Platonism and the Trinity: Plotinian Triad?

By Alexander Earl

So what resources might Plotinus offer for such an account? Many of these themes are already explicitly present in Plotinus’s thought, and I argue trinitarian speculation can already be intimated there as well. First, Plotinus frequently refers to the One as nothing but the power of all things in that it is the enabling condition for anything to be at all.1 But its being the power of all things, recalling Pabst, is not an Aristotelian Unmoved Mover acting merely as telos. On the contrary, the One’s transcendence is the condition for its imma­nence: “The One, perfect because it seeks nothing, has nothing, and needs nothing, over­flows, as it were, and its superabundance makes something other than itself” (Enn. V.2.1, 5-10). Since the One is perfection, it is nothing but creative power; not something that over­flows, but overflow itself. As Plotinus says, “How then could the most perfect, the first Good, remain in itself as if it grudged to give itself or was impotent: the productive power of all things?” (Enn. V.4.1, 30-35, trans. amended). The One is abundance, bestow­ing being, intel­ligibility, and goodness to all things inasmuch as they participate in its own life.

This participation brings us back to the centrality of the image-paradigm relationship. Parti­cipation does not imply identity, as if the telos of particulars was to become identical to their paradigm numerically. Such an annihilation is incoherent within this metaphysics. For the no-thing-ness of the One entails that it is not a being among beings, such that any meaning­ful difference between itself and its effects can be established; to do so would be to presume some shared ontological ground that conditions the relation, and so the One would not really be the source of all reality and thus all relationality, but only another entity within it. There­fore, when considering participation, we should think of images as unique “refractions” of their source, relationally ordered to their source in utter depen­dence, and yet retaining their own otherness, which is only a possibility within the gram­mar of transcendence.2 In which case, a helpful metaphor (but a metaphor no less) is to consider that all things are intimately related to the One as their source and sustainer in the same way a shadow is always related to the person casting it.

But thus far we do not have anything especially trinitarian to work with, save perhaps Pabst’s critique that for such relational ordering the One would have to contain some relationality within itself. But Pabst’s claim is not a vapid assertion. It rests on an implicit and essential philosophical principle, and one that we must now add to our list: (d) the Principle of Proportionate Causality [PPC]: “whatever is in an effect must be in its cause.”3 Consider the following, we do not come upon cause and effect relationships and find dispro­portionality. For instance, when I hit my cup of coffee it does not sprout wings and fly away. On the contrary, when I hit my cup of coffee it falls over in proportion to the amount of force exerted on it, and that force in turn is proportionate to the amount of force I actually exert on it, which is related to the amount of force I could potentially have exerted on it.

Now recall an earlier citation in part 2, which discussed the derivation of all things from the One, when Plotinus says, “It brought them in existence. But how did it do so? By posses­sing them beforehand” (Enn. V.3.15, 28-32). Plotinus implicitly invokes PPC in order to account for the causal power of the One. Yet Plotinus goes even further. Since all things pre-exist in the One, and all things are defined by relationality, that entails that relationality, too, in some way, must pre-exist in the One: “[The One is] cause of himself and himself from himself and through himself; for he is primarily self and self beyond being” (Enn. VI.8.14, 40-42). This passage is striking in its affirmation of the One’s simplicity, but especially a simplicity with a triadic inner life—cause (unbegotten?), from (begotten?), through (spira­ted?)—and this triadic scheme is related, or perhaps even grounds, its single selfhood; though to be clear, a selfhood analogically and paradigmati­cally.4 Plotinus even goes on to say, “And he, that same self, is lovable and love and love of himself, in that he is beautiful only from himself and in himself […] But if what keeps company is one with what it keeps company with and what is, in a way, desiring is one with the object of desire” (Enn. VI.8.15, 1-10). Here is a crucial passage. For we explicitly get a description of the One’s life as a formal pattern of indwelling, where this one self is lovable (Father?), love (Spirit?), and love of himself (Son?), and through this indwelling there is no distinction between desiring and the object of desire. Paired with Plotinus’s descriptions of the One as the power of all things, nothing but overflow, and un-begrudged givenness, the One and the Trinity begin to sound more alike than we first imagined.

