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Plotinus, another Theologian

Stoicism influenced Christianity, and so too did Plotinus (PLOH-tinus). He was born in Egypt and lived between the years 204 and 270, or thereabouts. He studied philosophy at Alexandria and considered himself a Platonist. Historians in the 1800s were to label him as a "neo-Platonist."

Neo-Platonism appealed to Romans disgusted with chaos and decadence. Whereas Plato wanted to put people into a perfect society, Plotinus called on people to withdraw from politics and from the world of the senses and seek instead an awareness of and solidarity with God. His views had a wide following during his century and later and passed into Christianity.

Plotinus began his study of philosophy at the age of twenty-seven, around the year 232. He traveled to Alexandria to study, and in the year 245 he moved to Rome and founded a school. He had been influenced by Stoics, and he conducted friendly and informal discussions on commentaries that had been written on Plato and Aristotle, defending Plato against Aristotle's criticisms while making some concessions to Aristotle. Plotinus encouraged the discussions to continue until his students believed that the philosophical problems they had raised were solved.

Plotinus picked up Plato's view of reality as idea and materiality as something less – as shadow. Plotinus pondered what he saw as "the ordered universe," and he concluded that its "material mass" had existed forever and would "forever endure." He saw God as soul, as a supreme spirit, and he saw soul as primary. He believed that all nature had been created by this supreme spirit. He saw soul not as intellect, as did Aristotle, nor as thought, pointing out that thought requires a subject, which would make soul a duality rather than primary. Nor, claimed Plotinus, is soul a plurality of things – as it is believed by those who see God as everything. Soul, believed Plotinus, is the source of plurality.

Like the Manichaeans, Zoroastrians and others who followed, including Jews and some Christians, Plotinus found evil in materiality, but he defended the notion of God creating all, including evil, by claiming that evil had a rightful place in the universe. Most or all forms of evil, he wrote, "serve the universe." Vice, he wrote, "stirs us to thoughtful living, not allowing us to drowse in security.".

This was a time of widespread disgust not only with chaos but also with the human body, and Plotinus saw the body as a prison or tomb in which one's soul was trapped. He did not believe that salvation from this prison would come from outside oneself, as a struggle between Good and Evil or between God and Satan. He believed in salvation or grace by finding one's own godly soul. This was done, he reasoned, by avoiding vain preoccupations with one's body and by avoiding exaggerated worries.

Like the Stoics, he believed that suffering had no effect on one who had found grace. He believed in an inner freedom through indifference toward external circumstances.

Like Plato, Plotinus believed that to find truth one had to look beyond materiality (the world known through the senses). Like Plato, he believed that through reason and knowledge one could work his way to a union with and an awareness of God. He believed in an ecstatic union with God that could not be adequately expressed with words.

Plotinus described his own salvation in a way that was similar to ideas in India centuries before: contact with God through repose, meditation and renunciation. He believed in fleeing alone "toward the Solitary One."

Plotinus combined his search for salvation with acts of virtue. He wrote that "Without virtue, God is only a word." He believed that a part of the self, as soul, resides in the heavens, and, ascending to that level, one rests with the Divine and experiences a love of gentle Goodness. The Good, he believed, was always gentle. He claimed that the experience of being at this higher level could remain with one as one pursued his earthly living, looking after himself and others.

Plotinus saw himself as not having answers to everything. He confessed to not having an answer as to why God created the cosmos. Some questions, he believed, could not be answered.

In his book A History of Science, Sir William Dampier described the Neo-Platonists as moving philosophy away from the world of the "physical and experimental" and more toward "metaphysics warmed with occasional ecstasy."

Plotinus was an influence on Julian the Apostate (331-363), Hypatia of Alexandria (350?- 415), and Bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430). In his History of Western Philosophy Bertrand Russell was to write,

To the Christian, the Other World was the Kingdom of Heaven, to be enjoyed after death; to the Platonist, it was the eternal world of ideas, the real world as opposed to that of illusory appearance. Christian theologians combined these points of view, and embodied much of the philosophy of Plotinus. [...] Plotinus, accordingly, is historically important as an influence in moulding the Christianity of the Middle Ages and of theology. note32


The Religions of the Roman Empire by John Ferguson, 1988

Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, by Pierre Hadot, translator Michael Chase, 1998

Plutarch: Lives of the Noble Romans, a selection edited by Edmund Fuller, 1964

Plutarch, by D A Russell, 2001

A Short History of Medicine, by Edwin H. Ackerknecht.

A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, Chapter 1-2, "Science in the Ancient World," by Sir William Dampier, 1948

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