Working out Plotinus’ exact meaning on anything is generally a painful and is always a tentative task. I have a double impression about Plotinus – a sense of his greatness and a sense of extreme difficulty in drawing out his precise meaning. If it is so difficult to draw out his precise meaning, how can I be sure he is great ? I am not sure; I simply record an impression.
There is not a hypostasis soul. Rather there is a hypostasis which is an ordered triad. This consists of:
- The One
- Nous (intelligence, mind or spirit)
- The world soul
The One is pure form, with no element of matter. It is completely transcendental, above being, and indeterminate in the sense that it has no properties since properties would introduce multiplicity. If it had even one property, that would distinguish and so differentiate it and make it (at least to some degree) determinate. Though Plotinus varies in his epistemology of the One his standard position is that the One is without cognition. This is because Plotinus assumes that cognition involves duality, a form of multiplicity : the duality of knowing subject and known object. But the One is void of multiplicity.
All names for the One are misleading though Plotinus will allow us to call it the Beautiful or the Good as long as we realise that it is not itself a beautiful thing or a good thing but in some unexplained way (but see later on ‘emanation’) the source of all beauty, goodness, and all unity (Brade, 1926 : 13).
Nous (intelligence, mind or spirit)
From the One proceeds Nous, the second member of the triad. With Nous or Intelligence comes multiplicity : the duality of subject and object in cognition. The objects of Nous’s cognition are closely similar to Plato’s Forms , eternal archetypes, except that the archetypes do not exist independently of Nous but this is not to say that they are created by Nous. They are sometimes referred to as thoughts, God’s thoughts, if we equate God with Nous.
The world soul
Nous informs soul, and soul compounds with matter – nous, soul, and matter, a second triad. This yields the world as perceived by the senses (kosmos aithetos), the world interpreted as a spatio-temporal order, and the world experienced as spiritual (kosmos noetos). This will seem less vague or mysterious if we identify the relevant organs or capacities : (a) the bodily senses inseparable from matter, (b) discursive reasoning (dianoia, roughly logic in its various forms), and (c) intuitive knowledge (noesis). It is presumably the soul in which noesis is most highly developed that can attain the conception of reality and supra-reality set out in the Enneads. Not all souls are equally able to control matter, which contains a resistant element even though (as I suppose) matter is pure indeterminacy given form by Nous.
The soul that Nous informs and compounds with matter both differentiates itself into individual souls and also in some manner maintains itself as a unity, the world soul. The exact relation of the individual souls to the world soul is unclear. Plotinus does not want to say that they are parts of the world soul since the world soul is not a sum of parts (Brade, 15). Nor are they quite members of the world soul since each soul is an entity complete in itself. Rather, all souls intercommunicate by extra-sensory means and constitute a kind of living organism. It is, to me, a vision of surpassing strangeness but it is the view I have come to attribute to Plotinus.
I used this term in talking about the One. It is not an idea about which I am fully clear but essentially what seems to be involved is the following. Plotinus’ language is figurative throughout : nous emanates from the One, and spirit emanates from nous. This means that the One is full and must overflow into Nous just as Nous must overflow into soul. Others may know better but I cannot see any firm explanation behind the figurative language. One point is reasonably definite, however : the emanating entity produces another entity but remains in some way present in it. This would explain why noesis in the soul can attain the conception of Nous and the One.
Plotinus, the Enneads, tr. S. MacKenna, intro. J. Dillon, London : Penguin, 1991. ISBN 10: 014044520X ISBN 13: 9780140445206.
The most scholarly tr. is that of A.H. Armstrong in the Loeb series (with Gk/ English text.
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, vol. 6, NY : Macmillan, 1967, 351-359 (entry by Philip Merlan).
W.R.V. Brade, From Plotinus to S. Thomas Aquinas, London : Faith Press, 1926, 11-18. There is no deep scholarship here but I acknowledge the use of some helpful phrases.