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Soul in neoplatonism


Plotinus was born in Egypt in 204 AD and died in 270 AD. Before writing his own version of Plato's system, He had studied a wide range of ideas from Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics. He does not mention Christian thought, though Christians were a known religious cult at that time, and Clement of Alexandria and Origen had already produced some philosophical writings on Christianity using Plato's ideas. Many of Plotinus' ideas seem original, though many are obvious interpretations and extensions of Plato.

Plotinus developed a cosmological theory, with God as the source of all things, and a moral goal of salvation by returning to God. Like Plato, he believed the individual soul is a mental, non-material substance, that is separable and independent from the physical body. Yet the body is dependent on the soul for its vitality, sensitivity and intelligence. The soul may travel upward to freedom in God, or downward into material embodiment. Its final salvation is complete union with God, The One, which is achieved by purifying the mind of physical desires and meditation on absolute unity in God.

Yet God, as understood by Plotinus, is not like the Christian belief that God is a Father figure who created the world and sent His Son to save us. Plotinus believes that the ultimate God cannot be described but only rationally known to exist. Though when we purify our thinking by entering into pure rational thought, we will finally be ready to realize God experientially by coming into a mystical union, or returning to the Source. The final salvation or return, though, is beyond rational thought as well as sense experience.


Man's ultimate salvation is to ascend into unity with God. But unlike the easier tickets to salvation, as offered by some cults, Plotinus soberly tells that the true salvation is a difficult task, not guaranteed by any announced beliefs or simple acts of worship. It may take many incarnations of the soul, which carries forth its degree of closeness to God or Good.

The human soul in relation to the body is a counterpart to the World Soul's relation to the overall material world. An important function of the soul, the conscious reason part of the psyche, is to rationally organize, harmonize and beautify material existence. The soul is meant to order the activities of the body and harmonize the passions. This is right conduct, and it is the soul's work in relation to the next lower level, the body and the material world. The other work of the soul is to ascend in consciousness back the One.

But when incarnated in a body, the human soul is susceptible to the lower nature of this body which is irrational and unintelligent. This is the lower tendency of matter to be chaotic and unordered, as distinct from its higher nature to be impressionable by the organizing soul. The soul is susceptible to material irrationality and physical passions, because it too has a lower nature, or tendency, to move away from the One Light. So the soul might be moving away from the One, or it might be moving closer back to the One. Its salvation is to travel back to the One, but in order to do this it must break free of the irrational body passions.

Living more from the rational mind, and in pursuit of true knowledge and purpose, the material passions can be overcome. So the way of salvation, or union with God, is by the right use of mind, disciplined behavior, and control over the passions. Also, a broad knowledge of the world, and its various relations, will free the person from his tendency to dwell on personal circumstances and help the mind to understand the greater arrangement of things. Yet the final union with God is neither a rational knowledge nor a sensory vision. It is an experience of pure light and ecstatic harmony, when there is no longer any consciousness of oneself separate from God and all things.

Yet we do not need to reject the material world, nor our body, nor our passions. There is nothing inherently evil about these; they simply need to be organized and ordered by the rational intellect that knows the true ideals of the Good. The material world, and our physical life, are the place of divine manifestation and possible perfection. So our true purpose involves this manifest world, as well as our spiritual return to God. We are part of the divine emanation of Intelligent Light into matter, and we also part of the return of matter to the divine Light.

God and the Creative Emanation

God is the One, Absolute Unity, with no complexity or differences in Itself. God is also eternal and changeless. We rationally know these truths about God, because there must be the Real, and the Real must be One, eternal and unchanging. The absolute Real cannot possibly change and must necessarily be One, so it must be independent and transcendental to the world of change and multiplicity. This absolute, indivisible, unchanging, eternal, and transcendental Reality would have to be the true meaning of the ultimate God. We can also suppose that God is limitless, and Plotinus also equates God with the platonic Idea of the Good. God is Good, or the Good, and is the source of all good things and actions. But besides these few ultimate attributions of God, known rationally, there is not much more that can or should be said. And Plotinus does not at all suggest that God is, or even like, a loving Father.

In fact, creation is not the result of God's will or decision. Rather, creation just necessarily emanates 'out from' the One. Creation comes from God, or emanates from the One Real Being, but God did not 'decide' or 'will' this to be. God cannot, at some select moment, make an act or decision of creation, for this implies a change in the One Being or One Mind. Creation simply proceeds from the reality of God. Creation emanates from God, like the sun emanates light. The sun does not 'decide' to be light or share light; it just is what it is and does what it does.

