The Secular Religion of Plotinus

Margaret R. Miles

A philosopher once described to me her interpretation of the difference between philosophy and religion: Philosophy, she said, is about a clear-eyed acceptance of whatever there is; religion is about “special pleading.” Yet there are some perennial human questions that cross the arbitrary boundaries we have drawn between philosophy and religion, questions that every person must answer: How should we live? How shall we find a satisfactory orientation to a bewildering and dazzling universe? How can we create a lifestyle that effectively embodies that orientation?

Other questions are more personal: How can I accept and gracefully adjust to this constantly changing and vulnerable body? Why do human beings suffer and die? An increasing number of Americans do not find religious answers to these questions persuasive.1 You may be surprised to know that Plotinus (205–270 CE) thought about these questions intentionally and rigorously, exploring in depth what I call “the religious choice of secularity.”2

Plotinus described an integrated worldview that does not depend on belief in a god or gods, rituals, or holy texts, places, or practices. Instead of an authorizing deity, he focused on values, ethics, and attitudes that together articulate a philosophy of life. His philosophy required acceptance of the “richly varied” universe and included a commitment to values and actions consistent with this generous and inclusive worldview. His thoughts can be useful to contemporary people who reject supernatural beings, explanations, and prayers addressed to a deity, yet who feel a lack of “at-home-ness” in the world without a comprehensive conceptual structure.

Plotinus’s teachings and writings respond to the following questions: What is the source of life and the nature of the universe? How can we train ourselves to appreciate beauty? Should we take responsibility for the care of the earth and its living beings? Does suffering have meaning? Finally, how can we think of our bodies most fruitfully? Is it more accurate and beneficial to think of body as friend, as enemy, or simply as an instrument? Or do we inevitably think of body differently at different times and in the midst of different experiences?3

Plotinus was preoccupied with body, and he engaged in heated conversations with other philosophers of his time who disagreed with him about the value of bodies. He was especially struck by the simultaneous fragility and preciousness of our bodies. This focus, along with his insistence on a secular religiosity, is remarkably in tune with many of our twenty-first-century obsessions.

According to reports, Plotinus was one of the most eccentric and thoughtful people of his time. His student, friend, and biographer Porphyry gave this account:

  • Plotinus was born in Lycopolis, Egypt;
  • He nursed at the breast until he was eight years old and someone teased him about it, whereupon he gave up his nurse’s breast;
  • He came to Rome to teach when he was forty and began his only written work, the Enneads, at fifty;
  • He never bathed, but had himself massaged every day at home;
  • He had a disease of the bowels, but would not submit to enemas, saying (in effect) that enemas were beneath his dignity;
  • He would not sit for a portrait painter, so his friends smuggled a famous portrait painter into the school to observe him as he taught and to paint his portrait later;
  • He had poor eyesight, so he did not review or revise his manuscripts;
  • He practiced vegetarianism;
  • He rejected astrology;
  • He had both male and female students and taught several physicians, senators, and a rhetorician who became a philosopher;
  • He was able to reverse magical attacks against him;
  • He took orphaned children into his home, taught them, and took care of their resources until they came of age.

According to Porphyry, Plotinus was a marvelous teacher. Porphyry writes:

There was always a charm about his appearance, but [when he was teaching] he was still more attractive to look at: he sweated gently, and kindliness shone out from him, and in answering questions he made clear both his benevolence to the questioner and his intellectual vigor. (Porphyry’s Life, 2)4

Apparently Plotinus also possessed a remarkable ability to concentrate; he was able, Porphyry reported, “to be present at once to himself and to others.”

Before getting to his focus on body, it’s important to start with Plotinus’s ideas on beauty. Plotinus taught that no one can understand the world who has not been startled and instructed by its beauty. Beauty’s message, he said, is the unity of all life, a gift of the impersonal source he called the “great beauty.” Recognizing beauty is a transformative experience. A person can recognize beauty by her kinship with it, for her life is one with universal life. He wrote:

There must be those who see this beauty . . . and when they see it they must be delighted and overwhelmed and excited. . . . These experiences must occur whenever there is contact with any sort of beautiful thing, wonder, and a shock of delight and longing and passion and a happy excitement . . . you feel like this when you see, in yourself or in someone else, greatness of soul, a righteous life, a pure morality, courage . . . he who sees them cannot say anything except that they are what really exists. What does “really exist” mean? That they exist as beauties. (Ennead 1.6.4–5)

Yet beauty was not, for Plotinus, an aesthetic category. To notice beauty is not to make an intellectual judgment about a quality of a particular object; it occurs at the level of perception. Plotinus insisted that the recognition of beauty is a physical experience. To perceive beauty is to see an object in its life, to grasp the interconnections that give it existence.

