Plotinus on The ONE Supreme Reality

Plotinus and the Eclectic School

Plotinus (204-270 AD) was the most influential figure amongst the Neo-Platonists – the “Eclectic Philosophical School” founded by Ammonius Saccas. They were the first to call themselves “Theosophists” and were also known as “Philaletheans”, meaning “Lovers of Truth” and “Analogeticists,” because of their emphasis on the law of correspondence and analogy in spiritual and philosophical teachings.

Plotinus, who some considered to be Plato reincarnated, was held in very high regard by H.P. Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Movement, and she devotes a good few pages in her book “The Key to Theosophy” to talking about Ammonius Saccas and the Neo-Platonists, who she first mentioned in her very first book “Isis Unveiled.”

It should be understood, however, that neither Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, or their followers ever actually referred to themselves as “Neo-Platonists” or to their teachings as “Neo-Platonism.” This term was coined over a thousand years later by scholars as a convenient means by which to describe and identify them.

In the “Theosophical Glossary,” HPB says of Plotinus that he was “the noblest, highest and grandest of all the Neo-Platonists after the founder of the school, Ammonius Saccas. He was the most enthusiastic of the Philaletheans or “lovers of truth,” whose aim was to found a religion on a system of intellectual abstraction, which is true Theosophy, or the whole substance of Neo-Platonism. … He taught a doctrine identical with that of the Vedantins [i.e. the majority of the Hindus], namely, that the Spirit-Soul emanating from the One deific principle was, after its pilgrimage, re-united to It.”

She also writes that Plotinus and his closest disciple Porphyry followed and practiced “the pure Indian Raj-Yoga training, which leads to the union of the Soul with the Over-Soul or Higher Self (Buddhi-Manas).”

The leading lights of Neo-Platonism were certainly initiates of the Esoteric Doctrine, the Sacred Science known as the Theosophia – “Divine Wisdom.” Neo-Platonism was, according to HPB, the last attempt in that era by the Great Brotherhood to present the TRUTH in the midst of – and as an opposing force to – all the falsehood and fraud of the young Christian Church. Some of the most well known and influential Neo-Platonists after Ammonius Saccas and Plotinus were Porphry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Cassius Longinus, and the young female philosopher Hypatia.

But the darkness has always hated the light. “The dispersion of the Eclectic school,” writes HPB in the second volume of “Isis Unveiled”, “had become the fondest hope of the Christians. It had been looked for and contemplated with intense anxiety. It was finally achieved. The members were scattered by the hand of the monsters Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, and his nephew Cyril – the murderer of the young, the learned, and the innocent Hypatia!”

The brutal murder in the 5th century AD of Hypatia – “soon become an unrecognizable mass of flesh and blood, pounded to jelly under the blows of the club of Peter the Reader … her youthful, innocent body cut to pieces, “the flesh scraped from the bones,” by oyster-shells and the rest of her cast into the fire, by order of the same Bishop Cyril” – marked the setting of the sun of Neo-Platonism and the beginning of the Dark Ages, a period in which the majority of the Western world was plunged into mental and spiritual darkness through the enforcement of ignorance, falsehood, and fear by the Christian Church, which today reveres the man who orchestrated Hypatia’s murder (and who was also a proven thief and fraud) as one of the first and greatest “Saints” of Christianity.

Plotinus’ written discourses and treatises are known collectively as the Enneads. That which follows is an abbreviated form of his famous and inspiring treatise on the One Supreme Reality, the Absolute Divine Principle, titled –


It is by The One that all beings are beings. … As the being of each thing consists in multiplicity and The One cannot be multiplicity, The One must differ from Being. …

We must conceive The Intelligence as enjoying the presence of the Good and The One and contemplating it while it is also present to itself, thinks itself, and thinks itself as being all things. Constituting such a diversity, The Intelligence is far from being The One. … The One is not all things because then it would no longer be one. …

What then is The One? What is its nature? It is not surprising that it is difficult to say what it is when it is difficult to say even what being is or what form is, although there knowledge has some sort of approach through the forms. As the soul advances towards the formless, unable to grasp what is without contour or to receive the imprint of reality so diffuse, it fears it will encounter nothingness, and it slips away. Its state is distressing. It seeks solace in retreating down to the sense realm, there to rest as upon a sure and firm-set earth, just as the eye, wearied with looking at small objects, gladly turns to large ones. …

Because what the soul seeks is The One and it would look upon the source of all reality, namely the Good and The One, it must not withdraw from the primal realm and sink down to the lowest realm. Rather must it withdraw from sense objects, of the lowest existence, and turn to those of the highest. It must free itself from all evil since it aspires to rise to the Good. It must rise to the principle possessed within itself; from the multiplicity that it was it must again become one. Only thus can it contemplate the supreme principle, The One. …

The One, then, is not The Intelligence but higher. … The One is not a being because it is precedent to all being. Being has, you might say, the form of being; The One is without form, even intelligible form.

