The first, historical, answer to the question my title poses (‘What has Plotinus’ One to do with God?‘) is obviously that theologians in all three major Abrahamic faiths shared Plotinus’ conception, of a transcendent and incomprehensible simple, having no properties, and without any need of what worships it. Maximus the Confessor, writing On Knowledge 1/1: ‘God is one, without beginning, incomprehensible, possessing in his totality the full power of being, fully excluding the notions of time and quality.’ God, it is axiomatic in all those faiths, is not a thing to be named or described, and ‘belief in God’ is not like a belief in extra-terrestrial intelligences, or fairies, or the Loch Ness Monster. What is called ‘the One’, or ‘the Good’, or ‘the Centre’, must be posited if there is to be any genuine explanation of the things that are—and such an explanation cannot itself be constituted by any one of the things there are. This is the point of Bertrand Russell’s anecdote—or at any rate, I suspect it was his interlocutor’s point. Russell was approached after a lecture, you may recall, by an elderly woman who assured him that he was quite wrong about the nature and origin of the world. It rests, she told him, on a turtle’s back. And what, said Russell, does the turtle rest on? ‘You can’t catch me like that, Mr Russell. It’s turtles all the way down.’
Such a scenario, of course, would be absurd. If it were really were ‘turtles all the way down’ (or one material cause before another), then the brute fact of its being turtles rather than elephants or hippopotami would be inscrutable. Either there is no explanation—and anything at all could happen—or else the explanation lies outside all systems. The One does not exist, because it is the explanation of existence. Nor is it any particular sort of thing, identifiably different from other, co-existing things. These arguments, oddly enough, are now sometimes used to discredit theism, on the pretence that ‘God’ must name some especially large and very complex entity that might or might not exist. On the contrary, in the philosophical tradition in which Plotinus has been placed, it labels a principle that does not exist, and has no properties. It is not complex, and not contingent upon anything at all. Things that come to exist do so, in essence, because they are required to exist. What requires it is not a member of the class of all the things that have thus come to be, nor is it a particularly splendid example of any sort of thing. Philosophers may argue whether any of that makes sense (and especially whether an Explanation that no one can understand differs very much from No-Explanation-at-All) but there is no point ignoring it in favour of dissecting the putative existence of a being which cannot possibly be what theistic thinkers point to. Neither the One nor God can be the same as Mega-Big, Galactic Engineers, nor yet the Gnostic demiurge laldobaoth. Theistic explanation of this sort is simply another sort of explanation, and the only game in town: without it, there is no explanation beyond the pretence of its being ‘turtles all the way down’. On that account things just are the way they are, for no reason whatsoever, and without even any reason to suppose that they are the same from one instant or locality to another. …
Orthodox monotheists in all three of the great Abrahamic faiths—namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam—also share with Plotinus a cautious approach to images, an emphasis on personal responsibility and a disapproval of stellar determinism (a creed whose place is occupied in modern, respectable circles by genetic determinism). Where Plotinus speaks of gods, Abrahamic believers more commonly speak of angels—and neither can be simply equated with the One or even with that derived divinity, the Word. What Plotinus says of the Intellect, that it gets its being from the One as it gazes back towards the One, is said, implicitly, of the Word of God. All three Abrahamic faiths acknowledge the significance of Torah, Koran or Logos, and all agree that it derives its being from God. Judaism and Islam are—at least at first sight—more easily reconciled with Plotinus than is orthodox Christianity, in that Torah and Koran alike are clearly subordinate realities, even if they are true expressions of what God requires of all. In Christendom, the Logos is as clearly God as the Father is. Though the heavenly Koran is uncreated, and ‘enbibled’, Muslims would deny that God can have any companion or helper. That the heavenly Word should be actually identical (in some sense) both with God and with a particular, contingent entity, seems absurd or blasphemous, even though it could more readily be agreed that some contingent entity housed or represented that Word, very much as the dedicated philosopher might ascend to a moral equality with the World Soul, and a complete self-identification with Intellect. Plotinus does allow the abstract possibility of Zeus’s taking human form (and looking like Pheidias’ Zeus ), and of course any of us may rise to the level of ‘a god’, but even God the Intellect isn’t the One’s equal, and can’t be localized. In one way Zeus (the Soul) already is embodied, multiply, but not in a body worthy of Soul, or fully representing the whole Soul. Even the World Soul, which has a worthy body, is not All the Soul There Is, let alone the Intellect or the One. Even the Intellect, containing all intelligible form, is not the One (for the One is not intelligible form).
Though Plotinus argues consistently for the claim that the whole universe is animated and united by the action of one Great Soul, which also provides the bodily forms by which other individual souls are attracted down from their original and eternal home, that Great Soul is no more than an individual soul itself—our sister, not our mother. That there is such a soul is required, in Plotinus’ system, for the unity of the universe itself, for there actually being a ‘universe’ rather than an aggregate of things. Soul itself is, as it were, the Zeus to the World Soul’s Aphrodite—and any individual soul is also an Aphrodite. So Plotinus is no more ‘pantheistic’ than any orthodox Abrahamist—Jew, Christian or Muslim. The World Soul is one soul, even if it is the greatest among many (and acts without any consciousness of its own action). Intellect contains all intellects, just as in that it contains all forms of being—the sum of everything that is, including our own eternal being. Nothing that we can see or comprehend is simply the same as the One.
In Hilary Armstrong’s words, and to anticipate a little:
Plotinus’s divine mind is not just a mind knowing a lot of eternal objects. It is an organic living community of interpenetrating beings which are at once Forms and intelligences, all ‘awake and alive’, in which every part thinks and therefore is the whole; so that all are one mind and yet each retains its distinct individuality without which the whole would be impoverished. And this mind-world is the region where our own mind, illumined by the divine intellect, finds its true self and lives its own life, its proper home and the penultimate stage on its journey, from which it is taken up to union with the Good.
That last phrase may mislead: there is no question of our ever becoming the One, though we may at last find ourselves, in some sense, ‘in’ that One, or alongside it, as it were ‘in bed with it’, simply because It is closer to us than anything. In turning toward the One, the intellect is filled with the intelligibles that are its being. That is, we cannot but appreciate the One through organized multiplicity, through being self-identified with Intellect.
To put it differently: we ‘believe in God’ (if the One is God) just as in that we manage to comprehend reality as a well-ordered whole, a thing of multiple beauty unified in love. ‘A conviction that God does in some way order everything for the best seems to be an essential part of belief in him, if we mean by God what Christians have always meant.’ That ‘best’, of course, is not independent of what is meant by ‘God’: God or the One just is the criterion by which all things are to be judged—and Plotinus retained, as the Stoics did not, a notion that not everything that happened in the world was right. What makes it possible for us to do this, to learn to rejoice in being, and for there to be such a community is their, our, common focus: if we were focused ‘downwards’, towards stuff or towards private sensation, we would be at odds, and fail to see how things exist in beauty.