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Lecture Twenty-fifth: The Nature of Man and his Relation to God

THE subordination-system of Plotinus described in the last lecture is closely connected with his view of man: for man is a microcosm in which all the grades of reality are repeated, as it were on a reduced scale. His nature reaches up to the Absolute, and down to the animal and the plant. His soul, bound up though it is with the existence, and occupied with the care, of a particular body, yet derives its life from a universal intelligence, which in its turn rests on the absolute unity. He is dependent on the sensations of his physical organism for the material of his thought, and he is therefore liable to be enslaved by the appetites of the animal, and even by obscure instincts that spring out of the nature he has in common with the plants: yet he is capable, like Plato's philosopher, of becoming a ‘spectator of all time and existence,’ and even of rising beyond the life of intelligence into immediate contact with the divine. He is thus a sort of amphibious being who belongs to both worlds, and who therefore can climb up to the highest and sink to the lowest. His peculiar sphere, however, lies in the middle region between sense and intelligence, the region of discursive thought, which receives contributions from both.1 By virtue of this discursive reason he, on the one hand, makes judgments and inferences, in which he distinguishes and connects the images derived from sense, while, on the other hand, he takes cognisance of ideas coming to him from above, from the pure intelligence; and he is able to recognise the agreement or disagreement of the former with the latter—a process which Plato called reminiscence. “Thus when sense apprehends the image of a man and supplies this image to discursive reason, discursive reason may simply accept the image for what it is: or if the individual has been formerly met with, it may ask itself ‘Who is this ?’ and it may answer by the aid of memory that ‘It is Socrates’: or it may go on to evolve the content of the image and distinguish the different elements in it. Or, again, going beyond all this, it may raise the question whether Socrates is good, and then, though sense may furnish the subject matter, or object of thought, it is from itself that the soul derives the criterion of goodness which it uses in its answer. And if it be asked whence it gets this criterion, we must say that it has in itself the form of good, and that the light of intelligence which shines upon it gives it the power of grasping such, forms; for this part of the soul is pure, and therefore receives into itself the impressions of the intuitive reasonà. It appears, then, that we are identified not with the intuitive, but with the discursive reason, while the products of the activity of the intuitive reason come to us from above and those of sense from beneath; and that which, constitutes our self is the predominant part of the soul, which stands midway between the two powers, the higher and the lower, both of which we may call ‘ours’ but must not identify with our self.”2

Yet, on the other hand, we have to remember that this identification of the self with the discursive reason merely represents the ordinary or average self-consciousness of man, in which he is not aware either of the heights or of the depths of his own being. Dwelling in this sphere of thought, man is conscious of himself as a particular individual in relation to, and distinction from other individuals who appear to be external to him and to each other; and his mind moves from one to another of these particular things or beings, determining them severally, or in relation to each other, by the categories of the finite. As so conscious of himself in his finite individuality, man regards himself as one with a particular bodily organism; and he is immersed in cares for its preservation, so that it is hard for him to raise his eyes above the immediate concerns of his earthly life, or to realise that he has a higher nature than the things of sense to which his attention is directed. Hence he is unable to recognise that they are but appearances which come and go with the passing hour, while he has the roots of his being in that which is eternal. He is, as it were, imprisoned in his individual life, and subjected to the conditions of time and space, like the objects he perceives around him; and his love of himself takes the form of a desire to assert himself against all others, to prevail over them in the struggle for existence, and to gain for himself the greatest amount of satisfaction for his sensuous appetites or his earthly ambition.

