Plotinus’ Mystical Teaching of Henosis

An Interpretation in the Light of the Metaphysics of the One

by Pao-Shen Ho (Author)
©2015 Thesis XVI, 172 Pages


Plotinus’ mysticism of henosis, unification with the One, is a highly controversial topic in Plotinian scholarship. This book presents a careful reading of the Enneads and suggests that Plotinus’ mysticism be understood as mystical teaching that offers practical guidance concerning henosis. It is further argued that a rational interpretation thereof should be based on Plotinus’ metaphysics, according to which the One transcends all beings but is immanent in them. The main thesis of this book is that Plotinus’ mystical teaching does not help man attain henosis on his own, but serves to remind man that he fails to attain henosis because it already pertains to his original condition. Plotinus’ mysticism seeks to change man’s misconception about henosis, rather than his finite nature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Abstract
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgment
  • Notes on Reference and Translations
  • Abbreviations
  • Works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
  • Works of Other Authors
  • Introduction
  • Section 1 The Historical Reception of Plotinus’ Thought
  • 1.1 The Extent of Plotinus’ Influence
  • 1.2 The Role of Proclus in the Reception of Neoplatonism
  • Section 2 The Scholarly Approaches to Mysticism
  • 2.1 The Theological Approach to Mysticism
  • 2.2 The Psychological and Comparative Approach to Mysticism
  • 2.3 The Philosophical Approach to Mysticism
  • 2.4 Reflections on the Approaches to the Study of Mysticism
  • Section 3 Subject, Method and Structure of the Present Study
  • Chapter 1 Plotinus’ Metaphysics of the One
  • Section 1 The Standard Account
  • Section 2 The Radical Transcendence of the One
  • 2.1 “The One” as Oneness
  • 2.2 “The One” as Simplicity
  • 2.3 “The One” as the Illocutionary Self-Denial
  • Section 3 The Radical Immanence of the One
  • Chapter Summary
  • Chapter 2 The Practice of Philosophy
  • Section 1 Different Desires and the Desire for Knowledge
  • 1.1 Toward an Interpretation of the Diversity of Desire
  • 1.2 The Hierarchy Account of the Relation among Desires
  • 1.3 The Reflexive Account of the Relation among Desires
  • 1.4 Contentment and Contemplation
  • 1.5 Section Summary
  • Section 2 The Constitutive Role of Desire for Knowledge in the Practice of Philosophy
  • 2.1 The Origin of Philosophical Inquiry
  • 2.2 The Object of Philosophical Inquiry
  • 2.3 The Method of Philosophical Inquiry
  • 2.4 The End of Philosophical Inquiry
  • 2.5 Section Summary
  • Chapter Summary
  • Chapter 3 The Practice of Negative Theology
  • Section 1 Dionysius’ Negative Theology of Unknowing
  • Section 2 Plotinus’ Negative Theology according to VI.7.36
  • 2.1 VI.7.36.3–5 Introduction
  • 2.2 VI.7.36.5–8 the Indirect Study
  • 2.3 VI.7.36.8–15 the Direct Vision
  • 2.4 VI.7.36.15–21 the Abandonment of Contemplation
  • 2.5 Section Summary
  • Section 3 Plotinus’ Negative Theology of Abandonment
  • 3.1 The Doctrine of Two Intellects in VI.7.35.19–33
  • 3.2 The Explanation of the “Dissolution” of the Intellect in VI.7.41.12–14
  • 3.3 The Transition from the “Dissolution” of the Intellect to Henosis: V.3.17
  • Chapter Summary
  • Chapter 4 The Relation between Negative Theology and Henosis
  • Section 1 The One’s Mystical Presence
  • 1.1 The Metaphysical Presence of the One
  • 1.2 The One’s Mystical Presence in Man’s Innate Desire
  • 1.3 The Coherence between Metaphysical and Mystical Presence
  • Section 2 The Role of Negative Theology
  • 2.1 The Consistency between the One’s Presence in Man and Man’s Fall from the One
  • 2.2 The Consistency between the One’s Presence in Man and the Role of Negative Theology
  • 2.3 Section Summary
  • Section 3 Plotinus on the Mystical Vision
  • 3.1 The Mystical Vision in I.6.8.21–27
  • 3.2 The Visual Illustration of Henosis in VI.9.8.13–22
  • 3.3 An Interpretation of the Circle-Illustration
  • Concluding Remarks
  • References
  • Primary Texts
  • References


