Plotinus, the founder and principal exponent of the philosophical school known as Neoplatonism, was born in Egypt; it is not clear whether he was Greek, Roman, or a Hellenized Egyptian. He had a Greek education. He studied for 11 years with the philosopher Ammonius Saccas at Alexandria, and went on the expedition of the Roman emperor Gordian III against Persia in 242–244 in order to learn something about the philosophies of the Persians and Indians, though the expedition failed, Gordian was killed, and Plotinus escaped only with difficulty. Plotinus moved to Rome in 244 and, at the center of an influential circle of intellectuals, lectured on the thought of Plato and the Pythagorean school, as well as on the virtue of asceticism. Plotinus’ works were collected and edited by his student, Porphyry, and exist today in an arrangement of six groupings, each having nine books, called the Enneads. In his last years, Plotinus suffered from an apparently painful and repulsive disease that kept his friends away from him (now assumed to be tuberculosis or, more likely, leprosy), and died at his country estate with his physician Eustochius at his side.
Plotinus created a system of thought based on Plato’s dualism between material object and Form or Idea, dividing Plato’s realm of intelligibles into three: the One, Intelligence, and the Soul. For Plotinus, God’s power emanates through pure Intelligence to the world of matter; human beings occupy a unique place between the world of Ideas or Intelligence and the world of matter or sensation, belonging to both realms. However, human beings have the potential to relinquish matter and to achieve a union of Soul or Intelligence with God. Given these notions, Plotinus concludes that death is not an evil but actually a good. But this view raises an issue that confronted both Plato and the early Christians: If matter, body, and worldly things are inferior and/or painful and death is a desired good, then why not hasten the realization of this good through suicide? Plotinus argues against suicide; the “Proficient,” (i.e., the person who has mastered true philosophy) has learned not to attend to either positive or painful circumstances and will not commit suicide, an act motivated by passion, except perhaps if he feels he is losing his reason, and then only under “stern necessity.”
Plotinus, Enneads, Book I, Tractate 4.8, 4.14; Tractate 7.3; Tractate 9. Trans. Stephen MacKenna. New York: Pantheon Books, printed in Great Britain by Oxford University Press, 1954, pp. 47, 50–51, 66, 78–79. Available online from the Christian Classic Ethereal Library.
Book I, Fourth Tractate: On Happiness
As for violent personal sufferings, he [the Proficient] will carry them off as well as he can; if they overpass his endurance they will carry him off.
And so in all his pain he asks no pity: there is always the radiance in the inner soul of the man, untroubled like the light in a lantern when fierce gusts beat about it in a wild turmoil of wind and tempest.
But what if he be put beyond himself? What if pain grow so intense and so torture him that the agony all but kills? Well, when he is put to torture he will plan what is to be done: he retains his freedom of action.
Besides we must remember that the Proficient sees things very differently from the average man; neither ordinary experiences nor pains and sorrows, whether touching himself or others, pierce to the inner hold. To allow them any such passage would be a weakness in our soul.
And it is a sign of weakness, too, if we should think it gain not to hear of miseries, gain to die before they come: this is not concern for others’ welfare but for our own peace of mind. Here we see our imperfection: we must not indulge it, we must put it from us and cease to tremble over what perhaps may be.
Anyone that says that it is in human nature to grieve over misfortune to our household must learn that this is not so with all, and that, precisely, it is virtue’s use to raise the general level of nature towards the better and finer, above the mass of men. And the finer is to set at nought what terrifies the common mind.
We cannot be indolent: this is an arena for the powerful combatant holding his ground against the blows of fortune, and knowing that, sore though they be to some natures, they are little to his, nothing dreadful, nursery terrors.
So, the Proficient would have desired misfortune?
It is precisely to meet the undesired when it appears that he has the virtue which gives him, to confront it, his passionless and unshakeable soul.
For man, and especially the Proficient, is not the Couplement of Soul and body: the proof is that man can be disengaged from the body and disdain its nominal goods.
It would be absurd to think that happiness begins and ends with the living-body: happiness is the possession of the good of life: it is centered therefore in Soul, is an Act of the Soul—and not of all the Soul at that: for it certainly is not characteristic of the vegetative soul, the soul of growth; that would at once connect it with the body.
A powerful frame, a healthy constitution, even a happy balance of temperament, these surely do not make felicity; in the excess of these advantages there is, even, the danger that the man be crushed down and forced more and more within their power. There must be a sort of counter-pressure in the other direction, towards the noblest: the body must be lessened, reduced, that the veritable man may show forth, the man behind the appearances.
Let the earth-bound man be handsome and powerful and rich, and so apt to this world that he may rule the entire human race: still there can be no envying him, the fool of such lures. Perhaps such splendors could not, from the beginning even, have gathered to the Proficient; but if it should happen so, he of his own action will lower his state, if he has any care for his true life; the tyranny of the body he will work down or wear away by inattention to its claims; the rulership he will lay aside. While he will safeguard his bodily health, he will not wish to be wholly untried in sickness, still less never to feel pain: if such troubles should not come to him of themselves, he will wish to know them, during youth at least: in old age, it is true, he will desire neither pains nor pleasures to hamper him; he will desire nothing of this world, pleasant or painful; his one desire will be to know nothing of the body. If he should meet with pain he will pit against it the powers he holds to meet it; but pleasure and health and ease of life will not mean any increase of happiness to him nor will their contraries destroy or lessen it.
When in the one subject a positive can add nothing, how can the negative take away?
Book I, Seventh Tractate: On the Primal Good and Secondary Forms of Good
Life is a partnership of a Soul and body; death is the dissolution; in either life or death, then, the Soul will feel itself at home.
But, again, if life is good, how can death be anything but evil?
Remember that the good of life, where it has any good at all, is not due to anything in the partnership but to the repelling of evil by virtue; death, then, must be the greater good.
In a word, life in the body is of itself an evil but the Soul enters its Good through Virtue, not living the life of the Couplement but holding itself apart, even here.
Book I, Ninth Tractate: ‘The Reasoned Dismissal’
‘You will not dismiss your Soul lest it go forth taking something with it.’
Your dismissal will ensure that it must go forth taking something (corporeal) with it, and its going forth is to some new place. The Soul will wait for the body to be completely severed from it; then it makes no departure; it simply finds itself free.
But how does the body come to be separated?
The separation takes place when nothing of Soul remains bound up with it: the harmony within the body, by virtue of which the Soul was retained, is broken and it can no longer hold its guest.
But when a man contrives the dissolution of the body, it is he that has used violence and torn himself away, not the body that has let the Soul slip from it. And in loosing the bond he has not been without passion; there has been revolt or grief or anger, movements which it is unlawful to indulge.
But if a man feel himself to be losing his reason?
That is not likely in the Proficient, but if it should occur, it must be classed with the inevitable, to be welcome at the bidding of the fact though not for its own sake. To call upon drugs to the release of the Soul seems a strange way of assisting its purposes.
And if there be a period allotted to all by fate, to anticipate the hour could not be a happy act, unless, as we have indicated, under stern necessity.
If everyone is to hold in the other world a standing determined by the state in which he quitted this, there must be no withdrawal as long as there is any hope of progress.