Plotinus' philosophy is intriguing, but his use of contemplation stumps me. In particular, he speaks of non-humans (even non-living things IIRC) contemplating. So what does he mean by contemplation? If it's an activity of the mind, how can non-sentient beings do it? If it's simply being, well isn't that what we all are?

What did I miss?

Also, if anyone has some good 3rd party sources for Plotinus -- especially with regards to his contemplation (the Enneads weren't very ahem enlightening), I'd love to know about them.

  • Swami Vivekananda made the following observation regarding contemplation - "Meditation is on a series of objects, concentration is on one object...Continual attention to one object is contemplation." Apr 21, 2015 at 8:29
  • Can you provide the source or citation?
    – jeroenk
    Apr 21, 2015 at 11:34
  • Where does Plotinus speak of non-humans contemplating? Can you provide a reference? Apr 21, 2015 at 15:10
  • 3
    @RamTobolski Third Ennead, Section 1. Here is a link to a translation: sacred-texts.com/cla/plotenn/enn266.htm. I found his explanation for how Nature contemplates despite being devoid of reason to be incoherent and circular.
    – R. Barzell
    Apr 21, 2015 at 15:26
  • 1
    The original Greek has "πάντα θεωρίας ἐφίεσθαι" for "all things are striving after Contemplation". The word used for contemplation is 'theoria', from 'theorein' (view, contemplate). The Wikipedia article on 'theoria' even has a section on Plotinus: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theoria#Plotinus).
    – jeroenk
    May 7, 2015 at 10:05

7 Answers 7


Check out the treatment Deleuze gives to the question of luminosity in Plotinus here. You will see that light in that sense, is not just for an eye to see, and to contemplate is therefore not just to look at, but alternatively to realize out of what one [lowercase] is becoming. So it is not "an activity of the mind", at least not in a concrete, "physical" sense. It is in that sense that Nature can be said to contemplate.

A dangerous proposition, even today.

Notice: the use of capitalized terms is important. Avoid reading them in their ordinary sense.

Check out also these commented excerpts of the Enneads.


Plotinus traveled to ancient Persia in order to understand more of Persian and Indian Philosophy. His philosophy very much resembles the Indian Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Let me interpret, using Advaitic texts, his use of the word ‘contemplation’ as used in the Enneads; specifically the Third Ennead: Eighth and Ninth Tractates (3.8 and 3.9). I will first make reference to some of the instances of Plotinus’s use of the word contemplation and then give a little background on the Advaita philosophy in order to explain Plotinus’ meaning of the word.

In 3.8.1, Plotinus says

…all things are striving after Contemplation, looking to Vision as their one end- and this, not merely beings endowed with reason but even the unreasoning animals,…

Well- in the play of this moment am I engaged in the act of Contemplation? Yes; I and all that enter this play are in Contemplation; our play aims at Vision; and there is every reason to believe that child or man, in sport or in earnest, is playing or working only towards Vision,…

The case of man will be treated later on,…first of the earth and of the trees and vegetation in general, asking ourselves what is the nature of Contemplation in them,…how Nature, held to be devoid of reason and even of conscious representation, can either harbor Contemplation or produce by means of Contemplation which it does not possess.

In 3.9.1 Plotinus goes further to define what is meant by the Intellectual-Principle (Divine Mind), the Intellectual Object, and who the contemplator is. By his argumentation, the contemplator is the Intellectual Object and

The Intellectual Object is the Intellectual-Principle itself in repose, unity, immobility: the Intellectual Principle, contemplator of that object- of the Intellectual-Principle thus in repose is an active manifestation of the same Being, an Act which contemplates its unmoved phase and, as thus contemplating, stands as Intellectual-Principle to that of which it has the intellection: it is Intellectual-Principle in virtue of having that intellection, and at the same time is Intellectual Object, by assimilation.

In the Advaita Vedanta, which was already a fully developed philosophy at the time of Plotinus, all is One, all is Brahman (the word Brahman does not refer to a particular ‘being’, it refers simply to something very large). But there are two aspects to the One. There is Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman; the first be the inactive principle – Brahman without attributes, the second the active principle- Brahman with attributes. But they are one and the same. The great Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p 343) said

The snake is a snake whether coiled up motionless or wiggles along.

