Return to the One: Plotinus’s Guide to God-Realization
By Brian Hines
Bloomington, IN: Unlimited Publishing, 2004
Review by Carl McColman
Plotinus: You can’t understand Christian mysticism without him. Trouble is, you can’t hardly understand him, either — unless you’re a serious philosophy geek, which, alas, excludes me and 99% of the world’s population. Reading Plotinus, a second century pagan philosopher and the most important of the Neoplatonists, is only marginally more satisfying than reading Finnegans Wake; like Joyce, Plotinus is murky and mysterious; his lone work, The Enneads, is just barely accessible enough to tantalize the first-time reader with a sense that real treasures do, in fact, lie buried deep within his dense and highly technical prose. Even worse, the vast majority of secondary sources — books about Plotinus and his writing — are written by philosophers for students of philosophy, and thus tend to underemphasize the practical, spiritual implications of Plotinian thought. Today’s Christians and modern Pagans tend to be equally ignorant that this genius of mystical philosophy ever existed, let alone that his thought is essential to the understanding of how western spirituality developed over the ensuing 1800 years.
Enter Brian Hines, an independent writer and spiritual seeker who made the effort to study Plotinus as a mystic rather than a philosopher, and subsequently wrote this marvelously accessible introduction to the spirituality of The Enneads. I’m tempted to say this is virtually a “Plotinus for Dummies,” except that I think it’s better than such a formulaic title might suggest. As good as the “Dummies” books are, Hines avoids cutesiness (with the exception of his self-confessed love for alliteration) and gratuitous humor, opting instead for a straightforward, intelligent yet accessible overview of what Plotinus taught and why it matters almost two thousand years later. As such, I can heartily say this is an ideal book for anyone interested in cracking open the Plotinian nut, especially in terms of furthering their own spiritual practice.
Hines provides a basic, easy-to-follow overview of the key elements of Plotinus’ thought: the notions of the One, of Nous (which Hines translates as “Spirit”) and of Psyche (“Soul”) and how these categories of reality relate to one another and to the multi-layered material world. The mystical dimension of Plotinus’ philosophy emerges as Hines offers practical ways to understand how the Neoplatonic cosmology and its cycle of emanation and return can provide a map for those seeking to orient their lives to eternal values. He addresses common objections to Neoplatonism, such as that it is espouses a dualistic hatred of the physical. The overall tone of Return to the One is positive and upbeat; the author makes it clear that he is convinced of the value of Plotinus and is eager to present his spirituality as a hopeful and optimistic way to cultivate meaning and purpose in life.
Of course, I read this book as a Christian, and I wish Hines were a bit less critical of Christianity; he is such a true believer in Plotinus that any attempt to modify Neoplatonism (as Christians have been doing from St. Augustine on forward) can in his eyes only be a mistake. Yet his insistence on the truth of reincarnation goes beyond reporting what Plotinus taught to verge on appearing ideologically-driven; Hines seems to forget that when Plotinus counsels us to surrender everything in our quest to return to the One, that even includes surrendering our beliefs and our favorite cosmology (be it Christianity or even Neoplatonism itself). For Christians, the Trinity and the Incarnation are the keys that imbue the marvelous simplicity of the Plotinian vision with essential elements that it gains from no other source: compassion, grace and love. “It is not good for the human to be alone,” as God put it in the Eden myth. Christianity’s critique of Neoplatonism takes it one step further: “It is not good for God to be alone, either.”
For Christians, The Enneads (like the works of Plato or Aristotle or for that matter the Hebrew Scriptures) is brilliant and wise, but ultimately only tells part of the story. We may ultimately choose to disagree with Hines’ insistence that this is all that is needed; yet still appreciate the elegant simplicity by which he makes a difficult thinker’s work crystalline and approachable. For this, he deserves our thanks.