The Philosophy of the Future: Plotinus as Dynamic Set Theorist of the Virtual (Realy!!)
Plotinus as the philosopher of the future?! In the last few posts, I’ve worked to explain some of why this is. Strange historical accidents of various sorts have erased much of his name from the history of philosophy, even as his ideas have proliferated under the names of others (most importantly, his indirect influence on figures like Spinoza and Leibniz). I’ll explain below some of the difficulties with reading Plotinus today, and why it takes some work to see the insights in his texts.
But most importantly, I want to explain here why Plotinus is a philosopher for the present, and the future. So first an appetizer of where this is going before I lay some of the necessary groundwork. Plotinus is a ultimately a set-theorist, and at the core of his thought is an attempt to deal with the same issue as has dominated twentieth century mathematics, namely, how to settle the score with Russell’s famous paradox and its reworking in Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorum. But Plotinus doesn’t stop there, because he is not only a set theorist, but a dynamic set theorist, which is to say, he’s concerned with time, process, and duration as well, with putting these sets into motion as series. For his texts manage to bring the issues raised by Gödel’s incompleteness theorum into touch with that which Derrida famously called ‘originary repetition,’ which is the core of the dilemma which Lacan discusses at length, in his own terms, in his theorization of the difference between S1/S2, and how this links symbolic, imaginary, and real. When seen in the context of the many aspects of Plotinus’ philosophy which resonate with Deleuzian theory of the virtual, as well as Plontinus’ highly develop theory of images, which can be used to link him to contemporary media theory, we have a philosopher ready to be rediscovered and put to work as a guide to our image-laden, networkological futures.
In what follows, I’ll explain precisely what I mean, and why I believe all this to be the case. First I’ll give a quick summary of Plotinus’ major ideas. From there, I’ll show how these ideas can be read in light of both the issues of set-theory as described by Gödel and Russell in the early twentieth century, as well as how these apply today in more dynamic form to the issues of ‘originary repetition’ in relation to signs, bodies, and processes in the present. Finally, I’ll describe why I think so many have missed these insights in Plotinus before.
Why Plotinus Matters Today: Plotinus as Dynamic Set Theorist of the Virtual
Why should we read Plotinus today? In order to explain this fully, let me first paraphrase much of his basic system.
All that is derives from The One. This One is like Aristotle’s First Cause and Prime Mover, as all motion and cause depends on it, and were it not there, everything would come to a halt, if not cease to exist. The One is therefore the ‘Necessary of Existence’ whose essence is to exist (to use terms for these notions later developed by Ibn-Sina/Avicenna). Because The One is perfect, it has no parts, no desires, no lack, and this creates the conundrum of why it ever needed to give rise to anything beyond it in the first place.
Plotinus argues that anything perfect always gives rise to copies of itself, not out of lack, but out of plenitude. This is his famous notion of emanation, and each of these levels of copies express the greater power underlying it and which gave rise to it, without subtracting or taking anything away from this. In this way, The One is virtually present in all around it, if imperfectly so. This imperfection isn’t the result of The One, but of that which copies it.
Each layer down from The One is more imperfect than that which comes before it, so while The One is completely simple, every other layer of reality is split, pulled towards the perfection of The One by its inherent desire for perfection, but also pulled by its seduction towards the material world of imperfections, confusion, and weaknesses. Because these others layers are always less perfect than what comes before them, they often cannot handle the unity and complexity of higher levels, and so they fragment what comes before them. These various levels are often called hypostases, emanations, etc.
For Plotinus there are three primary levels above those of bodies. The One is the first level, and it is followed by Intellect and Soul. If The One is completely perfect and unified, Intellect is split in two, and is the source of duality in the world. The two parts of Intellect are the copy that emanates from The One, and the part of this copy which splits off and views it from afar. Intellect is this splitting in two and attempt to contemplate unity, and this emanates down to all lower levels. Because Intellect cannot process the unity of The One, because it lacks the sufficient power and complexity to do so, it shatters into the Forms, which are each logoi which express themselves via emanations on lower levels. This is why Plotinus sometimes refers to Intellect as the One-Many, and as a circle whose center is The One (though likely he intends its image here rather than The One itself, which cannot be contained in this manner). For rather than a simple principle of binarity, Intellect is a binary between unity and multiplicity.