I would like to thank my supervisor, Prof. Dr. Edmund Runggaldier, for his generosity, tolerance and inspirations. I would also like to show gratitude to Prof. Dr. Tran Van Doan of National Taiwan University, who encouraged me to pursue the doctoral study and kindly introduced me to Prof. Runggaldier. A special thank goes to Collegium Canisianum and P. Friedrich Prassl for their hospitality and accommodation. Last not least, I am also grateful to my parents and wife for their love and support. Without these people this dissertation would not be possible. ← XI | XII →

← XII | XIII →

Notes on Reference and Translations

In this dissertation references of Plotinus’ Enneads are to Plotini Opera, vol. 1–3, ed. Paul Henry and Hans-Rudolf Schwyzer, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1964–1982. I.2.3 means Ennead I, treatise 2, chapter 3; I.2.3–4 means Ennead I, treatise 2, chapter 3 and 4, and I.2.3.4–5 means Ennead I, treatise 2, chapter 3, line 4–5. Translations are taken from Plotinus, vol.1–7, tr. A. H. Armstrong, Cambridge University Press, London, 1966–1988. In Armstrong’s translation the One (τὸ ἕν) is sometimes referred to by He and sometimes by it, while the soul (ψυχή) mostly by it. For the sake of clarity, I shall use It to refer to the One, and she to the soul. The brackets in my quotations of Armstrong’s translations are all his, while all the italics, bracketed or not, are mine. ← XIII | XIV →

← XIV | XV →


Works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

CHThe Celestial Hierarchy
DNThe Divine Names
EHThe Ecclesiastical Hierarchy
MTThe Mystical Theology

All references are to Corpus Dionysiacum, ed. B. R. Suchla, G. Heil and A. M. Ritter, Walter De Gruyter, Berlin and New York, 1990–1991; translations are quoted from Dionysius: the Complete Works, tr. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem, Paulist Press, New York, 1987.

Works of Other Authors

PI      Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 2001.
STThomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, tr. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Benzinger, New York, 1947–1948. ← XV | XVI →

← XVI | 1 →


This dissertation sets itself the modest task of explaining Plotinus’ mystical teaching of henosis as it is presented in the Enneads. While my aim is fairly simple and implies an equally straightforward method, the background from which this dissertation emerges does not appear to be so. Therefore, in this introductory part, I will first look into the historical reception of Plotinus’ thought (Section 1) and the scholarly approaches to mysticism as a discipline (Section 2), and finally return to specify the subject, method and structure of the dissertation accordingly (Section 3).

Section 1 The Historical Reception of Plotinus’ Thought

The task of discussing the historical reception of Plotinus (205–270 C.E.) needs not strike us as overly ambitious, because Plotinus’ only extant work, the Enneads, remains more or less underappreciated due to several historical factors. For this reason, in this section I shall only attempt to identify certain factors that hinder Plotinus’ work from being understood properly in its own term.

1.1 The Extent of Plotinus’ Influence

The first noteworthy issue concerns the extent of Plotinus’ influence. According to the entry Plotinus from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Porphyry’s edition of Plotinus’ Enneads preserved for posterity the works of the leading Platonic interpreter of antiquity. Through these works as well as through the writings of Porphyry himself (234–c. 305 C.E.) and Iamblichus (c. 245–325 C.E.), Plotinus shaped the entire subsequent history of philosophy. Until well into the 19th century, Platonism was in large part understood, appropriated or rejected based on its Platonic expression and in adumbrations of this. The theological traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism all, in their formative periods, looked to ancient Greek philosophy for the language and arguments with which to articulate their religious visions. For all of these, Platonism expresses the philosophy that seemed closest to their own theologies. Plotinus was the principal source for their understanding of Platonism.1 ← 1 | 2 →

This account overlooks one critical detail: Porphyry’s edition did preserve Plotinus’ works in material format, but it did not preserve them for the posterity to understand them. In my opinion, we can point out at least three factors behind this phenomenon.

