Return To The Divine: Salvation In The Thought Of Plotinus And Origen

This article, by Dr. Antonia Tripolitis, is presented here for three reasons:

  1. It is an excellent exposition of Origen’s views of the difference between created and uncreated beings, one which I make in My Lord and My God.
  2. It shows how two people, who start with a virtually identical philosophical framework, end up with different conclusions because of the way in which their faith (or lack of it) informs their world view.  In spite of the common criticism that Origen paganised Christianity, the reality is actually the opposite.
  3. It is a succinct presentation of Origen’s view of the origin and destiny of the soul, a very relevant topic in view of the controversial universalism set forth by Rob Bell in his book Love Wins.

Dr. Tripolitis taught for many years at Rutgers University.  The article originally appeared (with the citations) in the Patristic Monograph Series No. 6, Disciplina Nostra: Essays in Memory of Robert F. Evans, Donald F. Winslow, ed.  Cambridge, MA: Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1979, pp. 171-178.

In the third century it was Plotinus and Origen whose anthropologies were to have an important and lasting influence upon the thought of succeeding theologians and philosophers. Their views were formative also for the mysticism, both pagan and Christian, which was to be developed in subsequent generations. In particular, Origen’s ascetic concepts and mystical perception of the human soul pervaded the thought of later thinkers in the East as well as in the West; they are an impressive contribution to the progressive understanding of human salvation. Fundamental to the thought of both Plotinus and Origen is their insistence on the divine origin and divine nature of the individual human soul. Their major concern, indeed the goal of their thought, was the ultimate “return” of the soul, by means of knowledge, to unity with its divine source. Both were convinced that the human soul belongs to the world of intelligible reality, and both undertook to describe, each in his own way, the means by which this union with Reality could be attained.

Origen and Plotinus were products of the eclectic intellectual environment of the Egyptian metropolis of Alexandria. They both shared the Platonic tradition as this had developed by the third century. It is believed that each attended, though at different times, the lectures of Ammonius Saccas, a key figure in the establishment of Neoplatonism. Although both men shared a common tradition, it manifested itself in their writings in different ways. Plotinus, a pagan, recast Platonic ideas into a new pattern of thought. Origen, a defender of Christianity, adopted Platonic views as these could be called into service to help explain the Christian understanding of God, of human nature, and of human destiny. These Platonic views he revised and reshaped to as to make them congruent with Christian beliefs. Thus, although their concepts are in many ways similar, the significant differences between Origen and Plotinus stem from their religious orientation. The purpose of this essay, then, is to present a brief analysis and comparison of the understanding of salvation in the thought of Plotinus and Origen with a view to determining the sources behind their similarities as well as their differences.

Both Plotinus and Origen believed that the rational soul participates in the divine eternal world and that its origin lies outside of time in the realm of the “intelligible” or divine.2 However, there is a difference in how each perceives the status of the soul as it participates in the divine, that is, the nature of the soul’s participation in its transcendent source. According to Plotinus, the human rational soul, which is a person’s true nature, is ,a direct emanation of the divine essence. It is a part of the divine world, a being which exists on the lowest level of divinity and therefore in continuous and direct relationship with the divine intellect.3 Origen, as a Christian who was influenced by the biblical view of creation, could not accept so exalted a view of human nature, that the rational soul was a part of the divine and in direct association with it. This biblical pessimism notwithstanding, he did find, through a rational interpretation of the Genesis narratives, the basis for a qualified assertion of the soul’s participation in the divine.

According to Origen, the rational soul is a created being; created outside of time, it is nevertheless created. For this reason, it is unstable, subject to change and alteration,4 in contradistinction to the simple and eternally changeless essence of uncreated divinity.5 Therefore, the human soul is not of the same essence as the divine,6 but is capable of sharing or participating in the divine.7 Referring to the biblical account of creation, Origen states that it is the rational soul which was created in the “image” of God.8 It is capable, accordingly; of perceiving and understanding, if it so wills, the intelligible divine truth and, through its imitation of the divine Logos, is capable of attaining perfection and “likeness” to God.9 It is through this interpretation of the imago Dei that Origen, like Plotinus, can speak of the soul’s participation in its divine source. Yet it is his adherence to the biblical view of creation that causes him to differ both from Plotinus and the other Platonists of his time. A Platonic concept has been modified in order to make it congruent with Christian belief.

Plotinus believed that in their original state all souls were pure rational beings, logoi or logika, alike and equal in their contemplation of the divine intellect and in perfect communion with it.10 However, these rational beings turned away from their contemplation of the Good and assumed material bodies. The “fall” of the rational beings is considered by both Plotinus and Origen as a consequence of this turning away. For Plotinus, this “fall” was both a cosmological necessity and an indication of the soul’s voluntary inclination towards that which is void and vain. The embodiment of the rational soul is necessary for its own development and for the subsequent creation and perfection of the cosmos. But still it is a “fall,” a voluntary self-alienation of the soul from the Good.11 Plotinus never reconciles the “necessary” and “voluntary” elements of the logoi’s turning away from their original state.12 Origen, on the other hand, attributes the fall of souls to their created, generated nature. By virtue of the fact that they once did not exist and then came into existence, rational souls were necessarily subject to change and alteration; inherent instability is part of their nature.13 It was this instability which led the souls, albeit created in the image of God, to make a wrong choice, to neglect God, and thus to fall away from God and into evil. So Origen, although believing the fall to be an unavoidable consequence of genetic instability, nevertheless holds these created beings morally responsible for their fall.14 However, in spite of the logika’s estrangement from God, they still retain their participation in the divine essence and thus have the ability, potentially, to return to their original pristine state.