Of its two primary parts, Intellect is composed of the Limited and the Unlimited. The Limited is closer to The One, as it is an image of its unity, while the Unlimited, though it sounds more powerful, it shapeless, and hence is poorer copy of the unity of the Limited. Together these two are the One-Many, and in their intertwining braiding, the proliferation of forms emerge, each of which is a power to emanate further.
After Intellect we have Soul, which at some points Plotinus refers to as the matter to Intellect’s form. But if Intellect contemplates itself and The One in an intuitive circuit (what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as the ‘infinite speed’ between concepts, Spinoza as the ‘intuitive’ grasp of concepts, and Hegel as the atemporal grasp of aspects by the concept), Soul contemplates itself, Intellect, and The One by means of dynamic unfolding in the world.
Like Intellect, Soul has multiplicity within it. There is the composite World Soul, but also all the individual souls, which are dynamic principles that advance in time, actualizing the forms which are so many intellects within Intellect. Because the World Soul cannot contain Intellect and the forms/intellects within it, it too shatters into many souls, and these all yearn for unity with The One as communicated to it by layers of imaged emanations.
If the intellects are dynamically-static, contemplating themselves and The One in immediate intuitive vision, souls have to go through processes to do so, they need to learn how to overcome their desires. And because like always attracts like, however, whenever there is a desire to go higher, this naturally attracts that which is lower and wants to be higher from the next layer down.
This is why the dynamic desire of souls pulls bodies towards them, just as bodies pull souls into them. Each body has a soul, which may be composed of vegetal, animal/appetitive, and intellectual parts. Humans are the only souls that have intellectual parts, which are themselves images of intellects, themselves images of Intellect, themselves images of The One. Imperfection creates the descent into matter, and learning to move beyond desire brings one closer to The One, and the possibility of ascent via theorizing.
Here we see precisely why Plotinus will sometimes refer to the series of The One, Intellect as The One-Many, and Soul as The One and the Many. What we are seeing is a continua of differentiations from virtual unity to multiplicity, and from intellectual multiplicity to dynamic material force in the physical world.
It’s also worth noting that perfection emanates images which pull bodies to them to embody them in cycles and layers emanating from the perfect productivity and simplicity of The One to the multiplicity, materiality, and desiringness of the many imaged bodies. Considered as a mediology, we have here a complex description of economies of desire, materiality, and image production, circulation of simulacra, and circuits of abstraction, similarity, condensation and proliferation.
In all this, I don’t want to deny that Plotinus had this system on its head, at least from a Nietzschian-Deleuzian perspective. That is, he certainly disdained the world of created things, and considered the otherworldly as the only ‘real’ world, and so had little care for the body, this world or life, etc. But if we simply flip this all on its head (to use Marx’s famous metaphor regarding Hegel), we see the Deleuzian virtual peering out from behind the multiplicities of the material world, a this-worldly, immanent pantheism of the creative power of the virtual, one which dissolves reified approaches to the world in the face of the radical futurity of creation within every aspect of what is. As has been argued by many theorists, this is precisely what happens when Plotinus’ theories are adopted, through indirect influence via Islamic philosophy, by medieval Jewish thinkers, leading up to the eventual influence on Spinoza nearly twelve hundred years after Plotinus.
Plotinus as Theorist of the Virtual
But how do we get from this to the radically contemporary ideas I described above this summary? It is essential to note that Plotinus describes the One as ineffable, beyond language and description, such that any attempt to describe it will lead to contradiction in our attempts to discuss it. Hence, he talks about it as beyond being, beyond good and evil, today we would say that it is beyond binaries and distinctions of any and all sorts.
This is why it makes sense to think of The One as similar to the notion of ‘the virtual’ espoused by Deleuze. And in fact, Plotinus often speaks of something like ‘virtuality,’ though he doesn’t use a single Greek word for this (ie: Aristotle’s ‘potentia’), but rather, uses strange circumlocutions to describe how things can be present in things while not being present in them (and which Armstrong often translates simply with a word like ‘virtually’).
But many have described Plotinus’ philosophy as a negative theology of sorts, precisely because the only evidence we have of the one, and the only access to it, is through the things before us, and the aspects of them which seem to exceed any immediate, reified experience of them. This is precisely the Deleuzian notion of the virtual. And here we begin to see why this philosophy, which seems like a Platonic dualism of a transcendent, otherworldly realm, is in fact the very opposite. That is, Plotinus’ notion of The One is an attempt to make Plato’s dualism shift form to a Spinozist-Deleuzian style expressivist immanence of intensities rather than dualities. Rather than dualism, we get a monism that is ‘thick,’ so to speak.
