La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
Beauty and Unification: Plotinus on Beauty and Higher Modes of Consciousness

Beauty and Unification: Plotinus on Beauty and Higher Modes of Consciousness

This essay examines one tradition within the multifaceted efforts to reconcile pagan classical thought with Christianity, a tradition that spanned the centuries from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century (though some modernists artists, for example Friedrich Nietzsche and Ezra Pound, continued it into the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). The groundwork for this particular effort at reconciliation was the assertion that God had originally dispensed his revelation on all humankind; but, over the course of centuries, priests corrupted this knowledge. This debasement occurred, historians of this recondite theology maintained, because priests veiled the abstract truths this dispensation proffered in symbolic imagery either to convince minds that had not the fideistic potency to grasp the higher truths or simply for their own financial and/or corporate aggrandizement. However, according to this theological line, the revelation had been secretly preserved and handed down by wise men, the so-called “ancient theologians.” The list of these sages varied amongst the different theologians, but ancients who commonly figured in the list included Orpheus, Hermes Trismegistus, Moses, Pythagoras of Samos, Plato, and the author of the Chaldaean Oracles (often attributed to one of the many Zoroasters of the period), a 2nd century CE poem that represents the apogee of Greek (and more exactly Alexandrian) syncretism, a religio-philosophy that combined Pythagorean, Orphic, Stoic, and Platonic elements—many scholars have referred to the poem as the Bible of Neoplatonism—and it was in this poem that the term theurgy was first used (many scholars think that the late 2nd-century Julian the Theurgist was the poem’s author).i Some individual sages and mystery cults who appeared less commonly were Zoroaster the Persian founder of Zoroastrianism, the Eleusinian Mysteries, Confucius, and Indian brahmans (or as the Greeks called them, ‘gymnosophists”, naked philosophers and or naked wise men), whose commitment to asceticism went so far as to regard food and clothing as detrimental to purity of thought).ii In Attica in 2nd century CE, the very same time that saw the development of “Neoplatonism,” “mystery plays” were performed and watched both by initiates at Eleusis and by the Iobacchoi, an Athenian cult devoted to Dionysus (Bacchus). Pythagoras of Samos was central: the word thaumaturgy entered the English language in the 16th century, to refer to magical powers or the ability to produce miraculous or mysterious effects that had been documented as far back as the “ancients”—John Dee’s book Mathematicall Praeface to Euclid’s Elements (1570), a compendium and extension of aspects of the Pythagorean program, refers to an “art mathematical” called “thaumaturgy . . . which giveth certain order to make strange works, of the sense to be perceived and of men greatly to be wondered at.”

Proponents of this line of thought surveyed mystery cults—Eleusinian, Orphic, Dionysian, Samothracian—to discern their secret wisdom and the traumaturgical teachings, including the noetic value of entranced and mystical states, that were vouchsafed to initiates (the mystai). A mythical figure, “a proclaimer of the sublime,” supposedly passed Orpheus’s theological teachings regarding metempsychosis on to Pythagoras, and Plato, and later Platonists embraced the view that the soul is immortal. Many historians of ideas hold that among those who inherited the legacy of mystery cults was Plotinus. The notorious obscurity of Plotinus’s prose is taken to be at once evidence that he grasped the sublimely abstract thoughts proferred in the original Divine dispensation and the desire to ensure that his teachings could be understood only by a secret, esoteric group (here esoteric means, literally “within the walls”—it has nothing to do with occultism) of initiates (to whom Plotinus presented his thoughts orally).

The fourth-century Greek Sophist and Rhetorician Eunapius reported in his Lives of Philosophers and Sophists (written in the early 390s CE), that Plotinus was born in the Deltaic Lycopolis in Egypt, and that fact has led some to speculate that he was either a native Egyptian or a Hellenized Egyptian. Plotinus refused to discuss his ancestry, childhood, or his place or date of birth. What we do know is that Plotinus was born in 205 CE. Porphyry provides further clues,

In his twenty-eighth year he [Plotinus] felt the impulse to study philosophy and was recommended to the teachers in Alexandria who then had the highest reputation; but he came away from their lectures so depressed and full of sadness that he told his trouble to one of his friends. The friend, understanding the desire of his heart, sent him to Ammonius, whom he had not so far tried. He went and heard him, and said to his friend, “This is the man I was looking for.” From that day he stayed continually with Ammonius and acquired so complete a training in philosophy that he became eager to make acquaintance with the Persian philosophical discipline and that prevailing among the Indians.iii

Scholars of Plotinus note that besides Ammonius, Plotinus was also influenced by the works of Alexander of Aphrodisias, Numenius, and various Stoics.

Some historians of ideas have discerned in Ammonius Saccas’s cognomen a connection with the “Śākyas,” a sub-Himalayan ethnic group at the periphery of the eastern Gangetic plain, which was the site of extensive religio-philosophical activity in the period from 7th to the 4th centuries BCE. The Śākyas were different culturally from most other groups in that philosophically fecund area: their language belonged to Munda group, they were non-Vedic and followed non-Vedic religious customs far different from those of the Brahmanical tradition—it included solar worship (they worshipped a Sun-god, whom they considered their ancestor), and they engaged in Śramaṇic practices (which came to include Buddhism, as Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, belonged to the Śākyas group). Prominent among these Śramaṇic customs were ascetic exercises and commitment to ahimsa (non-violence). The assertion that Ammonius had Indian origins has been embraced by many scholars, but rejected by just as many. Some scholars supporting claims for Ammonius’s Indian origin have also contended that this ancestry is consistent with the passion of his foremost student, Plotinus, for India and Indic thought, and helps to explain the religio-philosophical similarities between Vedānta and Neoplatonism, which many scholars attribute to Indian influence.

After spending eleven years in Alexandria, in 242, Plotinus, then roughly 37 years of age, decided to investigate the “Oriental” philosophical teachings of the Persian and Indian philosophers. To that end, he left Alexandria and joined the army of the Roman emperor Gordian III who, accompanied by the Praetorian Prefecture Timesitheus, embarked on a campaign against Persia. The operation initially experienced several victories (Timesitheus’s Vita Tres Gordiani sings his praises, and contemporary documents seem to confirm the high opinion of the prefect). However, the prefect died of an illness in 243 CE and was replaced by Philip the Arabian (he was born in Shahba, near modern Damascus). In the spring of 244, Gordian was murdered by the troops and Philip acceded to command. He was not an able military strategist, and in the end, Roman troops were routed. Plotinus found himself abandoned in an alien land. Only with great difficulty did he find his way back to safety in Antioch.

During the reign of Philip the Arabian, Plotinus took up residence in Rome, where he stayed for most of the remainder of his life. It was here that he gave the lectures that Porphyry collected (ca. 270 CE) and named “The Enneads” (Ἐννεάδες), which means something like “The Collection of Nines.” An odd title, surely, the name comes from the Greek word for “nine,” εννέα. Ἐννεάδες comprises six major books. Each book is called an “Ennead” because each contains nine treatises or tractates. Hence, we refer to “Ennead 1” (which comprises nine tractates), “Ennead 2” (with its nine tractates), and so on. Each tractate (or treatise) is subdivided into chapters of varying numbers—one tractate has only three chapters, another has forty-five.

Plotinus attracted a number of students to his academy in Rome. Among the best known in his inner circle was Porphyry, who, as I have noted, composed a vitae of his teacher which serves as an introduction to the Enneads. Another was Amelius Gentilianus of Tuscany, who was, after Plotinus, the senior member of the school and a voracious reader and writer. Before beginning his studies with Plotinus, in that philosopher’s third year in Rome, Amelius had been, for many years, a student of Numenius of Apamea, a Neopythagorean philosopher and a forerunner of the Neoplatonists. Amelius memorized and recorded thousands of Numenius’s sayings and composed two books on his (Numenius’s) teaching. After joining Plotinus’s circle, he became a devoted student of the religio-philosopher, who considered him one of his most astute and penetrating disciples. He was responsible for convincing Porphyry of the truth of Plotinus’s teachings.

Another was the Senator Castricius Firmus, who, according to Porphyry, “was excelled by none of the group in appreciation of the finer side of life.” Eustochius of Alexandria was a doctor who devoted himself to learning from Plotinus and attending to him until his death. Other students included: Zethos, an Arab by ancestry who died before Plotinus, leaving him a legacy and some land—Porphyry writes that Plotinus “was always trying to divert him from the political career in which he stood high”; Zoticus, a critic and poet, who authored a poem upon the Atlantis story; Paulinus, a doctor from Scythopolis; and Serapion from Alexandria, of whom Porphyry remarked, “Then there was Serapion, an Alexandrian, who began life as a professional orator and later took to the study of philosophy, but was never able to conquer the vices of avarice and usury.”

Porphyry noted, “There were also among Plotinus’ hearers not a few members of the Senate, amongst whom Marcellus Orontius and Sabinillus showed the greatest assiduity in philosophical studies,” The Life of Plotinus also records,

Another Senator, Rogatianus, advanced to such detachment from political ambitions that he gave up all his property, dismissed all his slaves, renounced every dignity, and, on the point of taking up his praetorship, the lictors already at the door, refused to come out or to have anything to do with the office. He even abandoned his own house, spending his time here and there at his friends’ and acquaintances’ homes, sleeping and eating with them and taking, at that, only one meal every other day. He had been a victim of gout, carried in a chair, but this new regime of abstinence and abnegation restored his health: he had been unable to stretch out his hands; he came to use them as freely as men living by manual labour. Plotinus took a great liking to Rogatianus and frequently praised him very highly, holding him up as a model to those aiming at the philosophical life.iv

The comment confirms that for Plotinus, philosophy is the study of how to live a good life.

Women were also numbered amongst his students, including Gemina, in whose house he lived during his residence in Rome, and her daughter, also Gemina; and Amphiclea, the wife of Ariston, the son of Iamblichus. Finally, Plotinus was a correspondent of the philosopher Cassius Longinus, a “heroic Epicurean” philosopher, whose resistance to tyranny led him to plot (with Brutus) to kill Julius Caesar, and of whom Shakespeare wrote, “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.”

