Reading Plotinus: an introduction to neo-Platonism

In this course we read from the most influential surviving work of ancient Platonism, The Enneads of Plotinus. In our selections Plotinus gives accounts of his deep introspection, revealing the nature of the soul and its relationship to the higher forms of being.


This course will likely run again in 2024. Contact us to register your interest or subscribe to the blog for updates.


Access to Texts

All readings are from Plotinus’ Enneads. For beginners with Plotinus we recommend the abridged Penguin edition, which has all our selections from The Enneads as well as Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus. For a complete edition, try the translation by Gerson. If you want to follow the original Greek then you will need all 6 volumes of the Loeb edition.


Course Outline

Session 1 | Introducing Plotinus and neo-Platonism
We begin by placing Plotinus within the history of philosophy. What is neo-Platonism? To what extent did Plotinus incorporate Hellenistic sources into his interpretation of Plato?

Reading: Porphyry’s The life of Plotinus

Session 2 | On Beauty
In Plato we have found accounts of the higher source of reality and some staged ascents towards its realisation. Plotinus provides further guidance on a path through the “beautiful” as driven by “love,” and this provides an historical link between Plato’s Symposium and subsequent Christian/Islamic mysticism.

Reading: Ennead 1 Tractate 6 [1] “On Beauty”

Session 3 The neo-Platonic One
In his Republic, Plato encourages us to turn around the mind’s eye and pay attention to the insensible “Form of the Good.” Plotinus finds a path to the transendental uniary source through contemplation of the ordinary form of oneness express in every one thing.

Reading: Ennead 6, Tractate 9 [9] “On the Good or the One”

Session 4 The soul’s descent into body
If the real being of the psyche is realised in its noetic ascent, then why does the psyche always return to its “desended” embodied state? This essay explores the relations of body with soul, and the individual soul with the “all-soul.”

Reading: Ennead 4 Tractate 8 [6] “The Soul’s descent into body”

Session 5 The emanation down the three levels of reality
In his Republic, Plato encourages us to turn around the mind’s eye and pay attention to the insensible but higher realities. Plotinus interprets Plato as describing three nested levels of being.

Reading: Ennead 5 Tractate 1 “On the three primary hypostases” [10]

Session 6 | On rejecting the material world as inherently evil
When Plotinus seems to propose that formless matter is the source of all evil, this must surely have suggested to his contemporaries some affinity with the Manicheans and the Christian Gnostics. In his essay against Gnosticism, Plotinus finds his difference with those religions teaching retreat from an inherently evil material world.

Reading: Ennead 2, Tractate 9 [33] “Against the Gnostics”