Plotinus (205-270) was the last great philosopher in the West who believed in the old gods. He founded a new school of philosophy, which we call Neoplatonism. He wrote about his philosophy in his six Enneads. Even though his school of thought only lasted for 300 years and he is barely heard of today, his influence has been great because of the Christian and Muslim thinkers who read him, like Augustine.
Some of what Plotinus believed:
- The universe is eternal – without beginning, without end.
- Reincarnation: the soul is eternal and goes from body to body.
- Many gods exists, but there is also one God Almighty.
- Stars are alive and have minds.
- The purpose of life is virtue to free the soul from the body.
- Providence: the gods act for our benefit.
- Idealism: our world is an imperfect picture of the perfect world of Ideas.
- Astrology: the stars influence our fate.
He was born in Egypt and went to Alexandria to learn philosophy. In 242 he went with the Roman army to Persia, where he learned about Persian and Indian thought. Two years later he came to Rome where he founded his school. It was not just a place of thought and argument: his disciples gave up their wealth and dedicated themselves to contemplation. This was a century before Christians did the same.
In 250, having developed his philosophy of Neoplatonism, he wrote about it in the six Enneads. He explains the world based not on materialism, as we do, but idealism, where Plato’s Ideas were the base reality And among those ideas the starting point of everything is the One, which is the same thing as the Good. Christians and Muslims will recognise this as God.
Plotinus saw creation as an emanation from the Good, like light shining from the sun. The farther something was from the Good, the less spiritual and the more material it became. This allowed him to account for the ruined beauty of the universe without recourse to the dualism of the Gnostics or the Fall and original sin of the Catholics.
Plotinus was not a Christian, but some of his disciples were Gnostics, so he was familiar with their errors:
- As the “sons of God”, Christians thought they were as better than gods and stars. This made them seek pleasure instead of virtue and think only of themselves.
- Dualism: They hated the body and the world, seeing the world as dark and unjust. Clearly they did not understand Plato!
- They saw illness as a spiritual affair that could be cured by the right words.
- They believed they could influence God by words and songs.
Plotinus had to spend time showing his Christian disciples how badly they misunderstood Plato. In the process both Gnosticism and Neoplatonism influenced one another.