No One is One Like the One

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The aim of my discussion is to show three notable accomplishments of Plotinus’ philosophy: The first is what I refer to as the completeness of Plotinus’ ontological system. Earlier attempts were in-complete because they failed to realize that the ultimate cause of the universe must be a perfect unity. One popular theory, for example, is that a deity is the ultimate explanation for the universe. But according to Plotinus, a deity is not a simple entity (as I shall illustrate later). A deity is a composite entity and, being composite, despite it may be all-powerful, cannot be the ultimate cause for the universe. Plotinus argues that the first cause is a total unity. This unity is an uncaused entity that transcends Being, which Plotinus calls the One. The One is ineffable because it transcends Being, is timeless, immaterial, space-less, and unchanging; hence, it is even incorrect to try to define it. Nonetheless, its existence is a logically inescapable conclusion as well as an ontological necessity. In this regard, I will illustrate this necessity of a complete unity as the final cause and originator of the universe in greater detail in the course of my discussion; I will discuss the exceptional effulgence of the One from which Intellect, Soul, and matter are generated, and what the One’s relation to matter is. This I take it to be the first of the three main accomplishments of Plotinus’ philosophy.

The second accomplishment of Plotinus’ philosophy is that it offers a viable solution to the problems that Plato’s theory of Forms faced. One problem is that since the Forms are immaterial and unchanging metaphysical entities, it would seem difficult to explain how they interact with physical objects. For one thing, interacting implies an exchange of certain properties between different entities. But exchanging obviously implies that one entity, in this case a Form, changes or divides itself up or gives off some of its properties to physical objects. However, Forms, by definition, never change. Plotinus shows that the foregoing criticism arises out of category mistake or false dilemma. His solution is such an elegant and simple one that it makes one wonder how Plato’s successors failed to contemplate it. Plotinus introduced a concept central to his metaphysics, that is, the process of ceaseless production through emanation and outflowing from the One.  Plotinus gives metaphors to illustrate the One’s generative power, such as the radiation of heat from fire or light from the sun. The One’s emanation is a sort of indirect process that generates Intellect, Soul, and matter. It is indirect because the One does not intend or need to produce anything, since it is self-sufficient. The point is to show that the Forms interact with physical objects indirectly through their emanation, without dividing up or changing. This will therefore require an articulation of Plotinus’ system, as well as of Plato’s theory. This is the second of the three main accomplishments of Plotinus’ philosophy.

And the third accomplishment is Plotinus’s theodicy. Theodicy is the part of theology concerned about the problem of evil; it is the theological defense that attempts to reconcile the apparent inconsistency between the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God and the presence of evil in the world. Plotinus’ theodicy addresses the issue of evil with respect to the originator of the universe, the One, which is the Good. The One or Good hence represents Plotinus’ idea of God, though Plotinus’ God is not a personal being like the God of Christianity. The question prompted by the notion of the One as the Good is “How is it possible that evil exists in the world if the originator of the world is infinitely good?” Or, to phrase the question differently, “How is it possible that the One, which is perfectly good, produces anything evil?” Plotinus offers a solution to show that a) metaphysical evil is not—and cannot—be produced by the Good. Plotinus makes an important distinction between metaphysical evil and moral evil. Metaphysical evil exists as a result of the total privation of Good, and the locus of it is matter; hence, it is not the Good that produces metaphysical evil because the Good does not produce matter. Matter is produced by Soul, not as an evil act, but rather as ontological necessity. And b) moral evil is not evil itself, but rather evil in the second degree, i.e., human’ experience of many instances of evil and the infliction of evils by humans upon others. Moral evils occur because the soul is, as it were, crippled by matter. Matter is the paradigm of evil in that it is absolute non-being, formless, and unexposed to the radiance of the Good. And when Soul descends and enters into body—which is made of matter—often becomes trapped into it. Soul becomes corrupted, and that is the origin of moral evil. This is the third of the 3 main accomplishments of Plotinus’ philosophy. Finally, I will propose some possible criticisms (perhaps the hardest task of all) of Plotinus’ arguments.

My first task, as I indicated in my introduction, is to illustrate how Plotinus’ ontological system is complete; to give an account of how it is complete, first it is helpful to consider why all philosophers who preceded Plotinus offered incomplete metaphysical accounts. First, let us discuss why they were incomplete by considering the problem of existence. One of the oldest and most essential philosophical questions is existence. To put it in the form of a question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Various answers had been offered before Plotinus. Some of the early philosophers offered naturalistic accounts of existence. But these accounts were deficient in explaining the ultimate cause of existence. The question of causation is central to the question of existence. Physical objects in the world are all caused by some entity. A baby is caused by his mother and a tree by a seed. But what caused existence itself? There is an old tradition in metaphysics that goes back to the pre-Socratic philosophers to find a universal element. The very first Western philosopher, Thales, for example, believed that water was the ultimate principle of everything. Anaximander thought the ultimate principle was what he termed the boundless. Anaximenes believed air to be the ultimate principle. And Parmenides saw reality as one fixed entity, Being. Other pre-Socratic philosophers speculated that the four elements were the basis of everything. Pythagoras thought that the world consisted of numbers. Leucippus and Democritus famously proposed that the universe was a vacuum in which there were an infinite number of atoms bashing against each other and producing everything. Unlike the earlier pre-Socratic philosophers, although these latter two believed in a multitude of atoms, they saw the ontological necessity to stop at a fundamental or universal element, the atom.

