity refers to the representation of ‘One God in three Divine Persons’ which manifest as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These three hypostases originate from the same essence whilst simultaneously remaining distinct in terms of their manifestation and function. In brief, the Father is the creator of all beings, the son is Jesus Christ who came to earth as God incarnate and the Holy Spirit is the active spiritual aspect of God in the world.
To begin the comparison of the Christian Trinity with that of Plotinus’ notion of being the most obvious observation would arguably be to assimilate The Father with the One. These two hypostases are both considered as almighty beings and the image of supreme goodness; representing being, truth and happiness in the world. Naturally, the second likening of the hypostases is arguably between the intellect and the Son, Jesus Christ. Despite the fact that they are manifested in differing ways they both provide mankind with a means of accessing the ultimate reality. Jesus Christ being the human image of God coming down to earth to provide salvation for the sins of the world. Furthermore, the nous aiding mankind in ascertaining the good and beautiful qualities of the divine within their lives through human intellect. Finally, regarding any parallels and resembling features between the Holy Spirit and Plotinus’ notion of the Soul one could observe the fact that they are portrayed as being an all-encompassing presence within the world. This presence thus allowing the development of a persons’ spirituality to further and encouraging their alignment with the the One and the Father respectively.
The Christian notion of the trinity implies an interdisciplinary principle of the three hypostases equally contributing to an over-arching reality. A feature of the Soul in Plotinus’ theory is the way in which it yearns for ‘the one’ in order to attain peace. This insinuates a lesser status and unequal importance compared to the Christian Trinity which see’s each component as being representative of God himself. The fact that the One endows the two lower realms with their essence, whilst simultaneously remaining entirely independent, is an indication that it holds a much stronger importance in the three-fold explanation in terms of its imperativeness, ranking and hierarchy. This hierarchical idea gives rise to the question of whether the One is the primary matter of importance for Plotinus, with the other two elements simply being lesser emanations of how the One manifests itself within reality. Despite the apparent disparities between the two concepts it is of note that Plotinus’ ideas have informed Christian theologians in their own Trinitarian beliefs. For instance, the Christian Neo-Platonist Marius Victorinus altered and applied Plotinus’ notion of the causality of the One to his own understanding of the Christian Trinity. Therefore, despite there being varying differences between the two principles there are clear correlations that enable each to inform the other that, in turn, suggests a similar composition in nature.
Bertrand Russell begins his explanation of Plotinian thought by referring specifically to how the ‘metaphysics of Plotinus begins with a Holy Trinity’. There are two interesting elements to Russell’s matter of fact which he provides no further justification. Firstly, the fact that Russell uses the word trinity, without additional reasoning of why he constitutes it as such, implies that at an observational level it is simply a trinity in its nature. Secondly, the use of the word ‘Holy’ implies that Plotinus’ ‘notion of being’ is not merely a Trinitarian explanation but that it is worthy of the title ‘trinity’ in the same regard as Christianity applies it. On the contrary, Reme’s offers an alternative presentation of Plotinus’ notion of being by incorporating two addition components namely ‘the sensible realm’ and ‘matter’. In doing so, Reme’s allows for consequential aspects that arise from a full understanding of the manifestation and application of these hypostases in reality. Whilst one scholar was able to plainly accept the Trinitarian perspective, the other concluded that there are natural implications to applying Plotinus’ notion to reality that further complicates it simply a three-fold explanation.
The definition of a trinity, according to the English Oxford Dictionary, can be one of two things. Firstly, a group of three things or secondly, the state of being three. From these two definitions the question arises as to whether the first definition could apply in terms of the categorizing together of the One, Nous and the Soul in Plotinus’ exploration of the notion of being. However, the suggestion that Plotinian thought could equally be viewed as being in a state of ‘being three’ is equally possible. For instance, from the reckoning of Plotinus, the interplay between the three hypostases is pivotal for the formation and continuation of the world, with each providing a unique role in our complex world. From this viewpoint, the necessity of a religious component, in justifying the Trinitarian nature of Plotinus’s notion, is arguably exempt in that it is simply a trinity by definition.
- Armstrong, A. H., The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1967.
- Gerson, Lloyd P, The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Remes, Pauliina, Neoplatonism, Routledge, 2008.
- Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, 2004.
- A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism (p.117 – differences Christian and Plotinian trinities)
- The hierarchical ordering of reality in Plotinus – Dominic J O’meara (defining soul, intellect, etc)
- The Trinitarian Theology of Augustine and His Debt to Plotinus (Christian paralells)
- On the Good, or the One, translated by Stephen Mackenna
- Oxford Dictionary
 Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2005.
 Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, 2004, p.275.
 Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, 2004, p.273 (??????)
 Armstrong, A. H., The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1967, p.221.
 Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. (??????)
 PLOTINUS ENNEADS
 ‘’ ‘’ (‘ARE THE ONE AND NOT THE ONE – PLATO.STANDFORD.EDU
 PLOTINUS ENNEADS (CHOIR METAPHOR)
 Gerson, Lloyd P, The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p.363.
 Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, 2004, p.272.
 Remes, Pauliina, Neoplatonism, Routledge, 2008.
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