Plotinus contends, however, that this narrow and limited existence is not due to the essential nature of the soul; it is the result of a fall from its original estate. Moreover, it is the act of the soul itself that has separated it from the universal life of reason and imprisoned it in mortality. In its self-will, it has sought to be something for itself; and it is just this self-seeking which has confined it to a particular finite form of existence and identified it with an animal body, and thus shut it out from the universal or divine life in which there is no ‘mine’ and ‘thine,’ but everyone possesses the whole and is possessed by it. The soul has chosen the unrest of time in place of the peace of eternity; it has chosen spatial division and externality in place of that presence of all to all and in all which is the characteristic of the life of spirit. For “what,” asks Plotinus, “has made the soul forget its divine Father? How is it that being of a divine nature and born of God, it has come to he ignorant of itself as well as of him? The beginning of evil was its audacious revolt, its fall into the region of becoming and difference, its desire to be something for itself. When it has once tasted of the pleasures of self-will, it makes large use of its power of determining itself as it pleases; and thus is carried so far away from the principle of its being that it loses all consciousness of its original. Such souls are like children torn away from their parents and brought up in a foreign country, till they have forgotten what they themselves are, and who are their parents. Thus seeing neither God nor themselves, they are degraded by ignorance of their kinship. They have learnt, indeed, to honour everything rather than themselves, to spend all wonder and reverence and affection upon external things, and to break, so far as they can, all the ties that bound them to the divine. Their ignorance of God is bound up with their admiration of such things, and with their contempt for themselves. For he who pursues and admires that which is alien to himself, ipso facto confesses his own inferiority; and believing himself to be lower than the things of this world, he regards himself as the most degraded and transitory of all the creatures that come into being and pass away, and the thought of the nature and power of God is entirely banished from his mind.”3

Our ordinary consciousness of self, then, is the consciousness of being one among many others, external to them as they are to us, and in constant rivalry with them for the limited satisfactions of appetite and ambition; but this is not a consciousness of the real self, and hence it is not a consciousness of God, who is, so to speak, the deepest ground of the self. It is the consciousness of one who in seeking to save his life has lost it, in seeking to be an independent self-sustained being has become divorced not only from God but from himself. But, according to Plotinus, this descent into finitude—this identification of the soul with a particular individuality, and with the bodily organism, which is its expression—is never complete. In descending, the soul ‘always leaves something of itself above.’4

In this way Plotinus expresses the idea that the universal nature of the soul is not extinguished, and that, however much it is forgotten, it is possible for us to become conscious of it again. For, after all, the discursive reason derives all the principles by the aid of which it judges and reasons, from the intuitive; and just in so far as we become conscious of these principles, we lift ourselves above the point of view of discursive reason. In other words, in grasping the principles that enable us to connect one thing with another, we grasp the unity which is presupposed in these principles. We thus realise that there is a unity of the intelligence with itself which is beyond the difference of subject and object, and for which that distinction, like all others, becomes transparent. In this unity of the intelligence, therefore, we now find our real self, and, in doing so, we detach ourselves from all the interests of the phenomenal world, even from the interest in oar self as one particular object in it. This movement of thought is closely akin to that which we observed in the Stoic philosophy, with only the difference that Plotinus realised, as the Stoics did not, that the point of view thus reached is one which excludes all the activities of the practical life. For when the distinction of the subject and the object is transcended, nothing is left but the purely contemplative consciousness which Aristotle ascribed to God, and which in the De Anima he declared to be a consciousness of all things in their forms, i.e. in that ideal reality that is beyond all change.

“In this way,” says Plotinus, “we and all that is ours are carried back into real Being. We rise to it, as that from which originally we sprang. We think intelligible objects and not merely their images or impressions, and in thinking them, we are identified with them. Thus we participate in true knowledge, being made one with its objects, not receiving them into ourselves, but rather being taken up into them. And the same is the case with the other souls as with our own. Hence, if we are in unity with the intelligence, we are in unity with each other, and so we are all one. When, on the other hand, we carry our view outside of the principle on which we depend, we lose consciousness of our unity and become like a number of faces which are turned outwards, though inwardly they are attached to one head. But if one of us, like one of these faces, could turn round either by his own effort or by the aid of Athene, he would behold at once God, himself and the whole. At first, indeed, he might not be able to see himself as one with the whole; but soon he would find that there was no boundary he could fix for his separate self. He would, therefore, cease to draw lines of division between himself and the universe: and he would attain to the absolute whole, not by going forward to another place, but by abiding in that principle on which the whole universe is based.”5

