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Plotinus and the Gnostics Author(s): Joseph Katz Reviewed work(s): Source: Journal of the Histor y

Plotinus and the Gnostics Author(s): Joseph Katz Reviewed work(s):

Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1954), pp. 289-298 Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

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Plotinus' essay against the Gnostics (Ennead II ix) 1 has often been

commented upon.

Due acknowledgment has been made of the polemical

sharpness with which Plotinus attacked what he regarded as the arrogant

myth-making and the dialectical imprecision of the Gnostics. But a much


more important fact

finds objectionable in


polemic against the Gnostics, consequently, turns out to reveal a vital ten- sion in Plotinus' own system, rather than a mere external differentiation of his doctrines from others. To see Plotinus as in some sense a Gnostic

manque is to discover an important aspect of his many-faceted philosophy. In the essay against the Gnostics Plotinus, who usually is very restrained, permits himself a large amount of emotive invective. This too suggests

that we are touching upon a vital nerve of Plotinus' thought. The avowed purpose of the essay against the Gnostics is to oppose those who assert that the world of sense or its originating source are evil. Ploti- nus declares that whatever the deficiencies of the world of sense, it is a copy of the intelligible world and thus exhibits the order and beauty ap-

propriate to it.

and temporal character.

is going far

for a Platonist-as to say that surely those who have had the experience of intelligible beauty and harmony will not fail to be touched by their sensu-

ous copies. " Would any musician who had once heard the intelligible har-

even permits

monies not also be moved by those of sense? "2

himself, something exceedingly rare in him, a moralistic censure, reproach- ing the Gnostics with unconcern for virtue and declaring solemnly that

seems to have

escaped the interpreters.

For it

amazing that almost all of the ideas that Plotinus

the Gnostics have been asserted by himself too in one form or another.

It is the best possible world, given its inevitable spatial


even goes so far-and



Porphyry'sLife of Ploti-

that the

maker of the world is evil and that the world is evil." The titles are not due to

Plotinus and in the body of the

essay neitherthe names of particular thinkersnor

the generic name " Gnostics" occur. In section 10 Plotinus refersto " friendswho

had come acrossthese doctrines [the doctrinesattacked in Enn. II ix] before be-

coming friendsof oursand who, I do

not know how, still persevere in them." The

nus is "Against the Gnostics." In section24 it is " Against those who

1 The title of the essay as given in sections5 and 16 of


brevity of Plotinus'statement of the doctrineshe attacks and the incompleteness

of our sourcesmake it very difficultto determinewhich specific men Plotinus had

in mind. Giventhe natureof Plotinus'

in this articleto use the term " Gnostics" in a generic sense-and it may well have

had just such genericsignificance for Plotinus too. For a discussionof the problem which specific men and doctrinesPlotinus

have had in mind, see Carl Schmidt, Plotins Stellung zum Gnosticismusund kirch- lichen Christentum,Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichteder altchristlichen Literatur, new series, vol. 5, fasc. 4 (Leipzig,1901), especiallypp. 13ff.,30ff., 48ff.,


problem in Enn. II ix it will be permissible


2Enn. II ix 16. All translationsin this articleare my own.





"without true virtue god is only a name." 3 Yet the Plotinus who wrote this essay is the same man who is fond of

and often elaborates on the TheMtet's

necessarily exist here below and that the best thing is to flee from here to a holier region.5 It is the same Plotinus who says that even the destruction of

one's native city will hardly affect the wise man, that one must look upon murder and death and the sack of cities as if they were no more than mere

the choir

of virtues,"

periences, power, riches, art, science are as nothing.8

balance of opposing ideas in

Plotinus, it will be necessary to turn to the main arguments of the essay

against the Gnostics.

a " fall." 9

uncompromising: an eternalistic conception of existence which regards novelty as an imputation of potentiality and hence imperfection to the high- est source of things.10 But there are other imperfections which according to Plotinus the notion of a "fall" introduces into the intelligible world, such as an anthropomorphic desire for honor, or deliberative reasoning." In general, the notion of the fall of the psyche seems self-contradictory, given the perfectionist definition of the psyche and the absence of body, the prime source of limitation, in the intelligible world. Indeed, Plotinus occasionally speaks as if he thought that it is not the psyche itself, but only a reflection of it caught in matter, that we find in the sense world and that constitutes the composite of psyche and body called man.'2 But this asser- tion does not represent Plotinus' usual position. His usual view is that the psyche is a member at once of this world and of the intelligible world. Even in the essay against the Gnostics he does not forsake it, even though it weakens his argument. For he can now ascribe only to the universal soul,

