Essay: Plotinus and the Foundations of Platonism

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Essay: Plotinus and the Foundations of Platonism

Postby Aum » Tue Jan 07, 2014 5:02 am

Perhaps I should have posted this before I posted the essay on Christianity and Paganism, since the latter was written as something of a reply to this - but both assume the reader is well acquainted with the ideas discussed within.

Maybe someone here has dabbled in Plotinus/Platonism?

In any case, here's another essay, in case someone might find something worthwhile in it.

ॐ ~*~ ॐ


This essay will offer a basic, Plotinian account of the soul’s departure from, and return to, its unitive knowledge of itself in the One. We will begin with hypostasis Soul’s creative outpouring of itself from Divine Mind (Intellect), and then account for how this outpouring paves the way for the individual soul to descend from divine mind into a time-bound body. We will then identify the driving force of its descent within the soul itself, as its own will to separation, and briefly consider how the soul may become aware of the nature of this will, with particular regard to how it relates itself to Time (form, matter, temporality). Finally, we will offer an account of how the soul may resist and overcome its will to separation by turning inward and withdrawing back into itself, where ultimately it may return to its unitive knowledge of itself in the Supreme.

The Soul hypostasis gave birth to the temporal order, according to Plotinus, for it “contained an unquiet faculty, […] and it could not bear to retain within itself all the dense fullness of its possession” (III, 7, 11). So it stirred from its repose in eternity and Intellect, and went forth out of itself to bring the Cosmos into being. At the same moment, Soul “laid aside eternity and clothed itself with time” (III, 7, 11)—thus “the origin of Time, clearly, is to be traced to the first stir of the Soul’s tendency towards the production of the sensible Universe” (III, 7, 12). So we see Time itself begins with this Soul-Movement, and this movement makes the individual soul’s descent into time possible, “for Time itself is a descent from Eternity” (III, 7, 7), which is to say it sets the stage for the descent of individual Soul.

We recall in the Phaedrus how there is something in the soul that is responsible for its shedding of wings. Prior to its descent, the soul consciously participates in and forms an intimate union with divine mind, of which it is an image. And according to Plotinus, even after its descent into Time, its higher phase abides there in eternity. Nevertheless, “there comes a stage at which souls descend from the universal to become partial and self-centered” (IV, 8, 4)—which is to say another part of the soul sheds its wings, and separates itself from the universal and divine; and though its loftier part abides eternally in divine mind, its lower part is driven out of itself toward form and matter, time and temporality, where it establishes its sense of separation. Thus the soul falls from its purified state of divine union, simultaneously coming to inhabit both time and eternity; and its descent into time effectively veils eternity from its sight, so it effectively loses itself in the temporal order—in other words, it loses its eternal self in time.

Plotinus proceeds to inquire about the nature of this lower part of the soul, and opens V.1 with the following question—“what can it be that has brought the souls to forget the father, God, and, though members of the Divine and entirely of that world, to ignore at once themselves and It?” Indeed, what is the nature of this lower entity that has brought us here, and where is its ground? Plotinus’ answer is self-will, in the will to be individual and separate: “the evil that has overtaken them has its source in self-will, […] in the primal differentiation with the desire for self-ownership” (V.1.1). Self-willfulness, then, essentially the will to separation and self-ownership, is the demonic principle and source of evil within us, according to Plotinus, as well as the cause of our shedding of wings and descent from above. Just as the hypostasis Soul stirred from its repose in eternity and went forth out of itself, likewise the individual Soul stirs out of its repose, and goes forth out of itself, descending from eternity toward things and beings of a lower temporal order—and its own will to separation drives it to do so. Naturally, then, a soul whose longing it is to return to its lofty origins in divine mind would be wise, it would seem, to try and understand that which has brought it down in the first place. Indeed, for this demonic will to separation is that which must be understood and overcome if the soul is to return to its unitive knowledge of itself in the pure light of the One. So let us examine this tempter and self-willer within the soul, so perhaps we might better understand its nature, how it operates (in time), and how it attempts to ground itself (in time).

