Ancient History & Civilisation

Plotinus

The outstanding philosopher of the age was Plotinus, of whose life we learn from his pupil and biographer Porphyry (Malchus) of Tyre or Batanea. Born in AD 205, perhaps at Lycopolis in upper Egypt, Plotinus turned to philosophy at the age of twenty-seven, and worked for eleven years at Alexandria under Ammonius Saccas. A self-taught mystery man and renegade Christian, whose claim to reconcile Plato and Aristotle was characteristic of the age, Ammonius was reported to have interested Plotinus in Persian and Indian philosophy, so that he joined a Roman military expedition against Persia (242–3), hoping to come into contact with eastern philosophers.82 The endeavour was unsuccessful, and Plotinus settled in Rome to teach philosophy, remaining there – in favour with Gallienus and his cultivated court – until a short time before his death, when he retired to Campania (269–70).

His instruction, which extended beyond philosophy to music and mathematics, took the form not of preaching but of investigation through seminar and discussion. During the last seventeen years of his life, Plotinus began to record these tutorials in a series of philosophical essays written in Greek and intended primarily as guidance for his pupils. Porphyry collected the essays together and eventually published them in c. 301. His arrangement, in six books or Enneads (groups of nine), is rather unnatural and confused; to find Plotinus’ full thought on any subject one has to go through the whole work, and even then, though no apparent chronological development of thought emerges, there are unresolved tensions and variations of emphasis, as he continually re-handled the great central questions, always from different points of view and in relation to different types of queries and objections.

Plotinus saw living reality as a complex, ordered hierarchical structure which continuously proceeds from its transcendent First Principle, the One or Good, descending in an unbroken succession of stages or realities from this supreme power through the Divine Mind and then the Soul to the last and lowest reality, the Body. All these are intimately connected in the equilibrium of a great and ultimately homogeneous Whole, comparable to a series of concentric rings surrounding the parent One.33

Within this living, organic cosmos, in which none of the parts are cut off from one another by any insuperable barrier, there are two great movements – an outgoing downward surge from the One, and an upward return. All Being comes from the overspill and automatic creativity of the infinite immaterial One, ground of all existence, which is also the Good and the source of all values. Perfection, by a necessary reflex act, emits radiations and emanations which determine and generate the lower realities, and continually bring their different, ordered levels of activity into being.

The activity of life flows from the One as from a spring. Picture a spring that has no origin, that pours itself into all rivers without becoming exhausted of what it yields, and remains what it is, undisturbed. The streams that issue from it, before flowing away each in its own direction, mingle together for a time, but each knows already where it will take its flood. Not a plurality, it is the source of plurality.84

This procession moves on its majestic, everlasting path by self-contemplation. It is by contemplating itself, like Aristotle’s Mind which becomes what it thinks, that the One generates a spontaneous self-giving and outpouring that makes Plotinus’ spiritual world ‘a place boiling with life, where infinite power surges eternally in a carefree spontaneity, without plan or need, into a splendid superabundance of living forms’.

Nor is this only a downward rush from the One. In the eternal dance of the universe there is always a double momentum: and this downward surge and radiation and procession are accompanied eternally by a simultaneous upward impetus – an uprising towards union and simplification within the One.

This is the dynamic metaphysical landscape of the universe. It is also the pattern of the individual human being whose condition is the counterpart of the cosmic order and procession. Men’s life, like the universe, is an upward yearning urge; the religion of Plotinus is the endeavour to actualise within ourselves the universal impulse of return to the One. ‘I am striving’, said Plotinus on his deathbed, ‘to give back the divine which is in me to the divine in the universe.’ Man can realise his true self by voluntary self-identification with the source. Plotinus’ levels of human consciousness and achievement are the equivalents or projections of cosmic reality on the psychological plane.

Plotinus, marking a new stage in Plato’s six-hundred-year-old inheritance of idealism, is known as the first of the Neoplatonists. But he owed much to an earlier philosophical movement which we know as Middle Platonism. For centuries the principal preoccupations of philosophy had been ethical, especially under the influence of the Stoics, whose tradition Marcus Aurelius still upheld (p. 134). But shortly before AD 100 the Middle Platonists, absorbing influences from a wide variety of different systems, had begun to restore metaphysics, instead of ethics, to the pride of place it had enjoyed before the age of Stoic primacy.35

But this was Platonism with a difference of emphasis, for what was now stressed was its religious element, its thoughts of a supreme, transcendent principle or God or Good at the head of the hierarchy of being. This supreme principle was quite separated from the world, which it neither contacted nor controlled. In order, therefore, to introduce controlling and linking forces the Middle Platonists followed up older ideas that there is an intermediate power or powers (p. 209): and it was in this general tradition that Plotinus created his own four-fold hierarchy of One, Mind, Soul and Body.

But these heritages are welded together into vivid coherence by the powerful stamp of his own genius. The One, as he conceived it, is beyond thought or definition or language: it inhabits ‘summits where reason, bewildered as in a storm, forsakes even thought’. This is Platonic transcendence, but it has a unique ultimate otherness beyond Plato’s Good. Since, however, the One exceeds human understanding, its descriptions are often phrased in terms of what it is not. The One is unmoved, without origin or quality or quantity or intelligence; it is unworldly, infinite, the negation of all number, beyond movement or space or time.36 ‘As the One begets all things, it cannot be any of them.’ And yet, by a supreme paradox, the One is also the very opposite to negation, for it is super-abundant reality; absolute, single, pure and simple goodness. ‘When you think of it as Mind or God, it is still more. It is not thought, for there is no otherness in it. For what would it think about? Itself? But then it would need thought to know itself, it which is self-sufficient!’37 Plotinus’ One, seen sometimes as impersonal and sometimes almost as a personified deity, is nearer than anything else in Greek philosophy to the Christian God. Yet, in contrast to Christianity, this is not a power that concerns itself with human beings or the world, except in so far as it is man’s ultimate goal.

