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07/29/2014 08:23 am ET | Updated Sep 28, 2014

The Plotinus Principle?

It's just possible that I have found a source of insight comparable to that from Vilfredo Pareto, the 19th-century economist who inspired the 80/20 principle. My new friend is Plotinus, a philosopher who was born in 205 AD, studied in Alexandria, joined the army on an ill-fated expedition to India -- because he wanted to study there -- and then had a hard time making it back to civilization in Antioch. He eventually founded a highly regarded school of philosophy in Rome, attracted a number of highly intelligent followers. Despite being a humble man and anti-materialistic, he even made friends with the Emperor Gallienus and his wife. Plotinus elaborated Plato's thought, and historians in the nineteenth century credited Plotinus with inventing "Neoplatonism." He was an important source of inspiration for Henri Bergson, possibly the most important philosopher of the last century.

But although philosophers and theologians have long respected Plotinus, he is not (so far as I know) an important influence on either the self-improvement movement or on business. I would like to change that, because I think his views on intuition and happiness are highly relevant to both.

Plotinus for beginners

Obviously I'm not an expert on Plotinus, and I'm relying on those who have studied him far more than I have -- and in particular on Karen Armstrong's lucid presentation of his views in her breath-taking book A History of God. The account that follows is mine, and so are any errors, but much is derived from Armstrong.

"Human beings are aware that something is wrong with their condition;" she says, "they feel at odds with themselves and others, out of touch with their inner nature and disoriented." Plotinus believed this was because we have lost touch with simplicity and the unity of the universe. Yet, that is not the whole story, because our intuition always attempts to look at the big picture. We are always trying to make sense of partial data, to bring order out of the chaos we see around us. When we see somebody, we see a person, an integrated human being -- we don't think, that's two arms, two legs, and a head. That is because the underlying reality of life is unity.

For Plotinus, ultimate reality is "the One ... Being itself, not a thing, but distinct from all things ... Everything and Nothing; it can be none of the existing things, and yet it is all." The One is perfect and impersonal; and yet people can in some ways participate in the divine essence. At the center of existence is the One. Surrounding and within it are two emanations in which humans can share.

Mind & Intuition

The closest emanation is Mind -- "nous." Participating in the One through our minds is not a matter of detailed knowledge or research, but of intuition. The One overflows, and we can swim in this Mind, we can absorb some of its power and insight, through intuition. Our best self can participate in Mind. How do we do that? By going deep within the recessions of the mind. In Karen Armstrong's wonderful phrase, it is a "climb inwards."

I think this is enormously important, because it provides a poetic and convincing explanation of the concept of "inner depths" which lies at the heart of self-improvement. I used to think that the idea of inner depths was modern, dating from the last few centuries, but here we are in the third century AD and, for me, the idea is explained better than anywhere else.

Plotinus makes a link between what is real, what is good, our sense of reason, underlying reality, and intuition. Intuition is a mysterious thing that has not been adequately explained by psychologists, and probably never will be. Where does intuition come from? It comes from inside, and it comes from outside, because we can participate in the One. How do we increase our intuition? It seems to me that what Plotinus is saying is that we do so through surrender, through simplifying, through stripping away distractions, and opening ourselves up to the insight that comes to us from "the One," or in more modern language, "the universe."

I believe that the best scientists, business people, and people in every other walk of life are those whose intuition is most profound and fertile. We are very good at increasing knowledge -- which is a wonderful thing. But knowledge itself is no use without intuition and insight. Society is not very good at increasing intuition; yet happiness, wealth, and a decent community depend more on intuition than anything else.

The other part of the Plotinus system is a second emanation -- Soul ("psyche") itself emanating from Mind, and therefore a little bit further removed from the center of existence and therefore a bit less perfect too. Outside of Mind, Soul is everything else in our life, the rest of our physical and spiritual existence, including our emotions. It is interesting that, for Plotinus, Soul is less perfect and further from ultimate reality than Mind.

Happiness

Happiness has a central place in Plotinus' philosophy. We can attain happiness by identifying with and living within all that is best in the universe. Happiness is not primarily physical, but mental. This is something that, outside of our universities -- themselves "emanations" from schools of philosophy and monasteries -- the modern world struggles to appreciate. Happiness is essentially in the mind, not in our material circumstances. Modern psychology has vindicated this hypothesis, and yet it is not one to which we listen much. Is this because we don't have a world-view which places the emphasis on the Mind and Intuition, on Simplicity, and on bathing within the warm waters overflowing from the universe? Clearly Christianity and other religions have absorbed some of Plotinus' system and been the richer for it. But have they absorbed enough of it? I believe that a modernist view of Christianity, with God as the Ground of our Being, could usefully absorb even more of the Plotinus world-view, and place even more emphasis on quiet introspection, climbing our inner heights, and opening ourselves up to goodness and intuition from outside ourselves. All that is best comes from outside, but it flows into our insides, and we are best when we are possessed by goodness around us.

The Implications for Everyone

I am struck by how similar the practical implications of Plotinus are to those of Pareto -- and not solely because to some extent I am refracting them through my own mind and intuition. As you know, I like to reduce thought to practical implications, and here they are:

1. Act less, think more.

2. Allow plenty of time for quiet reflection every day. Make this a habit, in a particular place, at a particular time.

3. Await insight.

4. Hone your powers of intuition -- by trying less, and opening yourself up to the universe more. Intuition comes in when you let it.

5. Try to become the best possible version of yourself (the exact words I owe to Matthew Kelly -- thanks, Matthew). This is not just a matter of opening your soul. It is also -- more importantly -- a matter of opening your mind, and seeking the most simple, unifying answer.

Wouldn't it be great if we could get schools, universities, business schools, and organizations to see one of their main functions as being to increase intuition? In the meanwhile, we can usefully work on our own intuition, and become happier and more productive.

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