A special note on Numenius of Apamea, Amelius’s first teacher is in order—it will help clarify Numenius’s (and Plotinus’s) relevance to the secret line of thought that purportedly preserved the original dispensation that the Divine had proferred to all. Numenius’s principal purpose in his studies was to trace the doctrines of Plato back to Pythagoras, and at the same time, to show that they were not at variance with the dogmas and mysteries of the Brahmins, Jews, Magi and Egyptians—through this, he provided a very Pythagoreanized portrait of Plato’s inner teachings (that incorporated beliefs about the Egyptian and “Oriental” influenced on Pythagoras). He opined that Plato’s authority was subordinate to that of Pythagoras, who was source of all true philosophy—including Plato’s own. He also highlighted the fact some of Plato’s teachings (like Pythagoras’s) were passed on orally—one of Numenius’s text was titled On Plato’s Secret Doctrines (the text is lost). Numenius notes, for example, that in Physics (209b13–15), Aristotle says that Plato had used a concept in one dialogue differently than he did in “his so-called unwritten documents.”v Numenius also remarks in Περὶ Τἀγαθοῦ (Peri Tagathou, On the Good) that to help him retrieve Plato’s (Pythagorean) legacy, he had to rely on information about those whom Plato admired, the Brahmans, Jews, mages, and Egyptians.

Numenius’s own philosophical system is richer than history has credited it as being. It is, as one would expect, Pythagorean in its outline. The six books that constitute Numenius’s Περὶ Τἀγαθοῦ argued, against the Stoics, that existence cannot be found in the elements because they are in a perpetual state of change and Nor can matter be the object of knowledge. For, Numenius maintained, matter is uncreated—that is it did come into existence at some time, but is co-eternal with, and yet numerically different from God: it is unlimited (apeiros), indefinite (aoristos), without form and quality—it is bereft of animation (lifeless), and so cannot be an object of true knowledge. Like other Platonists of his age, Numenius embraced Aristotle’s view that identifies the receptacle that Plato writes about in the Timaeus with matter—and, as matter, it is tantamount to non-being (see Aristotle Physics 192a3–14), formless and without qualities (see Aristotle De caelo 306b17–19—Aristotle’s views here find support in Plato’s Timaeus 50d7)—matter’s lacking form, for Numenius, entails that it is ἄλόγος (alόgos, without reason).vii

Accordingly, οὐσία (ousia, being, essence, reality), in order to resist the annihilation and decay of matter, must be incorporeal; nothing that belongs to it can be mutable. It must be an eternal presence, subject to no variation through time, simple and immutable—it must be by its own nature, imperturbable by its own will and free from influence from without.viii True οὐσία is identical with the first god existing in and by itself, that is, with the Good and is defined as spirit (νοῦς nous). But as the first (absolute) god existing in itself and being undisturbed in its motion, could not be creative, Numenius thought that we must assume a second god (the δημιουργός dēmiurgós, commonly translated demiurge), who keeps matter together, directs its energy to it and to intelligible essences, and imparts its spirit to all creatures; its νοῦς (nous, mind) is directed to the first god, in whom it beholds the ideas according to which it arranges the world in a lawful manner, being seized with a desire to create the world. The first god communicates its ideas to the second, without losing them itself, just as we communicate knowledge to one another, without depriving ourselves of it. In regard to the relation existing between the third and second god, and to the manner in which they also are to be conceived as one (probably in opposition to the vague duration of matter), no information can be derived from the fragments which have come down to us.

The general shape and specific content of Plato’s unwritten teachings—the teachings that Numenius supposedly drew on, and which he passed on to Plotinus and the Neoplatonists, are matters of controversial speculation. The members of the Tübingen School of Plato Studies have argued for a remarkably wide-ranging set of beliefs: they cast Plato variously as a monist, a dualist (even, in some cases, as an almost gnostic dualist), a rationalist, a skeptic, a dialectician, a negative theologian, and a mystic. Here I assemble a view of Plato’s secret teachings that I believe accounts for a body of historically subterranean convictions about an original dispensation from God that a priestly cast had corrupted, but whose inner truth a tradition of esoteric thinkers had preserved and passed on, through successive generations, down to a few modernist artists and poets (including Friedrich Nietzsche and Ezra Pound)—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries these artists strove to contrive forms that could provoke the experience of these truths (that were variously referred to as “the light from Eleusis,” of nekuia, or of Neopythagorean harmonics).

According to Plato, the objects of sense do not have real being. Only the Εἶδη (Forms) or Ιδέες (Ideas) do. In Greek thought, a thing’s being relates to its purpose—the fact that its purpose or the end it serves is attuned to a system of interlocking purposes accounts for reality being in some sense a unity. An Εἶδος (Form) serves as a model exemplifying the attribute of the object or person that serves some function: the Εἶδος of a bed exemplifies that character—or essence—of an object that is used to lie on and that promotes sleep; the Εἶδος of a statesperson exemplifies the character—or essence—of a person who guides a state towards promoting human flourishing. The Εἶδη are the really existing things, and they serve as models for the beings that we sense (tables, beds, statespeople).

Since, for Greek thinkers, being and function are intimately linked, Εἶδη, as models for the individual objects we sense, cause these objects to appear as they do and lend them a sort of existence—a form of existence that is lower on the scale of being. (The Timaeus states that God or the “Demiurge,” the Efficient Cause of order in the world, fashions the objects of this world after the pattern of the Εἶδη as Exemplary Cause.) Moreover, Plato writes of a blending of forms—a blending that yet allows each to retain its own unity. There is a κοινωνία (koinōnia communion) between Forms, and one Form partakes of (μετέχειν metékhein) another.ix The Εἶδη thus constitute a hierarchy, subordinate to τὸ Ἕν (the One) as the highest and all‑pervading Εἶδος: the “higher” the Εἶδος is, the richer or more ontologically complex it is. The nature of this hierarchy, and what the nature of this blending is, is an extremely vexed issue in Plato studies, but I believe that the core idea is that the sort of exemplification the Εἶδη or Ιδέες offer (of bedness, or, at a higher level, of statecraft, or, at a higher level yet, of beauty) involves the integration of other Εἶδη in way that harmonizes them along with, perhaps, other attributes that are unique to the Εἶδος in question. Thus, to take it as a simple example, a bed’s position would involve the attribute of reclining to a degree that it allows stress to be taken off the legs and feet, sufficient softness to take pressure of body, of sufficient length that the sleeper does not have to fold themself into a terribly uncomfortable position, of being firm enough to support the back so that if one sleeps on it for many nights, one does not develop back pain. The Εἶδος of the bed integrates these attributes in a harmonious way that allows a bed to promote sleep. Forms, then, offer patterns of integration (harmonization) that allow a bed to promote sleep. These ideas, and the influence of Pythagoras on them, I believe can be teased out of the published dialogues along with what we know of Plato’s unwritten teachings.

The theory of Εἶδη in Plato’s published dialogues is supposed to explain the attributes of the world of appearance and how Εἶδη, since they constitute the interlocking purposes of all things, guide all reality—including the furniture of the world—towards a sort of unity. Similarly, in Plato’s unwritten teachings, two basic principles are said to explain the existence and the character of the realm of the Forms. Taken together, the theory of Forms and the principles of the unwritten doctrines work together in a way that provides a unified theory of all existence.

The two fundamental structuring “Ur-principles” that constitute the groundwork of Plato’s unwritten teachings are:

Τὸ Ἕν (The One): the principle of integration (according to purpose) that makes things definite and determinate. In the Academy, Plato’s Image of the Sun stood for this principle.

The Indefinite Dyad (Gk., ahóristos dyás) or the Principle of Great and the Small (Gk., to méga kai to mikrón): the principle of indeterminacy and lack of fixed form.x In the Academy, the Image of the Cave stood for this principle.xi

To consider the influence of Plato’s unwritten teachings (and the depth of the Pythagorean influence) on Plotinus, we must outline the features of Plotinus’s thought. Plotinus’s ideas are known principally through the Enneads. Plotinus wrote the essays that became The Six Enneads over the years from ca. 253 until a few months before his death seventeen years later. Plotinus preferred formulating and passing on his ideas through lecturing and discussion and the lectures themselves are implicitly in dialogue form, as Plotinus presents the views of numerous philosophers and religio-philosophers alongside his own. He really didn’t like the process of rewriting and revising—and his dislike of the process was augmented by his poor eyesight, which made revision nearly impossibly difficult. The writings Plotinus left behind were simply a rambling collection of notes and essays that he prepared for his presentations; they were not intended to constitute a written book. Porphyry tells us that the task of compiling and arranging Plotinus’s notes fell to him—and they required extensive editing, as Plotinus’s handwriting was atrocious (due to his poor vision), he did not properly separate his words, and he cared little for niceties of spelling. Porphyry organized the notes into the six Enneads and edited and corrected them.

Major ideas

τὸ Ἕν (tὸ Hen, The One)

Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent “One” (τὸ Ἕν, tὸ Hen); beyond all division, multiplicity, or distinction. Τὸ Ἕν is the supreme or most fundamental entity, unutterably transcendent, and beyond human comprehension. Rather as Plato told us that the Good is beyond being and non-being, Plotinus taught that τὸ Ἕν is unutterably transcendent. His “One” “cannot be any existing [material] thing,”; nor is it merely the sum of all things. Τὸ Ἕν “is prior to all existents.” Plotinus identified the “One” with the concept of the “Good” and the principle of “Beauty” (see 1.6.9: I follow the standard numbering system, giving the number of the Ennead, the treatise number, and the chapter number, sometimes followed by the line numbersxii). “Once you have uttered ‘The Good,’” Plotinus writes, “add no further thought: by any addition, and in proportion to that addition, you introduce a deficiency” (see 3.8.11). If one must say something about the “τὸ Ἕν,” to describe it further, we must call τὸ Ἕν pure potentiality δύναμις (dynamis or dunamis, the inherent power by which a thing exists) without which nothing could exist (3.8.10).

Τὸ Ἕν (The One) is the source of the world: it is, in some sense, the ultimate source of everything else in the universe. But τὸ Ἕν does not produce the world through a creative act: it is pure dynamis, pure potentiality. Accordingly, ἐνέργεια (energeia, working, efficiency), or “working-towards-actualization” cannot be truthfully attributed to τὸ Ἕν. Activity cannot be ascribed to what which is immutable and unchangeable. Nonetheless, Plotinus argues the multiple cannot exist without the simple—and The One generates by a process of emanation or irradiation. The “less perfect” must, necessarily, “emanate” from (or issue from) “perfect” or “more perfect.” Thus, all of “creation” emanates from τὸ Ἕν in succeeding stages of lesser and lesser perfection.

