Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Plotinus is fairly difficult. His Greek is described as being careless, and the translator is not at pains to make his prose clearer to the non-Greek reader. (Confession: I claim Greek as a reading language on my resume, but it is at the level of La Tremouille in Shaw’s St. Joan. I have to spell out the words.)

The selections on the reading list are the tractates on The Descent of the Soul, The Good and The One, The Three Primal Hypostases, and Contemplation.

The Descent of the Soul (IV, 8)—Plotinus opens by asserting that he has had an ecstatic experience similar to that described by Paul. Plotinus asks how the soul entered the body. What we get is something that sounds like the description in the Upanishads of the relation between Brahman and Atman. He says the body is inhabited by the World Soul. There is apparently an Intellectual Kosmos in which the Intellectual Principle dwells. This principle is not one, or not merely one, it is one and many. Thus there are many souls and one. The soul has an appetite for the Divine Intellect that urges it to return to its source

The soul is described as taking a “voluntary plunge” (IV, 8, v). In some sense the body receives the soul because it is receptive to the nature of Good. “To this power we cannot impute any halt, any limit of jealous grudging; it must move for ever outward until the universe stands accomplished to the ultimate possibility. All, thus, is produced by an inexhaustible power giving its gift to the universe, no part of which it can endure to see without some share in its being.” Whether matter has an eternal existence, or is created it is receptive to the descent of the soul.

Plotinus recognizes here two separate Kinds, the Intellectual as opposed to the sensible (vii). The soul is better off dwelling in the Intellectual, but “given its proper nature, it is under compulsion to participate in the sense-realm also.”

The Good and The One (VI, 9)—Plotinus begins by asserting that a thing cannot exist usless it is a unity. “This is equally true of things whose existence is primal and of all that are in any degree to be numbered among beings. What could exist at all except as one thing? Deprived of unity, a thing ceases to be what it is called: no army unless as a unity: a chorus, a flock, must be one thing. Even house and ship demand unity, one house, one ship; unity gone, neither remains thus even continuous magnitudes could not exist without an inherent unity; break them apart and their very being is altered in the measure of the breach of unity.” Plotinus then launches into a discussion of the One. Plotinus seems in the discussion that follows seems to be anticipating the arguments of the negative theologians. The argument being that God is just, but He is just in such a way that His justice is not commensurate with human ideas of justice. Consequently, His justice as can be conceived only in terms that negate the human idea. Nada, Nada, and it is only by negating the terms of human conception that God is truly known. That concept seems to be present in embryonic form here.

The Three Primal Hypostases (V, 1)—Hypostasis is the Greek equivalent of the Latin substantia, although I understand there are supposed to be different nuances in the two words. In this case the three substances are the the Soul, Intellect, and the One.

Contemplation and the One (III, 8)—Plotinus begins by maintaining that all action is oriented towards Vision. Contemplation, for Plotinus, differs from the Western Christian concept of contemplation, which is infused and passive, in that it is active. It is, however, oriented towards union with the divine.

Next up, St. Anselm’s Proslogion, in which he offers an early example of the ontological proof of the existence of God.