IN the last lecture we were considering the way in which Plotinus deals with the Absolute One as an exclusive unity to which we rise by negation of all finitude and difference, and which, from this point of view, is opposed to everything else, while yet it has to be conceived as the source from which everything else flows. And I pointed out that these two aspects of the One, as an all-exclusive unity and yet as the fountain of all existence, are not reconciled by Plotinus, but that he hides from others and from himself the difficulty of reconciling them, by alternating between the language of exact thought and the language of imagination, generally using the former when he is following the way upwards from the worlds of sense and intelligence to the One, and the latter when he is seeking to throw light on the process downwards from the One to the intelligible and sensible worlds. This formal difference in the mode of expression only imperfectly conceals the contradiction which arises, when the Absolute, to which all being and thought are related, is yet conceived as not in any sense relating itself to them. We have here in an intensified form a difficulty which had already risen in the Aristotelian philosophy, when God was defined as a purely contemplative activity, while yet He was at the same time conceived as the beginning and end, the first and final cause, of the universe. In Plotinus, this difficulty is doubled; for he regards God, the supreme unity, as lifted above even the contemplative activity of pure intelligence; while at the same time he has to explain how the Absolute Being, whose activity, so far as it is active, has no object but itself, should yet be the centre from which all being and thought are radiated. Further, we have to remember that this difficulty repeats itself at every stage of the hierarchy of existence. For while Plotinus always upholds the principle that a thing, so far as it is perfect, occupies itself only with itself or with that which is above itself, yet he equally maintains that it is just through this self-directed activity that it gives rise to a lower kind of being, which is its image or imperfect copy. To understand Plotinus is in great measure to discern the reasons which made him maintain this apparently contradictory doctrine.
Now I have already indicated how it is that he is so anxious to maintain the isolation of the divine unity, and to deny that it can have any outwardly directed activity. As the last great exponent of Greek dualism, he finds himself unable to think of any outgoing or transeunt activity of God, because in his view such activity would involve want and imperfection in God. He is ready, indeed, to repeat Plato's words that the Divine Being can have no envy in him, which should prevent the good that is in himself from flowing out to his creatures:1 but it is impossible for Plotinus to admit that God is occupied with them, or with anything but himself. Hence for want of the conception of God as a self-revealing spirit, Plotinus is obliged to fall back upon the unexplained necessity, of which I have already spoken, that the highest being should produce an image or imperfect copy of itself, which again in its turn gives rise to a still less perfect image, until at last we reach the lowest and most unreal of all existences.
Frequently this relation of the higher to the lower is represented as one of form to matter. From this point of view the first external product of the One is said to be an ideal matter in the shape of a potential intelligence; and this, by turning to the One that is its source, becomes developed into an active or actual intelligence. Thus, to take one passage for many, Plotinus says:2 “The first genesis of being is this. The One, being perfect so that it seeks and needs nothing, yet through its very perfection overflows, and its superabundance produces another than itself: but that which is produced turns itself towards the One, and, being fulfilled by it and contemplating it, it becomes intelligence. Thus, while its permanent relation to the One gives it being, its contemplation of the One gives it intelligence. Standing, therefore, in relation to the One so as to behold it, it becomes at once being and intelligence.” Thus the intelligence, as one with the intelligible world, forms the first stage in the hierarchy of ‘degrees of reality,’ which surround the divine unity.
But, in the second place, the pure intelligence, with the intelligible world which is its object, is declared to be too perfect not to produce another like itself, though inferior to it, namely, the world-soul; and here also the production is described as primarily the genesis of a potentiality, a soul in posse, which by turning to the intelligence becomes formed and realised. This world-soul is the lowest stage of the ideal or spiritual world, and it is distinguished from the intelligence in so far as in it the difference of one idea from another is more definitely actualised. In other words, instead of dwelling, like the intelligence, in one unbroken intuition of the whole, the world-soul moves from one idea to another, though still keeping up their unity with each other and overcoming or transcending the distinctions and divisions which it produces. This completes the Trinity of Plotinus, which, like that which appears in the theology of Origen, is a Trinity of subordination. But the process of descent still goes on, and the world-soul in turn produces the world of matter and change, into which individual souls are conceived as falling when they assume a mortal body.
