Platonism and the Trinity: Hierarchy and Participation

By Alexander Earl


To provide an initial sketch, Plotinus has three primary hypostases in his philosophical system: The One, Intellect (nous), and Soul (psyche). In brief, the soul, despite countless misconceptions, is not a foreign homunculus inhabiting a machine for a joy ride. It is the principle of life for a body. To be horribly tautological, soul (animus) is that which makes a body animated: alive, self-moving, and so on. It is important to understand that the soul is not an assumption, but a conclusion to rigorous philosophical reasoning. When looking out into the world, we ask what distinguishes this body from that body. Why is this body motion­less and that one capable of self-motion? Why do rocks remain still and squirrels happily gallivant? It cannot be body per se that accounts for the difference, and so there must be some additional principle to account for the differentia, and that difference we call soul. However, since we encounter different kinds of animated bodies, there must also be different activities of soul. For example, some are only capable of nourishment, others of locomotion, and still others rationality. We can ask the same question: what accounts for these differing activities? Again, it cannot be soul per se that does the differentiating. Plotinus argues that it is intellect that is “above” soul—most pertinently a rational soul—which provides soul the condition for its discursive thought. For rational souls go to and fro in their reasoning, running from premises to conclusions and back again. Intellect, on the other hand, is thought-thinking-itself; it is the all-at-once possession of the content of thought, a union between the subject that thinks and the object of its thinking. But the intellect is itself conditioned, but this in terms of a more precise causal question regarding its unity. Intellect is not simply one, but the unity of thought-thinking-itself. Therefore, the principle of unity above intellect is what Plotinus calls “the One,” the source of all things and the condition for all unity.

That is a glimpse into how one moves from soul, to intellect, to the One, but in order to bet­ter understand these postulates, it is necessary to engage in meticulous reconstruction, so as to uncover the governing philosophical principles. For, as previously mentioned, these are not Plotinus’s assumptions, but consequences to careful philosophical reasoning in light of our basic experience. Therefore, I propose three crucial philosophical principles that will aid us in said reconstruction: the principles of (a) Causality, (b) Intelligibility, and (c) Simpli­city.1 These principles in tandem motivate the “ascent of the soul” frequently found in Plo­ti­nus, and in imitating this reasoning we too can discover these three hypostases.

Regarding (a), the Principle of Causality is that nothing can go from potentiality to actuality, except by something already actual. The kindling wood in front of me cannot light itself, however desperately it tries to do so. It needs something actually heated that can “share” that actuality, so to speak. And that sharing is precisely what brings this kindling wood from potentially being on fire (an inherent quality of the wood) to actually being on fire. Plotinus uses the same kind of reasoning. For example, Plotinus continues the “what is F” reasoning well known from Plato’s dialogues. If we ask, “what is beauty,” we are asking what by which all things are beautiful.2 Whatever the answer is, we should not need to push the question further, it will simply be beauty, not some thing caused to be beautiful, nor some thing that has beauty as merely a quality or property. Per (a), it cannot be an actualized beauty, but must actually be beauty.3 It will be “Beauty” itself. Consider the following: “What is it which makes us imagine that bodies are beautiful […] the same bodies appear sometimes beautiful, sometimes not beautiful, so that their being bodies is one thing, their being beautiful anoth­er” (Enn. I.6.1). Upon an investigative search for beauty, we find the sources of that investi­gation (that is, bodies) are fleeting, decaying, and changing. For that reason, the same body can be beautiful at one time and ugly at another. Any actualized beauty is potentially not beautiful. A dirty lump of natural marble needs some shape and polishing to prepare it for sculpting, but then it also needs the sculptor to actualize it into, say, the statue of David. However, when I, being the degenerate iconoclast that I am, decide to efface the statue in a fit of rage too unspeakable for print, David goes from beauty to bust in a gratuitous moment. What does this example reveal to us? Being beautiful does not seem to follow from being a body. If it did, then a beautiful stone statue would be just as beautiful as a lump of stone, and clearly it is not.4 Since it appears that beauty is a characteristic of bodies that can either be present or not present at any given time, Plotinus argues that beauty cannot reside princi­pally in body.5 In which case, Plotinus concludes that bodies must display reflections (or images) of an eidos (an idea, look, or form), but are themselves not properly that eidos: bodies are images of a higher reality and that higher reality can only be described as more “real”. Therefore, beauty must reside in form, not body.