So rather than being a decision or act of God's Will, creation is more like a natural expression from God's Being, though Plotinus tries to refrain from such human-like analogies. We can suppose that God is ultimate power, love, goodness and intelligence, but it's really incorrect to say that God has power, love, goodness and intelligence. Likewise, we can say that God is the creative power of the universe, but not really a creator as such. So Plotinus seems to depart from Plato who described God as a Craftsman or Organizer using eternal Ideas to shape an existing, formless material.

Since God is the one and only Reality, creation cannot be fully distinct and separate from God. Thus everything is a manifestation of God. Yet nothing is equal or identical to God. God is immanent in creation, for there can be nothing outside of the One; yet, God transcends creation by remaining eternally absolute, indivisible and changeless. This may seem to be a paradox, but it is just the way it is. Again, God is like the sun, the source of light in the world, but the sun itself is not identical to its emanating rays of light. The sun, as light itself, is one unchanging reality, yet this emanating light is throughout creation. So Plotinus is not a pantheist, though he describes God as in all creation, because God ultimately transcends creation.

Creation is an emanation of God, or absolute Light, yet creation reflects varying degrees of the One Light. There is a hierarchy of divine perfection, as some aspects of creation are closer to the One Reality or perfect Good, just as light is brighter the closer one gets to the sun. So from the analogy of emanating light we can understand that there are gradations of Light or divine goodness. Nothing is absolutely good or perfect, besides God the One, but we can find degrees of perfect good and rational order. As with Plato, goodness and rational order are essentially the same.

The emanation closest to the One is Universal Mind or Intelligence. Mind is not the absolute, undivided Unity, so it contains a multiplicity of attributes. Here is where multiplicity begins, as the Universal Mind contains all of the perfect ideas for creation. Then, proceeding from these Ideas are the things and actions of the manifest world. Yet the manifest world reflects varying degrees of the perfect Ideas. So there are gradations of the One Light, or perfection, as the Light gradually diminishes in its extension outward. The Light necessarily extends outward and further away from absolute perfection, so parts of creation will inevitably have less light and less goodness.

The Imperfect Material World

In Plotinus's described cosmology the Universal Mind formulates the World Soul which then brings about manifestation, as well as space and time. The World Soul, as well as the eternal Ideas of the Universal Mind, are still perfect in the absolute Light. But perfection begins to diminish with the creation of material existence. At the level of Mind and World Soul there is still no time and space. Though at this level the absolute oneness has divided into a multiplicity of Ideas. Time comes into existence along with the emergence of things and life, as the relation of things results in events and effects. Time is the succession of events resulting from things spatially relating.

The absolute Light, by its own necessary principle of emanation, must extend outward indefinitely and without limit, and its necessary level after Mind, or Nous, is manifestation or materialization. So the World Soul, as kind of mediator of God, cannot simply remain in the Realm of Mind, but must further extend and involve itself in material manifestation. And because the material of manifestation has its own limitations, being further removed from the One Light, there is no guarantee that perfection will come about, at least not all at once.

The material world of nature is brought into existence out of the perfect, eternal Ideas of the World Soul or World Mind. The World Soul gives living vitality and intelligence to nature. Yet the material world, or world of nature, is not necessarily perfect. This is essentially because the manifest world is another level further from the absolute. It is also because of the inherent character of the World Soul, which has two aspects. On the one hand, the Soul is contemplating in the light of perfect Ideas, being immersed in the One Light. Yet on the other hand, it is working in the limited realm of matter and time, to build an ordered world. But in working in the realm of matter, the Soul involves itself in matter and so, partly, gets lost in its tendency to chaos.

We can see here, then, a kind of struggle between the perfect ideals of the World Soul and the natural limitations of material existence. The Soul cannot simply impose perfection or create a perfect world. Its power over matter is not unlimited; that is, the limitations of matter are too great to be completely overcome by the creative powers of divine Mind. In this sense, then, the material world of gross matter is, like darkness, the opposite to Light or Spirit. And the Soul is somewhat susceptible to the tendency of matter to fall farther from the Light of Divine Intelligence.

Yet Plotinus does not suggest that matter has equal but opposing power to the divine Mind. There are not two separate opposing powers in the universe, such as the powers of light and darkness, good and evil, as some religious philosophies suggest. As the One Light emanates further from its absolute reality, there is less and less of this light, until there is almost no light in gross, unorganized matter. But this is a gradual diminishing of light, not an emptiness of light, so it is not actually evil or absolutely opposite to Light or the Good. Evil is not a cosmic entity or devil in contention with God. Neither is it a power in itself, contending with the power of God. Evil and darkness is not a cosmic force outside of God. Rather, it is merely the lack of light, intelligence, or goodness. It is the lack of rational order, or disorder.

