What little we know about the life of Plotinus (ca. 204–270 CE) comes from the short memoir with which his disciple and literary executor Porphyry (ca. 234–305 CE) prefaced The Enneads—the complete edition of Plotinus’s writings that Porphyry collected and arranged. Because Plotinus was reluctant to speak of his early life, and because Porphyry came to know him when he was already fairly advanced in years, the picture we have is of a man already fully formed in personality and settled in his convictions. According to Porphyry, Plotinus attached small importance to his own biography. Just as he objected to having his likeness drawn or sculpted, because he was ashamed at finding himself caught in the shadowy meshes of a material body, so he also objected to dwelling on the trivial details of his individual existence as a mortal man.
We know that he came originally from Deltaic Lycopolis, in a thoroughly Hellenized Egypt, but not whether he was of Coptic or Greek descent, or what class he came from. Apart from one mildly embarrassing episode with a wet nurse when he was eight, his story begins for us around 232 CE, when at the age of twenty-seven he decided to move to Alexandria to study philosophy. There, after an initial period of searching about among the various schools, he attached himself to Ammonius Saccas, the “Socrates of Neoplatonism.” After eleven years in the city, he conceived a desire to study with the “gymnosophists” and philosophers of India and Persia, and so joined the Persian expedition of Emperor Gordian III. But when that military venture ended in disaster, Plotinus was forced to make a perilous retreat to Antioch, apparently more or less on his own. He moved to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life teaching. When his final illness set in, he retired to Campania to die. His last words were supposedly something like, “Try to elevate the god within us to the divine in the universe.” Then, as his soul departed his body, a snake passed under his bed and out through a hole in the wall.
Apart from this bare outline, Porphyry provides only a few brief, if illuminating, anecdotes. For instance, Plotinus once explained his decision to remain aloof from certain festal liturgies by mysteriously remarking that the divine beings should come to him, not he to them. On another occasion, when the orator Diophanes had publicly argued that a philosopher’s disciple, for the sake of his own advancement, was obliged to submit to his master’s sexual importunities, Plotinus was too agitated to deliver a refutation himself, but had to depute one of his followers for the task. And there are a few more colorful tales, of the sort modern readers might foolishly be prone to doubt. An aspiring philosopher from Alexandria named Olympius, for example, became consumed by envy and attempted to attack Plotinus with magic. But the spells doubled back upon the sorcerer, and Olympius was forced to acknowledge the invincible strength of Plotinus’s soul. Porphyry also relates that, on at least four occasions during the years of their friendship, Plotinus achieved mystical union with the highest divine reality. Perhaps the most delightful tale of all concerns a priest of Isis who, at the temple of the goddess in Rome, invoked an apparition of Plotinus’s tutelary divinity, only to discover that Plotinus was attended by no mere celestial daemon (as most good souls are) but rather by an actual god. In the end, though, these are only so many tantalizing glimpses. Would that we knew a little more. Then again, perhaps Plotinus was right—perhaps too great a concentration on the ephemeral episodes of his life would only distract us from his ideas.
Those ideas, after all, were profoundly influential. Viewed in long retrospect—looking back from the vantage of late modern philosophy, through the golden epochs of the great Christian and Islamic medieval schools, to the world of late antique Hellenistic, Jewish, and Christian thought—we find no pagan thinker more consequential for the development of later traditional “Western” metaphysics and epistemology. Plato and Aristotle, of course, laid the foundations; but it was principally through the vehicle of what we now call “Neoplatonism” that the ancient systems were conveyed to the post-pagan world, and it was principally through Plotinus that Neoplatonism first acquired the full grandeur and scope of a recognizable and internally consistent tradition in its own right. His thought constituted a crucial crystallization and creative revision of those spiritual and intellectual currents of late antiquity that would prove most durable and influential in subsequent centuries.
Though Plotinus’s importance has never been entirely forgotten by scholars, and though he enjoyed a period of particularly reverent recovery during the Renaissance, he has rarely received the degree of close attention from modern philosophers that he merits. Moreover, for roughly a century it has been his undeserved fate to serve as a rhetorical foil—caricatured, misrepresented, slandered—for Christian theologians (chiefly Protestant) who have wanted to differentiate between what they fancifully imagine to be the God of the Bible and what they no less fancifully imagine to be the God of the philosophers. This is a pity. There was no more brilliant and dynamically original thinker in the last few centuries of pagan intellectual culture, or the first few centuries of the Christian era.