One thing is sure: in Plotinus, as also in some important representatives of the Middle Ages, theological truth or the truth of revelation is at irreconcilable enmity with philosophical truth, or science in the usual sense of the word. But another thing is sure also: in contrast to the thought of the Middle Ages, Plotinus never expresses his thought on the mutual relationship between these two truths with the clarity and decision which would be desirable. He speaks of this as though there were no question, as though no question were possible, or as though this question answered itself. In the sixth Ennead (ix, 3, 4) he writes: "Whenever the soul approaches the Formless (aneideon) it fears lest it be confronted with "nothingness" (eksolisthanei kai phobeîtai, mê ouden echêi), being unable to grasp it, because it has no definition and no marks of a special type - and it flees. Before such phenomena it becomes uncertain and withdraws into lower spheres... The main ground of our uncertainty comes from the fact that the comprehension of the One (i.e. the truth of revelation) is not given us through learned knowledge (epistêmê) and also not through thinking (noêsis) like the cognition of other ideal things (ta alla noêta) but through a communion (parousia) which is something higher than knowledge. When the soul acquires scientific cognition of a matter, it departs from the One (again meaning, from the truth of revelation) and ceases to be One; for every scientific knowledge presupposes a ground, and every ground presupposes a multiplicity (logos gar hê epistêmê, polla de ho logos).
This means that Plotinus is unfaithful to the fundamental command of his divine master, in that he abandons the logos (reason) and becomes in Plato's phraseology a misologos, a hater of reason - for Plato taught that to be a misologist is the greatest misfortune that can befall a man. Plotinus himself has said: In the beginning is reason and all is reason (archêi oûn logos kai panta logos: III, ii, 15) - and his disciples and successors have repeated these words again and again.
If, then, reason is the ground of all things and all things are reason, if it is the greatest of misfortunes to renounce reason and to hate it, then how, one wonders, could Plotinus exalt with such enthusiasm his "One", and deep participation in it. And what has happened to the law of contradiction, which is also an archê (beginning, fundamental principle), indeed, a bebaiôtatê tôn archôn, the most unshakable of all fundamental principles? I think that this question can in no wise be evaded; I think, too, that Plotinus's modern commentators are wrong in trying so hard to prove that Plotinus never renounced reason, and that when he thought and wrote down his thoughts he never turned his gaze away from the law of contradiction. It seems to me that old Zeller saw more clearly and came nearer the truth when he declared fearlessly: "It is in contradiction with the whole trend of classical thought and a decided approach to the spiritual methods of the East when Plotinus, like some Philo, can find the final purpose of philosophy only in a contemplation of the divine in which all decision of thought and all clarity of self-consciousness vanish in mystical ecstasy" (V, vi, 11). In another passage Zeller expressed himself more sharply still: "The philosopher (viz. Plotinus) has lost absolute confidence in his thought" (V, iv, 82). Zeller is undoubtedly right. The same Plotinus who extolled reason and thought so often and so passionately has lost his trust in reason and become, in spite of the Platonic tradition, a misologist, a hater of reason.
A fact of the highest importance. And it is very regrettable that Zeller, who observed this extraordinarily rare phenomenon, yet failed to contemplate it more closely, to penetrate it more deeply, contenting himself with the traditional reference to Philo's influence and eastern ways of thought. I will not go here into the question of whether Plotinus knew Philo and whether he was initiated into the secrets of Oriental wisdom; not because I have no space, but because I consider this question useless and purposeless. Even if Plotinus did know of it, he knew also of the classical philosophy. He "knew" much more besides, and of course he knew very well what Plato says about the misologos and Aristotle about the law of contradiction, on which alone all clarity and certainty are based and the strength of which rests again on clarity and distinctness. What could have given him the audacious thought of refusing obedience to the supreme ruler, bebaiôtatêi tôn archôn, the unshakable principle? How could he forget Plato's warning and abandon himself to the miserable existence of a misologos? Can he really have been persuaded to this by Philo's writings or the words of the Oriental sages?