In part his argument deals with an issue on which he has been

Plotinus argues at some length against the notion of


passage which asserts that evils

stage spectacles,6 that


ascent to the One leads far " beyond even

and that as compared with union with the One, all other ex-


In order to show more specifically

not to individual souls, the capacity of fulfilling the cosmological function of administering the body of the world without directly descending into it.13 But this assertion, obviously, hardly solves the problem, but only shifts it somewhat. For if it exempts the universal soul from the " fall," it does not do so for the individual souls. At first, even on this issue Plotinus is not without resources to bar a too



6 Enn.

II ix 15. 4 Plato Theaetetus176a. 5 Enn.

I iv 7, III ii 15.

8 Enn. VI

7 Enn. VI ix 11.

I viii 6-7. vii 34.

9Enn. II ix 4ff.

10In Christianity, in contrast, the creation of the world, as against its eternal existence, is taken to exalt God abovethe world. See also St. Augustine De civitate Dei X. 31, whereSt. Augustineobjects to the notion of an eternal pre-existence of

the soul on the ground that change in or of the

See also X. 30

maintaining the Neoplatonist thesis of the fall (or of the transmigration) of a soul

contradictsthe eternalistthesis.

soul, admitted by Neoplatonists, where he shows the difficulty of

conceivedas pre-existent on a

superior level of reality.

11Enn. II ix 4.

12Enn. I i 12.

13 Enn. II ix 4, 6, 7, 8.






literal understanding of a favorite metaphor of his, the Phaedr metaphor of the soul's loss of wings.14 According to a device he frequentlyuses, the psyche consists of hierarchicallyarrangedfaculties, the highest of which never descends, so that ascent or descent becomesa matter of the shifting awarenessof the humanself.15 He suggests in additionthat the descentof the psyche does not spring from a flaw, but ratherfromthe power of super- abundant perfection which, in the absence of a counter-power, exhausts itself in all degrees of being.18 Yet these constructionsand the often tor-

tuous dialectic they require half

a quite different conception of the

too finds explicit statement. The fall of the soul is then derived from dis-

content and overbearing. Her fall is a withdrawalfromthe whole into an

psyche. In some contextsthis conception


and half defendthemselves against

individualistic separateness.l7 The fall is a self-assertion. Plotinus even goes so far as to declare on occasion that the fall stems from the soul's



lectical rigor, for the sake of a dramaof rebellionand redemption. Plotinus strongly objects to the Gnostics' insistenceon their specially-

privilegedplace in the universe, their insistenceon being the childrenof god,

better than other men and deities.19 There is a rationalisticand a socio-

logical aspect to his argument. He is irked that "men without station,"


the " vulgar crowd," should claim such distinction, and more

emphatically, that the way to salvation should flagrantlybypass dialectic

and the

vations do not imply

sternintellectualand moral discipline it requires.20 But these reser-



These passages illustrate well how close Plotinus, too, is

acosmism," how he is willing to violate cosmologicalorder, and dia-

immunity to the serpent's temptation: eritis sicut

Deus. In Plotinus' system too identificationwith the One is the ultimate

goal of humanendeavor. The self in its upwardflight doesnot stop

level of nous in a mere contemplation of the highest existence-as


notion of the divine

ascent to and union with

moreAristotelian language, that

Christianity. Plotinus too holds something like the Gnostic

at the

do the

spark when he says, in

the One means the reawakening of the psyche's

declaresthat the supremepart of the psyche

potentialities,21 or when he

is forever united with the One.22

course more mitigated than the Gnostics'.

Accordingto Gnostic doctrine, this worldis the product of an evil demiurge,

and men of the divine pneuma owe no

orto his world.23 Plotinus findsit particularlyobjectionable in this doctrine


" acosmism " is of

allegiance eitherto this creator god

14 Pato Phaedrus 246c, Enn. II ix 4.


Enn.II ix 2, IV viii 8. 7 Enn. IV viii 4. to minimizethe flawthat



initially the responsibilityupon the


Such passagesbetray Plotinus'


Enn. II ix 3, 8, of. Vii 1, 2, VI vii 8.

attempt heres in the psyche and also to shift at least

obtrudingpresence of a body.

uneasinesswith the more Gnostic

18 Enn. V i 1.

Often there is an

See Enn. III ii 4.

implicationsof his thought.

