89 - On the Horizon: Plotinus on Soul

For Plotinus, Soul is on the border between the physical and intelligible realms. Can he convince us to identify ourselves with its highest part?

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Further Reading: 

• H. Blumenthal, Plotinus’ Psychology (The Hague: 1971).

• R. Chiaradonna (ed.), Studi sull’anima in Plotino (Naples: 2005).

• E.K. Emilsson, “Plotinus on Soul-Body Dualism,” in S. Everson (ed), Psychology: Companions to Ancient Thought (Cambridge: 1991).

• P. Kalligas, “Forms of Individuals in Plotinus: a Re-Examination,” Phronesis 42 (1997), 206-27.

• P. Remes, Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the “We” (Cambridge: 2007).

• S.K. Strange, “Plotinus on the Nature of Eternity and Time,” in Aristotle in Late Antiquity (Washington: 1994), 21-53.

Felix's picture



can you give us a frank analysis of whether this nonsense is, well, nonsense?
Is seems to me to be worthless drivel.

If neo-platonism was the dominant school from the 3rd to the 15th centuries how many episodes of this are you going to have to wade through?

Do those centuries contain thoughts other than theology and mysticism? When can we look forward to hearing them?

sceptically yours,

Peter Adamson's picture

My baloney has a first name, it's P-l-o-t-i-n-u-s?

Hi Felix,

Ouch! Well, my main area of interest is Neoplatonism (Greek, Arabic, sometimes Latin medieval) so you can infer from that that I don't think it's nonsense and drivel. But actually I have to admit that what drew me to it at first, and still attracts me to it, is that the conclusions seem so surprising and for us nowadays remote from the realm of serious possibility. So the question is how they get there, and perhaps at what stage we would want to stop agreeing with the train of argument that takes them there.

Here I think it's important that we are indeed dealing with arguments, which proceed (as I've been stressing in these episodes on Plotinus) from premises or starting intuitions that are quite plausible -- e.g. his point that something has more being if it has more unity. This is what makes it philosophy, as opposed to, say, poetically rapturous religious literature (which has its own value, no doubt, but is not something I'd include in the podcast). As I say in episode 88 I actually think the mystical element in Plotinus tends to get exaggerated in discussions of him.

Perhaps what is bothering you is not the arguments but where they wind up; so, if you are a hard-nosed materialist or empiricist obviously you will find Neoplatonism ridiculous in the end. Still, thinking carefully about it may help you see where the fundamental differences lie, and to me history of philosophy is often at its most interesting when we're trying sympathetically to follow a thinker of the past who is reaching a conclusion we don't find congenial. After all, anyone can convince you of something you already believe; the challenge comes from trying to understand a very different worldview "from the inside," which is what I hope these episodes manage to convey (or at least begin to convey, to really get into it you of course have to read the texts).

One last thought, re. the coming centuries: of course pretty much all philosophy starting here and going until, say, Hume, is found within pretty strongly religious contexts. But that doesn't prevent it from being rigorous in its argumentation. This is something I'm planning to address squarely in episode 101 which will begin to discuss Christianity in late antiquity. Equally, Neoplatonists, and philosophers in the revealed religions, have lots to say about topics other than God -- everything from logic, to the nature of the mind, to ethics, to aesthetics, to political theory. God often comes into it but we're still going to see many points and arguments that could be adapted to fit very different philosophical worldviews.

Hope that helps?


Ollie Killingback's picture


I sympathise with the view that Plotinus has, from certain modern viewpoints, the appearance of drivel, but even if that were true, it would still be very important drivel.

First of all it seems to me to be a wonderful example of how an intelligent person can approach a serious question without the benefit of empirical knowledge.

Second, his metaphysics seem to me to be what makes the religious thought of the Middle Ages and later possible. Since religion and politics were closely related, Plotinus's effect on the history of Europe at least seems very large. And if, as a hard-nosed materialist, I want to argue against intelligent religious belief, then an understanding of its roots is necessary.

Ollie K

Peter Adamson's picture

Important drivel

Hi Ollie,

The last point you make about his influence is definitely right (so there is a "know your enemy" possibility for materialists, as you suggest). Actually I don't think Plotinus is as uninterested in empirical data as you suggest, though. As we'll see in a future episode, an interview with James Wilberding, Plotinus was very keen to square his philosophical ideas with the conceptions of the physical universe that were then current in what we'd think of as "ancient science" -- and that applies to everything from cosmology to embryology, something his student Porphyry wrote about. 



Ollie Killingback's picture


I look forward to being educated further. :) And I hope your move to Germany goes without incident and that the podcasts resume on schedule.

roman prychidko's picture


Hi Peter
It appears to me that the comments made are a case of sense perception over whelming reason which is unable to grasp what is in front of it. Perhaps the concept of matter as mindless may appeal.
May you continue your studious thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of ideas through time. Its wonderful.