Let us go a step further and say, as in the case of beauty, so in the case of soul. Thus princi­ple (a) can be applied to ask, to what does the soul owe its intellectual powers? For soul employs discursive reasoning and is subject to affections, and so, by principle (a), there must be some intellect that is actually intellect which actualizes intellect in soul.6 In addressing this issue Plotinus has in mind a disputed problem among Platonists in the 3rd century: does this universal intellect think the forms as from outside it, or does it possess them?7 While at first glance this issue may appear esoteric, it is in fact absolutely crucial, for Plotinus has in mind the perennial problem of skepticism. The moment one admits of a subject-object dichotomy, one must account for how the subject has access to the object, or how it can ever know it has attained adequate access to the object. Therefore, to refute skep­ticism, Plotinus posits that intellect must possess the forms as its own content. Con­sider the alternative. If intellect does not possess its object, then intellect’s intellection is actualized by something outside it, and this so-called intellect is only potentially intellec­tual, and thus, in accordance with (a), it is not really intellect at all, since it would admit non-thinking, falsity, and so on.8 However far we follow the inquiry, in order to ever have any meaningful intellection, we must come to something that is actually and properly intellect. Its being will be thinking and what it thinks will be itself or, as Plotinus says, “all together are one, Intellect, intellection, and the intelli­gible” (Enn. V.3.5, 45).

The trajectory of principle (a) has led us to principle (b): to be is to be intelligible.9 For since intellect possesses the forms (or the intelligibles) then what it thinks are the real beings. And since it thinks itself, its existence contains the real beings.10 It is thought thinking thought.11 But contrary to Aristotle, Plotinus does not think intellect is the final level of reality, and he argues by using Aristotle’s own principles: to be at all requires some unity, for anytime we understand some thing, we understand it as that one thing that it is in contradistinction to everything else.12 As Plotinus argues, “For what could anything be if it was not one? For if things are deprived of the one which is predicated of them they are not those things” (Enn. VI.9.1). For that reason, for anything to be at all, it must partici­pate in oneness. Thus we hastily come upon principle (c): the Principle of Prior Simplicity. Principle (c) is in fact a specific application of (a) to the question of a thing’s integrity, and since intellect is an actualized one, principle (a) reveals that intellect cannot be the highest level of reality. How is intellect composite? For although intellect is one, in that it thinks itself, it is also double, in that it thinks something, namely, itself. Plotinus’s criticism relies on the intentionality of thinking in that there is a necessary distinction between the act of thinking and the object of thought, and only with both can you have thinking proper. As Plotinus explains, “if it was intellect it would have to have an object of thought, and if it was thinking in the primary sense it would have to have its object in itself” (Enn. V.6.2). So we have two important points regarding intellect. First, in order for intellect to be thinking it must be double as act of thinking and object of thought, and, second, in order for it to be intellect its object of thought must not be outside it such that its thought is actualized by something external: “it must therefore be one and a pair” (Enn. V.6.1).13 This criticism coupled with our threfe philosoph­ical principles entails that there must be a principle before intellect that actualizes its unity.14

For since the nature of the One is generative of all things it is none of them. It is not therefore something or qualified or quantitative or intellect or soul; it is not in movement or at rest, not in place, not in time, but “itself by itself of single form”, or rather formless, being before all form, before movement and before rest; for these pertain to being and are what make it many. (Enn. VI.9.3, 40-45, trans. amended)

If the One is the cause of intellect and intellect is real being and pure intellect, then that means the first principle of all must be “beyond being,” “beyond form,” and “beyond intellect.”15 Further, since the One is the cause of all things (i.e. intellect), then it cannot be all things or any one thing, but must be oneness itself, for it could not cause the totality of all things if it were a thing within that totality. As a result, the One is no-thing, bestowing on intellect its oneness, and in that case its existence.