First, the most influential Christian Platonist (and arguably also the most influential Christian theologian) who helped to shape the understanding of Platonism in the Middle Ages is Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.). But Augustine came under the influence of Platonism not through Porphyry’s complete Greek edition of the Enneads, but through Marius Victorinus’ Latin translations of it which Augustine called “the books by the Platonists”. These books have been long lost, so we have no strong evidence as to what Augustine might have read. But recent researches identify them as Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles, “containing ex hypothesi extracts from the Enneads and identified with Porphyry’s Kata christianōn.”2 Furthermore, as A. H. Armstrong observes in his English translation of the Enneads, Augustine might have made adoptions of a few phrases from the Enneads, I.6.83 and V.1.24 in Confessions I.18, IX 10 and VIII 8. So it seems ← 2 | 3 → that Plotinus’ thought in the Enneads is not handed down to Augustine through Marius’ translations, and, more important, does not influence Augustine in any substantial way. This observation can be directly confirmed by Augustine’s own words:

In them [the books by the Platonists] I read […] that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; he was God. He [the Word] was with God in the beginning. Everything was made through him; nothing came to be without him. What was made is alive with his life, and that life was the light of human kind. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to master it […]5

What Augustine read—or rather read into or proclaimed to understand—from Marius’ translations is the Christian theology of John 1, 1–12. Consequently, the Platonism the posterity learnt from him is not Plotinus’, either, but Augustine’s creative appropriation of Platonism in the context of Christian theology.

Second, when the Arabic-speaking world came under the influence of Plotinus’ thought in the 9th century, it is once again not via Porphyry’s complete Greek edition. The book that spread Plotinus’ thought in the Islam is called The Theology of Aristotle, a work whose authorship is wrongly ascribed to Aristotle, and which comprises only a few sections of the treatises from the last three Enneads and a commentary by Porphyry.6 This circumstance makes it inevitable that what Plotinus had written is read and understood in the light of a wrong context. But more important is the fact that this version already contains certain significant modifications of Plotinus’ thought. As Peter Adamson points out,

In Arabic, the One is very clearly conceived as a creating God, frequently given epithets like ‘originator’ and ‘creator.’ On the other hand, the Arabic Plotinus acknowledges no tension between this idea of God as creator and the Plotinian metaphor of ‘emanation’ (Arabic words that mean ‘emanation’ or ‘flowing,’ such as fayd, are prominent throughout the text). In general the Arabic Plotinus agrees with Plotinus himself that God makes (creates) intellect directly, and then makes all other things ‘through the intermediary of intellect’ […]. On the other hand, it has been noted that the Arabic version frequently assimilates Plotinian nous to the One. The Arabic version embraces the idea that the ← 3 | 4 → First Cause thinks or is an intellect—an idea either rejected or mentioned only with great circumspection by Plotinus. […] Here we see the Arabic version undoing, to some extent, Plotinus’ distinction between Aristotle’s self-thinking intellective god and the truly first, highest principle.7

In particular, Plotinus’ negative theological thesis that the non-personal One is absolutely simple and ineffable is transformed into the monotheistic doctrine (Tawhid) that there is only one true God, Allah. Therefore, not only does the Enneads remain largely unknown to the Mediaeval Arabic world, but a small part of this work is received in a misplaced context (first under the authorship of Aristotle, and then interpreted in terms of monotheism).

Thus thirdly, when Porphyry’s edition is finally translated into Latin in its entirety and published by Marsilio Ficino in 1492, the consensus about what “Platonism” is supposed to mean has already been established, and indeed in the absence of Plotinus, an important Platonic philosopher. Furthermore, at that time, it did not make sense for theologians and philosophers to deny their culture background to fully embrace the thought of a relatively unknown pagan commentator of Plato. In short, when the entire Enneads came into wide circulation, its readers either thought they already knew, or did not care too much to find out, what Plotinus could be really saying.


XVI, 172
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
antike Philosophie Metaphysik Religionsphilosophie
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XVI, 172 pp., 3 graphs

Biographical notes

Pao-Shen Ho (Author)

Pao-Shen Ho holds a PhD in Philosophy from the Universität Innsbruck (Austria).


Title: Plotinus’ Mystical Teaching of Henosis