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Very helpful for understanding the philosophy of Plotinus
on October 3, 2004
The philosophic and religious thought of Plotinus, a third-century philosopher and mystic, was primarily responsible for initiating the philosophical movement we call Neoplatonism and was an important influence on the development of early Christian thought. Plotinus' writings were published by Porphyry, who was one of his students, in six books of nine sections and was called the "Enneads." Plotinus' ideas can be very difficult for many people to grasp, especially in this modern age which is so beset with empiricism and materialism and looks on mysticism and religious meditation with a skeptical eye. We are fortunate now to have Brian Hines, a longtime serious student of meditation, metaphysics, and philosophy, write a book in easily-understandable language to explain the many concepts, some of them very obscure, that Plotinus presents in his "Enneads."
The book, entitled "Return to the One: Plotinus's Guide to God-Realization," is, however, more than just a theoretical explanation of Plotinus' thought. It is also a practical guide to the procedures that Plotinus suggests will enable an individual to accomplish what he or she really longs for, which is to return to the "One," which, as the author points out, "may be thought of as 'God,' if this more familiar term for ultimate reality is stripped of its personal or theistic connotations." The One or God, according to Plotinus, is not only the supreme inconceivable reality but also the principle of all realities.
The invisible world as well as the visible world, man included, is nothing other than a derivation or emanation from the One. The One is true happiness for man; but as man cannot reach full knowledge of the One by reason, so also he cannot possess happiness of himself; his intellectual knowledge is not sufficient. Man needs a superior help in order to reach the One and to possess the One. This superior help comes from the One who, beyond all forces of reason, manifests itself to man, and makes him happy. Plotinus calls this "ecstasy." Toward this all his speculation points. The monistic metaphysics of Plotinus may be considered in two ways: as progression downward from the One (or God) to the world in the divine emanations; and upward toward the world of the One (or God) through morality. Emanation is marked by four degrees: matter, world soul, Nous, and God or the One. All the degrees of being partake of the divinity, but in a different way (the monism of Plotinus' thought).
Now if all this sounds a bit strange or alien to you, that is understandable; mystical philosophies are not much in vogue today. Plotinus might have difficulty in our contemporary world getting enough university students to register for his course on "A Guide to God-Realization." I suspect that the closest we have been in this country to something akin to Plotinus' work in the academic arena would be when Josiah Royce, that great, but unappreciated, American philosopher, teaching at Harvard toward the end of the nineteenth century, was the major expositor of metaphysical idealism and monism. But, if you are intrigued by the mysteries and obscurities of Plotinus' philosophy and want to learn more, then I would suggest you can't go wrong by using Brian Hines' book as a resource to guide you on your way toward understanding.
First, he introduces the reader to some preliminaries, providing some background on Plotinus, discussing philosophy as a way of life and the making of a leap of faith, and, very useful to the beginning student of Plotinus' thought, the author provides some tips on reading the writing of Plotinus based on the author's own experience. Second, Hines proceeds to explain four main concepts: The One, The Many, The Soul's Descent, and The Soul's Return. An understanding of each of these ideas is essential to understanding Plotinus at all. The author, however, seems to recognize that many readers will be unfamiliar with formal philosophical analyses or with matters of mystical thought and practice. Thus, his descriptions, explanations, and interpretations are written in plain, ordinary language without any of the "techno-speak" which is the curse of so much of philosophy written today. Lastly, a final section of the book is a wrap-up area where the author does some summarizing and draws some conclusions from what has been said already, and discusses a "science" of spirituality, Neoplatonism and its relationship to Christianity, and the legacy of Plato and Plotinus.
I called this book a "resource" earlier in this review, but I did not mean to imply that it was a text you consulted from time to time when you needed it. The book can easily be and should initially be read through from beginning to end. What I meant by applying the term "resource" to this work is that the author provides some important material at the end of the book, material which is not always provided by authors to help their readers go beyond the text they've just read. Hines provides notes to the references he cites throughout the book, as well as a bibliography and the necessary index. That's pretty standard stuff for most books, although not all authors writing today necessarily provide all these helps.
Hines, however, has gone beyond merely providing this standard stuff for the reader. He has a section called "Suggestions for further reading" which could well be a model for authors of potentially difficult nonfiction books. He not only suggests books for further reading; he breaks them down into five categories: Translations; Non-scholarly overviews; Scholarly yet accessible books; Seriously scholarly treatises; and Related works. The books in each category are then commented on, quite often in some detail. What a boon to the reader! I wish more writers would do this.
I highly recommend "Return to the One" to all those interested in the philosophy of Plotinus, the general history of Western philosophy, religious philosophy, or mystical philosophy. The subject is interesting and important and Brian Hines' prose is crisp, concise, and easily understood.