Plotinus was born in 204 or 205 A.D., in Egypt, perhaps at Lycopolis, though this is uncertain. He was educated at Alexandria, and seems to have attended there the discourses of various philosophers until, at the age of twenty-eight, he fell in with Ammonius Saccas. Ammonius wrote nothing, and the content of his teaching is quite uncertain; but Plotinus became his eager disciple, and remained under his instruction for about ten years. He next embarked upon an enterprising attempt to investigate the philosophy of the East, by accompanying an expedition of the Emperor Gordian into Persia; but in 244 the young emperor was assassinated, whereupon Plotinus made his way, with some difficulty, to Rome. He lived and taught there for the rest of his life, soon achieving celebrity, and being favored particularly by the Emperor Gallienus, who, according to Gibbon, allowed philosophy and other diversions to interfere with the proper discharge of his imperial duties. Plotinus died in 269 or 274 A.D. It is remarkable that, although he thus lived through one of the most confused, unhappy periods of the Roman empire, his philosophy appears to be quite unrelated to any of the great social, political, or even moral issues of his time — unless, indeed, its marked unworldly character is a kind of negative response to the gloomy condition of his world. But in this respect Plotinus was not exceptional; aversion from the world was a very general feature of the culture of his century.
The philosophy of Plotinus is not, I believe, capable of precise expression; at some crucial points it tends to dissolve into mysticism, and so into a more or less admitted attempt to say the unsayable. However, it may be possible to convey some notion of his leading ideas, even if their articulation must be left obscure.
Plotinus, like the Pythagoreans, had a high respect for the number three; and he makes great use of threefold distinctions. In particular he distinguishes in man Body, Soul and Spirit; and he distinguishes also, corresponding to these, the world as perceived by the senses, the world as a spatial and temporal order, and the spiritual world. (The word "spiritual" is not ideal here; Plotinus' own word implies a reference rather to intelligence, or reason; I accept, however, what has become the conventional translation.) His position is, of course, in very sharp contrast with that of the Stoics or Epicureans, fervently anti-materialist; and in this respect it contains elements which are somewhat hard to reconcile. On the one hand Plotinus certainly wishes to say that Matter — in human beings, the body — is evil and a cause of evil; but also he appears at times to imply that Matter is a pure illusion. But must not what is positively evil be at least real? The fact is that, like most metaphysicians, Plotinus makes a very curious use of the notion of "reality"; he is prepared, that is, to say that matter is "unreal," without thereby intending to deny that (in the ordinary sense) it really exists. In this, of course, he follows Plato, who had certainly held that the Forms alone are really real, while not actually denying the existence of ordinary objects. "Unreality" becomes in this way a term of condemnation, not one that implies nonexistence.
Part of Plotinus' objection to Matter appears to be that, abstractly considered, it is formless or indeterminate; it is something that can be this or that in particular, but in itself has no determinate character. (It can, none the less, be positively bad, for any particular thing of which Matter is an element is held to be, to that extent, the worse.) The world of spatially and temporally ordered objects and events is regarded as superior to Matter, in that it is in many ways fully determinate; but the world thus considered is also condemned by Plotinus as no more than an appearance, at best an extremely imperfect counterpart of the real spiritual (intelligible) world. Following Plato again, he regards this imperfection of the world as carrying with it imperfection in our knowledge; about this world he says, as Plato had said, we can achieve no more than "opinion."
This world, according to Plotinus, is the product of "Nature" acting upon indeterminate Matter. "Nature" he conceives as a real spiritual power, though it is the "lowest" in the scale of real existences, and vitiated in a sense by its necessary association with Matter. He speaks of it thus:
If, before embarking on the serious discussion of Nature, we were to say, speaking lightly, that all living beings, not only rational but irrational, and all vegetables and the earth which produces them, aspire to contemplation and look to this end, and attain to it as far as in them lies; and that some of them arrive truly at contemplation, while others achieve only a reflexion and image of it, would anyone accept so paradoxical a statement? But now that we are discussing the matter among ourselves, there is no objection to our maintaining this paradox in play. Are not we ourselves contemplating while thus playing? And not ourselves only, but all who play, are not they doing the same and aspiring to contemplation? One might say that the child at play, as well as the man in earnest, has the same end, to arrive at contemplation; and that all action earnestly aims at contemplation. Necessary action turns contemplation chiefly towards external things; that which is called free does this less, but itself too exists through desire of contemplation. But we will deal with this subject later. Let us begin by explaining what kind of contemplation may be attributed to the earth, to trees and plants, and how we can ascribe the products and progeny of the earth to the activity of contemplation; how, in a word, Nature, which is regarded as void of reason and imagination, has a power of contemplation in itself and produces all its works in virtue of a power of contemplation which, strictly speaking, it does not possess.
