Plotinus on the Spiritual Path: Virtue
At the beginning of her book The Key to Theosophy H. P. Blavatsky postulates that the origin of western esoterism and mysticism lies in the Neoplatonic school founded in Alexandria by Ammonius Saccas and his leading disciple Plotinus (A.D. 204-270). Whereas Ammonius wrote nothing, Plotinus left us a unique treasury of fifty-four treatises, called the Enneads. In these timeless writings the Egyptian sage not only describes the nature of reality, but more importantly he unfolds a spiritual path that allows us to restore the fall of the soul, contemplate the divine intellect, and to return to the One, which is the ultimate Good of life.
This spiritual path has three essential dimensions. They are truth, virtue and beauty. Truth is the theoretical and contemplative dimension of the path, while virtue and beauty pertain in various ways to practice or method. Truth consists in the comprehension of reality, representing an intellectual element, to which traditional spiritual teaching bears witness. Virtue has to do with our conformation to reality, representing a volitive element, for what a sincere man knows to be true, he also wills to be. Beauty constitutes the configuration of reality, representing an aesthetic element, to which belong symbolism and sacred art. In short, an authentic spiritual life depends upon doctrine, ethics and aesthetics. In three lectures we will consider how these dimensions make the soul truly capable of living a life as a being that is “at one and the same time debtor to what is above and benefactor to what is below” (Ennead IV.8.7). In each lecture there will be time to reflect upon some of the most important and the most beautiful selections from the Enneads.
Plotinus had a major influence on the mystical dimensions of Christianity as well as on Jewish and Islamic thought. There is no doubt that contemplating his works enables us to better understand our spiritual heritage that speaks directly to the religious and cultural crises of our modern world.
A syllabus of judiciously selected readings from the Enneads will be made available. For those who want to explore the wisdom teachings of Plotinus more into depth, the following literature may be of interest:
- Plotinus, The Enneads, translated by Stephen Mackenna, Penguin Classics, 1991.
- Collected Writings of Plotinus, translated by Thomas Taylor, Volume III of The Thomas Taylor Series, The Prometheus Trust, 1994.
- Algis Uzdavinys, The Heart of Plotinus. The Essential Enneads, World Wisdom, 2009.
- Pierre Hadot, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
- Plotinus and the Path to Liberation, The Shrine of Wisdom, 2013.
- Margaret R. Miles, Plotinus on Body and Beauty, Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
- Stephen R. Clark, Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice, The University of Chicago Press, 2016.