Of course, it is true that Plotinus, like another very religious thinker named Emmanuel Levinas, speaks of the absolute transcendence of God, as do many religious philosophers of the Islamic world. But so does Spinoza, even as God seems for him to paradoxically everywhere. In all this, however, the difference between a dualist transcendence and an immanent transcendence is that theorists of immanence use the infinite transcendence of all that exists to establish its virtual potential for creative difference here and now. And this is why Deleuze argues, in Difference and Repetition, that is is precisely the bar against access to The One which protects its infinite productive creative expressivity on the plane of beings we can access.
That is, Plotinus’ The One is virtual, and an avatar of the virtual, in a full Deleuzian sense. It is expressed by processes in bodies by souls, which are themselves the way in which abstract machines, which is to say, intellectual forms, organize concrete assemblages, or bodies in dynamic processes. In this sense, souls are the actualization in bodies of virtual potentials which are the abstract aspects at any moment of the intermediate level abstract machines that Plotinus calls souls. From virtual abstraction to dynamic potential unfolding to actualization in bodies and back, Plotinus’ three levels sync up with Deleuze’s thoughts on becoming.
A Quick Detour Through Russell’s Paradox
What’s more, Plotinus is continually attempting to think the question of sets. Each level of being, which is to say, each emanation or hypostasis, can be thought of as a set. From the set of processes which have green aspects (bodies), we abstract the set of green bodies (souls), from which we can abstract the set of qualities of greenness as such (ideas), from which we can abstract the set of abstract notions as such (Intellect/Nous), and from this, we arrive at the set of all sets. Each of these layers, composed of what Lacan would call S2’s, are organized by an extimate signifier, an S1, or, to use the language of set theory itself, we would say that there is the set of elements, and the set itself which organizes them.
Russell saw the paradoxes inherent here, and in his theory of types, argued that so long as each set depends on other more encompassing sets, and these form a dynamic network, that the system will eventually eat its own tail, and this circularity will avoid the issue brought up from his famous paradox. Gödel famously showed that this is not the case, and modern mathematics was born with his incompleteness theorum. Let’s examine this a bit more closely.
Russell’s famous paradox can be expressed with his famous paraphrase: “If everyone in the village either shaves themselves or is shaved by the barber, does the barber shave himself?”If he doesn’t shave himself, then he’s not the barber anymore, somebody else is. If he does shave himself, he’s both barber and villager. If he doesn’t get shaved, he’s not a villager. No matter how you look at the situation, the terms being used to describe things stop fully making sense when we encounter this particular set of distinctions.
To put back in the language of set theory, every set is made up of elements. But is the set itself as a whole one of those elements, or is it outside of the set itself, or something odd and in between? Incompletion, incoherence, or inconsistency are the only choices, and each applies depending on how you frame the question. The problem is that if you are trying to found the coherence, completion, and consistency of mathematics on set theory, as Russell and his compatriot Whitehead were trying to do, this creates an insurmountable problem. Gödel radicalized Russell’s famous paradox, showing that no matter how the problem is phrased, whether in the language of set theory or not, that it is impossible to try to do what Russel wanted. After this, most mathematicians were pretty sure that the foundations of mathematics was of necessity unable to be placed on a foundation which was completely consistent, coherence, and complete. Not that this stops mathematics from working, and mathematical research has exploded since this happened in 1929. It simply means that the type of foundation that Russell and Whitehead were trying to give mathematics was misguided. Russel never fully found a way to deal with this, and Whitehead became a famous (networkological) philosopher of a very different sort.
Plotinus as Theorist of Sets, via Frege
Bringing this back to Plotinus, if we think of each of Plotinus’ levels as a set, we begin to see that each level pushes Russell’s paradox to the next highest level. That is, the question of unity is displaced upwards. Here Plotinus’ sets start to look a bit like what we see in Fregean number theory. According to Frege, all numbers are emanations of a sort from zero. That is, if zero is the first number, then we can think of one as the set which contains zero, two as the set which contains one which contains zero, three as the set which contain two which contains one which contains zero, etc. From this series, all the natural numbers are engendered. In this sense, we can think of The One as Frege’s zero, Intellect as Frege’s One, Soul as Frege’s Two, and bodies as his Three.