It needs to be repeated, however, that all of these descriptions are said about the One as if (hoion) and, moreover, in these passages Plotinus is discussing and defending the One’s freedom by emphasizing its own self-sufficiency as the paradigm of freedom (that is as the self-existing unconditionally acting from its own nature). As Eric Perl notes in his com­mentary on this passage, Plotinus is keen on denying any external relationality on the part of the One.5 Per Plotinus, “we must say that he is altogether unrelated to anything; for he is what he is before them” (Enn. VI.8.8, 11-13). As this exclusive self-relatedness, the One “does not look to them, but they to him,” while he is “borne to his own interior” (Enn. VI.8.16, 12-13).6

But this emphasis does not pose an issue to the matter at hand. Plotinus seems to suggest that by thinking of the One as unrelated to others, as absolutely self-sufficient, in the sense of not conditioned by them whatsoever, we are naturally led into thinking of it as self-relat­ed. Put in a stronger sense: in order to think of the One as absolutely self-sufficient, we must necessarily think of it as self-related and, more importantly, Plotinus’s discus­sions of the One’s self-relatedness implies something triadic. Though a hypothetical interlocutor may quickly object that this claim is in tension with, if not in blatant contra­diction to, all of the previous reflection on God’s simplicity. On the contrary, it was not said that God was related, in the sense of oriented, to anything external to God’s self—that would entail that he was determined by those externals, since he is a being alongside them, and so is metaphysically composite due to these possible determinative orientations, and so on—but that we neces­sarily speak of God’s internal relations precisely to avoid that disastrous consequence. God is indeed immutable, in need of no object, not even himself, since he is not an object to himself in the first place. To repeat, God just is overflow, just is deflected desire, just is creativity, just is the power of all things, and so on and so on. Any supposed tension or contradiction is merely a misunderstanding of the metaphysics of relationality.

My point is not that Plotinus thought of the One as Trinity, or that he would even agree with that conceptualization. My point, rather, is that Plotinus already provides much of the rich metaphysical material to make philosophical sense of the Christian Trinity, and especially to see the Christian Trinity as the most plausible philosophical postulate for resolving the one and the many. In which case, employing Plotinus’s logic to trinitarian ends is not only con­sis­tent with his own thinking, but brings it to its proper conclusion, for Plotinus logically understands the need to affirm the utter transcendence and self-sufficiency of the One, and argues for why Aristotle’s Nous cannot fill the role; however, Plotinus’s language is clearly strained to articulate that need, and inevitably lapses into a triadic structure to ground aseity; therefore, the One, as it occurs in Plotinus, likewise cannot fulfill the role simpliciter: it requires something fully trinitarian.


This harmonization between Platonism and Christian dogma is not only consonant with the Nicene Tradition, but bolsters it, only furthered by its continuity with the historical tradi­tion. To demonstrate this claim I have relied on a number of philosophical principles in order to elucidate the Platonic grammar, but also show how the Platonian system intimates trinitarian speculation. Those principles were (a) Causality, (b) Intelligibility, (c) Simplicity, and (d) Proportionate Causality. The use of (a)-(d) leads us to the Plotinian hypostases of the One, Intellect, and Soul, and show how what is present in Intellect and Soul must pre-exist in the One. What we find is that the relational metaphysics of Plato­nism—a more plausible view than Aristotelean substance metaphysics—necessitates that this relationality likewise pre-exists in the One. In fact, we see this kind of relationality explicitly in Plotinus’s own reflections about the One’s self-sufficiency. In combination with a variety of shared philo­sophical commitments—hierarchical ontology, the image-paradigm relationship, apophatic grammar, and divine simplicity—we can begin to unpack a trinitarian theology that mani­fests itself as the fulfillment of the logic of Platonic philo­sophy. That Trinity can be summa­rized as an ecstatic overflow of relationality, which creates and sustains all things at every moment, absolutely transcendent and yet inti­mately immanent, the Good that just is desire for self-manifestation and self-bestowal on all things, and which can only be known through its generous activity toward all things, spearheaded by the Logos in the act of creation, incarnation, and redemption, and typified in the orthodox doctrine of theosis.7



[1] Enn. V.1.7; V.3.15; V.1.6.

[2] Pabst, Metaphysics, pp. 42-43.

[3] Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, pp. 170-174.

[4] More accurately, the One is even beyond simplicity (Enn. V.3.16, 15-20).

[5] Perl, Ennead V.1, p. 125.

[6] c.f. Enn. VI.8.16, 19-21; VI.8.17, 25-27.

[7] I want to thank a number of people who have aided me tremendously in the writing of this essay. Whether in terms of feedback on philosophical content, core structure, translation insights, or relevant sources, I certainly could not have produced it alone. Inexhaustible thanks to Danielle Earl, Erik Kenyon, Eric Perl, Rory O’Donnell, and Thomas Williams. Primo namque inter mundana omnia nihil est, quod amicitiae dignae praeferendum videatur (Thomas Aquinas, De Regno, 1.11.77).

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

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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.

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1 Response to Platonism and the Trinity: Plotinian Triad?

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Alex, I want to thank you for sharing with us this essay on Neoplatonism and Trinity. It’s been a fascinating read!

    Liked by 2 people

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