Adhering to the Platonic doctrine of “assimilation to God,” both Plotinus and Origen maintain that the world of sense is alien to the soul and a hindrance to the soul’s realization of its own true nature. Eachbelieves that a person’s goal should be to become liberated from the things of sense and to realize one’s divine nature as logos or logikos, thus regaining one’s original status. The rational soul possesses within itself both the desire and power for communion with the divine. The attainment of perfection and the regaining of original purity is thus within the grasp of human capability.15

According to Plotinus, the rational or “higher” soul remains always in the intelligible world, in continuous and direct contemplation of intelligible realities.16 It remains eternally stable and impassible,. untouched by the passions, sin and suffering which are a part of the sensible world.17 Eternally maintained in the intelligible universe, and in constant communion with the One, the rational soul continually receives from the One, through the eternal and spontaneous emanation of its energy, the power always to return to the world of the intellect. In its process of creative emanation, the One gives movement to the soul and the power to return to its source.18 It is thus the continuous illumination of the soul by the One which provides the soul both with the desire for, and the power necessary to achieve, salvation. A person needs only to turn inward to recognize this impulse the power within and to pursue the necessary moral and intellectual discipline involved in the process of purification.19 Through moral training, philosophical reflection, and the study of the sciences, the soul gradually attains knowledge of the Good and ascends thereby to the intelligible world.20 Thus, in Plotinus’ view, there is no need for what might be called additional, special or providential grace to assist the soul, nor any need for the mediation of prayer, for rites or sacraments. Within human nature itself exists all that is required for the process towards salvation, a process culminating in the soul’s ascent towards purification and the final appearance or vision of the One. It is this conscious awareness within the soul of the divine presence which allows for the soul’s ultimate awakening and realization of its true nature.21 In spite of this universal possibility, however, not all are capable of reaching the highest level, for few are aware of the power within themselves, and still fewer are willing to undertake the vigorous intellectual and moral discipline necessary to bring the true divine nature of the soul to full realization. It is for this reason that those who do experience the divine vision are few, and their experience of it is rare.22 Yet it is still true that the vision or appearance of the One does come naturally to anyone who is properly prepared to receive it.23 This is both similar to and, in some respects, divergent from Origen’s view in which he maintains that it requires persistent and steady effort, in addition to God’s continuous grace and guidance, for the soul to regain its original state of purity.

Origen, too, as we have already seen, believed that the rational soul is capable of participating in the divine life. As the “image” of God, or of the divine Wisdom, the soul is able, if it wills, to perceive and understand the divine intelligible verities.24 However, Origen could not, as a Christian, accept the idea that a person’s true self (rational soul) is by nature eternally pure, stable, changeless, and impassible. Origen believed that it was the whole soul which had fallen in its entirety and was therefore, all of it, in need of purification. It is the entire soul which, because created, is mutable, provisional, incomplete, and dependent. All that the soul possesses is due to God’s power or will, and it requires God’s constant and continuous grace for its spiritual status as well as for its very existence. This assertion of the soul’s unstable nature and of its dependence upon God’s grace is of primary significance to Origen’s discussion of the soul’s spiritual ascent.25 Unlike Plotinus’ description of the “rational” soul, for Origen there is no part of the soul (rational or otherwise) which inherently possesses goodness. Rather, the soul is given a share in goodness by God’s grace in accordance with its developing capacity to receive it. Both Origen and Plotinus claim that the ability and power, movement and desire, to return to God have from the beginning been implanted by God within the soul.26 Both Origen and Plotinus state that it is the responsibility of the individual soul to recognize the power within it and, by means of this power, to strive conscientiously to attain the world of intellible realities.27 But it is only Origen, who holds to the soul’s unstable and changeable nature, in whose writings we find the insistence on the soul’s inability, of itself, to realize and utilize the divine power implanted within it to attain ultimate communion with God. It is important for the soul to realize and acknowledge its own limitations, that is, its instability and dependence, if it is to turn to God for that grace without which salvation is impossible.28 When it does this, the soul begins to receive God’s guidance, those personal and individual acts of grace which guide it through the various phases of the ascent towards God, all in accordance with the given soul’s maturity and capacity for spiritual progress.29 It is through the soul’s conscientious effort, its imitation of the divine Logos, and with the help and guidance of the Logos, that the soul is capable of being perfected and led to union with God. It is the Logos which provides the soul first with th’e moral power with which it can do battle against sin, and then with an increase of intellectual insight as it advances towards God, during which advance it begins to perceive and understand those mystical divine truths which heretofore had been hidden from it.30

For Origen, God reveals himself by means of the Logos both in history and in the inner life of the individual. God reveals himself through the Holy Scriptures and to each individual in accordance with that individual’s capacity to receive him.31 Thus, unlike Plotinus, Origen maintains that salvation is universally available to all, not just to those who are intellectually capable.32 The means of salvation are in accordance with an individual’s needs or degree of insight at a given moment, but salvation itself is potentially available to all.