Before reflecting further on the One, let us examine this hierarchy from a different perspec­tive, for the above does not quite capture one of its most central features, that is, that each level of reality is an “image” (eikon, eidolon) of the One. If the previous section can be seen as more metaphysical, now we turn to the epistemological dimension. Let us “ascend” once more, but this time with an eye to the language of image.

There are two principal passages from Plato that establish the image-paradigm relation, though here I will only address the passage from the Republic (the other can be found in the Timae­us).16 The first half of the passage in question is the discussion of the divided line, and the second is the allegory of the cave. When discussing the divided line, Plato refers to the lowest subsection of the visible world as images and the second subsection as the originals of these images. He elaborates, “by images I mean, first, shadows, then reflections in water and in all close-packed, smooth, and shiny materials, and everything of that sort. […] In the other subsection of the visible, put the originals of these images, namely, the animals around us, all the plants, and the whole class of manufactured things.”17 This passage draws attention to an ontological structure that we are familiar with. Sometimes we come across reflections or images of things, such as a plant’s shadow, and recognize that while there is a special kind of identity between the plant and its shadow, there is also a significant ontological difference.18 The plant is more real than its shadow in a number of ways, say, in the fact that it is 3-dimen­sional, alive, and full of color, while, on the other hand, its shadow is a blurred, 2-dimen­sional, lifeless, presenta­tion that provides the minimal visual contours of the plant. Qua presentation, the shadow is not the plant itself, the plant is the real thing and the shadow is not. The allegory of the cave takes this experience and reflects further on its ontological and epistemological status: one begins with shadows on the wall, moving to see the pup­pets that cast the shadows, to the fire that illuminates them, then outside of the cave to reflections in the water, to the foliage that causes them, and finally to the sun which is their source.19 Each progressive step along the ascent from the cave is a turn from images to their archetypes, which themselves are images of some further archetypes, all the way up to the source of all, that which is not an image of anything but is the cause and condition for all visual images, the sun.

Plotinus readily adopts this imagistic ontology. Upon reflecting on the nature of soul, one sees that it is rational and hence discursive. Such rationality depends upon something more real, that is, something more actual [principle (a)], i.e. intellect. We discover:

For although [soul] is such a thing as our account has shown, it is an image of intellect. As a word in utterance is the expression of [the word] in soul, so too [soul] is the expression of intellect and its whole activity and the life which it sends forth for the existence of another.10 (Enn. V.1.3, 5-10)

Likewise, the ascent to intellect reveals the nature of intellect [principle (b)]:

If one marvels at this sensible cosmos, looking at its own magnitude and beauty and the order of its everlasting motion, and the gods in it, some of whom are seen and others invisible, and the spirits, and all the animals and plants, let him, ascending to its archetype, to what is more true, behold there all things intelligible and eternal with it in its own awareness and life, and chief of these the undefiled intellect and immense wisdom, and what is truly the life “in the age of Cronus,” the god who is fullness and intellect. For it encompasses in itself all things immortal, every intellect, every god, every soul, ever at rest (Enn. V.1.4, 1-14).

But despite intellect’s unique and necessary status, one discovers “that intellect is an image of that” (Enn. V.1.7); it depends upon some higher principle for its unity, i.e. “the One” [principle (c)]. The One plays the same role that Plato’s sun does: it is the condition for there to be anything at all. Plotinus explains, “It brought them in existence. But how did it do so? By possessing them beforehand […] they are distinguished on the second level, in the ratio­nal form [logoi]”21 (Enn. V.3.15, 28-32). The One, therefore, is the whole of reality held together without distinction. In which case, as Eric Perl explains, the rela­tionship between image and archetype is one of different levels or degrees of presentation and possession of the same content. Each level of reality is an expression (logos) of the level “above” it.22 So what the One is without distinction, Intellect is with minimal dis­tinction (One-Many), Soul is with further distinction (One and Many), and the Cosmos is with even further distinction (Enn. V.1.8, 25-29). In short, reality is a progression of images, a further and further unfold­ing of the same content in lesser, more inferior degrees. Or as Plotinus says, all reality “is a trace of the One” (Enn. V.5.5, 15).



