Ellis Washington
On Plotinus and immortality
By Ellis Washington
August 9, 2014

Now I shall endeavor to make that which is divine in me rise up to that which is divine in the universe.

~Plotinus (last words)

I become a Christian on this date 38 years ago, August 8, 1976.

~Ellis Washington


Plotinus (c. 205–270) was a foremost philosopher of the ancient world. In his twenties he had an epiphany experience when a friend took him to a lecture of Ammonius Saccas whom he studied philosophy under for nearly 20 years continuing the Platonic tradition. Plotinus's philosophy is based on three general doctrines: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. Plotinus says, The One "cannot be any existing thing" and cannot be merely the quantity of all such things. From his philosophy historians, beginning in the 19th century, derived the term "Neoplatonism" which constituted a continuous tradition of philosophers that began with Plotinus until the closing of Plato's Academy by Justinian I in 529 AD. Most of the biographical evidence regarding Plotinus originates from Porphyry's preface to his edition of Plotinus' Enneads. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Pagan, Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Gnostic metaphysicians and mystics.

Plotinus, according to his biographer and disciple, Porphyry, "seemed to be ashamed of being in a body and hence refused to tell anything about his parents, his ancestry, or his country," which caused him to have had an intrinsic cynicism of materialism (an outlook common to Platonism), holding to the opinion that phenomena were an inferior image or imitation (mimesis) of something "higher and intelligible" and connected to the "truer part of genuine Being." [Enneads, VI.I] This suspicion associated with the body, including his own is described by Porphyry that Plotinus in his lifetime rejected having his portrait painted, apparently for much the same reasons of aversion. However, from every historical record his personal and social life demonstrated the highest moral and spiritual principles.

Plotinus, at the age of twenty-seven, around the year 232, went to Alexandria to pursue the study of philosophy. However, he was dissatisfied with every teacher he encountered until an acquaintance suggested he listen to the ideas of Ammonius Saccas. Skeptical of the ability of any man worthy to teach him, once he heard Ammonius lecture, he declared to his friend, "this was the man I was looking for," and began to study intently under his new instructor. In addition to Ammonius, Plotinus was also inspired by the works of Alexander of Aphrodisias, Numenius, and various Stoic philosophers. After almost 20 years of study under Ammonius, for the next twenty-five years Plotinus was a teacher of philosophy in Rome and was famously known as something akin to a "director of conscience." Among his numerous followers, besides emperors (Gallienus and his wife, Salonina), professional philosophers, such as Porphyry, there were several physicians, senators, a poet, a former rhetorician who had become a banker, and many distinguished women.

The ultimate question: Immortality?

"The mortality of man defines by contrast the immortality which some men hope for, some men fear, some men scoff at, but no man ever fails sooner or later to consider," so writes the editors of Great Books of the Western World. Man is a finite being whose heartbeat signals an inevitable march to the grave, yet man possesses an eternal soul, an immortal spirit. Man's existence on earth, comparable to that of other animals, progresses through an ordinary duration of years between birth and death. Legend chronicles that heroes – Hercules, Theseus, Perseus, Achilles – were chosen from antiquity upon whom the gods bestowed immortal life, endowing them with attributes of intrinsic divinity.

Jewish and Christian traditions believe that Adam, with all his generations to come, would never have underwent sin, disease or death if he had obeyed God's commands and forsaken the voice of the enemy – Satan. However according to the theologians, the immortality exists even in the fleshly body of man in a state of grace and is considered a supernatural form. Excluding, then, for the miraculous or the supernatural, death follows birth and life, for the Bible says, "It is appointed on to men once to die and after this the judgment."

Plotinus, similar to Christian contemporaries of the second century Rome, believed that man dies in the flesh to be reborn in the spirit. Man, a combination of soul and body, dies as do all living things on this earth; nevertheless the soul itself, a natural, spiritual element, is immortal, living into perpetuity once its union with the body is over. The immortal soul is occasionally considered as possessing numerous incarnations, dwelling in an unending journey through endless time; and every so often, as in the Christian faith, every soul has only one incarnation on earth. It is especially fashioned by God to notify the body of a human being. It is intended to be his immortal spirit in a future eternal state that by its nature transcends time, space including the natural laws of physics.