22Enn. II ix 2.

19 Enn. II ix

9, 16,

18. 20Enn. II ix 9.


e1 Enn. VI ix 1I, IV viii

2SCf. Enn. II ix 15ff.




that it assigns to man a rank higher than to the celestial realm whose beauty and order are in such marked contrast with terrestrial life. According to Plotinus, the sun and the stars possess not only immortality, but a wisdom and a freedom from passion superior to those of men born only recently and subject to lust, pain, and the fits of temper.24 A striking vindication, even a glorification, of the world of sense occurs in Ennead III viii, which Plotinus puts in the form of a hypothetical speech by the cosmos itself:

I was made by god and as I stem from the realm beyond, I am perfect con-

taining all living things. I am self-sufficient and independent, in want of nothing, because in me there is everything, all plants, animals, all that is born, the plurality of gods, the tribes of demons, excellent souls, and men

happy through the quality of their life.

the whole gamut of plants and all the varieties of animals, nor does the

the air, ether, or heaven; but

there are found beyond the earth souls, and excellent souls

life to the stars and to the well-ordered and eternal round of heaven that

in imitation of the

the same center forever,

exist within me aspire towards the Good, but each realizes it according to its

capacity; for the whole heaven

gods that exist in my parts, all animals, plants, and all that is in appearance inanimate. The latter seem to participate in existence alone, of the others

some participate in life alone, some also possess sensation, some even reason,

and some universal life.


must not ask of a finger to see, but of the eye. Of the finger one must ask,

I suppose, to fulfill its proper function of a finger.25

What Plotinus says in such contexts implies no special exaltation of man. It seems only a short step to the Stoics' submission to nature or even to Aristotle's notion of mortal man reaching only a temporary immortality in

the study of the eternal patterns of nature.

natural character seems to break in to require the union of two incom- mensurable orders of existence. But such subordination of the psyche holds for Plotinus only when he views it in its state of association with the body, or in its cosmological func-

tion as a hypostasis mediating between the intelligible and the sensible worlds. Ultimately, for Plotinus too, the psyche transcends both the sensi- ble and the intelligible worlds.26 It leaves behind sun, stars, and the other divinities.27 Plotinus' conception of man never reaches the boldness of the Gnostic conception of man the redeemer, but neither does it rest content to

assign man the function of a " part " in a universal whole.

One is as all-devouring ontologically as

it noted, moreover, that ascent is accomplished

but through the adoption of Plotinian philosophy.

The earth is not alone adorned


power of the soul extend to the sea


only, which give

intelligible world wisely describes a circular path around

without the need for deviation.

All things that

depends on it, all that I possess of soul, the

For one must not ask that unequals be


No notion of man's super-

Union with the

solipsism is epistemologically. Be

neither by grace nor prayer,

24 Enn. II

26Enn. VI ix 11, IV viii 1.


5, 13.

25 Enn. III ii 3; cf. II ix 8.

When united with the One, the

psyche "is raised

above all the

deities, but they are to him of inferiorrank than the

exhibitsthe abundant power of

other intelligiblebeings."

27Plotinus maintains the existence of

One. The plurality of gods

the One (Enn. II ix 9).






There seems to be one respect in which Plotinus is profoundly different

rationalistic way of

arguing. At the very beginning of his essay against the Gnostics28 he charges the Gnostics with needlessly multiplying the number of hypostases.

What he has in mind is the multiplicity of entities, half-conceptual and half-

mythical, that spring from the fertile Gnostic imagination.