[1] These principles should not be confused as occurring chronologically; rather, they are deeply interrelated. For an overview of each see: John Bussanich ‘Plotinus’ Metaphysics of the One,’ in Gerson (1996), p. 46; Eric D. Perl, Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition (Leiden, NL: Koninkliiike Brille. 2014), and Dominic O’Meara, Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads (New York NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 44-53, respectively.

[2] I use beauty, despite its abstract and controversial nature, due to its importance in the tradition. For Plato, beauty is the standard of the Good, the prime medium of contact with the Good, and the impetus that stirs us to love the Good. See Adrian Pabst, Metaphysics: the creation of hierarchy (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012), pp. 46-7.

[3] This reasoning is expanded in Aristotle’s theory of causation, of which the terms ‘actually,’ ‘actuality,’ and so on, are appropriated by Plotinus: “For in what way will the potential become actual, if there is no cause to bring it to actuality? For if it happens by chance, there is a possibility of its not coming to actuality. So we must assume that the first realities are actual and without deficiencies and perfect” (Enn. V.9.4-5).

[4] See Enn. V.8.1

[5] Cf. Enn. I.6.2, 15; V.8.2, 15; V.9.1, 10-15

[6] Enn. V.9.5; c.f. V.1.11

[7] Enn. V.5

[8] For further analysis on the role of skepticism in the development of Plotinus’s philosophical system, which is often overlooked, see Dominic J O’Meara, “Skepticism and Ineffability in Plotinus,” Phronesis 45 (2000): 240-251.

[9] Or as Plotinus says, quoting Parmenides (Fragment B3), “thinking and being are the same thing” (Enn. V.1.8, 17; V.9.5, 29).

[10] Enn. V.9.5, 10-20.

[11] Aristotle, Metaphysics XII.9 1074b34.

[12] Ibid. III.4 1001b5.

[13] Cf. Enn. VI.7.36.

[14] Enn. V.1.5, 5-10; V.4.1; V.5.3; VI.9.2, 30-35.

[15] Enn. VI.9.6.

[16] See Plato’s Timaeus 92c6-9 for the cosmos as an image of the intelligible.

[17] Republic 509d-510a, trans. G.M.A. Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve in John M. Cooper, ed. Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).

[18] In Ennead VI.4, Plotinus distinguishes between 2 types of images: substantial (like portraits and statues) and insubstantial (such as shadows). Though they come from a source, substantial images can exist on their own. Insubstantial images, however, continue to depend upon their source. It is the latter type that Plotinus takes to be the most relevant sense of talking about the relationship between the levels of reality.

[19] Republic 514a-516c.

[20] Cf. Enn. V.1.6, 45; V.1.7, 30-45.

[21] Cf. Enn. V.2.1, 2.

[22] Eric D. Perl, Ennead V.1: On the Three Primary Levels of Reality (Las Vegas NV: Parmenides Publishing, 2015), pp. 16-18, 84-85.

Excerpted from the article: “Lovable and Love and Love of Himself: Intimations of Trinitarian Theology in the Metaphysics of Plotinus” in the International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 60, No. 1 (March 2020). doi: 10.5840/ipq202013145

(Go to “Apophaticism and Pure Relationality”)

* * *

Alexander Earl currently teaches Theology and Philosophy at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School. He is the author of the “award-winning” articles “In Defense of Christian Platonism” and “Plotinus, Augustine, and the One God.”

