Search Results for plotinus

Plotinus’ Impact on Civilization



I’m nearly done reading the works of Plotinus—a simple statement, to sum up nine months of work. Plotinus’ Enneads have been, for me, the hardest material to read in my program of reading the Great Books. They are even slightly worse than Spinoza’s Ethics, which is an accomplishment indeed.

To be fair, the last thing that Plotinus thought he was writing was a basic introduction to his philosophical system. All of his written works were intended as discussion notes for seminar like classes with his advanced students. His student Porphyry did the best he could to edit them into a cohesive book, considering this was never the intended purpose. It is a shame that most of Porphyry’s own writings have been lost. For all we know, he wrote his own introductory book on Plotinian Philosophy, or at least essays that would have made his teacher’s writings more accessible. As it is, though, Plotinus is hard going.

So why take the time to read the Enneads? Well, there’s always Mortimer Adler‘s argument that reading the very hardest of the great books is the most effective way to improve your reading and, ultimately, your writing. This, or course, is my main reason for doing the Great Books project at all. But in the case of the Enneads we should also consider the incredible breath and magnitude of the work’s influence on at least two major world civilizations: our own Western Civilization and Islam.

One of the key culture complexes in Western Civ. is Christianity, and Christianity contained a major neo-Platonist strain from the very beginning, starting with the works of Paul and John. Plotinus, the greatest of the neo-Platonists, was unashamedly pagan yet, even during his own lifetime (circa 203-270 CE) many of his ideas were adopted by Christian writers. After his death his works continued to be taught in Rome and elsewhere, where they were studied by the newly converted Augustine, who saw them as the key to understanding Christianity. From Augustine to Abelard, Plotinian neo-Platonism was the dominant factor in medieval Christian theology and philosophy. After Abelard the influence other major wellspring of Western Philosophy, Aristotle, waxed while that of Platonism, including Plotinus, waned. Now, however, particularly since Jung’s writing, the balance seems to be tipping back towards Platonic idealism. Even a brief survey of the various “new thought” movements, such as Science of Mind shows them to be laden with various platonic ideas. The same is true of archetypal psychology, where frequently quote Plotinus and acknowledge their debts to him.

Meanwhile, a couple centuries after Plotinus a new religion, Islam, emerged and quickly expended into an international civilization. In the early days Mohamed and his immediate successors were more concerned with morality than with philosophy or theology. As Islam matured intellectually, however, in the seventh or eighth century, its thinkers began to get serious about theology, and especially metaphysics and eschatology. Like Augustine before them they found most of what they needed in Plotinus, adopting the idea of the Logos or World Soul as the primary force of creation and the theory that human souls, as emanations of the world soul, could be perfected through virtue to become one with God. The golden age of Islamic philosophy lasted from about 700 CE to about 1000 CE. During this time, most of the greatest philosophers in Islam such as Ibin Sina (Avicenna), al Kindi, and al Biruni, studied and were heavily influenced by Plotinus’ Enneads. Meanwhile new sects of Islam, particularly the Sufi, fastened on the mystical aspect pf Plotinus’ teaching and embedded it in their own practices.

It is impossible to overstate the contributions of Plotinus to these two religions and the civilizations to which they belong, and that alone means that it is worth it to study the Enneads…even if they take nine months to read.

Further Reading
Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster. 1944.
Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. Simon and Schuster. 1950.
Henry, Paul. “The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought” in The Enneads. Penguin. 1991.
Holmes, Earnest, The Science of Mind. Putnam.  1997.

Perils of Reading Great Books out of Order (Pre-Plotinus)

I am now more than a year into my program of reading the Great Books to improve myself as a writer. At the onset I promised myself that, as much as was practical, I would try to read the the books in the order they were written. This is the advice that Grand Great Books Guru Mortimer Adler gives in How to Read a Book and elsewhere, since going in order allows you to trace the development of the “great conversation” of Western thought.

I was doing pretty well until I began working my way through Plato, but then I got bogged down. After reading seven dialogues plus the book-length Republic and writing seven blog posts on Platonic philosophy, I decided to skip ahead–surely eight works were enough to give me a taste of Plato’s work, and the dialogues would still be there when I got back to them, right?