These early attempts provided possible answers to the question of what was the original substance out of which all others are formed. However, they all failed to answer the question of why there exists anything in the first place. One of the reasons for their failure is that water, air, or atoms are physical entities, subject to change, that exist in space and time. Presumably, they combine with other entities to produce matter. And their interaction implies an exchange of properties and a change into a different entity. For Thales, for example, a piece of metal is a highly concentrated form of water. But a piece of metal, at any rate, insofar as it is concentrated water, is in no way similar to water. Therefore, water must change, so to speak, from its original state into something else. This, among other things, shows that water does not possess ultimate unity. Water, or boundless stuff, or atoms or what not, is not self-sufficient, but rather contingent upon another entity that has a greater level of unity. By contingent is also meant that physical objects do not have the power to cause their own existence, but rather are caused to exist in space and time. Furthermore, physical elements simply lack the intelligence and power to create the universe. Hence, the ultimate cause must be a non-contingent, non-corporeal entity that is not subject to interaction or change.

This led Plato to postulate an eternal and powerful demiurge creating the universe from pre-existing matter using the Forms as templates. Aristotle also postulated that the ultimate cause was a god, which Aristotle referred to as the unmoved mover. A deity as the ultimate cause and creator of the world is certainly a superior explanation than the various theories provided by the pre-Socratics. A deity possesses unlimited intelligence and power that allows it to create the universe. Also, a deity is not a physical entity, but an immaterial one; it transcends the physical world and has no spatial or temporal constraints. And most importantly a deity is an uncaused cause or self-caused cause, and is independent of external agents. Specifically, Aristotle’s unmoved mover is an entity that contains the reason for his existence. However, Plotinus objected that neither Plato’s Demiurge nor Aristotle’s unmoved mover is a good candidate for the title of ultimate cause of everything. Let us see why. According to Aristotle, the unmoved mover is the most divine of things. Divine thought, therefore, must be at the highest degree. It follows that God’s thought must have some content. Consequently, God, the unmoved mover, is by definition a composite entity. Accordingly, the unmoved mover thinks either about itself or about objects other than itself. Since God is by definition unmoved or uncaused by anything external, it follows that he perpetually thinks itself. To think of something other than itself would mean that God is moved or changed/affected by an external entity, but it cannot be so. Thus, the content of God’s thought must be the most excellent of things, i.e., God himself.

Many philosophers were content to say that the Aristotelian unmoved mover or divine intellect represented the ultimate cause for the universe. Plotinus, however, pointed out that the very fact that God thinks of himself implies absolute lack of unity. Namely, if God thinks of himself there is an element that thinks and an element that is intelligible. The very act of thinking implies the necessity of there being one entity that thinks and another that is the object of thought. A divine intellect thus described, therefore, according to Plotinus, cannot be the ultimate unity and therefore not the ultimate cause for the universe. With regard to Plato, his demiurge faces similar problems. The demiurge is an intelligent entity that looks at the Forms to model the universe. Thus, because of the complexity of the demiurge’s activity of thinking, the demiurge is not the simplest unity possible.

The necessity to postulate absolute unity as the ultimate cause is best exemplified by such arguments as the cosmological argument or the argument from contingency. The idea is that there must be an explanation for the existence of the universe as a spatiotemporal entity. Since the universe could conceivably not exist, its existence must have a cause, i.e., the universe must be contingent. If its cause is another spatiotemporal entity, then that entity requires itself another cause that explains its existence.  However, this causal connection cannot proceed ad infinitum without generating a logical paradox. If we allow this process to an infinite regress, it would take an infinite number of entities and an infinite amount of time to create anything at all and therefore there would never be a beginning. The necessary conclusion is to postulate a first cause, which stands outside of the causal chain, which cannot fail to exist. This first cause cannot be merely another contingent thing, but rather something that exists by necessity. Also, this cause cannot be a simple object in space and time. It follows that the first cause is a simple, space-less, timeless, immaterial, and self-caused entity. In other words, the cause of the universe must be uncaused because there cannot be an infinite regress of causes, it must be timeless because it created time, and because it created space, it must also transcend space. This argument leads to the necessary conclusion a transcendent cause of the universe.

