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The Principle of Plenitude

The Cause of Cosmic Descent

Besides the idea of regular repetition, it is necessary to account for the accompanying idea of a progressive devolution from an original cause or standard. These two aspects are inseparable because in the absence of an overall progressive change, the beginning and end of a cycle would not be distinguishable. If the prevailing quality was either constant, or if it varied at random, then there would be no basis on which cycles could be manifest as distinct entities. Even where this conception is not considered, the doctrine that the world was created with as great a perfection as was possible for it, and that it then became increasingly subject to the effects of the Fall, implies the same qualitatively declining aspect of the time process, with its progressive loss of relation to God. In terms of entropy, this could be expressed as the state of minimum entropy which precedes an age of rising entropy.

Such a world could not spontaneously grow better than it was created, if it started by definition from its ideal state of being, and it could not remain constant in this original perfection without negating the ontological level to which it belongs; in other words, the material creation would, without change, be indistinguishable from the eternal Forms through which it was created. Time and change are inseparable from the divisibility of matter and its passivity to external forces, however, and the overall effect of this change can only be to tend away from the first state of creation for the reasons just given.

Such is the conclusion which follows from the creationist or top-down perspective, but the idea that every state of being necessarily gives rise to another more limited than itself is by no means dependent on creation, important as that idea is. The idea that the order of existence has a mathematical form which is in a sense prefigured in the natural number series, and which allows for all possibilities to be realized is part of a metaphysical tradition which has crossed the boundaries of the main religious traditions. Strangely enough, this principle was never given a specific name until modern times, when it was named as the Principle of Plenitude. 1 This is the principle to which Guénon is in fact appealing where he says:

This gradual movement away from essential unity can be envisaged from a double point of view, that of simultaneity and that of succession; this means that it can be seen as simultaneous in the constitution of manifested beings, where its degrees determine for their constituent elements a sort of hierarchy; or alternatively as successive in the very movement of the whole of manifestation from the beginning to the end of a cycle. 2

Thus the scale of creation down from the angels to the lowliest created things will also be manifest in the time dimension as a progression from the highest realities to the lowest, as space and time both manifest the same things, each according to its own principle. Of the two points of view, the static and the successive, the successive is clearly the one which is relevant here, while the Principle of Plenitude itself transcends the distinction between the temporal order of succession, and the hierarchical order of being. For Guénon, this principle is an assumption, and therefore he does not offer arguments for it. Nevertheless a deeper layer of theory exists, which will be approached when some classic accounts of Plenitude have been considered.

Plenitude Understood in Antiquity

Since this is the principle on which the present subject depends, it should be taken in as much detail as possible. It is to be found in numerous places in the Enneads,3 because for Plotinus it also appears as a primary reality, so that he chooses to elaborate on it:

Something besides a unity there must be or all would be indiscernibly buried, shapeless within that unbroken whole: none of the real beings [of the Intellectual Cosmos] would exist if that unity remained at a halt within itself: the plurality of these beings, offspring of the unity, could not exist without their own next taking the outward path. . . . Every kind must produce its next. . . and so advance to its term in the varied forms of sense. 4

Proclus renders the same conception 5 with his idea that the nature of the Good is to be productive, and that all beings participate in the Good to some degree, whence it must follow that all beings have causal powers which extend in an outward and downward process from greater causes to lesser. He also includes in this idea the Principle of Undiminished Giving, which is equally essential to Plotinus’s understanding of the action of the Forms.

This is an idea of emanation for which every causal power acts beyond itself, so that nothing is ever subtracted from the cause itself in the things it gives rise to. This idea is implicit in the way in which Forms cause their instantiations, for which they are both causes and normative patterns. The productive process has an unbroken continuity according to the principle that ‘every productive cause brings into existence things like to itself before the unlike.’ 6

Where these principles are expressed by the Neoplatonists, their application is not confined either to the hierarchy of being or to the temporal transformation of this structure in successive moments. They apply to the whole of being in a way which includes all possible orders of relation, including therein no doubt many more than the space and time to which our awareness is confined. In any case, their application to all temporal change is clear enough, and for Proclus the truth of Plenitude is found from his analysis of causality.

The same principle is expressed equally clearly by Saint Augustine, for whom it is a means of reconciling the existence of evil in the world with the goodness of creation:

Suppose someone should say that it was not difficult or laborious for an omnipotent God to see to it that everything He made should so maintain its proper place that no creature would come to the extremity of unhappiness; for being omnipotent, He could have done so, and, being good, He could not be envious. I will say in reply that the orderly arrangement of creatures extends all the way from the highest to the lowest according to certain just gradations in such a way that only envy could prompt a man to say that a creature should not exist, or that it should be different. For if he wants it to be the same as something higher, then such a creature is already existing. . . .7 [author’s italics]

While pursuing this idea at still greater length, Augustine stresses something in the above which is essential to the Plenitude idea, which is that a relatively inferior possibility is more fit to be realized than a superior one if the latter has been realized already, and so would only be repeated. The non-repetition of realized things and events is a consequence of the infinity of the Divine creative power, besides being more in keeping with the necessity for the material world to be wholly subject to change. (Identical repetitions of things would severely curtail the scope for change.)

