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The Secret Life of the Undescended Self

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What is it like to walk through the Plain of Truth? We think that Plotinus gives us the most detailed and powerful descriptions of this higher, noetic life, and that these descriptions have been hiding in plain sight in the Enneadic texts, read by scholars as theoretical constructs or perhaps colourful imagery designed to illustrate theoretical constructs.

In this special episode we approach these descriptions instead as their author intended them, as incorporeal travel-writing.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Corpus Hermeticum:

  • I.6: τὸ ἐν σοι βλέπον καὶ ἀκούον, λόγος κυρίου, ὁ δὲ νοῦς πατὴρ θεός. οὐ γὰρ διίστανται ἀπ’ ἀλλήλων. ἕνωσις γὰρ τούτων ἐστὶν ἡ ζωή.
  • XII.1: ὁ νοῦς οὖν οὐκ στιν ἀποτετμημένος τῆς οὐσιότητος τοῦ θεοῦ, ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ ἡπλουμένος καθάπερ τὸ τοῦ ἠλίου φῶς.

Plotinus (roughly in order of discussion in the episode):

  • IV.8[6]8.1-6: Καὶ εἰ χρὴ παρὰ δόξαν τῶν ἄλλων τολμῆσαι τὸ φαινόμενον λέγειν σαφέστερον, οὐ πᾶσα οὐδ᾽ ἡ ἡμετέρα ψυχὴ ἔδυ, ἀλλ᾽ ἔστι τι αὐτῆς ἐν τῶι νοητῶι ἀεί· τὸ δὲ ἐν τῶι αἰσθητῶι εἰ κρατοῖ, μᾶλλον δὲ εἰ κρατοῖτο καὶ θορυβοῖτο, οὐκ ἐᾶι αἴσθησιν ἡμῖν εἶναι ὧν θεᾶται τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς ἄνω.
  • VI.4[22]14.21-22: οὐδὲ γὰρ οὐδὲ νῦν ἀποτετμήμεθα.
  • VI.9[9]9.7-8: οὐ γὰρ ἀποτετμήμεθα οὐδὲ χωρίς ἐσμεν.
  • See also e.g. IV.7.13 passim [the second treatise in chronological order]; V.1[10]10.13-18; VI.2[43]22.31-33; IV.3[27]12.4-5; II.9[33]1.57-63, 2 passim; III.4[15]3.24-27.
  • Plotinus also could and did free humans from fate: e.g. II.3[52]9.36 ff; he could and did free humans from genesis ‘insofar as they (sc. the souls) are able’: III.2.4.9-11; he could and did free them, in fact, from passibility: e.g. I.1[53]12.
  • VI.7[38]6.7-18: the whole ‘3 human beings passage’ cited in the episode: Εἰ γὰρ ἦν ἐκεῖ σώματα ταῦτα, ἦσαν αὐτῶν τῆι ψυχῆι αἰσθήσεις καὶ ἀντιλήψεις· καὶ ὁ ἄνθρωπος ὁ ἐκεῖ, ἡ τοιαύτη ψυχή, ἀντιληπτικὴ τούτων, ὅθεν καὶ ὁ ὕστερος ἄνθρωπος, τὸ μίμημα, εἶχε τοὺς λόγους ἐν μιμήσει· καὶ ὁ ἐν νῶι ἄνθρωπος τὸν πρὸ πάντων τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἄνθρωπον. Ἐλλάμπει δ᾽ οὗτος τῶι δευτέρωι καὶ οὗτος τῶι τρίτωι· ἔχει δέ πως πάντας ὁ ἔσχατος, οὐ γινόμενος ἐκεῖνοι, ἀλλὰ παρακείμενος ἐκείνοις. Ἐνεργεῖ δὲ ὁ μὲν ἡμῶν κατὰ τὸν ἔσχατον, τῶι δέ τι καὶ παρὰ τοῦ πρὸ αὐτοῦ, τῶι δὲ καὶ παρὰ τοῦ τρίτου ἡ ἐνέργεια, καὶ ἔστιν ἕκαστος καθ᾽ ὃν ἐνεργεῖ, καίτοι πάντας ἕκαστος ἔχει καὶ αὖ οὐκ ἔχει.
  • The term autoanthropos occurs at a number of junctures in the Enneads; see Sleeman and Pollett’s Lexicon Plotinianum ad loc.
  • Noetic matter: V.1[10]3.23; II.4[12], On Matter, esp. 3-5 and 15; III.8[30]11.2- 3.
  • Noetic bodies: all noetic realities have them: VI.2[43]21.52-53; humans specifically have them: IV.3[27]18.13-15, 20-22 (Noetic bodies as eyeballs that see in every direction); cf. IV.4[28]5.13-20, where he speculates that the noetic human bodies might be spherical.
  • Things present in the noêtos kosmos: Fire: VI.7.6 and 7 Noetic sun, fire, earth: II.9.4.26-32; earth and sea, plants, animals, men and gods: V.8[31]3.32-36. ‘Everything that is made according to logos’, including fire, water, and plants: VI.7[38]11.3-4 and ff.
  • The lower earth a goddess: IV.4[28]27. Cf.
  • Noetic ‘walking’: V.8[31]4.15: βέβηκε δ’ ἕκαστος.
  • Noêsis as synæsthesia: VI.7[38].12.20 ad fin: Ὁ οὖν ζητῶν πόθεν ζῶια, ζητεῖ πόθεν οὐρανὸς ἐκεῖ· τοῦτο δ᾽ ἐστὶ ζητεῖν πόθεν ζῶιον, τοῦτο δὲ ταὐτὸν πόθεν ζωὴ καὶ ζωὴ πᾶσα καὶ ψυχὴ πᾶσα καὶ νοῦς ὁ ξύμπας, μηδεμιᾶς ἐκεῖ πενίας μηδ᾽ ἀπορίας οὔσης, ἀλλὰ πάντων ζωῆς πεπληρωμένων καὶ οἷον ζεόντων. Ἔστι δ᾽ αὐτῶν ἡ οἷον ῥοὴ ἐκ μιᾶς πηγῆς, οὐχ οἷον ἑνός τινος πνεύματος ἢ θερμότητος μιᾶς, ἀλλὰ οἷον εἴ τις ἦν ποιότης μία πάσας ἐν αὐτῆι ἔχουσα καὶ σώιζουσα τὰς ποιότητας, γλυκύτητος μετὰ εὐωδίας, καὶ ὁμοῦ οἰνώδης ποιότης καὶ χυλῶν ἁπάντων δυνάμεις καὶ χρωμάτων ὄψεις καὶ ὅσα ἁφαὶ γινώσκουσιν· ἔστωσαν δὲ καὶ ὅσα ἀκοαὶ ἀκούουσι, πάντα μέλη καὶ ῥυθμὸς πᾶς. Cf. VI.7[38]7.31: ‘Our perceptions here are dim acts of noêsis, and the acts of noêsis there are clear perceptions’.
  • No qualia/ποιοτεῖς in the nous: II.6; VI.2.14; VI.1.12.42 ff.