dramatic evolution of the Gnostic world destroys the perfection of the One by introducing potentiality into it.29 Similarly, to Plotinus the Gnostic division of nous into an intelligence at rest and an intelligence in motion, or into thought and awareness of thought, seems to ignore the capacity for interpenetration and unification that immaterial existence possesses and to lead to an infinite regress (awareness of awareness of thought becomes a superior hypostasis and so forth).30 These arguments are representative of Plotinus' approach in general. A disciplined logic underlies Plotinus' method. He himself is quite aware of this when he charges the Gnostic constructions with not being " Greek." 31 Nevertheless, Plotinus cannot be called a rationalist without major reser- vations. For Plotinus' system too rests on myth. He is, of course, unaware of this, and on the surface pushes rationalism so far that he will usually accept the traditional Greek myths only on the assumption that they are metaphorical, and in particular always translates their temporal form into his eternalistic concepts. The break in Plotinus between a rationalist method and a mythical background is discernible at a juncture in his system that, on the surface, seems to furnish a model of consistency: the relation- ship of the One to nous. In Plotinus' system, nous generated by the One is the first reflection of ultimate simplicity. On the level of nous the One's richness splits up into manifoldness, but as the realm of nous is immaterial, its multiplicity is compatible with togetherness and eternity. Nevertheless, the apparent smoothness of the transition from the One to nous is one of the triumphs of Plotinian dialectic. It hides the conflict between the rationalist method and the mythical background. As one might expect, discussions of nous imply the former, discussions of the One imply the latter; but the division is not really clear-cut, since the conception of nous is not without a rather full share of myth (as, for instance, in the identification of nous and Being), and since much logic enters into the definition of the One (as, for instance, in deriving some of the logical implications of unity). Plotinus' discussions of nous are often a more or less hypostatized de- scription of the rationalist approach. Most characteristically this is asserted

from the Gnostics, and that is in his painstakingly

To Plotinus the

28 Enn. II ix 1.

31 Enn. II ix 6. Plotinus is neverthelessled to remarkthat the Gnosticswith

29Enn. II ix 1, 6.

30Enn. II ix 1.

an appearance of justice derivesomeof their doctrinesfromPlato (Enn. II ix 6, 17).


rather than admit the "impurity" of the Greek tradition, Plotinus prefers to

When he charges the Gnostics

with unfitting elaborationsof the ancient doctrines and when he speaks of the "deceit" capturingmankind, one gets a good idea of the bitterness with which Plotinusfaced not only the Gnostics, but also, in all likelihood,Christianity.

charge the Gnosticswith an impureinterpretation.

might have added other Greek sources, particularly the Pythagoreans. But



in Ennead III viii, where he declaresthat not just rational beings, but all nature aspires towards contemplation. "Begetting means to produce some form; and this means to spread contemplationeverywhere."32 Practical

activity, the mechanicalarts are attempts to them in actions or artefacts characteristicof

hold them in mind.33 "All life is some sort of thought

and perfectthought are one and the same thing."

being understoodthat things reachtheir fulfilment. For this Plotinus quite

properlymight claim the "Greek" tradition-with reservations, for how should one term his reification of the intellectual function? Moreover,

Plotinus' having all naturesubservethe design of contemplative fulfilment-

how like the Gnosticsit is in its anthropocentricegotism!

It is a quite differentmannerof being and a quite different experience

that Plotinus understandsunderthe name of the One. It is so little intel- lectual that Plotinus denies even self-awarenessto the One.36 In the de-

scription of the One the terms of his system forsake

he even says that the Oneis not to be called the One

not to be called good.38 There are dialecticalreasonsfor this via negativa,

given the conception of levels of reality

of discursive language is sense existence. But Plotinus has a more definite

notionof the One, and forgetting his negative

metaphors of joy,39 of love,40of light,41 even of intoxication.42

The soul is in such a state then [when unified with the One] that it has

get hold of ideas and express men who cannot more purely


The highest life

In other words, it is in


him, and occasionally


or that the Goodis

andthe view that the proper referent

strictureshe refersto it in the

contempt even for thought, which before has given it much joy

must have (1) the

containedin itself and

by a direct apprehension

power of intelligence which gives


it the vision of what is

(2) the power of grasping that which is beyond itself

The firstvision is that of intellectual


32Enn. III viii 7.

In Plotinus

the Trational principles (logoi) of nature are


understoodat oncein an ontic and an

templation is free




33Enn. III viii 4; see also Enn. IV iv 44 wherePlotinusassertsthat

Enn. III viii 8. S5 Nevertheless, Plotinus'


from the magical influencesto whichaction is necessarilysubject.

identificationof nous with Being creates strong am-

providence is that it ascribesde-



In Enn. II ix 2 Plotinus asserts that

"by its contemplation of the

biguities, even to the point of an anti-intellectualist conception of the intelligible

world. Plotinus'usual objection to the notion of

liberationto the intelligibleworld, which in his view creates rather by

what it is (Enn. III ii 3, VI vii 1, II ix 8).

the world soul governs not "by deliberation,"but

world above it."

the ambiguity of the identificationof nous with

so far as to assert the quite modern-sounding idea that knowing,

of nous, springs from want (for instance, Enn. III viii 11).



