These days I found myself drawn to the writing of Plotinus (204-270 AD). Perhaps you would find his story curious. He was the founder of Neoplatonism and the last great philosopher of antiquity. His life is almost coextensive with one of the most disastrous periods in Roman history. Shortly before his birth, the army had become conscious of its power, and had adopted the practice of choosing emperors in return for monetary rewards, and assassinating them afterwards to give occasion for a renewed sale of the Empire. Naturally, these preoccupations unfitted soldiers for defence. War and pestilence diminished the population of the Empire by a third, while increased taxation and diminished resources caused financial ruin. The cities, which were the bearers of culture, were especially hard hit. It was not until the death of Plotinus that order was re-established and the Empire temporarily saved by Constantine.
Of all this there is no mention in the works of Plotinus. He turned aside from the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world, to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty. In this he was in harmony with all serious intellectuals of his age. To all of them, Christians and Pagans alike (Plotinus seemed to belong to neither group), the world of practical affairs seemed to offer no hope, and only the Other World was worthy of allegiance. To the early Christian, the Other World was the Kingdom of Heaven, to be enjoyed after death; to the Platonist, it was the eternal world of ideas, as opposed to the passing world of illusory appearance. Christian philosophers combined these points of view, and embodied much of the philosophy of Plotinus. Dean Inge, in his invaluable book on Plotinus, rightly emphasizes what Christianity owes to him. "Platonism", he says, "is part of the vital structure of Christian theology, with which no other philosophy can work without friction." There is, he says, "an utter impossibility of excising Platonism from Christianity without tearing Christianity to pieces". In the course of his contemplations Plotinus (who was a Pagan at first) had independently arrived at a belief in one God, a belief in the Trinity of that God with an embodiment of the Truth and the sacred spirit that dwells within all living things (nous). St. Augistine speaks of Plotinus as a man in whom "Plato lived again" and who, if he had lived a little later, would have "changed a few words and phrases and become Christian".
Plotinus played an astonishing part in the development of Christian metaphysics of the Middle Ages (although I don't have the space to discuss his own metaphysics here). The Christianity of the Synoptic Gospels is almost innocent of metaphysics. The Christianity of modern-day America, in this respect, is like primitive Christianity. Platonism is alien to popular thought and feeling in the North America (shocking as it may seem), and most North American Christians are much more concerned with duties here on earth, and with social progress in every-day world, than with the transcendental hopes that consoled people when everything terrestrial inspired despair. I am not speaking of any change in dogma, but of a difference of emphasis and interest. A modern Christian, unless he realizes how great this difference is, will fail to understand the Christianity of the past. Likewise, the current sequence of disparaging events offers us a unique perspective to empathize with the believers of nearly two thousand years past.
The moral purity and loftiness of Plotinus, in the light of the surrounding circumstances, is nothing short of amazing. He was always sincere, never censorious, and invariably concerned with the reader. He encouraged his reader to look within, rather than without, for a source of comfort and consolation. In this he is similar to the Stoics. He has given the Christian metaphysics and intellectual foundation on which Christian theology relied until the Renaissance. The Catholics, in the Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, uphold it still. He was both an end to the Greeks, and a beginning as regards Christian philosophy. Plotinus can be credited for giving the weary soul not only a faith-based, but, indeed, an intellectual consolation. Much of what we hold to be true of God and the afterlife we owe to a man who did know Christ. I find his thinking beautiful and transforming.
The piece I wanted to share with you today was recorded by a New-Zealand-based singer Hayley Westenra. It is "Quanta Qualia" by Patrick Hawes. The translation of the Latin (let us call is a tribute to Plotinus) is as follows:
O anima mea Mane! O quanta qualia Conventus gaudia Erunt. O my soul Wait! O how great and how wonderful the joys of meeting will be.
I miss you, dear friends. I hope to see you before long, and, as always, hope you are well these days.