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The Enneads of Plotinus on ethics and virtue

artist rendering of ancient scroll ... an original inkwell philosophical analysis

Ethics and virtue (honor) as derived from divine intelligence and put forth in the Enneads

(2nd edition - Dec 2012) by A.O. Kime
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“As speech is the echo of the thought in the Soul, so thought in the Soul is an echo from elsewhere: that is to say, as the uttered thought is an image of the soul-thought, so the soul-thought images a thought above itself and is the interpreter of the higher sphere.” Plotinus (V1.2.3 - Enneads)

In analyzing Plotinus' six ancient Enneads (c. 270 AD), more particularly how Plotinus contends virtue and ethics manifest themselves, whether voluntarily, inherently or by some other means, one is compelled to first see if his Enneads are theoretically sound. After all, before referring to his works one must have confidence in the model of the universe Plotinus created (his basis). So, does the model put forth by Plotinus theoretically square? Well, although his framework is made up of 'senses' and 'essences'.- the only possible framework for the ethereal - it does so magnificently.

But to be clear it is 'truths' which Plotinus reveals, it isn't just 'theory'. Whether these truths are aligned correctly might be the only variable although they appear to be correctly 'positioned'. Aside from being logically reasoned from an ethereal point-of-view - which amounts to being 'divinely reasoned' -  the Enneads have no equal... by far the most revealing of any philosophy.

Of course, it must have been a monstrously difficult task. Effectively, instead of defining an object drawn on a blank sheet of paper - possible for something tangible (physical) - for the ethereal it's the blank sheet in need of defining. Not only were the premises within the Enneads exceptionally well-reasoned but Plotinus had help... he was, to an enviable extent, divinely enlightened.

While Plotinus put forth good epistemological arguments for his model, unfortunately, although through no fault of his own, his tri-management model of the universe simply cannot be described much clearer than the (1) The One [God], (2) Intelligence and (3) Soul… at least not in English. While it gives one a vague idea their essence, man has not the vocabulary to describe Universal Existents as they ethereally exist… languages are simply not up to the task. Not until one can describe the smell of a flower or the sound of a saxophone can progress be seen. Nor can happiness yet be described.

So how can his arguments appear correct considering the haziness? Well, along with having been privy to some degree perhaps one should say 'essentially correct'. While ethereal distinctions are ineffable in precise terms, even after having been conceived, Plotinus did the next best thing, the only thing possible… recognize and then address the effective differences. To do that of course one must make distinctions but since the ethereal is unknowable in precise terms, one can only speak of 'effective distinctions'. And, they're distinctions almost anyone spiritually inclined would recognize.

Since 'effective' equates to 'flexible', any errors in his model wouldn't necessarily alter it... as in 'all roads lead to Rome'. While the ancient mystics interminably complained about language deficiencies - that they can often create understanding rather than assist it - sometimes enough creative verbiage can overcome that problem. While the degree of success would depend on the person, on the same token excessive verbiage increases the odds of an inappropriate word... one sure to skew the perception. It also depends on how deep they are trying to delve... words can only go so far.

To the extent Plotinus intended that his tri-management model be taken literally… he qualified his contentions in a couple of ways:

"In asserting that Being is not a unity, we do not mean to imply a definite number of existences; the number may well be infinite: we mean simply that it is many as well as one, that it is, so to speak, a diversified unity, a plurality in unity." (V6.1.2)

"Perhaps, however, it must be utterly denied that unity is even the cause of other things; they should be considered rather as its parts or elements- if the terms may be allowed,- their totality constituting a single entity which our thinking divides. All unity though it be, it goes by a wonderful power out into everything; it appears as many and becomes many when there is a motion; the fecundity of its nature causes the One to be no longer one, and we, displaying what we call its parts, consider them each as a unity and make them into "genera," unaware of our failure to see the whole at once. We display it, then, in parts, though, unable to restrain their natural tendency to coalesce, we bring these parts together again, resign them to the whole and allow them to become a unity, or rather to be a unity." (V6.2.3)

Although, to a great extent, ineffability is due to a lack of knowledge about the subject… similarly would be the case of humans trying to describe an ocean without ever having seen one. For the bizarre, the proper words probably wouldn't yet exist. At any rate, while not singling out any particular philosopher, but in regards to philosophy in general, we should always remain leery of metaphysical theories... especially when the basis is established by the same person who does the reconciling. Only if others are able to do so might those theories have merit. Plato once said, in effect, that myth can exhibit factors consistent with reality. In the case of the soul however, this concept pre-dates Plotinus, Plato and even Socrates... going back to the days of Orpheus and Pythagoras. However, for the purpose of addressing virtue (ethics), the manifestations (distinctions) Plotinus described are enough to work with. Even if some of his contentions are wrong (extracted from his model)... the essences, to the extent Plotinus could effectively describe them, are still there.

