Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Plotinus's Metaphysics: Emanation or Creation?

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Plotinus's Metaphysics: Emanation or Creation?

Article excerpt

ONE FREQUENTLY READS CASUAL REFERENCES to Neo-Platonic metaphysics as emanationist. It is somewhat less common to find analyses of the term "emanation" so used. In this paper I shall be concerned solely with Plotinus. I hereby set aside all questions regarding any common denominator one might suppose between Plotinus and, say, Proclus.

There are several texts in the Enneads which employ noun and verb forms of [unkeyable] to describe the activity of the One in relation to complex entities. For example,

For the soul now knows that these things must be, but longs to answer the question repeatedly discussed also by the ancient philosophers, how from the One, if it is such as we say it is, anything else, whether a multiplicity or a dyad or a number, came into existence, and why it did not on the contrary remain by itself, but such a great multiplicity flowed [unkeyable] from it as that which is seen to exist in beings, but which we think it right to refer back to the One. (

This, we may say, is the first act of generation: the One, perfect because it seeks nothing, has nothing, and needs nothing, overflows [[unkeyable]], as it were, and its superabundance makes something other than itself. (

The first remark I wish to make about these passages is the obvious one that to think of emanating or flowing in contrast to creating is to make a sort of category mistake. For metaphors are not properly contrasted with technical terminology.(2) If one wants convincing on this point, we need only recall that Aquinas sometimes uses the same metaphor in behalf of an explanation of creation, not in contrast to it.(3) Conceding this, there is still the reasonable suspicion that some fundamental difference remains between Plotinus' metaphysics and a creation metaphysics such as that of Aquinas. I conjecture that the reason for this suspicion is that Plotinus is supposed to be the faithful inheritor of the Parmenidean legacy which lays down the axiom that ex nihilo nihil fit. Aquinas, however, understands creation as ex nihilo. So it would seem just incorrect to construe the metaphors of emanation in a manner which would make Plotinus contradict that axiom.

This reasoning seems less cogent when we begin to explicate the term ex nihilo; for one thing Aquinas does not mean by creatio ex nihilo is temporal origin. That God is the creator of all Aquinas believes he can demonstrate; that the world did not always exist is held by faith alone.(4) Thus, the philosophical core of the notion of creation is casual dependence of being: Deus est causa universalis totius esse. The proper effect of God's casual activity is the being of everything.(5) Let us compare this with a text of Plotinus:

But how is that One the principle of all things? Is it because as principle it keeps them in being, making each one of them to be? Yes, and because it caused them to be. (

A good question for proponents of emanationism in Plotinus to ask themselves at this point is how this passage and similar ones express a noncreationist metaphysics.

One proposal sometimes made in order to differentiate a non-creationist from a creationist metaphysics is that in the former creatures exist of necessity whereas in the latter they do not. Indeed, Plotinus does say that what exists does so necessarily and not as a result of the discursive reasoning [unkeyable] of the [unkeyable] of all.(7) By contrast, Aquinas says in many places that Deus produxit creaturas, non ex necessitate, sed per intellectum et voluntatem.(8) Of course, Aquinas also says that God's knowledge is not discursive, and one of the reasons for this is that discursive knowing implies imperfection.(9) But Plotinus, too, says that the One is perfect and that it acts according to its will [unkeyable].(10) So, whereas Aquinas contrasts the alternatives of acting by necessity and acting by will (and intellect), Plotinus contrasts acting by necessity and acting on the basis of discursive reasoning. …

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