He surpassed even Middle Platonism by the thoroughness which he removed the One beyond and outside all categories and orders of being. To express its limitless perfection, Plotinus, averse from mechanistic conceptions of the Universe, made use of symbols and images of brightness and colour. The One is described in terms of Light; and in these very same years the fundamental principles of Mani were Light and Darkness (p. 201). To explain the action of the One, Plotinus draws and enlarges upon Plato’s metaphors of a refulgent luminosity. The Stoics, too, had thought of a single organic unity held together by the Divine Fire, and he owed much to their dynamic vitalism. ‘Fire is beautiful in a pre-eminent degree beyond all other bodies’; it is ‘light above light’, and ‘a parable of the One may be found in the Sun’.38 The One’s eternal engendering and emanation is like the Sun which generates its own encircling light, while itself remaining unchanged and undiminished (P. 175).

And yet, in accordance with Plotinus’ insistence that the structure of the Universe is the structure of human beings as well (p. 141), the One is not only at large, but individual human beings have the potentiality of unification with it. For the One is not only the infinite enlargement of each individual, it is also ‘within him, at the innermost depth39 … The One is absent from nothing and from everything. But it is present only to those who are prepared for it and are able to receive it, to enter into harmony with it, to grasp and to touch it by virtue of their likeness to it.’40 Remote though he is, man is capable of the effort of climbing to this height and uniting himself with the One; and the whole philosophy of Plotinus seeks to animate man’s dulled sense of the supernatural and bring us back to our true nature and our source.

The next principle below the One in the eternal procession is Mind. Plotinus’ conviction that this material world is ordered by divine intelligence was the religion of the cosmos founded by Plato – for half a millennium some variety of the belief had been the faith of most thoughtful men of religion. But, rather as St Thomas Aquinas recast Aristotle, Plotinus rewove the various strands of Plato’s thought,41 and the Platonic Mind emerges from this process as distinct from the One. Instead it is the first and highest reality derived from the One’s everlasting creativeness – a new version of the intermediary which current doctrines needed in order to associate transcendency with lower realms. By the analogy of the self-contemplation of the One, Mind is likewise both thought and the object of thought, thinking ever at unity with what it thinks, thought thinking itself. And this, like Plotinus’ other realities, takes place at the two levels of the universe and the human being. Mind is an eternal lucidity of intellect as a single pure thought-force of timeless apprehension; and yet it is also split into the multiplicity of mortal minds, a plurality in unity, individual as well as universal, minds expressing themselves in the highest cognitive process of intuition or spiritual perception.

Below Mind is the universal Soul, which being weaker (though still eternal) must apprehend its objects not as a whole but successively and severally – and this creates the Time and Space that are the framework of our own world. Since it is beneath Mind and above Body and forms the link between them, Soul, looking upwards, is the order and intelligent direction emanating from Mind; and looking downwards it becomes the immanent principle of living organisms, the framework of universal sympathy. It is to Plotinus more than anyone else that we owe a definite doctrine of spiritual existence, and his super-corporeal world is intensely real and vivid. And yet, when we have come down to this reality that is below the One and the Mind, there is already a lack of the sparkling momentum of the heights. Like One and Mind, Soul contemplates and is contemplated by itself, subject at one with object; but its contemplation is of the last and lowest sort, a kind of dream.

Yet its dual pattern is the same as Mind’s. It is again universal, but there is also again a plurality of individual souls. The sphere of these, however, is not the high intuitive thought practised by mind, but thought of a less elevated, discursive type – reasoning and sensation, imagination and the world of ideas. Soul informs and unites the whole human organism. It is the most significant part of man, who in his normal state exists on the level of the soul; and this Plotinian assertion has found its way into the Christian tradition.

So has the emphasis on the plurality and autonomy of every individual mind and soul. For each individual is himself in his own right.42 Analysis of this self is the heart of Plotinus’ doctrine and the field of his most original discoveries. ‘What am I ?’ For there was a crisis of identity in the vast, tumultuous Roman empire as in the teeming communities of our own western world. Plotinus’ answer is based upon the two-way stance of the Soul. In the universal sphere, this was not only the author of nature’s life and growth below but the direct emanation of mind above; and as individuals, too, we at our highest are soul perfectly formed after the likeness of mind,43 operating with conscious and self-conscious determination. This tract of personality, beyond the everyday reach of lower purposes, is what Plotinus discovered and cherished in man. To him the individual is not a helpless product; the Will emphasised by Marcus Aurelius is now seen in a new philosophical and psychological setting.

Yet he was also, as far as we know, the first philosopher (or psychotherapist) to explain how the individual soul, at its lower level or subdivision analogous to the dreamlike downward looking aspect of the universal Soul, operates unconsciously. Anticipating Freud’s distinction between the Psyche and the Ego, Plotinus knew that there are some motions of our souls which ‘remain in the appetitive part and are unknown to us’,44 and that we possess, moreover, permanent dispositions which can pull strongest when we are least aware of them. Intellectual, conscious life is not our only life. Our personal identity is unstable, and fluctuates with the ebb and flow of consciousness; we live on the border-line between two worlds.