Natalia Doran's picture

which treatise exactly?

Dear Peter,

thank you for your stunningly skilful presentation of the material.
Can you please tell me exactly in which treatise Plotinus addresses the problem of whether, and which, individuals exist at the level of Nous.

Many thanks,

Peter Adamson's picture

Individuals in intellect

Dear Natalia,

There's a short treatise in the Enneads specifically on this topic (it's even the title), namely Enn. V.7. That's number 18 in the chronological list provided by Porphyry.



Natalia Doran's picture

got it

Got it, thank you, "ideal archetype of particular beings" in my translation, should have known.

Natalia Doran's picture


The answer seems to be pretty definitely "yes". What am I missing? By the way, are the Reason-Principles the logoi?
Many thanks,

Peter Adamson's picture

Yes or no

Hi Natalia,

Sounds like you probably have MacKenna's translation; I'd rather recommend the Loeb one by Armstrong if you can get hold of it (a lot more expensive though, if you buy all 7 Loeb volumes). Anyway yes, reason-principle is presumably logos.

There are several reasons to think that this treatise doesn't just settle the matter as a clear yes. For one thing this little treatise, if you look at it closely, might seem to be rather open-ended and dialectical (as is Plotinus' wont). For another thing there's the problem of squaring it with other passages beyond V.7. My feeling is that Plotinus probably thought that individuals are somehow present in nous but perhaps not _as_ individuals, that is, they may be potentially contained within Forms. But that may come pretty close to saying that they aren't in nous really. Another thought here though (can't remember if I mentioned this in the episode) is that there seem to be individual intellects, like our undescended souls; and these presumably are at the level of nous. But that sounds rather different from Forms of particulars. So anyway, there are reasons why there is a fair bit of secondary literature on this.



Natalia Doran's picture

why not

Thank you for such prompt and helpful replies. I will try your patience a bit further, making full use of the anonymity that the Internet allows, to ask you whether, since V.7 is the main text on the subject, it does not make sense to interpret other passages in its light, rather than the other way round.

And the line he takes in V.7 seems to be: yes, and why not.

Generally, would you not say that everything that exists has the Nous, or, more properly, the One, as its source? Being undifferentiated is not a problem, everything is undifferentiated until a certain level of multiplicity is reached. And we have to say that individuals exist, because they fix their existence by the process of return – if they did not have the existence in potentiality, from higher above on the ladder, they would be the source of their own existence, which is not allowed by the rules of the game.

As you can see, I am in need of some secondary literature on the subject. Any suggestions, please? Preferably something that focuses on the ideas, rather than splits textual hairs.

Many many thanks,

Peter Adamson's picture


Hi again,

Well, there are some classic discussions of the problem by Rist and Blumenthal:

J.M. RIST, “Forms of Individuals in Plotinus”, CQ 13, 1963, p. 223-297.
H.J. BLUMENTHAL, “Did Plotinus believe in Ideas of Individuals?”, Phoenix 11, 1966, p. 61-81.
J.M. RIST, “Ideas and Individuals in Plotinus. A Reply to Dr Blumenthal”, RIPh 92, 1970, p. 298-303.

And from around the same time:

P.S. MAMO, “Forms of Individuals in the Enneads”, Phronesis 14, 1969, p. 77-96.

More recently this is quite a good piece if you read French (and it would have more secondary literature in the notes in any case):

G. AUBRY, "Individualisation, particularisation et détermination selon Plotin," Phronesis 53, 2008, p. 271-289.

I would say that of course in some sense you are right: individuals have to come from somewhere and nous is the only game in town. However Plotinus is famously obscure on the question of which aspects of the sensible world do not exist at the level of nous, especially in the context of explaining negativity or badness (to kakon). Since multiplicity and division, hence particularity, is for him a way or being worse, one might argue that the distinction between particulars should occur only at a lower level. Of course in the case of humans there is going to be individuality at the level of soul, before we get to the level of bodies, so perhaps we are really wondering whether the difference between souls is somehow already present at the noetic level.



Natalia Doran's picture


Many many thanks, I will get on with some reading. Not, unfortunately, in French.

Freeman Presson 's picture


I'm having a lot of fun with this series. It's a tremendous help in sorting out which topics to delve into more (too many, as usual).

One of my influences is the 13 years I endured in a Zen school (actually two of them, as I followed my teacher when he formed his own school). One very common praxis in modern Zen is a form of self-interrogation very much like what you describe starting at 9:37 in this episode: one responds to seeing with "Who sees?" to thinking with "Who thinks?" etc., until one is either enlightened or too insane to keep it up.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that Plato and some of his successors were initiates of the Mysteries; I can smell it here and there in Timaeus. Whether that actually helps a blockhead like me is another question.