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Open Access Plotinus on the Making of Matter Part III: The Essential Background

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Plotinus on the Making of Matter Part III: The Essential Background

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Abstract Plotinus did not set out to be obscure. Difficulties of interpretation arise partly from his style of writing, compressed, elliptical, allusive. The allusions, easily enough recognisable by those he was writing for, are often not recognised at all by the modern reader who no longer has at his fingertips the texts of Plato and Aristotle that Plotinus undoubtedly alludes to, but whose authors he has no need to name. So it is pre-eminently with his subtle use of earlier ideas in tackling the difficult question of the nature of matter and its place in the scheme of emanation. The frequent references to matter as ‘non-being’ and as ‘privation’ can be understood only if they are seen as a radical adaptation of the paradoxical definition of a ‘form that is, of what is not’ in Plato’s Sophist (258 D 5-7) and as a deliberate correction of Aristotle’s unsuccessful attempt at including female desire in an analysis of privation in the Physics (i 9, 192 a 22-25). Only when the debt to Plato and Aristotle has been recognised for what it is are we able to appreciate that matter defined as ‘non-being’ is not therefore ‘non-existent’, and that the ‘privation’ that is matter is not a terminus a quo of change, but a permanent substrate of change. The adaptation and the daring syncretism lead to deliberate paradox in Plotinus’ own definition of matter as both ‘so to speak a form of sorts’ and ‘formless’ (I 8 [51] 3). The seeming inconsistency is Plotinus’ acknowledgment of the use he has made of earlier ideas when he writes of matter, so defined, as ‘made’ by a lower manifestation of soul, and therefore as the last and the least of the products flowing from, but not created by, the One.

Affiliations: 1: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Paris France plotinus@wanadoo.fr

Abstract Plotinus did not set out to be obscure. Difficulties of interpretation arise partly from his style of writing, compressed, elliptical, allusive. The allusions, easily enough recognisable by those he was writing for, are often not recognised at all by the modern reader who no longer has at his fingertips the texts of Plato and Aristotle that Plotinus undoubtedly alludes to, but whose authors he has no need to name. So it is pre-eminently with his subtle use of earlier ideas in tackling the difficult question of the nature of matter and its place in the scheme of emanation. The frequent references to matter as ‘non-being’ and as ‘privation’ can be understood only if they are seen as a radical adaptation of the paradoxical definition of a ‘form that is, of what is not’ in Plato’s Sophist (258 D 5-7) and as a deliberate correction of Aristotle’s unsuccessful attempt at including female desire in an analysis of privation in the Physics (i 9, 192 a 22-25). Only when the debt to Plato and Aristotle has been recognised for what it is are we able to appreciate that matter defined as ‘non-being’ is not therefore ‘non-existent’, and that the ‘privation’ that is matter is not a terminus a quo of change, but a permanent substrate of change. The adaptation and the daring syncretism lead to deliberate paradox in Plotinus’ own definition of matter as both ‘so to speak a form of sorts’ and ‘formless’ (I 8 [51] 3). The seeming inconsistency is Plotinus’ acknowledgment of the use he has made of earlier ideas when he writes of matter, so defined, as ‘made’ by a lower manifestation of soul, and therefore as the last and the least of the products flowing from, but not created by, the One.

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2012-01-01
2016-05-02

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