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Plotinus and the Immortality of the Soul

It’s been a while since I last posted here, but we’re ready to kick things off with our new semester.

As stated, before heading straight into Augustine’s Confessions it is highly beneficial to understand where Augustine is coming from.  Before coming to the Christian faith, he was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Plotinus and Neo-Platonism.  You’ll find echoes of Plotinus and Neo-Platonism laced throughout Confessions.

Dominic J. O’Meara, professor of philosophy at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, states in his book Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads:

One of Plotinus’ most intelligent and enthusiastic readers in antiquity was (for a while at least) St. Augustine. Augustine’s works illustrate vividly the Plotinian approach to immaterial reality as the discovery of the nature of soul and of its origin.  [emphasis mine] Augustine was also the greatest of the Latin Church Fathers and his works formed part of the intellectual atmosphere of the educated Christian in Descartes’s age.  Indeed some of Descartes’s contemporaries were struck by the closeness of some of his ieads to those of Augustine.  (p.19)

Therefore, we’ll spend several sessions familiarizing ourselves with Plotinus and his Enneads, and specifically focus on Ennead IV, The Seventh Tractate (Ennead IV.7) – “The Immortality of the Soul”.

Please read this book for our first meeting.  I will have questions for discussion posted here in the next couple of days.

The concept of the soul is one of the central themes of Augustine’s philosophy and theology, as well as being of central interest to Christianity as a whole.  Questions about the soul surviving bodily death, the distinction between the body and soul, and the constant tension between the flesh and spiritual things are dealt with in this particular section of the Enneads.

As you read, keep in mind that he goes through some of the most popular notions of the soul that was prevalent in Greco-Roman philosophy during his time.  Plato, in Phaedo and the Phaedrus, argued that the soul is immortal.  However, his pupil, Aristotle rejected Plato’s claim that the soul was an incorporeal, non-composite reality that was not subject to decay.  Instead, the soul was a structure (or ‘form’) responsible for bodily functions that could not escape death.  However, one living function, the intellect, which to Aristotle was not a function of a bodily organ, was immortal, as stated in his De Anima.  (O’Meara, p.14)

The Stoics believed in a limited and impersonal sort of immortality where after death the souls of the wise become one with the divine spirit permeating the world.

For the Epicureans, who believed that everything was but a series of temporary groupings of atoms in the void, thought of the soul as being a grouping of atoms, and therefore destined to disintegrate after death.

In Ennead IV.7, Plotinus argues for Plato’s position by disproving the theories of all the other three positions.  Plotinus devotes his time to show that the soul is indeed immortal by exploring what the nature of the soul is.  In chapters 2-8 he argues against the Stoic and Epicurean belief that the soul is a body. (O’Meara, pp.14-15)

Have all this in mind as you go through Ennead IV.7.


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