In this material world, again, we find life showing itself in a descending scale which reaches down to plants and to inorganic things that have no life in them, and therefore no farther power of production. Yet even in relation to the inorganic also, Plotinus maintains the same contrast of matter and form; for he declares that in it, as in the higher degrees of reality, what first comes into being is something formless, and that this something receives a form by turning to that which has produced it. Only there is this difference, that what is produced in this lowest grade of being is no longer a kind of soul, but is lifeless and indefinite. In other words, what is produced at this stage is primarily pure matter, which becomes some kind of inorganic substance when it receives a form from that which is above it. Thus matter in itself, according to the Aristotelian conception, is only a potentiality and cannot be conceived to exist by itself; but still it is viewed as a substratum for images received from above, from that which has a higher degree of reality. Even this formless matter, however, is explained by Plotinus as owing its existence to the infinity of the divine power which carries its radiation to the utmost verge of unreality. In this, Plotinus makes a change in the earlier dualism of Greece: for, while still maintaining the division of form and matter, he refers the matter as well as the form to the One, or, what is the same thing, to some kind of being that springs from the One. Still, subject to this change, we have in Plotinus, as in Plato and Aristotle, the conception of a form realising itself in a matter which is inadequate to it, an ideal principle determining something other than itself, and therefore failing to realise its own ideal nature.
The most important difference of Plotinus from the earlier idealists is, however, this, that he carries up the distinction of form and matter into the ideal world itself,3 and thus is led to look for a higher principle of activity than even the intelligence; though the ideal matter of the intelligence is not conceived as interfering with its unity in the same way that the matter of the sensible world interferes with the unity of that world. Even for this, however, he finds a verbal support in the language of Plato, who had spoken of the idea of Good as “beyond being” and “above knowledge.” In so expressing himself, indeed, Plato did not mean to point to any transcendent unintelligible unity, except in the sense that the principle which is manifested in thought and reality alike, is beyond either taken abstractly. Still, we are obliged to admit that this last regress of Plotinus is only the legitimate result of the movement of thought by which, in Plato and Aristotle, the ideal world and the pure intelligence whose object it is, are separated from the phenomenal world in time and space, and even from the soul through which in that world the intelligence realises itself. For, if once we admit that the phenomenal world cannot be explained on purely ideal principles, and cannot therefore be apprehended in intuitive, but only in discursive thought, we must soon discover that even intuitive thought contains traces of difference and change, of a movement out of itself and a return into itself: and thus a further regress becomes necessary, in order to reach that pure identity in which alone, ex hypothesi, the mind can be satisfied. The fundamental error lies already in the first regress, namely, in regarding intuitive thought as capable of being separated from discursive thought, or self-consciousness from the consciousness of the world in space and time; for, when once this error has been committed, the farther error, of seeking for the absolute unity in something that transcends even the distinction of self-consciousness, is a necessary consequence. And out of this, again, springs the whole system of subordination described above, in which Plotinus begins with the absolute One, proceeds from it to the pure intelligence, and ends with the anima mundi which, as the lowest grade of the intelligible world, has to discharge the function of connecting it with the phenomenal world in time and space.
It appears, then, that the fivefold hierarchy of Plotinus with the unknowable Absolute at the top and the unknowable matter at the bottom of it—the one above and the other below knowledge—is the necessary consequence of the failure of Greek idealism to recognise that, in rising above the opposition of the pure intelligence and the consciousness of the world in space and time, what we are really seeking is not some ultimate abstraction in which all difference disappears, but rather a principle of unity which transcends and explains that difference. Such a principle is represented in the philosophy of Plotinus, as in that of Plato, by the world-soul. This, however, is regarded by them both, not as an expression of the essential unity between the ideal and the phenomenal worlds, but simply as a kind of bridge to connect two terms which it is impossible really to unite. But no such bridge is needed, if the absolute principle of unity be regarded not as an abstract One, which is complete in itself apart from the world, but as a unity which realises itself in all the differences of that world. Or, to put the same thought in a theological way, the true solution of the difficulty is that God should be conceived not as the head of a hierarchy of powers by the lowest of which He is connected with the finite world, but as a self-manifesting Spirit which realises and reveals itself in nature and in man.
Now if this be true, it is just in the excessive recoil of the Neo-Platonist from the materialism of the Stoics, as in the excessive recoil of Plato and Aristotle from the materialism of their day, that we find the reason why the idealism of Greece remained imperfect and unfruitful. For, in turning away from the material world as incapable of being idealised, they practically raised matter into the place of an independent substance. This result Plotinus, no doubt, attempted to escape by treating matter in itself as purely negative or non-existent, and by reducing the material world to a semblance—an image of being cast upon the darkness of not-being. But this expedient only reproduces the original error in another form; for, inevitably and in spite of all his reluctance, he has to treat this purely negative being as the positive cause of the corporeal conditions under which the soul realises itself in the world of sense, and of all the imperfection and evil which arise in that world. And, on the other hand, the ideal reality, just because it excludes such imperfection and evil, has to be regarded by him as something purely affirmative, which escapes all negation only by excluding all determination. In other words, it is reduced to an empty abstraction.