There is, however, according to Plotinus, an even more important reason why all previous metaphysical accounts cannot provide a complete ontological system. The reason is that atoms, air, gods, water or what not are not perfect unities. Unity is according to Plotinus necessary for existence. The argument above shows the necessity of a transcendent cause of the universe. But Plotinus insists that what previous philosophers had overlooked is that such a cause must also be an absolutely simple one. A physical object cannot be the principal cause, nor can a deity. According to Plotinus an absolutely transcendent unity must be the first cause, which he calls the One. The reason Plotinus believed the One to be the first cause of the universe, I think, can be illustrated as follows: if we consider any objects in the world, an army, a house, a flower, a dog, etc., we notice that they all have something special in common—that is, unity. They are all one, they partake in unity. Without unity, an army would be just a bunch of people. A house, without unity, would be just disparate parts and pieces. And a plant or an animal, to qualify as such, must each be one unity. Unity is a condition of being. However, not all the aforementioned objects possess the same degree of unity. An army has less unity than a plant. An army is a unity by virtue of an external force conferring unity upon it. A house is unity only so far as the unity is imposed upon it by its builder. Differently, plants and animal have intrinsic or internal unity. A human being has even more unity than a plant or a house. And a soul has yet more unity than all physical objects just mentioned. Moreover, as the degree of unity of an entity increases, its degree of reality increases, too.

What follows from this argument is the inescapable logical conclusion that the degree of unity in the world must be warranted by something that is itself the maximal expression of unity or the paradigm of unity. That is, since there is a degree of unity, there must be a principle of unity. The final cause for the universe is therefore eternal, unchanging, part-less, space-less, time-less, and it is the standard of unity—and that is the One. A way to put this is that existence is unity. Namely, the existence of the world is possible by the existence of unity. All objects in the world and the world itself are unities. An army acquires its existence and its meaning in virtue of the fact that it is one. But that very army is in fact composed of several parts, individuals, who are in their turn unities. The army has a lesser degree of unity than an individual for obvious reasons. However, an individual is made of different parts, organs, soul, and so on. An individual’s soul has yet a higher degree of unity. Soul has many faculties, and is still a composed entity with a very high degree of unity, but it is not the highest unity. Intellect is, according to Plotinus, an even higher unity than Soul. Now, this hierarchy of unity must logically end, so to speak, at the point of absolute unity. In other words, what follows from this is that there must be a paradigm of unity, and it cannot be physical, but metaphysical. As hard as it may be to grasp, this conclusion follows by logical necessity—the origin of being is beyond the realm of being, and is absolute unity. Plotinus named this entity “the One.”

In the Republic[1], most notably, Plato shows this necessity by what is known as the theory of Forms. Plato proposes the division between an intelligible and a sensible world. If reality is in constant flux, as Heraclitus suggested, there is no basis for anything in the world. But if there were no basis for anything we would not be able to grasp such concepts as numbers, beauty, justice, and so on. However, such concepts are meaningful. For Plato, there is a metaphysical realm of perfect forms, perfect numbers, and a source of everything, which he calls the Good. The Good is the most important of all the Forms because it is by virtue of the existence of the Good that all other Forms acquire their existence. The Platonic Good was translated by Plotinus into the One. But Plotinus, as noted, arrived at that conclusion by contemplating the fact that everything that exists must partake in unity. But if an ultimate and absolute paradigm of unity does not exist then any physical or metaphysical entity could not have unity, and therefore would not exist. Taken to its logical conclusion, the explanatory path must finally lead to that which is unique and absolutely un-complex: there must be a single unity by virtue of which all physical, as well as nonphysical, entities acquire unity and thus existence. This ultimate unity has no properties, does not think or will, it is part-less, it is neither in motion nor at rest; it “exists” outside time and space, and does not partake in being. Yet, its exuberant power is such that its emanation produces plurality. The model Plotinus suggests is a ceaseless, downward process of Emanation or “outflowing” from the One, and a corresponding turning upward process through Contemplation. The diagram below represents this process:




             The Absolute unity and Source

Otherness/Inchoative stuff


By turning back and contemplating the One, Intellect

constitutes itself as Intellect. Intellect contains the Forms.




By contemplating Intellect, Soul constitutes itself as Soul
both cosmic “World-Soul” and
individual souls. Contains the Logoi.

Soul descends by ontological necessity

The effect is nature

Sensible World


Matter = Evil

(The end of the unfolding

of the One’s emanation.)

The theory of Forms brings us to the second accomplishment of Plotinus’ philosophy:  the solution to the problem of the relation between the Forms and physical objects. Specifically, Plotinus’ philosophy provides a viable solution to problems that arise out of Plato’s division of reality into two worlds, the physical world of images (i.e., the sensible world), and the real world of Forms (i.e., the intelligible world). One of the problems that this theory faced is to account for the relation between the intelligible and the sensible worlds. To show how Plotinus solved this problem, it will be necessary to discuss of Plato’s theory of Forms and its origin. Its origins can be traced back to Pythagoras’ philosophy. Pythagoras believed that the ultimate reality of the world is numbers. Numbers are present in the world through and through. Even music, for example relies on numeric proportion. We perceive the world in terms of numbers. For instance, we, humans, have a concept of the number 2, although the number 2 is nowhere to be found in nature. So, we are able to divide physical objects into numbers by virtue of the fact that perfect proportions or numbers exist as unchanging metaphysical paradigms.