Plotinus, then, like Aristotle, regards discursive thought, which takes things in their separation and connects them externally with each other, as a limited and imperfect manifestation of the intelligence under the conditions of our finite existence. We cannot explain discursive reason, any more than we can explain intuitive reason, as a mere product or property of the bodily organism; but it is because a spiritual being is ‘in the body’ that he is obliged to think through images, and therefore to conceive things as externally related to each other in time and space. In like manner Plotinus thinks of all the impulses of our individual life, whether of θυμός or of ἐπιθυμία as closely connected with our physical nature. When, therefore, we rise to the principle on which the discursive intelligence rests, when we become aware of the unity that underlies all our consciousness of particular things, even of our own particular existence, we are already beginning to emancipate ourselves from the body and from the limits of finite individuality that are connected therewith. We are rising into a region in which the barriers that divide us from objects, and especially from other beings like ourselves, are thrown down, and in which each intelligence, in knowing itself, at once and intuitively knows all things. We are making a regress upon the universal self, whose consciousness of self is in organic correlation with the consciousness of the not-self. We, therefore, transcend the difference of self and not-self, at least in the form in which that difference at first presents itself, as well as all the other differences that are subordinate to this. Further, as the intuitive unity of all things becomes consciously recognised, the discursive intelligence and its object, the world of time and space, gradually disappear from our view. We are raised into a world of pure light and harmony, into a region like the heaven of Dante, from which all darkness, confusion, and antagonism are excluded, because the whole is present in every part, and every part is transparent to all the others. We have thus found the reality of things in finding our true self, and the partial and distorted images of both which were due to their reflexion upon matter, vanish from our sight.

But, as we have seen, there is a still higher height which we may attain, and in which we may transcend even the transparent division of the intuitive self-consciousness. For as the discursive rests upon the intuitive intelligence, so the intuitive intelligence rests, upon an absolute unity, which maintains itself through all the assertion and negation of difference which are essential to self-consciousness; and of this unity we must become conscious, if we would truly know ourselves. Unfortunately in attempting thus to turn back on its own ultimate presupposition, the mind finds itself engaged in what seems a self-contradictory task; for, the very effort of thought to realise its own principle, separates it from that principle, and produces a new division, which seems incapable of being referred to the unity which it is trying to grasp. We thus appear to be repelled from the unity by the very effort we make to approach it; for we are seeking to reach an identity above all difference by means of an intelligence to which the difference of subject and object is essential. To reach that unity, therefore, we must transcend even self-consciousness, and become nothing in order that we may find all things in God. For, in this case also, Plotinus will not allow that we can attain to the higher, if we carry anything of the lower with us, and our intelligence must expire in the love with which it grasps its object. His words are these: “When the soul becomes intelligence it possesses and thinks the intelligible, but when it has intuition of God it abandons everything else. It is like a visitor introduced into a lordly dwelling, who for a while is content to gaze upon its varied beauties, but who forgets them all when the master of the house presents himself; for the master, he finds, is no mere statue or ornament for a moment's wonder, but a presence that demands all attention for himself alone. Upon him, therefore, the visitor will steadfastly fix his eyes till, in the continuous intensity of his contemplation, he no longer sees the object he contemplates, but his vision becomes, as it were, incorporate therewith. Thus, what was at first a mere object of sight, becomes an inward seeing which shuts out even the memory of everything else he has ever seen. In order, however, to make the simile exact we must think of the master of the house not as a man, but as a God, and, again, we must think of this God as not merely appearing to the eyes of the visitor, but as filling his soul: for this alone will fitly illustrate the difference between that lower power of intelligence by which it contemplates what is in itself and that higher power by which, in a flash of intuition and inspiration, it grasps that which is beyond itself, first seeing it, and then becoming one with what it sees. And, while the former is the vision of an intelligence which still is in possession of itself, the latter is the intuition of an intelligence which is transported beyond itself by love. For it is just when it has drunk of this nectar which deprives it of understanding, that it is reduced by love to that simple unity of being which is the perfect satisfaction of our souls.”6