Such explanations are the regular thing in the history of philosophy. In my opinion, however, they would only be appropriate if the history of philosophy took for its task the study of the works of mediocre and untalented philosophers. For such philosophers a book which they have read does in fact determine much or even all. But it is quite improper to speak of the influences of ideas on Plotinus. Plotinus's "ideas" spring directly from his own spiritual experiences, from his fate, by virtue of what he saw with his own eyes and heard with his own ears. And if he dared to fight against the law of contradiction and condemn himself to the lot of a misologos, this was by no means because someone had somewhere committed such an act of daring before him. There were much deeper and far more important reasons at work here.
Porphyry, Plotinus's pupil and biographer, who is at pains, like all devoted pupils and biographers, to ensure for his teacher the admiration and honour of the later world, tells us many details of his life. Plotinus was very unselfish, very honest; he was a very clever and astute man. He enjoyed in the fullest degree the love and confidence of his fellow men, and was, therefore, often chosen to be guardian of young orphans, appointed arbitrator, asked for his advice in difficult cases, etc. And those who applied to him were always satisfied. The property of the minor remained intact; a senator who was suffering from gout was relieved of his pain; once a rich lady who had been robbed of her valuables actually succeeded, thanks to Plotinus, in learning who had been the thief. We may assume that everything that Porphyry tells us is true. Plotinus was certainly not seduced by the riches entrusted to him; his advice to the senator and the lady was probably sound. No doubt men who knew him believed, like his conscientious biographer, that these practical virtues were intimately connected with his philosophy. It is even extremely probable that the reason why his philosophy was so highly esteemed was because it was, as they say, justified by the philosopher's life.
The same story was repeated of Spinoza in modern times. His philosophy, too, impressed many people primarily because he led a moral life. But it would certainly have been impossible to find among Plotinus's contemporaries in Rome, perhaps not many, but some dozens of men who would have administered the property of others no less conscientiously, have given equally good advice, and possessed a faculty of observation as keen as Plotinus's. In seventeenth-century Holland, too, people could have been found no less unselfish, modest, and "quiet" than Spinoza. But they were no philosophers. It might have been better if we had been told less about Plotinus's and Spinoza's virtues. Their virtues sank with them into the grave, but their works have lived on. They are what we have to decipher, and they are not made less enigmatic through the narratives of their biographers. These narratives help us as little as the references to the influence of Philo Judaeus or the eastern sages.
The same Porphyry tells us - quite incidentally, as though it were not worth mentioning - that his master never read through what he had written. And again, as though Plotinus's future readers were not to ponder too much on this peculiar quality, he adds as explanation: He did not read, because he had weak eyes. I cannot understand how this explanation can satisfy any one. If Plotinus had weak eyes, there were plenty of his pupils and friends there with good ones. Porphyry himself, or others, could have lent their master their eyes. But it seems that Plotinus needed neither his own eyes nor those of others. It was not necessary, it was not commanded to read through again what had once been written down. Did this never enter conscientious Porphyry's head? And yet it is the only possible explanation. Plotinus did not read what he had written down, because he was unable to think out, or to repeat twice, one and the same thing. In fact, we have just heard from Plotinus that "what matters" (to timiôtaton), which formed the subject of his philosophy, could endure no definition, as on the other hand our ordinary thought endures no formlessness. When the soul approaches reality it is seized with horror, it seems to it that it is sinking into "nothingness" and perishing. And conversely when we try to catch the last, supreme reality in the nets of our definite and clear formulae of ready-made familiar categories, it slips through those meshes, like water through a fisherman's net; before our eyes it turns into a dreadful "nothingness". It was not because his eyes prevented him that Plotinus did not read through his writings; he could only write down what he did if he himself had never again to read it, for if he had resolved, or had for any reason been forced, to read through what he had written down, then he himself would have had to pronounce upon himself the judgment which Zeller passed on him fifteen hundred years later; he would have had to tell himself that he had lost trust in reason.