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14 Responses to Platonism and the Trinity: Hierarchy and Participation

  1. Wayne Fair says:

    If anyone comes to this post and finds it too esoteric – and wonders what it has to do with the usual fare of “Eclectic Orthodoxy” or “Orthodoxy” proper – This one quotation/proposition should provide a provocative context: “…one cannot separate Christianity from Hellenism any more than one can entirely separate Christianity from Judaism, and the Judaism from which Christianity emerges is already substantially Hellenized.” (Earl – In Defense of Christian Platonism).
    For me, one of the most jarring chapters in the whole of scripture is Acts 17 – where we get intimations of how deep Paul’s knowledge of Greek philosophy apparently was – and one wonders (in reading the Pauline corpus) at hints here and there of just how “Hellenized” Paul was in some fundamental sense. All said to say: it just might be the case that understanding Neoplatonism is critical – even necessary – to understanding much of the New Testament (at least, in particular, Paul’s writings).
    So – thanks for posting this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Two books by Andrew Louth in this context which I have been grateful to have read are The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition : From Plato to Denys and Denys the Areopagite.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I”m kind of tired of my allies on Universal Salvation being fans of Platonism. Plato should actually our greatest enemy, the true final boos we need to defeat, because the doctrine of Endless Firey Torment doesn’t come from The Bible it comes from The Republic.


    • TJF says:

      He got one thing wrong, doesn’t make him our biggest enemy.


      • Well me that’s not the only thing he got wrong. Christina Hopophobia also comes form Plato, as does Calvanist and Augustine’s Predestination obsession. Also just the general Valentinian attitude that the Carnal world is a prison we need liberation from. Also Plato’s Political Ideology was basically Fascism.


    • Alexander says:

      Unfortunately, I do not think that level of scapegoating will work with Plato. It is, at any rate, contrary both to his own texts and the historical reception of them. To give just two examples: (1) Tertullian is by no means a partisan of Platonism, as I’m sure you’re aware (“what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?), and yet he loves fire and brimstone. See “On the Games,” which has some rather vivid portrayals of the damned and the delight of the blessed in gazing upon it (it is rightly criticized by Friedrich Nietzsche for its perfect display of ressentiment). (2) The historical debate about apokatastasis, which clearly has you concerned, is primarily against Origen, and the charge is that he overly Platonizes (see, for example, Justinian’s condemnations). So the reality is really quite the opposite. The fear in most cases is that a too eager embrace of Platonism will get you universalism, along with some other questionable metaphysical conclusions. Some of the fathers, like Origen, seemed more willing to entertain those speculations (like the pre-existence of souls), while others, like Gregory of Nyssa, were not. However, the truth of the matter, and Origen is clear about this, is that in the 3rd century there really was no settled position on some of the topics.

      As to Plato himself, he gives a number of such myths. There is the Myth of Er in the Republic, there is a myth at the end of the Phaedo, a myth in the Timaeus, among others. Now Plato is rather clear that these are myths and are not to be taken literally. Let me give you a passage from the Phaedo that follows the myth:

      “No sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for a man to risk the belief–for the risk is a noble one–that this, or something like this, is true about our souls and their dwelling places, since the soul is evidently immortal, and a man should repeat this to himself as if it were an incantation, which is why I have been prolonging my tale.” (Phaedo 114d-e)

      The whole point of the myth is to give the soul some inspiration and motivation to practice philosophy and take seriously the repercussions for a life of bodily attachment (no one dies for arguments, by the way…). The myth given in the Phaedo, similar to the one in the Republic, talks of punishments and rewards in the afterlife that match the person’s state of soul. Plato is clear that these reward and punishments are natural to the soul; that is, how we live “fits us up” to the reality we will endure when the soul is separated from the body. It really is not that different from the Christian ascetic tradition, which emphasizes the individual soul’s impending judgment, the threat of hell, the failure to achieve sanctity, and so on. It’s unclear how you will hold Plato and the tradition of Platonism accountable as the great purveyor of hellfire. In point of fact, it seems those positively disposed to Platonism leaned toward universalism, and those who were hostile to it developed other dubious positions.