But essences is all there could be, after all, the ethereal is physical nothingness. And, perhaps without argument, essences are existents... just like mental thoughts ethereally exist. To deny that is to say thoughts don't exist. And, somehow, these universal essences have sensory attributes although undoubtedly more dynamic than the six human senses. Assuredly too, within etherealness there exists more than six. Plotinus was also aware of the sensory dynamics as evidenced by this question...

“In what sense, then, do we assert this Unity, and how is it to be adjusted to our mental processes?” (V6.9.8)


In that Plotinus put forth his arguments on virtue in long running dissertations, which includes civic virtue (ethics), as if entries into his personal diary, as if in dialogue with himself (thinking out loud), each thought leading to the next, every possible contingent investigated it seems, many points are hard to reference since most of his statements are supported by other arguments and often cannot intelligibly stand alone. Nonetheless, to the extent possible, they were assimilated to help answer these four nagging questions.

Is virtue more than just a human invention for the sake of a civilized society?
Is virtue an instrument of the soul or... freewill?
Is virtue in the likeness of God?
Is virtue a requirement for immortality?

According to Plotinus, virtue is an instrument of the individual soul… and this is verifiable to the extent ‘soul’ can be considered a given. Today, however, virtue is widely considered a matter of conscience and while conscience is a modern term, its usage doesn't change anything… because almost everybody can still sense that, whether it is called conscience or soul, it is ‘spiritually connected’. Yet, the term ‘conscience’ implies it belongs to the body whereas ‘soul’ doesn’t. According to Plotinus however, it isn't quite that simple. Plotinus explains the relationship between the soul and body as a ‘couplement’. That is to say… while the individual soul is in the image of the ‘Essential Soul’ (or Divine Soul… its perfect and eternal essence), through the act of coalescing with the body produces ‘us’ (you, me). In other words, since the Essential Soul is one thing, and the body another, this coalescing creates a third entity (us)… thus a ‘couplement’ (also referred to as a ‘composite’ or ‘groupment’). This couplement is the essence of the individual and it is this couplement which will stand in final judgment, not the Essential Soul (the begetter). Note: In transcribing the Enneads into English, the 'Essential Soul' is the transcriber's term but not one I particularly like.

Plotinus effectively said the individual soul received the instrument of virtue from the Essential Soul. This Essential Soul could, I think, also be described as being (or being within) a ‘common pool of subconsciousness’ which all humans share. This explains, at least by another method, why the ideal forms of virtue are identical throughout the world and equally appreciated. This could not be possible if each human was left to their own devises to determine virtue. Drawing from this ‘common pool’ is also what makes all humans act human. It is the manifesto of our species. Virtue therefore is not a matter of freewill… freewill is only in charge of its application. In this, a comparison to virtue might be that while water is wet, eternally and consistently wet, it has no control over what it wets.

“But if Soul [in man] and Essential Soul are one and the same, then the Soul will be an Ideal-Form unreceptive of all those activities which it imparts to another Kind but possessing within itself that native Act of its own which Reason manifests.

If this be so, then, indeed, we may think of the Soul as an immortal- if the immortal, the imperishable, must be impassive, giving out something of itself but itself taking nothing from without except for what it receives from the Existents prior to itself from which Existents, in that they are the nobler, it cannot be sundered.

Now what could bring fear to a nature thus unreceptive of all the outer? Fear demands feeling. Nor is there place for courage: courage implies the presence of danger. And such desires as are satisfied by the filling or voiding of the body, must be proper to something very different from the Soul, to that only which admits of replenishment and voidance.