That is to say, our souls in their higher and self-conscious phase reflect our divine minds, whereas in their lower role they generate and combine with body.45 Individual souls are heavenly entities, but in this inferior capacity they inhabit visible corporeal matter. When this happens, when soul is lodged in body, it is a misfortune. Plotinus has come a long way from the classical idea that man lives in the material world in order to master it; man is in it because he is obliged to be, whereas his real concerns are with higher things. Although there is the continual, Plotinian two-way traffic between soul and body, this sharp division between the spritual and corporeal worlds had never been so clearly expressed and so strongly felt by a philosopher before. Porphyry noted that his master ‘seemed ashamed to be in a body’.

Plotinus’ notes, as they have come down to us, betray a hesitation whether the universal soul’s descent to form matter, and the individual soul’s corresponding descent into body, come about from necessity or from choice; and whether such a process is a Fall or, on the contrary, a good and necessary factor of the universal order. This hesitation is part of a fundamental conflict in his thought. At times Plotinus appears to be a dualist like his contemporary Mani, asserting that matter is darkness and the principle of evil, cause of the weakness of the good light inhabiting the soul (p. 201).46 But Plotinus only sees matter as evil because it is negative. This low, last reflection of the soul is the mere principle of want and negation, absolute formlessness, and abstract receptacle of corporeal events. That is why the soul, on becoming subject to matter, suffers ‘the impact of the shapeless’. And so evil, too, in anticipation of Karl Barth and existentialists, is not a Gnostic, Manichaean second power, but non-Being, chaotic, the dead end of the creative process: a lack, a privation, a nonentity. It is not only unreal but the very essence of unreality; unordered, formless disintegration.47

Given this negative nature of evil, it was possible for Plotinus still to hold that human bodies need not be entirely submerged and restricted by the evil that they contain, and are not, in fact, wholly evil themselves.48 For however distinct and remote the two may have become, the body is still the emanation of the soul and therefore, more indirectly, emanation of the mind and the One from which it comes. The body is part of the living organic Whole to which all these higher realities belong, a reflection and image of the intelligible pattern it unconsciously strives to imitate.

So this world of the senses is essential to the nature of things, regrettable and vexatious no doubt, yet requiring to be accepted without impatience or repulsion or denial.

The body is a living being, but a very imperfect one, which makes its own life difficult since it is the worst of living things, ill-conditioned and savage, made of inferior matter, a sort of sediment of the prior realities, bitter and embittering. Then are the evils in the Whole necessary? If they did not exist, the Whole would be imperfect. Most of them, even all of them, contribute something useful to the Whole – poisonous snakes do, for instance – though generally the reason why they exist is obscure. Even moral evil itself has many advantages and is productive of much excellence, for example all the beauty of art, and rouses us to serious thought about our way of living, not allowing us to slumber complacently.49

Since, therefore, matter and the body for all their defects are part of the general harmony, Plotinus attacks the thoroughgoing, pessimistic Gnostic dualists who, adopting the doctrines which Plotinus so narrowly avoided, regarded the entire material universe as evil. He declares their beliefs irrational, inconsistent, arrogant and subversive, a tragedy of terrors. These are the strong words with which a man criticises those who go only a little further than himself. For Plotinus was entirely at one with the Gnostics in believing that our most urgent task is to escape from the darkness and evil that matter contains. Granted that the visible world contains goodness and nobility, it must none the less be renounced for a better.50 This is possible just because human bodies are images of this better, higher existence. Plotinus’ whole moral teaching is directed towards leading the soul, emancipated and purified, out of the material world and back to its original state of awareness, where it will live as though out of the body.

The process by which this can be done is contemplation, which is not only the machinery of the universe but the means by which the individual can realise himself (p. 141). ‘Turn from the things without to look within. The sum of things is within us.’51 We can only know the spiritual universe by finding it inside ourselves. Earlier philosophers had already understood that the need for contemplation is present in every human being. Plato stressed that our aim should be the contemplation of absolute beauty, Aristotle saw contemplation as the blessed life,62 and Marcus Aurelius felt strongly the personal necessity of such withdrawal (p. 137). But it was Plotinus above all who drove men in upon themselves and shifted emphasis from the beauty of the heavens and the world to the need for habitual contact with the inner being. Inward-turning contemplation is the only true reality. ‘If one does not look in this way, one finds nothing.’53

By means of dynamic, all-powerful contemplation, corporeal opaqueness and space-time are thought away into irrelevance and nothingness, and we do not only see and know the higher, true realities, but we become at one with them and the same. This is not only vision, it is union.

‘Anyone who attains to this contemplates himself and everything else and is the object of his contemplation; he does not look at it any more from outside.’ Consequently, to ask whether this ultimate perfection is transcendent or immanent becomes meaningless, because the two words are now indistinguishable. Just as the universe at large shows each level of reality creating emanations when it contemplates itself (p. 140), so likewise this occurs in the individual also; here too there is no longer any distinction between subject and object. ‘We ought not even to say that he will see, but he will be that which he sees. There is nothing between: they are no longer two, but one.’54 And this is the very essence of life, because Plotinus, in one of philosophy’s most violent paradoxes, sees contemplation as creation.

