Episode 10: Plotinus on Happiness, Beauty and Love

Stream Audio

In this episode, I will dispense with the commentary and just present Plotinus himself, where he is, as he is–but whose writing, I might only add, is not Strunked and Whitened.  It requires, but rewards, sustained attention.


If, then, the perfect life is within human reach, the man attaining it attains happiness: if not, happiness must be made over to the gods, for the perfect life is for them alone.

But since we hold that happiness is for human beings too, we must consider what this perfect life is.  The matter may be stated thus:

It has been shown elsewhere that man when he commands not merely the life of sensation but also Reason and Authentic Intellection, has realized the perfect life.

But are we to picture this kind of life as something foreign imported into his nature?

No: there exists no single human being that does not either potentially or effectively possess this thing which we hold to constitute happiness.

But are we to think of man as including this form of life, the perfect, after the manner of a partial constituent of his entire nature?

We say, rather, that while in some men it is present as a mere portion of their total being–in those, namely, that have it potentially–there is, too, the man, already in possession of true felicity, who is this perfection realized, who has passed over into actual identification with it.  All else is now mere clothing about the man, not to be called part of him since it lies about him unsought, not his because not appropriated to himself by any act of the will.

To the man in this state, what is the Good?

He himself by what he has and is.

And the author and principle of what he is and holds is the Supreme, which within Itself is the Good but manifests Itself within the human being after this other mode.

The sign that this state has been achieved is that the man seeks nothing else.

What indeed could he be seeking?  Certainly none of the less worthy things; and the Best he carries always within him.

He that has such a life as this has all he needs in life.

Once the man is a Proficient, the means of happiness, the way to the good, are within, for nothing is good that lies outside him.  Anything he desires further than this he seeks as a necessity, and not for himself but for a subordinate, for the body bound to him, to which since it has life he must minister the needs of life, not needs, however, to the true man of this degree.  He knows himself to stand above all such things, and what he gives to the lower he so gives as to leave his true life undiminished.

Adverse fortune does not shake his felicity: the life so founded is stable ever.  Suppose death strikes at his household or at his friends; he knows what death is, as the victims, if they are among the wise, know too.  And if death taking from him his familiars and intimates does bring grief, it is not to him, not to the true man, but to that in him which stands apart from the Supreme, to that lower man in whose distress he takes no part.(I, 4, 4)¹


Chiefly beauty is visual.  Yet in word patterns and in music (for cadences and rhythms are beautiful) it addresses itself to the hearing as well.  Dedicated living, achievement, character, intellectual pursuits are beautiful to those who rise above the realm of the senses; to such ones the virtues, too, are beautiful.  Whether the range of beauty goes beyond these will become clear in the course of this exposition….

It is impossible to talk about bodily beauty if one, like one born blind, has never seen and known bodily beauty.  In the same way, it is impossible to talk about the “luster” of right living and of learning and of the like if one has never cared for such things, never beheld “the face of justice” and temperance and seen it to be “beyond the beauty of evening or morning star.”  Seeing of this sort is done only with the eye of the soul.  And, seeing thus, one undergoes a joy, a wonder, and a distress more deep than any other because here one touches truth…..

What is this vision like?  How is it attained?  How will one see this immense beauty that dwells, as it were, in inner sanctuaries and comes not forward to be seen by the profane?  Let him who can arise, withdraw into himself, forego all that is known by the eyes, turn aside from the bodily beauty that was once his joy.  He must not hanker after the graceful shapes that appear in bodies, but know them for copies, for traceries, for shadows, and hasten away towards that which they bespeak.  ….We must close our eyes and invoke a new manner of seeing, a wakefulness that is the birthright of us all, though few put it to use.

What, then, is this inner vision?

Like anyone just awakened, the soul cannot look at bright objects.  It must be persuaded to look first at beautiful habits, then the works of beauty produced not by craftsman’s skill but by the virtue of men known for their goodness, then the souls of those who achieve beautiful deeds.  “How can one see the beauty of a good soul?”  Withdraw into yourself and look.  If you do not as yet see beauty within you, do as does the sculptor of a statue that is to be beautified: he cuts away here, he smooths it there, he makes this line lighter, this one purer, until he disengages beautiful lineaments in the marble.  Do you this, too.  Cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one radiance of beauty.  Never cease “working at the statue” until there shines out upon you from it the divine sheen of virtue, until you see perfect “goodness firmly established in the stainless shrine.”

….No eye that has not become like unto the sun will ever look upon the sun; nor will any that is not beautiful look upon the beautiful.  Let each one therefore become godlike and beautiful who would contemplate the divine and beautiful. (I, 6, 1-9) ²


     Does each individual Soul, then, contain within itself such a Love in essence and substantial reality?

     Since not only the pure All-soul but also that of the Universe contains such a Love, it would be difficult to explain why our personal soul should not.  It must be so, even, with all that has life.

     This indwelling love is not other than the Spirit which, as we are told, walks with every being, the affection dominant in each several nature.  It implants the characteristic desire; the particular Soul, strained towards its own natural objects, brings forth its own Eros, the guiding spirit realizing its worth and the quality of its Being.

     As the All-soul  contains the Universal Love, so must the single soul be allowed its own single Love: and as closely as the single Soul holds to the All-Soul, never cut off but embraced within it, the two together constituting one principle of life, so the single separate Love holds to the All-Love. (III, 5, 4)³

     Every soul is an Aphrodite, as is suggested in the myth of Aphrodite’s birth at the same time as that of Eros.  As long as soul stays true to itself, it loves the divinity and desires to be one with it, as a daughter loves with a noble love a noble father.  When, however, the soul has come down here to human birth, it exchanges (as if deceived by the false promises of an adulterous lover) its divine love for one that is mortal.  And then, far from its begetter, the soul yields to all manner of excess.

But, when the soul begins to hate its shame and puts away evil and makes its return, it finds peace.

How great, then, is its bliss can be conceived by those who have not tasted it if they but think of earthly unions in love, marking well the joy felt by the lover who succeeds in obtaining his desires.  But this love is directed to the mortal and harmful–to shadows–and soon disappears because such is not the authentic object of our love nor the good we really seek.  Only in the world beyond does the real object of our love exist, the only one with which we can unite ourselves, of which we can have a part and which we can intimately possess without being separated by the barriers of flesh.

Anyone who has had this experience will know what I am talking about.  He will know that the soul lives another life as it advances towards the One, reaches it and shares in it.  Thus restored, the soul recognizes the presence of the dispenser of the true life.  It needs nothing more.  On the contrary, it must renounce everything else and rest in it alone, become it alone, all earthiness gone, eager to be free, impatient of every fetter that binds below in order so to embrace the real object of its love with its entire being that no part of it does not touch the One. (VI, 9, 9)4

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Graphics are not copyrighted and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Plotinus, The Enneads,  translated by Stephen McKenna, Penguin Classics, 1991

²Plotinus, The Essential Plotinus,  translated by Elmer O’Brien S. J., Hackett Publishing

³McKenna, op. cit.

4 O’Brien, op. cit.