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In the last post (found here), I discussed at length the epistemology of Plato, focusing especially on his understanding of the spiritual contemplation of beauty. This post will explore and elaborate Plotinus’s view of contemplation.[1] It will do so for two reasons: (1) I find Plotinus a fascinating read and an engaging pedagogical presence in the classroom, and (2) as Kenney notes, “it was in Plotinus that pagan monotheism achieved its clearest philosophical articulation” (16). As in the previous post, I will follow some of the course laid out in John Peter Kenney’s helpful book, Contemplation and Classical Christianity.

As Kenny notes, while Plato’s philosophy terminated in the notion of intelligible being as “first-level transcendence,” Plotinus (following Middle Platonists[2]) moved from intelligible being to the postulation of a first principle, the One. The One was deduced through a “negative or apophatic theology that served to mark off the One’s unique status in reference to the intelligibles,” and thus it “was systematically removed from any finite predication” (16). In the words of Plotinus, the One is an existence, a “presence that is beyond knowledge” (Enneads, 6.9.4, 4).

Plotinus’s Apophatic Method

Plotinus’s postulation of the One was entirely interconnected with his idea of apophatic discourse. Kenney explains, “Apophatic discourse allowed Plotinus to reject any conception that might have allowed the One to be drawn back into the structure of reality, whether that reality was transcendent of the spatio-temporal world or contained within the cosmos” (17-18). Indeed, he later elaborates,

Apophatic theology was thus about challenging the embodied soul’s own self-representation. For to predicate is both to categorize and to occupy a grammatical place as a subject. Affirmative theology is a dualistic process of representation; theological predication accentuates the contemplative soul’s distance from a divine object within the frame of its semantic appraisal. As such it is a mode of theological discourse that promises divine description at the expense of presence. Forcing a separation between the divine and the soul (32).

Apophatic theology is the only way to understand the otherness of the One and simultaneously (and ironically) hold to the monism of reality.

In this manner, Plotinus’s apophatic method forced his system into a philosophical monism, one in which there is a single transcendental principle that is the source of all. His view, Kenney explains, “was thus an inclusive understanding of monotheism; the force of his theology was centered not on establishing a single deity against a plurality of gods but on finding a final divine unity within and behind the cosmos” (18). Notice the departure from Plato at this juncture; notice also that Plotinus rightly can say that he is merely elaborating what Plato has already maintained (cf. Plato, Symposium).

The newness of Plotinus was simple: “The force of Plotinian monotheism rested on a profound paradox: that the One was entirely hidden and intensely present, transcendent of all predicates and yet the immediate ground of all finite being” (19).

Epistemological Basics

Following Plato’s influential wake, Plotinus thus developed his united epistemology. He stressed that knowledge includes the external dimension of the forms that are united in his rational postulation of the “One.” As he asserts, a person “knows” something when the soul begins its “ascent to intellect and there will know the Forms;” moreover, as these forms or ideas “are beauty,” they refer to “the nature of the Good” or “primal beauty” (Enneads, 1:6.9).[3] While Plato merely attaches the external dimension to the forms themselves, therefore, Plotinus places the forms within the mind of the One, who is simple, indivisible, and incomprehensible.[4]

Because the One itself is, as Plotinus says, “simple and without need,” it brought forth into being all things through the process of emanation. The nous (“mind”)—which contains Plato’s forms—proceeds first, and the thinking psuche (“soul”)—which is an intermediary between the celestial (nous) and sub-celestial (body)—proceeds second.[5] A fact or reality, therefore, is deemed true insofar as it reflects the fact or reality found inside the One.[6] All knowledge, therefore, is ultimately derived from and based upon the One.

Kenney articulates well the advantages of emanation:

First, emanation sharply accentuates the singularity and sufficiency of the One as the source for all other sorts of reality. No primordial stuff is needed…. Second, this ontological cascade is in no way arbitrary or based upon a divine choice among finite alternatives. It is grounded exclusively in the inner life of the One, in its mysterious and infinite existence, and is the One’s best and only finite expression (19-20).

Notice, therefore, that creation and emanation are not sharply contrasted in Plotinus. Kenney writes, “There is, as it were, more volition around than one might suspect in Plotinian monotheism, a residual commitment to the One’s inner volition from which all reality then can be said to depend” (20).

The Tolma and the Dialectic

The metaphysical necessity of emanation, based upon apophatic discourse, thus leads inevitably to the idea of the “fall” in his system. In other words, as the Nous emanates from the One, there is for the first time something other than the One. The Nous, then, contemplates and imitates the perfection of the One, resulting in lower emanations. (While this post will not elaborate the hierarchy of emanations, it is helpful to note that the Nous’s activity here is the groundwork for Plotinus’s prescription of human contemplation of the One.)

