In this post I want to examine two different ways of illustrating the metaphysical system of the neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus. My purpose in doing this is not so much to argue for a metaphysical claim as it is to illustrate the significance a simple change in an analogy used to explain a system can have on our understanding of a metaphysical theory.
Plotinus was a major neo-Platonic philosopher, which means his philosophy is very similar to that of Plato: he believes in a metaphysical hierarchy in which the eternal and unchanging Forms are more real than the transient, physical world. What is particular to Plotinus’ understanding of the Platonic metaphysic, and what he is most known for, is the idea that all things derive their being from a single entity (appropriately known as “the One”) by a process known as emanation.
This concept can be illustrated using an analogy with concentric circles, which is what this post is about. What makes a difference, it turns out, is whether we decided that the One is the outermost concentric circle or the very center of the concentric circles.
If we choose the former and decide that the One is best represented by the outermost of the concentric circles, then our analogy suggests that everything else exists within the boundaries set by the One. This sounds an awful lot like Aristotle’s unmoved mover and suggests a pretty theistic view of metaphysics: the One exists beyond everything else, thereby setting the boundaries of existence and exercising ultimate control over all other existing things.
But this isn’t the only option.
The other option is to place the One at the center of the concentric circles. In some ways this analogy seems to work better with the idea of emanation: all things derive their being, Plotinus says, form emanations extending out from the One.
This analogy/visualization, however, paints a very different metaphysical picture. Now the One is not beyond all things, setting the boundaries of existence, but within all things giving rise to their existence. We have moved from a theistic model of metaphysics to a pantheistic model, and all that just by changing one detail in the analogy!