I’ve decided that what I want to do in these Plotinus posts is talk about how a long-dead Greek philosopher has changed how I look at life, and, more importantly, how I live life. So I’m going to quote less and speak in my own voice more, changing my previous intention (a writer’s prerogative).
You and I are different; yet we also are the same. What appeals to me in Plotinus may leave you cold. Still, we all struggle to understand the same questions that occupied the ancient Greeks: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going after death? What is the purpose of life? What is the nature of ultimate reality? The answers to these questions should be ours, not anyone else’s.
As a Greek philosopher, we can be sure that Plotinus agreed with Plato: “But a man is not to be reverenced more than the truth, and therefore I will speak out.” Plotinus didn’t slavishly echo Plato’s teachings, though he considered himself a Platonist. His biographer, Porphyry, says that after a student would read a commentary by another philosopher on a text from Plato or Aristotle, “Plotinus borrowed nothing at all from these commentaries; on the contrary, he was personal and original in his theoretical reflection.”
We surely need more of this attitude today: blind acceptance neither of someone else’s purported truth, nor of our own conception. Plotinus was respectful of his fellow philosophers, both alive and dead, but he didn’t reverence them. Now people tend to go overboard in both directions.
They don’t respect those who hold different opinions (just listen to conservative talk radio and Air America for proof that the right and the left are equally disrespectful of anyone who calls in with a contrary perspective). And they are overly reverential of those who hold opinions similar to their own (how many avid conservatives will disagree with George Bush about anything? how many avid liberals found anything to disagree with in “Fahrenheit 9/11”?).
I long for a modern Plotinus to appear on the national stage, a philosopher-king as it were, in the best sense of the term (not in Plato’s aristocratic sense; more in Marcus Aurelius’s humble sense). This person probably couldn’t be elected to any important office, because he or she wouldn’t offer up simplistic answers to complex questions. Yet most people want someone else to do their thinking for them. Not me. I like Plotinus’s approach.
After observing that the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus has left us guessing about what he really meant, Plotinus makes a telling statement that could apply equally to his own teaching method: “He has neglected to make clear to us what he is saying, perhaps because we ought to seek by ourselves, as he himself sought and found.” Right on, Plotinus.
All quotations are from “Return to the One," by yours truly.