The Gold Scales Site Portal

The Enneads of Plotinus


In a Nutshell

Reading Plotin in bed?
- None wrote anything - and art can merge truths and fiction.

Neo-Platonism began with Ammonius Saccas (first half of the 200s AD). He had been brought up as a Christian, studied Plato and developed his own kind of Platonic philosophy.

And he wrote nothing.

His philosophy is known only through his famous disciple, Plotinus. That one did not publish anything either. [Ebu, sv Neo-Platonism]

Roots and traces

Plotin bust

Neo-Platonism began as a complex thinking enterprise (philosophy). In some ways it was ambiguous. It developed into many and varied forms over a long period. But it's leading ideas seem to have included later doctrines of Plato, especially those in the Timaeus, which goes into things the ancient Athenian law-giver Solon was told in Egypt, in the district of Sais. We can also trace other elements of ancient mystical thinking in Neo-Platonism.

Ammonius Saccas

Neo-Platonism began with Ammonius Saccas (first half of the 200s AD). He had been brought up as a Christian, studied Plato and developed his own kind of Platonic philosophy. He wrote nothing.

Ammonius is called "the most mysterious figure in the history of ancient philosophy". It is not quite certain he was a lapsed Christian (cf. above). He may also have been the philosophical master of the great Christian theologian Origen. Exactly what he had to offer his pupils apart from what looks like commonplace Platonic thinking, is not known. However, there are some clues: The grand aim of thinkers at the time was the ultimate liberation of the spirit.


Neo-Platonism was developed in the 200s AD by the Hellenistic thinker Plotinus (c. 204-70 AD). He was born in Egypt and lived in Rome from AD 244. The theories of Plotinus were at bottom like those of Plato but included elements of other Greek philosophies. Although Plotinus is the central figure of Neo-Platonism, his teacher, Ammonius Saccas, who was a self-taught labourer of Alexandria, could have been the actual founder.

When Plotinus was 27, he wanted to study philosophy and went to Alexandria. He attended the lectures of the most eminent professors there at the time. They reduced him to a state of complete depression. Then a friend took him to hear the self-taught philosopher Ammonius "Saccas." When he had heard Ammonius speak, Plotinus said, "This is the man I was looking for," and stayed with him for 11 years.

Plotinus (CE 204-270) did not publish anything either. But he is considered a major philosopher of the ancient world, for he wrote the essays that became the Enneads over a period of several years from ca. 253 until a few months before his death seventeen years later. And around 270 AD his main work was collected and published by his student Porphyry, a Phoenician. Porphyry's edition does not follow the chronological order in which Enneads were written. The philosophy of Plotinus is known only through this disciple.


The major, extant Neo-Platonist work is called the Enneads. Porphyry, living in Rome, made skilled use of allegory in expounding Plotinus' rationalistic thought. Apart from editing and arranging the Enneads into six groups with nine treatises in each of them (put down in writing after 253), Porphyry wrote lives of Pythagoras and of Plotinus.

Many philosophical elements in the Enneads came from earlier philosophies; the existence of the Incomprehensible One, or to hen, and the attendant theory of ideas were parts of later writings of Plato. Distinctive in Plotinus' system was the unified, hierarchical structuring of these elements and the theory of emanation.

Plotinus saw reality as a vast hierarchical order containing all levels and kinds of existence. At "bottom" is to hen, which is taken to remain incomprehensible - an all-sufficient unity that flows out in a radiating process called emanation. Thus it keeps giving rise to the Divine Mind, or Logos. The Logos contains all intelligent forms of all individuals. This in turn generates the World Soul, which links the intellectual and material worlds. What is in the Divine Mind, as he saw it, constitutes a multiple reflection of the unitary perfection of to hen.


Plotinus' method was peculiarly rational, he was skilled in logical traditions of Greeks. His followers took different paths.

In Rome, Porphyry was a front figure. Iamblichus (c. AD 250-c.330) taught in Rome for a time and then returned to Chalcis in Syria to found a Neo-Platonist centre there. He seems to have been the originator of the type of Neo-Platonism that came to dominate the Platonic schools in the 400s and 500s AD. Nearly all of Iamblichus' works have been lost.