      There are always limits. It’s obvious, for instance, that Christianity and Platonism are not synonymous. However, you cannot make any decent sense out of Christianity without Platonism. What I try to do in this article is point out what some of the basic contours of metaphysical Platonism the fathers could not help but adopt. In fact, “Platonism” is a pretty big tent, and the actual Platonic positions condemned in the 6th century are not Platonism simpliciter, i.e. pre-existence of soul, transmigration, pre-existent matter, and so on. These are specific positions a Platonist may or may not hold. Consider them the equivalent of thelougomena for Platonists (though, to be fair, Plotinus and Proclus would deny the pre-existence of matter as metaphysically impossible). Hence, I would take Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor to be just as legit Platonists as Plotinus himself, even though they both vehemently deny the pre-existence of souls and transmigration of souls.

      In short, if you want to blame someone for the ills and error of infernalism, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have for awhile been skeptical of the claims that Tertulian was a true infernalist, he talks about Hades but does not contradict that Hades is temporary.

        I don’t personally like Origen, his notion of Apokatastasis is NOT what I mean Unviersal Salvation. I much prefer the Antiochian School.

        Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo were the main popularizers of Endless Torment within the Church.


      • That critics of that scene from Tertulian were taking it out of context. His real view is to be found earlier in the work, ch. 19, 2: “the innocent can find no pleasure in another’s sufferings: he rather mourns that a brother has sinned so heinously as to need a punishment so dreadful.”

        And Tertulian was associating these torments mainly with Hades, while clearly being well aware of the inevitable end of Hades. Fact is his discussion of Eschatology fails to clarify exactly what he thinks happens After the Resurrection.

        His quotation of the same Rule of Faith Irenaus alludes to does show that the tendency to mistranslate Aionion as Aeternus was already happening. But I’ve argued that you can argue for Universal Salvation even with the word Eternal in all those verses.


        • I was going over his On The Resurrection of The Flesh, and the section that most seems like it’s affirming endless torment is in the context of refuting annihilationism and a little confusing. And that is not his final word on the subject, he later says “all flesh shall see the Salvation of God” and that God will “pour out His Spirit on all Flesh”.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mithrandir, I believe it is an error to pose a conflict between Bible and philosophy. We are all philosophers and inevitably bring to our reading of Scripture the philosophy that shapes our minds. The big question is whether we are good or bad philosophers. God of course knows this, and became incarnate at a time in human history when he knew that the gospel would be apprehended by those already informed by the philosophy of Plato and his disciples. Thus the great challenge of the Church during those early centuries was to Christianize Hellenistic philosophy and make it a suitable vehicle for theological reflection.

      The two greatest Christian Platonists in the first five hundred years of Christian theology were Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa. They both came to a deep belief in apokatastasis through their reading of the Scriptures. I commend to you the essay by Ilaria Ramelli, “Christian Soteriology and Christian Platonism.”

      Liked by 3 people

      • Origen and Nyssa’s sotelrolgoy wa sinspite of their Platonism. Augustine and Cyril were mroe consistent Platonists then they were. And it was the Antiochoans who rejected their allegorizing approach that were the most Consistently Unviersalist.


  3. horizon74 says:

    For better or for worse, one finds oneself torn between the Catechism and Plotinus. And then there is the politics.
    Thanks for this splendid work.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Tangentially, but perhaps ‘relevantly’, in the ekphrasis on the eye in his sermon on the man born blind, St. Asterius of Amasea uses a word meaning ‘off-shadowed’ for the reflection one sees in a metal mirror – which the translators of the Dutch version I am reading (Frederik van der Meer and G.J.M. Bartelink) note is “the ordinary word for ‘depict’, ‘draw’ and ‘paint'” (my translation). (Unfortunately, I do not have access to Datema’s edition, from which they translate: the passage occurs in PG 40, column 256: see footnote 31.)


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