" contemplation" mirrors

The contrast of "deliberation" with

Being. Occasionally Plotinus goes

even the


Plotinus also tends to

conception of consciousnesswhich


(for instance, Enn. I iv 10).

makes it a product of incompleteabsorption

36Enn. VI ix 6.

39Enn. VI vii 34. 40 Enn. VI viii 15, VI ix 9. 41 Enn. VI ix 9. 42 Enn. VI vii 35.

37Enn. V v 6,

13. 38 Enn. VI ix 6.






otherthat of nouswhich loves. For when nous ceasesto be rational and is

drunk with

nectar, which gives happinessthrough its fullness. Such drunkennessis

it than

Salvation in the One is very much more than intellectual fulfilment. The

metaphorsdescribing the One, the metaphors of the ascent to the Alone, of the fall, of the arrogance and self-assertionof the psyche, of the treacherous black magic of matter,44all describea reality that is rich and imaginative.

One need only expand what Plotinus

says, let the imagination run more

freely,give it appropriateexpression in rite and acts, and one has full blown Gnosticism. Even as it is, Plotinus' system may be taken as one vast hymn to inex-

haustible seminal fertility.45 In his world everything emanates from the highestpowerby cosmologicalnecessity, and yet this necessity involvesit in pain and longing.4" The whole universe is endowedwith the qualities of psyche. Not only man but everythinglongs to return to, even to be ex-

tinguished in

necessity and sweet

salvation. Moder readershave been puzzled aboutthe

But his system is at least exis-

tential in its referenceto

ratherthan literal terms. But

of his own thought. Something

Plotinus shrinks from the full implications like Gnosticismis implied by half of his

thought, and yet he is blindto it to the extent of ignoring that almost all of

the ideas he finds

ideasof his own. But he

very vehemenceof his essay

it becomes nous which loves and achieves the


better for

a sobriety

that is above such drunkenness.43

the One.4T All

being constitutesthe vast spectacle of bitter

course frequently in symbolic

existential referenceof Plotinus' system.

psychic reality-of

objectionable in the Gnostics can nearly be

matched by

knewthe Gnostic temptation fromthe inside. The

against them is one more testimony to the fact

that the bitterest battles are always against one's own unacknowledged impulses.

It might perhaps be said that Plotinus couldhave

integrated his thought

better, had he had at his disposal the Christiandistinction between faith


ism. But no mere conceptual distinctionwould have helped Plotinus48 (as

it helped little many

Godin the mostintricatedialecticalcontextsor asked

tions about him).


and reasonor the distinctionbetweennon-discursiveand discursive

Christianthinkers who soon involved their revealed

Plotinus' integration of the discordantelements in his

system was dialectical, and he succeededat it so well that he might be


48 Enn. VI vii 35.

45 For the extremesto whichthe Gnosticscarriedthe seminalcult see Epiphanius

the Gnostic imagination in general.

44 Enn.

IV iv 43, 44.

Panarion26. There is much of the libidinousin

viii 5, VI ix 9.

46 Enn. IV

48Phrases like Porphyry's "the unreasonedand unreasonablefaith" (alogos

4T Enn. VI viii 13.

pistis) of the Christiansindicatehow much such a distinction lay

platonists' orbit in their insistenceon at least the form of rationaldemonstration.

They are hence

which promise salvation through other mear, than philosophicknowledge.

outsidethe Neo-


certaincharacteristicNew Testament passages




the masterof those who aim at consistency. The often-praised architecture of Plotinus' system is really analogous to a Gothic facade over a modern structureof steel and concrete. The emanationof the One into nous hides

a major discrepancy. Again, the third hypostasis, the psyche, comes close

to being a superfluousreduplication, and the reconciliationof its cosmologi-

On the level of sense

cal with its ethical function is hardly possible.4

Plotinus never fully overcomesthe discrepancy between a substantial and

a privative conception of matter and evil50 (just as St. Augustine never

Plotinus' chain of being, on the surface an

unbroken continuum of all degrees of power, hides a mass of conflicting tendencies and assumptions. Yet such was Plotinus' dialectical power that

even if the post-Enlightenment

referents of his thought, some variant of his system has up to the nineteenth

century served as the best rational yardstick of reality.51 The preceding discussion also throws some light on the problem of Ploti- nus' mystical experience. Plotinus himself in a few passages seems to lay claim to such an experience.52 Still, he hardly dwells on the experience

fully shed his Manicheanism).

reader has difficulty finding the existential

49To Plotinusnous is not only "vision " but also true Being and Life. Hence

once nous is endowedwith Life, the psyche seems to lose its most specific function and the world of senses could have been derived immediately from nous. There

is indeed in Plotinus' system an isomorphism between nous and the sense world.