And it was Frege who inspired Russel to develop his paradox. As Plotinus describes the various levels in his work, each level is split radically between its virtual side facing the one, and its actual side pulling towards incarnation in the world of matter. Bergson saw Plotinus as a crucial precursor, and here we can see why.
Where Plotinus becomes a dynamic set theorist, however, is that his sets aren’t merely static entities, like the sets described by Frege and Russell. While Intellect is relatively static, soul is not. And whenever Plotinus traces back the origins of his layers as a series of temporal progression, he’s quite clear that what humans describe as time, of before and after, doesn’t quite apply. We have something similar to what Lacan would call ‘logical time,’ rather than the standard time of clocks. This is why when Plotinus says that Intellect came ‘before’ soul, he often qualifies this by arguing that before in the human temporal sense can’t quite describe what he’s getting at here.
Read in light of contemporary theory, it seems that what Plotinus gropes at, in chapter after chapter of the Enneads, is precisely what Derrida has described as ‘originary repetition,’ the paradox which some contemporary philosophers have described as ‘atemporal genesis,’ which Lacan articulates with the retroactive temporality of fantasy in regard to his notions of the binary signifier and unitary trait and the play of S1 and S2’s on his ‘graph of desire’ (and which Lacan rightly described by the notion of topological non-orientability in figures like the Klein bottle), etc. Others have called this the ‘founding’ or ‘sovereign’ violence of political and epistemic paradigms, the extimate foundations of temporal series which are both inside and outside of these series.
And in this way, the verticality of the The One to Intellect and its intellects becomes the horizontality of process in Soul and its souls within their bodies. This shift from space to time and back brings together the Deleuzian virtual, intensive, and actual, in a manner complex enough to describe the paradoxes of contemporary set theory, as well as some of the most intricate arguments of contemporary post-structuralism.
This is why I believe fully that Plotinus needs to be taken seriously today. In future posts I’ll spell out some more of the details of what I’m arguing above, with citations from particular examples in Plotinus’ text.
However, there are many reasons why it might be hard to pull what I have described here out of Plotinus’ texts, and its for this reason that some pretty extensive contextualization, and textual commentary, is necessary if new readers of Plotinus are to be able to see where I’m getting this all from. And it’s to this context, and how it relates to the project of a networkological history of philosophy, that I’ll now turn.
Towards a Networkological History of Philosophy
In the last few posts, I’ve been describing the project of a networkological history of philosophy. Who are the great theorists of networks before the networked age? If we consider the start of the networked age to really begin with the rise of the internet, then in the twentieth century, Deleuze and Lacan, each in their way, can be seen as networkologists, Deleuze by means of his networks of singularities (see my post on this here), and Lacan with his networks of signifiers, images, and subjects as various formations of jouissance within the social symbolic. Many of the other post-structuralists and structuralists have networked aspects as well, but these two are the most important for the networkological project I’m developing on this website and elsewhere, Lacan exploding subjectivity by means of networks from within (for more, see how I propose to do this in my post on the networked unconscious here), with Deleuze doing this from without (for more, see my posts on Deleuze and the Cinema books on the sidebar on the lower right).
Tracking this back through the early twentieth century, Whitehead and Simondon stand out as networkological thinkers, with Whitehead as a clear example of a networked view of the cosmos, and Simondon as the theorist of the various individuations of the virtual. Bergson’s cosmology of light, described by Deleuze in his Cinema books, as well as Peirce’s universal semiology are clear precursors, as are the Nietzschian network of forces described in Deleuze’s Nietzsche book, and the Marxian-Hegelian-Schellingan post-Kantian return to Spinzoism when its more totalizing sides is filtered out.
As opposed to this is the individualist stream of ‘modern’ philosophy, truly founded by Descartes, and perfected by Kant and various neo-Kantians. These theorists reify the individual, and as Lukacs clearly shows (building on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism), the individual of modern philosophy is the objectifying tendences of capitalism turned inward into the soul.
This is why, as I’ve argued in several places, Spinoza and Lebiniz are the path of the future, for they are not only both clearly media theorists, buy present complementary sides of the contemporary dilemmas of our increasingly post-Cartesian, post-human world. Leibniz is the theorist of ultra-reification by the net, of the internet connection and mobile monadic resonance chamber of the Debordian society of the spectacle of late-industrial image-capitalism. And Spinoza is the way out, a path for immanent liberation from within a cloudy reified enclosure, and outwards towards the system beneath it towards the potentials for the infinite creative powers of immanent robustness. If we understand the theological metaphor of the absent center of their systems as a metaphor for our contemporary media-capitalist worldsystem, Spinoza and Leibniz together can help us imagine paths to chart potential futures to help navigate the perils of our contemporary capitalist mediascape.
