Plotinus on Divine Simplicity





Document Type





Gavrilyuk attends to divine simplicity according to the third-century AD pagan philosopher Plotinus. He shows that Plotinus draws his doctrine of divine simplicity from the earlier Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, in which the nature of the “first principle” was highly contested. Aristotle offers a history of the early debate, with Anaxagoras being the first to glimpse the first principle’s simplicity. The Platonist philosophers conceived of the first principle as incorporeal, and on these grounds linked the first principle to simplicity. For his part, Aristotle associated simplicity with the absoluteness of pure actuality. The Stoics, with their essentially material understanding of the divine, ignored or denied divine simplicity. Plotinus draws upon the reception of Aristotle that is found in Alexander of Aphrodisias, Numenius, and Ammonius. According to Gavrilyuk, the signal contribution of Plotinus consists in setting forth the strongest possible doctrine of divine simplicity. Indeed, for Plotinus God’s utter simplicity means that God cannot even be thought, because thinking requires the duality of subject-object. Plotinus conceives of the divine One as above divine Mind (nous), since the latter contains a unified plurality but not the perfect simplicity that marks the unknowable One. Gavrilyuk ends his essay with an account of the qualifications made to divine simplicity by philosophers and theologians who are less radical in their doctrine than is Plotinus. He emphasizes that the Enneads' key metaphysical insight, utterly ruling out any kind of composition from the One, has the benefit of being supremely intellectually coherent and elegant.

Published in

Modern Theology

Citation/Other Information

Gavrilyuk, Paul L. “Plotinus on Divine Simplicity.” Modern Theology 35, no. 3 (2019): 442–451. https://doi.org/10.1111/moth.12503.