After what has been said, we may gather the peculiarities of the system of Plotinus under three heads: first, it develops to its extremest form the Greek dualism of form and matter, of the ideal and the sensible, of the pure and permanent unity of intelligence and the divided and changing world of sense: secondly, it thereby reduces the mediation between the two by the anima mundi into an external and therefore accidental connexion: and lastly, in consequence of the inadequacy of this mediation, it is obliged to seek its highest principle not in that soul, but in a transcendent Absolute, which has no connexion with anything but itself, although, as the highest principle, it must be conceived to be the first and the final cause of all things.
As to the first point, I have said that Plotinus develops to its extremest form the Platonic antagonism between the ideal and the phenomenal world, and this is true both as regards their content and their form. As regards the form, it is noticeable that Plotinus devotes much attention to the question of the categories, and that he is the first to draw a broad distinction between the categories of the intelligible and those of the phenomenal world.4 As to the categories of the intelligible world, Plotinus derives his list of them from the Sophist, where Plato discusses the relations of the ideas of being and not-being, identity and difference, permanence and motion.5 Plotinus, however, makes two changes in the scheme of Plato. In the first place, he omits the category of ‘not-being’ as not properly applying to the intelligible world, and puts in its place, as the category contrasted with ‘being,’ the notion of ‘thought’ or ‘intelligence’ (νοῦς). In the second place, he takes the six categories not as separate conceptions but as correlated pairs of opposites which are essentially united to each other. The categories of the intelligible world are thus in reality only three in number, and they express respectively the unity of identity and difference, the unity of permanence and motion, and the unity of intelligence and reality. They represent different aspects of that organic or super-organic nature which Plotinus attributes to the intelligible world, as a system in which the whole is present in every part, and in every part is conscious only of itself. Thus the pure intelligence is viewed as one with itself through all the differences of its objects, differences which, therefore, are no hindrance to its transparent unity. Again, its self-determined life combines rest with motion, or rather absolute permanence with unceasing activity, because it is an activity that never goes beyond itself. And this, finally, involves the complete relativity of the distinction between thought and reality; for the object, as intelligible, cannot be severed from the intelligence, nor can the self-consciousness of the intelligence be divorced from the consciousness of the intelligible world. By working out the unity of all these pairs of opposites Plotinus brings before us in the most forcible way that perfect interpenetration which he conceives as the essential characteristic of all the members or organs which partake in the unity of spiritual life. The perfect inwardness of intelligence in all its differences, as opposed to the reciprocal externality and exclusiveness of material objects, was never more vividly expressed. Here we have that idea of spirit by which St. Augustine was enabled to free himself from the materialistic conceptions of his earlier Manichaeism; and he who would realise its extraordinary religious power has only to read the Confessions, in which St. Augustine constantly returns to the language of Plotinus whenever he has to speak of the all-pervading presence of God.
So much for the form of the intelligible world, but what of its content? The intelligence, Plotinus answers, contains all things in their ultimate ideas. It thus contains in itself a real difference and multiplicity, which yet, because of its ideal character, offers no hindrance to the unity of its life. We find in it all the manifold kinds of being, each showing its distinctive quality, yet maintaining such perfect relativity to the rest, that they all are seen to be organs in one great organism. This conception of the transparent unity or perfect interpenetration of the ideal forms that constitute the intelligible world is anticipated by Plato; but what is characteristic of Plotinus is that this world is regarded not merely as a system of ideas or forms or even such a system as related to one mind, but rather as a system of minds, all of them embraced and contained in one supreme mind.6 The infinite Spirit is thus the living principle of an organic world of spirits, who ‘live and move and have their being’ in him: and while each of these spirits maintains its separate identity, they are all forms of the life of one great intelligence and, as such, each of them is transparent to all the others, knowing as he is known by an immediate intuitive vision. For, says Plotinus, “light is manifest to light.”7 It is as in Dante's heaven, where all the blessed read each others' thoughts in God without any need of words. In fact, the medieval conception of the hosts of angels and spirits of the redeemed, dwelling in a Paradise of pure light and harmony and enjoying the undisturbed vision of God,
“In regions mild of calm and serene air,
Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot,
Which men call earth,”
is only a somewhat sensuous reproduction of the Neo-Platonic idea of the intelligible world. It is a conception of one life ever pouring itself into diverse organs, yet never giving rise to any collision or conflict, because the unity of each with all and of all with each is never for one moment lost or obscured. In all this, however, Plotinus is only working out the idea suggested by Aristotle's account of God as a purely contemplative being, in whom the highest activity, as it is purely an immanent activity and has for its object only itself, is at the same time perfect rest, an ἐυέργεια ἀκινησίας. The great difference is that Plotinus answers a question which Aristotle leaves unanswered as to the relation of the pure intelligence in us to the divine self-consciousness, by making the life of God include and sustain the life of all the intelligences of which He is the centre; so that, instead of one solitary self-contemplative Being, we have a world of spirits.