Plotinus believed that he personally experienced this mystical union, alone with the lone. In the words of Porphyry,

So to this godlike man, who often raised himself in thought (according to the ways Plato teaches in the Symposium) to the First and Transcendent God, that God appeared who has neither shape nor any intelligible form, but is throned above intellect and all the intelligible. Four times while I was with him he attained that end, in an unspeakable actuality and not in potency only.55

And so there came to Plotinus this sudden instantaneous, unplanned, unexpected, unforeseeable, impersonal feeling of a presence.56 First he was drained empty of everything; and then, after a premonitory shock he was overrun by a blessed fullness – a joyous stupor. Yet his self was not possessed or replaced or obliterated, but seemed instead to have been awakened or reawakened to what it really was. For this is no dualist, Manichaean liberation from one world into another but a discovery or rediscovery, no Christian supernatural grace or redemption but a natural event. Indeed the power to become aware of the presence ‘belongs to all men-though few use it’,57 and the condition is only occasionally and momentarily achieved. It is not merely a deep absorption, a very high firm of contemplation, but an unmatchable ‘other kind of seeing, a being out of oneself, a simplifying, a self-surrender’.58 Plotinus appears to be the first to have used the term ecstasis, a being out of oneself, for this transformation. But the term could be misleading, for it might seem to deny the unitive effect of the experience, which Plotinus also called enosis, the momentary revelation of an eternal, potential Oneness.

He has risen beyond the abstract propositions of the philosophers to attain the heights about which they had hinted for so long. Out of eight hundred pages of his teachings, only twenty or thirty touch on this mystic theme. In these passages he tries again and again to find some form of words for what has happened to him. ‘There, in the solitude of self, one beholds simplicity and purity, the existent upon which all depends, towards which all look, by which reality is, life is, thought is. For the Good is the cause of life, of thought, of being.’

How can one describe the absolutely simple ? It is enough if the intellect comes into contact with it: but when it has done so, while the contact lasts it is absolutely impossible, nor has it time, to speak; reasoning about it comes afterwards.

One must believe one has seen, when the soul suddenly takes light; for this light is from him, and he is it. The soul which does not see him is without light: 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. 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.… There were not two, but the seer himself was one with the seen; for it was not really seen, but united to him. He was one himself then, with no distinction in him either in relation to himself or anything else; for there was no movement in him, and he had no emotion, no desire for anything else when he had made the ascent, no reason or thought; his own self was not there for him, if we should say even this. He was as if carried away or possessed by a god, in a quiet solitude, in the stillness of his being turning away to nothing and not busy about himself, altogether at rest and having become a kind of rest.59

The motive power of this transfiguration is understood by Plotinus, not as curiosity or self-interest, but as Love – the deep-seated desire of the soul for its source, its striving after contact and conjunction. ‘It is that union’, he says, ‘which earthly lovers imitate when they would be one flesh; the soul merges with the divinity in an upward rush of love.’60 This yearning movement towards coalescence derives from the sympathy naturally existing between the different parts of the universe – the pervasive bond which establishes the continuity between all things. It is true and perfect Love, because it no longer limits itself to an illusory fixed object – we have limitless love for the Good because it is limitless. This is the Greek Eros (p. 125) raised to a supersensual sphere, Plato’s ineffable intuition of the beautiful and ‘madness of love’, experienced in all its purity and blazing strength.61

Seeing, with what love and desire for union one is seized – what wondering delight!… flooded with an awesome happiness, stricken by a salutary terror! All loves but this he must despise and all that once seemed fair he must disdain. All other beauties are imports, are alloys. They are not primal. This is true and primal beauty that graces its lovers and makes them worthy of love. The one who does not attain to it is life’s unfortunate – not the one who has never seen beautiful colours or beautiful bodies or has failed of power and of honours and of kingdoms. He is the true unfortunate who has not seen this beauty and he alone.62

When in that state, the soul would exchange its present condition for nothing in the world, though it were offered the kingdom of all the heavens. For this is the Good, and there is nothing better.

But the dialectic of love is not only an aesthetic and mystic experience ; it is the intellectual basis of a philosophy.63 Plotinus’ ecstasy is the climax of intense thought, ascending upwards and flooding inwards by the most strenuous cerebration. Although the borders between a philosopher and a mystic and man of religion had become blurred, the approach of Plotinus is neither physiological like easterners, nor sacramental like Christians, nor based on drugs like modern seekers after psychedelic experience, but intellectual in the rational Hellenic tradition. Any revelations that might be achieved by other means, for example the ‘special’ miraculous illuminations of the Gnostics, had no value for him.64

Mystical union is not the substitute for intellectual effort, but its crown and goal. Only by rigorous mental exercise and inward effortful self-discipline shall we realise our potential likeness and amalgamation with the One.

If it comes to contemplation purblind with vice, impure, weak, without the strength to look upon brilliant objects, the soul then sees nothing even if it is placed in the presence of an object that can be seen. For the eye must be adapted to what is to be seen, have some likeness to it, if it would give itself to contemplation. No eye that has not become like the Sun will ever look upon the Sun; nor will any that is not beautiful look upon the beautiful.65

We advance towards the Good by ‘the sternest and uttermost combat’.

And then, the almost unimaginable reward. As the upland air becomes ever more rarified and brilliant, the aspirant comes close to his destination. The One is just above him, already shining over the whole intelligible world. Then, letting all study go, he is carried out of that which he is by the very surge of the wave of Mind and, lifted high by its swell, suddenly sees without knowing how. ‘Have you become like this ? Do you see yourself, abiding within yourself, in pure solitude? Does nothing now remain to shatter that interior unity, nor anything external cling to your authentic self? Are you entirely that sole true light, greater than all measure and something more than all quantity? Then you have become vision itself. Be of good heart. Remaining here, you have ascended aloft. You need a guide no longer. Strain, and see.’66

These are not merely rhetorical or poetic descriptions of contemplation at its highest pitch. They are authentic accounts of the overcoming, or believed overcoming, of all barriers between the individual and the absolute, by a process of transfusion and communion and identification. This mystical conviction presupposes and asserts a deeper harmony and unity in the world and the universe than science recognises, a supreme Oneness to which reason and the senses cannot penetrate – an intimate interlocking of everything in an interdependence comparable, say, to the attraction of gravitational fields. Mysticism affirms the possibility of making a supra-conscious contact, indescribably intimate and direct, with this seemingly ultimate reality – time, space and self obliterated, all passion spent, and the multiplicity of things reduced to the merest shadows. The experience can take two forms: extrovertive nature mysticism, looking outward to the One behind phenomena and annulling their external separateness so that the One shines through them all; and introvertive activity, looking inward into the mind and shutting off the senses to plunge into the depths of self. To Plotinus, the two processes go together: expansion is the accompaniment of concentration.

