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Asses the View of Plotinus that all Things are derived from the One

Plotinus believed that the derivation of all things from the One occurs in three
stages1. Firstly, the One causes intellect to be derived, then intellect derives the soul, and
finally the soul derives the world. This view differs to that of both Plato and Aristotle, Plato
believed that the forms derived from the 'one' and the 'indefinite dyad', whilst Aristotle
believed that there was an 'unmoved mover' that caused all changes within the world. These
views have many similarities, the most obvious being that all three involve some kind of
simple element that is the ultimate cause of everything; but the arguments of Plato and
Aristotle contain more unjustified aporia than that of Plotinus, who takes the views of his
forebears and develops them, producing a stronger, more detailed argument with greater

Every complex object in the world is composed of simpler ones, and these objects
only exist by way of the existence and union of their constituent parts. Thus, as everything is
created from the One, it must not be made of parts as it must not be made of anything but
itself. This is the 'Principle of Prior Simplicity' and whilst theoretically sound in itself it leads to
several philosophical problems. It is hard to believe that all natures’ diversity could be
created by one non-composite element. Also, in order to hold the principle of prior simplicity,
the One cannot undergo any form of change as this would cause it to have both complexity
and history. If the One were to undergo change when it is not bound by time, it would be the
original element and the new element at the same time, thus comprised of more than one
part and complex. The only way that the One could remain simple in accordance with the
principle if it were to change would be if it were within time, thus was only one of the
elements at any given time. This cannot be true as the One creates time and thus must not
be bound by it, so the One cannot undergo any form of change. There is also issue with what
the One would change from and to; these elements cannot both be the One as they would be
different, if they were not different then there would have been no change. These
philosophical problems are similar to those encountered by Aristotle, whose 'unmoved
mover' was required to move objects without itself moving or changing. Whilst the principle
of prior simplicity causes these problems to Plotinus's argument of how all things are derived
from the one, it supports his idea that all things are derived from the one.

The first stage of derivation of all things from the One is the derivation of intellect.
Plotinus is unable to theorise completely how this occurs, as the One is 'the ultimate
principle presupposed by divine intellect' (O'Meara, 1993) the complete answer to this
question is unknowable as it is above or outside knowledge itself; but he is able to use
familiar examples from the world around us in order to justify his belief. Living things
normally procreate upon maturation, and for Plotinus this holds for all things including the
inorganic (as in the examples of fire and snow below) and the divine. If maturity were to be
considered as the perfection of a thing, it follows that the One, being the perfect to point of
being divine, must perform some form of procreation and give of itself. Again, much like the
principle of prior simplicity, this argument serves to support that all things are derived from
the one, but does not explain how. Plotinus argues that the manner in which fire emits heat
(Ennead V.4.2.27-33) and snow gives off cold (Ennead V.1.6.28-35), arguing that everything
within the world has its own internal activity defined by itself and another, separate external
activity that it performs. Plotinus is thus only able, through observation, to argue that it is
improbable that the One is sterile, and is only able to imply that it is productive. This forms a
logical but weak argument, the idea that it is impossible to observe or rationalise exactly
how this production occurs and thus prove that it does occur could be viewed as
unsatisfactory aporia. It is unfortunate that if Plotinus's theories about the One are indeed
true, that they will never be conclusively proved as the One is outside knowledge, and also
never refuted as a different explanation of how the world exists will never be proved as it
would be false.
Plotinus concurs with Aristotle's ideas of thought leading to determination. He
identifies the external activity of the One with Plato's indefinite dyad, but refers to it as
'undefined potentiality', with the One serving as the object of thought through which the
undefined potentiality is defined and becomes intellect. In a similar way as fire has the
external activity of heat emanation, the One has an external activity and derives intellect.
Once again Plotinus is unable to explain how this occurs and fails to give a convincing
argument to show that the performance of two activities, one internal the other external,
truly holds for 'realities' other than that of things such as fire or snow, nor how it applies to
these 'realities' (O'Meara, 1993). However, there is little reason for Plotinus to show this as
the One is simplicity itself; there is only need to draw parallels with things that are also very
simple, the instigators and process of heat exchange being a good example. It is with this
complexity of intellect that Plotinus fully separates himself from Plato and Aristotle by
arguing that 'the unity of divine intellect and its object of thought' (O'Meara 1993) is a
compound of the object which is thought about and the act of thinking itself, of the internal
and external activities, not that it is simple and thus ultimate.