After the Nous, the Soul emanated from the One. Plotinus suggests, however, that souls were not content with returning to the One; rather, they had the audacity to desire individuality and otherness: “Now the origin of evil for them [souls] was audacity [tolma] and being born and initial otherness and the desire to be on their own”” (Enneads, 5.1.1, 4-5). While the soul desires distinctiveness and otherness, it ironically loses its understanding of the true self, the highest self, and the One itself.

Therefore, tolma affects all descended things from the One, including human souls. In particular, Kenney writes,

Soul’s procession from the Intellect [Nous] has an irreducibly self-assertive or irrational aspect to it. We harbor, in the very nature of our separateness, a desire for illegitimate distinctiveness born of our deepest, but most obscure, desires. At the core of our embodied nature is self-assertion, a demand for difference and independence. That desire fuels the soul’s descent from Intellect, driving the soul out of the table life of eternity into the rude sequence of time, psychic dispersal, and embodied consciousness (22).

Notably, the soul, according to Plotinus, is not entirely descended in the material world but rather has a higher self in contact with the One. Kenney explains again: “Plotinus maintained that the soul is here in the world at least in part because it chose to decline into materiality. And that act of audacity, of tolma, is an irrational one” (21; cf. Enneads, 5.1.1; 3.7.11). In other words, the soul is not a static thing but may move away from or towards the One. Plotinus summarizes, “So one might say that time is the living nature of the soul in transitional movement from one point of life to another” (3.7.11, 43-5).

This idea leads us to Plotinus’s theory of the dialectic. Tolma requires reunion with the One. As Plotinus suggests, we are able to overcome our tolma through our soul’s discrete powers. In other words, we can tap into powers of our soul. Kenney explains, “The soul had only to turn within itself, to the One present there, and secure access in a higher level of transcendence through theoria” (21). As embodied people, this higher intellectualization is imperfectly available to us as we are imperfectly related to the One.

Therefore, there are two options. The soul may return to its lower, animal-like sense experience, or it may move upwards in its rationality and spirituality. As Plotinus says, “We are this ruling part of the soul between two powers, one better and the other worse; the worse is sense perception, the better is intellect” (5:3.3, 37-40). The intellect is better than the senses, for it has as its telos knowledge and union with the One. Kenney explains, “That intellectual perception is the province of nous. Distinct from our everyday consciousness, it is nonetheless accessible to us through interior contemplation” (25). One can either move further away from the One, deeper into bodily pleasure and individual glory; or, one can move towards the one in contemplation and final metaphysical union. The choice is ours. Wherever we end up is exactly what our soul chose (Enneads, 5:3.9).

The ascent to the One is no easy task. Plotinus describes the ascent in detail in Enneads, 6.9.3, 1-11. Kenney paraphrases Plotinus well:

Here we find an unusual expression of the self’s fears at ascending to the unfamiliar level of the One, lacking as the One does any finite specification of its nature. Since the One is formless (aneideon), the soul is unable to comprehend it and so it becomes afraid that is has encountered nothing at all. It slips back down to the level of perceptible things, where it rejoices at things that seem solid. That suggests once again that the self has a menu of epistemic and ontological options at its disposal. Here the slide of the soul down from the formlessness of the One to the solid earth of perception seems understandable, although behind that description there lurks a host of questions of the moral aspects of this declension, in particular the specific source of the soul’s fright before its infinite source. Thus there is a deep spiritual poignancy in this passage, indicative of the anxiety that the self has with efforts to return to its original source. (27).

Because contemplation is best seen in the context of tolma and ascent, we will now turn to his theory of contemplation.

Contemplation through Ascent

Two things should be noted. First, as discussed before, contemplation is ultimately based upon the primordial activity of the One. As the One emanates, it produces its highest product, the Nous, or intellect. The Nous is the understanding of the One, seeking to contemplate and imitate perfection. As such, the Nous is naturally turned inwards, focusing its vision and imitation on the One itself. Through this contemplation, ironically, it also secures its own independent, secondary existence by an act of self-assertion. Kenney summarizes, “This attention by the first product of the One [that is, Nous] back upon the infinite is the primordial act of contemplation. Contemplation is thus an ontological principle of sorts, holding together the first instance of finite reality and its infinite foundation” (28).[7]

Second, the soul ascends by its own native, latent capacity within itself, that is, its relation to its higher nature. This higher nature can be found through the philosophical dialectic, which achieves understanding the intelligibles (cf. Plato), moderate asceticism, and the practice of virtue. He also prescribed somatic training and meditation. However, as Kenney rightly holds, “Negative theology was the primary method by which the soul could shift its focus from the incarnated self towards the divine and raise itself beyond finite materiality. Apophasis was integral to contemplation” (31).

