Plotinus in the Jungle

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Putting Plotinus back in the jungle


At long last, I have turned in the first chapter of my dissertation.  I have a concern that it is too long at 74 pages, with a 4 page introduction, but I will let my adviser decide that.  Here is the general outline of the dissertation:

Topic: Using Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of creation as the criterion, does Plotinus present a philosophical account of creation?  Yes.

Part 1: Creation is said in many ways.

Chapter 1 – Review of the scholars that argue that Plotinus does not present an account of creation.  Listing of 12 objections to my thesis.

Chapter 2 – Summary of Aquinas’ understanding of creation, including noting his sources and the fact that he thinks that Greek philosophers reached the idea of creation.

Part 2: In search of a first cause

Chapter 3 – Summary of philosophical thinking about God and the world from Plato to Plotinus.  Emphasis on exactly why different thinkers did not reach the idea of creation, while showing how they develop concepts and arguments that will be taken over by Plotinus.  Some discussion of Gnosticism and the emergence of the Christian understanding of creation. [I fear this may end up being two chapters, but I will try to be concise.]

Part 3: Does Plotinus present an account of creation?

Chapter 4 – Plotinus’ arguments for a first principle.  The nature and causality of that principle.

Chapter 5 -In what sense does the One freely create?

Chapter 6 -A detailed account of instrumental creation in Plotinus.

Conclusion – Responses to the 12 objections.  What is distinct about the Christian understanding of creation?


Part 3 will incorporate much material from my MA thesis, so I hope that it can be written quickly.


Finally, here is an excerpt from my first chapter’s conclusion, the 12 objections against my thesis:

In this chapter, I have identified the following twelve objections to my thesis that Plotinus presents a philosophical account of creation. The first two objections claim that Plotinus lacks and in principle could not have had the conceptual tools needed for the philosophical idea of creation:

1. The doctrine of creation depends upon recognizing that God is Being and that all beings are contingent compositions of existence and essence. By placing the first principle beyond being, and by treating being as a formal characteristic of things, Plotinus shows that he lacks the understanding of God and being needed for the idea of creatioin. (Gilson)

2. The understanding of God and being (Gilson) or God and the world (Sokolowski) that makes creation conceivable is dependent on Christian revelation. If Plotinus seems to have a glimmer of the doctrine of creation, that is because of Jewish, Christian, and/or Gnostic influence, and not due to an organic development within Greek philosophy. (Gilson, Sokolowski, Hart, Burrell)

The third objection is an argument from authority:

3. Thomas Aquinas and Avicenna, who understood the philosophical meaning of creation the best of any thinkers in their tradition, deny that creation was reached by any Greek philosophers. Aquinas, in particular, opposes the emanation scheme that Plotinus originates. (Gilson, Pegis, Houser, Burrell, Soskice)

Objections 4–6 object in various ways to the fact that the One does not seem to choose to produce all things. Objection 5 and 6 accept that the One would still be perfect in itself even if it did not produce all things.

4. By presenting creation as necessary, Plotinus and Avicenna have tied God’s perfection and completion to his production of the world, such that God needs to produce all things in order to be perfect, that is, in order to be fully himself. Therefore, the world and God are not adequately distinguished from each other, such that God is neither free nor transcendent. (Pegis)

5. It is better that the One produce than that the One remains by itself, such that the One would not be willing the best if the One did not produce all things. Therefore the One and its products are on the same ontological level, since the production of all things in some manner makes reality better than it would be if the One were simply alone. Therefore the One is not a transcendent creator. (Developed from Sokolowski)

6. The One lets the world come into being, but does not choose that it be, and thus is not responsible for it. Rather, there must be a principle more fundamental than the One which accounts for why the world is what it is and which governs the One’s causal activity. (Developed from Sokolowski)

Objections 7–9 are based on Plotinus’s description of the One’s activity as an emanation of all things. Numbers 8 and 9 question whether Plotinus really understands the One as infinite. I personally find #8 to be the strongest objection of the ones listed.

7. By choosing emanation as the model for the One’s production of all things, Plotinus does not adequately distinguish between the being of the One and its products such that Plotinus’s philosophy is a sophisticated species of pantheism. In Plotinus, all thing are produced ex dei and not ex nihilo. (Sweeney)

8. By presenting the One as producing all the beings that can exist, such that no more being can come into existence, Plotinus implies that the power of the One is finite and can be exhausted or fully expressed in its products. However, this would mean that the One is not inexhaustibly infinite and that there is some kind of parity between the One and its effects. Plotinus’s One thus lacks the transcendence of a Creator. (Pegis)

9. By presenting matter as evil because it is the last possible effect of the One, Plotinus seems to make the power of the One limited, which is inconsistent with the infinite goodness of a creator God. (Hart, O’Brien)

Lastly, objections 10–12 question whether the One is actually the cause of the whole being of what it causes to exist.

10. If the generation of Nous is due, at least in part, to tolma then the generation of the world is not unqualifiedly good and is not due to the One’s free choice. However, the doctrine of creation affirms that the creation of all things is good and completely due to the free choice of the creator. (Hart)

11. The One is not an exemplar cause of what it causes and thus is not responsible for the essences of beings, but only for their existence. Form, as such, is not caused by the One, whereas in a creation metaphysics the whole being of every being is caused by the Creator. (Gerson)

12. Existence is the direct effect of God alone. However, Plotinus presents the One as making all things through the instrumentality of Nous. Even if we understand the One as the cause of the existence of all thing, it could not produce the diverse formal content of reality without Nous. Because the One cannot make all beings by itself, it is not a creator. Instrumental creation is not a legitimate species of creation. (Gerson, Burrell)


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