Neoplatonism is an important school of thought that formed to resolve enigmas in Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies, Plato in particular. Indeed, Neoplatonists claimed that they were only explaining Plato in more detail, fleshing out what he really meant. The quote today is from the Roman philosopher Plotinus, who lived from 204 – 270 AD, and was one of the founders of Neoplatonism (though at the time, they just claimed to be Platonists). The quote is one of my most favourite ones in all of…well, everything, so be prepared for a long blog post!

From Plotinus’ Ennead V (~ 250 AD):
“We must turn our power of apprehension inwards, and make it attend to what is there. It is as if someone was expecting to hear a voice which he wanted to hear and withdrew from all other sounds and roused his power of hearing to catch what, when it comes, is the best of all sounds which can be heard; so here also we must let perceptible sounds go (except in so far as we must listen to them) and keep the soul’s power of apprehension pure and ready to hear the voices from on high.”

Such a beautiful quote, though to know exactly what Plotinus is talking about requires us to know a bit about the metaphysics of Neoplatonism. Neoplatonists view the world in terms of three hypostases, or levels of reality. This includes the One/God/Tao/Ain Soph/Brahman, Intellect/Nous/the Divine Mind/Atzilut, and Soul/Psyche/Universal Soul/Beriah&Yezirah. There’s also Body/the World/Nature/Physicality that comes after the soul, but it isn’t a real hypostasis (we’ll see it at the end). I’m listing various names for all these just to show that they correspond to many other religions and philosophies, but the first terms are those that Plotinus uses, so I’ll stick with those.

At the base of all existence, subsuming all other hypostases, is the One. It is the source of everything, transcending “being” as we know it. We usually think of the verb “to be” as determining something qualities. A dog is a dog because it has a specific form, a particular code of DNA, and so on. This is determinate being, but the One is infinite and indeterminate, containing all things, so it can’t be described in this way. If you describe it as one thing, you’ll leave something else out. Determinate things can be described because you can say they are “x” rather than “y.” Toto is a dog, not a cat, or a duck, or a hippo, etc. Yet the One is everything. Just like the Tao, it cannot be described: we can only gesture to it in metaphors and perhaps glimpse it in insights that go beyond our reasoning mind. The human mind can only grasp determinate things, so the One will remain out of our grasp unless we go beyond seeing things in sequences and in time.

So the One is both everything and nothing: it doesn’t lack anything, it gives rise to all things, but it also is nothing in particular, not possessing any determinate qualities. Plotinus says that “The One is all things and not a single one of them: it is the principle of all things, not all things, but all things have that other kind of transcendent existence…the One is not being, but the generator of being.” Yet you can describe the One as perfect, or fully actualized. One of the most important Neoplatonic ideas is that a fully actualized being will create an external reflection of itself, also known as a second actuality. Plotinus says that “All things when they come to perfection produce.” This production is an expression of the One, an image of it that isn’t as perfect because it is more restricted.

The best analogy for this is the dispersion of white light by a prism (which I described in a few other posts): the white light of the One splits into various colours upon entering the prism, so there is more variety in what is further down in the hierarchy. However, the One is undiminished, for like the white light from which the colours arose, it remains pure and simple, even though its dispersed beam appears to be multiple. This process continues down to much more complicated levels of existence until the physical world comes into being.

An analogy Plotinus uses is that of fire, snow, and perfume: “fire produces the heat which comes from it; snow does not only keep its cold inside itself. Perfumed things show this particularly clearly. As long as they exist, something is diffused from themselves around them, and what is near them enjoys their existence.”

The One gives rise to infinitely many things, particular beings unlike the source from which they arose. This first expression of the One is the second hypostasis, Intellect. This is also known as the Good in Plato, the highest Form. All other Forms exist within the Good.

This process of creating Intellect is called emanation. The first step is when the One sends out a reflection of itself, which is less perfect and so is multiple rather than unified: “The One, perfect because it seeks nothing, has nothing, and needs nothing, overflows, as it were, and its superabundance makes something other than itself.” The next step occurs in Intellect, which is when Intellect actualizes itself as a distinct level of existence. The nature of Intellect is to think, and by thinking, it strives to return to the One. This doesn’t occur in time, because time only enters into existence in Soul (as we will see below). Intellect strives to return to the One, its perfect source, though because it is limited, it is never able to reach the One by thinking. It is Intellect’s nature to think, yet the One cannot be thought since it is not a determinate being.