Plato expanded this view proposing his theory of Forms. For one thing, Plato wanted to address the issue raised by certain pre-Socratic philosophers regarding reality’s objectivity. One of these early philosophers, Heraclitus, famously noted that it was impossible to step into the same river twice. Heraclitus noted an indisputable fact about the world, that nothing is ever the same for more than one instant. Everything constantly changes or is in constant flux. A river, for example is a stream of water that constantly flows toward an ocean. But if we ask what constitutes a river, the answer is rather unclear. The watercourse is constantly flowing, the water is always different, and the river banks are constantly changing due to erosion and other factors. But if this is so, what constitutes the river? A further implication, besides rivers not being the same, was that any and all physical objects are subject to constant change. This would naturally imply that there is no objective basis for reality. But if this is true, then, all concepts and sensible objects are merely subjective. Parmenides also exemplified this issue by also famously stating, “man is the measure of all things.”  Parmenides implies that no concepts or argument can be objectively true or false because they depend upon man’s judgment. Plato recognized the validity of such arguments. But at the same time, he realized that reality is not merely subjective; nor is it a random flux. Rather, we have such ideas of beauty, of friendship, of love, of shapes, of mathematical concepts, etc. So the way Plato solved this problem was by dividing the sensible world, which is in constant flux, and the intelligible world, the eternally unchanging world that confers meaning upon the sensible world.

The intelligible world, of course, is grasped through intellect, while the sensible world comes to us through the senses. Reality is for Plato such that the visible world, which appears concrete, is but a mere copy or shadow of the real world, which is intangible and invisible. The intelligible world is a metaphysical realm where perfect Forms exist. The Forms are necessary because without them nothing would have a form or would be objectively true. The Forms are therefore the grounds and the paradigms of physical objects, as well as the paradigms of all the concepts and aspects of the physical world.  One important feature of the Forms is that they are not changing, they are perfect. They are, as it were, metaphysical templates from which the physical world is designed. To use an example, think of numbers. The number 2, for example, is an abstract concept that does not exist in reality. However, we experience 2 in reality when we count, say, 2 apples. But those apples are in fact 2 individual unities, 1 and 1. And in their turn, each apple is not, but it can be divided into many parts. Then how is it possible that perfect 2 does not exist in the world and yet we experience or have a notion of the same? The answer is that what we experience in reality is a copy, a less perfect model, of a perfect Form that exists in a metaphysical realm of Forms. Thus, there exists a perfect 2, which cannot be divided or changed. And since in the physical world there are beautiful objects, friends, horses, cows, trees, and so on, there obviously are corresponding Forms of beauty, of friendship, of horse-ness, of cow-ness, of tree-ness, etc, all timeless and eternally unchanging.

Plato’s solution, at first, appears satisfactory. Yet it certainly makes one wonder how these ethereal Forms can be responsible for conferring upon physical objects many different features. Plato was certainly not clear as to the nature of Forms and the way they divided and made themselves available to many disparate physical objects. A Form is by definition unchanging. The apparent problem, then, is how a particular Form is present in many different sensible objects without losing its essence. For example, how can the Form of dog be present in all the dogs in the world without being divided up and distributed among them? In his Plotinus, an Introduction to the Enneads[2], Dominic O’Meara points out that this kind of criticism listed above stems from a category mistake fallacy. Namely, critics, in considering the Forms, treated them as physical entities with physical properties. I believe O’Meara is correct. In fact, I would add that those criticisms do not constitute a serious challenge to Plato’s theory of Forms, but rather amount to a false dilemma. Plotinus’ solution is so simple that how Platonists overlooked it is baffling. Since the Forms are not physical entities, there is no reason to expect them to behave as such. They are not temporal entities that confer certain properties upon matter by separating and distributing their unity. They do not cause physical forms, since they are not bound by causality. Rather, they constantly emanate their properties and affect physical objects. This is compared to the sun whose emanation gives off heat to the world. This explains how a certain Form is “present” as a whole in many separate physical bodies, i.e., it is not “physically” present. Rather, the emanation deriving from a Form actualizes matter into a copy of that Form, without any actual exchange or division.

This brings us to the third accomplishment of Plotinus’ philosophy, that is, his theodicy. Christian apologists have proposed many different theodicies to address the foregoing problem. Typically, theodicies employ two main stances with regard to the existence of evil in a world created by God. One is to argue that God creates evil to allow humans to build a certain moral character that enables their souls to eventually ascend and unite with God. In this sense, evil is instrumentally good. God allows evil because it serves a purpose, i.e., to build the moral character required to ascend to God. Conversely, another view is that evil is neither allowed nor created by God (Augustine, for example, is a champion of this view). The only thing that God allows is freedom, through which humans can accept the goodness of God or decide to turn away from it. Regrettably, some people, in exercising their freedom, choose to do evil. Thus in this sense, evil is not purposively created by God; nor does it exist as an entity per se. Rather, evil is simply the absence of goodness or the turning away from goodness.