The opposite counterpart of this pure unchanging heaven of intelligence is for Plotinus the material world, a world of beings which have no substantial permanence but are in perpetual flux from one mode of existence to another. For that which here takes the place of substance is matter, and that not the ideal matter of the higher world which gives rise only to differences that are transparent, but the baser matter which is ever in essential difference from itself and can never, except externally, be made one. This matter is conceived, indeed, in the first instance, as that which is purely receptive, which receives any image but retains none, a mere substratum in which one quality succeeds another without permanently determining it as this rather than that. As realised in such matter, the sensible world in a way repeats or imitates the spiritual world and has in it an image or semblance of each of its attributes. But the different aspects which in the intelligible world are in perfect unity with each other, become here separated and opposed. Thus a material body has a kind of unity through all its differences, but the unity is merely the continuity of extended parts each of which is outside of the others, and the differences appear as disparate qualities which are not connected with each other by any necessary bond. It has motion and rest, but its rest is merely a certain limited resistance to extraneous influences and its motion is a change in which it ceases to be one with itself, and turns into a quite different kind of body. Thus while the ideal substance is complete in itself and has no activity except in relation to itself, the material substance is essentially incomplete and can only exist in acting on something else or being reacted on by it. Its being is a continual becoming, a continual striving after that which it is not, and its life is a process to death. Again, while the ideal substance is essentially one with itself and eternal, the material substance exists in time and space, is external to everything else and even to itself. It is, therefore, in continual conflict with itself as with other things and beings, continually destroying and being destroyed by them. Thus the sensible world is supposed to be an imperfect image of the intelligible world, and every characteristic of the latter is reflected in the former in a broken and distorted way. All these deficiencies are supposed to arise from the fact that the form of the sensible world is external to its matter, and that its matter is absolutely indeterminate in itself, and communicates its indeterminateness to the form which is impressed upon it.
It might seem, indeed, that the dispersion, separation, and opposition which thus overtake the ideal forms as realised in matter imply in matter itself a positive power of changing and corrupting the forms, which is inconsistent with the purely negative and passive nature attributed to it. But Plotinus prefers to think of these characteristics as arising from the incapacity of matter to hold the forms in their original unity. Because matter has no form of its own to hold it together, it lets the forms imposed on it fall asunder into local separation and qualitative opposition. Moreover, this incapacity or negative nature of matter makes it incapable of being known. Matter is in itself essential unreality and evil, and it can only be grasped by the intelligence in the same sense in which we can say that we see darkness, or as we dimly recognise an indefinite something as lying beneath all our determinations.8 Our mind, indeed, shrinks from such an ἄπειρον, and feels a kind of horror vacui as it approaches it, as if it were drawn beyond the borders of being, and forced to contemplate absolute unreality and untruth. Yet we cannot escape, Plotinus holds, from the necessity of admitting its existence as the basis of sensible phenomena, as a mirror is necessary for the existence of images. And to it we are forced ultimately to attribute all change and decay, all evil and discord both in the material world itself and in the souls of men, in so far as they are immersed in the darkness of such a world.
Plotinus thus develops to the utmost sharpness of antagonism the Platonic opposition of the ideal and the material worlds. But he also tries, as I have already indicated, to work out Plato's doctrine of the soul as the mediator or link of connexion between the two. The world-soul, according to Plotinus, belongs to the ideal world, but it has also to take the place of a tertium quid or middle term between the unity of the self-complete intelligence, and the dispersion and change of the sensible world. Let us consider how he describes this mediating function of the soul. “On the one hand,” he declares, “there are existences which are essentially divisible and capable of endless dispersion. They are those in which no part is identical with another part or with the whole, and in which each part is necessarily less than the whole. Such are all sensible quanta that have corporeal mass; for each of them is confined to its own place, and none of them is capable of retaining its identity and yet occupying several places at once. Again, there is a substance which is entirely opposed in nature to those that have just been described, a substance which is undivided and admits of no division, and which is not capable even in thought of having its constituents separated from each other. This substance cannot be circumscribed in place or contained in anything else, either in part or wholly; for it is, as it were, incumbent upon all things, not as being sustained thereby, but because other things cannot exist without it. Again, it is always identical with itself; and in relation to all other things it is like the centre of a circle from which all the radii extend to the circumference, leaving the centre to abide in itself and yet deriving from it their origin and existence. Thus, although the radii diverge from the centre, they ever maintain connexion with it; and although they are divisible, their beginning or principle lies in the indivisible.”