All was well until I went to read Plotinus’ Enneads. I’ve been looking forward to Plotinus: not only was he the greatest of the neo-Platonists, and a fundamental influence on early Christian philosophy, but he was the last important pagan philosopher. I knew that as soon as I finished his works I could sail merrily into the middle ages. I knew he had a reputation as a tough author, but I didn’t see how much worse he could be than those I had already read.

Unfortunately, Plotinus is not only hard to read, his work is heavily based on that of Plato and Aristotle. By the time I had made it through the introductory matter in the Penguin edition, I realized that I had gone too far too fast. Plotinus continually references The Republic, Phaedo, and The Nicomachaean Ethics–all of which I had read quickly without bothering to study them deeply or writing blog posts, as well as Timaeus, Parmenides, The Sophist, The Categories, De Anima, and The Metaphysics–all of which I had skipped in my impatience. Therefore, regretfully, I am now putting my Plotinus aside for a few weeks and going back to classical Greece. Look for more Plato and Aristotle posts in the near future.

The Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra is one of the most beloved Mahayana sutras especially in the East Asian countries of China, Japan and Korea. I recently read this sutra for the first time. Please note that the following is only my reaction to the text and that I am neither a practicing Buddhist nor an expert in Buddhist studies.

The overwhelming impression one gets while reading the Lotus Sutra is of bigness. every number given is incalculably large; every time period is incalculably long. Special archaic words are used , which no one seems to know the exact meaning of, except that they are incredibly large.  From the very beginning the action encompasses not only the material plane of our reality but also higher and lower planes and alternate realities, all brought together for the occasion by the transcendental powers of Shakyamuni Buddha. Here we see the awesome panoramic grandeur of Mahayana Buddhism at its finest, a Buddhism which has gone far beyond its original roots as a North Indian philosophy, to embrace infinity and eternity. Whoever wrote the Lotus Sutra had no fear of thinking big. I am reminded of something I read somewhere, that Buddhism of all the world’s religions is best suited for a space-faring race in the vastness of the universe, since it has accepted the reality of infinite spaces and countless worlds since the beginning. Here in this sutra received Buddhist thought embracing concepts of scale and time which Western Civilization has only recently  engaged with, and then mostly in science fiction.

Against this backdrop the central theme of the Lotus Sutra, that all living things have the potential to become buddhas, seems natural and fitting. in the Pāli Canon, those scriptures used by Theravada Buddhists, three paths/vehicles are offered to enlightenment: the vehicle of the hearer, the vehicle of the hermit, and the vehicle of the  Bodhisattva. In the Lotus Sutra it is explained that all three of these paths in fact one, and all lead eventually to bodhisattvahood, and ultimately buddhahood. The concept of three paths is merely an expedient offered to teach people who were not ready for the Mahayana philosophy. The word Mahayana itself can be translated as “one big vehicle”. The Lotus Sutra also shows examples indicating that not just monks but also lay people women children and in fact all sentients can follow the Bodhisattva path and eventually become buddhas.   In other words, the vehicle is big enough for everyone.

Prabhūtaratna and Shakyamuni in the treasure tower; wall painting, Yulin Caves. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another major theme revealed in the Lotus Sutra is that of the Eternal Buddha. even though Buddha’s exists as living beings through numerous incarnations they also exist as Buddha’s outside of time. Shakyamuni might  have been born a man and lived for 80 years but he has always been the Buddha and always will be. Even a buddha who has extinction can still interact with those bound to the wheel. For much of the Lotus Sutra Shakyamuni is joined by a Buddha named Many Treasures (Prabhūtaratna) who entered extinction incalculable eons ago and yet has returned to hear the sutra. This is an area where Buddhism, considered a secular philosophy by many people here in the West,  definitely pushes into the realm of theology. The assertion of an eternal Buddha requires a doctrinal explanation which is dealt with differently in the various schools of Buddhism, generally by postulating three (or more) aspects of the Buddha in which the highest is perfect and eternal and the lowest is one of multiple physical emanations, 

The Buddha’s physical appearance as a human being such as Gautama Buddha is an emanation body, a form he assumed to suit the spiritual dispositions and needs of ordinary beings. An emanation body derives from a subtler body, an enjoyment body. An enjoyment body emerges from the omniscient mind of a buddha, the wisdom dharmakāya.  