And how could the Soul lend itself to any admixture? An essential is not mixed. Or of the intrusion of anything alien? If it did, it would be seeking the destruction of its own nature. Pain must be equally far from it. And Grief- how or for what could it grieve? Whatever possesses Existence is supremely free, dwelling, unchangeable, within its own peculiar nature. And can any increase bring joy, where nothing, not even anything good, can accrue? What such an Existent is, it is unchangeably.

Thus assuredly Sense-Perception, Discursive-Reasoning; and all our ordinary mentation are foreign to the Soul: for sensation is a receiving- whether of an Ideal-Form or of an impassive body- and reasoning and all ordinary mental action deal with sensation.”

Plotinus did not address this but virtuous deeds (ethics) are often a prudent matter. It is vital to business that management be ethical… a few missteps could spell doom for a company. Dishonesty is also social suicide. In this respect, virtue is not attached to self-serving acts… not in the strict sense of the word. Virtue, true virtue, are those good deeds for which nothing in return is expected. It is the unseen good deeds... like a lost wallet returned to the owner (absolute integrity). It is the sincerity in one's spoken words. Virtue is also kindness, respectfulness, graciousness and the three theological virtues are faith, hope and charity. Reigning supreme perhaps are the four heralded 'natural virtues' of (1) justice, (2) prudence, (3) temperance and (4) fortitude. These four are sometimes called 'cardinal virtues'. Something very important is missing from these popularized virtues however... honor. Honor, the most magnificent trait of all, which, I believe, even glows in the dark, is deserving of being the first of these so-called 'natural virtues'. Five natural virtues then, not four, is hereby suggested.

“Is Likeness, then, attained, perhaps, not by these virtues of the social order but by those greater qualities known by the same general name? And if so do the Civic Virtues give us no help at all?

It is against reason, utterly to deny Likeness by these while admitting it by the greater: tradition at least recognizes certain men of the civic excellence as divine, and we must believe that these too had in some sort attained Likeness: on both levels there is virtue for us, though not the same virtue.

Now, if it be admitted that Likeness is possible, though by a varying use of different virtues and though the civic virtues do not suffice, there is no reason why we should not, by virtues peculiar to our state, attain Likeness to a model in which virtue has no place.

But is that conceivable?

When warmth comes in to make anything warm, must there needs be something to warm the source of the warmth?

If a fire is to warm something else, must there be a fire to warm that fire?

Against the first illustration it may be retorted that the source of the warmth does already contain warmth, not by an infusion but as an essential phase of its nature, so that, if the analogy is to hold, the argument would make Virtue something communicated to the Soul but an essential constituent of the Principle from which the Soul attaining Likeness absorbs it.

Against the illustration drawn from the fire, it may be urged that the analogy would make that Principle identical with virtue, whereas we hold it to be something higher.

The objection would be valid if what the soul takes in were one and the same with the source, but in fact virtue is one thing, the source of virtue quite another. The material house is not identical with the house conceived in the intellect, and yet stands in its likeness: the material house has distribution and order while the pure idea is not constituted by any such elements; distribution, order, symmetry are not parts of an idea.”

In summary then, freewill is the activator of virtue; it also determines just how virtuous to be in our daily affairs… while, inherently, knowing full-well the range and extent possible. Within the next quote below Plotinus states: "-but inevitably experiences and actions are forced upon it by its governance: these it has not planned for, yet when they do arise it will watch still for its sovereignty calling these also to judgement."... this seems to acknowledge (somewhat) that in light of the physical realities humans must content with, freewill must choose the most prudent course of action. He stopped short of addressing the details however, the everyday realities, so perhaps the following should be added... that there are often prudent reasons to restrain virtue, to hold it back… even though prudent reasoning may risk one’s spiritual well-being. Is there a risk? It is a judgment call humans must make and it seems purposefully intended to define one’s character.