Proclus, Damascius, and Hermias see the doctrine of the undescended self as particular to Plotinus: see Henry and Schwyzer’s notes to Enn. IV.8.8. Cf. Proclus In Tim. III.323, 5 Diehl: it is a ‘novel theory’.


On the passage from VI.7 discussed in the episode regarding he identity of the first, second, and third human beings, Pierre Hadot and John Dillon have both given interpretations different from ours. See Pierre Hadot. Plotin: Traité 38 (VI.7). Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1988, ad loc. and John Dillon. The Mind of Plotinus. Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium on Ancient Philosophy, 3:333–357, 1988, pp. 344-45.

  • A.-J. Festugière. Personal Religion Among the Greeks. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1954, p. 47, n. 1.
  • Jean-Marc Narbonne. Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics. Number 11 in Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition. Brill, Leiden, 2011.

Recommended Reading:

  • H. J. Blumenthal. Plotinus’ Psychology: His Doctrine of the Embodied Soul. Martinus Nijhoff, Den Haag, 1971.
  • Riccardo Chiaradonna. Plotino: Il “noi” e il “nous”. In Gwenaëlle Aubry and Frédérique Ildefonse, editors, Le moi et l’interiorité, pages 277–293. Vrin, Paris, 2008.
  • D. O’Meara. The Problem of Omnipresence in Plotinus, Ennead VI, 4-5: A Reply. Dionysius, 4:61–73, 1980.
  • Audrey N. M. Rich. Reincarnation in Plotinus. Mnemosyne, (10/3):232–238, 1957.
  • J. Rist. Integration and the Undescended Soul in Plotinus. American Journal of Philology, 88(4):410–422, Oct. 1967.
  • Charles M. Stang. Our Divine Double. Boston, MA/London, 2016, pp. 185-230.

On Plotinus’ theory of the self specifically:

  • Gwenaëlle Aubry. Un moi sans identité? Le hemeis Plotinien. In Gwenaëlle Aubry and Frédérique Ildefonse, editors, Le moi et l’interiorité, pages 107–125. Vrin, Paris, 2008.
  • Christian Girard. L’identité de l’homme chez Plotin. PhD thesis, Université Paris 1 – Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2013.
  • Gerard O’Daly. Plotinus’ Philosophy of the Self. Irish University Press, Shannon, 1973.
  • P. Remes. Plotinus on Self: the Philosophy of the ‘We’. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007.
  • Mateusz Stróżyński. The Self as Hypernoetic Intellect in Plotinus’ Philosophy. Hermes, 148(1):53–68, 2020.