Nirguna and Suguna Brahman are the same, they are just perceived in different aspects, the inactive and the active. Swami Vivekananda (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 2 p 192) says

…is the theory of Maya which says that It [Brahman] really has not become manifold, that It really has not lost any of Its real nature. Manifoldness is only apparent. Man is only apparently a person, but in reality he is the Impersonal Being [Plotinus’ Intellectual Object]. God is a person [Plotinus’ Intellectual-Principle- ‘Divine Mind’] only apparently, but really He is the Impersonal Being.

What is the ‘Vision’ that Plotinus says we and all living beings, even the unreasoning animals, etc. are striving for as the means to contemplation? And why “I and all that enter this play are in Contemplation; our play aims at Vision; and there is every reason to believe that child or man, in sport or in earnest, is playing or working only towards Vision”

First notice that Plotinus refers to this world as play, the Advaita often refers to this universe as the playground of God, it is merely His sport. There is no ‘why’ to the universe, it is all His sport. According to the Advaita, all beings will sooner or later become one with the Godhead, will attain oneness with Brahman; thus the theory of transmigration of souls (rebirth). All are rushing towards that goal whether they realize it or not. How is this achieved? It is achieved by the literal realization of our oneness with the Godhead, by literally seeing, realizing [Plotinus’ ‘Vision’] God. When one attains to the Godhead, one’s individual consciousness merges into the Godhead, one becomes One with God (Brahman, the impersonal principle). An Individual soul does this through thousands of lifetimes, and it is an unfolding of consciousness as a soul goes from plant to Godhead.

How can Nature, “harbor Contemplation etc.” Everything is Brahman. Brahman is Pure Consciousness. Everything is made up and from Brahman, therefore everything ‘harbors’ Contemplation. Brahman is both the material and efficient cause of the universe. Krishna says in the Gita (VII. 12.):

And whatever things there be—of the nature of sattva, rajas, and tamas*—know they are all from Me [Brahman] alone. I am not, however, in them; they are in Me.

*These are the three cosmic forces of the universe. They correspond to Logistikon, Thumos, and Epithumia in Plato’s Republic.

and in Gita (IX. 4-6.):

By Me [Brahman] in My Unmanifested form [Nirguna Brahman], are all things in this universe pervaded. All beings exist in Me, but I do not exist in them, And yet the beings do not dwell in Me—behold, that is my divine mystery. My Spirit, which is the support of all beings and the source of all things, does not dwell in them. As the mighty wind blowing everywhere ever rests in the akasa [space], know that in the same manner all beings rest in Me.

What then is Plotinus’ contemplation? Brahman, the Impersonal Principle (Plotinus’ Intellectual Object), is beyond time, space, and causation. There are no words to describe Brahman as all words are within time, space, and causation. The nearest description is Sat-Chid-Ananda, which literally means Absolute Existence - Absolute Knowledge – Absolute Bliss. Brahman is Pure Consciousness; but Brahman does not think, what will It think about, what is unknown to It? When we say that Brahman is Absolute Knowledge what is trying to be described is - Awareness. Plotinus in using the word Contemplation is trying to describe Pure Consciousness, Pure Awareness; consciousness and awareness of being without thought. All of nature is filled with Blissful Awareness. Since it is a timeless unwavering Awareness, it is described as Contemplation. Swami Vivekananda has described the word contemplation to mean “Continual attention to one object is contemplation.” When you see an image of Shiva/Shakti together (representing the Nirguna and Saguna aspects of Brahman) their eyes are oftentimes locked onto each other - representing the “Continual attention to one object” or Divine “Contemplation”.

Plotinus' Contemplation is the Divine Awareness of Itself.

  • +1: is sat-chid-ananda seperately named sat=truth, ananda=bliss/joy? How would one gloss chid? May 12, 2015 at 12:50
  • @MoziburUllah chid/chitt meaning is mind , so when your mind is with truth it gets pure joy , chitt is also used many sentences for concentrating or paying attention with different words.
    – Friendy
    Apr 12, 2017 at 8:08
  • @MoziburUllah chitt has following meanings "to perceive, fix mind on", "to understand, comprehend, know", "to form an idea in the mind, be conscious of, think, reflect upon"
    – Friendy
    Apr 12, 2017 at 8:10
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    @Friendy Chit means pure consciousness, and pure consciousness means to perceive. It does not mean 'to fix the mind on' or to understand. It means Knowledge but not know in the Western meaning of a mind 'knows' Apr 21, 2017 at 5:53