According to Plotinus, no one is born with a natural capacity for perceiving beauty; it is not inherited in the genes or automatically acquired in the process of socialization and education. The perception of beauty is not due to a mystical experience, either. Rather, it can—and must—be trained by the practice of contemplation, a practice that Plotinus describes in some detail. In short, what you (can) see is what you get—either broken shards, randomly scattered, or the unity of “richly varied” life.

Plotinus described an intricate and complex universe in which life circulates from a source he usually called “the one.” The name points to an impersonal energy that Plotinus also, on occasion, called the great beauty, the father, the self-sufficient, the good, or even god. He alternated between impersonal and personal terms for the source of life, but he insisted that “the one” has no attributes and no intentions. Life is the fundamental element of the universe, intimately connecting all who share it. And he thought of life very inclusively; even rocks and soil have life. Rocks, he said, if left in their native soil, grow, but they grow very slowly; their growth cannot be measured in a human lifetime.

For Plotinus, this interconnectedness directly relates to his ethics. Plotinus taught that “if my soul and your soul come from the soul of the All, and that soul is one, these souls must also be one, allowing us to feel one another’s feelings” (Ennead 4.9.8). In his view, one of the most important human capacities is empathy. He wrote:

We do share each other’s experiences when we suffer with others from seeing their pain and feel happy and relaxed [with others] and are naturally drawn to love them: for without a sharing of experience there could not be love. (Ennead 4.9.3)

Contemplation reveals the bond between living beings. Although bodies are separate, Plotinus believed that all human beings share the same soul. This is demonstrated, he said, by the fact that we cannot feel one another’s physical pain as we can feel one another’s emotional pain. Strengthening one’s identity with soul, the bearer of life, results in intensified identification with universal life.

Yet the basis for Plotinus’s teachings on suffering and his sense of responsibility for all living beings are his thoughts about embodied life. The good news and the bad news about body—its goodness and its limitations—are crucial to his conceptual constructs. Though one of the most often-quoted lines in Porphyry’s Life claims that Plotinus was “ashamed of being in a body,” this statement directly contradicts Plotinus’s many nuanced discussions of body.

Philosophers usually work on a concept when the lack of an adequate conceptualization becomes apparent and problematic. Several circumstances provoked Plotinus to give serious and sustained philosophical consideration to body. He had friends who died in the mid-third-century plague,5 and he suffered from painful, distressing diseases; his thought was provoked by the popular colosseum culture in which bodies were spectacle;6 and he argued with other philosophers who disagreed with him about the value of bodies.

Plotinus opposed the religious and philosophical currents in his society that considered bodies worthless. He wrote his only polemical tract against Gnostics, who believed the world of the senses to be the evil creation of a demiurge.7 Scornful of bodies and claiming to be eager to be disencumbered of them, Gnostics cited the pesky and painful things in the world—mosquitoes, snakes, mice, and disease—as evidence for their belief that the world is a hostile environment for living beings.

Plotinus disagreed; he used the strongest language of his entire corpus in arguing against Gnostics’ denigration of bodies. He argued that as long as we do not expect bodies to be flawless and permanent, they are wonderful. Gnostics’ hatred of body, he said, is like

two people living in the same fine house, one of whom reviles the structure and the builder, but stays there none the less, while the other does not revile, but says the builder has built it with the utmost skill, and waits for the time to come in which he will go away, when he will not need a house any longer: the first might think he was wiser and readier to depart because he knows how to say that the walls are built of soulless stones and timber and are far inferior to the true dwelling place. (Ennead 2.9.18)

Plotinus’s statements about bodies have confused generations of scholars. He sometimes praised bodies—human, animal, plant, and celestial bodies—as perfectly and beautifully what they are. However, in the context of urging his students to pay attention to the cultivation of their souls, he sometimes spoke quite disparagingly of bodies and the world of the senses. And in his last treatises, suffering from the disease he would die from at the age of 66, he understandably thought of death—release from body—as a great good.

