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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.

Plato: Introduction

The man we know as Plato was born Aristocles son of Ariston but adopted his old wrestling nickname as a nom de plume (Platon means “wide” in Greek). As a young man he considered a poetic career and seems to have written a tragic trilogy and several lyric poems. In his early twenties he discovered an interest in philosophy when his brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus became members of Socrates‘ circle. After Plato himself became a disciple of Socrates he burned his poems and resolved to be a full time philosopher. After Socrates’ execution Plato gradually extended his teacher’s philosophy to create his own school. Platonism was probably the most important school of thought in the ancient and medieval periods, heavily influencing both pagan and Christian writers. Even today, some writers consider Platonism “the secret religion of the majority of intellectuals”.

Display of books by Plato

Plato was a prolific writer. Today we have 37 of his dialogs (26 of which are believed to be authentic) and 13 letters, the authorship of which is hotly disputed. Will Durant once jokingly wrote that Plato wrote dialogs because he was a frustrated dramatist. In fact, Plato and his contemporaries believed that the only way to really learn philosophy was to discuss it with other philosophers. If this wasn’t possible, a dialog was the next best thing. It is important to remember that a philosophic dialog–much more so than a play–is meant to teach rather than to entertain. Because of this, it may contain sections that seem boring, repetitive, or different to understand. The dialog is meant to be parsed as a unity, however, and these passages are there intentionally, to make some point to the reader. Allan Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of the Republic, criticizes translators who abridge the boring sections of the dialogs or simplify the wording of difficult passages. According to him, any translation of Plato should be as literal as possible, even at the expense of readability (although, actually, Bloom’s translation is quite readable).

The Socratic Problem

Socrates didn’t leave any writings of his own, as far as we know, but he is a main character in all of Plato’s dialogs. The great unanswerable question in Platonic studies is where Socrates’ philosophy leaves off and where Plato’s begins. There are a couple avenues we can go down to gather clues: We can compare Plato’s earlier dialogs to his later work, on the assumption that he began by summarizing his master’s teaching and developed his own viewpoint as time went on. This approach relies on our ability to date the texts, which requires further assumptions and guesswork. We can also try comparing Plato’s portrayal of Socrates to the writings of others who knew him when he was alive, such as Xenophon and Aristophanes. Unfortunately, Xenophon was a mercenary soldier who dabbled in historical fiction and Aristophanes was a comic playwright. Their descriptions of Socrates are neither as complete nor as credible as Plato’s. Finally, we can read the opinions of writers who lived closer to the time of Plato and Socrates and might have had access to sources and oral traditions that are now lost. Of course, there is no guarantee that their educated guesses are any better than our own. Ultimately, the best answer we can produce to the Socratic problem will be little better than an opinion.


One subject that was apparently highly important to both Socrates and Plato was the cultivation of virtue and the question of whether or not it could be taught. Before we go on, though, lest we make the same mistake that Meno does in his eponymous dialog, we need to be sure we understand what virtue means. The word translated as “virtue” in most editions of Plato is actually the Greek arete. An equally valid translation would be “manly excellence”, which is not a common connotation of the modern English word virtue. Bloom puts it well when he writes,

It has been said that it is one of the great mysteries of Western thought “how a word which used to mean the manliness of men has come to mean the chastity of women.”

He goes on to imply that one can glean a summary of the entire history of political philosophy by comparing the changing usage of “virtue” in Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Rosseau.

Arete, according to the Greeks has five components: piety, justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom. One of the recurring themes in the dialogs is discussion of how these relate to each other and to virtue as a whole. As for the question of whether virtue can be taught–as opposed to being an innate quality with which some people are born–it seems that Socrates, the man who was wisest because he knew his own ignorance, was ultimately undecided. Plato’s answer, however, is based on his own theory of forms. Virtue, like every other idea, exists in an ideal form. Souls are exposed to the ideal forms of things before they become incarnate as humans. Thus teaching virtue is a process of leading the soul to remember the ideal which it has already encountered.

Reading Order

In general, I recommend reading all of the Great Books in the order in which they were written. For Plato, this order would be approximately:

Early Works Middle Works Late Works
Apology Cratylus Critias
Charmides Euthydemus Sophist
Crito Meno Statesman
Euthyphro Parmenides Timaeus
Gorgias Phaedo Philebus
Hippias Minor Phaedrus Laws
Hippias Major Republic
Ion Symposium
Laches Theaetetus

Another popular organizational scheme is to group the dialogs into thematic tetrologies, in which they are grouped into a 7×4 matrix; The rows are labeled: “What is man?”, “The Sophists”, “Socrates’ Trial”, “Speech and Knowledge”, “The Soul”, “Dialectic”, and “Man in the World”. The columns are labeled: “Cause”, “Desire and Nature”, “Will, Judgment, and Behavior”, and “Reason and Order”. The idea is to read the works in each row from left to right to explore a particular topic.

