Plotinus and the Gnostics

What is Nous? - The Soul - Plotinus Psychology

In his Enneads 11,9, the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus (205 -270) turned against the gnostics - in particular against the Valentinians - and in this manner made a significant contribution, as a non-Christian author, towards the survival of gnostic ideas. Ficino, who used Plotinus as a focus with which he looked at the original Platonism, translated the Enneads in the Renaissance.

Painting by Barry Stevens

One of Plotinus's objections concerns the gnostic contempt for the world: the Demiurge was regarded as a being of lower rank and in a cosmos ruled by fate the power of evil plays an important role. Plotinus counters this view by saying that the cosmos is a structured complex of divine origin, in which the creative spirit manifests itself as Logos. This makes criticism of the structure of the cosmos unjustified. In his opinion, evil is not a power in itself, but a lower degree of good. Furthermore, Plotinus accuses the gnostics of immoral behaviour, because they deny the moral law of the creator through their contempt for the world. He also accuses them of practising magic:

In yet another way they infringe still more gravely upon the inviolability of the Supreme.
In the sacred formulas they inscribe, purporting to address the Supernatural Beings - not merely the Soul but even the Transcendents - they are simply uttering spells and appeasements and evocations in the idea that these Powers will obey a call and be led about by a word from any of us who is in some degree trained to use the appropriate forms in the appropriate way. 

Although Plotinus grants that the gnostics have philosophical pretensions, in fact what they present is mythology only: they assume a great number of different levels to exist between the One and man: aeons, personified to form pairs, such as for instance Depth and Silence, Thinking and Truth, and Sophia, who fell from Fullness (pleroma). 

Plotinus recognizes the Platonic features in gnostic systems: the immortality of the soul, the intelligible world, the first God and the necessity for the soul to escape from the cycle of birth and rebirth. However, he denies meaning to the gnostic additions. The essential difference between the gnostics and Plato is that for the former, truth can only be attained by 'pneumatists', whereas according to Plato, truth can be attained by anyone.

(From the Internet Encyclopedia of philosophy)


The beginning of each hypostasis constitutes a particular discontinuity in the ontological spectrum. So The One is characterised by absolute Unity, perfection, eternity, and creativity.  The Nous is still eternal, creative, perfect blissful, and totally spiritual, but it is no longer unitary.  Rather, this is the region of Plato's Spiritual Forms.  This idea has its roots ultimately in the Middle Platonic view of Forms as thoughts of God.

At the level of the Nous, the individual still has his own identity, but his contemplation embraces the whole Intelligible world and everything in it.  And since on this level subject and object are identical, each member of the Intelligible order is identifiable with the whole of that order, and every other member thereof.  So Universal Intelligence is a sort of unity-in-plurality.  This is an idea advocated earlier by the Neopythagorean philosopher Numenius, the "all is in all"

Intelligence (Nous) is the level of intuition, where discursive thought is bypassed and the mind attains a direct and instantaneous vision of truth.  The distinction between Soul and Intelligence corresponds to the difference between discursive and intuitive thought.  Discursive thought means reasoning from premise to conclusion, or being aware of first one thing, then another


Painting by Barry Stevens

With the Soul there is the beginning of time, and therefore of Creation (because Creation by its very nature requires sequence in which to occur).  Whereas the Nous embraces the whole of the Noetic world  in one timeless vision, the Soul's contemplation is forced to change from one thing to another.

The Soul thus constitutes the Nous projected into Time.  Although still creative and spiritual, is no longer eternal, or perfect in its consciousness.  It cannot see things in a holistic and all-embracing way, but only successively, imperfectly, moment by moment, in terms of past and future.   In keeping with Greek thought generally, Plotinus refers to an original cosmic and therefore Divine World-Soul, which is the creator of the visible cosmos, and the individual, for example the human, soul.

The Stoics conceived of individual souls as parts of the World-Soul.  For Plotinus in contrast, the World-Soul is herself an individual soul, albeit a very large one, whose body is the cosmos which she forms and administers.  But both the individual and the World- souls are manifestations of the one Universal Soul.  This is essentially the same as the monistic Hindu philosopher  statement that the individual soul or Jiva and Ishwara or God the creator and ruler of the universe are both the result of super-imposition or Maya over the one Absolute or Atman-Brahman 

As well as this "horizontal" division there is also a "vertical" one.  Plotinus and his successors integrated the Platonic distinction between the rational and irrational souls with the Aristotlean distinction of vegetative, sentient (animal), and rational soul-levels.  They thus postulated a whole range of levels of psychic consciousness.

Being an intuitive and inspirational rather than a systematic thinker, Plotinus sometimes divides the Soul into higher/rational and lower/irrational, and sometimes into three or even more levels, the various classifications often being contradictory with each other.  Sometimes the rational soul as a whole is identified with the "unfallen" soul.  Plotinus went so far as to say that the soul, as an "intelligible cosmos", contains not only all other soul-principles (or Logoi) but also the levels of Intelligence and the One, and is therefore able to attain any of those principles; an idea close to the Vedantic and Buddhist concept of Enlightenment or Liberation.

The Psychology of Plotinus

Plotinus' psychology is as follows:

  • The summit of Soul is an unfallen level which does not descend into this world; the Noetic Soul.  It is in constant transcendent contemplation of the eternal Nous.

  • The Rational Soul is the highest level of the ordinary human psyche, which is able to approach the spiritual.

  • The Irrational or Animal Soul, which is limited to the bodily or animal passions and desires; the equivalent perhaps of the Catholic "seven deadly sins".  This is the bodily or "vegetative" soul (phytikon) responsible both for physical growth and nutrition, and also for the bodily appetites and emotions 

 The soul is thus an "amphibian", belonging to both the physical and the intelligible (noetic) worlds.

This concept of "vertical psychology"  was later to figure prominently in Kabbalah and Sufism, and is still with us (minus the higher or spiritual/noetic element) in the Freudian psychoanalytical distinction of Ego (= Rational Soul) and Id (= Irrational Soul).  In modern Theosophy and Occultism also, this gradation appears as the distinction between the Mental and the Astral (or Emotional or Desire) bodies.

Sometimes Plotinus adds a further hypostasis, phusis or Nature, as the lowest projection of Soul and the dim consciousness within plants, between Soul and the Sensible World.  The Theosophical version of this is the "etheric plane".

The Soul is the lowest hypostasis, the lowest irradiation of the Divine.  Deficient as it is, it still retains a trace of the original on-tological authenticity or Spiritual-Being-ness of the higher principles.  Below the Soul there is only non-conscious matter - hyle - which Plotinus equated with "non-being" and total deprivation.  Plotinus describes Matter as "non-being", in view of its formlessness and utter unsubstantiality, although he denies that this means absolute non-existence 

Written by M. Alan Kazlev

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(From the Internet Encyclopedia of philosophy)  

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