Plotinus' Ontology and the Problem of Matter

By Rocco A. Astore
2016, Vol. 8 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

Within The Enneads, Plotinus claims all existence derives from an entirely immaterial and benevolent source which he calls the One.1 At the same time, he also states matter corrupts that which is immaterial, and one should not understand it as being good.2 Therefore, how can one state that Plotinus is being consistent when he claims that all things derive from an all-good One, yet bodies are defective in nature? With this piece, I will first describe Plotinus’ understanding of the One. Next, I will state his notions concerning the nature of souls and bodies. I will then state his views concerning the body's, or matter's effects on one's spirit. Finally, I will argue that Plotinus’ claims concerning the One’s goodness can still be justifiable even in light of his belief that the body corrodes the soul.

How can all bodies be defective by nature
if their root is in a benevolent One?

According to Plotinus, the One is immaterial, orderly, unified, and the cause of all existence.3 Furthermore, as the reason for all that exists, the immaterial One can be understood as the origin of all immaterial souls too.4 Also, he claims the One is all-good and that souls are pure too since they derive from the One’s benevolence.5 Likewise, the existence of souls indicates the goodness of the One because their existence is a sign of a greater order, or beauty, and not chaos, or ugliness.6 Hence, one may infer that to him what is good is orderly and what is orderly is beautiful and since spirits possess beauty they too are good and orderly. Finally, order and goodness are also possessed by the One since these qualities are attributes of existence and the One, which is the origin of all that exists has them in their entirety.7

Plotinus also maintains that the One transcends the natural order of things, and its emanating essence gives rise to all existence.8 Furthermore, by being outside of nature’s order, the One is not within all things directly, rather it causes a chain of being that ultimately results in the existence of immaterial souls.9 Finally, spirits do not directly derive from the One; rather they more directly derive from the One’s illumination of the Intellect, or that which gives manifestation to intellectual forms.10

The Intellect, or Plotinus’s concept of that which emanates its essence to enliven intellectual forms, is immaterial.11 Furthermore, its ethereal quality enables the Intellect to cause the existence of souls, which he believes are individual reflections of it.12 Though it is correct to infer that spirits are individual copies of the Intellect, they are not to be understood as being at the same degree of reality like it or the One. Finally, the Intellect like the One emanates and because of this, it too illuminates another aspect needed for existence; the World-Soul.13

To Plotinus, the Intellect illuminates what he calls the World-Soul, or the archetype that once enlivened unfolds to become the universe.14 Furthermore, the World-Soul allows other archetypes, such as individual souls to come into intelligible existence.15 To do so, the World-Soul emanates its essence, and one can claim that it operates as a blueprint for all other souls to come to be. Finally, souls by being of the same immaterial nature as the One, the Intellect, and the World-Soul are understood to be particular aspects of them, and thus, they can emanate in certain ways too.16

According to Plotinus, the soul is an emanating force which desires to create order.17 The soul does this because it desires what is good and since goodness derives from the One which is an eternal and unified order, one may claim that the soul understands its order to be good.18 Furthermore, the soul expresses its desire for goodness by organizing that which is chaotic, or material.19 By organizing matter, the soul comes to view itself as how it would be if it were in a lower state.20 Hence, to Plotinus the soul does not arbitrarily enter into the body, rather it shapes the body into its image because it sees the body as if it were itself as a material being. Finally, by seeing the body as being of a lesser degree of reality than it, the soul merges with the body to raise it to a higher level of reality yet loses its purity as something totally immaterial in the process.21

Though losing its purity, the soul still retains certain aspects of perfection such as its ability to reason.22 To Plotinus, rational souls are a hallmark of people who he believes are the most rational of all animals.23 Furthermore, people, by possessing a greater share of reason than other animals can use their minds to realize their souls’ pureness.24 Plotinus claims, this is possible through introspection, and one may correctly infer that to him the soul becomes genuinely aware of itself through contemplation.25 Also, the soul’s awareness of itself enables it to realize its piece of the One within and because of that it can work towards reunification with the One.26 Hence, one may correctly infer that in Plotinus’ view the soul, which derives from the One, can reunify with the One if it applies reason. Finally, reunification with the One is extremely challenging since the existence of matter, or the body impedes the soul's progress towards it.27