Although the process by which an individual soul attains true knowledge is described differently by Plotinus and Origen, each sees the ultimate goal as the same: The soul’s mystical union with the divine. Each describes the relationship of the soul to the divine in terms of a mystical marriage, making use of the Platonic myth of Eros and Psyche as elaborated in the Symposium.33 After much searching and longing for the Good, the soul is joined to the Good in a union which both Plotinus and Origen see as analogous to the union of earthly lovers.34 But the union of the soul with the Good in no way partakes of the sensual; rather, it is that fulfilment by which the soul, in perfect self knowledge, comprehends the eternal divine realities. This is the goal of human existence, the end of life’s journey.35 Plotinus sees the last stage of this journey as the complete union of the soul with the One, a state in which the soul has turned completely inward, where pleasures and happiness are from within, when the soul has been freed from everything alien and external. Things of sense have become relegated to the level of meaningless accessories, and the soul itself has become one, both with itself and with the divine.36 Plotinus does not say that the soul becomes “identical” with the divine; rather, the soul has finally realized its own true divine nature and has thereby been completely fulfilled by the One.37 It is even possible, Plotinus claims, for this state of unification to be attained by a purified soul while still in the earthly body, but such experiences are very rare and of brief duration. Final and permanent union with the One is possible only after death, when the soul is completely free of the body.38

In language similar to Plotinus’, Origen describes the final union of the soul with God as that stage in which the soul will no longer be conscious of anything other than God; it will think God and hold God and God will be the mode and measure of its every movement. God will be all in all to the soul.39 But nowhere does Origen speak of a oneness or unity of the soul with the divine while still in an earthly body. The soul can indeed reach that contemplative stage in which there is an awareness of the divine and an approach of,the divine towards the soul, but this awareness and approach stops short of complete oneness or union.40 While in the earthly body, the soul is still too weak and unstable to attain complete union with God, even for a rare or brief instant. The earthly body is in fact an impediment both to the soul’s complete union with God as well as to its fitness for such union.41 Thus, according to Origen, complete and lasting union with the divine can be achieved only in the life hereafter.42 From a common Platonic tradition, then, there emerged two views of salvation, one of them pagan and one of them Christian. What they have in common stems from this shared tradition. Where their views differ stems from their respective understanding of human nature. Plotinus, as did the pagan Platonists, adopted certain elements of the tradition, reinterpreted them, and developed out of them an exalted anthropology. For Plotinus, the human is essentially divine; the true self, or rational soul, is a member of the intelligible universe, a stable, impassible, immortal, divine entity which is uncreated and exists from before all time, eternally sustained in the intelligible universe and in constant communion with the divine. The goal of human ‘existence is to understand this essential divinity and, through virtue and philosophy, to restore it to its proper, original relationship to the One and to the divine world.

Origen, also a Platonist, differed from Plotinus precisely in his adaptation of a more biblically based view of creation and of the imperfection of human nature. Thus he used those Platonic concepts which could the more readily explain his Christian anthropology. Origen is less optimistic than Plotinus about the inherent goodness of human nature, but more optimistic about the possibility of eternal salvation for all created beings. Heeding the biblical accounts of creation, Origen assigns to the human soul the status of creatureliness, albeit created from all eternity in the image of God. As such, the soul has a certain “kinship” with God, is immortal, and capable of participating in the divine life. But it is not essentially divine. As created, the entire soul is basically unstable and in need of God’s grace and assistance. The aim of one’s life should be to purify oneself from things of sense and to return to fellowship with God. For the Christian, this is done through faith in Christ (Logos) and diligent imitation of Him who guides all souls in their return to God.

2 thoughts on “Return To The Divine: Salvation In The Thought Of Plotinus And Origen”

  1. In “An Idealist View of Life,” Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan wrote:
    The world reaches its consummation when every man knows himself to be the immortal spirit, the son of God, and is it. Till this goal is reached, each saved individual [who has actualized divine union] is the centre of the universal con- sciousness. He continues to act without the sense of ego. To be saved is not to be moved from this world. Salvation is not an escape from life. The individual works in the cosmic process no longer as an obscure and limited ego, but as the centre of the divine or universal consciousness embracing and transforming into harmony all individual manifestations. It is to live in the world with one’s inward being profoundly modified. The soul takes possession of itself and can- not be shaken from its tranquility by the attractions and attacks of the world.”

    He was the President of India 1962-67, Vice President 1952-62 and a Professor at Oxford University 1936-52. In 1962, I was introduced to Dr. Radhakrishnan by John Kenneth Galbraith, then the U.S. Ambassador to India. He was one of the 19 mystics who had inspired “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism.

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