Acts of virtue, graciousness for example, cannot always mirror the Divine… not just because it is not always prudent, but also because no such conditions exist in the ethereal in which to compare. Bedeviling virtue are the earthly things such as peril. pain and hunger. Whether a moral dilemma or a misguided social perception... is stealing food to avoid starvation really a crime? There are also evil people one must avoid... and while shunning them may seem a wicked act in itself, it is often prudent nonetheless. With prudence often being in charge of survival, it must, at times, overrule virtue. Wisdom should not be left out of the judicial equation. As a general rule, Plotinus may not have agreed prudence should overrule virtue however. He would have agreed, I think, that whether a person is a virtuous person is a judgment call. It also seems the weightiest testimony would be those good deeds a person does anonymously. So too, unscrupulousness when nobody is looking... except, that is, one's seeing-eye conscience is always looking. Still, as commonly said of the devilish…"'they know better". They know better because it is inherently ingrained.

So, in the end, who judges the quality of our lifetime judgments? Plotinus answered this question in various ways but these two paragraphs may best explain...

"Virtue and Intellectual-Principle are sovereign and must be held the sole foundation of our self-disposal and freedom; both then are free; Intellectual-Principle is self-confined: Virtue, in its government of the soul which it seeks to lift into goodness, would wish to be free; in so far as it does so it is free and confers freedom; but inevitably experiences and actions are forced upon it by its governance: these it has not planned for, yet when they do arise it will watch still for its sovereignty calling these also to judgement. Virtue does not follow upon occurrences as a saver of the emperilled; at its discretion it sacrifices a man; it may decree the jettison of life, means, children, country even; it looks to its own high aim and not to the safeguarding of anything lower. Thus our freedom of act, our self-disposal, must be referred not to the doing, not to the external thing done but to the inner activity, to the Intellection, to virtue's own vision." (V6.8.6)

"We can scarcely suppose this understanding faculty to be unaware that it has understanding; that it takes cognisance of things external; that in its judgements it decides by the rules and standards within itself held directly from the Intellectual-Principle; that there is something higher than itself, something which, moreover, it has no need to seek but fully possesses. What can we conceive to escape the self-knowledge of a principle which admittedly knows the place it holds and the work it has to do? It affirms that it springs from Intellectual-Principle whose second and image it is, that it holds all within itself, the universe of things, engraved, so to say, upon it as all is held There by the eternal engraver. Aware so far of itself, can it be supposed to halt at that? Are we to suppose that all we can do is to apply a distinct power of our nature and come thus to awareness of that Intellectual-Principle as aware of itself? Or may we not appropriate that principle- which belongs to us as we to it- and thus attain to awareness, at once, of it and of ourselves? Yes: this is the necessary way if we are to experience the self-knowledge vested in the Intellectual-Principle. And a man becomes Intellectual-Principle when, ignoring all other phases of his being, he sees through that only and sees only that and so knows himself by means of the self- in other words attains the self-knowledge which the Intellectual-Principle possesses." (V5.3.4)

If it can be said that the 'subconscious mind' (scientific term) is same thing as the 'soul' (spiritual term), then it can be said one's own subconscious mind hands down the final verdict. Yes, having memorized everything, our very own subconscious mind will be that which will either save or condemn us. While capable of being either a savior or traitor (tattletale), it is otherwise completely neutral and acts according to the facts... it is called justice. It is the perfect system. Plotinus explains that humans have the capacity to be in the likeness of God, and what that entails emanates from the Essential Soul to the individual soul, and such information is always available to freewill. As said, circumstantial difficulties can often make striving to be virtuous difficult, and especially troublesome knowing virtue is the proper path. While this demonstrates virtue is in the hands of humans, it is also exclusively a human possession. Plotinus states it doesn't exist in the realm of the Divine in the same way since the realm has no need for its application... therefore it only exists there as an ideal.

Yet, there seems a statement that virtue is in the hands of humans... it is godlike. Perhaps it is testimony to the fact. Seemingly an omnipotent possession, humans being in charge of virtue seems like something from Greek mythology. It is characteristic of a titan... isn't it? After all, virtue is powerful stuff... capable of altering lives and social landscapes at will. Let's play with that. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus, who is considered the benefactor of mankind, stole fire from heaven in order to give to man to make him godlike. Prometheus also stole skills from Hephaestus and Athena to give man. May we dare say virtue was one of these? Of course then (it could be said)... by the very act of having been stolen, earthly virtue became corrupt. According to Greek mythology the powerful titans have departed, but not so mythical is that the vestiges of their legendary power seem instilled in humans.


