Reading Dominic J. O'Meara's Plotinus, I noticed that he seems to be claiming that Plotinus looked at the Soul, Forms and the One as active and in some sense alive.

However, I am trying to get a better idea what that activity might be, especially for the Forms and the One. I can see how the Soul would be active and alive through the activity of bodies. Perhaps my idea of aliveness needs to expand.

Here is a quote from O'Meara about the Forms that might help clarify my concern: (page 36-7)

The Forms are not 'dead' objects: they have a life which is their activity and this activity is thought.

I am looking for sources for further reading beyond introductory texts such as O'Meara's.

O'Meara, D. J. (1995). Plotinus: an introduction to the Enneads. Oxford University Press.

References collected from comments:


4 Answers 4


"alive" is an (unhappy) metaphor for "active".

The three pinciples of Plotinus' ontology : the One, the Intellect and the Soul, are active powers: they produce reality.

See Lloyd Gerson, Plotinus, Routledge (1998), page 2 :

First, they [the ἀρχαὶ (archai)] are principles of explanation or starting-points for solving the inventory of philosophical problems inherited from the tradition to which Plotinus is attached. [...] These principles are supposed to enable him to interpret phenomena correctly. They are fundamental explanatory categories.

Second, they are principles in the sense of paradigms. Like Platonic Forms, Plotinus’ three ἀρχαὶ are identitatively whatever it is that participates in them is predicatively. Nevertheless, Plotinus’ paradigmatism is more complex than Plato’s. For Plato, Forms alone are paradigms. For Plotinus, however, although Intellect is the locus of Forms, the One and Soul also serve a paradigmatic function. Thus, the notion of image or copy is expanded beyond its basic Platonic reference to the instances of Forms.

Third, they are actual causes of some sort. Plotinus shows no interest in merely notional or theoretical paradigms. The three ἀρχαὶ of Plotinus are first causes in distinct kinds of explanation.

See also page 14 :

The feature of eternal achievement in the One’s perfection is expressed as power (V.4.1.23–6). The One is the most powerful of all beings precisely because there is no impediment to its being or acting. Supreme power would also follow from self-sufficiency, since an impediment would involve dependence of some sort. Does this mean that the One is unimpeded, say, by the laws of logic? Yes, in its internal activity.

See also : Lloyd Gerson, Aristotle and other Platonists, Cornell UP (2005), Ch.7 Aristotle and the Forms, The Neoplatonic Interpretation of Plato’s Theory of Forms.


No, Platonic forms are not alive; a neoplatonist distorsion may entertain such a view, and if one is careful enough the assertion that 'neoplatonic forms are alive' might be made accaptable. Without verbal acrobatics or violence done to language one cannot accommodate 'unchanging', the defining character of forms, and 'alive'. (divine contradictoriness excluded here).


It's hazardous to say anything about Plotinus. I cannot speak from expertise but as I understand Plotinus, there are three hypostases : the One (hen), Intelligence (nous) and the soul (psuche).

The One is beyond the Forms. But Intelligence possesses the Forms as attributes. This is where I see the major difference from Plato. Plato's Forms are in no significant sense alive; they are transcendent entities beyond the realm of space and time. Whatever specific existence they have, they are not alive even if living things can 'participate' in them. The Platonic Forms are entities; the Plotinan Forms are attributes.

Since Intelligence or nous is alive, so in some sense must be its attributes; or at the very least its attributes are those of a living thing, Intelligence.

This is very tentative.

  • +1 A reason I suspect Plotinus thought they were alive (and perhaps even Plato) is because we are alive. We would not have a feature they don't have. I can see them having aliveness in a fuller sense than we do, but not lacking it at all. Today, I don't know if Platonists consider these Forms to be alive, but I am mainly wondering how Plotinus saw them. Thanks! Dec 28, 2018 at 14:18

Placing the Platonic Forms with the vitality (that is, the activity) of the Plotinus Hypostases is not only an unhappy (as Mauro said) but also misleading expression.

The platonic Forms or, more specifically, ἰδέα (idea, roughly "ideas") from the root of ἰδεῖν (idein) are trascendent and they are Immutable and Eternal. If you read the Timaeus by Plato at 27 d5 "Now first of all we must, in my judgement, make the following distinction. What is that which is Existent always and has no Becoming? And what is that which is Becoming always and never is Existent? (translation of W.R.M. Lamb here)

Existent always = Forms

Becoming always (not all manuscript have ἀεί "always") = The "material World".

The demiurge, the famous architect, look as a Model the Forms in order to create (or generate, the two verbs are are almost synonymous in this case) the material world.

That said, a problem arises: how is it possible that this world can be understood as a living being with a soul when its essence (that is, what it does) is found up there in the world of Forms. Here then the Neoplatonists make a change (which is already present in the manuscripts): at the end of the text the most important manuscript Parisinus graecus 1807 read poietou and not noetou, that is: this world is made in the likeness of the Forms that coincide with the thoughts of the demiurge, (the "poietou" the maker) in other words the Forms of Plato, which are "external" now, in neoplatonic views, are internal, they becoming the "Ideas" of "God", the Plotinian One.

The "aliveness" of Plotin is the activity of the One, and going down through the hypostases. But this activity it is not conscientious, its activity, and which can also manifest itself as life in the broadest sense, is given by its very essence and does not need to observe the transcendent ideas of Plato because he already has them in himself.

To summarize the "aliveness" is the activity of the One but it should not be seen as "intentionally apt to create life".

  • I am not following this. Are you saying that physical motion makes something alive? That would be a kind of activity of matter. But that motion (such as water waves) doesn't make matter (water) alive. My suspicion from reading O'Meara is the Soul makes matter alive hence the soul must be alive to give this to matter. Would you have a modern commentator on Plato or Plotinus who takes a similar view to the one you are presenting? This would give me a place to go for more information. Welcome to Philosophy! Jan 25, 2019 at 10:35
  • Thank you! it is difficultt to answer but I think that we have to agree on the term alive. If alive means "is able to making things" (if even a dead thing like a rock, that doesn't move by itself) so we can say that soul is alive. But this statement must be refer not to the soul per se but to the Intellect and up to the One. So is the One alive? Can he makes things? The One makes thing not because he decided to do thing but because he can't make otherwise. I don't know commentators sorry.
    – user36814
    Jan 25, 2019 at 11:15
  • According to O'Meara the One wills both itself and what it produces with absolute freedom. He references Plotinus Enneads VI.8.[39]. He writes (page 69): While emphasizing the absolute transcendence of the One and its ineffability, Plotinus also shows how the analysis of human freedom, when extended upwards in the direction of the One, involves a decrease of restrictions on freedom such that absolute freedom is reached when the level of the One is reached. Jan 25, 2019 at 11:31

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