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La matière chez Plotin: son origine, sa nature

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image of Phronesis

The origin of matter is one of the last and greatest unsolved mysteries bedevilling modern attempts at understanding the philosophy of the Enneads.

There are two stages in the production of Intellect and of soul. The One or Intellect produces an undifferentiated other, which becomes Intellect or soul by itself turning towards and looking towards the prior principle, with no possibility of the One's "turning towards" or "seeing" itself. But where does matter come from?

To arrive at his conception of matter, Plotinus has radically altered the definitions of non-being given by Plato and Aristotle in their refutation of Parmenides. Matter, for Plotinus, is a non-being opposed, not to "the being of each thing", as in Plato's Sophist, but to all "the beings properly so-called", i.e. to all the forms. It is then further identified with Aristotle's definition of non-being as privation, with the crucial difference that privation, for Plotinus, is made a permanent substratum of change. This re-formulation of ideas from the Sophist and the Physics proves unmistakably that it is matter which is generated when soul produces a "non-being" which is also a "total lack of definition". The production of matter by soul does not, however, follow the model of the production of Intellect from the One or of soul from Intellect. Since matter is lifeless, it cannot turn towards its source. Soul therefore has to be herself directly responsible both for the production of matter and for the covering of matter with form.

Matter is therefore included among the products which stem ultimately from the One. But the origin and the nature of matter have to be understood as very different from the double process of emanation which lies at the origin of Intellect and of soul.


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