As The One begets all things, it cannot be any of them – neither thing, nor quality, nor quantity, nor intelligence, nor soul. Not in motion, nor at rest, not in space, nor in time, it is “the in itself uniform,” or rather it is the “without-form” preceding form, movement, and rest, which are characteristic of Being and make Being multiple. …

We must go beyond knowledge and hold to unity. We must renounce knowing and knowable, every object of thought, even Beauty, because Beauty, too, is posterior to The One and is derived from it as, from the sun, the daylight. That is why Plato says of The One, “It can neither be spoken nor written about.” If nevertheless we speak of it and write about it, we do so only to give direction, to urge towards that vision beyond discourse, to point out the road to one desirous of seeing. Instruction goes only as far as showing the road and the direction. To obtain the vision is solely the work of him who desires to obtain it. If he does not arrive at contemplation, if his soul does not achieve awareness of that life that is beyond, if the soul does not feel a rapture within it like that of the lover come to rest in his love, if, because of his closeness to The One, he receives its true light – his whole soul made luminous – but is still weighted down and his vision frustrated, if he does not rise alone but still carries within him something alien to The One, if he is not yet sufficiently unified, if he has not yet risen far but is still at a distance either because of the obstacles of which we have just spoken or because of the lack of such instruction as would have given him direction and faith in the existence of things beyond, he has no one to blame but himself and should try to become pure by detaching himself from everything.

The One is absent from nothing and from everything. It is present only to those who are prepared for it and are able to receive it, to enter into harmony with it, to grasp and to touch it by virtue of their likeness to it, by virtue of that inner power similar to and stemming from The One when it is in that state in which it was when it originated from The One. Thus will The One be “seen” as far as it can become an object of contemplation. …

The One, the source of all things, is simple. It is above even the highest in the world of being because it is above The Intelligence … The awesome existent above, The One … There is no name that suits it, really. But, since name it we must, it may appropriately be called “one,” on the understanding, however, that it is not a substance that possesses unity only as an attribute. So, the strictly nameless, it is difficult to know. The best approach is through its offspring, Being: we know it brings The Intelligence into existence, that it is the source of all that is best, the self-sufficing and unflagging begetter of every being, to be numbered among none of them since it is their prior.

We are necessarily led to call this “The One” in our discussions the better to designate “partlessness” while we strive to bring our minds to “oneness.” … we say that it is one and partless …

Also, The One is infinite not as extension or a numerical series is infinite, but in its limitless power. Conceive it as intelligence or divinity; it is more than that. Compress unity within your mind, it is still more than that. Here is unity superior to any your thought lays hold of, unity that exists by itself and in itself and is without attributes. …

Whatever is not one, but multiple, needs something else. Its being needs unification. But The One is already one. It does not even need itself. A being that is multiple, in order to be what it is, needs the multiplicity of things it contains. And each of the things contained is what it is by its union with the others and not by itself, and so it needs the others. Accordingly, such a being is deficient both with regard to its parts and as a whole. There must be something that is fully self-sufficient. That is The One; it alone, within and without, is without need. It needs nothing outside itself either to exist, to achieve well-being, or to be sustained in existence. As it is the cause of the other things, how could it owe its existence to them? And how could it derive its well-being from outside itself since its well-being is not something contingent but is its very nature? And, since it does not occupy space, how can it need support or foundation? What needs foundation is the material mass which, unfounded, falls. The One is the foundation of all other things and gives them, at one and the same time, existence and location; what needs locating is not self-sufficing. …

The One cannot aim at any good or desire anything: it is superior to the Good; it is the Good, not for itself, but for other things to the extent to which they can share in it. The One is not an intellective existence. If it were, it would constitute a duality. It is motionless because it is prior to motion quite as it is prior to thinking. Anyhow, what would it think? Would it think itself? If it did, it would be in a state of ignorance before thinking, and the self-sufficient would be in need of thought. Neither should one suppose it to be in a state of ignorance on the ground that it does not know itself and does not think itself. Ignorance presupposes a dual relationship: one does not know another. But The One, in its aloneness, can neither know nor be ignorant of anything. Being with itself, it does not need to know itself. Still, we should not even attribute to it this presence with itself if we are to preserve its unity. Excluded from it are both thinking of itself and thinking of others.*