When linked together by means of Jean-Joseph Goux’s fantastic synthesis of Marx and Lacan (see his incredibly smart book Symbolic Economies), we begin to see how the networkologies described by Leibniz and Spinoza can be layered, with Leibniz as the surface layer and Spinoza as the foundation and potential for liberation, with the Goux and Deleuze to tie it all together, Goux for the more Marxist-Lacanian ‘quantized’ aspects of our contemporary worldsystem, and Deleuze for the flows.
If we follow this set of paradigms back in history, surely Spinoza and Leibniz are the theorists of networks which were there at the inception of capitalism and bourgeosie democracy, providing the flip side of the coin to the Cartesian individualism which is, in many ways, its symptom. But if we track the influences upon Spinoza and Leibniz backwards, we find Leibniz’s influences coming from Malebranchian occasionalism and the Christian medievals, and Spinoza’s from Maimonides. Both of these paths lead back to Islamic philosophy, and as I’ve argued in other recent posts, many of the conceptual innovations that make Leibniz and Spinoza seem so innovative actually were debated and theorized by a wide variety of thinkers throughout the flowering of Islamic philosophy, itself a giant networkology of sorts, which reached its peak with figures like Ibn-Sina, Suhrawardi, Ibn-Arabi, and Mulla Sadra, and which found various paths of indirect influence on the thought of the Latin west. Spinozist intensities find a precursor in Mulla Sadra, Ibn-Sina is the source of the one ‘Necessary Being’ whose essence is existence, Ibn-Arabi’s immanent and existentialist account of the expressivity of God’s attributes is a clear proto-Spinozist system. The Asharite radically immanent atomism and Suhrwawardi’s folded worlds of light prefigure Leibniz in fascinating ways as well. I’m not arguing these debts are conscious, but rather, that by indirect means, shards of concepts and moves migrated from the Islamic world to the west, by means of transitional figures like Maimonides, Aquinas, Scotus, etc., eventually to influence Spinoza and Leibniz, who if the flurry of recent books is any indication, are two of the hottest philosophers around for thinking through the challenges of our post-human, networked age.
But if you examine the sources which inspired Islamic thinkers, it seems that many of their conceptual innovations are reworkings of various Neoplatonic sources. I’ve described many of the details of this in other recent posts, but the reason why the Neoplatonist innovations were transmitted, while their names were often erased from the histories, is nearly as convoluted as the Christian anxiety of influence around Islamic influence. The major route of Plotinus’ Enneads into the Arabic speaking world was The Theology of Aristotle, wrongly thought to be written by Aristotle himself, while the major route of Proclus’ geometric Spinozist proto-Ethics text Elements of Theology into the Arabic speaking world was a The Book of Causes, also ascribed to Aristotle. Both were supposedly accounts of Plato’s ‘secret, unwritten’ doctrines, which Aristotle does mention once as having existed in works we now take to be authentically his. Combine this with the widespread belief that the Neoplatonic texts of the spurious Corpus Hermeticum were more ancient than the works of Plato, and the source of not only Greek learning but also Jewish and Egyptian traditions, and you have a perfect recipe for the wide dissemination of Neoplatonic ideas, even as the names of the innovators were erased.
With modern scholarship it’s become apparent who actually wrote which texts, and the confusions have been largely resolved, but the fact remains that history was massively influenced by such accidents. All of which contributes to the fact that the works of the Neoplatonists are rarely read by philosophers today, at least outside of those who generally study their influence on the history of religious thought.
But if we look for the origins of networkological thinking, and of many of the profound conceptual innovations that make Spinoza and Leibniz so relevant today, it is in fact to Plotinus that we must turn. Reading Plotinus today can be shocking, because it’s like hearing Spinoza, and to a lesser degree Leibniz, nearly a thousand years beforehand. And perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, because Plotinus was writing in an age of globalization as well. The fact that he was trying to synthesize things together should hardly surprise us.
