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'Our endeavor…is to be a god:’ Humans as Visible Gods in Plotinus

Eric Perl

Loyola Marymount University

Plotinus’ seemingly hubristic insistence that “our endeavor is not to be out of sin, but to be a god” (I.2.6, 2-3) goes further than the Platonic and Aristotelian commonplace that the goal of human life is to become as godlike as possible for a human being.  In V.1., he includes “we ourselves” along with the cosmos, the sun, and the other stars, as things that are gods in virtue of soul, which is therefore a superior god (V.1.2, 40-45).  Such statements are best understood in relation to Plotinus’ account of the celestial bodies as visible gods, that is, immortal living things animated by perfectly rational souls.  In II.9, Plotinus castigates the Gnostics for claiming that human souls are “immortal and divine” but denying any divinity to the heavens and the stars (II.9.5, 1-14).  “Now certainly the whole earth is full of varied and immortal living things, and all things up to the sky are full of them:  why then are not the stars, both those in the lower spheres and those in the highest, gods, borne around in order and circling in well-arranged beauty?  Why should they not possess virtue?  What hindrance prevents them from acquiring virtue?  The things are not present there that make people here below bad, and there is no evil of body, disturbed and disturbing” (II.9.8, 29-36).  In IV.8, Plotinus explains that there are two ways in which soul can animate body:  the higher, in which the soul exercises providence toward the body without ceasing to “abide in the best,” that is, to contemplate intelligible reality, and the lower, in which the soul directs its attention to the body and thus allows itself to be affected by what happens to the body (IV.8.2, 27-31). The former is the way in which the world-soul and the souls of the sun and the other stars animate their bodies (IV.8.2, 31-42).  In such a case “the soul has not sunk into the interior of the body and does not belong to the body, but the body to it” (IV.8.2, 46-48).  It is more difficult for human souls to relate to their bodies in this way, because our bodies are made out of inferior elements and  the rational soul, “by which we are ourselves,” is “another soul” which comes “when the body has already been generated” (II.1.5, 8-14, 21-24).  In other words, unlike the souls of the celestial bodies, the rational human soul must deal with a corruptible body animated by a lesser, sub-rational soul.  Nonetheless, Plotinus insists that at least some humans are able to keep the rational soul, or “true man” (I.1.10, 7) pure and contemplative even while the lower soul animates the body.  “There is an escape from evils in the soul for those who are capable of it, though not all are capable.  Although matter is present in the sensible gods, evil is not present, nor the vice that humans have; nor [is it present] in all humans” (I.8.5, 30-33).  The best of humans are therefore gods in the same sense as the sun and the stars.  The visible gods thus serve as models for humans to emulate, and the truly wise and virtuous man, whose higher, rational soul is altogether undisturbed by the animal composite of lower soul and body, will be “a god or spirit who is double, or rather who has with him someone else” (I.2.6, 4-6).  Such a human can truly declare, in the words of Empedocles, “‘Hail!  I am for you an immortal god’” (IV.7.10, 39).    

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Gods and the Divine in Neoplatonism

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