Plotinus' Plan to Save the Roman Empire
One Roman Man’s Fight Against Decline
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
Sure, Petrarch made it look easy... but ‘apparently’ it turns out that starting a Renaissance is... well... hard.
Whether it was the 14th century scholar who initiated the revival or a second century Roman, the fret and worry about decline is something that has plagued men and women throughout the ages.
The tactics, however, as well as the success rates, have certainly varied significantly.
This week we’ll look at one ancient philosopher’s attempt to save the Roman Empire.
Those who are already familiar with Plotinus, might know he was also inspired by Eastern philosophy, including one of the world’s oldest (and yet often overlooked) religions, Zoroastrianism.
If you want to understand a bit more about the largest religion in the ancient world by both the number of adherents and geographical scope, join me and Pablo Vazquez on September 28th at noon EDT, as we discuss The Gathas, Zoroastrianism, and the Ancient World.
Make sure to Register HERE: https://Gathas.eventbrite.ie
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P.S. The great thing about studying the past and philosophy is applying it to our modern lives. To that end, I ask you dear reader: Do you think we are currently in a period of decline? And if so, what can we do to initiate our own Renaissance? Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plotinus' Plan to Save the Roman Empire
The worry, anxiety, and disappointment over the state of things is not anything new...but how each generation responds can vary greatly from resignation to inspiration.
Second century AD Rome was such a moment and was felt by its inhabitants as a time caught up in decline.
Distraught over the apparent crumbling of the Roman world about him, one man decided on planning no less than a spiritual rebirth of classical Hellenistic philosophy. Being chiefly inspired by Plato, the philosophical movement Plotinus founded came to be known as Neoplatonism.
But who was Plotinus?
The Greek Neoplatonist was born around 204 AD and raised in Egypt, where he studied philosophy in Alexandria. Plotinus later studied under Ammonius, whose attitude to communication was Pythagorean, which essentially meant students were expected to keep all documents about the school secret. He became a student of Eastern spirituality during his military service in Persia (the Roman expedition of 244 AD) and indeed, he joined the army of the 18 year-old Roman emperor Gordian III solely in order to investigate Persian and Indian philosophers.
Unfortunately the campaign was short-lived when Gordian III was killed in battle, after which Plotinus (with great difficulty) found his way back to safety in Antioch. Soon afterwards, he settled in Rome, until his final days and death in nearby Campania.
But what of his philosophy, for which he is remembered?
Plotinus was a titan of philosophy in the Greek tradition, which spanned the seven centuries from Thales to the origins of Christendom. To many he was considered the superior Platonist, even to Plato himself.... though chronologically speaking, it is irrational to make hindsight claims. As Hypatia says, “He who influences the thought of his times influences all the times that follow. He has made his impression of eternity.”
Therefore one can never truly dethrone Plato. Nonetheless, Plotinus’ insights were revolutionary.
Contrary to the Nietzschean belief that Plato is contrary to pre-Socratic thinkers, Plotinus saw in the core of Platonism a traditional system which could unite Aristotle, Pythagoras, and Parmenides. He contended that the methods of Socrates helped condense this essential foundation of the Hellenic tradition, not weaken it.
Plotinus was already forty-nine years old before he even began writing his ideas. His great works were edited posthumously by his student Porphyry into fifty-four books called The Enneads. While each volume is of varying length and chapters, the content covers a wide scope of philosophical subjects, including: human or ethical topics, cosmological subjects or physical reality, the Soul, knowledge and intelligible reality, and finally Being and what is above it, the One or first principle of all.
Indeed, one could argue that there wasn’t an important topic Plotinus didn’t consider!
It was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Gallienus that his ideas became extremely influential throughout the Empire, and it seemed for a time that he might succeed in his plans to re-invigorate the declining civilization.
Emperor Gallienus, over friendly games of Petteia with the philosopher, agreed to let Plotinus build a second city near Rome, based on Plato’s Republic, to be called Platonopolis (seven hundred years after Plato’s death).
It was to be Rome’s ‘Alexandria’, a center for philosophical revival. Sadly this polis did not come to pass. In the words of Manly Palmer Hall, The Secret Destiny of America (1944):
“Galienus came to favor the project as the noblest experiment in time. But the Roman Senate viewed the matter with suspicion and alarm. To them it would be a serious misfortune for the aristocracy of wealth to be challenged by the aristocracy of learning!… So Galenius had to discover that emperors were not all-powerful.”
While Plotinus’ plan failed, his ideas did not. Although the pagan thinker is not often directly mentioned as an important Christian thinker, his works heavily influenced the Catholic theology (via Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Augustine) that emerged at the end of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Middle ages.
Plotinus believed that worldly fortune is not the master of human happiness, and he was one of the first philosophers to introduce the idea that eudaimonia (happiness) is attainable only within consciousness. To Plotinus, real happiness depends on the metaphysical authenticity found in the contemplation of Reason... as evident in his works:
“For man, and especially the Proficient, is not the Couplement of Soul and body: the proof is that man can be disengaged from the body and disdain its nominal goods.” (Enneads I.4.14)
“The perfect life” involves a man who commands reason and contemplation. (Enneads I.4.4)
“The Proficient’s will is set always and only inward.” (Enneads I.4.11)
According to the account of his attendant Eustochius, who looked after Plotinus in his final years, his last words were: “Try to raise the divine in yourselves to the divine in the all.”
Eustochius says that at that moment a snake slithered under his bed, then slipped out through a hole in the wall at the precise moment that Plotinus passed away.
While in the end, Plotinus was not able to fully revive the Roman Empire and reverse the trend of decline, he had in the attempt a kind of accomplishment, in reminding us of the importance of philosophy, and its potential regenerative power in the constant flux of cultural life cycle. And for that we should remember Plotinus and the emperor playing Petteia in the royal apartments, speculating over their imagined philosopher-king city-states, as both they and the empire became geriatric and passed.
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