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Consider the analogy of three-dimensionality and solidity. Why are these necessarily connected in a body such that there could not be a body that had one without the other? The answer is that body is virtually three-dimensionality and virtually solidity. Both three-dimensionality and solidity express in different ways what a body is. The role of Intellect is to account for the real distinctness of the plethora of Forms, virtually united in the One.

Thus, in the above mathematical example, the fact that numbers are virtually united does not gainsay the fact that each has an identity. The way that identity is maintained is by each and every Form being thought by an eternal Intellect. Intellect is the principle of essence or whatness or intelligibility as the One is the principle of being. Intellect needs the One as cause of its being in order for Intellect to be a paradigmatic cause and the One needs Intellect in order for there to be anything with an intelligible structure.

Intellect could not suffice as a first principle of all because the complexity of thinking thinker and object of thought and multiplicity of objects of thought requires as an explanation something that is absolutely simple. In addition, the One may even be said to need Intellect to produce Intellect. The first phase indicates the fundamental activity of intellection or thinking; the second, the actualization of thinking which constitutes the being of the Forms. The third fundamental principle is Soul.

Soul is not the principle of life, for the activity of Intellect is the highest activity of life. Plotinus associates life with desire. But in the highest life, the life of Intellect, where we find the highest form of desire, that desire is eternally satisfied by contemplation of the One through the entire array of Forms that are internal to it. Soul is the principle of desire for objects that are external to the agent of desire. Everything with a soul, from human beings to the most insignificant plant, acts to satisfy desire.

This desire requires it to seek things that are external to it, such as food. Even a desire for sleep, for example, is a desire for a state other than the state which the living thing currently is in.


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Cognitive desires, for example, the desire to know, are desires for that which is currently not present to the agent. A desire to procreate is, as Plato pointed out, a desire for immortality. Soul explains, as unchangeable Intellect could not, the deficiency that is implicit in the fact of desiring.

Plotinus and his philosophy

Soul is related to Intellect analogously to the way Intellect is related to the One. As the One is virtually what Intellect is, so Intellect is paradigmatically what Soul is.


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The activity of Intellect, or its cognitive identity with all Forms, is the paradigm for all embodied cognitive states of any soul as well as any of its affective states. It represents the cognitive identity of Intellect with Forms because the embodied believer is cognitively identical with a concept which itself represents or images Forms.

In the second case, an affective state such as feeling tired represents or images Intellect in a derived way owing to the cognitive component of that state which consists in the recognition of its own presence. Where the affective state is that of a non-cognitive agent, the imitation is even more remote, though present nevertheless. It is, says Plotinus, like the state of being asleep in comparison with the state of being awake see III 8. In other words, it is a state that produces desire that is in potency a state that recognizes the presence of the desire, a state which represents the state of Intellect.

In reply to the possible objection that a potency is not an image of actuality, Plotinus will want to insist that potencies are functionally related to actualities, not the other way around, and that therefore the affective states of non-cognitive agents can only be understood as derived versions of the affective and cognitive states of souls closer to the ideal of both, namely, the state of Intellect.

There is another way in which Soul is related to Intellect as Intellect is related to the One. The indescribable internal activity of the One is its own hyper-intellectual existence.

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Its external activity is just Intellect. Anything that is understandable is an external activity of Intellect; and any form of cognition of that is also an external activity of it. The internal activity of Soul includes the plethora of psychical activities of all embodied living things.

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The external activity of Soul is nature, which is just the intelligible structure of all that is other than soul in the sensible world, including both the bodies of things with soul and things without soul see III 8. The end of this process of diminishing activities is matter which is entirely bereft of form and so of intelligibility, but whose existence is ultimately owing to the One, via the instrumentality of Intellect and Soul. According to Plotinus, matter is to be identified with evil and privation of all form or intelligibility see II 4. Plotinus holds this in conscious opposition to Aristotle, who distinguished matter from privation see II 4.

Matter is what accounts for the diminished reality of the sensible world, for all natural things are composed of forms in matter. The fact that matter is in principle deprived of all intelligibility and is still ultimately dependent on the One is an important clue as to how the causality of the latter operates. If matter or evil is ultimately caused by the One, then is not the One, as the Good, the cause of evil?

In one sense, the answer is definitely yes. As Plotinus reasons, if anything besides the One is going to exist, then there must be a conclusion of the process of production from the One. The beginning of evil is the act of separation from the One by Intellect, an act which the One itself ultimately causes. The end of the process of production from the One defines a limit, like the end of a river going out from its sources.

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Beyond the limit is matter or evil. We may still ask why the limitless is held to be evil. According to Plotinus, matter is the condition for the possibility of there being images of Forms in the sensible world. The very possibility of a sensible world, which is impressively confirmed by the fact that there is one, guarantees that the production from the One, which must include all that is possible else the One would be self-limiting , also include the sensible world see I 8.

Plotinus | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

But the sensible world consists of images of the intelligible world and these images could not exist without matter. Matter is only evil in other than a purely metaphysical sense when it becomes an impediment to return to the One. It is evil when considered as a goal or end that is a polar opposite to the Good. To deny the necessity of evil is to deny the necessity of the Good I 8.

Matter is only evil for entities that can consider it as a goal of desire. These are, finally, only entities that can be self-conscious of their goals. Specifically, human beings, by opting for attachments to the bodily, orient themselves in the direction of evil. This is not because body itself is evil. The evil in bodies is the element in them that is not dominated by form.

More typically, attachment to the body represents a desire not for form but a corrupt desire for the non-intelligible or limitless. The drama of human life is viewed by Plotinus against the axis of Good and evil outlined above. The human person is essentially a soul employing a body as an instrument of its temporary embodied life see I 1. Thus, Plotinus distinguishes between the person and the composite of soul and body. That person is identical with a cognitive agent or subject of cognitive states see I 1. This conflicted state or duality of personhood is explained by the nature of cognition, including rational desire.


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Rational agents are capable of being in embodied states, including states of desire, and of being cognitively aware that they are in these states. So, a person can be hungry or tired and be cognitively aware that he is in this state, where cognitive awareness includes being able to conceptualize that state. But Plotinus holds that the state of cognitive awareness more closely identifies the person than does the non-cognitive state. He does so on the grounds that all embodied or enmattered intelligible reality is an image of its eternal paradigm in Intellect.

It is eternally doing what Intellect is doing. But the only access to Forms is eternal access by cognitive identification with them. Otherwise, we would have only images or representations of the Forms. So, we must now be cognitively identical with them if we are going also to use these Forms as a way of classifying and judging things in the sensible world.

A person in a body can choose to take on the role of a non-cognitive agent by acting solely on appetite or emotion. In doing so, that person manifests a corrupted desire, a desire for what is evil, the material aspect of the bodily. Alternatively, a person can distance himself from these desires and identify himself with his rational self.

The very fact that this is possible supplies Plotinus with another argument for the supersensible identity of the person. Persons have contempt for themselves because one has contempt for what is inferior to oneself.

Insofar as persons desire things other than what Intellect desires, they desire things that are external to themselves. But the subject of such desires is inferior to what is desired, even if this be a state of fulfilled desire. In other words, if someone wants to be in state B when he is in state A, he must regard being in state A as worse than being in state B.

But all states of embodied desire are like this. Hence, the self-contempt. Persons want to belong to themselves insofar as they identify themselves as subjects of their idiosyncratic desires. They do this because they have forgotten or are unaware of their true identity as disembodied intellects.

If persons recognize their true identity, they would not be oriented to the objects of their embodied desire but to the objects of intellect. They would be able to look upon the subject of those embodied desires as alien to their true selves.