The metaphysics of emanation, which Plotinus refers to (2.3.2) as ἀπορροή (aporrhoe, meaning discharge, runoff, drainage, flow off) or ἀπόρροια (apórroia, outcome) (2.3.11) confirms the transcendence of τὸ Ἕν (tὸ Hen) or of the Divine: it is the source of the being of all things, yet in the process it remains transcendent—it surpasses all things: not only is it undiminished by these emanations, it is in no way affected by the process. Drawing on an image from Plato, Plotinus likens τὸ Ἕν to the Sun which emanates light but is not diminished or otherwise effected by radiating light. Another image he uses is that of a mirror:

a reflection in a mirror in no way diminishes or otherwise alters the object being reflected, nor is it diminished for indiscriminately reflecting the objects before it.xiii But, whereas Plato takes the intelligible world be constituted by many, many layers of Εἶδη (Forms) or Ιδέες (Ideas) organized into a complex hierarchy, Plotinus focusses on three levels of intelligible entities: the One (τὸ ἕν, to Hen), the Universal Intelligence or the Intellectual Principle (ὁ Νοῦς, ho Nous), and the Universal Soul or World Soul (ἡ Ψυχή, he Psuche).

Νοῦς (Nous), or Order, Reason, Thought

I noted above that, for Plotinus, the first emanation is ὁ Νοῦς, (ho Nous, the Universal Intelligence, or The Intellectual Principle)—which Plotinus variously refers to as Divine Mind, Logos, Order, Thought, or Reason. ὁ Νοῦς is somewhat “less” than the One. This emanation is metaphorically identified with the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus.ὁ Νοῦς “contains” the Platonic Forms: thus, in Νοῦς, are contained all the ideal meanings (which Plato called the Εἶδη)—while Plato had relegated the Εἶδη to a spiritual-intellectual world beyond this material world, he did not gather them in one place. Plotinus, on the other hand, gathers them into the Divine Mind as the “objects” the Divine Mind contemplates. While τὸ Ἕν is δύναμις (dunamis), pure potentiality, Νοῦς (or Reason, or Order, or Logos) is ἐνέργεια (energeia), by which he means, essentially, working-towards actualizing-or-sustaining in actuality. Indeed, it is an ἐντελέχειᾰ (entelékheia, entelechy), meaning full, complete reality—and here implying a will-toward-an-end, something acting according to its type, of fulfilling its own being. It is, in fact, the first Will toward Good. Plotinus denies that τὸ Ἕν could be sentient or self-aware—indeed, as pure potentiality, it cannot engage in ἔργον (érgon, action) (5.6.6). At 5.6.4, Plotinus compares τὸ Ἕν to “light”—this first light can exist without any celestial body; the Divine Intellect/Nous (Νοῦς, Nous), the first will towards Good, he compares to the “Sun”; and, lastly, the Soul (Ψυχή, Psyche) he compares to the “Moon” whose light is merely a “derivative conglomeration of light from the ‘Sun.’”

From Νοῦς (Nous) proceeds ἡ Ψυχή (hē Psuchē, the World Soul). ἡ Ψυχή Soul is the connecting link between the suprasensual world and the sensual world, between Νοῦς and matter—ἡ Ψυχή not only generates individual souls, but is also responsible, again by a process of emanation, for the existence of matter and the physical world. Plotinus subdivides the World Soul into upper and lower parts. In its superior part, it looks upwards towards the Νοῦς, while in its inferior part, it looks downward towards nature, which it creates according to the ideas that reside in the Divine Mind (3.8.4).

The human soul descends from the Intelligible realm Νοῦς into the sensible—it does so by first providing itself with a “pneumatic (that is spiritual) vessel” that transports it into an embryo, which is itself an amalgam of form (λόγος lógos) and matter (potentiality), whose character destines it to become a human being. However, in a startling move (one that most subsequent Neoplatonists, for example Iamblichus and Proclus, rejected), Plotinus averred that a part of the otherwise wandering soul remained undescended, in the Intelligible realm rather than the sensible.

The Scholastics, and the priests associated with that philosophical movement, rejected the idea of an anima mundi as a profane doctrine; with the revival of Platonism in the 12th-century School of Chartres, the doctrine of the World Soul experienced a brief and localized revitalization as a topic of spiritual speculation. In the 12th and 13th centuries, as the peripatetic physics (the science of Aristotle) rose to the ascendency, the notion of the World Soul faded into obscurity. It was revived again with Marcello Ficino (1433–99).

The idea of a “cosmic soul” as an active, vital principle of nature was treated with respect by such occultists as Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486–1533, whose Three Books of Occult Philosophy drew on the Cabala, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism), Paracelsus (1493–1541, whose medical works drew on Hermetic, Neoplatonic, and Pythagorean ideas), and Pico della Mirandola (1463–94 whose Oration on the Dignity of Man was one of the cardinal texts of the Hermetic Reformation and whose philosophy integrated the theses of the Cabala interpreted according to the tenets of Christian theology). Francesco Patrizzi (or Patrizi, 1529–97) adapted the theme of the anima mundi to his panpsychic conception of the universe. Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) proposed the idea of the “universal soul” as giant mirror in which an infinitely fragmented image of the Divine is reflected. Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) conceived of the world as an enormous animal with a highly ramified, highly complex, and extremely refined soul that surpasses in excellence the souls of humans, and even of angels. His De sensu rerum et magia describes the world soul as “the first instrument of the primary Wisdom” (compare this with Plotinus’s characterization of the World Soul as being derived from Νοῦς, which is the first Will toward Good)—this world soul, Campanella says, is a common nature created by God (compare this with Plotinus’s Reason or Logos, which is metaphorically analogous to Plato’s Demiurge), which common nature, he proposes is infused throughout the universe—through it, Divine Wisdom produces the abundant variety of genera and species and generates the wondrous richness of life (compare this with Plotinus’s ideas on the lower part of the World Soul).

According to Plotinus’s cosmology, from ἡ Ψυχή (World Soul) proceeds individual human souls, and finally, matter, which exists at the lowest level of being and thus the least perfected level of the cosmos. The Intellect contains the Forms (Εἶδη) and these Εἶδη are passed on to Souls as reasons (λόγοι)—by virtue of being imbued with λόγοι, the Souls of individuals exist, live, and think. This vision of λόγοι animating all things lends Plotinus’s religio-philosophy a sense of universal vitalism (akin to that of the actual entities / actual events of A. N. Whitehead’s philosophy). Again, in a manner redolent of Whitehead’s philosophy, the presence of λόγοι in things endows everything with universal sympathy and the universal order itself with the attribute of providence.

This allowed Plotinus to affirm that material creation is ultimately divine, for it derives from τὸ Ἕν (the One), through the media of Νοῦς and the World Soul. It is by the Good or through beauty that we recognize τὸ Ἕν, in material things and then in the Forms. (1.6.6 and 1.6.9) Just as Plato’s metaphysics offered a hierarchy of orders of reality, so too does Plotinus’s.xiv

Plato: Plotinus:









See commentary in next section

The Material World

A cardinal question of almost all Greek philosophy was, “What constitutes the furniture of the world, that is, the perceptible matter that we see?” “Is there some more fundamental ontological reality of which what we see is ultimately composed?” The most common answers to this question involved the notion of the elements (στοιχεῖα, stoicheia). There are four ultimate qualities from which all perceptible qualities are compounded: these qualities are conventionally identified as earth, air, fire, and water. But these “elements” are not four distinct material “stuffs” (such as H2O, or 78% N2 + 21% O2 + 1% Ar + increasing amounts of CO2) but fundamental realities that are associated with primary qualities, hot, cold, moist, and dry. According to Aristotle the elements and qualities relate in the following combinations: Earth is cold and dry; Water is cold and wet; Air is hot and wet; and Fire is hot and dry. All matter is composed of these four elements and qualities in varying proportions—so everything admits of degrees and change. For example, a burning log exhibits flames (fire), smoke (air), hissing steam (water), and ashes (earth). One substance could therefore be changed into another by altering the relative proportions of the four elements. Heating clay in an oven, for example, could be thought of as driving off water and adding fire, thereby transforming the clay into a pot. Substances can be changed into one another by changing one of the properties that made the elements different from each other. Water (cold and wet) falls from the sky as rain, for example, when the air (hot and wet) cools down. A piece of wood, on the other hand, which is obviously rich in earth (cold and dry), bursts into flame (hot and dry) when heated.

But, a thinker would be disposed to ask, what do these qualities characterize? These qualities are qualities of what? The answer that Aristotle and the Peripatetics gave, was “prime matter” (πρώτη ύλη, prôtê hulê) or (less commonly) “primary underlying thing” (πρῶτον ὑποκείμενον, prôton hupokeimenon). Prime matter is a bare “something,”—a bare “whatever”—a completely indeterminate substratum. It is pure potentiality—it can take on attributes and become something determinate, but in itself it is pure potentiality. While he does not use the prime (πρώτη, prôtê) in this passage, here Aristotle lays out the conception of this substrate reality:

By “matter” I mean that which in itself is not called a substance nor a quantity nor anything else by which being is categorized. For it is something of which each of these things is predicated, whose being is different from each of its predicates (for the others are predicated of substance, and substance is predicated of matter). Therefore this last is in itself neither substance nor quantity nor anything else. Nor is it the denials of any of these; for even denials belong to things accidentally. (Metaphysics vii 3 1029a20–26)

Plato offers a related idea in Timaeus, at 49–52, where he suggests in addition to the Εἶδη (Forms) and particulars, there is a third category of being, “a receptacle of all coming to be” (49a5–6):

it must always be called by the same term. For it does not depart from its own character at all. It both continually receives all things, and has never taken on a form similar to any of the things that enter it in any way. For it is laid down by nature as a recipient of impressions for everything, being changed and formed variously by the things that enter it, and because of them it appears different at different times. (50b6–c4)

Here Plato is considering how to account for change—he is asking how it is possible for elements to change into one another. He uses the image of a receptacle which does not change its own character (because it is pure potentiality and utterly indeterminate) but receives all that enters into it: a being comes to pass—that is, it is actualized, but the underlying receptacle remains unchanged.


That nature which receives all the bodies . . . has never in any way whatever taken on any characteristic similar to any of the things that enter it … This is why we shouldn’t call the mother or receptacle of what has come to be, of what is visible or perceivable in every other way, either earth or air, fire or water, or any of their compounds or their constituents. But if we speak of it as an invisible and characterless sort of thing, one that receives all things and shares in a most perplexing way in what is intelligible, a thing extremely difficult to comprehend, we shall not be misled. (Timaeus 51a)

Most scholars think that Aristotle listened to Plato’s idea of the receptacle and recast it into a form that fit his overall vision of reality as hylomorphic. Porphyry tells us that Plotinus would discuss Aristotle’s interpretation of Plato in his talks; and both Plato’s idea of the receptacle and Aristotle’s recast version of it appear in the Enneads. (This is the sort of commentary I was suggesting by referring to Plotinus’s Enneads as being implicitly dialogic.)