In Athen another development took place - Plutarch the Younger (350-433), Proclus, Simplicius and Damascius were there. Proclus, the most influential systematic expositor there, produced a carefully argued summary of the basic metaphysics of this kind of "Athenian Neo-Platonism" in his Elements of Theology, which exhibits the causal relationships of the several hierarchies that constituted his intelligible universe. Also, by the end of the 4th century AD the Platonic Academy at Athens had been re-established and had become an institute for Neo-Platonist teaching and research following the tradition of Iamblichus.

Another centre of Neo-Platonism flourished at Gaza during the 400s and early 500s AD.

And in Alexandria was the most scholarly of the developments. The Alexandrian school of Neo-Platonism does not seem to have differed very much from that of Athens, and it survived into the 600s.

Later impact

As for impact, Neo-Platonism was widespread until the 600s AD. and influenced early Christian theologians such as Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen, and also medieval Jewish and Arab philosophers. According to Porphyry, Origen attended lectures given by Ammonius Saccas, the founder of Neo-Platonism. And a letter of Origen mentions his "teacher of philosophy". Neo-Platonism was firmly joined with Christianity by St. Augustine, who was a Neo-Platonist before his conversion. It was through Neo-Platonism that Augustine conceived of spirit as being immaterial and viewed evil as an unreal substance. Neo-Platonism has had a lasting influence on Western metaphysics.

Philosophers whose works contain elements of Neo-Platonism include St. Thomas Aquinas, John Scotus Erigena, Boethius, and Hegel. As for the first two of these thinkers, they identify the One with God and the Divine Mind with the angels.

Neo-Platonist aesthetics also influenced the German Romantics, the 17th-century English metaphysical poets, including William Blake. Many mystical movements in the West, including those of Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme, owe something to the Neo-Platonist.

This On-line Edition

This updated presentation is rooted in a translation by a very often unwell and miserable Stephen MacKenna (1872-1934) and Bertram Samuel Page, a young scholar who relieved MacKenna of translating Enneads 6:1-3 for the last volume somewhere between 1928 and 1930, when it was published.

The text that follows here, is rooted in MacKenna's and Pages' translation. It has been very lightly re-edited by me. When academics today quote Enneads, we first mention the number of Ennead number (1-6), the treatise number within the Ennead (from 1 to 9), the chapter number, and the line(s) if referring to certain known editions later than this one. The numbers can be divided by commas. Some translations or editions do not include the line numbers.

More on the First Edition

The first edition of the translation by MacKenna and Page, consisted of five volumes that appeared in the years 1917-30. The third volume appeared in 1924, the fourth in 1926. Then, with the fifth volume printed in May 1930 by the publisher to the Medici Society, MacKenna's life work was over. Thanks to that he could have fun till he passed away peacefully at the age of 62. And Page edited further editions as time went by.

The translation

MacKenna's translation must be regarded now as dated. One of the reasons is that he relied on a text of Plotinus that is significantly inferior to what is now available. Despite that, MacKenna's versions is very rarely incorrect, and what is more, it is in far better English than the Greek of Plotinus' original.

Arthur Hilary Armstrong has made another, very accurate translation of the classic work in a seven-volume set. His text does not rival MacKenna's in stylistic elegance, but it has been said that Armstrong's is truer to the original on the literal level. I may add it is not as (unnecessarily) wordy either, and is perhaps bolder for the same reason.

In Armstrong's translation you get the original text (Greek) on the left hand pages, with the English translation on the right, and notes too. I could go for Armstrong's translation if I had to choose.

Enneads of Plotinus, END MATTER

Enneads of Plotinus, LITERATURE  

Armstrong, Arthur H. Plotinus. New York: Collier, 1962. — Recommended. Online PDF versions are available. - TK.


Enneads of Plotinus USER'S GUIDE to abbreviations, the site's bibliography, letter codes, dictionaries, site design and navigation, tips for searching the site and page referrals. [LINK]
© 2000–2011, Tormod Kinnes, MPhil [E-MAIL]  —  Disclaimer: LINK]