Plotinus is immune to the problem of evil, and the criticisms thereof, as illustrated above. For one thing, although Plotinus regards the One as God, the One is not a personal being like the God of Christianity. The One has no purpose or eschatological agenda as God does. The One does not think or will to create anything. Intellect, Soul, and matter are constantly created out of ontological necessity by the emanation of the One. But the One neither intends nor needs to create them. In Christianity, for example, God creates the world out of love, whereas for Plotinus the world results as a necessary consequence of the One’s emanation. Thus, Plotinus would deny that evil is purposively allowed or created by the One. Neither would he argue that evil does not exist. According to Plotinus evil arises because evil is ontologically necessary. But what and where is evil created? After all, one might note, if all comes from the One, and evil is necessarily created, the One must be responsible for evil. However, how can the One—which is the Good—generate evil? To illustrate Plotinus’ theodicy it may be helpful to first exemplify his ontological system.

As we noted, the One is the ultimate cause of the universe, and the highest unity of the ontological hierarchy. As such, the One is uncaused and is not itself a being, but exists beyond being. Furthermore, the One is the Good and the embodiment of perfection. In order for Plotinus’ system to be complete, there must be an end at the opposite side of the ontological hierarchy—and that is matter. Matter is the lowest, and the last, product of the One’s emanation. Matter is thus caused and is absolute disunity. It is a non-being because it does not participate in Being. And furthermore, matter is the embodiment of absolute imperfection—and that is evil. In other words, given that the Good is not the only existent thing, it is logically and ontologically necessary that the continuous down-going from the Good inevitably completes its unfolding; this will be evil. Evil, the last thing produced, has no residue of Good in it, and it is matter. Matter is thus generated by Soul and not by the Good. To use the same analogy I used earlier, if the Good is the sun, matter is so far away from it that light no longer reaches it. It is with the production of matter that the One’s power is actualized in its totality. The Good reaches the last stage, matter.

Plotinus’s theodicy justifies evil by showing that evil is matter, and matter is the absolute lack of the Good. So, just by the same rationale that the degree of unity must culminate in an absolute form of unity, the One, on the opposite side there must be a locus of absolute lack of unity and Good, matter. The One’s emanation generates Intellect. Intellect by ontological necessity has a lower level of unity than the One, otherwise it would be the One, and that would be a paradox—the One cannot produce another One. Intellect in its turn produces Soul, which has yet a lower level of unity and Good than Intellect. Consequently, the farther away from the One an entity is the lesser degree of unity and Good that entity possesses.

Now the foregoing shows how metaphysical evil is not directly caused by the Good. The Good, in fact, as noted, is not the direct cause of anything. It is its emanation that produces Intellect and Soul. The latter two, according to Plotinus, are by no means evil. They partake in the Good, and yet evil exists. It would seem at this point that we are back to square one with the question of why Soul’s emanation produces evil. Namely, if Soul is an expression of the Good, how is it possible that evil comes out of Soul? For Plotinus this does not seem to be the real issue since the problem of metaphysical evil for Plotinus is not the same problem later faced by Christianity. In Christianity, theodicy attempts to justify why God allows human suffering.  Plotinus, rather, wants to justify how imperfection and total absence of Good can be generated by a maximally perfect and maximally good entity, the One. I believe that he manages to do that. In fact, if matter/evil is the logical outcome of the end of the Good’s emanation, evil is just a necessary aspect of the universe. And since the ultimate truth of the universe is the Good, in a sense evil is part of the Good. Plotinus seems to take such a positive attitude with regard to evil. At any rate, Plotinus’ solution to the problem of metaphysical evil is absolutely brilliant. He shows that when we think of evil we do so the wrong way. While, we think of it as a dismal entity, in reality, Plotinus shows that evil is not an entity as such, but the total lack of perfection and Being. Evil is a non-being, not in the sense that it does not exist, but in that it does not partake in Being. Evil is matter, and matter is devoid of measure, form, and good—it is completely deficient of unity and goodness. The real issue for Plotinus is two-fold: first, there is the question of why Soul produces evil, i.e., matter. The second, and central question, is why moral evils exist, that is, why do human beings sin?

With regard to Soul producing evil, Plotinus shows that Soul cannot be blamed for producing evil. To be sure, Soul is not committing an evil act in producing matter—nor is Soul committing an act in the first place. Soul does not intend to produce matter, but rather matter is produced via emanation from Soul. Soul, so to speak, finds itself at the end of the derivation of Being[3] and its emanation necessarily produces matter. It seems as though the Good of the One’s emanation must culminate in the production of Soul (Soul seems to be the last spawn of the Good). Therefore, either Soul has no more of the Good left within itself to pass on to matter or perhaps Soul’s nature is such that its emanation must produce matter. Consequently, its emanation produces something that lacks goodness and perfection, and thus it is in this sense that matter is evil. I believe that Plotinus must maintain this because his ontological system must come to an end. So, Plotinus resolves the problem of the existence of metaphysical evil by re-defining what evil is. His approach tells us that in contemplating evil, we should regard it from a divine viewpoint and realize it is an ontological necessity. This realization should help us realize that Soul does not intend to generate evil. The fact that human beings experience many instances of moral evil is quite another matter.