Both containin their differingways-the one in immutableand nonmaterialsame- ness, the other in space and time-the totality of things. The psyche, if Plotinus

were fully consistent, should follow the same pattern of "horizontal" plenitude.

Instead the

ciated with the various levels of reality.

sort of plenitude

is a mobile being capable of ascent and descent. Either "vertical" plenitude or

mobilitybring the Onewithin reachof man, that is, of man who has undergone the

philosophicdiscipline. Thereare other possibleimplications to the distinctionbetweennousand psyche,

such as its standing for the male and female principlerespectively, as is suggested, for instance,by the fact that in Plotinusthe male deitiesof traditional myths tend

to be identifiedwith nous, the

de Dieu dansla philosophic de Plotin (Paris, 1921), appendixA, 296ff. The absence

of an explicitly female person fromthe Christian trinity shouldbe noted, whilewith

the Gnosticdivinitiesthe feminineis usually well represented. (Note also the quite

positive evaluation of the Biblical Eve and women in general with the Gnostics.) 50Enn. II v 4, 5, II viii 1lff. 51 It might be noted that it has been a recurrentmethodin philosophy to bridge by dialecticor metaphor or both the gap between incommensurable thought sys- tems or between thought and experience. Onefinds this, for instance, in the Monad- ology, where Leibniz attempts to reunite geometry with physical reality. Or one finds it in the many attempts to solve the mind-body " problem," a problem due

in many

More recently this methodhas been exemplified in the dialecticalexercisesof those

values beyond the reach of scientificmethod and yet wish somehow

to relatevalues to this world.

who have

of its formulationsto the improperopposition of two sets of abstractions.

psyche, in one sort of context, has a "vertical" plenitude,being asso-

In other contexts it shrinks from this

to a more univocal agent whose function is mediationand which

femaleones with psyche. Cf. Rene Arnou, Le Desir


52 Enn. IV viii 1, VI ix 9.






itself. The experience is the indicated goal, but Plotinus describes the struc- ture of the One, as well as that of nous, in logical rather than experiential terms. The present discussion, nevertheless, has uncovered some strong mythical undercurrents in Plotinus. The answer suggests itself therefore that Plotinus' thought in its non-logical aspects was not so much oriented on a single or rare mystical experience, but rather on those unconscious or

half-conscious impulses that find expression

in myth. If Plotinus is to be

given a name, he should be called a " mythic "

Plotinus is to be regarded as in a sense a Gnostic manque, and to see him as such is a major clue to his thought.64 Plotinus seems to be launched

53 The distinctionbetweenthe two is sometimesa fine one, but in mystical ex-

sensory expression, in myth

it is moreintellectualized (which fits in well with Plotinus' rationalism). Myth can

perience, one might say, the symbolic

rather than a mystic.53

is given active

be so attenuated that, as in some theologians, for instance, " God" is not muchmore than a logical term. There is, as some scholarshave noted (for instance, R. Arnou,

op. cit., 276-278), much parallelism betweenthe ritual of the mystery religions and the metaphors describingthe mystic experience,including for instance the central significanceof light. (In the ceremonythe climax is reachedwhen the statue of

the god is revealedin a blaze of light.)

with the ritual of the mystery religions(see Ennead VI ix 11) and this has to be taken into account when one looks for the referentsof Plotinus' statements con-

cerningsupersensibleexperience. Myth, mystery ritual, mystic experience are of courserelated expressions of psychicstriving. E. Brehierin his bookLa Philosophie

de Plotin (Paris, 1928), chapter 7, has argued that the idea, often prominent

Plotinus, of the self's absorption in a larger non-consciousexistenceis not Greekin

origin, and attempts to deduceit from Indian sources. Whateverthe

tions of historical influence, the emotionalroots of the idea of the absorption of the

individualin a larger whole shouldbe given full consideration. It is interesting

note that the "Western " (Plotinus' " Greek ") mind, in the face of certain psychic

projections,readily resorts to the epithet "Eastern" or some equivalent. Thus

the tendency of the essay against the Gnosticsto separateintellectually from one's self certain of one's psychic strivings is rather general. It is one of the forms of self-alienation.