To say it again, an ‘unquiet faculty’ stirs hypostasis Soul from its repose in Intellect, causing it to go forth out of itself and give birth to Time. Likewise, an unquiet faculty in the individual soul stirs it from its own repose in eternity, driving it out of itself and into a body, in which it is seduced by and lost to itself in Time—for there is a chronically restless, stirring, self-willing part of the soul that wills its own separation in Time, which is simultaneously a will to separation from repose in the present moment. It is perhaps also the reason why many find silent meditation so difficult, as it is precisely that lower will to separation which actively avoids meditative stillness and repose. This restless something, to establish its sense of separation, urges the soul to seek an identity for itself in the material world, outward in form, matter, Time. It seeks to create and sustain this separate identity for itself in Time, and does so by means of its activity and attachments within it; all of its bodily cravings and aversions, all and everything that belongs to its memory or anticipation, at bottom its past and future itself—in short, there is a lower demon of the soul that selfishly clings to its own identity and separateness in Time, for this self and its separateness are grounded in Time, and obtain only in Time. Indeed, it “can have no permanence except by attachment, by living in that other” (V, 1, 8 ), and thus it stirs the soul in anxiety and restlessness on account of its own inherent impermanence, driving the soul out of its repose in the eternal present and into active contact with time and temporality. But let us here acknowledge that we are merely touching on a very subtle and complicated matter, and whole books have been written on the psychological intricacies and dynamics involved in describing inner life. Our intent here is simply to highlight the struggle itself, and how it concerns the soul’s aspirations to ascend and return to its unitive knowledge of itself in Repose.

The soul, then, must return to the Repose from which it and all things came, but the soul cannot ascend to Repose so long as its demon is constantly stirring and disturbing its peace from within, effectively keeping it fettered in Time. Somehow it must rise up and overcome its lower nature, its self-willfulness, but this overcoming is far easier said that done, for indeed “the sternest and the uttermost combat is set before the Souls” (I, 6, 7). The demon and its attachments aren’t easily set aside and discarded—it’s literally hanging on for dear life—and thus neither does self-willfulness. But self-willfulness is precisely that which keeps a soul’s divinity veiled from its sight, and is therefore that which the soul must somehow learn to renounce and overcome. In order to renounce self-will, and purify ourselves of our attachments, Plotinus tersely instructs us to “eliminate everything,”—“he that has the strength, let him arise and withdraw into himself, foregoing all that is known by the eyes” (I, 6, 8 ). In other words, he is telling us to cast away everything alien (temporal) that we’ve attached to our souls in our descent from eternity; to turn away from all we’ve known, made, acquired, inherited, failed, and accomplished in Time; renounce all and everything under the umbrella of ‘I, me, mine’—desires, possessions, loves, hates, fears, doubts, grudges, regrets—in a word, let it all go, for only in renouncing everything will the soul be purified and made worthy of its reunion in the pure light of the One. But to say it again, letting go and becoming pure is easier said than done.

One tip Plotinus offers aspiring souls is to develop the art of forgetfulness. Since a soul bound for eternity must purify itself of everything having anything at all to do with time, and therefore of the entirety of its past, one can see how the ability to deliberately forget everything at the drop of a hat could be an indispensable means to this end—thus, “the more urgent the intention toward the Supreme, the more extensive will be the soul’s forgetfulness” (IV, 3, 32). A soul capable of forgetting everything at the drop of a hat is a soul thereby free in detachment from the weight of its past, and thus more easily turns inward and casts itself into its heights within. Indeed, while not alone sufficient—since ultimately both past and future veil the Supreme from our sight—it would seem that the ability to forget and let go of the past at will is a tremendous and necessary step toward blessed reunion with the divine.

Additionally, while Plotinus may not make explicit mention of it, it would seem a kind of humble strength and courage may be found in taking Socratic ignorance to heart, in earnest, as an inner recognition and experience of objective uncertainty. While forgetting assists the aspiring soul in renouncing the past, it also needs to renounce its future, with regard to which death is perhaps the greatest unknown, tomorrow being no guarantee; and ultimately knowledge itself must somehow be jettisoned in the soul’s ascent to eternity. This may in part be why submitting to one’s ignorance of oneself can be so powerful, and another reason why it is so intimately associated with wisdom: in facing objective ignorance and uncertainty with regard to the entirety of the temporal realm, the humbled soul may grasp at once the futility in the cravings and aversions of its lower nature, and see through the seductiveness of time and the material world, whereupon it may cast off and turn away from its myriad attachments therein. It may even instill the courage to turn face to face with the great unknown itself, for courage “is but being fearless of the death which is but the parting of the Soul from the body, an event which no one can dread whose delight is to be his unmingled self” (I, 6, 6). Thus, the soul aspiring to return to Repose cannot dread death, for death the necessary means by which the soul is purified and made worthy of its return; and nothing having anything whatsoever to do with Time may be taken with the soul to its reunion with the Supreme in Repose, that which is an utter absence of things. So indeed, an intrepid yet humble courage is demanded of the earnest seeker, for only with that kind of courage can a soul turn face to face with its own uncertainty and death, and thereby liberate itself from all anxiety and worry about yesterday and tomorrow. Therefore the soul must ‘eliminate everything’ and die to everything it has put on in its descent—cast it all aside, Plotinus tells us, and “there is the All within you” (VI, 5, 12).