According to Plotinus, one may understand matter to be that which is untamed, chaotic, and corruptive.28 He makes this claim because he believes matter cannot be of the nature of the One, which is good and ordered, and thus, it should be viewed as being at the lowest level of reality.29 Furthermore, that which is material did not derive from the One as all other forms of existence did. Plotinus believes that matter is separate from the One, yet it is dependent on the One’s emanating essence for its existence since it is less perfect than it.30 To him, one may continue to understand matter as the residual effects of the One, which comes into existence as a result of it being at the edges of One’s emanating .31 Also, matter, by being on the outskirts of the One’s emanating essence is not yet fully illuminated by it, and thus, it is not entirely enlivened.32 Finally, matter by being at the limits of existence, is not of the same nature as that which is immaterial, and hence, it is somewhat incompatible with the soul.33

In Plotinus’ view, matter cannot completely understand the nature of the soul nor can the soul totally understand the nature of matter.34 He makes this claim because of the body's materiality and the soul's immateriality, which are of different essences.35 To him, this contrast between body and soul is further complicated by the soul’s ability to comprehend itself and the body’s lack of self-awareness due to it possessing no intellectual capabilities.36 Plotinus concludes, that since the body does not possess reason it cannot be conducive to the soul’s rational ascent to the One, and thus, it should be regarded as an obstacle in the way of the soul’s journey towards a higher level of existence.37

Matter, or the impediment to the soul’s reunification with the One, affects the soul in various ways. First, Plotinus claims that matter corrupts the immateriality and purity of the soul.38 He makes this claim because by fusing with matter, the soul loses a great amount of reason in its new state as a soul-body composite.39 Furthermore, the body which is not conscious of either itself or the soul stops one's spirit from immediately recovering the purity it loses once it is mixed with matter.40

Also, the soul’s desire to reunite with the One expresses itself through the body, yet is corrupted by it.41 Plotinus claims that because the body is chaotic in nature, it follows that once it mixes with the soul, the soul becomes perplexed by bodily desires.42 Furthermore, in this state of confusion the soul’s intellectual capabilities are clouded, and to Plotinus, this is why one does not initially recollect their original state of being as a spirit.43 Hence, one may infer that to him the soul is connected to the One, yet by being attached to that which is other than the One, or matter, it must apply effort to realize itself as purely immaterial.

So far, I have hoped to describe Plotinus’ understanding of being as well as his views concerning the nature and effects of the soul and body. I will now argue that one may regard Plotinus as being consistent in his arguments concerning the essence of the One as well as the precarious position of matter.

The One, or the immaterial source of life that Plotinus’ ontology rests upon, is not really the cause of the existence of matter, rather it should be understood as being that which enlivens matter.44 I make this claim because Plotinus, who states that the One is immaterial, does not believe that the One can cause something unlike its essence, or that which is material to come into being. Furthermore, he claims that the One enlivens matter because it is at the edges of the One’s radiating essence, and because of this one may correctly understand matter as being independent of the One’s essence, but not of its existence.45

In other words, the existence of matter is not entirely independent of the One, yet its essence may be independent of it since it exists alongside the One, and thus, is not a result of the chain of being that the One causes. Hence, the One, which is not made up of the same elements as that which is material, cannot be understood as crafting matter, rather it should be understood as facilitating the conditions needed for matter to come to be.46 Finally, matter, by being chaotic and ugly is also not of the nature of the One which Plotinus maintains is ordered and beautiful.47

Also, the order and beauty of the One can be used to explain how matter, which is not of the One’s benevolence, can exist without tainting the pure goodness of the One. According to Plotinus, the One is ordered and beautiful since it causes that which features the same kinds of qualities as it.48 To him, reason, the mind, and the soul all operate within a framework, and this indicates that they derive from something that possesses a totality of reason, order, and goodness.49 He makes this claim because the One, which causes copies of itself to arise, must be more powerful, unified, and similar to that which it causes for their existence.50 Furthermore, matter, by lacking beauty and order should not be understood as being caused by the One’s nature. Rather, since matter does not bear a resemblance to the One, or that which is beautiful, it can be understood as being foreign to it because its appearance is distinct from the orderly essence of that which results from the One, such as immaterial souls.51