Plotinus’s fundamental position on matter is that (like Plato’s receptacle) it is potentiality: it is a condition for the existence of perceptible forms. But matter itself—the substratum underlying all forms—is itself utterly indeterminate. Like Plato’s receptacle, matter receives all that enters into it: thus, a being comes to pass—that is, it is actualized. But this process does not change the underlying matter. Since it has no qualities, matter is imperceptible and is without form. It is amorphic. It is apeiron (ἀ, without + πέρας peras, end, limit, boundary, and so shape). We cannot really conceive of the substrate reality underlying all the furniture of the world. Plotinus refers to it as dark (σκοτεινός, skoteinós) (2.4.10). Plotinus writes,

All who theorize about so-called matter (hyle [ὕλη húlē, literally meaning wood(s), material(s), matter, subject]) agree in describing it as a certain substrate (ὑποκείμενον hypokeimenon) and receptacle (υποδοχη hypodoche) of Forms (Εἶδη Eide) . . . But they disagree . . . as to what the substrate nature is, and how and of what it is receptive. (Ennead 2.4; modified from Armstrong)

Here Plotinus offers a view of change that differs radically from the current scientific model, which maintains that matter evolves on its own causal power. On Plotinus’s view, matter is taken to be the recipient of pre-existing forms or formative principles, and it is they (commonly called λόγοι lόgoi, also translatable as formulae) that energize and characterize matter. Further,

About the receptacle (υποδοχη hypodoche) of bodies, let it be said that there must be something underlying (ὑποκείμενον hypokeimenon) bodies, which is different from the bodies themselves, as is made clear by the changing of the elements (στοιχεῖα stoicheia) into one another . . . There is a change from one form (εἶδος eidos, form or appearance or aspect) into another, and so there remains that which has received the form of the engendered thing and lost the other one. (Ennead 2.4.6; modified from Armstrong)

I pointed out above that Plotinus divides the World Soul into upper and lower parts: its upper part looks upwards towards the Νοῦς, while in its inferior part, it looks downward towards nature, which it creates according to the ideas that reside in the Divine Mind (3.8.4). Plotinus’s views on matter follow a similar pattern, as he considers matter as having both an idealist and a realist/materialist aspect. The idealist aspect is the notion that ordinary things derive their identity, quality, and quantity from their λόγοι—their forms or structures or intelligible natures—expressible in definitions or archetypes, principles that are fully accessible only to the mind. The realist aspect is the evident fact that ordinary objects are composites of form and matter—that is, they are composites of the bed-form or the sword-form or cup-form—and of that in which the individual instance of that form is expressed or manifested, the particular physical and bodily make-up, like the wood of this bed or the gold of this cup. But the wood of the bed or the gold of the cup is itself a composite. So we could in turn seek to identify the composite of form and matter in the wood or gold amalgam. Something must end this regress. In order for ordinary objects to have an identity, a quantity, and a quality they require something—matter—a receptacle that underlies or receives the form.

Intellect discovers the doubleness of bodies. For it divides them until it arrives at something simple that cannot be further analyzed. But as long as possible, it proceeds into the depth of body. The depth of each body is matter. Therefore all matter is dark, because the formula (lόgos) is light. Intellect too is a formula. In seeing the formula that is on each thing, intellect takes what is below to be dark because it is beneath the light. It is like the way the eye, whose form is light, when it gazes at the light and at colours, which are lights, states that what lies beneath the colours is dark and material, concealed by the colours. (Ennead 2.4.5.)xv

And again,

Matter is an image and a phantom of bulk (ongkos), a striving for substantiality, a stable instability . . . it has no strength but is lacking in all being. Whatever announcement it makes, therefore, is a lie, and if it appears great, it is small, if more, it is less; its apparent being is not real, but a sort of fleeting frivolity; hence the things that seem to come [to] be in it are frivolities, nothing but phantoms in a phantom, like something in a mirror which really exists in one place, but is reflected in another; it seems to be filled, and holds nothing; it is all seeming. (Ennead

Matter, then, is negative, because it is indeterminate, lacks qualities, fixed shape, and identity. Whatever comes of it, is phantasmal, illusory, “a fleeting frivolity.”

Reascent: The Path to Happiness

Plotinus’s life, as I have stressed throughout, is shrouded in mystery, and the well-springs of his philosophy (to say nothing of its basic shape, meaning, and purpose) are less clear than we might hope.xvii But I believe it is likely that, quite without preparation, Plotinus experienced his first unification with τὸ Ἕν (to En, the One), or πηγή (Pigi, the Source or Fount), or μονάς (Monas the Monad)—his first ἕνωσις (henosis, Oneness or Union)—when the was twenty-eight years of age, and that he undertook the study of philosophy (actually religio-philosophy) to understand this somewhat bewildering experience.xviii

So to this god-like man above all, who often raised himself in thought, according to the ways Plato teaches in the Symposium, to the First and Transcendent God [ἐις τόν πρῶτον και ἐπέκεινας θεός] that God appeared who has neither shape nor any intelligible form, but is throned above intellect and all the intelligible. I, Porphyry, who am now in my sixty-eighth year, declare that once I drew near and was united to Him. To Plotinus “the goal ever near was shown”: for his end and goal was to be united to, to approach the God who is over all things. Four times [τετράκις] while I was with him he attained that goal, in an unspeakable actuality and not in potency only. (The Life of Plotinus 23.8–18)

Porphyry met Plotinus when he was thirty and Plotinus was fifty-nine and he studied with him for six years. So, according to the passage just cited, Plotinus achieved ἕνωσις (henosis) four times between the ages fifty-nine and sixty-five.

A significant portion of The Six Enneads are devoted to a discussion of experience of attaining ἕνωσις (henosis), ecstatic union with τὸ Ἕν (the One), or πηγή (Pigi, the Source or Fount), or μονάς (Monas the Monad)—much more than the academic commentary on Plotinus is comfortable with. The depth of Plotinus’s interest in altered states of consciousness confirms the essentially devotional nature of Plotinus’s religio-philosophy. ἕνωσις (henosis) ecstatic union with τὸ Ἕν (the One), or the Source or the Monad, mirror ideas about enlightenment, liberation, and mystical union found in many Eastern and Western traditions.

Plotinus offers remarkably detailed descriptions of the experience of ἕνωσις—that he is among the most incisive phenomenologists of the experience of altered consciousness is the primary factor that accounts for his appeal to the philosophically untutored who have experienced an unbidden, transient, passive, ineffable noetic episode and are trying to understand it—and this goes especially for artists for whom this episode is the engine that motivates their efforts at expression.

In one of his more self-reflective accounts of the experience of an altered state of consciousness (, Plotinus tells us that when, discarding the body and leaving all things behind, he has wakened to a decorporealized experience and entered into his Self so as to rest in the Divine, and then has come down from Νοῦς (the Divine Intellect) and fallen into the realm of discursive reasoning, he feels puzzled about how his soul has come down to discursive reasoning (εἰς λογισμὸν); he is puzzled by how he ever came down and had come to be in a body, when his soul (ψυχή) knows what it can be by itself—that is, he is puzzled about how he come down from a unitive state of consciousness and how he could have experienced an ecstatic unity when he is embodied. It is important to note that here he also says that experience involves seeing beauty as a non-physical reality.

As for the experience coming unbidden, Plotinus notes

One should not enquire whence it comes from, for there is no “whence”: it does not really come or go away anywhere, but appears or does not appear. So one must not chase after it, but wait quietly till it appears, preparing oneself to contemplate it, as the eye waits for the rising of the sun; and the son rising over the horizon (“from Ocean,” the poets say) gives itself eyes to see. (–7; Armstrong glosses the quotation with a Homeric reference: Iliad 7.421–2)

For Plotinus, no one can know what ἕνωσις (henosis) is like without actually experiencing it. He further argues, once again in “On Beauty”

So we must ascend again to the Good, which every soul desires. Anyone who has seen it knows what I mean when I say that it is beautiful. It is desired as good, and the desire for it is directed to Good, and the attainment of it is for those who go up to the higher world and are converted and strip off what we put on in our descent; (just as for those who go up to the celebrations of sacred rites there are purifications, and stripping off of the clothes they wore before, and going up naked) until, passing in the ascent all that is alien to the God, one sees with one’s self alone That alone, simple, single and pure, from which all depends and to which all look and are and live and think: for it is cause of life and mind and being [αὐτῷ μόνῳ αὐτὸ μόνον ἴδῃ εἰλικρινές, ἁπλοῦν, καθαρόν, ἁπλοῦν, καθαρόν, ἀφ᾿ οὗ πάντα ἐξήρτηται καὶ πρὸς αὐτὸ βλέπει καὶ ἔστι καὶ ζῇ καὶ νοεῖ· ζωῆς γὰρ αἴτιος καὶ νοῦ καὶ τοῦ εἶναι]. If anyone sees it, what passion will he feel, what longing in his desire to be united with it, what a shock of delight! The man who has not seen it may desire it as good, but he who has seen it glories in its beauty and is full of wonder and delight, enduring a shock which causes no hurt, loving with true passion and piercing longing; he laughs at all other loves; he laughs at all other loves and despises what he thought beautiful before; it is like the experience of those who have met appearances of gods or spirit and do no any more appreciate as they did the beauty of other bodies. (–21, modified from Armstrong).

The passage for which I have given the Greek—and especially the first part, one sees with one’s self alone That alone, simple, single and pure [αὐτῷ μόνῳ αὐτὸ μόνον ἴδῃ εἰλικρινές, ἁπλοῦν, καθαρόν, ἁπλοῦν, καθαρόν]—resembles closely Plato’s Symposium (211e1), where Diotoma says,” the Beautiful is “unalloyed, pure, unmixed.”

