Plotinus’ Theory of Emanations: How Do Things Come into Being?

We take a closer look at the famous Neoplatonist Plotinus’ metaphysics and epistemology. What did he mean by “the One,” and what are the “emanations” from the One?

Oct 13, 2023By Antonio Panovski, BA Philosophy

plotinus theory of emanations


When we think of the ancient period of philosophy, the most notable and influential thinkers are Plato and Aristotle. They each gained their own students and followers. However, out of all of them, the most recognizable follower is the Neoplatonist thinker Plotinus.


Plotinus was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Plato. Just as Plato argued for the existence of three realms, Plotinus believed that there were three emanations from the One. But, what exactly is the One in Plotinus’ philosophy? Is it the same as the ideas in Plato’s philosophy? And, more specifically, what are the emanations from the One?


Who was Plotinus?

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Head in white marble believed to be Plotinus, via Wikimedia Commons.


As a thinker from the Hellenistic period of philosophy, Plotinus (204-270) restored the Platonist teachings and, as a result, Neoplatonism was born. Plotinus is regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism, which was vastly influential during Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.


Plotinus took up the study of philosophy at the age of twenty-eight, around the year 232, and traveled to Alexandria to study. There he was dissatisfied with every teacher he encountered until an acquaintance suggested he listen to the ideas of the self-taught Platonist philosopher Ammonius Saccas. Finally, he found his teacher under which he studied for eleven years, before going to Rome. Shortly after his arrival in Rome, Plotinus established his own school in which he gained many followers, including even the Emperor of Italy and his wife. The emperor even tells him to go to Southern Italy and found a city of his own according to the principle of Plato’s perfect society in The Republic, but for some unknown reasons, he failed to do so.

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At the age of 60, Plotinus accepted Porphyry as his student. Porphyry later wrote his biography and systematized his writings into 6 books of 9 chapters each—famously known as the Enneads. The Enneads is Plotinus’ most important work, and it contains his most original ideas and theories. That’s why in the text that follows, we’ll examine his metaphysical views in the Enneads, as well as show the influence that Plato had over his philosophy.


Plotinus’ Metaphysics: The One as Being

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Roman copy of a portrait of Plato, who had a great influence over the philosophy of Plotinus, via Wikimedia Commons.


First and foremost, before going into the concept of emanation, the concept of being in Plotinus’ philosophy should be analyzed. According to Plotinus, being is the One. The One is the principle on which the world rests, it is the beginning and the end of everything in the universe. The One represents the primordial cause of the existence of the world and of existence in general. The One is the cause of everything that exists. We, as well as the totality of the world, exist in virtue of it.


God, according to Plotinus, is completely transcendent: He is above all thought and all being, ineffable and inconceivable. Neither essence, nor being, nor life can be ascribed to the One because it is something more. The One transcends all being that we experience. In fact, God is equated by Plotinus with the One.


Furthermore, Plotinus even says that we cannot even attribute positive attributes to the One or God. We should not characterize the One as such or such because by doing so, we limit it and reduce it to some kind of individual being, he says. That is because the One is above all things that can be limited by such positive attributions. The only attributes that Plotinus allows to be ascribed to the One are the attributes of unity and goodness—in the sense that God is both one and good. About the One, we can only say that it is, that it exists.


At this point, the question arises: How then, given this understanding of the One, can the existence of the multiplicity of things be explained? The answer to this question lies in Plotinus’ concept of emanation. Let’s see what the emanations really are.


The Three Emanations from the One

Presumed depiction of Plotinus and his disciples on a Roman sarcophagus in Rome, via the Harvard Divinity Bulletin.


Emanation is the process of spillage from the One. That’s how everything is created—by the emanations from the One. But that does not mean that the One is diminished in any way. The One remains an intact and immobile being, as it’s always been.


It’s important to note that Plotinus states that the One does not create things, but they pour out or rather, emanate from it. Furthermore, according to Plotinus, there are three hypostases or layers of emanation.


1. The First Emanation: Nous


The first hypostasis of emanation from the One is the mind or thought—Nous, which refers to the Intellect, Divine Mind, Logos, Order, Thought, and Reason. This first layer of emanation actually represents smart mental observation or immediate understanding. This emanation is actually the place where the ideas are found, and not only the general ideas, but also the ideas about individual particular things, but in such a way that they are inseparably contained in the entire multitude of ideas. Plotinus identifies Nous (mind, reason, intellect) with the Demiurge from Plato’s Timaeus. In this way, Plotinus’ concept of Nous is connected and even coincides with Plato’s Demiurge, as well as with Aristotle’s thought-out thought.


2. The Second Emanation: the Soul

cosmos man
Photo by Greg Rakozy, via Unsplash.


From the mind (Nous) pours the soul. This is the second emanation from the One. Plotinus’ concept of the soul corresponds to Plato’s cosmic (world) soul from the Timaeus. Such a soul, says Plotinus, is incorporeal and indivisible, but it creates the connection between the supersensible and the sensible world. Therefore, she does not only look up, towards the mind but also looks down, towards the world and nature. However, unlike Plato, Plotinus postulates two types of souls: upper and lower. The upper soul stands nearer to the mind and is not in any immediate contact with the world of materiality. On the other hand, the lower soul is the soul of the manifested material world and Plotinus denotes it by the term nature.