One may also infer that to Plotinus; immaterial souls are not the cause of matter either, and thus that which is immaterial in his ontological scheme remains good in nature. Like the One, souls cannot produce bodies, because souls are immaterial, beautiful, and orderly.52 Also, because souls, who are particular unities which understand themselves entirely, come to lose the ability to know themselves once they fuse with bodies, because bodies corrupt the essence of the souls.53 Thus, one may correctly infer that to Plotinus souls are of a higher nature than bodies because they possess reason. Furthermore, because souls are small unities, and bodies are made up of various parts it follows that matter can be understood as an element which limits or restricts the scope of the soul’s ability to reason and know its true nature.54 Finally, because matter is regarded by Plotinus as a limit, it follows that it is unlike the ever expanding nature of souls, which desire to continue to emanate and spread order.55

Unlike the One and souls, matter by not being aware of itself does not possess reason, and thus, it cannot emanate its essence, or do that which the One or souls can do.56 Furthermore, because matter cannot emanate, one may infer that it is at the lowest degree of being.57 One may make this claim because not only does that which is material lacks the ability to organize that which is lower in existence than it, Plotinus also explicitly claims that because matter cannot emanate it is at the lowest level of being.58 Finally, because matter is material, chaotic, irrational, and restrictive it is not of the One’s nature, and hence, one may claim that Plotinus can be justified in his claims that the One is all-good while matter is naturally defective.59

With this paper, I have described Plotinus’ ontology, discussing his ontological claims, and revealing how matter is not of the One’s nature. In so doing, I believe I have argued that matter, by being distinct from the One’s essence, does not taint the nature of the One or the pureness of all things immaterial unless a soul comes to organize a body. Finally, the One, by being benevolent in nature, cannot be linked to matter because matter corrupts that which results from the One, or immaterial souls, whereas the One maintains and gives life to that which is immaterial.


1.) Plotinus. Stephen McKenna trans., The Enneads as found in Greek and Roman After Aristotle. (New York: The Free Press., 1994), VI.9.1.1-3. & V.1.1.1-3.

2.) Ibid., I.6.9.12-15.

3.) Ibid., VI.9.1.10-25.

4.) Ibid.

5.) Ibid.

6.) Ibid., VI.1.1.9-13.

7.) Ibid., VI.1.6.23-28.

8.) Ibid.

9.) Ibid.

10.) Ibid., VI.1.6.30-36.

11.) Ibid., VI.1.6.36-39.

12.) Ibid.

13.) Ibid., V.1.8.12-13.

14.) Ibid.

15.) Ibid., V.1.8.1-4.

16.) Ibid., IV.8.1.1-10.

17.) Ibid., IV.8.1.6-10.

18.) Ibid., IV.8.1.40-50.

19.) Ibid.

20.) Ibid., IV.8.2.29-33.

21.) Ibid., IV.8.2.39-50.

22.) Ibid., IV.8.3.2-7.

23.) Ibid.

24.) Ibid., IV.8.4.1-46.

25.) Ibid.

26.) Ibid., I.6.8.21-22.

27.) Ibid., IV.8.6.1-27.

28.) Ibid.

29.) Ibid.

30.) Ibid., IV.8.6.21-23.

31.) Ibid.

32.) Ibid.

33.) Ibid.

34.) Ibid., IV.8.7.10-17.

35.) Ibid.

36.) Ibid.

37.) Ibid., IV.8.7.17-33.

38.) Ibid.

39.) Ibid.

40.) Ibid., IV.8.8.1-15.

41.) Ibid., IV.8.3.1-33.

42.) Ibid.

43.) Ibid.

44.) Ibid., VI.9.1.39-43.

45.) Ibid.

46.) Ibid.

47.) Ibid., VI.9.2.47-49.

48.) Ibid.

49.) Ibid., V.8.8.1-6.

50.) Ibid.

51.) Ibid., IV.8.3.8-15.

52.) Ibid., IV.8.3.25-33.

53.) Ibid., IV.8.6.20-20-33.

54.) Ibid.

55.) Ibid.

56.) Ibid., IV.8.8.16-30.

57.) Ibid.

58.) Ibid.

59.) Ibid., IV.8.8.24-30.

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