Observe further that, while Plotinus speaks of the soul divesting itself of all that divides it from God, even of thought, he does not hold that in doing so it is going out of itself to something strange or foreign; for God, in his view, is not ‘far from any one of us,’ but on the contrary, we truly come to ourselves only as we lose ourselves in him. “God,” says Plotinus, “is external to nothing and to no one, but is present even with those who do not know him: though they escape out of him, or rather out of themselves, and, therefore, are not able to see him from whom they have exiled themselves. Having thus lost themselves, how can they find another being? A child who is frenzied and out of his mind will not know his father. But he who has learnt to know himself, will know also the Being from whom he comes.”7 Hence it is only needful to remove the division we have ourselves produced in order to be at one with God. In an earlier lecture, I quoted the passage of Plotinus where he compares men to a chorus, which, though it encircles the choragus, yet sings out of tune when it turns away from him and looks outward to other things, but which, when it turns to him, sings in perfect harmony because it makes him its centre. God is our centre, from whom to separate ourselves is to be in discord with ourselves and with all things; while to be in direct communion with him is to attain perfect harmony and peace with ourselves and with the universe. The result, then, is that the ascent of man, as Plotinus describes it, is not an ascent into some region from which he was at first entirely separated: it is his ascent into himself, into self-consciousness, and, finally, into a consciousness of, or rather a contact with God, as that unity of our being which is even deeper than the self.

On this we may remark, in the first place, that Plotinus clearly recognises the distinction between what is potential in man and what is actually realised in him; and, secondly, that in the main, though not entirely, this distinction coincides with the distinction between the unconscious and the conscious—between that which man is and that which he realises himself to be. Up to a certain point at least, what is actualised in man is what he is for himself; and when we speak of anything in him of which he is not conscious, we are pointing rather to what he may become, than to what he actually is. From this point of view, we cannot give him credit, or at least full credit, for anything that goes beyond his own view of himself, and of the world to which he is related. He is what he thinks himself, and thinks himself what he is. Hence Plotinus maintains that men, as men, are identified with the discursive reason and its products, meaning that in their ordinary consciousness they know themselves and others only as beings who are external to each other in space and changing in time; and that, therefore, if we regard their actual attainments in this stage, we must look upon them as beings who are limited to this kind of existence and this kind of consciousness. Yet Plotinus holds equally that they have in them, involved in this very consciousness, a higher potentiality, and that to realise it, they do not need to he transformed, but only to be developed. They do not need to go out of themselves, but rather, so to speak, into themselves, or, in other words, to become conscious of their own real nature. Or, rather, if we are to put it exactly as Plotinus puts it, the process is not a development of something new, but rather a recovery of what they have lost. Their rise to something better is a return to their native origin; it is deliverance from a yoke to which they have subjected themselves; it is the removal of an illusion which hides them from their own eyes.

On the other hand, while the way upward for man is the way to a deeper consciousness of himself than that which he at first possesses, there is open to him also a way downward which involves the gradual darkening and extinction of that consciousness of himself which, as man, he still retains. The soul, by indulgence in sensuous passions, may immerse itself more and more completely in the material body, till the light of discursive reason dies out into the obscure sensations and instincts of the animal, and till even these are lost in the unconscious movements of the nutritive and reproductive life of the plant. For Plotinus—as against the view of Aristotle that each soul is relative to a particular organism—recurs to the Pythagorean or Platonic idea of transmigration. The soul, he argues, is everything potentially, and, therefore, can become anything. It can pass through all the grades of being from the lowest to the highest: it can ascend up to the absolute One, and it can descend till all consciousness, even in the form of sensitive feeling, is extinguished in it.

So far the ascent of man seems to be the development of a clearer self-consciousness, and his descent the obscuration of the self-consciousness he possesses. But this, in the view of Plotinus, holds good only within very narrow limits. For, in the first place, even the rise to what Plotinus describes as the purer self-consciousness of intelligence seems to involve the disappearance of self-consciousness in the ordinary sense of the word; since in the pure intuition of reason all memory and imagination, as well as all discourse of reason, are lost. The remembrance of the events of the earthly life of the individual and all circumstances attaching to his transitory individuality, must vanish from the consciousness that sees all things sub specie aeternitatis. Nor, indeed, can there remain in it any thought of the particular self as such. Hence the self of which the pure intelligence is conscious is simply the pure subjective unity of thought to which all objects are referred; and in this sphere objects are known only through the changeless ideas that are realised in them. The objects of such a pure intellectual consciousness are not the things of the immediate experience of the finite individual; and the self of which it is conscious in apprehending them is not the empirical self. Plotinus, indeed, asserts that in this pure consciousness the individuality of every particular intelligence is still preserved. But it is hard to see what this can mean. For, even at this stage the movement of ascent seems to be, not the rise to a higher self-consciousness—in which all that was present in the lower sphere is reasserted, though with a new light thrown upon it—but the recoil upon a simple intuition in which all that concerns the limited individual life is left out. It is a movement towards a more abstract, and not towards a fuller and more concrete, view of things.

