Episode 09: Plotinus on The One

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Bust of Plotinus (204/5–270)

Bust of Plotinus (204/5–270)

When he speaks of The One (to Hen), we see both sides of Plotinus: the poet as well as the pedant. As pedant, he appeals to the mind while at the same time trying to show the mind’s inadequacy to understand it, much as Socrates did with Glaucon.  He realizes the fruitlessness of words to describe it, yet try he must.

Its definition, in fact, could be only ‘the indefinable’: what is not a thing is not some definite thing.  We are in agony for a true expression; we are talking of the untellable; we name, only to indicate for our own use as best we may.  And this name, The One, contains really no more that the negation of plurality; under the same pressure the Pythagoreans found their indication in the symbol ‘Apollo’ ( “Απολλον,” a=not, pollon=many) with its repudiation of the multiple.  If we are led to think positively of The One, name and thing, there would be more truth in silence….”¹

(An interesting revelation about Apollo, the sun god, given what we have learned of “the child of The Good.”)

Plotinus tries to describe the same unity central to the Indian philosophy of advaita–“not two.”   What he is proposing is not even monotheism, since to say “One God” creates a supreme being “out there,” which is separate from us.  So like the Zen master with a koan, he tries to short-circuit the discursive mind and perhaps allow the One to appear.

But I certainly don’t mean to denigrate his intellectual rigor in insisting on The One being not less than “the untellable.”  In his time, and throughout history, much evil was perpetrated by people who took The One to be less; who limited the limitless and created it in their own image.  The whole sad history of ethnic and religious conflict is the result of claiming myself to be chosen by the One, and then seeing everyone else as lesser than me. Plotinus explicitly warns against identifying with this duality  “The One is absent from nothing and from everything.  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, by virtue of that inner power similar to and stemming from The One when it is in that state in which it was when it originated from The One.”²  The One is one; there is no “other.”

And Plotinus is very clear that this unity can be known.  In The Descent of the Soul he says: “It has happened often.  Roused into myself from my body–outside everything else and inside myself–my gaze has met a beauty wondrous and great.  At such moments I have been certain that mine was the better part, mine the best of lives lived to the fullest, mine identity with the divine.  Fixed there firmly, poised above everything in the intellectual that is less than the highest, utter actuality was mine.” ³

How could it be that in that state we would wish anyone harm?  How could we see anyone else as “other?”  Listen further:

The chief difficulty is this: awareness of The One comes to us neither by knowing nor by the pure thought that discovers the other intelligible things, but by a presence transcending knowledge.   When the soul knows something, it loses its unity, it cannot remain simply one because knowledge implies multiplicity.  The soul then misses The One and falls into number and multiplicity.

Therefore we must go beyond knowledge and hold to unity.  We must renounce knowing and knowable, every object of thought, even Beauty, because Beauty, too, is posterior to The One and is derived from it as, from the sun, the daylight.  That is why Plato says of The One, ‘It can neither be spoken of nor written about.’  If nevertheless we speak of it and write about it, we do so only to give direction, to urge towards that vision beyond discourse, to point out the road to one desirous of seeing. 4
As The One does not contain any difference, it is always present and we are present to it when we no longer contain difference.  The One does not aspire to us, to move around us; we aspire to it, to move around it.  Actually, we always move around it; but we do not always look.  We are like a chorus grouped around a conductor who allow their attention to be distracted by the audience.  If, however, they were to turn towards their conductor, they would sing as they should and would really be with him.  We are always around The One.  If we were not, we would dissolve and cease to exist.  Yet our gaze does not remain fixed upon The One.  When we look at it, we then attain the end of our desires and find rest.  Then it is that, all discord past, we dance an inspired dance around it.