Nature evidently has neither feet nor hands, nor any artificial or natural instrument. It only needs Matter, on which it works, and to which it gives a Form. The works of Nature are not produced by any mechanical operation. It is not by impulsion, nor by levers and machines that it produces the various colours and forms of objects. Even workers in wax, whose mode of working is often compared with that of Nature, can only give to the objects which they make colours which they bring from elsewhere. We must also remark that these craftsmen have in them a power which remains unmoved, in virtue of which alone they manufacture their works. In the same way there is in Nature a power which remains unmoved, but needs no assistance of hands. This power remains entirely unmoved; it does not need some parts which move and others which do not move. Matter alone is moved; the formative power does not move at all. If the formative power were moved, it would not be the first mover; the first mover would then not be Nature, but that which would be immovable in the whole. No doubt, it may be said, the seminal Reason is immovable; but Nature is distinct from Reason, and does move. But if we speak of Nature in its entirety, we include Reason. If any part of it is immovable, that part will be Reason. Nature must be a form, not a composite of matter and form. . . . In animals and plants, it is the Reasons which produce; Nature is a Reason which produces another Reason, which is its offspring and that on which it works, while remaining itself. The Reason which consists in the visible form holds the last rank; it is dead and cannot produce yet another Reason. The living Reason, being brother of the Reason which produced the visible form, and possessing the same form as that Reason, produces alone in the created being.
How then can Nature produce, and, so producing, to what contemplation can it attain? Since it produces while remaining immovable in itself, and is a Reason, it must itself be a contemplation. Every action is produced according to a Reason, and in consequence differs from it. Reason assists and presides over action, and in consequence is not itself action. Since then it is not action, it must be contemplation. In every chain of reasoning, the last link proceeds from contemplation, and is contemplation in the sense that it has been contemplated. As for the previous link, this may be not Nature but Soul, or again it may be in Nature and be Nature.
Does Reason considered as Nature proceed from contemplation? Certainly; but has it not also contemplated itself? For it is the product of contemplation and of a contemplator. How does it contemplate itself? It has not that kind of contemplation which comes from discursive consideration of what one has. How comes it that being a living Reason, a productive power, it does not consider what it has in itself? It is that one only so considers what one has not got yet. Now, as Nature does possess, it produces because it possesses. To be what it is and to produce what it produces are for Nature the same thing. It is contemplation and the object contemplated because it is Reason. Being contemplation, the object contemplated, and Reason, it produces in virtue of being these things. Production then has been proved to be contemplation; for it is the result of the contemplation, which remains unmovable, which does nothing but contemplate, and which produces in virtue of being contemplation.
If anyone were to demand of Nature why it produces, it would answer, if it were willing to listen and speak: "You should not ask questions, but understand, keeping silence as I keep silence; for I am not in the habit of talking. What ought you to understand? In the first place, that which is produced is the work of my silent contemplation, a contemplation produced by my nature; for being born myself of contemplation, I am naturally contemplative; and that which contemplates in me produces an object of contemplation, as geometers describe figures while contemplating. I, however, do not describe figures, but while I contemplate I let fall, as it were, the lines which mark the forms of bodies. I preserve the disposition of my mother and of the principles which produced me. These too were born of contemplation; and I was born in the same way. They produced me without acting, by virtue of being more potent reasons and contemplating themselves." What do these words mean? That Nature is a Soul engendered by a superior Soul which possesses a more powerful life, and that its silent contemplation is contained in itself, without inclining either to what is above or to what is beneath itself. Remaining in its essence, in its own stability and self-consciousness, it beheld, by this understanding and self-consciousness, that which is below itself, so far as this is possible, and without seeking further produced a brilliant and pleasing object of contemplation. And if anyone wishes to attribute to Nature a kind of understanding or sensation, these will only resemble the knowledge and sensation which we attribute to other things as those of a man asleep resemble those of a man awake. For Nature contemplates its object peaceably, an object born of itself from the fact of its abiding in and with itself, and of its being itself an object of contemplation — a contemplation silent, but feeble. For there is another power which contemplates more clearly; Nature is only the image of a higher contemplation. For this reason that which it produces is altogether weak, because a weak contemplation engenders a weak object.
