Podcast episode

Episode 117: The Esoteric Plotinus, Part II: Unsaying the Real

In this episode we make some necessarily-incomplete, but hopefully sympathetic, forays into the territory of the unsayable in Plotinus. The One/Good, the first principle of all reality, is, for our author, formally ineffable. He gives us solid, logical reasons why this reality must be ineffable, and must indeed transcend not only all categories or predicates (such as ‘being’, ‘existence’, or even the names ‘one’ and ‘good’), and all attempts not only to describe it, but even to know it. That being said, we can touch it, or stand face to face with it, or do a number of other things which are really impossible, but which are said when language breaks under the strain of the ultimate, primal nothingness.

We discuss some of the techniques by which Plotinus unsays the One, some of the ways in which scholars have dealt with this extraordinary textual unsaying, and the ways in which this type of text can be fruitfully considered to be esoteric, with the proviso that in Plotinus’ case this is a welcoming, protreptic esotericism.

Works Cited in this Episode:


  • The encounter with the One: arguably IV.8.1; V.1.6; VI.9.11. There are others.
  • The one is the source of all things, but not their source, etc: VI.8[39]8-9.
  • It subsists: VI.8.11.33; VI.8.13.50-52.
  • It does not subsist: VI.8.10.35-38; VI.8.11.1-5.
  • It is act (energeia): VI.8.20.13-15.
  • It is not act: III.8.11.7-10.
  • It is free: VI.8.20.17-19.
  • It is not free: VI.8.8.9-12.
  • It has life: V.4.2.17-18.
  • It does not have life: VI.7.17.12-14.
  • VI.7: Plotinus even deconstructs the use of the definite article ‘the’ when we say ‘the good’: 38.7.
  • Thought cannot grasp the truly simple: e.g. V.3.17.1-25: ‘But what description is possible of the totally simple? But it is enough if the nous touches it; touching it, while it is in contact, it cannot speak at all, nor does it have leisure to do so, but later it can reason about it.’ [trans. Armstrong, slightly modified].
  • The One unthinkable/unthinking because perfect: see e.g. III.9[13]9 (beyond noêsis); cf. III.8[30]11.13-15; VI.7[38]41.26-27: (beyond gnôsis, noêsis, synaisthêsis).


  • A. H. Armstrong. The Architecture of the Intelligible Universe in the Philosophy of Plotinus. Adolf M. Hakkert, Amsterdam, 1967, on the complexity of Plotinus’ metaphysical canon. We cite p. 1. Cf. John Dillon. Plotinus at Work on Platonism. Greece and Rome, 39 (2 (Second Series)): 189–204, Oct. 1992, 194.
  • A. H. Armstrong. Pagan and Christian Traditionalism in the First Three Centuries A.D. In Hellenic and Christian Studies, Variorum, Aldershot, 1990, pages 414–431. We cite p. 32.
  • Emile Bréhier. The Philosophy of Plotinus. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1958. Translated by J. Thomas, we cite p. 133.
  • A.-J. Festugière. La révélation d’Hermes Trismegiste. J. Gabalda, Paris, 1944-1954. 4 vols.
  • Pierre Hadot. Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 2nd edition, 1981. We cite p. 188.
  • Alexander J. Mazur. The Platonizing Sethian Background of Plotinus’s Mysticism. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2021.
  • Raoul Mortley. From Word to Silence. Hanstein, Bonn, 1986. 2 vols.
  • W. Proudfoot. Religious Experience. University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA, 1985.
  • J. Rist. The Road to Reality. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1967.
  • Michael Sells. Apophasis in Plotinus: A Critical Approach. Harvard Theological Review, 78(1/2):47–65, Jan. – Apr. 1985.
  • Idem. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1994.
  • R. Wallis. Neoplatonism. Duckworth, London, 1972. We cite p. 41, describing Ennead VI.9.3-4.

Recommended Reading:

  • Dylan Burns. Apophatic Strategies in Allogenes (NHC XI, 13). Harvard Theological Review, 103(2):161–79, 2010.
  • J. Bussanich. Mystical Elements in the Thought of Plotinus. ANRW, 36(7):5300–5330, 1997.
  • Odo Casel. De philosophorum graecorum silentio mystico. A. Toepelmann, Giessen, 1919.
  • J. Deck. Nature, Contemplation, and the One. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1967.
  • W. Franke. Apophasis and the Turn of Philosophy to Religion: From Neoplatonic Negative Theology to Post-Modern Negation of Theology. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 60(1/3):61–76, Dec. 2008.
  • M. Jufresa. Basilides, A Path to Plotinus. Vigiliae Christianae, (35):1–15, Mar. 1981.
  • R. Mortley. Negative Theology and Abstraction in Plotinus. American Journal of Philology, 96(4):363–377, Winter 1975.
  • J. Rist. Theos and the One in Some Texts of Plotinus. Mediaeval Studies, 24:169–80, 1962.
  • Idem. Back to the Mysticism of Plotinus: Some More Specifics. Journal of the History of Philosophy, (27):183–97, 1989.
  • Idem. Mysticism and Transcendence in Later Platonism. Hermes, 92(2):213–225, 1964b.
  • Michael Sells. Apophasis in Plotinus: A Critical Approach. Harvard Theological Review, 78(1/2):47–65, Jan. – Apr. 1985.
  • Idem. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1994.
  • H. A. Wolfson. Albinus and Plotinus on Divine Attributes. Harvard Theological Review, 45(2):115–130, Apr. 1952.


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