But Plotinus has a terrible reputation today, and for several reasons. He is often considered a totalizing thinker, and most of us raised in the tradition of post-structuralism have been trained to reject any philosophy with totalizing tendencies as simply the voice of power. And yet, from the sparse mentions of Plotinus in Deleuze’s Difference and Repeition (1967), he clearly sees that there is more going on with Plotinus, for Deleuze reads him as a thinker of immanence, in the way he so famously read Spinoza. Keith Ansell Pearson starts his excellent book Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual (2001) with a discussion of precisely this observation. As I’ll try to show in the next section, those who read Plotinus as a theorist of totalization have likely only read him superficially.
Plotinus also has a terrible reputation as a bad reader of both Plato and Aristotle, and as an obfuscating, irrationalist mystic. There is no question he was a mystic, but also a pantheist in a proto-Spinozist fashion, and if he went into mystical trances when Spinoza (as far as we know) did not, this was his way of putting into practice what he theorized as the higher type of knowledge which Spinoza would famously later describe with his notion of amor intellectus dei (“intellectual love of God”).
It is also worth noting that Plotinus’ primary teacher, the shadowy Alexandrian Ammonius Saccus, introduced Plotinus, according to his biographer, to “the wisdom of the Persians and the Indians.” Some have speculated that Buddhism may have reached Plotinus this way, and reading Plotinus’ texts, there are clear Buddhist aspects. Considering that Buddhism was nearly 700 years old at this time, and was a dominant school of thought in India and much of the East beyond Persia, this would hardly be an unthinkable development. And with the conquest of these domains by Alexander, contact with these lands had been semi-regular by the time of Plotinus for nearly 300 years. Add to this the fact that Plotinus served in some military campaigns in Persia, and that these failed, and he was largely abandoned to his own devices in Persia, needing to find his way home, and that this was after he had already studied these concepts with Ammonius, and we see many possibilities for influence of Eastern thought upon him.
In order to understand why Plotinus has a reputation as a terrible reader of Plato and Aristotle, I highly recommend the introduction by Gerson and Dillon in their anthology of Neoplatonic texts, for it explains how, in light of the widespread belief that Plato’s unspoken theological doctrines had to be read allegorically from his dialogues, and a nearly thousand year tradition that used this as the frame with which to harmonize and ‘fold’ Aristotle into this theologized Platonism (a process often called Middle Platonism), mixed with Stoic and other late-antique readings of Plato and Aristotle, provide a context for many of the readings of Plato and Aristotle that might seem strange to us today. From the perspective of a presumed oral teaching of Plato, an allegorical reading of Plato’s texts in light of this, and a thousand year tradition of trying to massage Aristotle into this, Plotinus’ readings of Plato and Aristotle need to be seen as selective and productive, as well as representative of a fantastically complex tradition, rather than the simply sloppy aberrations of an individual thinker.
A Short User’s Guide to Reading Plotinus Today
All these issues notwithstanding, probably the biggest obstacle to reading Plotinus today remains the texts themselves, after struggling with what’s available, here what I think can help readers find a way into his incredibly important yet terribly underread works.
First, readers need to know that the text of The Enneads, his major work, was a complete mess when his study Porphyry put it in order. Plotinus supposedly had terrible eyesight, so he couldn’t really revise his texts. He was able to write them and read them, though, and over a period of seventeen years, he wrote various short texts which generally take the form of a question, and then a methodical answer to it. The tale is that he used these to prepare for lectures, and in his lectures. These texts were completely without order, and Plotinus hated editing his works. In fact, he so disdained things of this earthly world (one clear difference from the Spinozist-Deleuzian tradition), that he told no-one about his past, and refrained from having images made of him.
After his Plotinus’, Porphyry attempted to put all his disparate texts in some semblance of order, editing the texts to an extent to which we will never know. And so it is difficult to tell to what extent The Enneads is a product of Plotinus or Porphyry, though not to the extent of this type of issue as seen with Socrates and Plato, largely because there are many second-hand accounts of Plotinus’ beliefs, and Porphyry wrote texts under his own name that have allowed later scholars to distinguish the thoughts of these thinkers to a greater degree than Socrates and Plato.
But it needs to be kept in mind by all readers of The Enneads that it is still only semi-organized, and that the writing of the original Greek is often odd itself, because Plotinus wasn’t concerned to polish this. In this sense, it’s like reading Whitehead’s Process and Reality (another thinker who hated to revise), or the fragmentary works of the Stoics, or the largely oral teachings of Lacan (or his semi-intentionally cryptic Ecrits). One needs to extract the concepts from the sometimes odd shell.