Consistently of course with his idea that the natural world is an "appearance" only, Plotinus denies the reality of Space and Time. He held however (like Leibniz and Spinoza) that there are real features of reality which appear to us in this guise; he says too that they do so necessarily, "by nature." The "cosmos known to sense" is only the "similitude of the Divine," but its spatial and temporal character is still necessary to it. "To bring this cosmos into existence, Soul laid aside its timelessness and clothed itself with Time. . . . Nature, wishing to become its own mistress and to enter into possession of itself, and to enlarge the sphere of its activities, put itself, and Time together with itself, into motion." Nevertheless, Plotinus holds that it would be demonstrably impossible to deny the existence, beyond or, as he often says, "before" the world of Space and Time, of what is neither spatially extended nor subject to the temporal process.
Are there then, in Plotinus' view, two worlds, one perceived by sense, the other intelligible only? Here it is hard to avoid saying "Yes and No." Certainly, he often speaks of "Here" and "There," as if referring to two distinct places; and very many of his metaphors imply also a similar dualism. On the other hand, he certainly did not believe in two real worlds; for only the "spiritual" world is asserted to be real. Nevertheless, he held that the "unreal" world of perception is in some sense necessary to the spiritual world; it is a confused manifestation of it, without which the spiritual world would have remained "hidden." The world of perception flows from the spiritual world, like light from an unvarying, undiminishing source. It is not all evil, for in some degree it retains the character of the world that is its "pattern." "In order to look downward, the Soul must have forgotten the spiritual world; but if it has forgotten it, how can it create the world? Where could it find its pattern, except from what it saw There? But if it remembers the spiritual world in creating, it does not look downwards at all."
What is this notion of "the Soul" in our last quotation? It is for Plotinus the intermediary between his "two worlds." "Besides its spiritual character, Soul has another character, in which its proper nature consists. By looking up to that which is above itself, it sees the spiritual world; by recalling its gaze to itself, it maintains its own life; by looking down at that which is below itself, it adorns, administers, and governs it." Though the soul of each individual man is itself a true individual, not merely part of the Soul of the World, yet it is in the Universal Soul that the true character of human souls is made clear: —
The Soul ought first to examine its own nature to know whether it has the faculty of contemplating spiritual things, and whether it has indeed an eye wherewith to see them, and if it ought to embark on the quest. If the spiritual world is foreign to it, what is the use of trying? But if there is a kinship between us and it, we both can and ought to find it. First then let every Soul consider that it is the universal Soul which created all things, breathing into them the breath of life — into all living things which are on earth, in the air, and in the sea, and the Divine stars in heaven, the sun, and the great firmament itself. The Soul sets them in their order and directs their motions, keeping itself apart from the things which it orders and moves and causes to live. The Soul must be more honourable than they, since they are born and perish as the Soul grants them life and leaves them; but the Soul lives for ever and never ceases to be itself. But how is life imparted, in the whole and in individuals? The Great Soul must be contemplated by another Soul, itself no small thing, but one that makes itself worthy to contemplate the Great Soul by ridding itself, through quiet recollection, of deceit and of all that bewitches vulgar souls. For it let all be quiet; not only the body which encompasses it, and the tumult of the senses; but let all its environment be at peace. Let the earth be quiet and the sea and air, and the heaven itself waiting. Let it observe how the Soul flows in from all sides into the resting world, pours itself into it, penetrates it and illumines it. Even as the bright beams of the sun enlighten a dark cloud and give it a golden border, so the Soul when it enters into the body of the heaven gives it life and immortality and awakens it from sleep. So the world, guided in an eternal movement by the Soul which directs it with intelligence, becomes a living and blessed being; and the heaven, after the Soul has made it her habitation, becomes a thing of worth, after being, before the advent of the Soul, a dead body, mere earth and water, or rather darkness of Matter and no thing, "hated by the gods," as the poet says. The power and nature of the Soul are revealed still more clearly, if we consider how it encompasses and guides the heaven by its own will. It gives itself to every point in this vast body, and vouchsafes its being to every part, great and small, though these parts are divided in space and manner of disposition, and though some are opposed to each other, others dependent on each other. But the Soul is not divided, nor does it split up in order to give life to each individual. All things live by the Soul in its entirety; it is all present everywhere, like the Father which begat it, both in its unity and in its universality. The heaven, vast and various as it is, is one by the power of the Soul, and by it is this universe of ours Divine. The sun too is Divine, being the abode of Soul, and so are the stars; and we ourselves, if we are worth anything, are so on account of the Soul; for "a dead corpse is viler than dung." But if it is to the Soul that the gods owe their divinity, the Soul itself must be a God higher than the gods. Now our Soul is of one form with the universal Soul; and if you remove from it all that is adventitious, and consider it in its state of purity, you will see how precious the essence of the Soul is, far more precious than anything bodily. . . .