As discussed before, apophatic theology is the only way to understand the otherness of the One and simultaneously (and ironically) hold to the monism of reality. “Plotinus maintains that when pursued with the proper philosophical guidance, apophatic contemplation offers a deep communion with the One as the boundaries of embodied consciousness dissolve. In order to discover the infinite ne, the soul must seek “a presence beyond knowledge’ (6:9.4,3). It must practice descriptive diffidence, and submit to a frameless cognition that rejects epistemic intentionality” (32).

Now to discuss what the ascent ‘looks like’, so to speak…. Echoing Plato, Plotinus maintains an internal principle to knowledge wherein the person is part of the recollective process or, as he prefers, the ascent unto knowledge.[8] But Plotinus went beyond his intellectual teacher by positing a mystical stage, a “dance,” wherein the person is “transfigured to the godhead, nay, being in essence God;” therefore, the “Divine” is “not distinct but one with his own consciousness” (Enneads, 6:9.9, 10).[9] In other words, the ascent is not so much an escape from reality through intellectual cleansing (Plato) as a return to the One in mystical union.[10] The ascent is thus a vigorous enterprise, requiring ethical purification, knowledge, and intellectual and mystical union with the One.[11] It is not surprising, therefore, that Plotinus and his followers held that only an enlightened person could achieve participation.[12] Steven Strange summarizes well: “The participant is to be thought of as somehow active in participation: it ‘approaches’ the Idea in ‘striving’ to be like it, while the Idea remains unmoved and impassive.”[13]

There are consequently two elements within Plotinus’ epistemology: (1) the passive nature of the object of knowledge itself and (2) the active nature of a person’s knowledge that culminates in the ecstatic union with the One.[14] Plotinus’s integration of both elements allows him, like Plato before him, to maintain an external and internal basis for knowledge and thus achieve (at least partially) a unified epistemology.

Contemplation, then, is a rational necessity in Plotinus’s system. It allows him to explain what we ought to do and from what reality is ultimately produced.

[1]For a provocative biographical discussion of Plotinus, see M. J. Edwards, “A Portrait of Plotinus,” The Classical Quarterly 43:2 (1993): 480-490.

[2]Plotinus moves beyond Plato and Middle Platonism by his exultation of the first principle, the One. However, Middle Platonism did generally speak of a transcendent nous, a divine mind, that is over the world, but it did not speak of a primary, apophatic principle, like the One of Plotinus.

[3]Plotinus, Enneads, 7 vols., trans. A. H. Armstrong, LCL (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1984, 1988, 1988).

[4]As he argues, the One is best identified with the concepts or principles of Good and Beauty (Plotinus, Enneads, 1:6.9, cf. 1:6.6). In other words, he follows Plato by suggesting that the highest conception of the forms is the Beauty/Good, and he thereafter goes beyond Plato by suggesting that this highest conception is best understood as the One. This One, it must be added, cannot be explained or reasoned; it simply is and is without deficiency (Ibid., 3:8.11; 5:6.6). It is purely dynamis or potentiality without which nothing could exist (3:8.10).

[5]Ibid., 5:6.4, cf. 1:6.6, 9; 4:8.7. Namely, Plotinus argues that that Good itself, the One, “will not need thinking” (Ibid.), for thinking itself is a product of the ineffable One. Intellect or thinking is thus an expression of the One as it is “thinking the Good” (Ibid.). The soul, then, is an expression of the intellect as it thinks itself. He concludes on the relation of the One, nous, and soul: “The First should be compared to light, the next, to the sun, and the third, to the celestial body of the moon” (Ibid.). The One, therefore, is the ultimate divine light from and to which all other things emanate. For an excellent yet simple discussion, see Gerson, God and Greek Philosophy, 201-211, 221-226; cf. John N. Deck, Nature, Contemplation, and the One: A Study in the Philosophy of Plotinus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967).

[6]He expresses this idea in Ibid., 5:6.4: “For Soul [psuche] has intellect as an external addition which colours it when it is intellectual, but Intellect has it in itself as its own, and is not only light but that which is enlightened in its own being; and that which gives it light is nothing else but is simple light giving Intellect the power to be what it is. Why then would it have need of anything?” In other words, the One does not think; the One simply is. The nous, which emanates from the One, is thinking Intellect, that which thinks the highest possible thoughts (i.e., the One). The psuche, which emanates from the nous, thinks only at it participates in the one. And such participation takes place via the nous, via the One. Knowledge or truth is thus ultimately only knowledge or truth as it derives from the One.

[7]Interestingly, Kenney notes, “In this way the primordial act of self-assertion is woven into the ontological self-expression of the One, and the fall becomes, as it were, both a culpable act and a moment of divine self-expression. For Plotinus, these two values are never wholly distinct. And so the finite reality that emerges from the One is thus both the best that can have emerged from the Good and also a fall Tom its perfection, never free from the tincture of that primordial choice and yet longing always for redress and return” (28).

