BMCR 2005.04.46

Return to the One: Plotinus’ Guide to God-Realization

, Return to the one : Plotinus's guide to God-realization : a modern exposition of an ancient classic, the Enneads. Bloomington and Salem: Unlimited Pub., 2004. xx, 369 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 1588321002 $16.99 (pb).

Return to the One: Plotinus’ Guide to God-Realization is a text intended to introduce the non-specialist to the mystical philosophy of Plotinus. The text is written in a fresh and accessible style; however, one might question its stated aim of relieving non-scholars of having to read the Enneads directly (pg. 32). It hardly seems worth saying that there is no substitute for the original. Hines comes close to saying that his text is meant to be a substitute for it. One might recall the words of Spinoza, who said that “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” ( Ethics V,42, scol.)

Return to the One is admittedly the author’s expression of his own understanding of Plotinus’ philosophy and is for the most part expository and general without broaching any of the myriad difficulties in Plotinus scholarship. Hines makes no pretense of presenting a treatment of Plotinus similar to work by Plotinus scholars, apart from claiming in his “Suggestions for Further Reading” that his text stands alongside “Non-Scholarly overviews” in which ironically he places books by Hadot, Bréhier, and O’Meara.1 I was surprised that this rather impressionistic book does not mention a book written with greater philosophical precision, but in a similar spirit to itself, namely Laura Westra’s Plotinus and Freedom: A Meditation on Enneads VI:8.2

The book comprises four main sections, as well as sections entitled: “Preliminaries” and “Wrap-Up” (the conclusion). The four main sections are all titled “‘The One’ ‘and Many’, ‘Soul’s Descent’ ‘and Return,'” with a different part of the title bolded to indicate the focus of the section. Despite the idiosyncrasy of presentation, and the jarring insistence of naming all 43 sub-sections with alliterative subtitles (‘God is the Goal,’ ‘Love is Limitless,’ ‘Beauty is Beyond,’ ‘Psyche is a Pilgrim’), the book is surprisingly sane, clear-headed, and well-written. Hines’ text is well researched, and contains a useful bibliography (pp. 361-64), as well as a very useful 11 pages of suggestions for further reading, with brief abstracts of important texts on Plotinus. Given the scarcity of such texts, the treatment here is admirable.3

Hines consistently tells us that Plotinus is a mystic but seems to pay little attention, other than through an intuitive grasping, to what the term actually means. In a text that is trying to offer Plotinus’ philosophy as a viable “guide to God-realization” one might have welcomed a deeper reflection on this issue. The intentional but loosely justified use of the word “spirit” as a translation of the hypostasis Nous allows the author to make Plotinus less rational and more “spiritual” than one might expect a rational treatment of the philosopher to be, and indeed there is an obvious and important difference between understanding Nous as “spirit” and what the word “spirituality” in contemporary vernacular use implies. This is a difference to which little heed is paid by the author. That being said, Hines’ grasp of what actually happens in terms of what have been called Plotinus’ primary hypostases is reasonably sound and clearly expressed. The treatment of the One as “the ultimate reality” (pg. 49) or as containing what it creates (pg. 85) will raise some eyebrows. Plotinus, as Hines is careful to state, is as constrained as he is by the paucity of language, but such expressions on the part of the author without qualification, tend to mislead; the book as it stands is so general an exposition of Plotinus, that such a lack of precision pervades and distracts.

There is a brief treatment in the concluding section of Plotinus’ legacy and place in the history of philosophy that is reasonably well presented. I am a bit concerned that Augustine is made out to be something of an unrepentant Manichean (Martin of Voltaire’s Candide comes to mind). I am more concerned that while some attention is paid to Plotinus’ influence, almost nothing is said of his own influences anywhere in the book.

The name Aristotle appears nowhere in the book, despite the fact that Porphyry tells that Plotinus subsumes all of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.4 For example the quotation from Enneads II,4,5 that Hines’ presents us with on pg. 165 is a clear reference to Aristotelian substance, but no reference to Aristotle is made. In fact the only predecessor of Plotinus that is mentioned with any regularity is Plato, and these references are limited in large extent to the parable of the cave in Republic VII (pp. 11-12, 25, 48, 67, 91, 113, 147, 216, 262 — some of these references are in the book’s index and some are not). No mention is made of Plotinus’ continual references to the Parmenides and Republic 509c where the Good is ostensibly ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας (beyond being), despite the fact that at least one such passage ( Enneads V,5,6) where the phrase occurs is quoted (pg. 47), and despite the fact that an explicit and crucial reference to Parmenides in Plato (V,1,8) is also quoted (pg. 71). This latter text is foundational to E.R. Dodds’ important suggestion of Plotinus’ profound debt to the Parmenides and is lamentably ignored by Hines, the effect of which is to ignore Plotinus’ philosophical heritage.5 In short, the following essential considerations are nowhere to be found in this exposition of Plotinus: 1. Plotinus is a self-professed exegete of Plato, and believes himself to be giving an accurate exposition of Plato; 2. Plotinus adopts Aristotelian terminology and concepts and uses them to respond to some of Aristotle’s criticisms of Plato; 3. Plotinus is in the thick of a Middle Platonic blending of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. The result of such omissions is that one gets no sense of the philosophical tradition in which Plotinus is working in Return to the One. This is not to say that Hines is responsible for telling the whole story of Greek metaphysics, but one is left with the impression on reading this text that Plotinus is creating a mystical metaphysics ex nihilo. He may have come from Lycopolis, but Plotinus is no lone wolf.

While I would express some concern over the author’s grasp of some issues, on the whole the exposition is reasonably accurate and might provide an entertaining read to someone reasonably familiar with Plotinus. As an introduction to the Enneads, some of the expository problems embraced by the generality of the presentation tend to raise concerns and limit the text’s usefulness to Plotinus scholarship. Were the text more protreptic of further study of Plotinus (the points where this is encouraged is far outweighed by the times where it is discouraged), it might inspire a general reader, and the general expository problems would be corrected by further study.


1. P. Hadot, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision (trans. Chase), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993; D.J. O’Meara, Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995; E. Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1958. Oddly enough John Deck’s marvelously accessible book Nature, Contemplation and the One, Burdett, Larson, 1991 is placed in a different category than these — “Scholarly but Accessible”, the implication being that it is more complex?

2. L. Westra, Plotinus’ and Freedom: A Meditation on Enneads VI:8, Mellen, Lewiston, 1990.

3. A reasonably full Plotinus bibliography was published in 2002, R. Dufour, Plotinus: A Bibliography 1950-2000, Leiden, Brill, 2002, and is currently being updated at Dufour’s website.

4. Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 14.

5. E.R. Dodds, “The Parmenides of Plato and the Origin of the Neoplatonic One,” Classical Quarterly 22 (1928) 129-42.