Controversey over the Plotinian ‘One’

Is there tension and irreconcilability in Plotinus concerning his conception of the ‘One’ ?

It [the One] is not a thing or quality or quantity or intellect or soul: It is not in motion or at rest…It is not thought for there is no otherness in It. It is not movement, but prior to movement and thought. For what would It think about? Itself? But then It would be ignorant before Its thought, and would need thought to know Itself…It is none of them, It can only be said to be beyond them. Now these things are beings, and being: so It [the One] is ‘beyond being’…’Beyond being’ is not Its name; all that it implies is that It is ‘not this.’

Enneads VI:8:13; 9:3; V:5:6

It appears that in this set of passages that Plotinus has in mind the ‘One’ beyond all the categories of being—in any qualified sense. However, does Plotinus have in mind the ‘One’ being beyond all finite being, and in that sense the ‘One’ is ‘beyond being’ or is the ‘One’ beyond Its own being-producing (ousiopoios) power (the Platonic Forms)?

He is his own act, and is what He is not by chance but according to His own activity…So He is not ‘as He happened to be,’ but as he Himself wills…His essential being is his self-directed activity, and this is one with Himself.

Ibid., VI:8:17

I would think that if Plotinus can then employ categories of being—such as the ‘One’ being identical to Its own activity—that he would have in mind the ‘One’ standing over against finite being. Any real distinction for Plotinus would imply multiplicity, and multiplicity is defective since it is not one and uniform (Ibid., VI:9:6). This means that the Good must be absolutely simple.



One Response to Controversey over the Plotinian ‘One’

  1. I think that you’ve identified the crux of the problem: Plotinus appears to define act in a way that does not leave a way for the One to truly be “beyond being.” Plotinus rightly puts thing, quantity, intellect, motion, thought, and soul within the auspices of being, but he doesn’t do so with “act” or “activity,” and this is where I think the identification of the (allegedly) beyond-being One with his act of will breaks down into incoherence. As I see it, God rightly needs to be “beyond act” as well, at least to the extent that act is a category of being. God can’t be identified with what God has “done” (in the sense of an act of will, timeless though it may be) any more than he can be identified with any kind of existence.

    I could be missing something, but I think that is the root of the problem.

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