With regard to moral evil, Plotinus says that it occurs when Soul descends and associates with matter, and thus becomes corrupted by the very nature of matter, which is completely devoid of the Good and perfection. When Soul enters into bodies (which are composed of matter), its divine nature is obscured and its goodness consumed by the negative nature of matter, which lacks good, just as food changes when is digested and assimilated by the body. So, matter is metaphysical evil, or the possibility of evils, and body is the cause of moral evils. When Soul enters body, it is turned to evil until it finds strength to free itself and rise again. Thus, Soul is a divine being and a dweller in the divine realm. But when it enters into body to acquire the knowledge of evil and sin it often becomes trapped into body, hence the cause of moral evil. It is clear that Plotinus is a sheer optimist. His philosophical view of the world seems to suggest that to worry about evil is tantamount to regarding the proverbial glass as half empty. Plotinus is optimistic about moral evil. He sees the glass half full, that is, he sees the world being full of beauty and order since it is a world that is encompassed by the supreme Good, the One.

In closing, I would like to draw attention to the aim of my discussion, three main accomplishments of Plotinus’ philosophical system. First, Plotinus’ innovation was to offer a coherent ontological system, which I referred to as complete. He pointed out that all physical and metaphysical entities acquire existence through unity. A house, for example, is one although it is made of disparate parts. Its “being one” is conferred upon it because it partakes in one-ness or unity. Plato saw this necessity in the Forms. He posited that we have concepts of beauty, of friendship, of perfection, of goodness, of justice etc. But when we look at the physical world, we fail to find perfection, beauty, justice and so on. A statue, for example, may be said to be beautiful. But its beauty is not everlasting. Moreover, the statue may be beautiful, but it is not the same as Beauty. Consequently, Plato believed that there must be transcendental paradigms that give physical objects their meaning and properties. Hence, Plotinus brought Plato’s theory to its logical conclusion. That is, without an ultimate paradigm of unity, the One, the world would not exist, and that paradigm. Or if something existed, perhaps it would be absolute chaos. And what follows from this line of reasoning is that this paradigm of unity must be the first cause of everything. Plotinus predecessors had failed to recognize this necessity, and erroneously believed that the world’s principal cause was water, or the boundless, or a demiurge, and so on, all of which are composed entities.

The doctrine of absolute unity (as well as others) is not easy to criticize. Its conclusion seem picturesque and, for us nowadays, quite implausible. From modern perspective, the question is at what stage we would want to stop agreeing with the train of arguments that leads us to that conclusion. Yet, I think it is important to remind us that we are dealing with arguments, which proceed from premises or starting intuitions that are plausible—e.g. his point that something has more being if it has more unity and, if there is a degree of unity then there must be a paradigm of unity. There is a sense in which Plotinus’ One seems to fit the description of creation according to modern astronomy, through a singularity, the big bang. With regard to the question of whether there must be a paradigm of unity in order for unity to exist in the first place, one may feel unconvinced by it. Plotinus did not have the benefit of being informed by modern physics. Moreover, in his time, prior to modern linguistics and philosophy of language, it is understandable how claims about the existence and necessity of metaphysical entities were accepted by default. One objection that I, and others, may advance is the following: if intellect is produced as a “by-product”, as it were, of the emanation of the One, then the One is not free. And if the One is not free, the objection goes, the One is imperfect. Plotinus’ response to this criticism is that the critic here makes the mistake of anthropomorphism; that is, the concept of freedom and necessity that the critic has in mind is a legitimate criticism when it applies to human conditions. Thus, it need not apply to the One, which is immaterial and unaffected by external constrains.  Being free, Plotinus may rebut, is not the ability to choose among many options, like choosing a dish on a menu. Having options, conversely, indicates restriction. The One is free it transcends these sorts of issues of choosing, which is inherent of human beings.

Once again, Plotinus demonstrates to be very clever, perhaps a little bit slippery, I would say. In any case, I still think that this criticism is valid.  I am not convinced by this line of argument. Putting aside the vagueness or the ethereality of the subject, if the One is determined in some sense, well, it is determined nonetheless. That is to say, if the One is absolutely perfect and absolutely free but it is determined to only produce intellect as a by-product, this would appear as a limitation of the One. At any rate, my problem is not so much about the freedom of the One, but rather about its implications. One implication of the One being in some sense determined is this: if the One is determined, that is, by nature it emanates otherness, which becomes intellect through contemplation of the One, then it would follow that the One already contains within its own nature the potentiality such that inchoative intellect is produced off the One’s emanation.

