Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Does Plotinus Present a Philosophical Account of Creation?

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Does Plotinus Present a Philosophical Account of Creation?

Article excerpt

In his influential essay, "Plotinus's Metaphysics: Emanation or Creation?" Lloyd Gerson raises the question of whether Plotinus's account of the procession of all things from the One is actually a type of creationist metaphysics rather than an alternative to it. (1) This paper is a reexamination of this question. As with most philosophical questions, much depends on how the terms are defined. Therefore, the first part of this paper will draw on Thomas Aquinas for a philosophical definition of creation and for the judgment that the philosophical understanding of creation can be and was achieved without the aid of divine revelation. The second part will argue that, according to Aquinas's definition, Plotinus presents a philosophical account of creation. (2)

I seek to correct the thesis, advanced especially by twentieth century Catholic scholars, that creation is a uniquely Christian idea (3) and to further recent efforts in analyzing the congruities between Aquinas and Neoplatonism. While other scholars have indicated conceptual similarities between Plotinus and Aquinas, (4) a detailed presentation of how Plotinus's metaphysics aligns with Aquinas's philosophical understanding of creation has not yet been ventured. (5) It is almost certain that Plotinus's metaphysics indirectly influenced Aquinas quite early in his career through the mediation of Avicenna, Liber de Causis, Dionysius, and others; this paper, however, offers a comparative rather than a genetic treatment of the idea of creation. (6) Finally, this essay is a preliminary study of the question of whether Plotinus presents an account of creation, to which I hope to devote a book-length treatment.


Thomas on Creation. Aquinas stands out from the earlier Scholastic tradition by arguing that creatio ex nihilo can be defined philosophically entirely in terms of ontological dependence. (7) In book 2, distinction 1, question 1, article 2 of his Commentary on Peter Lombard's Sentences, Thomas writes that to create is "to produce a thing into being according to its entire substance." (8) Included in this idea are two points that explain what is meant by describing creation as from nothing (ex nihilo). First, unlike motion which presupposes a subject and generation which presupposes matter, creation "presupposes nothing in the thing which is said to be created." (9) "Nothing" is not some kind of substrate out of which creation is formed or void into which God creates, but it signifies that God is the origin of the totality of the creature. Second,

   nonbeing is prior to being in the thing which is said to be
   created. This is not a priority of time or of duration, such that
   what did not exist before does exist later, but a priority of
   nature, so that, if the created thing is left to itself, it would
   not exist because it only has its being from the causality of the
   higher cause. (10)

Creation means that the creature is ever dependent on the Creator for its existence; its existence is always from another, such that nonexistence or nihil is, as it were, the natural state of a creature. In summary, created things are ex nihilo in that they come to be out of no preexisting subject and in that nonbeing belongs to a creature per se and being belongs to it ab alio. (11) According to Thomas, if these two notions are accepted "for the meaning of creation, creation can be demonstrated, and in this way philosophers have held [the doctrine of] creation." (12)

If, however, the notion of duration is added to creation, such that creatures exist temporally after nothing, then creation becomes an article of faith and cannot be philosophically demonstrated. (13) Thomas argues in article five of this question that no argument based on the present state of the world can demonstrate either its eternity or its temporal origin and that both the eternity (understood as a beginningless and endless succession of time) (14) and the temporal finitude of the world are consistent with the nature of the world and the nature of divine action. …

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