Plotinus (205–270), the last great Neo-Platonist, was born in Lykopolis, Egypt. He studied in Alexandria before traveling to Persia and India to learn Eastern wisdom, and then to Rome, where he established a school of philosophy. His most famous work is the Enneads, six groups of nine writings, from which our selections are taken. He died of leprosy.
As a Platonist he sought through mystical contemplation a supreme principle, the Good or One. The Good is infinite and overflows, producing the realm of the Intellect (Nous), the realm of Plato's Forms, which in turn overflows to produce the Divine Soul, the lowest of the emanations of the Good. The ascent of the soul to the highest goal demanded, not religious belief or ritual, but liberation from bodily needs (bodies are phantoms) and moral purity. One ascends upward through stages, first the realm of pure Soul, then the realm of the Intellect, and, finally, the Good or One. Plotinus thought his soul had ascended to the Good momentarily at various points in his later life.
Our first selection (Ennead I.6) describes the ascent of the soul to the Good. Our second (Ennead V.1) describes the first three hypostases.
1. Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuit of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues. What loftier beauty there may be, yet, our argument will bring to light.
What, then, is it that gives comeliness to material forms and draws the ear to the sweetness perceived in sounds, and what is the secret of the beauty there is in all that derives from Soul?
Is there some One Principle from which all take their grace, or is there a beauty peculiar to the embodied and another for the bodiless? Finally, is beauty one or many, what would such a Principle be?
Consider that some things, material shapes for instance, are gracious not by anything inherent but by something communicated, while others are lovely of themselves, as, for example, Virtue.
The same bodies appear sometimes beautiful, sometimes not; so that there is a good deal between being body and being beautiful.
Plotinus, The Six Enneads, translated by Stephen MacKenna. Ennead I.6 was first published in London in 1908 and then published with the entire Enneads by the Medici Society of London in 1917. I have made slight changes to the text.