Here is Plotinus again, again from “On Beauty”:

[W]hen you see that you have become this, then you have become sight; you can trust yourself then; you have already ascended and need no one to show you; concentrate your gaze and see. This alone is the eye that sees the great beauty [τὸ μέγα κάλλος] But if anyone comes to the sight blear-eyed with wickedness, and unpurified, or weak and by his cowardice unable to look at what is very bright, he sees nothing, even if someone shows him what is there and possible to see. For one must come to the sight with a seeing power made akin and like to what is seen. No eye ever saw the sun without becoming sun-like, nor can a soul see beauty without becoming beautiful. You must become first all godlike and all beautiful if you intend to see God and beauty. First the soul will come in its ascent to intellect and there will know the Forms, all beautiful, and will affirm that these, the Ideas, are beauty; for all things are beautiful by these, by the products of intellect and essence. That which is beyond this we call the nature of the Good, which holds beauty as a screen before it. So in a loose and general way of speaking the Good is the primary beauty; but if one distinguishes the intelligibles [from the Good] one will say that the place of the Forms is the intelligible beauty, but the Good is That which is beyond, the “spring and origin” [or source and beginning] of beauty (τὸ δ᾿ ἀγαθὸν τὸ ἐπέκεινα καὶ πηγὴν καὶ ἀρχὴν τοῦ καλοῦ); or one will place the Good and the primal beauty on the same level: in any case, however, beauty is in the intelligible world. (–45)

The passage evidently owes much to the passage of Book 6 of Plato’s Republic that offers the Allegory of the Sun (around 540a). There is, Socrates suggests, an analogy between the sun and The Good: for sight, the sun is the source of light, and so makes objects visible and allows the eye to see; for knowledge, The Good is the source of truth, and so makes the Εἶδη (Forms) or Ιδέες (Ideas) intelligible and allows the mind to know.xix

It also owes much to the Diotoma’s speech in the Symposium (210a–212c). Diotima shares with Socrates the process by which one can attain the final visions of the mysteries. One begins as a young boy by being attracted to beautiful bodies, and to one beautiful body in particular. The next stage is to recognize that all bodies are relatively similar and that it is foolish to love only one body in particular. Thus, the boy will come to love all beautiful bodies. Next, he will come to appreciate the beauty of minds, and will be able to love those who are beautiful in mind whether or not they are beautiful in body. Recognizing the beauty in practices and laws, he will come to see that all kinds of beauty are similar and come to love beauty in general rather than beauty of bodies in particular. Looking at the different forms of knowledge, he will become a lover of knowledge, loving all sorts of discourses and ideas until he finally settles on one special type of knowledge.

Ultimately, this lover of knowledge will reach the goal of love, which is amazingly beautiful in its nature. This beauty always exists, not coming into being or ceasing to be, nor increasing nor diminishing. It is absolute beauty—it is not beautiful only in some respects or at some times or in relation to certain things or in certain places or to certain people. Beauty will not appear in certain bodies or in certain forms of knowledge or anywhere in particular: it will appear in itself and by itself, independent of everything else. All beautiful things share in its character, but these things in no way affect Beauty itself. By going through these stages, one will ascend from loving particular kinds of beauty to loving Beauty itself, from which all beautiful things derive their nature. Diotima suggests that a life gazing upon and pursuing this Beauty is the best life one can lead.

A. H. Armstrong points out in his introductory note to Ennead 3.8, “On Nature and Contemplation and The One,” Plotinus

shows contemplation as the source and goal of all action and production at every level: all life for him is essentially contemplation. And in showing this he leads our minds up from the lowest level of contemplative life, that of Nature, the last phase of Soul which is the immanent principle of growth, through Soul to share in Intellect’s contemplation of the One or Good, which he demonstrates must lie beyond it as source of contemplation and life.

Here is Plotinus:

Therefore, too, we go back everywhere to one. And in each and every thing there is some one to which you will trace it back, and this in every case to the one before it, which is not simply one, until we come to the simply one; but this cannot be traced back to something else. But if we take the one of the plant—this is its abiding origin—and the one of the animal and the one of the soul and the one of the universe, we are taking in each case what is most powerful and really valuable in it; but if we take the one of the beings which truly exist, their origin and spring and productive power, shall we lose faith and think of it as nothing? It is certainly none of the things of which it is origin; it is of such a kind, though nothing can be predicated of it, not being, not substance, not life, as to be above all of these things. But if you grasp it by taking away being from it, you will be filled with wonder (θαῦμα ἕξεις). And, throwing yourself upon it and coming to rest within it, understand it more and more intimately, knowing it by intuition and seeing its greatness by the things which exist after it and through it. (Ennead–35)

The onset of altered conscious occurs suddenly and unexpectedly: as A. H. Armstrong notes, “The suddenness and unexpectedness of the final vision is an important feature of Plotinus’s descriptions of it—it is not something one can plan for and bring about when one wishes” (footnote 1 to Ennead 5.3, on page 135). Armstrong’s introductory note to Ennead 6.7, “How the Multitude of Forms Came into Being, and On The Good,” characterizes it as “the most intellectually and spiritually powerful of all Plotinus’ ‘ascents of the mind to God.’” And, further (in that introduction), while discussing Plato’s Timaeus, he asks, regarding the Demiurge, the crucial questions,

Does God plan the world and then make it? Is divine wisdom to be understood in terms of the sort of intelligent, purposive, over-all planning characteristic of a good architect or civic designer? In showing that it is not, and in displaying the true nature of the creativity of the Divine Intellect, Plotinus builds up his fullest and most impressive account of the nature and contents of the intelligible world, showing us how everything here below is there too, and only here because it is there, and not there in the form of a system of abstractions but in a more vital reality than we apprehend it here: it is a world “boiling with life”, an eternal world which somehow contains time and movement and change and process. In the end we are left with the very strong impression that for Plotinus there are not two worlds but one real world apprehended in different ways on different levels. It is from our highest and truest apprehension of this intelligible world of which we ourselves are parts that we ascend to the Good. For, as Plotinus shows here with particular care and clarity, ascend we must. The intelligible world which he has displayed in all its beauty is not our goal. Intellect and the intelligible cannot finally satisfy us. The demonstration of transcendence culminates in Plotinus’ fullest and strongest account of the soul’s union with the Good in the self-transcendence of Intellect, an account which shows more clearly than anything else in the Enneads the consonance of his mysticism and his metaphysics. The treatise concludes with a section which confirms the transcendence of the One or Good above Intellect by a full demonstration that the One does not think

Here is Plotinus:

But whoever has become at once contemplator of himself and all the rest and object of his contemplation, and, since he has become substance and intellect and “the complete living being” [Plato, Timaeus 31b1] no longer looks at it from outside—when he has become this he is near, and that Good is next above him, and already close by, shining upon all the intelligible world. It is there that one lets all study [πᾶν μάθημα] go; up to a point one has been led along and settled firmly in beauty and as far as this one thinks that in which one is, but is carried out of it by the surge of the wave of Intellect itself and lifted on high by a kind of swell and sees suddenly [ἐξαίφνης], not seeing how [οὐκ ἰδὼν ὅπως], but the vision fills his eyes with light and does not make him see something else by it, but the light itself is what he sees. For there is not in that Good something seen and its light, nor intellect and object of intellect, but a ray which generates these afterwards and lets them be beside it; but he himself is the ray which only generates Intellect and does not extinguish itself in the generation, but it itself abides, and that Intellect comes to be because this Good exists. (–26)

Or again.

my soul is still in even stronger labour. Perhaps she is now at the point when she must bring forth, having reached the fulness of her birth-pangs in her eager longing for the One. But we must sing another charm to her, if we can find one anywhere to allay her pangs. Perhaps there might be one in what we have said already, if we sang it over and over again. And what other charm can we find which has a sort of newness about it? The soul runs over all truths, and all the same shuns the truths we know if someone tries to express them in words and discursive thought; for discursive thought (τὴν διάνοιαν), in order to express anything in words, has to consider one thing after another: this is the method of description; but how can one describe the absolutely simple? But it is enough if the intellect comes into contact (ἐφάψασθαι·) with it; but when it has done so, while the contact lasts, it is absolutely impossible, nor has it time, to speak; but it is afterwards that it is able to reason (συλλογίζεσθαι) about it. One must believe one has seen, when the soul suddenly [ἐξαίφνης, the word also means amazingly] takes light: for this is from him and he is it; we must think that he is present when, like another god whom someone called to his house, he comes and brings light to us: for if he had not come, he would not have brought the light. So the unenlightened soul does not have him as god; but when it is enlightened it has what it sought, and this is the soul’s true end, to touch that light and see it by itself, not by another light, but by the light which is also its means of seeing. It must see that light by which it is enlightened: for we do not see the sun by another light than his own. How then can this happen? Take away everything! (–39, emphasis mine)

Again, reinforcing the suddenness and passivity characteristic of this altered state of consciousness, Plotinus writes

Just so Intellect, veiling itself from other things and drawing itself inward, when it is not looking at anything will see a light, not a distinct light in something different from itself, but suddenly [again ἐξαίφνης] appearing, along by itself in independent purity, so that Intellect is at a loss to know whence it has appeared, whether it has come from outside or within, and after it has gone away will say “It was within, and yet it was not within.” (–35, emphasis mine)

Plotinus also affirms that the ecstatic experience has an almost paradoxical character. The experience is ineffable: there was no seeing here, and no distinction between seer and seen—rather his soul was united with the One; consequently, he sometimes has in his memory (εἰ μεμνῷτο) who he became through that unitive experience—he will have an image (εἰκόνα) of that state in himself (6.9.11). In other words, the experience is noetic: the Plotinian ἕνωσις (henosis) produces an image of the unification with the One. This is experiential noesis, attainable only through ἕνωσις, a higher intuitive way of knowing.

The perplexity arises especially because our awareness of that One is not by way of reasoned knowledge or of intellectual perception, as with other intelligible things, but by way of a presence superior to knowledge (ἀλλὰ κατὰ παρουσίαν ἐπιστήμης κρείττονα). The soul experiences its falling away from being one and is not altogether one when it has reasoned knowledge of anything; for reasoned knowledge is a rational process, and a rational process is many. The soul therefore goes past the One and falls into number and multiplicity. One must therefore run up above knowledge and in no way depart from being one, but one must depart from knowledge and things known, and from every other, even beautiful, object of vision. (6.9.4)

But, Plotinus goes on to say, sometimes a seeker is hindered by impediments—some burdens he has brought with him—and he does not receive the vision. He fails to attain awareness of the glory there. He is hampered, because he hasn’t experienced the unitive experience and doesn’t harbour in his seeing the sort of passionate experience a lover experiences when resting in his beloved.

