Born c. 204/5
Lycopolis, Egypt, Roman Empire
Died 270 (aged 64–65)
Campania, Roman Empire
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Neoplatonism
Main interests
Platonism, metaphysics, mysticism
Notable ideas
Emanation of all things from the One
Three main hypostases: the One, Intellect, and Soul

Plotinus ( s/; Greek: Πλωτῖνος; c. 204/5 – 270) was a major Greek-speaking philosopher of the ancient world. In his philosophy there are three principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. [1] His teacher was Ammonius Saccas and he is of the Platonic tradition. [2] Historians of the 19th century invented the term Neoplatonism [2] and applied it to him and his philosophy which was influential in Late Antiquity. Much of the biographical information about Plotinus comes from Porphyry's preface to his edition of Plotinus' Enneads. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Pagan, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic metaphysicians and mystics.


Porphyry reported that Plotinus was 66 years old when he died in 270, the second year of the reign of the emperor Claudius II, thus giving us the year of his teacher's birth as around 205. Eunapius reported that Plotinus was born in the Deltaic Lycopolis in Egypt, which has led to speculations that he may have been a native Egyptian of Roman, [3] Greek, [4] or Hellenized Egyptian [5] descent.

Plotinus had an inherent distrust of materiality (an attitude common to Platonism), holding to the view that phenomena were a poor image or mimicry ( mimesis) of something "higher and intelligible" [VI.I] which was the "truer part of genuine Being". This distrust extended to the body, including his own; it is reported by Porphyry that at one point he refused to have his portrait painted, presumably for much the same reasons of dislike. Likewise Plotinus never discussed his ancestry, childhood, or his place or date of birth. From all accounts his personal and social life exhibited the highest moral and spiritual standards.

Plotinus took up the study of philosophy at the age of twenty-seven, around the year 232, and travelled to Alexandria to study. There he was dissatisfied with every teacher he encountered until an acquaintance suggested he listen to the ideas of Ammonius Saccas. Upon hearing Ammonius lecture, he declared to his friend, "this was the man I was looking for," and began to study intently under his new instructor. Besides Ammonius, Plotinus was also influenced by the works of Alexander of Aphrodisias, Numenius, and various Stoics.

Expedition to Persia and return to Rome

After spending the next eleven years in Alexandria, he then decided, at the age of around 38, to investigate the philosophical teachings of the Persian philosophers and the Indian philosophers. [6] In the pursuit of this endeavor he left Alexandria and joined the army of Gordian III as it marched on Persia. However, the campaign was a failure, and on Gordian's eventual death Plotinus found himself abandoned in a hostile land, and only with difficulty found his way back to safety in Antioch.

At the age of forty, during the reign of Philip the Arab, he came to Rome, where he stayed for most of the remainder of his life. There he attracted a number of students. His innermost circle included Porphyry, Amelius Gentilianus of Tuscany, the Senator Castricius Firmus, and Eustochius of Alexandria, a doctor who devoted himself to learning from Plotinus and attending to him until his death. Other students included: Zethos, an Arab by ancestry who died before Plotinus, leaving him a legacy and some land; Zoticus, a critic and poet; Paulinus, a doctor of Scythopolis; and Serapion from Alexandria. He had students amongst the Roman Senate beside Castricius, such as Marcellus Orontius, Sabinillus, and Rogantianus. Women were also numbered amongst his students, including Gemina, in whose house he lived during his residence in Rome, and her daughter, also Gemina; and Amphiclea, the wife of Ariston the son of Iamblichus. [7] Finally, Plotinus was a correspondent of the philosopher Cassius Longinus.

Later life

While in Rome Plotinus also gained the respect of the Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina. At one point Plotinus attempted to interest Gallienus in rebuilding an abandoned settlement in Campania, known as the 'City of Philosophers', where the inhabitants would live under the constitution set out in Plato's Laws. An Imperial subsidy was never granted, for reasons unknown to Porphyry, who reports the incident.

Porphyry subsequently went to live in Sicily, where word reached him that his former teacher had died. The philosopher spent his final days in seclusion on an estate in Campania which his friend Zethos had bequeathed him. According to the account of Eustochius, who attended him at the end, Plotinus' final words were: "Strive to give back the Divine in yourselves to the Divine in the All." ["The Six Enneads" translated by Stephen Mackenna and B. S. Page.] Eustochius records that a snake crept under the bed where Plotinus lay, and slipped away through a hole in the wall; at the same moment the philosopher died.

Plotinus wrote the essays that became the Enneads over a period of several years from ca. 253 until a few months before his death seventeen years later. Porphyry makes note that the Enneads, before being compiled and arranged by himself, were merely the enormous collection of notes and essays which Plotinus used in his lectures and debates, rather than a formal book. Plotinus was unable to revise his own work due to his poor eyesight, yet his writings required extensive editing, according to Porphyry: his master's handwriting was atrocious, he did not properly separate his words, and he cared little for niceties of spelling. Plotinus intensely disliked the editorial process, and turned the task to Porphyry, who not only polished them but put them into the arrangement we now have.

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