The doctrine of providence in the philosophy of Plotinus

James McNulty Mitchell, Fordham University


The examination of Plotinus' providence treatise shows that he identifies providence with the very being of the universe, characterizes providence as an order or arrangement, underscores that characterization by referring to the kosmos, emphasizing that the activity of providence extends from the intelligible world to every part of the sensible world. He uses various metaphors for this ordering: the unity of a musical harmony or symphony and of a single organism, the leadership given by a military general, the living body's resources for healing illness, and the growth principle behind the root and tree. Within the context of his metaphysical system of the emanation of reality from the first principle, the One, Providence is not an arche, but is related to Nous as one of its aspects and specified by a temporal qualifier. Providence is the operation of Nous in the sensible world providing for the future. Nous confers on the universe its very existence. The kosmos is forever becoming, subsisting and being conserved by Nous. It is necessary for him to establish a bridge between the sensible intelligible worlds. As an agent of both Nous and Soul, the Logos is involved both in creating entities in the sensible world, and in reconnecting these with their higher principles in the intelligible world. It is this combination of Nous and the Logos flowing from it which produces order in the world. Although providence reaches all of reality, it is not a controlling order, he insists on human freedom and moral responsibility in deciding how to respond to conditions. Matter is not indicted in this treatise as the source of evil. Since matter represents the ultimate in multiplicity and is at the farthest point away from the One, it also has the least reality, the least participation in intelligibility. As a monist he traces all things, ultimately, back to the One. But to blame evil as such on the One is unacceptable. Thus Plotinus must resort to the privative mode to characterize evil. It is a falling short, a failure to return to the Good.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Religion|Philosophy|Classical studies

Recommended Citation

Mitchell, James McNulty, "The doctrine of providence in the philosophy of Plotinus" (1997). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9730103.