And this holds still more obviously of the last movement of ascent to the immediate experience of the absolute One. Plotinus himself confesses that this, if it be in one sense a progress to a deeper experience, is yet a movement away from all definite consciousness either of the self or of its objects; and he even goes so far as to compare the indefinable and indeterminate nature of matter which is below knowledge with the equally indefinable nature of the One which is above it. “As it is asserted of matter that it must have none of the qualities of things in itself, if it is to receive equally the impressions of them all, so and in a much more absolute way, must the soul become formless, if nothing is to hinder it from being filled and enlightened by the nature which is before all others.”8 Are we then to say that the whole process of spiritual ascent is not a movement to a more full and concrete consciousness of reality, but simply a movement of abstraction, in which, one after another, every feature of the world we know disappears till nothing is left? And is the “presence deeper than knowledge” in which it ends only another name for the disappearance of the soul and all its contents in the absolute unity?

On this point two things have to be said. The first is, that the religious man's realisation of the deepest truth often takes a form which might without much inaccuracy be described as a “presence deeper than knowledge,” or at least deeper than his knowledge. In other words, in contrast with his ordinary dispersed and changing experience of finite things, the religious man has an immediate consciousness of a permanent power and presence of the divine, on which he rests, but which he is unable to measure. And when he tries to define what he experiences, expression seems to fail him. Sometimes, like a Hebrew prophet, he uses the highest images he can think of, only to declare their inadequacy; at other times he takes refuge in negatives to get rid of the apparent limitation of every affirmation. As in Dante's vision the whole universe was gathered round a central point in God, who yet at the same time was conceived as an infinite circumference embracing all things, so in the worshipper's heart God contains, and yet transcends, everything; and the double aspect of God as the One in whom all is lost, and yet the One in whom all is found, seems to be expressible only by asserting the failure of all expression. Thus what is really the deepest and fullest of all our experiences is apt to adopt the language of Agnosticism, in order to convey a meaning that seems too great for any form of words.

But, in the second place, we have to observe, that when the man who is thus inspired by “thoughts beyond the reaches of this soul,” declares that he knows nothing, he means the very opposite of what he says. He does not mean that his mind is empty, but that it is too full; and his revolt against the idea of knowledge is caused by his realising a deeper unity, and so a greater completeness of being, than that which is consciously present to him in what he ordinarily calls knowledge. He seems, therefore, to leave such knowledge behind him, as having no relation to the higher object that fills his soul. Nor does he realise that it is from the common consciousness of things and experience that he starts, and that his highest vision or intuitive feeling would have no meaning if it did not reflect back its light on the ordinary world of experience, and enable him, however imperfectly, to reconstitute his view of that world in accordance with “the pattern showed him in the Mount.” For it is, after all, with materials derived from the world of sense that we must build up our New Jerusalem; and the Divine Being whom we oppose to everything else, would be a mere abstraction, if we did not somehow refer all that is finite to him.

If once this truth be realised, it comes to be seen that the religious movement upwards cannot be a mere movement of abstraction; and that, if it be in one aspect a via negative, yet its negations always have a positive behind them. The defect of Mysticism, and especially of the Mysticism of Plotinus, is that it does not discern this; and that, therefore—if we follow out its characteristic way of thought to the logical result—it ends in a false isolation at once of the God worshipped and of the spirits that worship him. For the whole way upwards is described as one in which the spirit divests itself of one element of its life after another in order to adapt itself to the nature of the object with which it seeks to be united. In this sense, Plotinus compares the true mystic to one who, before entering into a shrine, has to purify himself from all the defilements of the world, and even to strip off all his garments, that he may leave behind him whatever is unworthy of or alien to the god. So must man in his upward progress divest himself of everything finite, even of things which in the lower plane of finite life were good and useful. Thus practical morality is regarded by Plotinus as simply a process of purification (κάθαρσις), by which the body and its passions are got rid of; and when once the cleansing is complete, the ethical life with all its virtues is to be left behind. Thus the practical gives way to the contemplative life, which, as we have seen, is emptied of all reference to the experience of the individual in this world. And, finally, even the contemplative life itself has to make way for an ecstasy, in which the soul is stripped of everything except the bare feeling of the divine. The ultimate result is a religion which, just because it has substituted itself for all other interests, has ceased to be the consecration of all action and all knowledge, and which, in being set against both, loses all its value even as a religion.

