The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great

By Henry Chadwick | Go to book overview

26 Plotinus, Porphyry 1

In the middle years of the third century a modern version of Platonism was taught by Plotinus, a philosopher born in Egypt in 204-5 who studied in Alexandria under a teacher of whom all too little is certain, Ammonios Sakkas, whose lectures had also been attended by the Christian Origen. Plotinus was fascinated by Ammonios and adhered to his lectures for eleven years. Between Origen and Plotinus parallel interests can be detected. Plotinus moved to Rome to teach, and acquired a considerable following in the Latin West. He had rapport with the writings of Numenius of Apamea (c. 260), who had probably read some tracts by Philo of Alexandria; he understood Moses to be a kindred spirit to Plato. On the other hand, it embarrassed Plotinus when Gnostic sectaries of dualistic and pessimistic opinions about the cosmos attended his lectures. The obscurity of some pieces in Plotinus' tracts, then and later made him a magnet for those inclined towards theosophy. Several streams of thought had a confluence in him.

Plotinus' most notable pupil was Porphyry, a Phoenician from Tyre and a polymath, who edited Plotinus' lectures in six sections, each of which had nine chapters (hence given the title Enneads). To accompany his edition Porphyry wrote a biography of his hero, describing the awe in which Plotinus was held by pupils, male and female, notably for his aspiration to ascend to the experience of mystical union with the One. Plotinus achieved this four times in his life, Porphyry only once. Plotinus lived a disciplined ascetic life with the minimum of food and sleep, no meat and no baths. 'He always seemed ashamed of being in the body.' Like the Christian Origen, he did not think one should celebrate the anniversary of one's birth. By introspection Plotinus analysed the process of human thought and decided that this mental process contained the key to reality, rather than the empirical observation of the material world. His philosophy was therefore concerned with things of the spirit, with the great chain of being ascending through the World-Soul, through Mind (nous) to the ultimate reality of the One. The lowest level of this chain of being is formless matter which first acquires any

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