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The question is exactly what the title says. Plato, in the Republic, famously referred to the Good as "beyond being in power and dignity," and Plotinus later expounded this assertion in his elaborations of the One as something that transcends Being (Which he links with Nous, the secondary principle emanating from the One). I'm really at a loss in figuring out what exactly this means.

At prima facie, the concept itself doesn't make much sense, but reading Plotinus' Enneads (Lloyd P. Gerson's translation of them, in specific), it seems that, by "Being," Plotinus did not refer to simple existence and self-identity in the everyday sense but a much more specific and concrete dimension of those. For example, here, he seems to say that the self-identity of anything whatsoever comes from participation in the One, who then is self-identical on account of itself and not by similitude to any external thing (V.3.15)

For everything that is not one is preserved by the One and is whatever it is due to this. For if it has not become one, even if it is composed out of many parts, it is not yet that which someone could speak of as ‘itself’. And even if someone were able to say what each part is, they would be saying this due to the fact that each is one, that is, due to its being itself. But that which, not having many parts in itself, is thereby not one by participation in the One, but is itself the One, and it is not one due to something else but because it is the One, that from which other things somehow also come, some by being near and some by being far.

And Gerson, in one of his footnotes for VI.8.21, says the following:

The Good or One, which has hitherto repeatedly been said to be ‘beyond οὐσία’, is here said to be nothing other than its οὐσία. Plotinus is emphasizing the paradox arising from the fact that the Good exists and so, in some sense, οὐσία, the abstract noun formed from the verb for being, may be used of it. But its οὐσία, as is argued throughout this and previous chapters, is nothing other than its existence, its willing, or its activity.

So this brings a further development to this question (Although the initial form of it is something I'd like an answer to, as well): If Plotinus, by "Being," doesn't mean simply existing, what exactly does he mean by it, then?

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  • If Plotinus is using the word οὐσία/ousia, then he might mean "beyond substance or essence" as much as (or instead of) "beyond being or existence." Commented Feb 13 at 16:10
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    In that case, I assume that "Beyond essence" would be just yet another articulation of the Good's utter oneness? Plotinus uses that verbiage specifically when rebutting the idea that the One is subject to some nature that is prior to its activity (And to which that activity is superadded), so "Hyperousia" would then essentially be just saying that the One is not something in which that process holds, as what we call "essence" and what we call "activity" are one thing in it. Very similar to Thomas Aquinas' thesis that God is a being in whom essence and existence are one and the same thing. Commented Feb 13 at 16:17
  • I think Plotinus really does mean the (perhaps, refined) ordinary notion of being/existence, and he is willing to say that the One simply does not exist. More precisely, applying "exists" to it is a category error. What he then says is that it is something that enables existence (of everything else), makes it possible. It is similar to Kant's "condition of the possibility". As an analogy, particles in motion are the condition of the possibility of heat/temperature, it does not make sense to attach temperature to particles themselves. They have no temperature just as the One has no existence.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 13 at 21:44
  • Heidegger famously used the imperative let being be and for him being is always already thrown in the intersubjective phenomenal world instead of the solely mindful Cartesian coordinates since many beings are being not. Beyond being simply means there's something precedes the said being, or said in another way all beings can be reduced to something which is nothing other than its existence, its willing, or its activity... Commented Feb 14 at 4:45
  • As you can see, the issue related to ancient philosophical doctrines are thotny; see ousia: substance, essence... why "Being"? For sure, not "individual" beings (particulars). Commented Feb 14 at 7:34

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Here is the passage (Greek, English) quoted from Plato’s Republic (Emphasis J.W.) referring to "beyond being":

καὶ τοῖς γιγνωσκομένοις τοίνυν μὴ μόνον τὸ γιγνώσκεσθαι φάναι ὑπὸ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ παρεῖναι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ εἶναί τε καὶ τὴν οὐσίαν ὑπ᾽ ἐκείνου αὐτοῖς προσεῖναι, οὐκ οὐσίας ὄντος τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ, ἀλλ᾽ ἔτι ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας πρεσβείᾳ καὶ δυνάμει ὑπερέχοντος.

In like manner, then, you are to say that the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it, though the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power. (Republic, book VI, 509b)

The passage is taken from Plato’s simile of the sun. Plato compares the idea of the Good with the sun:

The sun by its light provides existence and growth to the living beings and the sun light makes them visible for our eyes. Similarly also in the domain of ideas the idea of the Good creates by its force the ideas as stable and enduring entities and lets us recognize the ideas by our mind.

Apparently Plato does not express his main concept “The idea of the Good” by a clear concept. Instead Plato takes refuge to a simile.

It is no wonder that Plotinus, about six centuries later than Plato, does link his main concept “The One” to Plato’s concept “The idea of the Good” not on the basis of clear concepts. For Plotin’s interpretation and link to Plato I recommend Plotinus, Chapter 2.

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There is a similitude here:

(508-509) "it is right to deem light and vision sunlike, but never to think that they are the sun, [in the same way] the idea of good [...] you must conceive it as being the cause of knowledge, and of truth [...] but to think that either of them is the good is not right."

And:

(509b) "The sun [...] not only furnishes to visibles the power of visibility but it also provides for their generation and growth and nurture though it is not itself generation. [...] In like manner, then, you are to say that the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it, though the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power.”