The individual human soul pours out or flows out of the cosmic soul as well, and, like it, is divided into two elements: a higher element that belongs in the sphere of Nous and a lower element that is directly connected with the body. The human soul existed before the union with the body before it “fell” into the body and survived death, but without any memory. Plato’s influence is more than obvious here.


3. The Third Emanation: the Material World

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Image via NASA.


Below the sphere of the cosmic soul is the sphere of the material world. This third hypostasis represents the lowest degree of emanation from the One. That’s why it even represents an antithesis of the One, says Plotinus.


At this point, Plotinus combines Plato’s and Aristotle’s teachings on materiality. He says that material things ara the antithesis of the One and represent the deprivation of light. Such an attitude towards the world of sense-accessible things (the material world) was also advocated by Plato. He considered the body as the grave of the soul because it prevents it from fully realizing its potential.


On the other hand, Plotinus advocates the view of materiality as the substrate of form and sees it as an essential, integral part of material objects. Aristotle advocated this point of view. For something to exist as such, Aristotle saw materiality as essential, because it is only through the material aspect that the form acquires any meaning. Thus, the formal and the material aspect are both essential for a thing to exist.


Plotinus also identifies the material as pure evil because it stands farthest from the One. It represents the opposite of good, and since the One is good, the material represents its radical antithesis. It would be logical to assume that Plotinus is inclined to underestimate the sense-accessible world, but he does not. He even opposes the Gnostic contempt of the world, saying and praising the world as part of the demiurge. and the cosmic soul. The world is an image of the mind, but it is too much to ask that it be an exact and precise imprint of the mind, he says.


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Line engraving depicting Plato by L. Vorsterman after Sir P. P. Rubens, 1577-1640, via the Wellcome Collection.


We can clearly notice Plato’s influence over the philosophy of Plotinus. The emanations from the One directly correspond to the three realms (worlds) of existence in Plato’s philosophy. Plotinus, like Plato, valued the higher-ranking emanations the most. Plato also considered the world of ideas (or forms) as the supreme world from which everything is created. Thus, he considered everything else as a (lesser) copy of the ideas residing in the world of ideas. We can also notice similarities with other thinkers. Aristotle, who we mentioned before, is one of them. Because of this, Plotinus’ philosophy is considered to be eclectic.


How Can We Experience the One?

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Depiction of Porphyry of Tyre, Plotinus’ most notable follower. Detail of the Tree of Jesse, Sucevita Monastery, 1535, via Wikimedia Commons.


At this point, it’s almost inevitable not to ask ourselves how we can experience the One that Plotinus is talking about. How can we gain direct knowledge of the One? And furthermore, how did Plotinus get to experience the One? Luckily, Plotinus did mention the path of reaching the One. It consists of several steps one needs to follow in order to elevate to the One, and completely experience it.


The first degree of elevation, he says, is accomplished under the influence of Eros. It is the process of purification by which man is freed from the rules and laws of the body and rises to the practice of virtues (Plotinus mentions four kinds of virtues).


At the second level, the soul rises above sensory perception and turns to the mind (Nous). It does this by dealing with or rather learning about philosophy and about science. At that level of union with the One, the soul retains the consciousness of itself.


These two degrees are only preparatory to the supreme degree—the degree of mystical union with God or the One. It is a state of Ecstasy, and it is through this state that we can experience the One. According to various historians of philosophy, the state of Ecstasy is somewhat similar to the concept of Nirvana in Buddhism. However, that ecstatic oneness is short-lived during this life, says Plotinus. Complete unbroken unity is realized in life after death when people are completely freed from the body.


Porphyry states that during the six years of his schooling under Plotinus, Plotinus experienced ecstasy as many as four times.


The Lasting Influence of Plotinus’ Philosophy

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Encaustic funerary portrait of Plotinus’ teacher Ammonius Saccas, via Wikimedia Commons


The emperor Julian the Apostate was deeply influenced by Plotinus and Neoplatonism, as was Hypatia of Alexandria. Neoplatonism influenced many Christians as well, including Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.


St. Augustine, though often referred to as a “Platonist,” acquired his Platonist philosophy through the mediation of the Neoplatonist teachings of Plotinus. Plotinus’ philosophy had a deep influence on the development of Christian theology. In the Renaissance, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino set up an Academy under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici in Florence, mirroring that of Plato. For these reasons, learning about Neoplatonism is important in order to understand the development of the history of philosophy as a whole.

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By Antonio PanovskiBA PhilosophyAntonio holds a BA in Philosophy from SS. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, North Macedonia. His main areas of interest are contemporary, as well as analytic philosophy, with a special focus on the epistemological aspect of them, although he’s currently thoroughly examining the philosophy of science. Besides writing, he loves cinema, music, and traveling.