Another semi-thematic grouping is that used by The Penguin Group, which publishes some of the most popular translations. Penguin’s grouping has a lot to do with creating paperback volumes of a manageable length,

I will be mostly following the Penguin scheme for the simple reason that I mostly own the Penguin translations. I will be beginning with the dialogs in The Last Days of Socrates as I have found many forum posts which suggest it as a starting point for the study of Plato.

Greek Tragedy: Medea of Euripides

This week in my Great Books project I read Euripides’ Medea.  As a child I read (and reread) several books about Greek mythology.  Even then I remember being disturbed by the story of Medea: the Colchian princess who falls in love with Jason and gives up everything to help him the Argonauts on their quest, only to be discarded by him as soon as they get back to Greece.  Now, reading Euripides’ treatment of the story, I have more context from Ancient Greek culture, not to mention my own adult love life, to apply to it.  The story still disturbs me.

As a play, Medea is rarely a crowd pleaser.  In its debut year it only took third place in the annual drama competition, losing out to SophoclesPhiloctetes and a play by Aeschylus.  I suspect the reason audiences have trouble with Medea is that Euripides did entirely too good a job capturing his themes:  betrayal, a painful break-up, madness, and vengeance that hurts the avenger as badly as their victim.  Great art is often disturbing on some level.  To the citizens of Athens, however, Medea would have been like one of those modern movies that are you think are brilliant but you never want to see again because they freak you out.

As it happens, the centuries immediately after the Golden Age were kinder to Euripides than they were to his rivals.  The reason that more of Euripides’ plays have been preserved than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles put together, and in better copies, is that learned Hellenes of the Seleucid era held them in high esteem and made them required reading in their schools.

The Golden Fleece, Herbert James Draper [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

The Golden Fleece, Herbert James Draper [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

In Medea, Euripides takes a myth which was already ancient and casts it as a story which is as unfortunate as it is timeless:  an ambitious man sets aside the lover of his youth and mother of his children for a younger, better connected woman who is a better fit for his new career and lifestyle.  Jason isn’t a particularly evil or vindictive man.  He is happy to support Medea and her children, he just wants her out of Corinth before she embarrasses him with his new wife and father-in-law.  He tries to keep things amicable.  In his mind, he owes Medea nothing more than this.  He has already brought her to “civilized” Greece and made her famous, they have had some good times, and now she should be mature enough to step aside and let him live his life.

Have you ever been dumped by someone who liked you, but decided that you just didn’t fit into their career plans?  I have, and it hurts.  Anyone who remembers the pain of still being in love with someone who has fallen out of love with them can relate to Medea.  Even more, in a way, is the reminder of people I have broken up with who were truly in love with me, but with whom I saw no future.

Then Medea goes completely insane, murdering the other woman and her own children.  As atrocious as these acts are, they are also a bitter story of how strong the emotions of one-sided love can sometimes be–strong enough to push someone over the edge into madness.

Medea Abou to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

Medea About to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

In our own culture, possibly in our own families, we have seen plenty of examples of ugly divorces in which a successful man leaves his “starter wife” for a new “trophy wife”, deciding that the alimony payments are worth it.  It would have been the same, if not worse, in Periclean Greece.  Foreign born women like Medea were not even legally allowed to marry Greek citizens, and so would have had none of the divorce rights of Greek women.  Even native women could be easily divorced by their husbands and had no claims to custody of their children or to property beyond their original dowry.  Concubinage was also common, and could hardly have been a comfortable situation for either the wife–replaced in bed by a younger woman–or the concubine who, in the words of Will Durant, “when her charms wear off, will become in effect a household slave, and that only the offspring of the first wife are accounted legitimate.”

We know that could and did attend the Athenian theater.  There must have been some rather tense households in Athens the night after Medea played.

Beyond this deeply personal and individual pathos, Medea symbolizes and older and larger conflict in Greek civilization.  The original societies of the Mediterranean, such as the Minoan Crete or Pelasgian Hellas, had been matriarchal.  Their religion had been much simpler and more shamanic, focusing on appeasing local fertility goddesses and earth spirits.  Many centuries before Euripides they had been conquered by the Dorians, a patriarchal Aryan people who worshiped the sky gods.  While is was dominated, the older culture was never completely destroyed.  Medea, a powerful barbarian shaman, symbolizes the old culture.  Jason, a “civilized” Greek aristocrat, is the new.  They are able to work together to achieve a common goal, but conflict is inevitable when the new culture turns on the old.

Medea is one of Euripides’ earlier plays.  I go now to read Hippolytus and Bacchae, from his middle and late periods, respectively.  I am curious to see how his style changed and whether he kept his disturbing artistic edge, or blunted it in an effort to win more popularity.