Every person is potentially Mind at large. True, we must during normal circumstances, in order to survive, exercise the eliminative function of our senses and reduce our awareness. But at rare times an occasional individual can regain the archetypal world of Mind, and recapture the rhythm which has been escaping him. ‘Our normal consciousness is only one special type: all about it lie potential forms of entirely different consciousness, parted from it by the filmiest of screens.’67 Entry into these normally inaccessible regions may come, as it came to Plotinus, with a shock, quick and sharp, without the mediation of discursive intellect or of the subject’s aims, interests or feelings. The mystic is like the captain of a ship with sealed orders. ‘But when the moment arrives and he tears the envelope open, he only finds an invisible text. Now and then a word becomes visible … then it fades again. He will never know the exact wording of the order.’68 Yet he now thinks and acts as he did not before; he will never be the same again.

To some limited extent, this sort of experience can be brought about by chemical means. Visionary and mystical states have been induced by prolonged shouting and singing and by long suspensions of breath leading to high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the lungs and blood. Other agents of mystical experience are starvation, causing low blood sugar and vitamin deficiency; flagellation, producing histamine and adrenalin intoxication; focal infections and resultant protein decomposition; and any condition productive of insomnia and fever. There is also a very ancient connection between exaltation and hallucinogenic drugs,69 of which lysergic acid (LSD) is at present the most favoured among youthful seekers after the depersonalisations, disintegrations of the ego, and time-disturbances which such chemical holidays can supply. As discussion rages today concerning the attitude which society should adopt towards these drugs, a second and even more fundamental controversy is likely to separate those who see, and those who deny, a clear dividing line between the mystical or hallucinatory experiences induced by drugs on the one hand and by religion on the other (with or without mental sickness as an auxiliary in either case).

The position of Plotinus in this dispute is highly significant and topical, because he shows that there is a further possibility. He is the pioneer of psychedelic experience for the west, but he achieved his end by purely cerebral, intellectual discipline – not by schizophrenia and not by drugs; and not by religion. For Plotinus illustrates the fact that, even if the characteristic condition of mysticism may be linked with any religion, intrinsically it is not religious – the unity it seems to grasp is undifferentiated, and no dogmas or creeds are required. But what is this unity ? Has the recipient of the experience really contracted something outside himself, or has he only touched hitherto unplumbed well-springs within himself? Most believers in religion will, if they can overcome a suspicion of mysticism, take the former view. So will at least some of those adherents of the Perennial Philosophy70 who, though not believing in established religions, maintain that beyond the world of matter and consciousness there is a Divine Ground, which a few human beings can now and then apprehend by direct intuition. Others who believe in no divinity, even in such general terms, will agree with Freud that the whole phenomenon is an inward one; and will conclude, like Delacroix, that St Teresa’s God was the product of her own sub-conscious mind. But whether mystic union goes outward or inward, those to whom the experience has befallen, whatever their religious or social background or time or place, display incontrovertible agreement that a marvel denied to others has been theirs: a vast, luminous and ineffably enchanting splendour has shone upon them. And it is in the tortuous, urgent, exciting pages of Plotinus, striving to express the inexpressible, that the western world, racked by all conceivable political and economic disturbances, was presented with this marvel that made them irrelevant.

However, the moral and social implications of his doctrine have sometimes inspired repugnance. Marcus Aurelius did not suffer fools gladly, and yet he deduced from the Brotherhood of Man, with its universal sharing of the divine spark, an absolute, overriding obligation to serve his fellow-men (p. 137). He would have agreed with Plotinus that the self-discipline he teaches is not for the many. But Plotinus has in mind the additional consideration that mystic union is quite clearly beyond the generality. This was an age that believed in Gnosis, knowledge by revelation to small bands of the initiated and to them alone (p. 197). Plotinus did not accept the Gnostics’ elevation of evil matter to a positive and often equal power, but he did agree with them that only an elite could attain the heights.

‘This is what the command given in those mysteries intends to proclaim, “Do not reveal to the uninitiated”. Because the Divine is not to be revealed, it forbids us to declare it to anyone else who has not himself had the good fortune to see.’71 And consequently, using anti-democratic tones that are not heard in modern parliamentary elections, Plotinus wrote of ‘the vile crowd, mere machines, destined to minister to the first needs of virtuous men’. Very possibly, he added, their rulers are villains, but if so that is the fault of the ruled, because of their lack of courage.72 Human suffering receives this apparently unfeeling treatment because, until the soul rises to a higher plane, such misfortunes form an unavoidable part of the evil which is in the world (p. 145)73 – a necessary element in the great pattern. And yet, according to Porphyry, Plotinus showed much personal and practical kindness; he was a man who cared efficiently for the children of his friends, and whose wise counsel saved Porphyry himself from suicide. And yet, Plotinus maintained, no one has a right to expect good men to help him – any more than God is likely to.74

But suffering, in any case, is something which does not affect true happiness. For the whole sphere of action is merely a shadowy and inferior counterpart of contemplation, suitable to the weak-minded75: statesmen and artists are only philosophers manqués, who project their dream because they cannot live it. Plotinus wanted Gallienus to let him found a Companian community where people should live under Platonic laws: his ideal is ‘a life which takes no delight in the things of the world – escape in solitude to the solitary’. Marcus Aurelius would have liked to live that sort of life, but believed that duty called elsewhere. Nor could he have approved Plotinus’ deduction that public calamities are mere stage shows and comedies.76 ‘The wise man will attach no importance to the loss of his position or even to the ruin of his fatherland’,77 and Plotinus, unlike Plato, was unconcerned with the paramount necessity of imperial defence, even advising his friends to withdraw from public office.78 Moreover, to assert the full paradoxical force of what he meant, even personal bereavement was pronounced acceptable and welcome.