When the subject is as variable as bodies, statements that seem to oppose one another may match the inconsistency of their subject. Bodies are the source of both the greatest pleasures and the greatest pains of human life. When we dance, lie in the sun, or listen to music, we are immensely grateful for our bodies. In the hospital with an undiagnosed and painful disease, during dental surgery, or struggling to walk on crutches, we might be inclined to feel that body is not an unmitigated boon.

Bodies have limitations; they are always vulnerable, and they eventually and inevitably die. Plotinus instructed his students not to make the mistake of identifying self with body. Contemplative exercises demonstrate, he said, that there is more to human beings than body. To be sure, soul’s first duty is animation of, and care for, body. But in contemplation, Plotinus wrote, we can “lift ourselves up by the part that is not submerged in body and by this join ourselves at our own centers to something like the center of all things” (Ennead 6.9.8). According to Plotinus, this does not prevent us from suffering, but it allows us to experience empathy and to bond with our fellow beings in their suffering and in their joy.

As Bob Dylan sings in “Dear Landlord”: “I know you’ve suffered much, but in this you are not so unique.” Why does one person suffer while another seems to enjoy a carefree life? We try to explain this: Does an all-seeing deity know what each person can bear and assign just that precise amount of suffering? Or has the person done something that “asks for” her suffering? Plotinus’s answer is that pain is inevitable in a universe in which living beings struggle to grip and hold life. Both joys and pains circulate without plan or design. And each person, gracefully or gracelessly—the choice is ours—inherits pain and death when life goes on to other bodies, other forms. As Plotinus’s mentor, Plato, asked: Why is it surprising that mortals die?

In Plotinus’s view, some of the circumstances we might assign to fate or providence are the result of choices we make. But even when chance intervenes in a person’s life—people “must fall sick if they have bodies”—Plotinus said that the choice of how one will respond to the circumstance still exists. Human life supplies a rich and complex mixture of choice and chance. We can accept the universe’s exuberant and ambiguous provisions and create a good life. By contrast, Plotinus said, “in the bad, life limps” (Ennead 1.7.3).

Is it possible to align ourselves with the universe’s gifts in a way that maximizes benefits and minimizes pain? Yes, to some extent, Plotinus said. He gave an example:

[It is] as if when a great company of dancers was moving in order a tortoise was caught in the middle of its advance and trampled because it was not able to get out of the way of the ordered movement of the dancers: yet if it had ranged itself with that movement, even it would have taken no harm from them. (Ennead 2.9.7)

Even though we can dance with the universe for a while, eventually, inevitably, life will lift off from a used-up body and go on to animate other forms. When a person dies, her life is not destroyed, Plotinus said, “it is simply no longer there” (Ennead 4.5.7).

Plotinus insisted that there is providential care. But it is addressed to the whole universe, not to individuals; “the universe lies in safety” (Ennead 3.4.4; 6.4.5). Individuals are parts of the whole. A person can enjoy the safety of the universe only if she accepts that these gifts, including the gift of life, will sooner or later pass on. But, Plotinus said, isn’t this what there is? So why not acknowledge and accept it? Why all this special pleading, why all this me, me, me? Why not recognize that I am not singled out for special treatment no matter what I believe or how virtuously I act, or—for that matter—how carefully I eat or exercise? If we understand the nature of the universe, we will enjoy and bear what is provided uncomplainingly, for “the life of the universe does not serve the purposes of each individual but of the whole” (Ennead 4.4.39; 4.4.45). If my choices have not determined my sufferings, I suffer by chance, and I can choose how to respond. The “provision” is ambiguous—evil and good, pain and gift. We can, however, cultivate a perspective from which the universe is seen as dazzling and trustworthy beauty, as “perfect safety.”