In this dance the soul looks upon the source of life, the source of The Intelligence, the origin of Being, the cause of the Good, the root of the Soul.5

Here we are obviously hearing Plotinus the poet, in a rapturous state of inspiration, and the ease with which he changes to that from the teacher is evidence that he did not think of himself as one or the other.  He is a model for the renunciation of all labels, all the adjectives–even the flattering ones–with which we limit ourselves. I am a male; no, I am The One.  I am intelligent; no, I am The Intelligence.  I am unloved; no, I am Love.

Now of course Plotinus does go on to construct a very elaborate cosmology in works such as  “The Origin and Order of the Beings following on the First.”  But it is rather absurd of us to try to analyze this cosmology without some first-hand experience of it.  His aim, I think, is to show to us just how vast is this universe within us; let us just open our eyes to the next larger circle and get a glimpse of the unity toward which it all tends.  The we can analyze if we must, but more likely we will realize that

We are not separated from The One, not distant from it, even though bodily nature has closed about us and drawn us to itself.  It is because of The One that we breathe and have our being: it does not bestow its gifts at one moment only to leave us again; its giving is without cessation so long as it remains what it is.  As we turn towards The One, we exist to a higher degree, while to withdraw from it is to fall.  Our soul is delivered from evil by rising to that place which is free of all evils.  There it knows.  There it is immune.  There it truly lives.  Life not united with the divinity is shadow and mimicry of authentic life.  Life there is the native act of The Intelligence, which, motionless in its contact with The One, gives birth to gods, beauty, justice, and virtue. 6

Although his descriptions are different, Plotinus is as clear as was Plato in the assertion that The One, of the Ideal, is our true state.  As with the prisoners in the cave, we spend our lives in a state of “shadow and mimicry of authentic life,” while all the while “we are not separated from The One.”  And while Plotinus does spend time talking about how we come to this state of shadow (The Descent of the Soul), his main concern is in helping us return to the authentic life.

The means that Plotinus prescribes for attaining this return, in addition to dialectic, is contemplation.  This is a translation of the Greek theoria (θεωρία) with its roots both in “seeing” and “god,”  and which in English has unfortunately taken on the meaning of “thinking about.”  Plotinus describes it quite fully in Ennead III, On Contemplation, the study of which this podcast is no substitute.  Elmer O’Brien says of it, “This treatise is, perhaps, the best single instance of the mature thought and method of Plotinus.  It repays an attentive reading.”  Its conclusion can give us insight as well as motivation:

The Intelligence is beautiful–of all things the most beautiful.  Dwelling in pure light and “stainless radiance,” it envelops everything with its own light.  The realm of sense, so beautiful, is only its reflected shadow.  It abides in full resplendence because it contains nothing dark to the mind or obscure or indefinite.  It knows beatitude.

Wonder seizes upon him who contemplates it, who enters in and becomes one with it.  Just as the view of the heavens and the splendor of the stars leads one to think of their author and to see him out, so the contemplative who has gazed upon the intelligible realm and been struck with the wonder of it should seek out its author–should ask who has given it existence, where the author is, and how he authored it.

From whom comes such beauty as this, this procession of plentitude?  Not the Intelligence, nor Being, but their prior.  They come after it because they have need of both thought and fulfillment.  But they are close to that which wants for nothing, which need not even think.

So high is its rank, The Intelligence is authentic plentitude and thought.  Its prior is neither for if it were, it would not be what it is–the Good. 7


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Plotinus, The Enneads: Abridged Edition (Penguin Classics), translated by Stephen McKenna.  Penguin, 1991, p. 398

²Plotinus, The Essential Plotinus: Representative Treatises from the Enneads, translated by Elmer O’Brien, S.J.  Hackett Publishing, 1964, p. 79.  (When possible, I use O’Brien’s translation; I generally find it clearer, but with the ability to soar when its author does.)

³O’Brien, op. cit., p. 62
4O’Brien, op. cit., p. 78
5O’Brien, op. cit., p. 84
6O’Brien, op. cit., p. 85
7O’Brien, op. cit., p. 175