Following up on @James Kingsbery suggestion of The History of Philosophy without any gaps podcast as a source, this excerpt from the episode 89. Plotinus on the Soul (at 20'10") seems relevant:

When Plotinus talks about the soul ordering the physical universe he does not have primarily in mind souls like yours or mine. Our souls are partial or individual and relate specifically to one body. Again, following Plato's Timeaus, Plotinus believes that the entire cosmos has a single soul, the so called world soul. It is this soul that is responsible for arranging things that seem to have no soul or barely any soul, things like plants and rocks. But Plotinus insists that even rocks are animated by the world soul, observing that this is why minerals grow within the earth. The world soul in combination with the many partial souls present in humans and animals ensures that the forms in intellect are represented at the level of bodies.

The word contemplation is mentioned a bit earlier on (I think once, but certainly not as often as the giraffe or Buster Keaton ...) Author Peter Adamson also suggests six articles/books on Plotinus for further reading.

P.S. Notice that early episodes have been transcribed into a book, so those can be searched at your convenience.


Plotinus does not suggest that inanimate matter contemplates. In fact he suggests that it does not even exist.

For in Matter we have no mere absence of means or of strength; it is utter destitution- of sense, of virtue, of beauty, of pattern, of Ideal principle, of quality. This is surely ugliness, utter disgracefulness, unredeemed evil. The Matter in the Intellectual Realm is an Existent, for there is nothing previous to it except the Beyond-Existence; but what precedes the Matter of this sphere is Existence; by its alienism in regard to the beauty and good of Existence, Matter is therefore a non-existent.

By contemplation Plotinus means aiming beyond what we seek to reach full potential. Not dissimilar to how a fighter aims his punch behind his opponents face, tricking his body into dismissing any expectation of impact.

For it is to the Gods, not to the Good, that our Likeness must look: to model ourselves upon good men is to produce an image of an image: we have to fix our gaze above the image and attain Likeness to the Supreme Exemplar.


Plotinus is a neo-platonist, it might worth looking in Platos Phaedrus where there is a discussion of contemplation; I'd also suggest his philosophy can be categorised as emanationist, of which more modern types are Spinoza and Hegel; and in Hegel there is definitely a motion towards more perfect contemplation - one might quite usefully call Hegel a modern neo-platonist.

Struck, stricken - strive

In distant fields - dive

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    Thanks, but Phaedrus was of no help.
    – R. Barzell
    Apr 22, 2015 at 14:08

See Eyjolfur Kjalar Emilsson, Plotinus on Intellect (2007), page 2 :

both considerations of ontology and considerations of cognition lead to the positing of intelligible principles. In this context Plotinus makes a clever move: at the intelligible level, being and knowledge, ontology and epistemology, are unified [emphasis added]. That is to say, the intelligibles, the Platonic Ideas, exist as the thoughts of a universal intellect, which is at once the principle of cognition and of being.

The realm of the universal intellect — henceforth referred to as‘Intellect’ — is characterized by a much higher degree of unity than the sensible realm. For one thing, it is non-spatial and it is atemporal. As such it is free from the dispersion involved in space and time. Moreover, the intelligibles make up a kind of system of organic unity so that each intelligible item in some way presupposes or ‘refers to’ the others.

And see page 176 :

the kind of thought characteristic of Intellect is non-discursive or, as it is sometimes called, intuitive. His [of Plotinus] most usual terms for the latter are noesis (‘intellection’) and theoria (‘contemplation’).

Thus, contemplation is not "limited to" the human mind, but present in all the "intelligible" realm of Platonic Forms.


To address your second question: as always, I would check The History of Philosophy podcast to see if a particular philosopher has been covered already. In Plotinus's case, there are 5 episodes that cover him alone. (Co-incidentally, the last of these episodes is an interview with my Philosopher professor from college). There's also an episode on Porphyry, and episodes on Platonism in general.

  • 1
    Thanks, but does the podcast actually cover contemplation? The problem with podcasts (as opposed to written works) is that I can't skim through them, so I'm not keen on committing the time in advance to sitting through multiple podcasts without knowing in advance if they discuss what I'm looking for.
    – R. Barzell
    Apr 22, 2015 at 14:08

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