Matter, and specifically some things and actions of this world, are farther away from the Light of Good-Order. We could call this evil, but it would be a relative notion of evil, since these things simply have very little of Good, or they are farther removed from the perfect ideals, more or less. Unorganized matter has the dimmest light of all manifestation, bordering on no light at all. Yet since any visible, manifesting matter must have been created from the Soul of Nature, it follows that this stuff is not completely devoid of light, and hence not completely opposite to the Light. Plotinus suggests that the emanation of Light would eventually approach absolute darkness, but at this theoretical moment matter would disappear into non-being. So if there is complete darkness, or absolutely no light, then this would not be part of our experience. It would be completely invisible and unmanifest. It would be non-existent. So the matter that we know is not complete darkness, and neither is anything found in the world.

Plotinus explains evil

What is difficult for Plotinus to explain, or any religious thinker to explain, is how we might have free will in a world that is either an emanation or creation of the ultimate Good (which for Christian theology is God). For in a divinely-made world, it could be reasoned that this world would thus be determined by the Divine Power. Or in other words, if everything and everyone is either created (in the Christian view) or emanated (in the Plotinus view) from the Divine, then one could reasonably conclude that everyone is determined by the Divine.

The other problem is about how obviously bad things can be explained in a world emanated from God, or in a world created by God, when it is assumed that God (or the Divine) is purposeful and intelligent. And there is no doubt that both Plotinus and the theologians are, indeed, assuming that God is purposeful and intelligent; for otherwise this God would be reduced in meaning to be nothing more than an unintelligent primal energy. 

First of all, we need not get too absolute about dividing good from evil. If we were to have a strict and absolute division here, then this metaphysical dualism makes the problem of explaining evil even worse, as well as adding in an additional problem of how absolute dualism arrived in an universe of just One God. Yet in the metaphysics of Plotinus, the idea of relativity works quite well. Even so, yhis relativity does not solve all of the issues.

The degree of goodness or perfect order in the material world is relative. This seems self-evident. Some things and some actions are better, more beautiful or more good, than others. Some things lack so much in beauty or goodness, that they seem down right ugly or evil. But why would this near evil and virtual ugliness be part of God's emanation? How can it even be possible that non-good and non-beauty be an emanation from absolute Good and Perfection? Is this somehow necessary or inevitable, by some intrinsic universal law? These questions need to be resolved and Plotinus does rather well.

Plotinus says that evils occupy a unique place in the scheme of perfection by helping to mark what is good and beautiful. In other words, without the bad and ugly, or the not-so-good, there is nothing with which to compare good, nothing to highlight the good. And without levels of the not-so-good, and the ultimate level of what we call evil, there would not be the wonderful hierarchy of perfection. Thus, maybe the very beauty of the world is that there are varying levels of goodness and beauty.

Also, matter itself can be an explanation for evil. Matter is an inevitable necessity, as the One Light emanates farther outward from its Pure Being. The material world is the final reach of the divine emanation, before diminishing to nothing. Being at least some degree of divine Light, all of material existence is a relative mix of light and darkness. Material things and actions are somewhat under the influence of the organizing World Soul or Divine Intelligence, but material things are limited in their impressionability. The least impressionable is gross matter. This is farthest from the Light of Divine Intelligence and the least impressionable by Intelligence.

Thus, gross matter is the closest thing to evil, yet it is necessary as the farthest thing from the Light, and also necessary as the basic stuff for a higher intelligent manifestation. So, in one sense, matter might be thought of as opposite to God the Light, but in another sense, matter is part of God's emanation, however distant, and matter also serves as the substance for good, intelligent creation.

Plotinus views the material world having two aspects. The higher aspect is its susceptibility to being influenced by the World Soul's organizing intelligence. A counterpart to this is our human body being influenced by our individual soul or organizing mind. The lower aspect of the material world, and also the body, is its natural tendency to wander aimlessly away, as it were, from rational intelligent influence. This does seem to be a contradiction in the material world, or at least it suggests opposing forces in the material world.

Yet a further explanation can be given. The higher influence is only more or less functional in things, depending on how far away something is from the Divine Source.

Metaphysically, Light necessarily diminishes as it extends further from the Source. God (or The One) cannot alter the reality of His Being which is Light. The Light simply has to emanate. This is just the way Light is, or just the way God is. And being that the One Light emanates and thus diminishes in its extension, there will inevitably be manifestations of less and less light or goodness, all the way to near absolute rotness, ugliness and evil. So it is by the necessity of Reality that all possible degrees of perfection, or non-perfection, may be found in the world.