Yet this failed attempt to grasp the One actualizes Intellect as its own level of existence: it becomes perfect as a reflection of the One by thinking of itself—the only thing it can think of. In thinking itself, the Forms are generated, and so although Intellect doesn’t return to the One, it actualizes itself by creating a system of Forms that each express different aspects of being. These are infinite aspects of the One that exist in a hierarchy with the Form of the Good closest to the One and more specific Forms that derive from it further down. They are all connected, and each Form derives its nature from all other Forms. It is a lot like Hua-yen Buddhism (see my previous post), where each dharma (or in this case, Form) is defined in terms of the whole system of Forms. One cannot exist alone. Each Form is a partial grasp of the One: a different aspect of it. Returning to the dispersion analogy, the different Forms, represented by the colours of the rainbow, are generated when the white light of the One is dispersed through a prism (which is in this case the act of Intellect thinking).

You’ve probably heard of Platonic Forms before: really anything you can think of has a Form that it’s modelled after (though not perfectly). The Form of the Good, Beauty, Number, Colour, Motion, Rest, and even specific things like Dog, Grass, and Table (note that I’m referring to Forms in capital letters, so the Form of Dog is in Intellect, while specific dogs are physical creatures that imperfectly partake in the Form “Dog”). Yet in Intellect, these Forms are unchanging objects of thought and not physical things that grow and change.

The next level of existence is Soul, which “is a ghost of Intellect.” Because Intellect actualizes itself in the act of thinking, it also produces an external image of itself, a second dispersion (add another prism!). Soul is thus more multiple than Intellect, further from the eternal existence of the One. It is here that we introduce time and change, which measures the thinking activity of Soul. The Forms are eternal and unchanging, but the souls that exist in Soul, although they partake in the Forms above, change and evolve, which is less perfect than Intellect. “For around Soul things come one after another: now Socrates, now a horse, always some one particular reality; but Intellect is all things. It has therefore everything at rest in the same place.” The very fact that Soul changes means that it isn’t perfect: if it was already perfect, change would bring it away from that perfect state, and if it wasn’t yet perfect—if it was improving or regressing—then it still isn’t in a perfect state.
Likewise, Soul actualizes itself by trying to unite with its source, Intellect. Soul, however, can only think discursively, which is the kind of thinking we usually talk about. It is thinking one thing after another using a chain of reasoning. Intellect, however, thinks noetically, which is more of intuition: an immediate insight that can grasp all Forms at once. Such thought is only possible, however, when one is outside of time, so Soul can never fully reach Intellect. It tries to grasp the relationships between the Forms, but is only able to think of them sequentially, for it is “ever-moving,” so misses the interconnectedness of the Forms. For instance, if you imagine the Form of Beauty and try to understand it, you will be thinking of certain qualities rather than others, and so will necessarily leave parts out. Even if you were to think of all aspects of Beauty sequentially, that would still not be grasping it as a whole, and it would also be missing its position in relation to the other Forms. This fragmented way of thinking is intrinsic to Soul’s nature, and it must be transcended in order for Soul to return to Intellect. Yet Intellect is still at the centre of Soul. It is its essential nature, just like the One is the essential nature of Intellect.

Thus, a better way of looking at the hypostases are that they form a circle with the One at the centre, Intellect a layer around it, and Soul a layer around that. At the centre of Soul’s circle is Intellect, and at the centre of Intellect’s circle is the One. Everything is really just an aspect of the One, emanating outward in circles that stray from the central point as they are created. This also means that it is possible to reach Intellect and even the One because it is at the centre of our being, for “Nothing is separated or cut off from that which is before it.” This is related to Plato’s doctrine of recollection: even if we aren’t taught mathematics or other principles related to the Forms, we have the Forms within us, so we understand them on an intuitive level even if we’re not taught them.

Soul does, however, actualize itself as a distinct level of existence in its act of thinking about the Forms. So, as Neoplatonism dictates, it produces an external reflection of itself. And thus, we reach the physical world, Body. Soul “looks to its source [Intellect] and is filled, and…generates its own image.” As time was introduced at the level of Soul, space comes into being at the level of Body, so we now possess space and time (space-time).