[8]Plotinus, Enneads, 4:8.6-8; cf. Ibid., 1:6.9; Copleston, History of Philosophy, 1:470; Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 27-28. He begins, “If, then, there must not be just one alone—for then all things would have been hidden, shapeless within that one, and not a single real being would have existed” (Ibid., 4:8.6). In other words, the process of recollection and ascent necessarily presume the fact of one principle, that is, the One. The process of knowledge thus assumes an ascent, or growth, as a “seed”: “from a partless beginning” to a “final stage” (Ibid.). This ascent thus entails participation in the One, for anyone could share in knowledge “as far as each thing was able to participate in it” (Ibid.). Consequently, the soul “should not be annoyed with itself because . . . it occupies a middle rank among realities [between the One and matter]” (Ibid., 4:8.7). In other words, all knowledge happens only through the soul’s perception of the eternal One, for “there is always something of it in the intelligible,” whether this be something merely in sense perception or contemplation of the divine (Ibid., 4:8.8). Knowledge is had through the soul’s recollection and ascent into the divine.

[9]Plotinus, Enneads, 6:9.9, 10, cf. Copleston’s translation in idem, History of Philosophy, I:471; and Joseph Katz’s excellent discussion of Plotinus’s mysticism in idem, Plotinus’ Search for the Good (New York: King’s Crown, 1950), 15-28. Indeed, as Plotinus continues, the person can reach this mystical realm, which is the epitome of the “active actuality of the Intellect,” out of which springs all knowledge such as good, beauty, righteousness, and virtue (Ibid., 6:9.9). The person wants such knowledge because the soul “in her natural state is in love with God and wants to be united with him” (Ibid.).

[10]As Plotinus continues, this is why the mystical ascent entails, among other things, that there is ethical transformation and thus an absence of duality (Plotinus, Enneads, 6:9.9; cf. Gerson, God and Greek Philosophy, 221-226).

[11]On account of the human soul’s contamination through its union with the material body, the soul must first ethically ascend in order to be mystically transformed and purified (Plotinus, Enneads, 4:8.6-8; cf. Copleston, History of Philosophy, I:470; Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 27-28). The first stages of this ascent follow Plato: purification, knowledge, and union with the Nous (“mind”). Purification is the first stage whereby the person, under the impulse of eros, frees himself or herself from the dominion of the body and its senses and instead practices virtue. As Plotinus rhetorically asks throughout the opening section, “What could be more fitting than that we, living in this world, should become like to its ruler(?),” a question that explicitly attempts to follow Plato’s reasoning in his Symposium (Plotinus, Enneads, 1.2.1). Knowledge is the second stage whereby a person rises above his sense perception and turns towards the Nous in the study of philosophy and science (Ibid., 1.3.4; the “Nous” here corresponds to the Nous of Aristotle, which, again, is that which is uncontaminated by matter [Copleston, 1:471]). As he continues later, it is through this “ascent to intellect” that the person “will know the Forms” (Ibid., 1:6.9). The union with Nous, the third stage, is that stage whereby the person rises about discursive thought to union with the Nous (Ibid., 6:9.9-10). Plotinus characterizes this stage as “protos kalos,” that is, “first beauty.” cf. Hajime Nakamura, A Comparative History of Ideas (Jawahar Nagar, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992), 313. These three stages, then, lead to the fourth and final one, a stage beyond Plato, whereby a person is mystically united with the One.

[12]Proclus Diadochus, Commentary on the First Alcibiades of Plato, trans. L. G. Westerink (Amsterdam: North Holland, 1954), III. For example, Iamblichus also argued for the necessary value of divine illumination. As one scholar summarizes him, he says, “We must look to divine revelation in order to ascertain the means of entering upon union with God” (Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:477; cf. I:476-477). Indeed, Plotinus “regards mystical experience as the supreme attainment of the true philosopher” (Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:472). For a more recent discussion, see Edward Moore, “‘Likeness to God as Far as Possible’: Deification Doctrine in Iamblichus and Three Church Fathers,” Theandros 3:1 (2005). The assertion will also be defended implicitly in the following discussion on Augustine.

[13]Steven K. Strange, “Plotinus’ Account of Participation in Ennead VI:4-5” JHP 30:4 (1992): 495, cf. 479-496. For an excellent discussion of Plotinus’s mysticism, see Joseph Katz, Plotinus’ Search for the Good (New York: King’s Crown, 1950), 15-28.

[14]Regarding this summary, one scholar wisely perceives, “Christian theology leaned heavily on these concepts, and it was not without temptation and crucifixion that it gradually (and not entirely) transformed them” (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 29).

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