From this it appears where the error of Plotinus lies. It lies, not in the regressive dialectic by which he reaches higher and higher points of view, but in the fact that the higher point of view is taken at each regress to exclude the lower and not to enable us to correct the results won from it. It may give some additional force to this criticism, if we remark that the successive steps of the ascending movement of the thought of Plotinus have a close analogy to the stages in the development of the idealistic philosophy of Germany—an analogy which, however, conceals a profound difference of method. Thus both these movements begin in a perception of the defects of the ordinary consciousness, in so far as it conceives all objects as externally related to each other, and takes even the self as one particular object among others. And they both seek to correct this defect by calling attention to the universality of the self, to which in knowledge all objects are referred. When, therefore, Plotinus referred back the discursive to the intuitive reason, he was making the same kind of reflective regress upon the conditions of experience as that which was afterwards made by Kant when he brought to light what he called the Transcendental Unity of Apperception—when, in other words, he showed how the unity of the self is implied in all determination of objects as such. We may add that Kant made substantially the same mistake as Plotinus, when he regarded that relation of the world of experience to the self as showing that the world of experience is merely phenomenal. For thus Kant was led to isolate the bare unity of thought with itself from the unity of experience which depends upon it, in the same way that Plotinus severs the intuitive from the discursive reason.

The true lesson, as was shown by Kant's idealistic successors, was simply that we must not view any object as complete in itself apart from the mind that knows it. Hence, as Fichte already contended, the world of experience—which we at first take as a world of independent individual things conditioned by time and space and acting externally upon each other, a world whose elements are bound to each other only by external necessity—must ultimately be regarded as an organic system, which is so essentially related to the intelligence that all its parts and changes are phases in the self-determined life of that intelligence. In like manner, if Plotinus were right in regarding the perfect unity of intuitive reason as the presupposition of even our discursive knowledge of the world of sense, the inference is that the idea of the former must be taken, not as excluding the idea of the latter, but as enabling us to reinterpret it. In other words, the spiritual world must be regarded, not as another world to which we ascend by leaving the natural world behind us, but as simply the natural world viewed in relation to its principle.

Lastly, the regress of Plotinus upon the One viewed as an absolute unity—transcending even the division of subject and object which is found in the pure intelligence—is very similar to the step which Schelling took when he rose above the subjective Absolute of Fichte's earlier philosophy. For as soon as it had been proved that there is a real correlation between subject and object so that the consciousness of each implies the other, it became necessary to conceive the unity, to which the world is referred, as transcending the opposition between them. And the analogy may be carried farther. For Schelling, at least in his earlier writings, seemed to regard that unity as a centre of indifference, an Absolute of which nothing could be said, though it is the source both of the ideal and the real world, both of spirit and nature. It, however, soon became visible to Hegel, if not to Schelling himself, that the unity cannot thus be separated from the difference which presupposes it, but that both the real and the ideal process must be reinterpreted from the higher point of view of that unity. In other words, the idea of God would lose all meaning, if He were taken as simply a unity transcending all finite and particular existence, and not as a Being who realises himself in the whole process of nature and spirit.

It thus appears that modern philosophy has retraced the ascending path of Plotinus, and indeed, of the whole ancient philosophy which gathers to a climax in him. But the result is different, because in each step of this ascent the endeavour of modern philosophy has been, not to set the higher view of things in opposition to the lower, but rather to reconstitute the latter by means of the former. In other words, the ultimate tendency of modern philosophy has been not to separate spirit from nature, and God from both, but to see God as the principle from whom both come, of whom both in their difference and relation are the manifestation, and to whom through the whole process of their existence they return.