The One is not in some one place, depriving all the rest of its presence. It is present to all those who can touch it and absent only to those who cannot. No man can concentrate on one thing by thinking of some other thing; so he should not connect something else with the object he is thinking of if he wishes really to grasp it. Similarly, it is impossible for a soul, impressed with something else, to conceive of The One so long as such an impression occupies its attention, just as it is impossible that a soul, at the moment when it is attentive to other things, should receive the form of what is their contrary. It is said that matter must be void of all qualities in order to be capable of receiving all forms. So must the soul, and for a stronger reason, be stripped of all forms if it would be filled and fired by the supreme without any hindrance from within itself.

Having thus freed itself of all externals, the soul must turn totally inward; not allowing itself to be wrested back towards the outer, it must forget everything, the subjective first and, finally, the objective. It must not even know that it is itself that is applying itself to contemplation of The One. …

This divinity, it is said, is not outside any being but, on the contrary, is present to all beings though they may not know it. They are fugitives from the divine, or rather from themselves. What they turn from they cannot reach. …

Self-knowledge reveals to the soul that its natural motion is not, if uninterrupted, in a straight line, but circular, as around some inner object, about a center, the point to which it owes its origin. If the soul knows this, it will move around the center from which it came, will cling to it and commune with it as indeed all souls should but only divine souls do. That is the secret of their divinity, for divinity consists in being attached to the center. One who withdraws far from it becomes an ordinary man or an animal.

Is this “center” of our souls, then, the principle we are seeking? No, we must look for some other principle upon which all centers converge and to which, only by analogy to the visible circle, the word “center” is applied. The soul is not a circle as, say, a geometrical figure. Our meaning is that in the soul and around about it exists the “primordial nature,” that it derives its existence from the first existence especially when entirely separate from the body. Now, however, as we have a part of our being contained in the body, we are like a man whose feet are immersed in water while the rest of his body remains above it. Raising ourselves above the body by the part of us that is not submerged, we are, by our own center, attaching ourselves to the center of all. And so we remain, just as the centers of the great circles coincide with that of the sphere that surrounds them. If these circles were material and not spiritual, center and circumference would have to occupy definite places. But since the souls are of the intelligible realm and The One is still above The Intelligence, we are forced to say that the union of the intellective thinking being with its object proceeds by different means. The intellective thinking being is in the presence of its object by virtue of its similarity and identity, and it is united with its kindred with nothing to separate it from them. Bodies are by their bodies kept from union, but the bodiless are not held by this bodily limitation. What separates bodiless beings from one another is not spatial distance but their own differences and diversities: when there is no difference between them, they are mutually present.

As The One does not contain any difference, it is always present and we are present to it when we no longer contain difference. The One does not aspire to us, to move around us; we aspire to it, to move around it. Actually, we always move around it; but we do not always look. We are like a chorus grouped about a conductor who allow their attention to be distracted by the audience. If, however, they were to turn towards their conductor, they would sing as they should and would really be with him. We are always around The One. If we were not, we would dissolve and cease to exist. Yet our gaze does not remain fixed on The One. When we look at it, we then attain the end of our desires and find rest. Then it is that, all discord past, we dance an inspired dance around it.

In this dance the soul looks upon the source of life, the source of The Intelligence, the origin of Being, the cause of the Good, the root of The Soul.

All these entities emanate from The One without any lessening for it is not a material mass. If it were, the emanants would be perishable. But they are eternal because their originating principle always stays the same; not fragmenting itself in producing them, it remains entire. So they persist as well, just as light persists as long as sun shines. We are not separated from The One, not distant from it, even though bodily nature has closed about us and drawn us to itself. It is because of The One that we breathe and have our being …

As we turn towards The One, we exist to a higher degree, while to withdraw from it is to fall. Our soul is delivered from evil by rising to that place which is free of all evils. There it knows. There it is immune. There it truly lives. Life not united with the divinity is shadow and mimicry of authentic life. Life there is the native act of The Intelligence, which, motionless in its contact with The One, gives birth to gods, beauty, justice, and virtue.

