It is clear from what we have said that there is nothing original or significant in Plotinus's ethics and theodicy. Nevertheless his "historical significance" has always been based upon them. The Middle Ages and modern times, up to our day, intoxicate themselves with the ideas of the Stoics transmitted through Plotinus. St. Augustine and Master Eckehardt, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Hegel, like the philosophers living today, all feel the more or less clearly expressed conviction that we must content ourselves with natural miracles, since the supernatural are impossible. This thought is, of course, never expressed in these words. The proof of the impossibility of the supernatural miracle is not generally connected in any way with the assertion that we must content ourselves with natural miracles. Even among the Stoics the words which we quoted about Mercury's wand are isolated. The theory of knowledge, i.e. the doctrine of objective truth, is usually worked out quite independently of ethics and theodicy, the purpose of which is the justification of the world and the Creator.
Yet it is not for nothing that so much is said of the "unity" of the philosophic outlook. Ethics has always been indissolubly bound up with the theory of knowledge; it proceeded from it and was conditioned by it. When that theory set out its principle of natural necessity or the impossibility of the miraculous, nothing remained for ethics and theodicy except to offer in place of the impossible supernatural miracles their own natural and possible miracles. Self-evident truth shows that two idlers, Anytus and Meletus, poisoned Socrates, whom Plato calls the best of all men, and the Delphic god the wisest of all men. Man cannot alter this, for as reason tells us, what once has been done cannot be undone. Reason, and surely reason alone, knows what is possible and what impossible. And it knows, too, that our business is only to strive for the possible and not to yearn after the impossible. There is nothing left for ethics but, having taken over ready-made reality from reason, to declare that that reality never existed; that it is not even reality but only appearance; that genuine reality is not that which is given to man, but that which man himself creates. For, as the Stoics taught, only that which we have in our power is of value to us, while everything which we have not in our power is indifferent to us and is thus as though it did not exist for us; or more simply still, as though it did not exist at all.
Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves again: How was it possible for ethics to appropriate the rights of ontology? In other words, how does it create its natural miracles? Wherein lies the secret of Mercury's wand? This is, after all, not a secret which may not be revealed; the Stoics' miracles also are natural miracles, and their mysteries do not fear the light of day. There is nothing in the Stoic doctrine which has to be hidden from the uninitiated. Even Plotinus, who knows that a mystery can never become a universally accessible truth, is as clear and honest in his ethics and theodicy as the Stoic sages. To work miracles, he teaches, one has only to deny the body; not only one's own body, but the whole physical world. The world of bodies is not subject to man. We cannot make lonely Socrates become stronger than Anytus and Meletus, with the Athenians who stood behind them. We cannot make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, conquered conquerors, the dead to live, etc. But we can, as the Stoics teach, say to ourselves: It is one to us whether we are blind or see, conquered or conquerors, whether we live or die. All this does not touch us, but only our bodies. Even if the fatherland perishes, we can say that it is one to us. Everything that happens in the physical, sensuous world is indifferent to us. The human soul is not called on to obey but to command. The Good is independent and follows its own laws. The Good does not acquire its principles from the outer world, it subjects the outer world to its principles. All impressions coming from without are only messengers (angeloi) who report what happens; but the soul is the king (basileus), to whom supreme power is given to rule over all. But if this is so, if the power to bind and to loose belongs to the soul, whom or what should it fear ? There is nothing in the universe which he need fear whose soul has denied the physical world.
Both for the Stoics and for Plotinus it was absolutely self-evident that battle against the "natural necessity" which the world begets is vain. We can only fight against the human ego, against our valuation of that which is given us. We grumble, are angry, rejoice, weep, triumph, despair, hope, etc., according to whether fate brings us success or failure. Every one believes that this must be so and cannot and ought not to be altered. But this is just what can and must be altered. We only need to transfer that which men treasure or fear into the sphere of the indifferent and we turn ourselves from slaves into kings, from men into gods. The free being, king or God, takes and expects nothing from any one. He fears neither poverty nor sickness nor banishment, nor even death. The toad is crushed, Socrates is poisoned, the fatherland perishes; all that must be so, it does not touch the sage and does not affect him. The magic wand works its natural miracles and the reasonable man despises the words which Job in the Bible pours out in the belief that his sorrow could in some supernatural balances prove itself heavier than the sand of the sea. "Was wirklich ist, ist vernünftig." ("What is real is rational.")
I keep on speaking of Plotinus and Epictetus as though I were identifying Stoicism with Neo-Platonism. I think this should have been done long ago; not, of course, an identification, but a much closer assimilation than has hitherto been usual. The "doctrines" of the Stoics and of the Neo-Platonists spring without any doubt from the same root. Philosophy has always been, as I have said, struggle against and conquest of self-evident truths. But each time that a philosopher has had to choose between self-evident truths which have to be overcome and those which can be accepted, the basic trait of our nature has shown itself: the mistrust of the creative forces, i.e. of the possibility of anything new and unaccustomed in the world. Hence the enmity between "revealed" truth and "scientific" truth. According to Thomas Aquinas, God Himself can achieve nothing which does not accord with the principles of human reason. Ex nihilo nihil fit; accordingly that which is has always been, and nothing will ever be added to that which has been. Therefore, only natural miracles are possible and God Himself, as Spinoza proved so brilliantly in his Tractatus Theologico-politicus, can only be a natural miracle created by man. But since man can only create "ideal" entities, only principles and ideas, then God Himself, whom man has created, must be a purely ideal entity.
Man has no power over the world of realities; not merely can he create no single living creature, he cannot even call into being a lifeless thing, not even an atom which barely achieves reality. Thus God too can create nothing; the world exists of itself from all eternity, in virtue of the same "natural necessity". Yes, but does the world exist at all? Is it not merely a deceptive veil, a mirage, of which we must free ourselves at all costs? The Biblical tradition that God created the world out of nothing is completely inacceptable to our reason, it runs counter to the true essence of reason; the scientific truth that ex nihilo nihil fit will never bow its proud head before this theological truth. Since the law of contradiction, in its turn, will never yield, it is inevitable that the two truths should have sooner or later to fight out together a supreme final battle. (agôn megistos kai eschatos tais psychaîs prokeitai. Enn. I, vi, 7.)
And this has come about; in modern times scientific truth has, of course, gained a complete victory. Of all the "proofs" of God's existence the ontological alone has kept its force, and that because it is in complete agreement with the self-evident truths of reason; that is to say, in this proof ethics have completely ousted ontology. God is the most perfect of all entities, but the idea of perfection is defined by the reason alone; we can thus be quite certain that in this definition we shall find no elements inacceptable to reason. Even the predicate of "reality", which has always given reason the greatest difficulties, has been made innocuous in the ontological proof, or, as clever people prefer to say in such cases, has been so far "explained" that it has neither rivalry nor quarrel with the predicate of the "ideal". Hegel was able to defend the ontological proof of God with a good conscience; he knew that his Logos suffered nothing from it, and that the sovereign rights of reason, so far from suffering, received new confirmation, while Mercury's wand remained in his hands. God will be robbed of the possibility of achieving supernatural miracles; but man will keep all the more safely that power of his to do natural miracles of which Epictetus boasted.