It appears, then, that the movement of Greek philosophy toward a deeper and deeper self-consciousness, ends, owing to the method of abstraction it follows, in the absolute negation of all consciousness. In other words, it is just because it separates the higher from the lower point of view instead of using the former to correct the latter, that, ultimately, it empties the higher point of view of all its positive meaning. For, when the intuitive unity of self-consciousness, with its ideal difference of the subject and the object self, is torn away from the discourse of reason with its external synthesis, and when the unity beyond the difference of self-consciousness in its turn is torn away even from its transparent difference, the ascent is made in such a way that the path of descent is absolutely barred. The πρῶτον ψεῦδοςof this method may be already detected in Aristotle's conception of the purely contemplative life of God from which all essential reference to the world was excluded. But, while Aristotle was content to take the world for granted, Plotinus was forced to face the difficulty of its origin. And, as we have seen, he could find no ground for the existence of anything other than God, except in the idea of a natural necessity by which the higher, though its activity is and can only be directed to itself, produces some lower copy of its own nature. But, in thus making the universe an accident, produced, indeed, by the divine, yet not because God is essentially self-manifesting, but only because it is somehow necessary, Plotinus practically revives the old Greek doctrine which puts fate above the gods. In other words, he escapes making matter independent of God, only to subject God to a natural law which is independent of himself. Thus Plotinus implicitly denies, what he seeks above all to affirm, that God is all in all, the source and end of all things.

And we must further note what is at least one of his motives for this denial. He is solicitous to guard against attributing deliberation or design to God in the creation of the world, because this would throw upon God the responsibility for all the evils and imperfections that are found in it. God creates because He cannot be and not create, and, therefore, the universe may be described as eternally begotten. Moreover, when it is begotten, it is not God that seeks it, but it that seeks God;κινεῖ ὡς ἐρώμενον, as Aristotle had said.9 Thus Plotinus involves himself in more than all the difficulties of the Aristotelian doctrine, which transfers the cause of motion from the object of love to the lover. Nor can the difficulty be removed by conceiving such love as a mere want, which is satisfied by the influence coming from its object. Love, indeed, is a want, but it is also a principle of activity that reaches beyond the want to its satisfaction; and the being in whom it is has a principle of movement in himself, and cannot be conceived as a mere matter for a form that comes from without. A fortiori the Being who is the ultimate source as well as the object of all love cannot be conceived as having no love in himself. Thus God must be regarded not simply as creating beings other than himself, but as realising himself in his creatures; for if not, their relation to him will be accidental and external, and He will not be their God. Thus the philosophy of Plotinus is the condemnation of the Greek dualism, just because it is he who carries it to its utmost point. It is the proof that we cannot so emphasise the transcendence of God in relation to his universe as to deny his immanence therein, without ultimately being led to the absolute denial that He is its God at all. Or, to put the same truth in its particular application, we cannot deny that God is essentially related to man, without also denying that man is essentially related to God.

Now, it may, I think, be shown that the doctrine which finds the universe, and especially the doctrine which finds humanity, in God, was implicit in Christianity from the first, and that it found expression in the development of Christian doctrine. At the same time, as it was by the aid of Greek philosophy, and especially of Neo-Platonism, that that doctrine was developed, it was impossible that the dualism which was so deeply rooted in Greek philosophy should not greatly influence that development. And we find, as a matter of fact, that this was so, and that, as a consequence, the very doctrine of reconciliation became itself the parent of a new dualism which deeply affected Christianity all through the middle ages, and has not ceased to affect it down to the present day.

Into this, however, as it lies beyond our present subject, we cannot yet enter. But it may help to deepen our view of the difficulty if, in the next lecture, we examine the way in which Plotinus deals with the problem of evil, and how, in doing so, he and his followers were brought into collision with the Christian Church.

  • 1. This view is closely connected with the ideas of Aristotle expressed in the De Anima (see Vol. I, p. 283 seq.). The first book of the first Ennead is almost a commentary on the De Anima.
  • 2. V, 3, 3.
  • 3. V, 1, 1.
  • 4. IV, 8, 8.
  • 5. VI, 5, 7.
  • 6. VI, 7, 35.
  • 7. VI, 9, 7.
  • 8. VI, 9, 7.
  • 9. In VI, 8, 15, Plotinus says, ἐράσμιον καὶ ἔρως ὁ αὐτὸς καὶ αὐτοῦ ἔρως, but in this passage he is avowedly using language which he admits to be not strictly accurate.