Inevitably, the "spiritual world" of Plotinus baffles precise description; for the descriptive vocabulary that we employ embodies categories and distinctions drawn from the world of sense perception, which are essentially not to be applied to the spiritual world. Accordingly we have to make do with apparent contradictions: "The perceiving spirit must be one and two, simple and not simple"; we must, yet we also cannot, distinguish between Spirit, and that real world which Spirit perceives — "each is Spirit and Being, and the whole is all Spirit and all Being." In a sense there are "no separations in the world of Spirit. . . . There, all things are together and yet remain distinct, as the Soul may know many different things without any confusion." Individual spirits — souls in their highest aspects — may come to inhabit this spiritual world, where "they have Truth for mother, nurse, real being, nourishment; they see all things, not those that are born and die, but those that have real being; and they see themselves in others. For them all things are transparent, and there is nothing dark and impenetrable . . . ; for light is manifest to light." The spiritual world, and all that exists therein, is timeless; the notions of past, present, future have no application to it; it is, in that sense, eternal.
Finally, Plotinus seeks to transcend even the spiritual world. For in a sense that world contains still an unresolved complexity, some distinction between Spirit itself and what Spirit perceives. But "if they are two, we must find that which is before this duality." What is this? Here Plotinus answers, remotely echoing Plato, that this last thing, the thing "beyond existence," is "the One." Of the One, Plotinus holds consistently enough that, strictly, nothing can be said — unless, as in the manner of some theologians, we confine ourselves to saying what the One is not. Nevertheless, he certainly holds that there is some sense in which the One is the cause of all that is, and also that towards which all things should strive; and in general he does say, though certainly somewhat darkly, a good deal about the One, much of which is echoed, and indeed in some cases reproduced, in early Christian theological writing about God. Moreover, Plotinus believed that, on rare occasions, direct intuition of the One might be attained, and indeed that he had at times attained it himself. Of this experience he gives an eloquent description, couched in the curiously unvarying language of mysticism in any period: —
For that which we seek to behold is the light which gives us light, even as we can only see the sun by the light of the sun. How then can this come to us? Strip thyself of everything.
We must not be surprised that that which excites the keenest of longings is without any form, even spiritual form, since the Soul itself, when inflamed with love for it, puts off all the form which it had, even that which belongs to the spiritual world. For it is not possible to see it, or to be in harmony with it, while one is occupied with anything else. The Soul must remove from itself good and evil and everything else, that it may receive the One alone, as the One is alone. When the Soul is so blessed, and is come to it, or rather when it manifests its presence, when the Soul turns away from visible things and makes itself as beautiful as possible and becomes like the One; (the manner of preparation and adornment is known to those who practise it;) and seeing the One suddenly appearing in itself, for there is nothing between, nor are they any longer two, but one; for you cannot distinguish between them, while the vision lasts; it is that union of which the union of earthly lovers, who wish to blend their being with each other, is a copy. The Soul is no longer conscious of the body, and cannot tell whether it is a man or a living being or anything real at all; for the contemplation of such things would seem unworthy, and it has no leisure for them; but when, after having sought the One, it finds itself in its presence, it goes to meet it and contemplates it instead of itself. What itself is when it gazes, it has no leisure to see. When in this state the Soul would exchange its present condition for nothing, no, not for the very heaven of heavens; for there is nothing better, nothing more blessed than this. For it can mount no higher; all other things are below it, however exalted they be. It is then that it judges rightly and knows that it has what it desired, and that there is nothing higher. For there is no deception there; where could one find anything truer than the True? What it says, that it is, and it speaks afterwards, and speaks in silence, and is happy, and is not deceived in its happiness. Its happiness is no titillation of the bodily senses; it is that the Soul has become again what it was formerly, when it was blessed. All the things which once pleased it, power, wealth, beauty, science, it declares that it despises; it could not say this if it had not met with something better than these. It fears no evil, while it is with the One, or even while it sees him; though all else perish around it, it is content, if it can only be with him; so happy is it.