Secondly, as far as Plato’s theory of Forms purports to show, Plotinus, in my opinion, managed to show that some criticisms thereof stemmed from a category mistake. That is to say, Plato’s theory, as I just mentioned above, argued that there are many paradigms that give form to physical objects. This theory was put forth by Plato to address an old problem raised by Heraclitus, who argued that the physical world is a flux, constantly changing every instant. And if nothing is ever the same for more than an instant, then objective truth is simply illusory. Plato explained this problem away by dividing reality into a sensible world and an intelligible world. So the everyday world that comes through our senses is a copy or a shadow of the true world that is grasped by intellect. However, while Plato apparently resolved a problem, his answer merely generated another problem. Many, including Plato himself, saw many difficulties with his theory. For one thing, since there aren’t any wires connecting the Forms to physical objects, many wondered how metaphysical Forms exactly conferred upon physical world their attributes. In other words, how can allegedly perfect metaphysical Forms that never change interact with physical objects? Accordingly, to interact is tantamount to exchanging or giving off certain properties. But if the Forms are eternal, this cannot be the case. That is to say, if many physical objects partake, say, in beauty, how can the Form of beauty which is one and indivisible divide itself and distribute beauty among all beautiful objects. Also, the Form of beauty is one, how can there be many different beautiful objects in the world? Plotinus’s answer shows how clever a philosopher he was. He pointed out that Forms need not—and in fact they do not—behave like physical objects. To think of a Form as splitting into many pieces or giving off its qualities is a category mistake. As he proposes in his explanation of how the One generate multiplicity, Plotinus resolves the question of how Forms are present in physical bodies. That is, they do not physically divide and enter into physical bodies; rather, their nature is such that they emanate their power like the sun emanates heat. The Form, like the sun does not will to emanate its power. Thus, the Form does divide itself but rather physical objects actualize themselves by the overflowing energy emanated by the Forms.

Now, while Plotinus’ solution appears felicitous on logical grounds, in my opinion, it still leaves us with the mystery of why an eternal and immutable Form of, say, dog, exists prior to there being physical dogs in the world. Namely, the implication is that all the dogs ever existed in the past and all of those that will ever exist in the future already exist within the Form of dog prior to the existence and creation of the world and of dogs in the world. And another question is that of what determine the Form of dog, to use the same example, to exist in the first place. If the physical world is merely a copy of the Forms, this leads to dubious conclusions, such as that there is a form of every single thing, including lap-tops, horse excrement, and what not. And this leads to the question of whether it is plausible to believe that the Form of dog produces via emanation many different physical dogs (not to mention their excrements) unless all these forms are already contained within the Form, in which case it would require the Form to be a very strange entity containing an infinite number of forms (along with all the implication related to postulating an infinity of things).

For example, if a particular Form is not the same as the object, how can the Form know the shape of a particular object? It would seem as though the paradigm needs another paradigm. That is to say, consider this example: according to Plato’s theory, physical dogs are imperfect copies of the unchanging Form of perfect Dog or another way to put it is that physical dogs partake in the Form of “Dog-ness.”  But the Form Dog-ness is not itself a dog; therefore, if a certain dog is a dog because it partakes in the Form of Dog, then, a third Form would be required as a model to the Form of Dog in order for it to confer upon physical dogs their shapes; but the problem seems to be that in its turn, the model from which the Form of Dog copies the various forms of dogs faces the same problem: it requires yet another model in order to assume the form of Dog, and so on ad infinitum. Unless, of course, the Form of Dog already contains within itself all the dogs that have existed in the world and all of those that will exist in the future—which sounds very implausible, to say the least. In other words, Plotinus offers a solution that seems right on logical grounds. But the very logic employed relies upon premises that have to be accepted on faith or on a linguistic trick. In order to accept the theory of Forms, we have to concede that our experience of beauty or friendship has to be enforced by the existence of corresponding paradigms. Moreover, we have to concede that because we have the ability to utter and contemplate unity, there must be a supreme One, which is the paradigm of unity—but this seems to me not to follow necessarily. When we consider Plotinus’ theory, we cannot fail to contemplate the obvious inadequacy of our language to represent the world.

Lastly, with regard to Plotinus’ theodicy, Plotinus offers a viable solution to the problem of metaphysical evil. His solution works insofar as we understand the nature of evil. When we, moderns, use that term, we associate it with what is immoral. We speak of evil in connection with murder, genocide, natural disasters, and all instances of human and animal suffering. But these evils, Plotinus shows, represent second degree evil, and have to be distinguished from metaphysical evil. Moral evils are the consequences of metaphysical evil, matter. Matter is the last entity produced by the downward unfolding of the Good’s emanation. Matter is evil in that it is the opposite of the Good: it lacks unity, measure perfection and goodness; it is like a black hole that sucks in Soul and renders it evil when it enters body. Insofar as it justifies the Good by indirectly producing metaphysical evil, his theodicy is successful. A typical objection, however, is the question of why there must be matter as a last by-product of the Good. I think it is fair to say that Plotinus would answer the following: if there is a first principle—and we proved that logically—the One, and that is by definition maximally good, to be complete the system, it is warranted by the same logic that a last principle completely devoid of the presence of the Good exists, and that is matter. Namely, Plotinus’ system postulates a plausible first principle that is a perfect unity, the One, by relying on the principle of prior simplicity. By the same token, the system has to be ontologically complete by ending with a principle that is diametrically opposed to the One. Thus, there must be an end point of the One’s production, and this end point is completely devoid of the Good, and that is matter. One may regard this as a shortcoming of the One. But in fact, it is by the very reason that the One’s power is limit-less that it achieves a complete ontological system. It would be a deficiency of the one, I believe, if the One’s power were unable to complete the ontological series and precisely stop at the point at which nothing further than matter were produced. Matter must be powerless so that it cannot produce anything else. If this process did not stop at matter and were able to continue, then it would generate the same problem as an infinite regress—i.e., nothing would ever exist—which I outlined in the discussion of the necessity of a total unity as origin of all.