Other philosophical views on immortality

German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in his book, Critique of Practical Reason (1788), asserts that immortality, along with the reality of God and the freedom of the will, as essential, material elements – necessary conditions of the moral life. "The perfect accordance of the will with the moral law," Kant writes, "is holiness, a perfection of which no rational being of the sensible world is capable at any moment of his existence . . . It can only be found in a progress as the real object of our will." The realization of happiness, or the summum bonum, Kant concludes, "is only possible practically on the supposition of the immortality of the soul."

The contrary opinion appears to be followed in Aristotle's Ethics and Mill's Utilitarianism. In these works, the summum bonum is a temporary happiness, a condition achievable on earth and by purely secular means. When Aristotle writes about happiness, he defines happiness as a reflective activity, he also declares it as a godlike state of being and therefore one which has a semblance of immortality. Man is capable to live such a life, he writes, only "insofar as something divine is present in him." To live the life of reason, which is godly in contrast with any other manner of human life, we must, he says, "so far as we can, make ourselves immortal," and strive with all our power to live in accord with the greatest entity in us.

Then to be immortal in this manner appears to mean the possession of a divine value in this life instead of the promise of eternal life in the afterlife Aristotle argues only "a complete term of life" as a necessary condition for "the complete happiness of man." Aristotle next proceeds to the question whether "the dead share in any good or evil." To this point as he deliberates a sanctity which the gods can increase to human happiness, it is not the domain of an afterlife, but demands to this extent the good fortune which the gods award to some men and which grows and secures their happiness beyond that which is achievable by virtue only.

Plotinus: Gnosticism vs. Christianity

Plotinus declared in his work, Against the Gnostics was directed to whom he was speaking it to, in order to distinguish and clarify the actions and persons involved in the source of the term "Gnostic" – a collection of ancient religions whose adherents shunned the material world created by the Platonic/Neo-Platonic and embraced the spiritual. From the dialogue, it appears that the word had an origin in the Platonic and Hellenistic tradition long before the group calling themselves "Gnostics." Plotinus however cautions against the approach of devout partisans using Greek terms from philosophical contexts and re-applying them to religious contexts as many writers have done with Christianity, most famously Augustine and later Aquinas, and in the pagan arena, the Cult of Isis and other Hermetic ancient religions.

Plotinus and the Neoplatonists regarded Gnosticism as a system of heresy or sectarianism to the Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy. He condemned Gnostics of using illogical words and being excessively dramatic and disrespectful in their perversion of Plato's ontology. Plotinus argued against his Gnosticism as untraditional, irrational and immoral and arrogant. He also condemned Gnostics as rude and blasphemous to Plato for their diatribes against the material world and its creator God.

The Neoplatonic movement or those like Plotinus who modeled his philosophical worldview after the ideas of Plato, seems to be inspired by the aspiration of Plotinus to revive the moral and metaphysical philosophical convention from antiquity. Plotinus was not declaring to originate a new philosophy with his work, the Enneads, but to explain features of the works of Plato that he believed were misrepresented or misinterpreted. In this sense the work of Plotinus is one of an interpreter, not an innovator, but rather a communicator of an established philosophical tradition. Plotinus understood tradition and morality as a method of deducing Plato's teachings. Since the teachings of Plato were for students of the academy and not for the public at large, it was predicable that strangers to the ideas and philosophy of Plato would misinterpret his meaning and original intent. Conversely, Plotinus endeavored to explain how the philosophers of the academy had not reached the same conclusions as the objects of his condemnation (e.g., misotheism or dystheism – hatred of God or the gods – as an answer to the paradox of evil).

Although not a Christian, Plotinus' philosophy has had an enduring and significant contribution on the expansion and progress Christian theology and Christian throughout Medieval Europe and the world. English philosopher and outspoken atheist, Bertrand Russell, in his famous book, A History of Western Philosophy (1945), wrote that:
    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 [sic] the Christianity of the Middle Ages and of theology.
For 2,000 years the philosophy of Plotinus has continuously exerted a strong influence regarding those whose dissatisfaction with things as they are (materialism) to instead pursue with an existential zeal for how things should be (the old is/ought arguments). In modern times the Neoplatonic ideas of Plotinus has demonstrated to people, intellectuals and nations to pursue the certainties and realities behind what they formerly understood to be only the forms, the shadows of the senses. In other words Plotinus teaches us that ultimately what is seen is not real (eternal) and what is not seen is real and eternal. Christian apologist and scholar, C. S. Lewis could well be writing about Plotinus when he said, "All that is not eternal is eternally forgotten."

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 38 – Immortality and Vol. 17 – Plotinus.

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© Ellis Washington


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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)


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