I provided above (when citing–39) Plotinus’s explanation of why discursive understanding cannot lead a seeker to the One, why it can be appreciated only by direct acquaintance (in fact by merging with it), and why afterward (by virtue of the image the unitive experience leaves), it can be reasoned about (which is what occurred in Plotinus’s discourses). Here I repeat the most salient part:

for discursive thought (τὴν διάνοιαν), in order to express anything in words, has to consider one thing after another: this is the method of description; but how can one describe the absolutely simple? But it is enough if the intellect comes into contact (ἐφάψασθαι·) with it; but when it has done so, while the contact lasts, it is absolutely impossible, nor has it time, to speak; but it is afterwards that it is able to reason (συλλογίζεσθαι) about it

I have given considerable attention to the experience of attaining ἕνωσις (henosis), ecstatic union with τὸ Ἕν (the One), a topic that produces some discomfort among those who deem Plotinus to be a late example of Hellenic rationality (which they identify with discursive reason, appropriate perhaps to the empiricist Aristotle and his Peripatetic followers, but not at all to Pythagoras nor, as the Tübingen School of Plato Studies has highlighted, to Plato). For Plotinus, as for Plato, there is a different conception of the relation between the soul and the universal, one that did not maintain that the ascent to higher grades of reality is guided by discursive reason. For Pythagoras and Plato, this difference likely stemmed from their interest in the philosophies of Egypt and Persia. In Plotinus’s case, I believe the influence came from India.

The basic contours of Indic culture and religiosity had circulated in Greece from the second century BCE. Megasthenes (ca. 350 BCE—ca. 290 BCE), an ancient Greek historian and diplomat was sent on embassies to India (specifically to the remarkable Mauryan emperor Chandragupta) and, on his return, he prepared from his notes an account of India, the Indica. The book has been lost, but fragments of it were preserved in various sources, and, while it is clear that Megasthenes sometimes exaggerated his tales of India and that he sometimes relied on unreliable sources in his reports on parts of India that he did not visit, the information he passed on to the Greek people was generally accurate. Among accounts that have been passed down to the present are some fragments concerning the Brahmans.xx

There is among the Brachhmans in India a sect of philosophers who adopt an independent life, and abstain from animal food and all victuals cooked by fire, being content to subsist upon fruits, which they do not so much as gather from the trees, but pick up when they have dropped to the ground, and their drink is the water of the river Tagabena. Throughout life they go about naked, saying that the body has been given by the Deity as a covering for the soul. They hold that God is light, but not such light as we see with the eye, nor such as the sun or fire, but God is with them the Word [atman?],—by which term they do not mean articulate speech, but the discourse of reason [higher understanding], whereby the hidden mysteries of knowledge are discerned by the wise. This light, however, which they call the Word, and think to be God, is, they say, known only by the Brachhmans themselves, because they alone have discarded vanity, which is the outermost covering of the soul. The members of this sect regard death with contemptuous indifference, and, as we have seen already, they always pronounce the name of the Deity with a tone of peculiar reverence, and adore him with hymns [Vedic chants?] . . . With regard to the Word, which they call God, they hold that it is corporeal,

and that it wears the body as its external covering, just as one wears the woollen surcoat, and that when it divests itself of the body with which it is enwrapped it becomes manifest to the eye. [The Bhagavad-Gītā, chapter 2, verse 22 states “As a person sheds worn-out garments and wears new ones, likewise, at the time of death, the soul casts off its worn-out body and enters a new one.”] There is war, the Brachhmans hold, in the body where with they are clothed, and they regard the body as being the fruitful source of wars, and, as we have already shown, fight against it like soldiers in battle contending against the enemy. [This sounds very much like the beginning of Bhagavad-Gītā.] They maintain, moreover, that all men are held in bondage, like prisoners of war, to their own innate enemies, the sensual appetites, gluttony, anger, joy, grief, longing desire [BG chapter 16, verse 21 identifies lust, anger, and greed as leading to the self-destruction of the soul] like, while it is only the man who has triumphed over these enemies who goes to God.

Émile Bréhier authored what is undoubtedly the most sympathetic introduction to Plotinus’s thought, The Philosophy of Plotinus. In the introduction he states, quite sensibly

A work such as that of Plotinus is unintelligible if one attempts to connect it directly with the Greek tradition, no less if one sees it as part of the religion of the mysteries. On the other hand, the collective practice of contemplation, in which Plotinus participated, explains certain important traits of his philosophy most successfully. If the contemplative attitude is pursued to the end unfalteringly, it brings about that vision of things of which Plotinus gives the most perfect model to be found in antiquity.xxi

Bréhier notes that Indica maintained that the Brahmans “considered everything which cheers or grieves men as mere dreams” (which characterization could be a version of the Upaniṣadic idea of maya) and that “they professed a God who ‘moves through the whole universe’” (which almost certainly refers to the Vedic and Vedantic idea of Brahman).xxii

And, while Indic thought was the central focus of Bréhier’s “Orientalism,” the subcontinent’s philosophy and form of thinking was not his exclusive concern. In a remarkable paragraph, he notes Plotinus’s interest in a topic that animated the most radical artistic developments of the twentieth century, from Ezra Pound to Charles Olson, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Philip Lamantia, the belief that Western history had collapsed and that the fundamental cause of that disintegration was that the Western mind had lost contact with reality, lured away by abstractions promoted by Greek subject-predicate sentence structure and the Aristotelian (syllogistic) logic that follows from it. To restart history on a sounder basis artists and thinkers should seek for truth in pictographic/ideogrammic writing systems (the Chinese written character, Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphs). Bréhier writes,

A passage in the Enneads (5.8.6) proves that Plotinus tried to understand the profound wisdom which . . . was hidden in Egyptian hieroglyphs. This wisdom consists in the intuitive and immediate knowledge of reality, which Plotinus opposes to discursive knowledge. The hieroglyphs “do not imitate the sounds of language [remarkably, the artists and thinkers that I alluded to above all agree with Marshall McLuhan that the introduction of alphabet and phonetic writing set the conditions for abstract thinking] or verbal propositions . . . Each sign designates the object itself. Each sign is there a knowledge and a science. It is reality at a single glance, and not reflected through discursive thought.” [This captures well Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg’s, Gary Snyder’s, and Jack Kerouac’s ideas on superposition.]

The passage indicates also what Plotinus was going to seek in the barbarians [βάρβαρος barbarous, was the Greek term for people whose men did not shave their faces clean—they had a beard, or “barbe”]: their conception of reality, the living intuition which the scholarly and involved constructions of Greek philosophy ran the risk of loosing.

The Upaniṣads are late Vedic and post-Vedic Sanskrit texts that “document the transition from the archaic ritualism of the Veda into new religious ideas and institutions.”xxiii Bréhier proposes that

The common . . . theme of all the Upaniṣads is that of a knowledge which assures the one possessing it peace and unfailing happiness. This knowledge is the consciousness of the identity of the self with the universal being.xxiv

Bréhier summarizes the Upaniṣads structuring principles:

It utilizes two fundamental concepts: that of Brahman, the universal being, the unfathomable principle of all forms of reality, and that of Atman, which is the principle in so far as it exists in the human soul, independent of all particular functions of the soul, such, for example, as the nutritive or the cognitive. The main thesis is that Braham is identical with Atman, that is to say, as Deussen put it, the force which creates and preserves the world is identical with what we discover in ourselves as disregard all activities related to definite objects [such as when we are in state of dreamless sleep]. The real difficulty of the doctrine of the Upaniṣads, is then the one I pointed out in Plotinus. It consists in inquiring in what sense that self, in concentrating finds within itself the very principle of the universe. “Whosoever has known, seen, and comprehended the self knows the entire universe.”. . . [L]ittle by little there arises, out of a value and indefinite contemplation which is neither directed nor limited through action, the feeling of interpenetration between the self and things. All distinction between the subject and the knowing object is obliterated. The self is as much the universe as the universe is the self. . . . It is easy to see the exact characteristics by these speculations are opposed to the Hellenic and Judeo-Christian world. First, in opposition to Greek philosophy, they contain no attempt at rational explanation of things. . . . Rather Brahman and Atman are beings into which things are absorbed. Things will only be the unfolding and expansion of forces which are united in the universal being. This dynamism, the notion of the development of one and the same life, is very far from rational order of forms sought by the Greek philosophers.xxv

Greek philosophers generally maintained that human well-being (εὐδαιμονία, eudaimonia, happiness or welfare) consists in living well. Definitions, a dictionary of 184 philosophical terms sometimes attributed to Plato, but more likely composed by someone at the Academy after Plato (perhaps Speusippus) defined εὐδαιμονία thus: “The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.” Aristotle too believed that the eudaimonic life consisted in living well; but he also thought there was no real agreement on what sort of a life conduces to εὐδαιμονία. Plotinus’s idea of a good life was much different—and much closer to the Indic view. For Plotinus, a good life does not depend on action. He maintained that authentic human happiness consists of the true human identifying with that which is the best in the universe. Because happiness is beyond anything physical, worldly fortune does not control true human happiness, and thus “there exists no single human being that does not either potentially or effectively possess this thing we hold to constitute happiness” (1.4.4). One of Plotinus’s signal achievements is that he introduced into Western philosophy the idea that εὐδαιμονία is attainable only within consciousness. Plotinus avers that what is truly human is an incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul, a capability superior in value to anything corporeal, and from that it follows that real human happiness is independent of the physical world.

A peculiar feature distinguishes Plotinus’s “Neoplatonism” (I have already noted that Plotinus staked no claim to have evolved a new form of philosophy based on, but extending Plato’s teaching, and insisted that he was simple a faithful interpreter of Plato) from that of subsequent Neoplatonic philosophers is one that I suspect stems from Upaniṣadic influences. Plotinus proposes, “One might be unaware one has something, holding onto it more powerfully than if one did know” (4.4.4). Ennead 4 deals with the consequences of the soul having seen the intelligible realm and having known the Εἶδη (Forms) before it came to be in a body. Having known the wondrous beauty, truth, and goodness of this realm, the soul retains the memory of these realities even when it is twinned with a body, though that memory is often deeply buried, as our attention is often lured away by an unbroken stream of sensory phenomena, the colours, motions, and sound that reach it through the portals of the senses, such as the eyes or the ears—or, just to emphasize my point, our attention is lured away by maya.xxvi In the end, to Plotinus’s dismay (as to that of the Upaniṣadic thinkers), we become confused to the point of identifying ourselves with our bodies.