While purification is an awful sounding term, reminiscent of the days of the Spanish Inquisition, it is necessary nonetheless. Today, except within those countries where the obtuseness of religious fundamentalism still exists, thankfully it is now a voluntary process. In essence, it is one's vow to discard their bad habits. However, the act of cleansing has no value as Plotinus explains…

“If before the impurity entered there was Goodness, the Goodness suffices; but even so, not the act of cleansing but the cleansed thing that emerges will be The Good. And it remains to establish what this emergent is.

It can scarcely prove to be The Good: The Absolute Good cannot be thought to have taken up its abode with Evil. We can think of it only as something of the nature of good but paying a double allegiance and unable to rest in the Authentic Good.”

“But was not the Soul possessed of all this always, or had it forgotten?

What it now sees, it certainly always possessed, but as lying away in the dark, not as acting within it: to dispel the darkness, and thus come to knowledge of its inner content, it must thrust towards the light.”

“It will hold itself above all passions and affections. Necessary pleasures and all the activity of the senses it will employ only for medicament and assuagement lest its work be impeded. Pain it may combat, but, failing the cure, it will bear meekly and ease it by refusing assent to it. All passionate action it will check: the suppression will be complete if that be possible, but at worst the Soul will never itself take fire but will keep the involuntary and uncontrolled outside its precincts and rare and weak at that. The Soul has nothing to dread, though no doubt the involuntary has some power here too: fear therefore must cease, except so far as it is purely monitory. What desire there may be can never be for the vile; even the food and drink necessary for restoration will lie outside of the Soul's attention, and not less the sexual appetite: or if such desire there must be, it will turn upon the actual needs of the nature and be entirely under control; or if any uncontrolled motion takes place, it will reach no further than the imagination, be no more than a fleeting fancy.

The Soul itself will be inviolately free and will be working to set the irrational part of the nature above all attack, or if that may not be, then at least to preserve it from violent assault, so that any wound it takes may be slight and be healed at once by virtue of the Soul's presence, just as a man living next door to a Sage would profit by the neighbourhood, either in becoming wise and good himself or, for sheer shame, never venturing any act which the nobler mind would disapprove.

There will be no battling in the Soul: the mere intervention of Reason is enough: the lower nature will stand in such awe of Reason that for any slightest movement it has made it will grieve, and censure its own weakness, in not having kept low and still in the presence of its lord.

In all this there is no sin- there is only matter of discipline- but our concern is not merely to be sinless but to be God.”


While Plotinus dwells on the 'likeness to God' aspect and exactly why immortality is possible, and while he doesn't preach, he makes it perfectly clear one's earthly character determines their position (situation) in the hereafter. And, according to him, all souls have a hereafter. He is also daringly specific as to the conditions in the afterlife, more-so in the 4th Ennead, tractates 4-5-7 (54 pages). He is also a believer in reincarnation and that all living things have a soul... including vegetation. I remain skeptical on much of this however... because it seems he logically deduced his contentions (without benefit of divine intelligence). About the afterlife anyway, his words aren't those of someone spiritually inspired. At that depth, I would trust more a vision. The following are two examples of his thoughts...

"What, then, will be the Soul's discourse, what its memories in the Intellectual Realm, when at last it has won its way to that Essence?" (V4.4.1)

"A further consideration is that if every soul is to be held dissoluble the universe must long since have ceased to be: if it is pretended that one kind of soul, our own for example, is mortal, and another, that of the All, let us suppose, is immortal, we demand to know the reason of the difference alleged.

Each is a principle of motion, each is self-living, each touches the same sphere by the same tentacles, each has intellection of the celestial order and of the super-celestial, each is seeking to win to what has essential being, each is moving upwards to the primal source.

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Again: the soul's understanding of the Absolute Forms by means of the visions stored up in it is effected within itself; such perception is reminiscence; the soul then must have its being before embodiment, and drawing on an eternal science, must itself be eternal." (V4.7.12)

Whether or not memory is retained in the afterlife Plotinus also addresses and, to some extent, my article the sensing capabilities of the spiritual soul. While fascinating, immortality is really another subject.

So, now in possession of fire and virtue... what other stolen godlike things does man possess?

A.O. Kime

Matrix of Mnemosyne... the place of smoke signals from the spirit world

Last modified: 03/05/16