Podcast episode

Episode 115: The Esoteric Plotinus, Part I: Philosophic Silence and Esoteric Reading

We discuss elements of the esoteric in two sources: Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus and the Enneads. We examine how best to read Porphyry’s positioning of his master as a late-antique Platonist sage (and how literally we should take all his readings of Plotinus’ actions), and then examine Plotinus’ construction of a perennial tradition of truth, and the ways in which he reads this tradition as an esoteric source of wisdom.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Plato’s critique of writing in the Phædrus: 274b-277a; cf. Prt. 329a, 347e; Ep. VII 341c-344d. Socrates denies that the many can become philosophers: R. 491a – 495b. The Good beyond being: R. 509b9

  • Plotinus:
    traditional stories from Hellenic mythology read as ainigmata: E.g. IV.8.1.21 (cf. Hes. Op. 60-89. Theog. 521); III.5.2.24: V.8.4.25-6; V.2.22; VI. & 13; VI.; III.7.13.10. See Eon 1970, 273; Charrue 1978, 25; Boys-Stones 2001, 147. On myth in Plotinus generally, see Cilento 1960.
  • the ritual heritage of the mystery-cults read as esoteric wisdom: VI.9.11.1 ff; cf. I.6.6.1-5; III.6.19.25-27; I.6.6.1-5. Cf. Stroumsa 1996, 21.
  • παλαιοὶ λόγοι: I.6.6.1-5; cf. e.g. Pl. Phd. 69 c3-d2.
  • Theologoi and ancient priests: III.5.8.21. Cf. III.5.8.17-23; VI.9.11.27; III.5.2.2; V.8.6.1; IV.3.11.1-3 for other religious specialists as esotericist founder-figures. Cf. III.5.2.2: περὶ δὲ τοῦ ὃν θεὸν [τὸν Ἔρωτα] τίθενται…θεολόγοι καὶ Πλάτων κτλ. The context is a discussion of the treatments of Erôs in the Symposium of Plato; here Plato’s invented myths are notionally assimilated to a more ancient theological tradition.
  • Plotinus as reader of [the esoteric] Homer: E.g. I.6.8.18-20. Edwards notes (Edwards 2000, 27, n. 148) that Homer is the second most quoted author in the Enneads, after Plato. Plotinus interprets a passage from the Odyssey philosophically at I.6.8.16-21 (see Lamberton 1989, 106-7). Lamberton notes that a passage from Homer specifically condemned by Plato (R. II.381d) is quoted by Plotinus with approval (VI.5.12.31-2), an ‘instance – however mild – of defensive interpretation’ (ibid. 98-9). Put another way, this is an example of the authority of the theologians (Homer) in dialogue with that of the ancients (Plato), and of the former actually trumping the latter, albeit tacitly. See Mortley 2013 for many other examples of the ways Plotty ‘corrects’ Plato.
  • Cultic architecture read as esoteric text: e.g. VI.9.11.18-33; V.1.6.12-15: The One is silent as if inside a temple, and the contemplator must contemplate what corresponds to the statues outside the temple, or rather the statue which appears first [i.e. the noetic world, since the One cannot be contemplated]. I.6.8.1-3: ‘How will anyone see the inconceivable [sc. noetic] beauty which remains in the holy sanctuaries and does not emerge, lest some uninitiate should see it?’ The one who is able to enter should do so, and leave bodily splendours behind.
  • The Egyptian sages and their hieroglyphs which hint at the non-discursive nature of the nous: V.8.6.1-9. Animated statues: IV.3.11.1-3.
  • Myth of Kronos as an ainigma: V.1.7.33 ff. Note the word-play between Kronos and koros (‘sufficiency’). For other ainigmata in traditional myths in Plotinus, see e.g. V.8.4.26; I.6.8.11; IV.3.14.5.
  • Plotinus’ philosophic lineage: see especially V.1.8-9. On the rules for reading them, in a nutshell, see III.7.1.9-16 [italics mine]: ‘… the statements of the ancients on these matters differ one from the other, and it may be that the commentaries on these [statements] also differ; thus we leave off and reckon it sufficient, if asked, if we are able to say what they [the ancients] thought, happy to be freed from further inquiry. One must suppose that certain of the ancient and blessed philosophers have found the truth. But which of them especially achieved this, and how we might attain to understanding concerning these matters, it is right to inquire.’
  • The two Aphrodites from Symposium 180d-e: VI.9.9.31; cf. III.5.7-9 for the same myth at greater length.
  • The creation-myth of the Timæus read as esoteric text: VI.2.22.1; cf. V.8.8, an extended reading of Plato’s myth of the demiurge in the Timæus. Plato does not use ainigma here, but he does sêmainein, ‘indicate’, which term often indicates a symbolic or otherwise indirect or hidden discourse in Plotinus (see Sleeman and Pollet, Lexicon Plotinianum, 1980 sub voc.).
  • ‘Esoterically and divinely said’: IV.1.2.49: τοῦτ’ ἄρα ἐστι τὸ θείως ᾐνιγμένον· κτλ, going on to quote Tim. 35a1-4.

Porphyry: the ‘vow of silence’: Plot. 3. Reluctance to publish: Plot. 4; cf. Travels with the emperor Gordian: Plot. 3.


Banner 2018.
O’Brien 1992, O’Brien 1994. We cite 1992, 428-9.

Recommended Reading:

  • Nicholas Banner. Philosophic Silence and the ’One’ in Plotinus. The University Press, Cambridge, 2018.
  • G. R. Boys-Stones. Post-Hellenistic Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001.
  • J. M. Charrue. Plotin lecteur de Platon. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1978.
  • V. Cilento. Mito e poesia nelle Enneadi di Plotino. Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique, Tome V, pages 245–310. Fondation Hardt, Vandoevres/Géneve, 1960.
  • M. J. Edwards. Neoplatonic Saints: the Lives of Plotinus and Proclus by their Students. Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2000.
  • Alain Éon. La notion plotinienne d’exégèse. In Revue international de philosophie: Plotin, volume 2, pages 252–289. Fond, 1970.
  • R. Lamberton. Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1989.
  • R. Mortley. Plotinus, Self and the World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013.
  • D. O’Brien. Plotinus and the Secrets of Ammonius. Hermathena, (157):117–153, 1994.
  • Idem. Plotin et la Voeu de Silence. In L. Brisson et al., editors, Porphyre: la Vie de Plotin, volume II, pages 419–459. Vrin, Paris, 1992.
  • G. Stroumsa. Myth as Enigma: Cultural Hermeneutics in Late Antiquity. In Galit Hasan-Rokem and David Shulman, editors, Untying the Knot: On Riddles and Other Enigmatic Modes, pages 271–283. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1996.


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