The Doctors of Soul: Plotinus

The Doctors of Soul: Plotinus

Plotinus, from The School of Athens, by Raphael

Plotinus was the greatest of Neoplatonists. He never called his philosophy Neoplatonism. The name was created in the 19th century by stuffy European historians who enjoyed splitting history into periods. He lived circa 205-270 C.E. Plotinus considered himself a Platonist, even though he developed his own brilliant philosophy. His magnum opus was The Enneads, which were written in Rome. In the ways of soul, he was a master.

On the surface, Plotinus did not seem to be very influential to Jung’s thought. According to James Hillman, “Jung’s references to Plotinus and Neoplatonism are few. Plotinus appears not to have been one of Jung’s direct or favorite sources, and at least two standard works on Plotinus in Jung’s library stand there still with pages uncut” (Hillman 149). However, the two shared a common concern: “what is the nature of psychic reality” (Hillman 150).

In his essay, Plotino, Ficino, and Vico as Precursors of Archetypal Psychology, Hillman presents several points in Plotinus’ thought that are common to depth psychology, and, specifically, to archetypal psychology. First, humans can act unconsciously. Plotinus believed the soul possesses memories which are unconscious. These can exist concurrently with consciousness. Plotinus has even been called “the discoverer of the unconscious,” by H.R. Schwyzer, in his work, Consciousness and Unconsciousness in Plotinus (379, 390). Also, Plotinus believed in one universal soul, which can be compared to what we know as the Anima Mundi.

Hillman’s next point concerning Plotinus’ teaching is that “consciousness is mobile and multiple.” By this he means that consciousness does not necessarily need to be tied to just one aspect of the psyche, such as the ego. Plotinus believed in the multiplicity of consciousness, just as archetypal psychology does. Plotinus says in (Plotinus I, 1, 9), “man is many,” meaning man possesses many sides, both good and bad. Jung, says Hillman, presents a similar multiplicity of consciousness in his idea of the dissociability of the psyche into many complexes each with its light of nature, its spark or scintilla” (ibid.).

Plotinus was probably the first thinker to distinguish between a strictly ego-consciousness, our daily, quotidian mode of consciousness, and the total human psyche, which includes symbolic modes of consciousness. He also believed that each soul is commensurate with the universal soul, as well. Referring to this notion, Hillman comments that “we become precisely the activity we enact, the memory we remember; man is many, Proteus, flowing everywhere as the universal soul and potentially all things” (Hillman 151). The idea of the protean human harkens back to the ever-changing fiery flux of Heraclitus’ world, and his idea of the unlimited depths of soul.

Plotinus believed the imagination is primary to the soul. In fact, conscious experience would not occur if not for imagination. It is similar to a mirror in that, “by means of it the reflection of consciousness takes place” (ibid.). Not only that, but “imagination is an active power of the soul alone, independent of organs, and thus a purely psychic activity” (ibid.). Jung was also of the mind that “every psychic process is an image and an ‘imagining,’ otherwise no consciousness could exist” (qtd. in Hillman, 152). So, it is not far from these assertions to say that Plotinus was very close to the notion of archetypes in the unconscious psyche.

Next, Plotinus believed in the identification of personal soul and world soul, which both Jung and Hillman assert. It is a paradoxical union, where there is, in fact, a slight distinction between personal and collective, but there really isn’t. The lines between collective myth and personal imaginings blur in metaxical, paradoxical beauty.

Finally, for depth psychologists like Jung and Hillman, as well as the ancient Doctor of Soul, Plotinus, the soul is foundational. It is the bedrock for all other learning, teaching, and philosophizing. Hillman says,

Plotinus and Jung share a root vision based on the primary metaphor of soul, so that everything said is both a statement of the soul and by the soul as well as a statement on and about the soul. Soul is both subject and object of their concern” (Hillman 153).

Of the Doctors of Soul covered so far, Plotinus is the one I know the least about. Doing the research for this article has opened up new avenues of thought and imaginings that I hope will bear much creative fruit. 

Bibliography

Hillman, James. Loose Ends. Irving: Spring, 1978.

Plotinus. The Six Enneads. Trans. by Stephen Mackenna and B. S. Page. http://classics.mit.edu/Plotinus/enneads.html

Schwyzer, H.R. Bewusst und unbewusst bei Plotin. in Les sources de Plotin. ed. E. R. Dodds, W. Theiler. (Geneva: 1957.  

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