But, Plotinus maintained—subsequent Neoplatonic philosophers would disagree with him—people in this condition retain some memory of what they saw in the realm of the intellect. Indeed, a peculiar feature of the Plotinian religio-philososphy is that he maintains that the soul is never bereft of any connection to the realm of the intelligible: the effect of what one saw while reposing in the realm of Intellect lingers in the soul. Plotinus’s views on this are radical: he insists a part of the soul remains “undescended” and continues, even when it is associated with a body, to contemplate the Forms. Plotinus’s radical soteriology (if I may call it that)—his suggestion regarding coming-to-be-in-happiness—is not to achieve contact with the intelligible realm, but to realize that the human soul is not simply a soul, but that it has a higher nature: our higher self or true self is that of Intellect. It always has in it knowledge of the Εἶδη (Forms). Porphyry tells us that Plotinus, even as he went about his daily life, continuously turned “in contemplation towards his intellect.” The soul is “on the horizon” between the body and intelligible (4.4.3). So Plotinus exhorts the soul to always turn its attention upward—to direct its gaze away from the body and towards the immaterial realm that is more real than the material realm of the body (or, again, to make the point, than maya). It is more real because, unlike the body, which consists of parts, it is a unity—in pointing this out, Plotinus was refuting Aristotle, who believed that the soul is the form of the body.

On Beauty

Περι του καλου (Peri toy kaloy, “About the Good,” 1.6) is an early tractate. It is probably the most frequently read of Plotinus’s treatises—and that was as true in ancient, medieval, and renaissance eras as it is today. The fundamental purpose of this treatise I have already noted: it is to point out that beauty, truly understood, belongs not to objects in the material realm and the arrangement of their parts, but to the realm of the εἶδη (Forms) and its principle, the Good. Thus, it exhorts readers to ascend through “all the visible and invisible beauties of derived reality to the source of all beauty, the Good, on that journey of the mind to God which was always Plotinus’s main concern” (again, from Armstrong’s introductory note).

Plotinus begins the treatise by dismissing the Stoics’ materialist theory of beauty as good proportion, a fitting ratio among the parts of an object that create a feeling of harmony. The lynchpin of his criticism is his insistence that beauty is unitary. Following this refutation, he begins to expound his own conception of beauty. He starts with concrete experience, our actual response to beauty:

So let us go back to the beginning and state what the primary beauty in bodies really is. It is something which we become aware of even at the first glance; the soul speaks of it as if it understood it, recognises and welcomes it and as it were adapts itself to it. But when it encounters the ugly it shrinks back and rejects it and turns away from it and is out of tune and alienated from it. (–7)

He goes on to inquire about what allows the soul to recognize beauty. His answer is based on the Platonic doctrine of ἀνάμνησις (anamnesis, reminiscence or recollection). When the soul encounters something beautiful, a spiritual process akin to ἀνάμνησις allows the soul to see the Εἶδος (Form) in it and, at the same time, to recognize in itself the trace of a kindred reality, a λόγος (lógos) derived from and bound to the Εἶδος. The soul experiences pleasure and delight as it returns to its true self and remembers itself and what belongs to it. Here Plotinus goes beyond the Platonic idea that soul recognizes the Εἶδος of beauty in bodies which participate in it: he claims, in fact, that the soul’s experience of beauty—of welcoming anything when it sees it—is the result of recognizing an Εἶδος in it, of apprehending intuitively and in a flash something that belongs to the Ψυχή (the Intellect, World Soul, Divine Mind). It takes delight in the experiencing the contents of the Divine Mind and in the fact the soul’s true nature, its λόγος, is at one with the Intellective realm. Plotinus maintains it is not just the Εἶδος of the beautiful, but any Εἶδος that elicits this experience: bodies are beautiful to the extent that they participate in intelligible reality—and every Εἶδος (Form) belongs to the realm of the Intellect, not just the Form of beauty.

The basis for this vastly enlarged account of ἀνάμνησις (anamnesis) and its role in the experience of beauty are the Ur-principles of Plato’s unwritten teachings, τὸ Ἕν (The One) as the principle of integration, of making things definite and determinate, and The Indefinite Dyad, the principle of indeterminacy, of that which lacks a fixed form. We appreciate what evinces integration, whatever is definite and determinate, and we recoil from whatever evinces apeiron, whatever is formless and unlimited. Thus Plotinus writes, “We maintain that the things in this world are beautiful by participating in form; for every shapeless thing which is naturally capable of receiving shape and form is ugly and outside the divine formative power as long as it has no share in formative power and form. And this is altogether ugly” (–16; Plotinus goes on to offer a series of qualifications of the qualities of being determinate or indeterminate). One implication of this is to affirm the potential for all things to be beautiful of their kind (for indeterminacy is not real, but simply a failure to receive form—its potential to receive form is thus not actualized). Hence, Plotinus stressed the great beauty of this world—he is not a despiser of the world, as the Gnostics were. A second implication is that since the objects of the world have this value, the desire to reshape them according to our desires is wrong-headed.

When soul is brought up to intellect, it is more beautiful. But intellect and what goes with it is soul’s beauty, its very own and not another’s, for then is soul truly and solely itself. (1.6.2,13–18)

Or, again, “What does ‘really exists’ mean?,” Plotinus asks ( He responds:

That they exist as beauties. But the argument still requires us to explain why real beings make the soul lovable. What is this kind of glorifying light on all the virtues? Would you like to take the opposites, the uglinesses in soul, and contrast them with the beauties? Perhaps a consideration of what ugliness is and why it appears so will help us to find what we are looking for. Suppose, then, an ugly soul, dissolute and unjust, full of all lusts, and all disturbance, sunk in fears by its cowardice and jealousies by its pettiness, thinking mean and mortal thoughts as far as it thinks at all, altogether distorted, loving impure pleasures, living a life which consists of bodily sensations and finding delight in its ugliness. (–31)

Virtue makes one’s soul beautiful as a purification (cf. Plato, Phaedo, 69c) bringing the soul back to itself and its origin in intellect and the Forms.

Conclusion, with Prospect.

The foregoing is a tendentious tract, written by a media artist, not a Classics scholar, a gathering of themes, mostly from Plotinus and Vedāntic (especially Advaita) philosophy that has sustained me emotionally and shaped my thinking and my making over the years. I began my studies of “Indian philosophy” as an undergraduate, and I fortunately found myself taking courses in a religion department headed by a distinguished Platonist that counted among its faculty distinguished scholars of Indian and Chinese Buddhism and of Hinduism. This was during that generalized enthusiasm for a new way of thinking that swept the Western world with the rise of counter-cultures of the 1960s, subcultures of dissent that spoke of the disaffection with the political system of advanced predatory capitalism and the desire many felt to disaffiliate themselves from it, including from the forms it took in academic life. A.K. Warder, a scholar of Pali, with whom, years later (when my search was more rigorously defined), I would study Indian philosophy, summarized the spirit of the time, and its demise.

The course for which the Outline of Indian Philosophy was originally written has long ceased to appear in any university calendar, thanks to the universal cuts in support for education. Its content is of course completely irrelevant to the world of greed and money-making which has replaced the remarkably idealistic societies emerging from the crucible of death and destruction in the Second World War.

Then, the survivors were glad to be alive and wanted to fill the mourning world with new joy, not with money. The greatest joy was that of knowledge in all its forms, of science, of art, of the human quest for enlightenment wherever records had survived. This knowledge was delightful in itself, but it might also enlighten our society and secure our freedom. The cultural hegemony of Europe having evaporated in the failure of 1938–40, the new knowledge might enhance our view of civilisation, giving breadth and depth to reflections on how the future might be better than the past.

That dream has now been shattered.xxvii

That hope that the cultural hegemony of modern Europe (Europe since the Enlightenment) might be dismantled as a new way of thinking and being emerged, one that included a delight in learning and a new joyous cosmology, has guided me since that time (and again found expression in this essay).

During my undergraduate years, an experience that first came to me, quite unexpectedly, when I was brought to an extremely debilitated state by yellow fever—this initial experience seemed to open a gate, and similar experiences occurred repeatedly over the years, when I was no longer in extremis. These experiences gave rise my artistic endeavours, such as they are. I turned to Plotinus and Advaita philosophy to help me plumb the meanings of these anomalous experiences. Of course, probing these texts required trying to bring into coherence the gallimaufry of insights I culled from diverse sources: I continue to believe that whatever is contradictory cannot be real.

For a few years before taking up filmmaking, I had written and published poetry. I expected poetry would be my life’s work. But one thing led to another, and I found myself enrolled in a graduate course in media studies in New England. One evening, Stan Brakhage showed a selection of his films, including Western History, The Trip to Door, Fox Fire Child Watch, and Window Water Baby Moving. The experience was a revelation: I recognized immediately, even before the screening ended, this was the new poetry, electric poetry, and it was to this sort of poetry that I wanted to devote my creative efforts.xxviii Brakhage was giving a course on The Songs, the high water mark in the influence of Ezra Pound’s Cantos on Brakhage’s filmmaking, and I found myself sitting in on his classes. At the same time my wife was taking a class with the media studies scholar and McLuhanite Gerald O’Grady, and we became a part of the vortex of new thought on media-making at what was then the State University of New York at Buffalo. That energy intensified my interest in the implications of the rise of the electrological paradigm (as I came to call it), the new conception of reality that arose as the science of electromagnetism attained the status of the most advanced physical science and electromorphic art, art forms that developed to convey the new conception of reality.

When I was asked to contribute to first issue of the new La Furia Umana, I proposed to first write a piece outlining my ideas on electrological Neoplatonism and then, for a subsequent issue, to do a shorter piece explaining how these ideas had shaped my most recent endeavour, a collaborative piece done with Ajla Odobašić, titled Alone (All Flesh Shall See It Together). The title is an allusion to Plotinus’s flight of the alone to the Alone and to the emerging collective consciousness that is at once Neoplatonic and electrological (cf. Peters, The Marvellous Clouds). Alone (All Flesh Shall It Together) also extends the ideas on woman’s art that were the subject of my earlier pair of pieces in La Furia Umana.

Writing this essay has been much more arduous than I expected, and required a more intricate explanatory apparatus than I foresaw. To prevent the essay from being even longer, I have only been able to outline my (admittedly contentious) views on Plotinus on ἕνωσις (henosis). I have had to put off to the second installment my exposition of Plotinus on love, the foundation of my commentary on woman’s art, as well as section in which I lay the groundwork that will allow me to show that the rise of the science of electromagnetism to the status of the most advanced physical science brought about a revival of Plotinus’s metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics, exemplified in the staggering writing of Alfred North Whitehead. (In the third installment I triangulate Plotinus’s religio-philosophy, the theory and practice of women’s performance art, and Alone (All Flesh Shall See It Together), a digital sound-and-moving-image piece Ajla Odobašić and I have made; I will also show that newly Pythagoreanized NeoPlatonism has brought back that the universal dispensation that had been corrupted by authorities, but continued in its true form as a secret underground teaching.)