Body is not really a hypostasis in itself, though it does emanate from Soul like Soul came from Intellect and Intellect from the One. The difference is that although Soul actualizes itself in thinking and can return to Intellect if it transcends its discursive thinking, Body is unable to overcome the limitation of physicality and so can never actually return to Soul. It is not conscious, but rather consists of material things that can’t think, called logoi spermatikoi, or seminal reasons. Materiality cannot be overcome, and so Body is not really another level of existence like Soul and Intellect are from the One, because it does not have the One as its ultimate nature.

As a whole, Soul is also known as the Universal Soul, yet within Soul are also individual souls, centres of consciousness. Like the Universal Soul, the primary purpose of souls is to contemplate Intellect in order to ascend to a more perfect level of existence. There is a hierarchy of souls within Soul: those more enlightened tending toward Intellect, and those more tied to the material world toward Body. Yet a secondary purpose of souls is to incarnate in the material world, to form living beings like humans, which means that we are a combination of two worlds: Soul and Body. Yet since every soul has at the innermost centre of its being the Universal Soul, each soul can be said to have made the physical world. Plotinus says, “Let every soul, then, first consider this, that it made all living things itself, breathing life into them…it grants life to the whole universe.” This can be understood in two senses: the first is that souls incarnate into the material world directly, giving life to it, and second is that they are in essence the Universal Soul from which the world emanated.

Higher souls do not get caught up in the material world that they animate, yet lesser ones can easily get distracted by it and fail in their primary purpose of contemplating the Forms. Souls are supposed to govern the body, not become attached to it, a doctrine we see in many other philosophies. The soul suffers when it identifies itself with the body, because everything in this world is transitory and far from the true source of existence. It is just a reflection from Soul, an “illusion,” and so placing importance on it and treating things here as permanent only leads to suffering.

In order to ascend back up the ladder of being, Plotinus gives us two ways: “One shows how contemptible are the things now honoured by the soul…the other teaches and reminds the soul how high its birth and value are, and this is prior to the other one.”

The first way is asceticism, condemning physical existence and detaching oneself from material things. They are imperfect, they are transitory, and so should not be objects of veneration or sources of happiness. This closely aligns with Stoicism and Buddhism in particular. The second way ties in to the first, which is to recollect one’s true nature. To realize you are a soul in a body rather than a body. Your soul defines you, and that soul is part of the Universal Soul, and that part of the Forms, and so on to the One. This shift in consciousness can help you become what you already are, to shift the eye of the soul to what is both beyond and within it. It’s not something that we can fully comprehend given our limited minds, but we can try, at least. Plotinus speaks of seeing the order in things around us: how various beautiful things in the world are only imperfect instances of the greater Form of Beauty, for instance. Even though we must necessarily think discursively, eventually, we can overcome that and think of the Forms noetically as Intellect does. The final stage is to return to the One, where all thinking is put aside, and there is only unity and no longer determinate being. It may seem impossible, yet at the very core of your being lies the One: “Since the soul is so honourable and divine a thing, be sure already that you can attain God by reason of its being of this kind.”

Much of Neoplatonism has parallels with various other religions: Buddhism, Kabbalism, Taoism, and mystic Christianity, for instance. They are all speaking of the same underlying universe, which, although expressed in various symbols and metaphors, is a hierarchy of reality with truer levels of being closer to the One.

This is all a simplified version, because within Intellect, Soul, and Body are many levels that make it clearer how one hypostasis gives rise to another other. If we look at these, we can see a correspondence to the Kabbalah, since in the Kabbalah there are many Sephiroth within each level of existence. The Neoplatonic scheme of existence is also a good way of understanding mathematics and physics. Numbers themselves, as well as mathematical laws based on them, exist as Forms in Intellect. In order for mathematics and physics to describe the world we live in, there must be some fundamental physical laws that exist: otherwise, the world would just be chaotic. Since these laws obviously don’t exist physically (you don’t find the number 4 floating around), they must be nonphysical, and hence, exist in a nonphysical realm above ours (“above” being a higher level of existence). A law only presides over that which is below it, so the laws in Intellect don’t affect the One, its greater source, though they do affect Soul and Body. There is a hierarchy where more specific laws are subsumed by more general ones that are closer to the One. The further down something is in the hierarchy of existence, the more restricted it is, being subjected to a more laws that restrict its movements or thoughts. Thus, if one transcends the physical world, through purifying their soul and attending to that which is above it, they will transcend some of the limitations of the world around them. This is how some people have, through meditation or other practices, appeared to transcend the common-sense laws that govern the world. Walking on water, perhaps? Telepathy? This is just speculation, but it could certainly be explained in this way. Of course, this is common in Buddhism, but even Greek philosophers such as Plato and Pythagoras were said to have certain powers.