No person living in the third century could have predicted our current concerns over polluted air and water, endangered species, vanishing rain forests, and a threatened ozone layer. Now, it is possible to identify and map with scientific precision the effects living beings have on one another even across long distances.8 Plotinus’s description of an interdependent web of living beings was intuited, and his suggestions about how to live resulted from his vision of the universe as an intimately interconnected whole. Knowing what we do now, this vision seems prescient rather than “soft-headed” or “romantic”:

The All is a single living being which encompasses all the living beings within it. . . . This one universe is all bound together in shared experience and is like one living creature, and that which is far is really near. . . . And since it is one living thing and all belongs to a unity nothing is so distant in space that it is not close enough to the one living thing to share experience. (Ennead 4.4.32)

Such a worldview has obvious implications for practices that damage the natural world and that sicken and kill people and animals. Indeed, it can inspire action based on the awareness that the community of human responsibility extends to all living beings.

Who are we really? A human being, Plotinus said, is double; we are what you see. Bodies R Us. Bodies capture and contain the life circulated by the source of all life, but bodies are not all of what it means to be “us.” We also exist simultaneously “there,” at the heart of the universe. And this is most essentially who we are. In our self-imposed isolation, senses fatigue, boredom dulls vision; we constantly long for some new stimulus to freshen our lives. We fall in love; we seek entertainment; we forget to look at one another, and, above all, we forget ourselves. When we do, we miss out on the amazing glory of the life we share with the company of living beings. Plotinus urged his readers to do the daily, disciplined, and rewarding work of remembering who we are.

To this end, Plotinus advocated prayer. Plotinian prayer is not petition, however, but contemplation that redirects a person’s attention from personal concerns toward the whole. He gives instructions in the practice of contemplation by which a person imagines the real, the whole that we seldom recognize due to our fascination with our own bit part. For although life itself is trustworthy, utterly safe, the particular configuration that coagulates as my life will eventually lose focus and slide into the ocean of life. I do not have the luxury of banqueting at ease on Olympus with the “blessed immortals.” To wish, to imagine, or to act as if we do, Plotinus said, or to be shocked when confronted by old age or death—whichever comes first—is to miss the greatest opportunity we have: realizing our connection to the all, of training ourselves through contemplation to see the great beauty of the whole circulation of life. 

 

Notes:

  1. A 2014 poll from the Pew Research Center showed a 23% increase in persons who claim no religious affiliation—“nones”—over the 2007 poll (16%). This amounts to roughly 56 million adult Americans.
  2. Although seventeenth-century authors called Plotinus a “NeoPlatonist,” he thought of himself simply as a follower of Plato who endeavored to elucidate matters that Plato had left obscure. Plotinus did not found a church or a philosophical school.
  3. I do not refer to “the body;” the phrase implies a generic human body that no one has ever seen or touched. “Bodyness,” the condition of being body is a universal human trait, but bodies are always gendered. They are also young or old; they have a social location, race, and ethnicity; they are healthy or ill, along with many other factors that intimately affect the experience of body. In short, “the body” does not exist. But bodies do.
  4. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are from Plotinus, trans. A. H. Armstrong (Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1966–1988).
  5. In the mid-third century, the Roman world experienced a severe and exceedingly contagious plague—probably a form of bubonic plague. The ancient historian Dio Cassius reported 2,000 deaths a day in Rome alone. Though Plotinus didn’t catch the plague himself, he lost friends to it.
  6. The Roman colosseum, built in the first century CE, seated fifty thousand people, and the gladiatorial and animal shows were popular events. These free shows featured entertainment in which bodies were publicly torn, mauled by wild beasts, sliced, stabbed, and killed. Roman entertainment was central to the political agenda of the empire. See Alison Futrell, Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power (University of Texas Press, 1997).
  7. Gnostics pictured a world in which the souls of all living beings were painfully trapped in bodies but redeemable through knowledge of their true home in the kingdom of light and through ritual and ascetic practices.
  8. Since the second half of the twentieth century, scientists can and have measured and proved the tangible effects of environmental crises.
 

Margaret R. Miles is an emerita professor of historical theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Among her recent books are The Long Goodbye: Dementia Diaries (2017) and Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter (2011), both published by Cascade Books. This essay is based on her book Plotinus on Body and Beauty (Blackwell, 1999).

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