All this is a corollary of the need to concentrate on what is important. Like a sculptor, you must cut away everything that is inessential.79 Yet this withdrawal from society meant no weakening of moral endeavour, for the self-discipline of Plotinus’ path to divine union demanded intense moral as well as intellectual effort. Virtue, as well as knowledge, is needed before the One will be revealed. Teilhard de Chardin, like many earlier Christian mystics and Zen Buddhists, has urged a dedicated, integrated absorption in the world, agreeing that the opposite ideal of withdrawal is ‘a deadly pleasure, inferior in all respects to the joys of action, or to the sacred savour of accomplished duty’.80 To Plotinus, on the other hand, the way of Martha is submerged in the way of Mary; like Pascal he might have added that the world’s evil would be much diminished if men could only learn to sit quietly in their rooms. Evidently, too, the order and breadth of Plotinus’ teaching, and his perception of the harmonious sympathy of the universe, were no bad foundation for the virtues which he himself undoubtedly practised. Moreover, his quest for mystic union needed continual self-abnegation to drive out the folly and ignorance which are barriers to awareness. The mean, the drab and the trivial were far removed from his wondering openness to new ways and possibilities of life.

For Plotinus’ world was no ivory tower but reality at its highest level, raised to its most exalted plane by the intensest concentration on what seemed to him the most real. Plotinus is no unhealthy, sick refugee from the world: to search, as he did, for union with the One is to tackle life with a daring and dedicated brand of realism.

The mystic experience of Plotinus was founded upon an intellectual construction which sprang from the Hellenic past. Plato’s eloquent reachings-out to the indescribable impressed Christians as endeavours ‘to see God face to face’,81 and the idea that God is incomprehensible, only attainable in rare flashes of intuition, has a pedigree in the Platonic school.82

But how far, before Plotinus, such experiences had already been identified or claimed is uncertain. In the fourteenth century BC the Egyptian Akhnaton said he had embraced Aton through a personal revelation, apparently several times. The Hebrew prophet Ezekiel (c. 580 BC) has a hallucinatory quality, perhaps due to epilepsy or long spells of exposure to intense heat. This sort of prophetic vision inspired a mystic rabbinical school in the first and second centuries AD.88 ‘Like persons possessed and corybants, be filled with divine frenzy, even as the prophets are inspired’, urged the Hellenised Jew Philo (d. AD 45); ‘Sometimes I have become full, ideas being in an invisible manner showered upon me … an enjoyment of the light, a most manifest energy.’ Writing on The Contemplative Life,84 Philo seems to anticipate Plotinus by his belief in our capacity to transcend ourselves. Yet his use of the word ecstasis suggests not so much mystic union as the common ancient phenomenon of dissociation and trance-mediumship, with the supernatural seeming to come into the human body (not vice versa), while normal consciousness either still persists unaltered or is temporarily suppressed.

Accounts of the life of Jesus contain no mystic suggestions, but St Paul declared that the Saviour appeared to him.85 This again seems mediumistic, downward visitation rather than upward and inward union; and Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus again does not sound mystical. But Paul was ‘ravished out of fleshly feeling’ and believed himself to have entered the third heaven and heard the unutterable86: ‘I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me.’ This might be a Christ-centred equivalent of the impersonal and not specifically religious experience of Plotinus.

In any case, however, from the first century AD onwards, the knowledge that such experiences could take place received abundant testimony; and tributes to mystical union, bestowed upon an elect, were becoming a substitute for the exhausted or flagging creeds of the Greco-Roman and Hebraic worlds. ‘Through His marvellous mysteries my eye has gazed upon the eternal Being – a saving knowledge which is hidden from the man of knowledge (in the ordinary sense), a wise insight which is hidden from the sons of men; the well-spring of righteousness, the reservoir of strength and the place of glory.… Among mortals God gave it as an eternal possession to those whom He has chosen.’87

The mystery religions, too, were fertile ground for similar experiences: sarcophagi with Dionysian scenes evoke the overpowering joy, the sense of being merged with the god, which was remembered by votaries as life’s richest promise for the hereafter (p. 187). In the apocryphal Gospel of Evea voice of thunder says, ‘I am Thou and Thou art I’ – in the terms of a common formula of Christian, Moslem and Indian mystics. ‘Where thou art’, the Gospel continues, ‘there am I also. I am dispersed in all things: wherever thou wilt, thou dost assemble me, and in assembling me thou dost assemble thyself.’88 This is the description of a mystic philosophy or even experience. So is the assertion of another writer that he ‘has been in the place of rest. If one is called, he is wont to turn to him who calls, and go upward to him.’ And ‘let us rejoice! let us rejoice! let us rejoice!’, proclaims another: ‘We have seen! we have seen! we have seen that which truly was in the beginning!’89 Likewise the Hymn of the Robe of Glory (?c.AD 180) sings lyrically of the soul’s return to the heavenly kingdom where it is restored to its original purity.

At once, as soon as I saw it,

The Glory looked like my own self.