Therefore, some things and some people are simply manifestations of a more distant light. They represent or reflect the inevitable possibilities of Light emanating farther from itself. It's not like they actually choose to be farther from the Light, or choose to be ugly or bad; rather, they just are the more distant emanations of the Good Light. But nonetheless, or in spite of this fate, people can successfully rise up from their relatively dim existence, and transform their poor behavior. There is the possibility to morally ascend toward perfect order, perfect knowledge, and perfect goodness, which is an ascent back to the One.

A person is what he is, good or bad, by a cosmic fate. That is, the emanating Light has to, necessarily, move through all possible gradations of goodness. So there has to be beings of greater goodness than others, which also means there has to be not-so-good beings. Therefore, if we find some people bad, or not-so-good, we should not fully blame them, because they are people simply fated to be bad. Some had to bad, and these are those people.

This would seem to be a predestination, but not so. It's not that simple. Because at any time there is the potential of man to ascend upward or towards the Good, the Light. And the higher level of the divine Mind is always trying to bring the man back, as it were, or trying to influentially organize the lower level which, in this sense, is man.

So man can be raised from the not-so-good to the better-good, but he needs to choose this salvation, this way upward. He is what he is, or at least he finds himself this way, which is ultimately a kind of fate; but now he can rise out of the lower material nature and into the rational mind of his soul -which is part of the divine World Soul. Is this decided ascent a truly free choice, or is his decision and success a predestination in the cosmic scheme of things? This is logically difficult to know for sure, but Plotinus seems to suggest that a free choice is at work, though final salvation is not necessarily guaranteed by this aspiration or moral decision.

Still, the question of Higher Influence

We could explain bad things, at least when involving humans, if there is free choice or the potential to do bad things instead of good. But once we accept free choice, or the possibility of freedom in the material world, we are making a step in denying that God or Good has influence in the world. Maybe there is some influence and some freedom; but the more influence there is from above, the less freedom there is, and the more freedom there is, the less influence there could be. This would seem to be a logical law in this relation.

Yet the problem even gets worse when we suppose that the material world itself has great influence on us, dragging us down like a magnet and making us entranced by material desires. Then the problem of freedom is that much worse, because it is that much harder for us to choose the higher ascent. A lower power would then influence us, which specifically captures our ability to make rational decisions and thereby freely choose to break free of the lower world to ascend to the higher. If the lower has an influencing power over our 'free will', then the higher must have at least an equal influencing power; otherwise, it seems that the lower would eventually win over us. It seems then, that even in a world of some free choice, we need the higher to influence our choices -if there is a lower influence at work.

Even a non-religious thinker would probably admit that the material world, and desires associated with it, are powerful influences in our natural behavior and in our choices (if we have any). Therefore, it becomes evermore reasonable to think that if we are to get free of the usual material influences, it is due to a different influence. In terms of the neo-platonists, the higher influence that we need is an influence to be rational and moral, rather than irrational and selfish.

At any rate, if we do have an actual free will, that is not directed by either a higher rational magnet or a lower passionate magnet, then our free choice would be more like a roll of the dice since nothing at directs it. But if we accepted that our free choice does not simply mean a random choice, then the choice is between going along with the physical passions and making a rational decision. But the ability to go beyond the passions, in order to even make this choice, would imply a rational influence. And the lack of free choice when the passions are too strong implies that the rational influence is weak. So even here, the idea of free choice seems to imply a rational influence, which would deny that we have freedom to be irrationally passionate.

Lastly, let us make use of Plato's analogy of the dark cave and say that people here have no real free will, but are trapped in their material passions and entrancement in the illusory world of appearances. Let us suppose that they cannot get of the cave on their own, because they have no knowledge of anything but this illusion, so they don't even have an idea of choice. Yet if there are a few people who are free of the cave, these teachers can then help the cave people realize an alternative and thus realize a choice. The teachers have the ability to help people out of the cave and into the light of true knowledge and reality. So if there are these teachers who can help in this way, it is now possible for at least some people to have free rational choice, rather than be trapped in the cave of non-choice. At this point the people who have been shown a choice are now truly responsible for their decisions and actions.

In other words, the ordinary person is found to have no free will, because they are completely dominated by irrational passions. They are essentially asleep and mechanical, without consciousness of real choice. So at this point we can say that they are not responsible for how they are, anymore than a tiger is responsible for how it is. Their behavior is simply a product of their unconscious nature. Yet, at the point when they are reminded of a rational choice, by someone or by a teaching, they are then, at that point, responsible for their behavior because they are now conscious of choice. Being conscious of choice, they are now rational beings, or at least have the choice of being rational. And once they awaken to their rational potential, awakened by the socratic teacher, they then have real free choice or free will.