The One is not completely unknowable, it is much as 'looking at something through a

telescope' (Gallagher, 2006), much can be learned, but not everything. Plotinus says he
waits for the bit of understanding of the One that cannot be known, he says that it is as
though he was 'waiting for the dawn to come'. The One is not quite with us but almost,
waiting for the completion of the knowledge that would cause us to return to and become
one with it. The One is unknowable itself, but we can gain knowledge of its effects and thus
infer some knowledge about it. One of these effects is to focus the attention of the intellect
which is an enormous matter. However, whilst medieval philosophers tried to imply that
there was much more to God, and thus the One, than his effects in the world, Plotinus does
not leave such a vast amount of unknown, leaving just the last little bit that if the intellect
knew would make it the one. In this way intellect is a less perfect form of the one, just as
heat could be viewed as a less perfect form of fire and cold as a less perfect form of snow2.
This aspect of Plotinus's view serves to explain how things are derived from the One in a way
that seems as full as can be; whilst not completely conclusive it is philosophically viable and
stronger than the aporia of Plato and Aristotle who simply claimed that it could not be

The intellect thinks itself, and thinks everything else; it plays the part of Aristotle’s
‘self-thinking thinker’, except that it is derived from the One. The intellect is said to ‘turn
toward’ the One in a contemplative manner, and also contemplates the forms. Plato argues
that we can never discover exactly how or where the Forms come from, arguing vaguely that
they are just ‘created’. Plotinus does not turn to aporia, but argues that the main object of
thought of the intellect are the forms; and that this is how everything comes from the
intellect, it thinks the forms from which all particulars are derived. Intellect looks in two
directions, the attention shifts from contemplating the One and creating the soul. Many
commentators, most famously medieval French philosophers, argue that whilst not more
important in essence than the one the intellect is the pivot of the triad.

The soul works in two ways. The cosmic soul acts as the bridge between the forms
and the contents of the universe, these forms are derived in a similar, unmoving way as the
soul itself is derived from the intellect. The world soul is creative, it fills the world with things
derived from the forms. However, the world is described as an ‘image’ produced by soul, and
thus nature is not separate from soul as soul from intellect. Plotinus also distinguishes
between the two methods of derivation by describing the intellect as ‘unmoving’ in deriving
soul and soul as ‘moving’ when deriving the world. The soul is derived from the creative
thought of the intellect, it is the force through which this creative power is channelled and
directed in order to create the world. He argues that ‘nature’ is a productive force integrated
within the soul. The soul is not content in just contemplating the intellect, as intellect is in
contemplating the soul and the forms. Instead, it expresses its contemplation in ‘a
movement that is a fragmentation and spreading out’ (O’Meara, 1993). Thus, the soul breaks
up the unified and timeless life of the forms, applying them to certain particulars that it
creates and spreading them into successive movements creating time. Therefore the soul
serves to dissipate the force of the One and the intellect into the material world that it
creates, it creates time through its movement. It is the end of Plotinus’s view on derivation,
he argues that in the world there are lifeless images of soul, from which nothing more can be
derived. However, the individual soul causes creation in a similar way. It is dissimilar because
the world is still there even if your soul is neglected or dull, yet it is similar in terms of
intellectual stimulation and the creation of, for example, craft and art. In support of this we
can observe that our individual souls do a similar sort of creation as the world soul as we
create things in the image of the forms, art is created in the form of beauty in the example
above; and from this the method of derivation of the world from soul can be inferred.

Plotinus thinks the whole thing as a circuit, the One produces intellect, and
immediately intellect wants to return to the one, shown by the manner in which it
contemplates the One. But creativity continues, and intellect produces the soul, which in turn
wants to return to the intellect, but creates the world. It is in this way that all things are
derived from the One. The argument is indeed compelling; it is logical and uses good
examples to back up Plotinus ideas and to dismiss counterarguments. The harshest cynic
would say that this leaves us with little but a plausible description of how all things are
derived from the One, not a concrete description. However, it is unlikely that we would be
able to fully grasp knowledge of what occurs before the derivation of the world and in turn
the derivation of ourselves. Although Plotinus encounters several problems in his view that
all things derive from the One, it would seem that these problems could not be overcome by
anyone within the world; the answers to the problems are knowable only to the One, intellect
and soul. Plotinus's view thus appears to be plausible, as he provides strong evidence as far
as it can to support his argument; and takes the views of Plato and Aristotle, developing
them logically and reducing the aporia as much as possible to reach a much more convincing

Biliography: Plotinus: and introduction to the Enneads, O’Meara 1993