As a sort of promissory note, I finish with brief homage to two of the great electrological Neoplatonist poets, the later of whom recognized his affinity with the earlier. The first passage comes from Howl, a lengthy celebration of Ginsberg’s hipster colleagues who sought the knowledge A. K. Warder described:

Who studied Plotinus, Poe, St. John of the Cross, bop kabbalah

because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,xxix

The second is Ginsberg’s mourner’s prayer of sanctification for his mother, Kaddish:

the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after—

And read Adonais’ last triumph stanzas aloud—wept realizing

how we suffer—xxx

And finally stanza 47 and 48 of Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, two of Adonais’s “last triumph stanzas,”

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. — We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments. — Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!xxxi

R. Bruce Elder

i. Legends commonly suggest that Julian recorded the oracles in the poem in a mediumistic trance.

ii. See D. Perkin Walker, “Orpheus the theologian and Renaissance Platonism,” JWCI 16 (1953): 100–120, and The Ancient Theology (London: Duckworth, 1972); and Partha Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters: A history of European reactions to Indian art (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977; repr. with new preface, 1992), esp. 49.

iii. Porphyry, “On the Life of Plotinus and the Order of His Book” from Plotinus: Enneads, vol. 1, trans. A. H. Armstrong. Loeb Classical Library 440 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969) 1–89, here 8

iv. I have modified slightly Armstrong’s translation.

v. In the twentieth century, the Tübingen School of Plato Studies has made much of this Aristotelian testimony.

vi. As we shall see in the next installment of this three-part essay, this theme of elemental flux will prove important in understanding why this secret tradition was revitalized in the early twentieth century.

vii. The term λόγος (lόgos) can mean word, explanation, science, rationality, or the principle of exchange between things. So to say that the world is λόγος is to say that it behaves in a lawlike manner: consequently, science (in Pythagoras’s case, mathematics) can describe the world in terms of laws.

In this essay, the numbers that follow the titles of Plato’s dialogues index Plato’s text according the convention of the Stephanus system.

viii. The parallels with Spinoza’s “Deus sive natura” viewed sub specie aeternitatis and Spinoza’s celebration of the union of the soul with God through amor intellectualis Dei are remarkable.

ix. μετέχειν (metékhein) is the present active infinitive of μετέχω (metékhō), which means to be a party to, be concerned with, have a hand in, have a share in, have a voice in, have connection with, have share in, join in, share in, take a share in, take part in.

x. The statement of these two principles is adapted from the Milanese historian of Classical and Hellenic philosophy, Giovanni Reale. See Zu einer neuen Interpretation Platons. Eine Auslegung der Metaphysik der großen Dialoge im Lichte der „ungeschriebenen Lehren,“ 2nd enlarged edition (Paderborn: Schöningh Verlag 2000), which offers a general overview suitable as an introduction to the topic.

xi. This principle does not imply unlimitedness in the sense of a spatial or quantitative infinity; instead, the indefiniteness consists in a lack of determinateness and therefore of fixed form. The Dyad is termed the “Indefinite” to distinguish it from definite two-ness, i.e., the number two, and to indicate that the Dyad is not subject to mathematics. J. N. Finley writes,

Plato applying his genius to the Socratic dialectic turned it into an ontology: generic meanings, whether in moral discourse or elsewhere, were not only real presences in the world through their many species and instances, and known and enjoyed in these, but had a more absolute being than those species and instances, and in fact conferred on the latter all the real being that they possessed. They were, moreover, not merely apprehended through their species and instances, which were often only poor illustrations of them, but rather gave their species and instances all the intelligibility of which they were capable. To generic natures or meanings Plato gave the new name of Eide or Ideas, and they were held to be neither general names on men’s tongues, nor general thoughts in men’s minds, but the only entities that could without qualification be said to be, and which were further, in some sense, supremely causative, since their instances only were what they were by exemplifying them, while they were what they were without regard to an exemplifications or instances . . . The Eide, further, are essentially unchangeable, and out of time altogether, whereas their instances are part of the perpetual flux of instantial being, and are constantly coming into being and passing away, or being replaced by the instantiation of some other Eidos.

Plato’s arithmetization of the Eide was a sublime, is unsystematic anticipation of the whole of modern scientific rationalism, with its stress on unifying patterns and measures, and that, in his retention of the countering presence of the Great and Small in all things, he also recognized the pervasive presence of an element of inexactitude and continuity in all things without which the limiting work of the reasonable element in things would be null and void. And, by his introduction of two such antithetical Principles, Plato may be held to have made a most interesting contribution to Value-theory, in that the Good is seen by him as essentially active and causative, and as engaged in an endless task of subordinating the intrinsically indefinite and chaotically multiple to predictable order and simplicity. (Findlay, J. N., “Plato’s Unwritten Dialectic of the One and the Great and Small” [1983]. The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter. 113. pages 4–5; 6; 3. Emphasis in original)

xii. The academic convention in citing specific lines within the chapter (the line-number follows a period after the chapter number) is to cite those lines as they appear in Paul Henry and Hans-Rudolf Schwyzer, Plotini Opera, 3 volumes (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, and Brussels: L’Édition universelle, 1951–1984)—not the lines in the Armstrong edition. Because of this, I have generally avoided citing line numbers—the text of The Enneads, in searchable form, can be found at or This is McKenna’s more literary translation (rather than Armstrong’s more precise version, or Lloyd Gerson’s even more accurate and exact rendition). I generally “enjoy” reading McKenna’s translation (if the term “enjoy” can properly be used of the experience afforded by studying Plotinus, which certainly includes moments of exhilaration, but . . . )

xiii. This image of an object being reflected in a mirror also has the advantage of suggesting the lower reality value of the reflection by way of comparison with the object itself.

xiv. I take this chart (which I have modified slightly) from Thomas Sheehan, PLOTINUS and NEO-PLATONISM: A Study Packet.

xv. Translated by A. A. Long, in “What is the Matter with Matter, According to Plotinus?” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, Volume 78: The History of Philosophy, July 2016, pp. 37–54, here 46.

xvi. Trans. ibid.

xvii. Without any doubt, far and away the best outline is Lloyd P. Gerson, Plotinus (London: Routledge, 1994), part of its distinguished The Arguments of the Philosophers series. It is not really an act of hubris to say this, but I will: I differ with central features of his interpretation of Plotinus.

xviii, Several artists whose works are animated by a desire to convey through the mystery of art a similar transformative experience have turned to Plotinus’s philosophy in search of understanding.

xix. Eva Brann offers the brilliant observation:

The first and original affinity, the Sun Image implies, is that which the Good as progenitor has with the sun as the offspring made in its image. In other words, the Good itself possesses an image-making power that it passes down to eíde and that they pass on in turn (cf. Phaedrus 250a6). This power might be called “downward eikasía [εἰκασία, imagination or, here likeness]” By making our world a cascading progression of likenesses, it is originally responsible for our ability both to make ourselves, our thought, like to the highest things by an effort at “likening” (homoiósis, [Republic] 500c5; Theaetetus 176b1) and to recognize likenesses or make analogies. It is, we might say, ultimately responsible for “upward eikasía” and for the pleasure of recognition that the play of eikastic thinking over all the realms gives us (cf. Aristotle, Poetics 1448b8). It is a power so unobtrusively indispensable that without it we would never “know ourselves” even in the most superficial sense of having confronted in a mirror our own looks, the eidos or look of our own face! (The Music of The Republic [Philadelphia, PA: Paul Dry Books, 2004], 192–3.

I quote this passage from Plato because of its obvious relevance to Plotinus’s ideas on the One and its relation to the Divine Intellect and the World of Many.

xx. The fragment from which this passage is taken (Fragm. LIV) was preserved in Pseudo-Origen, Philosoph, 24, edited by Charles Delarue , Paris, 1733, vol. I. beginning on page904; it can be found somewhat more conveniently in Ancient India as Described by Megasthenes and Arrian, trans. and ed. J. W. McCrindle (Calcutta and Bombay: Thacker, Spink, 1877), here 120–122

xxi. Émile Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, trans. Joseph Thomas (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 3. (Translation of La philosophie de Plotin [Paris: Boivin, 1928]).

xxii. Ibid., 119.

xxiii. Patrick Olivelle, The Upanishads (New York: Oxford University, 1996), xxiii.

xxiv. Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, 123; I have introduced IAST transliterations of Sanskrit characters, which are in universal use now, but were not when Bréhier was publishing. It is true that what we call “Indian philosophy,” while it takes up some the traditional questions that fall in within the domain that what Western philosophers identify as ontology, metaphysics, epistemology, and the theory of value, the answers to the questions are never considered valuable in themselves: rather, these inquires are always folded into doctrines that teach how to permanently alleviate suffering. The Upaniṣads council one to practice tapas (spiritual austerity), with the goal of achieving perfect tranquility (praśama)

xxv. Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, 125; 126, 128; 128. Bréhier gives as the source for Deussen’s observation Allgemine Geschichte der Philosophy (6 vols.; Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1894–1917), vol 1. Part 2, 73; and for the actual citation from Deussen, ibid., 40.

xxvi. Of course, I acknowledge that what Plotinus offers in this passage is for the most part a version of Plato’s doctrine of ἀνάμνησις (and that is almost certainly what Plotinus understood it to be). But I maintain his (Plotinus’s) version of ἀνάμνησις is inflected by Upaniṣadic ideas.

xxvii. A. K. Warder, A Course in Indian Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998), xii.

xxviii. Like any graduate student at University of Toronto who was interested in the art, I had attended some lectures and seminars given by Marshall McLuhan.

xxix. Allen Ginsberg, from Howl, in Collected Poems 1947–1997 (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 136.

xxx. Collected Poems, 217.

xxxi. In the renowned novel by Percy’s wife Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus, electricity serves as the very tool that gives life—and so creates the monster. Electricity is capable of giving life to the lifeless.

Percy Shelley was fascinated by science, in particular the creation of electricity. “He was very excited by galvanic apparatus,” Nick Groom notes in his introduction to Oxford University Press’s new edition of the classic. “His sister, Helen, would recall that he would, as she put it, ‘practise electricity upon us’. He used to make all the family sit around the dining room table holding hands, and he’d turn up with some brown paper, a bottle and a wire and they’d all get electrocuted.” On one occasion Percy even threatened to electrocute the son of his scout at Oxford University.