Even if we don’t know what the ultimate laws are that govern the world, we already understand physics in terms of a hierarchy of laws that are applicable in more specific or general situations. For example, Einstein’s theory of gravity is a general theory that applies to the universe on a large scale as well as the world around us. Newton’s theory of gravity works well for things on Earth and much of the solar system, but it fails on larger scales. Thus, it is a subset of Einstein’s theory that is applicable in more restricted situations. An even more general theory would include both quantum mechanics and general relativity (see picture below from the physicist Max Tegmark). This law would be a higher Form that more specific laws are derived from. But this law, ultimately, will arise from even more basic principles: Number, Symmetry, Order, etc. For instance, Max Tegmark said that all mathematical structures are abstract, immutable entities. The integers and their relations to each other, all these things exist outside of time.” Existing outside of time doesn’t correspond to the world around us, or even Soul, but to more basic principles in Intellect. Additionally, they are not mere fictions that we have created to describe the world. I won’t get into that here, but see my previous post.
Diagram from Max Tegmark

Another physicist, Roger Penrose, believes that Platonism is a correct description of reality. For example, in an interview, he said that “mathematics has to have been there since the beginning of time. It has an eternal existence. Timelessness, really: it doesn’t have any location in space, it doesn’t have any location in time.” He also explains how there are three different kind of existences: the physical, mental, and mathematical worlds, which would correspond to Body, Soul, and Intellect (the One doesn’t “exist”: it is beyond existence). Likewise, our access to the world of mathematics, the fact that we can understand things as basic as numbers and addition to more complicated things like differential equations and general relativity, is only possible because, as Plato said, it is already within us. Within the core of our souls is Intellect, providing the laws that created us and govern our existence.

Now, the laws that govern the physical world (quantum mechanics, general relativity, electromagnetism…everything), although they derive from the Forms within Intellect, are “filtered” through Soul and so exist in the Universal Soul rather than Intellect. As I quoted in my previous post, the physicist John Spencer said, “All the laws of physics are partial reflections of the one eternal mathematical law, which is a kind of super-law, the foundation of all the mathematical laws in the universe.” This law exists in Soul, the “?” in the diagram of yellow boxes above, and all laws that derive from this exist in Soul below it. If a soul transcends above this level, it will no longer be subjected to these laws, and so may appear to do miraculous things.

This eternal law, which describes how the physical world works, partakes in higher Forms of Symmetry, Number, etc. Plotinus says that “Even in seeds it is not the moisture which is honourable, but what is unseen: and this is number and rational principles.” Thus, physical laws (rational principles from the eternal law) and number (mathematics in Intellect) form the basis of everything in the world around us. More specific laws arise when the eternal laws is applied to, say, the microscopic realm with quantum mechanics, or the macroscopic realm with gravity. But if you could understand the greater laws above it, you would be able to describe both quantum mechanics and gravity with a single law, and even more generally, both souls and bodies.

Thus, the metaphysics of Neoplatonism can help us understand all sorts of aspects of existence from souls to time to mathematics and physics. Like many other philosophies that include a hierarchy, or even those like Hua-yen Buddhism, it describes a universe that is united and tells us that even though the world may see chaotic and disconnected, everything derives from the One, and we all can return to it, for it still exists as an invisible core within us. Listen, and you may hear “the voices from on high.”


Click here for more posts in my Quotes of Wisdom series.


Interesting article. I often think about how the ancients, like Plato viewed the body as being physical and separate from the mind and soul. However, science has since discovered the cell, which are the living entities that constitute our bodies. Our bodies themselves were never really physical in the sense that they are composed of matter, strictly speaking. We still don't understand where the first cell came from and how it manages to behave as if it can "think".

Our bodies are a collective of other living things! Each cell has some sort of guiding principle, rule, law, that makes life itself possible. It has access to the same higher truths as our minds/souls. That would make our soul a sort of collective, or higher state of those that exist at the cellular level. It is like they have some sort of protosoul.

What do you think?


Hi Jim, from a Neoplatonic point of view, I think it definitely makes sense that cells have some sort of protosoul, because they are all derived from higher principles that exist in Soul. The body would have its own "soul" composed of all its cells that function together, a lower kind of soul to the soul that governs the body overall from Soul. That's my take on it anyway.


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