This aspect of the idea is also taken up by Aquinas, who gives a new example to illustrate it, in the form of a question as to whether it would be more fitting for God to create two angels (assuming them to be very similar angels), or one such angel and a stone. He shows that the latter choice is the correct one, because it is irrelevant to object that a stone is so much inferior to an angel, when the nature of creation requires the greatest possible multiplication of different kinds of being.8

The fact that this implies a downward tendency does not matter, because it does not detract from the higher possibilities which come first and which remain. Insofar as the world is created for ends which do not lie in time but in eternity, the descent to lower or lesser grades of possibility does not mean any devaluation of the whole. Aquinas expresses the idea in a theological form as follows:

God wills and loves His essence for its own sake. Now the divine essence cannot be increased or multiplied in itself, as it can be multiplied solely according to its likeness, which is participated by many. God, therefore, wills the multitude of things in willing and loving His own essence and perfection.9

Furthermore, in willing Himself God wills all that is in Him. But all things in a certain manner pre-exist in Him through their proper models. . . . God, therefore, in willing Himself wills all other things.10

If God must needs will all that can be, this must comprise all levels of all possibilities, and the infinity of divine power must be reflected in an infinity in the content of the creation. Elsewhere, however, Aquinas says things which conflict with this because there are in fact two fundamentally different kinds of answer to the question as to what the purpose of creation is, and a Summa has to account for both. The first kind is the one already considered, namely the fullest realization of the plenitude of creation, while the second involves a process in the contrary direction, namely the assimilation of the creature, humanity, to the nature of its Creator. These are respectively the cosmological and the soteriological reasons for creation, and of the two, only the cosmological will be considered in this book, since it is devoted to the ultimate conditions under which the human race as a whole has to live. The other is not excluded, of course, since it is present at least implicitly in this context, in the way in which knowledge can penetrate the negations which are all-pervasive at a certain level.

There is in any case no question of either of these two kinds of answer being any ‘more true’ than the other. The one reflects the outflow of the cosmos from its source, and the other reflects the returning movement from the creation to the Creator by which alone it can reach its proper perfection. They combine in the harmony of the whole in a way which can be compared to the way the upward-pointing and downward-pointing triangles make up a Star of David.

The spiritual assimilation of creature to Creator is also involved in the inequalities among creatures which Plenitude implies, in the ‘all possible grades of goodness’ comprised in it. As God is superior to all created beings, the superiority of one creature over another is therefore one more way in which the divine nature is manifest in creation, and so it is fit to serve as a symbolic reminder of God. An equality among beings would be more expressive of the chaos which preceded creation than of the providential order.

This value which Plenitude confers upon inequality merely balances the way in which it prescribes the realization of all kinds of beings. However, since it implies that the desirability of a thing’s existence bears no relation to its degree of excellence, there can be no guarantee that a world-historical process governed by it will always tend in a direction agreeable to human desires and aspirations. This supra-human character no doubt accounts for much of the opposition to it, along with the related idea of entropy.

The Real and the Possible

More technical objections to Plenitude, based on the idea that, if true, it would necessitate a vastly greater range of species and varieties than we actually see, result from a confusion between the world we know in its limited portions of time and space, and the totality of all being. Plenitude implies only that every possibility is realized in some part of space and time, without this giving any reason to conclude that more than a limited number of them should exist at any one time in any one relative world.

Against this idea that all possibilities are realized sooner or later, Aristotle argues that ‘it is possible for that which has a potency not to realize it,’ and that ‘it is not necessary that everything that is possible should exist in actuality.’11

Within certain limits, these are simply common sense judgements which do not conflict with what has been said above. Any number of things which are possible in principle can be impossible at a given place and time because of their incompatibility with other possibilities already realized. For example, an acorn which could possibly grow into an oak tree will never do so unless the right conditions are provided for it. In the general case, this means that there are many more potential causes than there are possible effects. Thus it is possible that any number of instances of a given possibility may never be realized, but on the other hand it is not possible for no instances of a given possibility ever to be realized.