I saw it all in all of me,

And saw me all in all of it –

That we were twain in distinction,

And yet again one in one likeness …

And now with its kingly motions

Was it pouring itself out towards me,

And made haste in the hands of its Givers,

That I might take and receive it.

And me, too, my love urged forward

To run to meet it, to take it.

And I stretched myself forth to receive it;

With its beauty of colour I decked me.90

We read in the Hermetic Corpus (p. 199):

The vision of the Good shines forth much or little according as he who gazes upon it is able to receive the inflow of the incorporeal radiance. The beauty of the Good bathes his mind in light, and takes all his soul up to itself, and draws it forth from the body, and transforms it wholly into the essence of God.… If you do not make yourself equal to God, you cannot apprehend God, for like is apprehended by like. Outleap all body and expand yourself to the unmeasured greatness; outstrip all time and become Eternity; so shall you apprehend God. Embrace in yourself all sensations of all created things, of fire and water, dry and wet; be simultaneously everywhere, on sea and land and in the sky; be at once unborn and in the womb, young and old, dead and beyond death; and if you can hold all these things together in your thought – times and places and substances, qualities and quantities – then you can apprehend God.91

Such threads were gathered together late in the second century AD by the Middle Platonists, with their personal quest for the divinity (p. 141). But particularly influential upon Plotinus was Numenius of Syrian Apamea (c. AD 150–200), who called himself a member of the Pythagorean sect, and yet, since the borders between the schools were ill-defined, heralded much in Middle Platonism. To Numenius, the Supreme Being was indeed remote. Nevertheless very rare and short-lived direct intuition of its presence was possible, by sudden illumination like a blaze of light; and Plotinus often echoed Numenius’ striking account of this process.

One must withdraw far from the things of sense and enter into solitary communion with the Good, where is no human being nor any other creature nor body great or small, but only a kind of divine desolation which in truth cannot be spoken of or described, where are the haunts and resorts and splendours of the Good, and the Good itself at rest in peace and friendliness, the Sovereign Principle riding serene above the tides of Being.92

Numenius may have experienced the mystic exaltation which Plotinus later analysed in even more comprehensive and many-sided terms.

There are detailed analogies between Plotinus and the mysticism of the Hindus. The writers of the Upanishads in the eighth and later centuries BC, searching for an ultimate reality more satisfactory than the Vedic gods of earlier times, had claimed to know by direct intuitive insight the supreme and universal principle. And knowing meant becoming: Thou art that. God is the creator and sustainer of the world, yet the kingdom of God is also within us, underlying, incommensurable, yet attainable by man, who can thus realise his essential instead of merely his superficial nature. ‘Having seen his own self as the Self, he becomes selfless.… When everything is One Self, who can see another, how can he see another?’ – or smell, hear, speak, think, know?93 Brahman is the godhead, ‘all this is Brahman’. The Brahman in man is Atman, and purpose of life, according to Hindu philosophy (from the Vedas onwards), is to eliminate the boundary lines of the particular and realise the Atman within oneself. The experiencer is also the experienced, and Samadhi,beyond the states of waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep, is a fourth kind of consciousness.

Plotinus’ self-discipline is like the psychological exercises prescribed as the very centre and heart of spiritual life by Hindus and the Vedanta movement which continues this mystic trend.94 And Hindu mysticism, herein resembling original Buddhism which was mystic in its very essence,95appears when there is no conception of God at all, or when his existence is a matter of indifference.96 The third and fourth centuries AD were the classical age of Hindu art and literature, and we must ask whether Plotinus’ similarities to these ways of thinking were due to direct contacts. His teacher Ammonius Saccas was said to have interested him in Indian and Persian philosophy (p. 139). Recently, too, writers such as Philostratus, like contemporary novelists, had stressed the importance of Indian lore (pp. 183, 123), introducing his saintly hero Apollonius of Tyana to Hindu sages.97 Nor was it so very long since the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu Song of God expressing the mysticism of action and faith alike, had assumed its final form.

Indeed, such ideas had been filtering through to the west since the time of Alexander the Great and before. Their direct influence upon Plotinus seems to have been slight – since so many of his ideas are explicable from Hellenic traditions, themselves now imbued with eastern thought. Yet in some ways the turn of his thinking has more in common with the Hindus than with later western developments. The Upanishads, like Plotinus, had continually stressed the identity of Supreme Self with individual human selves. Moreover, the mysticism of Plotinus resembles much Indian thought because it is natural and not supernatural and the unity which it apprehends is undifferentiated and not a personal God.

Despite the difficulties which have made them so inaccessible, the Enneads of Plotinus form the vastest and richest synthesis in the whole history of philosophy, and Plotinus himself was the most powerful thinker between Aristotle and Descartes.

During the second half of the third century AD he and other philosophers influenced the climate of opinion sufficiently to inspire two art-forms, the philosophical portrait bust – an ancient ideal revived with a new accent on spirituality – and the philosopher-sarcophagus, bearing reliefs on which the after-life is symbolised by philosophical discovery rather than religious salvation. When Plotinus was dead, his disciple Porphyry, who was more of a theologian, drew upon his words with the conviction that properly interpreted they would add up to an entire system. Hierocles helped to transform Neoplatonism into a comprehensive militant religion with its own saints and miracle-workers, and then Iamblichus of Syrian Chalcis (d. 330), despite insight into mathematics as a physical science,98 added an abstruse, phantasmagoric occultism, based on the ‘higher’ magic known as theurgy and supported by fanatical mobs.