The Soul is so exalted that it thinks lightly even of that spiritual intuition which it formerly treasured. For spiritual perception involves movement, and the Soul now does not wish to move. It does not call the object of its vision Spirit, although it has itself been transformed into Spirit before the vision and lifted up into the abode of Spirits. When the Soul arrives at the intuition of the One, it leaves the mode of spiritual perception. Even so a traveller, entering into a palace, admires at first the various beauties which adorn it; but when the Master appears, he alone is the object of attention. By continually contemplating the object before him, the spectator sees it no more. The vision is confounded with the object seen, and that which was before object becomes to him the state of seeing, and he forgets all else. The Spirit has two powers. By one of them it has a spiritual perception of what is within itself, the other is the receptive intuition by which it perceives what is above itself. The former is the vision of the thinking Spirit, the latter is the Spirit in love. For when the Spirit is inebriated with the nectar, it falls in love, in simple contentment and satisfaction; and it is better for it to be so intoxicated than to be too proud for such intoxication.
The philosophy of Plotinus was the last great effort of the Greek genius; it was succeeded by, and powerfully influenced, the more strictly theological writings of Christians. In so far as it makes an appeal beyond the intellect, and still more beyond the emotions in any ordinary sense, it has proved and will prove unattractive to many, in proportion as it is attractive to those who are able to share its mood of mystical fervor. Yet it is by no means intellectually weak; nor is it in the least degree morally objectionable, unless it is rated as a moral defect to lack interest in the most practical daily transactions, and in the advance of the physical sciences. There is of course no doubt that the teaching of Plotinus encouraged an attempt to escape from the preoccupations of the world, particularly oppressive in his own time; but such an attempt can scarcely be condemned as plainly undesirable, without simply assuming the superior importance of precisely what Plotinus tries to show to be without value. In his view, "if we see things as they are, we shall live as we ought." It is not necessary to share, or even to wish to share, his peculiar vision, in order to respect its integrity, richness and imaginative force.
The death of Plotinus is separated by almost nine hundred years from the birth of Thales. It is to this period that we have to look for the origins of almost all that is most valuable in Western civilization — and particularly to the history of the Greeks, the actual inventors of so much that the Romans and others copied or adapted. Very much is owed to the Greeks in detail: metaphysical theories; speculation — and some true science — in astronomy and cosmology; discoveries in mathematics; the analysis of ethical concepts; political philosophy; the first clear statement of several of the great philosophies of conduct — to say nothing, of course, of achievements in literature and the arts. But perhaps most valuable of all was something more general than this, namely, the general conviction that problems are to be solved, questions to be answered, and progress made, by means of the exercise of human reason — the conviction that clarity in thought and rigor in argument, though not infallible, are still the best weapons that we can employ in satisfying our needs and our desire for knowledge. It is probably a mistake to think of this conviction as somehow natural to the human species; authority, tradition, habit, superstition, and "wishful thinking" probably have played, and perhaps are still always liable to play, a greater part in determining the beliefs and the behavior of human beings. The Greeks of the early centuries were a tiny island in a sea of what they called, with much justice, barbarism. They believed themselves to be almost of a different species from the rest of the human race; and it is indeed not difficult to feel that in some way they were right. And the essential, immense difference consisted in large part precisely in their faith in articulate argument, in thinking. Of course their early thinkers were groping, however boldly; and perhaps also it was not long before the pressure of life repressed in some degree their intellectual vitality, throwing them back first towards predominantly moral preaching, and later still towards old superstitions and new clouds of mysticism. But it remains the case that there did exist for a time, in this not specially favored comer of the world, a center of truly original intellectual power that has been alive and at work in our history ever since. That extraordinary fact seems to baffle complete explanation; but more important, in any case, than to explain it, is for us to remember, appreciate, and learn. If nothing else, it is surely the part of a civilized man to become acquainted with the architects of his own civilization.
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