To say that X is possible, but that on a certain planet, in a given society, in a given period of its history, it is never actualized is perfectly reasonable, but to say that X is possible but never becomes actual in the whole of space and time is quite different. The possible may be defined as whatever does not involve self-contradiction within the created order, in which case each possibility will comprise a set of logical compossibles which is itself compossible with at least one set of conditions. There is thus a group of closely-connected ideas, namely, logical consistency, possibility, and actuality. Here, the possible is the mediating idea between the logical and the ontological realms, and should there be any doubt about the reality of the connection, let it be supposed that there was something which was possible but which never became actual under any conditions. In this case it would be indistinguishable from things which are by definition impossible because self-contradictory. By the Identity of Indiscernibles, therefore, an unrealizable possibility would in fact be literally the same as an impossibility.

Granted only logical coherence, then, actuality will follow necessarily from possibility, as the Principle of Plenitude requires. This undoubtedly extends the range of realities to an incalculable extent, but this is as things should be, since the real problem would lie in an arbitrary limitation to the range of possibilities, if there could be such a thing. To set a limit is to conceive of something which must be beyond it.

The argument that the equivalence of the possible and the actual militates against free will can be shown to rest on the same mistake as does the objection already discussed, that we should perceive an unlimited range of different realities at a given time. This idea that actuality always follows possibility would imply that everything that can happen must happen, so that our choices would be just so many acceptances of the inevitable. This, however, applies to the whole of being throughout space, time, and all other modes of existence. But each relative world contains only a cross-section of the universal possibilities. This limitation to our actual world means that there must be voids among the possibilities proper to it. Such breaks in the continuum mean that the will can determine what is to be realized and what is not. If freedom is the power to realize potentialities, therefore, the Plenitude idea can form part of any philosophy of freedom. Finally, without the Principle of Plenitude, we would lose the intelligibility of the world as a whole, and with it the idea of cyclic time. But a world which was intelligible only in some of its parts would be far less perfect, and far less worthy of its Creator.

The Finite and the Infinite

A specially significant example of the transition from possibility to actuality is to be found in the way in which instantiations result from Forms, as for example in the way combinations in twos and threes result from the Forms of duality and triplicity. Given a Form of, say, whiteness, the actualization of white objects in matter will follow automatically, even though the Form has no power over how many instances there may be. The Principle of Plenitude can shed additional light on this necessity with which the Forms become instantiated.

While the Form remains unaltered in itself, it nevertheless continually goes beyond itself in its self-projections in material substances, and this ontological going-beyond is essential both in regard to the Forms and in regard to Plenitude. Any deeper understanding of this principle should thus proceed from a deeper understanding as to how this ‘going-beyond’ is built into the nature of things. There is a property of the infinite which answers to precisely this condition. At first sight it seems that the finite must always be nothing in relation to the infinite, but it can be shown that this is only a relative nothing. Every finite quantity is in fact infinitely more than nothing, as one may illustrate from the way in which the equation n ÷ ∞ = 0 gives rise to ∞ x 0 = n, where the finite quantity differs from zero by a factor of infinity. (This does not contradict the meaning of n ÷∞ = 0 because this form of the equation establishes only the relative nullity of n, like that of a surface in relation to a volume, whether the surface and volume are both finite or both infinite.)

Nullity in relation to a higher-order reality is all of a piece with the possession of a real degree of infinity. Because of this, there is a real sense in which the finite can add something to the infinite. This gives rise to the seeming paradox that the infinite as such is not after all the maximal conceivable quantity, because the real maximal quantity is rather the combination of the finite with the infinite: ‘the true infinite is the unity of finite and infinite,’ with their distinction ‘not simply abolished,’ but ‘retained within the unity.’12

Thus the essential nature of the infinite is one of an inherent passing-beyond itself, while the infinite is also a primal reality whose nature is participated in by all forms of being as much as they participate the finite. Here is the solution to the classic problem as to how the world of finite things could ever issue forth from the infinite. When the infinite is conceived solely as a simple unlimitedness, there never can be any answer to this question, but once its real nature is understood as infinite and finite, there is no longer any problem, because the finite as such is equiprimordial with the infinite. According to W. T. Stace,

This doctrine of the infinite triumphantly solves the oldest and most formidable difficulty of philosophy and religion. . . the true infinite has the finite within it. . . there is no such thing as an infinite that is first of all infinite. . . .13

The Hegelian conception of the role of the finite was anticipated to some extent by Proclus who saw the finite as an equal constituent of reality with the infinite: ‘All true being is composed of limit and infinite.’14 By ‘limit’ () Proclus means what has just been termed the finite, only with the emphasis on its being the Finite Itself, which has the positive aspect of being the foundation of all intelligibility. The Form of Being has infinite power since it is instantiated in all that exists, whence it participates the infinite ( ). It is also one and indivisible in its own nature, whence it participates the finite. Thus Being, and therefore all existence, results from the union of the finite and the infinite, where the term ‘infinite’ is used in its simple and unreconstructed sense. Proclus did not proceed to the idea that Being conceived in this way must be a fuller development of our idea of the infinite, because the infinite was thought of too much in connection with the indefinite for it to be a main interest for the Greek mind. Nevertheless, what he says in this connection is enough to show that the final dialectical development made by Hegel is not so much an innovation as the completion of a concept which was part of the Western intellectual tradition.