With all of these The Soul, filled with divinity, is pregnant; this is its starting point and its goal. It is its starting point because it is from the world above that it proceeds. It is its goal because in the world above is the Good to which it aspires and by returning to it there its proper nature is regained. Life here below in the midst of sense objects is for the soul a degradation, an exile, a loss of wings. …

When, however, the soul has come down here to human birth, it exchanges (as if deceived by the false promises of an adulterous lover) its divine love for one that is mortal. And then, far from its begetter, the soul yields to all manner of excess. But, when the soul begins to hate its shame and puts away evil and makes its return, it finds its peace. …

The soul lives another life as it advances towards The One, reaches it and shares in it. Thus restored, the soul recognizes the presence of the dispenser of true life. It needs nothing more. On the contrary, it must renounce everything else and rest in it alone, become it alone, all earthiness gone, eager to be free, impatient of every fetter that binds below in order so to embrace the real object of its love with its entire being that no part of it does not touch The One. Then of it and of itself the soul has all the vision that may be – of itself luminous now, filled with intellectual light, become pure light, subtle and weightless. It has become divine, is part of the eternal that is beyond becoming. It is like a flame. If later it is weighted down again by the realm of sense, it is like a flame extinguished.

Why does a soul that has risen to the realm above not stay there? Because it has not yet entirely detached itself from things here below. Yet a time will come when it will uninterruptedly have vision, when it will no longer be bothered by body. …

The man who obtains the vision becomes, as it were, another being. He ceases to be himself, retains nothing of himself. Absorbed in the beyond he is one with it, like a center coincident with another center. While the centers coincide, they are one. They become two only when they separate. It is in this sense that we can speak of The One as something separate. Therefore is it so very difficult to describe this vision, for how can we represent as different from us what seemed, while we were contemplating it, not other than ourselves but perfect at-oneness with us?

This, doubtless, is what is back of the injunction of the mystery religions which prohibit revelation to the uninitiated. The divine is not expressible, so the initiate is forbidden to speak of it to anyone who has not been fortunate enough to have beheld it himself.

The vision, in any case, did not imply duality; the man who saw was identical with what he saw. Hence he did not “see” it but rather was “oned” with it. If only he could preserve the memory of what he was while thus absorbed into The One, he would possess within himself an image of what it was.

In that state he had attained unity, nothing within him or without effecting diversity. When he had made his ascent, there was within him no disturbance, no anger, emotion, desire, reason, or thought. Actually, he was no longer himself; but, swept away and filled with the divine, he was still, solitary, and at rest, not turning to this side or that or even towards himself. He was in utter rest, having, so to say, become rest itself. In this state he busied himself no longer even with the beautiful. He had risen above beauty, had passed beyond even the choir of virtues.

He was like one who, penetrating the innermost sanctuary of a temple, leaves temple images behind. They will be the first objects to strike his view upon coming out of the sanctuary, after his contemplation and communion there not with an image or statue but with what they represent. They are but lesser objects of contemplation.

Such experience is hardly a vision. It is a seeing of a quite different kind, a self-transcendence, a simplification, self-abandonment, a striving for union and a repose, an intentness upon conformation. This is the way one sees in the sanctuary. Anyone who tries to see in any other way will see nothing. …

We as well transcend Being by virtue of The Soul with which we are united. Now if you look upon yourself in this state, you find yourself an image of The One. If you rise beyond yourself, an image rising to its model, you have reached the goal of your journey. When you fall from this vision, you will, by arousing the virtue that is within yourself and by remembering the perfection that you possess, regain your likeness and through virtue rise to The Intelligence and through wisdom to The One.

Such is the life of the divinity and of divine and blessed men: detachment from all things here below, scorn of all earthly pleasures, the flight of the lone to the Alone.

~ * ~

* The ONE – due to its Absoluteness and Infinite Oneness – does not know ITSELF, does not know ANYTHING ELSE and does not THINK. Yet, in spite of this, It cannot be said to be in a state of ignorance. Neither knowledge nor ignorance can be applicable in any way to THAT which is – as the Upanishads say – “ONE, without a second,” precisely because It IS ONE, without a second and thus entirely free from all duality. As Plotinus says – “The One, in its aloneness, can neither know nor be ignorant of anything.”

You may also like to read Plotinus on Beauty and Ugliness of Soul, Plato and Aristotle, Dismantling the Christian Edifice, The Impersonal Divine, Atman – The Higher Self, Theosophy: The Ancient Wisdom, Unity of the World’s Religions, 12 Things Theosophy Teaches, An Invitation to The Secret Doctrine, and How to successfully study the Teachings of H.P. Blavatsky.

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