In the previous passages (507) there is a restatement of the theory of ideas: “We predicate ‘to be’ of many beautiful things and many good things, saying of them severally that they are, and so define them in our speech.- [...] And again, we speak of a self-beautiful and of a good that is only and merely good, and so, in the case of all the things that we then posited as many, we turn about and posit each as a single idea or aspect, assuming it to be a unity and call it that which each really is. [...] And the one class of things we say can be seen but not thought, while the ideas can be thought but not seen.”

Thus, we have the ideas (also essences) that "can be thought but not seen" and that are the cause of being (like sun is the cause of vision) and they (the objects of knowledge) "receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it."

Ousia is a very "loaded" term, and too often we read it through Aristotle's eyes: it may mean, depending on the context, i) "being", in the sense "to be something", ii) "being" as the eternal, changeless and perfect: the Forms, and iii) "essence".

Thus, agreeing with @Jo Wehler's answer, the proposed translation has: "the Good itself is not an essence but transcends the essences" (see Aristotle's Met., 988a8-988a17: "for the Forms are the cause of the essence of all other things, and the One is the cause of the essence of the Forms").

We may say that if essence=Form, then the Good (the One) is a sort of super-Form (see Aristotle again: "the Forms are predicated in the case of sensible things, and the One in the case of Forms").

Regarding "beyond being", see Shorey's note to (509b) where "transcends essence" translates "ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας":

It is an error to oppose Plato here to the Alexandrians who sometimes said ἐπέκεινα τοῦ ὄντος. Plato's sentence would have made ὄντος very inconvenient here. But εἶναι shows that οὐσίας is not distinguished from τοῦ ὄντος here. ἐπέκεινα became technical and a symbol for the transcendental in Neoplatonism and all similar philosophies. cf. Plotinus xvii.1.

Maybe useful: Paul Shorey, The Idea of good in Plato's Republic, pp. 223-225, but I cannot see it.


And see also Plato's unwritten doctrines: "[According to] the advocates of [scholars that] have intensively examined the scattered evidence and testimony in the sources in order to reconstruct the principles of Plato's unwritten doctrines [...] the existence of the Forms as well as the objects we sense are derived from two fundamental principles. The two fundamental 'ur-principles' that are thought to constitute the basis of Plato's unwritten doctrines are The One: the principle of unity that makes things definite and determinate, and The Indefinite Dyad: the principle of 'indeterminacy' and 'unlimitedness'. [...] In logic, the One supplies identity and equality, while the Indefinite Dyad supplies difference and inequality. In ethics, the One signifies Goodness (or virtue), while the Indefinite Dyad signifies Badness." See also Konrad Gaiser, Plato's Enigmatic Lecture 'On the Good' (Phronesis, 1980).

If so, the reading of "the Good" as "the One" is much earlier than Plotinus: "Plotinus found [the One] in Plato’s Republic where it is named ‘the Idea of the Good’ and in his Parmenides where it is the subject of a series of deductions."

See: Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson, Plotinus (Routledge,2017), Ch.3.2 The One is beyond being and beyond thought, page 75: "Plotinus frequently describes the One as 'beyond being' (epekeina ousias) clearly echoing Plato’s Republic (509b9) [...] even if Plato speaks just of 'the Good,' this is clearly the same thing as he elsewhere in the Republic calls 'the Idea of the Good.' Plotinus, however, takes the One (the Good) to be beyond the Platonic Ideas. So Plotinus thought Plato identified Ideas and being, and that since he claims the Good to be beyond being, it must be beyond Ideas too, which, of course, flies in the face of Plato’s calling the Good the Idea of the Good.

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  • The Tuebingen-school of Plato interpretation is a questionable enterprise: It is obvious that Plato did not express some of his fundamental ideas by clear concepts. Instead he took refuge to metaphors. His method dismissed philosophy and became mysticism. Plotinus welcomed this step and continued with neo-Platonism, based on mysticism. In the 20. century the Tuebingen-school moved even one step further. They based their Plato interpretation on fictitious texts - which do not exist at all. An example of creatio ex nihilo :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Feb 14 at 15:19
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Plato, particularly in Plotinus' "neo-Platonic" interpretation, believes--or at least talks about--multiple levels of reality. Our ordinary, everyday life is an illusion, it's several levels removed from True Reality. You can travel away from the "center," into even more unreal things like stories, myths and painted images. You can also travel towards the center, into the realm of forms, ideas, and increasingly important ideals such as Truth, Beauty and Love. You can imagine them as planets orbiting close to the single, unified center, which Plato calls "The Ideal of the Good" and Plotinus calls "the One."

"Being" is an attribute of the world we live in. It emanates from the One, but the One is beyond it. You can view it as taking shape somewhere at a deeper level of reality than our own, but not the deepest level. In the same way that photosynthesis is caused by the sun, but doesn't define the sun, "being" exists as an emanation of the "One" but doesn't define the "One."

It's a counterintuitive concept, one that doesn't make literal sense, but that's standard for neo-Platonic topics. It's a general principle that the objects of True Reality cannot be described accurately in ordinary language.

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  • I agree with your last sentence. But we do not want to give-up at this point. Hence we have to use - or even to develop - a more suitable language. Science shows that mathematics is such a language.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Feb 14 at 15:50

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