The self-extensive power of being, which is accounted for on the basis of the inherent movement of infinite and finite is deployed in the Principle of Plenitude and in the theory of Forms. From this, the cyclic order of time with its pattern of descent can be seen to follow as an application in the phenomenal world.

The Reality of Created Being

A further consequence of the way in which the Infinite inherently issues in the finite would be that it rules out the kind of relation between God and the world which exists for monistic systems, which confine all reality to God. Instead of a totally real divinity and a completely unreal world somehow lying alongside one another, we have here a conception which results in an infinitude of different degrees of reality proceeding through all levels from God in whom the true infinite resides with all other archetypal realities, down to the most evanescent residues of creation. This continuum does not make God into the highest part of the scale of creation, moreover, any more than a Form can be a member of its own range of instantiations, but rather it means that there is a continuous gradation from the part of creation with the fullest participation of the divine down to that which has least. This delegation of real being involves an incomparably greater creative act than would be involved in the production of an illusory world which was merely a distorted reflection of its creator. For this reason alone, Plenitude has a special role in Theistic doctrine which it cannot have in doctrines which deny creation, besides which it is the assumption behind rational proofs for the existence of God. Consequently, there is no logical reason why one of its implications, the cyclic law, should be any less a part of Western tradition than it is of Oriental tradition.

The diffusion of real being is nevertheless compatible with a ‘cosmic illusion’, as I have argued elsewhere,15 only with the reservation that this illusion does not result specifically from the world as such, but essentially from the way in which human faculties grasp it when their activity is incomplete. The contraction of awareness which occurs with the descending tendency of the world means a worsening of this condition, and thus an increase in the extent to which the world is a de facto illusion for the majority of mankind. Although for many the end of the illusion will no doubt not come about without the end of the world, the more positive way in which it can be overcome lies in understanding its causes.

If there is any question as to whether it is justifiable to conceive of God as an agent imparting being to an endless sequence of creatures, so as to realize the greatest number of possibilities, the rationality of this might imply an anthropomorphic view of God. However, it should be realized that the opposite idea of God acting in arbitrary ways, withholding existence as much as imparting it, could also be anthropomorphic for different reasons. Any mode of personal agency by God can give rise to such problems, if that is what one wishes to find.

Insofar as it can be, the divine agency is traditionally conceived to be as rational as possible, since reason is recognized as sufficient for a knowledge of God. A suitable image of this rationality can be seen in the natural number series, especially in the way in which every number comprises all the other numbers lower than itself, so that it embodies the permanent possibility of separate existence for each one of them. Thus ten comprises nine, nine comprises eight, and so on. In general, any given number n must also give (n–1), (n–2) . . . 3, 2, 1, i.e., all the numbers below itself. In this connection we may take number as a pattern for all realities, as it was for the Pythagoreans, in such a way that the continuous downward extension of number reflects the development of creation throughout time, in its simplest aspect. In reality, this development is complicated by many lesser cycles, each of which manifests the overall pattern in its own realm, and this is enough to disguise the universal tendency, which never simply follows a one-way course.16

This is not to say that number causes the sequence of being, but rather that the sequence of being and the law of number both manifest the same principle. The Principle of Plenitude connects all levels of being in order, and does so in an ‘upward’ or in a ‘downward’ direction, depending on one’s point of view. If we can say that every higher and greater possibility must give rise to a lower and lesser one, then by the same principle, lower forms of being will be bound to the higher ones, and creation will reveal its Creator. If Plenitude were not valid, therefore, there would be no reason to suppose that any experience could establish a belief in God, and theology would be deprived of its status as a science. The life of religious faith includes a continuous exercise of the metaphysical intuition expressed as Plenitude.


1. See A.O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being.

2. The Reign of Quantity, chap. 7.

3. See Person, Soul, and Identity, by the same author, chap. 2, pp.88–92.

4. Enn. iv, 8, 6. See also Enn. iii, 3, 3.

5. E.T. props. 25–30.

6. E.T. prop. 28.

7. The Free Choice of the Will, Bk. III, chap. 9.

8. See A.O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, chap. 3

9. SCG. 1, 75, 3.(9).

10. SCG. 1, 75, 5.(9).

11. Metaphysics, 1071b, and 1003a.

12. W. T. Stace, The Philosophy of Hegel, pt. ii, subsect. iii, ‘Quality’, p. 148.

13. Ibid.

14. Elements of Theology, prop. 89.

15. See The Logic of Spiritual Values, chap. 14.

16. See chapter 16, where this is shown in more detail.

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