The PhilosophicalReview, LIV (1945), 558-577, states on the first page

Plotinus "to

Gnostics] were saying by means of elaboratereligious

the articleis devoted to another topic than the direct substantiationof this asser-


ratherthan presenting a philosophical version of

strictedview when compared with Gnosticism. E. Brehier,op. cit., has calledatten-

tion to the dual orientation of Plotinus' thought. He

Plotinus a double presentation of reality: on the one hand a presentation akin

Plotinus seems to have been acquainted





54 HazelE. Barnes, in an articleon " Neo-Platonismand


a large extent presented in religious metaphysics what

they [the

symbolisms." The body of

It should be noted that it is the claim

of the present article that Plotinus,

Gnosticism,presents a much re-

says (35),

"We find in


the myth of the soul.

On the other hand, the universe


Greek philosophy, "the





can be the


of rational thought." On p. 8 Brehierdeclaresthat for all of Plotinus'attachment


problems that are

properly religious." It seems to the present writer that

specific a term to denote the psychic factors implied in Plotinus'

resemblanceof Plotinian and Gnostic ideas concerningthe highest existence, see

On the

may be too

which he puts himself

are problems whichGreek philosophy neverenvisaged. They are

the rationalmethod of

religious "





on a path that he does not dare to pursue to its end. His use of reason does not lead back to " Greek " science, and yet it bars a frank acknowledgment

of its mythical motivations.

Christians, there is something peculiarly unfinished and thwarted about

Plotinus' philosophy.

stirring more monsters in the soul and awakening more longings than Ploti- nus allowed. Both Gnostics and Christians saw this much better. In the case of Plotinus too, Dionysos is playing his tricks on another sober son of

Apollo. It should finally be said that Plotinus' philosophy is properly compared with Gnosticism, rather than Christianity. The development of what was

to become Christianity was controlled by the limitations, both positive and

negative, of a mass movement and an eventual state religion.

nus' and the Gnostics' are essentially minority creeds with no hope of mass

following and without the penalty of dilution.

classes, considering only a small group with special attainments as the redeemed: Their minority status is not due to accident, but to the fullness

of their expression of certain special impulses which society at large con- siders dangerous or impractical and from which it shrinks into conformism. Plotinus, had he known of it, would have been sympathetic to the rebellious

interpretation the Gnostics gave of the serpent's advice in Eden.

To acquire

knowledge of good and evil is an inspiration from the highest God, prohibi- tion of it the work of a fallen deity. In the way they interpreted the serpent's advice Plotinus and the Gnostics differed. The gnosis of Plotinus tends to be knowledge by discursive symbol, that of the Gnostics knowledge by myth and even acquaintance; in Ennead IV viii 7 (cf. Enn. IV viii 5) Plotinus goes as far as to say that experience of evil may have the value of enhancing the psyche's appreciation of good, but, he adds characteristically, only for those who need to learn by experience rather than by science. Neither Neoplatonism nor Gnosticism ever became genuine alternatives to Christianity, because they were both more partial and in some respects more perfect. Both of them continued their careers as tacit or open heresies

under Christianity (Gnosticism, for instance, in the guise of alchemy). The temptation of intellect and the temptation of myth are as omnipresent as Plotinus held his One to be. They lurk furtively in the very soul of the conformist whose vaunted realism is often not much more than a defense against such divine madness.

As compared with contemporary Gnostics and

The ascent to the One is a more jungle-like journey,

Both Ploti-

Both separate mankind into

Vassar College.

E. Br6hier'sintroductionto Ennead VI viii in his edition of Plotinus (Plotin,

EnneadesVI2 [Paris, 1938], 121). See also Hans Jonas, Gnosis und spdtantiker

Geist, Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments,

Jonas' entire discussionof Gnostic

new series, fasc. 33 (Gottingen, 1934), 251.

acosmismand its relationto "Greek" thought is relevantto the problems here dis-

cussed. Someof the problems touched upon in the present articlehave foundmore

explicit treatmentin my Plotinus'Search for

body of the articleis an additionto and in some respects

in chapter2, entitled "The nature of Plotinus'' mysticism. "

the Good (New York, 1950). But the

a revisionof what I say