Dalai Lama, Thubten Chodron. (2017). One Teacher, Many Traditions. Simon and Schuster. p.29

This arrangement calls to mind the three homeostases of Plotinus, not to mention the Christian Trinity. <1>

Besides these major teaching points, the One Vehicle and the Eternal Buddha, the Lotus Sutra, a long work compared most sutras that I have encountered, alludes to numerous minor points of doctrine, most of which I was probably oblivious to, not having enough background in Buddhism. It also gives many, many pages of exhortations to read, copy, memorize, recite, and preach the Lotus Sutra itself—a sort of circular reference which seemed strange to me as a Western reader.  It also contains short bios of several of the most important bodhisattvas (of which Avalokiteśvara, aka Kuan Yin, is probably the most well known to Westerners) and a great deal of poetry. In fact, most material in the sutra is repeated twice, once in prose, and once in poetry. There are also numerous repetitive passages—a sort of scriptural boiler plate. The translator of the edition I read, Burton Watson, explains in the introduction that these features are probably relics of the period when the Sutra was primarily preserved orally. They make for a long read. Curiously, though, the cadence of the language and the vividness of the imagery is such that it is not a boring read, at least not if you approach it in the right mental state. How much of this is due to Watson’s skill as a translator, and how much to the sutra itself, I can’t say. What is certainly true, though, that this is one of the most widely read sutras in the history of the world, which is indicative of a literary appeal that transcends mere doctrine.

Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara, China , via Flickr user Triratna_photos, [CC BY-NC 2.0]

<1> It is far from sure, however, that Neoplatonism developed free from Buddhist influences. The Eastern Roman empire traded with Buddhist countries. Both Roman philosophers and Buddhist monks sometimes traveled widely. Plotinus himself, who was from Egypt, could easily have reached several large, cosmopolitan cities where he might have encountered Buddhists.; All of the above is also true, of course, of Jesus Christ—a possibility which I hope to address in a later post.

Great Books Reading List

This finder is a list of the works I have covered or plan to cover in my Great Books project. It contains links to the blog posts I have written about each text, places where you can get the text, and secondary sources which I found particularly useful when I was writing the blog posts. I plan to update this page whenever I post another Great Books article.

Wherever possible I have included a link to a downloadable, public domain version of each text, suitable for use on an e-reader.  I have privileged the Project Gutenberg version, where available, because I find that the Gutenberg texts generally have the best proofreading.  If you prefer to own a physical book you can click through the link to buy it on Amazon.  A (small) percentage of each sale will go towards my domain fees and other costs of running this website.

Rational for the List

This list is based on the one included in Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book.  To make the list a more manageable size I only included books which I actually have in my own collection, either physical or electronic.  This does not reflect any judgement on the omitted works.  I simply feel that I should study the books I already have before I go looking for more.  I also added a few authors whom I feel deserved inclusion, such as Walt Whitman and Rudyard Kipling. At present the list only includes works published through 1915.  I’m sure I will eventually add some more recent works.  At my present rate of progress, however, it will be years before I need to worry about it.