Here a final criticism may be advanced. To regard matter as evil insofar as matter lacks the Good is a clever move, but not a compelling justification. Rather, Plotinus seems to circumvent the problem by re-defining the meaning of evil. What we get from his treatment of evil is that evil is not really evil. What this suggests is that there is a sense in which metaphysical evil, which is matter, is not evil in itself until it is entered into by Soul, but rather the source of evils. This is perhaps the most difficult argument to accept among all his doctrines. The One for Plotinus is pure good, and matter absolute absence of Good. This is tantamount to saying that a glass of water that is filled half way is not half empty, but rather half full. So Plotinus re-defines evil when it comes to matter. The way in which he re-defines it is by saying that matter is evil in that it is devoid of unity and measure and not evil intended as vicious or sadistic or cruel or brutal. Famously, Plotinus’ view of evil is subsumed by this beautiful line, “But evil is not just evil, due to the power and nature of good. Since if it has appeared of necessity, it is enclosed in beautiful bonds, like certain prisoners bound with gold…”[4] But one objection my go like this: if matter is simply deprived of all the qualities of Being, then, at best, it seems to follow that matter is neutral stuff; precisely, Plotinus regards it as not partaking in Being. But to say that for this reason matter manages to corrupt Soul when it enters body seems to me an unwarranted conclusion. Why is matter corrupting Soul into moral evils instead of Soul corrupting matter into good? Plotinus would certainly respond that Soul descends and enters into body for that very reason. However, it is not clear why matter, in Plotinus’ view, is like a black hole that sucks away and neutralizes all the good in Soul resulting in moral evils instead of the other way around, i.e., Soul neutralizing matter’s negativity and necessarily turning matter into goodness every time Soul enters into body.

[1] In the Republic, Plato discusses the forms in the following books: Book III (402–403): Education the pursuit of the Forms. Book V (472–483): Philosophy the love of the Forms.  Books VI–VII (500–517): Philosopher-guardians as students of the Beautiful and Just; Metaphor of the sun: The sun is to sight as Good is to understanding; Allegory of the cave: The struggle to understand forms like men in cave guessing at shadows in firelight.


[2] O’ Meara J. Dominic, Oxford Univ. Press, 1993, p.24-25.

[3] Plotinus’ metaphysics is a system whereby the origin of the universe is beyond Being, in the middle is Being (Intellect, Soul) and at the end is non-being.

[4] As quoted in O’ Meara J. Dominic, Oxford Univ. Press, 1993, p.87.


Author: Carlo Alvaro


One thought on “No One is One Like the One

  1. Excellent, and thought-provoking!

    I think the problem with the problem of evil is the one underlying assumption about evil its anthropocentric framework– and yes, this is where Plotinus has an advantage insofar as the One is not a ‘person’. Plotinus does use personification to speak of the One, but this is a figure of speech, just as he occasionally uses the language of the mystery religions without being a proponent of them.

    We ask ‘Why is there evil in the world?’ — but the next question should be evil… for whom exactly? We too easily assume that evil is something that human beings chiefly suffer– but what about animal life, or perhaps also plant life? We have the habit of indulging in this kind of metaphysical narcissism which overlooks the fact that the universe is populated by more than just human beings, and, for that matter, more than any life itself.

    Because Plotinus’ One is beyond this kind of human identification, he severs the possibility of an anthropocentric-framed problem of evil. There is no personal intention which lies behind suffering in the world, only a greater ontological necessity which far exceeds mere human affairs. The dilemma between a God’s omnipotence or a God’s with moral intentions is rendered irrelevant. There is a greater necessity at work in which humanity is not the star of the metaphysical show (which leads to too many of its own great evils).

    While humans may participate in the Good, the Good– just like evil– is not just for humans alone. In the material world, where one receives various benefits, it is always at the cost (however minimal, however unintentional, however unconscious) of some other person(s) or creature(s) suffering. Call it karma, call it the law of conservation (or Emerson’s ‘compensation’). Or, like the haiku poet Issa writes:

    In this world
    we walk on the roof of hell
    gazing at flowers.

    In Plotinian terms, as long as soul and body are co-joined, we participate to some degree in the Good, to be sure– but at the same time, we also participate in evil to some degree. My own take on it then (with a strong Robinson Jeffers ‘inhumanist’ bias in the mix, I admit– far from Plotinus’ own Platonist roots!) is that in this life, the best we can do is to maximise one and minimise the other, and do our best to realise this in a conscious way in our daily lives.

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