The biggest obstacle, however, is likely to be the translation. Currently two translations are available, that by McKenna and that by Armstrong. The McKenna translation is poetic, flowery, and quite old. It also emphasizes the theological side of Plotinus, and while many in the new-age movement seem to find this translation glorious, for the serious philosopher, it is simply unbearable. This isn’t to say that Plotinus doesn’t have a theological and mystical side, he clearly does. But reading the Armstrong it’s evident the extent to which McKenna’s choices are a bit odd.
The problem is that Armstrong’s translations are odd as well. And while McKenna’s text is widely available in very cheap form (don’t even try to read them without reading McKenna’s introduction, which helps describe some of his strange choices for translating terms), Armstrong’s translation is only available in six separate hardbound volumes from the Loeb classical library, totally $300 for the full text of the Enneads (which you can get for $15 if you go with the McKenna). Luckily, a 50 page chunk of some of the most crucial parts of the Enneads is in the anthology of Neoplatonic texts by Gerson and Dillon, but it’s simply not enough.
Help with the Translations
Point is, the McKenna translation is I think much of the reason why no-one studying philosophy seriously reads more than a few paragraphs of Plotinus today without getting completely turned off. Read the Armstrong if at all humanly possible, and a radically different thinker emerges. And I even find the Armstrong translation needs some explanation.
So, here’s a mini glossary to help with reading, with Plotinus’ concepts in the original Greek, and how these are often translated by both translators. Keep in mind that I do not read Greek beyond the knowledge of crucial terms necessary for anyone working in philosophy, so I hope to update this section as my research on these issues deepens. That said, I found that I could only understand Plotinus once I mentally substituted these terms in my head for the ones in the text.
– The One: ‘to hen’ in Greek, but Plotinus often uses synonyms, including ‘arche’ (which Armstrong often translates as ‘principle’ and McKenna as ‘the first’).
– Intellect: ‘nous’ in Greek, likely best translated as Mind or Spirit. McKenna uses ‘intellectual-principle’, ‘divine mind,’ etc.
– Forms: generally ‘logoi’ in the Greek, equivalent here of Plato’s ‘eidoi,’ generally translated as ‘forms’ or ‘ideas.’ McKenna uses intelligibles, intelligences, divine ideas, etc., while Armstrong goes for ‘expressed principles.’ When Plotinus links these together with gods of the Greek tradition, McKenna will sometimes translate this as ‘the supernals,”the celestials,’ ‘the divine or blessed spirits,’ etc. As for the use of the word ‘intellects’ here, and intellect for ‘nous,’ these actually aren’t unreasonable, but I found as I read that as soon as I substituted in my mind ‘logos’ whenever I saw any of these terms, the text just opened up. It’s important to note here that the forms take on a much more dynamic aspect than seen in Plato, which is why the use of the term ‘intellect’ is used, because this was generally the term used for these notions later in the Islamic and Latin medieval traditions.
– Soul: ‘psyche’ in Greek. McKenna generally goes for All-Soul, First and Only Principle of Life, Vital Principle, Amrstrong uses World Soul. Soul also shows up as ‘souls.’ McKenna will often translate as ‘The Divine Realm,’ ‘The Supreme’ or ‘The Beyond’ the combination of Soul, Intellect, and The One.
– Theorize/Contemplate: A term used for the active beholding at a distance which is thought. It has two forms, the intuitive form (giggnoskein, related to gnosis), and the discursive form (epistemein), and both of these are opposed to the mere sensory form (doxa). This word ‘theorein’ is the root of our contemporary words theory, but also theater, and is highly visual in nature.
Other Oddities: McKenna will sometimes call the union of soul and body the ‘couplement.’
Overall, I think the Gerson/Dillon anthology has enough of the Armstrong translation in an affordable form to allow readers a strong grasp of what Plotinus is getting at. Supplementing this with 1-2 volumes of the Armstrong from Loeb (particularly Vols. 5 & 6) would be a next step, as would be reading some in a library, though supplementing with the McKenna can be helpful as well, though I’ve found it can be quite distracting to read.
In all this, it’s my hope that with this background and short glossary, any reader will be able to approach Plotinus and pull from him the general outline of what I’ve described in the earlier parts of this post. Plotinus as the first immanent networkologist, and a crucial guide to help us understand the potentials of our networked age.