Reading List

Get The Book
Author Works Blog Posts Free E-Book Buy Borrow
Homer The Bardic Memory
Iliad The Iliad Gutenberg Amazon Worldcat
Odyssey The Odyssey Gutenberg Amazon Worldcat
Reference Works
Gladstone, Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age
Durant, The Life of Greece
Hebrew Bible
Approches to the Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible in Classic Science Fiction
Genesis Genesis Through Numbers Gutenberg Amazon Worldcat
Deuteronomy The Deuteronomistic History
Isaiah Conclusion
Song of Songs
Reference Works
Miles, God: A Biography
Durant, Our Oriental Heritage
Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus
The Persians Gutenberg Amazon Worldcat
Seven Against Thebes
The Supplicants
Agamemnon Gutenberg Amazon Worldcat
The Libation Bearers
The Furies
Prometheus Bound Gutenberg Amazon Worldcat
Antigone Greek Tragedy: Sophocles’ Women Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Ajax (Aias)
King Oedipus
The Trachinian Maidens
Oedipus at Colonos
The Persian War (Bks 5-9 of History) Herodotus and History Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Medea Greek Tragedy: Medea of Euripides Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Hippolytus Greek Tragedy: Hippolytus of Euripides Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Bacchae Amazon WorldCat
Reference Works
Durant, The Life of Greece
History of the Peloponnesian Wars Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Reference Works
McClymont, Greece
The Clouds Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
The Birds Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
The Frogs Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
The Republic Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Symposium Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Phaedo Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Meno Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Apology Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Crito Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Phaedrus Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Protagoras Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Gorgias Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Sophist Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Theaetetus Gutenberg Amazon WorldCat
Ethics Gutenberg Amazon
Politics Gutenberg Amazon
Rhetoric U of Adelaide Amazon
Poetics Gutenberg Amazon
Categories U of Adelaide Amazon
On Interpretation U of Adelaide
Prior Analytics U of Adelaide
Posterior Analytics U of Adelaide
Topics U of Adelaide
On Sophistical Refutations U of Adelaide
Physics U of Adelaide Amazon
On the Soul U of Adelaide Amazon
Metaphysics U of Adelaide Amazon
Elements of Geometry
On Friendship
On Old Age
The Aeneid
Odes and Epodes
The Art of Poetry
History of Rome
Lives of the Nobel Greeks and Romans
Lucian of Samosata
The Way To Write History Gutenberg
The True History
The Sale of Creeds Gutenberg
Marcus Aurelius
On the Natural Faculties
The New Testament Gutenberg Amazon Worldcat
The Enneads Gutenberg
St. Augustine of Hippo
The City of God
The Song of Roland
The Nibelungen
The Saga of Burnt Njal
St. Thomas Aquinas
Summa Theologica
Dante Alighieri
The New Life
On Monarchy
The Divine Comedy
Geoffrey Chaucer
Troilus and Crisyde
Canterbury Tales
Leonardo da Vinci
Niccolo Machiavelli
The Prince
Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
Desiderius Erasmus
In Praise of Folly
Sir Thomas Moore
Martin Luther
Three Treatises
Table Talk
Francois Rabelais
Gargantua and Pantagruel Gutenberg
John Calvin
Institutes of the Christian Religion Gutenberg
Michel de Montaigne
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
History of Don Quixote Gutenberg
Francis Bacon
Essays Gutenberg
The Advancent of Learning Gutenberg
Novum Organum Gutenberg
New Atlantis Gutenberg
William Shakespeare
Works Gutenberg
Galileo Galilei
The Starry Messenger Gutenberg
Thomas Hobbes
The Leviathan
Rene Descartes
Discourse on Method Gutenberg
John Milton
Minor Poems
Paradise Lost
Samson Agonistes
Tartuffe Gutenberg
Benidict de Spinoza
Theologio-Political Treatise
John Locke
Essay Concerning Human Understanding Gutenberg (V1)
Gutenberg (V2)
Second Treatise of Government Gutenberg
Jean Baptiste Racine
Phaedra Gutenberg
Daniel Defoe
Robinson Crusoe Gutenberg
Jonathan Swift
A Tale of a Tub Gutenberg
Journal to Stella Gutenberg
Gulliver’s Travels Gutenberg
A Modest Proposal Gutenberg
William Congreve
The Way of the World Gutenberg
George Berkeley
Principles of Human Knowledge Gutenberg
Alexander Pope
Essay on Criticism Gutenberg
Rape of the Lock Gutenberg
Essay on Man
Letters on the English Gutenberg
Candide Gutenberg
Philosophical Dictionary Gutenberg
Henry Fielding
History of Tom Jones Gutenberg