Nevertheless, Plotinus also tells us that the All cannot be actively sought, and the soul cannot will itself to its blessed Vision. No, the soul can only make itself as fit and pure as possible, jettisoning everything it can of its temporal self, and then wait quietly, patiently—for impatience is a sure sign that one is not yet fully present, still trapped in the mires of time—“we must wait quietly for its appearance, as the eye waits on the rising of the sun, which on its own time appears” (V, 5, 8 ). But here Plotinus seems to be hinting at our dependence on a form of grace, though in other places he seems to strongly suggest the contrary, as in his treatise on Beauty: “now call up your confidence, strike forward yet a step—you need a guide no longer—strain, and see” (I, 6, 9). It would certainly seem that some combination of effort and patience is demanded of the earnest seeker, though it’s unclear how much a soul can accomplish on its own, and how much it may be dependent on the grace of that which it seeks. It may even be a matter of how deeply aware the soul is of itself with respect to what is and what is not within its own willpower. In any case, it is a particularly challenging movement, riddled with difficulty, for self-renunciation itself seems almost circular—ego must renounce ego—and it seems that even a desire for the Vision itself has a way of getting in the way, so to speak, but we digress.

Since perfect Repose is uniquely characteristic of the One—supposing anything at all can be said to be ‘uniquely characteristic’ of the One—the soul aspiring to see and become like the One must return to repose in eternity, for the soul must become like that to which it aspires—pure, unmoved, self-contained, complete—for ultimately it aspires to unitive knowledge of that very thing. While time is a ‘moving image’ of eternity, endlessly dividing itself into past and future, eternity itself is forever present in the Here and Now. Eternity is timelessly present everywhere, and therefore the soul must rise above and overcome its yesterday and tomorrow, so to become present to itself in the Here and Now, and ultimately in the One. How, then, does the soul approach the Here and Now, so to become present to itself? It must learn to turn inward and sink itself into stillness within, quieting its own activity, silencing its memory and anticipation; and as its inner activity quiets and grows increasingly tranquil, the soul ascends, gradually approaching the silence of Repose as by an asymptote. “If, then, Soul withdrew, sinking itself again into its primal unity, Time would disappear” (III, 7, 12)—it would disappear into the Here and Now, for utter silence becomes utter presence, or Repose, and in Repose past and future dissolve into an eternal Now. Nevertheless, silence also carries the dialectic of separation (between self and other) to its utter limit, at the paradox between the divine and the demonic: for in the soul, silence is both of these. Indeed, divine silence itself is “guarded by the fear of losing the self in the desire of a too wide awareness" (V, 8, 11)—thus the more inwardly silent one keeps, the more restless and terrible the demon becomes—increasingly as it approaches its own dissolution (death) in the silence of eternity—but utter silence (Repose) is also the soul’s communion with the Supreme.

When at last the soul reaches the divine silence, and is purified of its attachments in Time, “the Soul, outside, circles around the Intellectual¬ Principle, and by gazing upon it, seeing into the depths of It, through It sees God” (I, 8, 2). It once again ascends to Divine Mind, and beholds the Intellectual Principle in all its majesty and splendor; there it sees a perfect image of itself in that Principle, and there it possesses the entirety of the Principle itself. But even then, the soul remains in a state of duality as a knower beholding a known; for Intellect itself is a unified multiplicity and an image of the One, and thus the soul hasn’t yet turned toward highest, the Supreme, the One beyond Being—so “now let him ignore that image, lovely though it is, and sink into a perfect self-¬identity, no such separation remaining; at once he forms a multiple unity with the God silently present; in the degree of his power and will, the two become one; should he turn back to the former duality, still he is pure and remains very near to the God; he has but to look again and the same presence is there" (V, 8, 11). Here the soul is in absolute Repose, unified with its object, unified with the All in the Supreme Light of the One. Here it comes to a final, unitive knowledge of itself as identical with the Supreme from which it and all things come: “we are most completely aware of ourselves when we are most completely identified with the object of our knowledge" (V, 8, 11). In turning away from duality and toward its union with the One, the soul gives up even its eternal self in the Clear Light of the Void, coming to a state of pure, undifferentiated awareness. To know oneself, then, is to know one’s final union and identity with the divine Ground of all Being.


Work Cited:

Plotinus, Stephen Mackenna, and John M. Dillon. The Enneads. London, England: Penguin, 1991. Print.
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