At first Plotinus’ doctrines had been less valued in the east than in the west where they were translated into Latin; but subsequently the centres of the Neoplatonist sect were in Syria and at Alexandria and Athens. The emperor Julian the Apostate (d. 364) embraced the cult as part of his sentimental Hellenism. Its influence was greatest among the conservative aristocracy. But it was also popular in wider circles, for, while allowing cultured minds to soar above the old gods, it retained their worship for ordinary people. Neoplatonism was comfortably receptive and comprehensive, justifying all heathen religions, and seeking out and satisfying all needs – except enquiry and observation.

But in the next generation there was serious trouble between Neoplatonists and Christians. Although accepting salvation by philosophy, Plotinus seemed implicitly to criticise the Christian Saviour who had come down to earth to liberate man and was martyred. He saw the real man as incapable of suffering; and sin too assumed in his doctrine an insubstantial, irrelevant appearance. Accordingly the conflict with Christianity gradually became embittered. Porphyry attacked it violently, and Hierocles, Diocletian’s governor in Bithynia and Egypt, played an active part in persecutions. The Neoplatonists had now become the most determined enemies of the Christian religion; and yet they could not, in the end, compete with its claims because of the over-complexity of their doctrines and the absence of a rival to the dramatic, historical Jesus. Though given a more emotional content by Plotinus’ successors, theirs remained a too intellectual reply.

And yet in spite of this gulf between Neoplatonists and Christians, Plotinus, by a paradox, has made a more profound contribution even than Plato to the philosophy and theology of Christianity: he has influenced its thought more than any other pagan writer. This was partly because St Augustine used him as the bridge from Manichaeanism (which had temporarily converted him to a dualist view of good and evil, p. 203) to Christianity.99 He felt liberated from dualism by Plotinus’ more exhilarating and apparently rational view of evil as the mere absence of the divine – so that there is one true reality only, and that is wholly spiritual.100 Augustine borrowed from Plotinus many beliefs about the Soul and Providence,101 and accepted his emanations (by an effort) as the equivalent of Christian creation; and the One, Mind and Soul seemed pagan previsions of the Trinity.

Augustine also derived from the Enneads at least a glimpse of mystical experience.102 Although this is only a minor thread in Christianity, no single man outside the Bible so inspired Christian mystics as Plotinus. The main intermediary and fountain-head of subsequent developments is the fifth century ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’.103 His daring fusion of Christianity with Neoplatonism, more philosophical and less Christ-centred than later mystic thought, urges the annihilation of self-hood and carries to extremes Plotinus’ via negativa which asserts that no words or qualities can describe the Supreme Being (p. 141). The influence of ‘Dionysius’ on Catholicism was enormous, and his vision of the divine light as an object of desire also inspired later mystics of the Orthodox Church.

Neoplatonism came to the west through Augustine, Dionysius and Syrian Christians who translated Aristotle and other works from Syriac or Greek versions into Arabic (750–900).104 From the twelfth century onwards the ideas of Plotinus became influential in the west through medieval Latin translations of these Arabs and later Neoplatonists.105 Western mysticism then developed, partly as a challenge to the official religious establishment and a call for non-ecclesiastical salvation.

In the thirteenth century there was a powerful Plotinian pattern. St Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) found immaterial Neoplatonist spirit and thought more real than the physical and material world; and towards the end of his life he, too, underwent a mystic experience beside which all else ‘was no better than chaff or straw’.

Eckhart (d. 1327), whose negative way of describing the One was derived from Dionysius and Plotinus,106 combines with the God- or Christ-mysticism characteristic of Christian mystical feeling a more generalised, Neoplatonic attitude: ‘what a man takes in by contemplation, that he pours out in love’. Dante often echoes Plotinus, and his last Canto is a final portrayal of mystic apprehension and, perhaps, experience. Supreme among medieval Neoplatonists was Jan van Ruysbroeck (d. 1381), who describes the introspective union in Plotinian terms of love which is radiant light and yet is also the pure ‘dark silence’, in which all lovers lose themselves. ‘Here, beyond the Polar circle of the mind, the midnight sun reigns over that rolling sea where the psychology of man mingles with the psychology of God.’107

During the Renaissance, Plotinus continued to elevate men’s minds to the eternal. Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Enneads into Latin (1492) influenced not only his compatriots but Edmund Spenser’s Platonic Hymns. Through Ficino, Plotinus is still active in the words of Henry Vaughan (d. 1695):

I saw Eternity the other night

Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,

All calm as it was bright.

Cambridge Platonists of the same epoch grafted Plotinus upon Calvinism, but the Catholic church, between 1700 and 1900, almost purged itself of mystical trends for fear of the undifferentiated godhead. Midway in that period Novalis came upon Plotinus (1798) and admired his belief that matter had no independent reality, and William Blake, who hated Churches but was dogmatically Christian, conveyed urgently through his writings and visionary landscapes that ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite’. But such rare exceptions apart, the fountains of mysticism have steadily diminished everywhere for centuries; the Age of Reason supported ecclesiastical influence in keeping the western world away from these areas of experience.

And yet

Ever and anon a trumpet sounds

From the hid battlements of Eternity,

Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then

Round the half-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again.108

More than eight hundred years ago an Arab called mystics the world’s sustainers, the ultimate source of our spiritual knowledge and the salt which preserves human societies from decay; and now, when the power of reason again seems inconclusive, there have been voices suggesting that the need for this higher reality is greatest, both within and outside the Christian pattern, when the domination of nature and ordering of life have reached their height. An Indian thinker sees mystics as the future’s principal hope, about to inaugurate an epoch in which this superior form of consciousness, evolved in the east by Hindus and Buddhists and in the west by Plotinus, will become a gift far more abundantly utilised by mankind.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!