Joseph Andrews Gutenberg (V1)
Gutenberg (V2)
Samuel Johnson
The Vanity of Human Wishes Gutenberg
Dictionary Gutenberg (Preface Only)
Rasselas Gutenberg
Lives of the Poets Gutenberg (V1)
Gutenberg (V2)
David Hume
Treatise on Human Nature Gutenberg
Essays Moral and Political Gutenberg
An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding Gutenberg
Jean Jacques Rosseau
Emile Gutenberg
The Social Contract Gutenberg
Laurence Sterne
Tristam Shandy Gutenberg
A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy Gutenberg
Adam Smith
Theory of Moral Sentiment
Wealth of Nations Gutenberg
Immanuel Kant
Critique of Pure Reason Gutenberg
Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals Gutenberg
Critique of Practical Reason Gutenberg
Critique of Judgement Gutenberg
Edward Gibbon
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gutenberg (Index & Maps)
Autobiography Gutenberg
Marquis de Sade
Philosophy in the Boudoir
James Boswell
Life of Samuel Johnson Gutenberg
Antoine Laurent Lavoisier
Elements of Chemistry Gutenberg
John Jay/Jame Madison/Alexander Hamilton
Federalist Papers Gutenberg
Articles of Confederation Library of Congress
Consitution of the United States Gutenberg
Declaration of Independence Gutenberg
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Faust Gutenberg
Geog Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Lectures on the Philosophy of History
William Wordsworth
Lyric Ballads
Lucy Poems
The Prelude
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Kubla Khan Gutenberg
Rime of the Ancient Mariner Gutenberg
Biographia Literaria Gutenberg
Jane Austen
Pride and Predjudice Gutenberg
Emma Gutenberg
Karl von Clausewitz
On War Gutenberg (V1)
OLL (V2)
Internet Archive (V3)
The Red and the Black Internet Archive
The Charterhouse of Parma Internet Archive
George Gordon Lord Byron
Don Juan Gutenberg
Prometheus Unbound Gutenberg
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Gutenberg
Arthur Schopenhauer
Studies in Pessimism Gutenberg
Michael Faraday
Chemical History of a Candle Gutenberg
Experimental Researches in Electricity Gutenberg (V1)
Charles Lyell
Principles of Geology Gutenberg
Honore de Balzac
Pere Goriot Gutenberg
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Representative Men Gutenberg
Essays Gutenberg
Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter
Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America
John Stuart Mill
A System of Logic Gutenberg
On Liberty Gutenberg
Representative Government Gutenberg
Utilitarianism Gutenberg
The Subjection of Women Gutenberg
Autobiography Gutenberg
Charles Darwin
The Origen of Species Gutenberg
The Descent of Man Gutenberg
Autobiography Gutenberg
Charles Dickens
Works Gutenberg
Henry David Thoreau
Civil Disobedience
Karl Marx
Capital Marxist Internet Archive
Communist Manifesto
George Elliot
Adam Bede Gutenberg
Middlemarch Gutenberg
Herman Melville
Moby Dick Gutenberg
Billy Budd U of Adelaide
Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass Leaves of Grass Gutenberg Amazon Worldcat
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Crime and Punishment Gutenberg
The Idiot Gutenberg
The Brothers Karamazov Gutenberg
Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary Gutenberg
Three Stories Gutenberg
Walter Bagehot
Physics and Politics Gutenberg
Henrik Ibsen
Hedda Gabler Gutenberg
A Doll’s House Gutenberg
The Wild Duck U of Adelaide
Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace Gutenberg
Anna Kerenina Gutenberg
What is Art? Gutenberg
Twenty-Three Tales Plough
Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Gutenberg
The Mysterious Stranger Gutenberg
William James
The Principles of Psychology U of Adelaide
The Varieties of Religious Experience Gutenberg
Pragmatism Gutenberg
Essays in Radical Empiricism Gutenberg
Henry James
The American Gutenberg
The Ambassadors Gutenberg
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Thus Spoke Zarathustra Gutenberg
Beyond Good and Evil Gutenberg
The Geneology of Morals Internet Archive
The Will to Power Internet Archive
Oscar Wilde
The Importance of Being Earnest Gutenberg
The Picture of Dorian Gray Gutenberg
Jules Henri Poincare
Science and Hypothesis Gutenberg
Science and Method
Sigmund Freud
The Interpretation of Dreams U of Adelaide
George Bernard Shaw
Caesar and Cleopatra Gutenberg
Man and Superman Gutenberg
Major Barbara Gutenberg
Pygmalion Gutenberg
John Dewey
How We Think Gutenberg
Democracy and Education Gutenberg
Alfred North Whitehead
An Introduction to Mathematics Gutenberg
George Santayana
The Life of Reason Gutenberg
W.E.B. Dubois
The Souls of Black Folk Gutenberg
Rudyard Kipling
Works Gutenberg
Bertrand Russell
The Problems of Philosophy Gutenberg
James Joyce
Dubliners Gutenberg