“Now, between this substance which is altogether indivisible and occupies the first rank in the intelligible world and that sensible existence which is altogether divisible, there is a third nature which is not primarily divisible like material bodies, but which yet becomes divisible through its relation to them. Consequently, when such bodies are divided, the form which is immanent in them becomes divided also, yet in such a way that, while thus becoming manifold, it remains whole in all its parts, in spite of their separation from each other. We might illustrate this by the case of colours and other qualities and forms which communicate their whole being to many elements at the same time, yet so that each of them is affected in a different way; and which, therefore, must be regarded as falling under the head of divisible things.”
“We see, then, that in close connexion with that which is altogether indivisible, there is another nature which derives from it the character of indivisibility, but which, as it diverges from its original, is carried away towards the opposite extreme, and so comes to hold a mediating position between that which is indivisible and that which is corporeal and divisible. The illustration used above, however, is not altogether adequate; for the identity of this nature is not like that of a colour or any other quality which is repeated in many different extended objects; for in that case the quality in one of these objects is altogether cut off from the similar quality in another, just as extended objects are themselves separated. But such identity of quality cannot produce a real community or sympathy between the quite different things that partake in it; or, in other words, what we have in such a case is only a similarity of affections or modes and the substances remain different. But, on the other hand, the nature that comes next to the indivisible being, that is, the soul, maintains a permanent and substantial unity with itself, though it unites itself with bodies and so accidentally partakes in their division. Thus it is divisible, in so far as it animates every part of the bodies in which it is, and yet indivisible, because it is whole in all of these bodies and in each of them severally.”
“He who thus considers the greatness of the soul and its powers, will recognise how wonderful and divine it is, and to what a superior order of being it belongs: how, without having any extension, it is present in all extension, and how it occupies a place without being excluded from other places. Thus it is divided yet undivided, or rather it never really is or becomes divided; for it abides complete in itself, and is divided only in relation to bodies which, in virtue of their divisible nature, are not able to receive it indivisibly. Thus the division belongs really to the bodies, and cannot be attributed to the soul itself.”9
The world-soul, then, appears to Plotinus as a tertium quid which connects the intelligible with the sensible world, though it is conceived as belonging to the former, and only in a secondary way acquiring the qualities of the latter, in so far as it has to manifest its powers through material bodies. Thus, it is out of space and time, and it acquires both spatial and temporal characteristics only as it acts on the material world, and maintains its constant cycle of change. Yet we have to remember, on the other hand, that the material world itself, and the matter which is its potentiality, are conceived as necessary products of the soul. In itself, the world-soul is all but identified with the intelligence which it is conceived as continually contemplating; and its action upon the sensible world is not regarded as interfering with its purely ideal life. Further, just because it acts on the whole material world, and is not specially concerned with any particular part of it, the world-soul is free in its activity from all the opposition and conflict of that world; for there is nothing outside the universe which could destroy or in any way affect it. And even the particular souls which are included in the world-soul (just as all intelligences are included in the supreme intelligence), so long as they maintain their unity with the world-soul, are conceived as sharing in its own blessed life. At the same time, as particular souls, they are regarded as capable of falling away from it, and becoming bound up with special bodies, as Plato had already suggested in the Phaedrus; and then, though they cannot altogether lose their connexion with the soul of the whole, yet they become involved in all the vicissitudes of the body with which they have become identified. Their good seems to them to be one with the welfare of their particular bodies, and they are thus brought into conflict with other embodied souls which are filled with similar desires.
In this way the individuality of the particular souls seems to carry with it a possibility of evil, which becomes realised in so far as they are drawn down into connexion with particular bodies, and so are caused to forget their own universal nature. And in this association even that universal nature, which they cannot entirely lose, becomes perverted; and their very innate love of the One and craving for union with it, turns into an insatiable greed and a gigantic selfishness which makes them seek to drag everything to themselves. On the other hand, looking at this process from the opposite side, the fall by which particular souls are brought into connexion with material bodies, is also the process whereby these bodies are drawn up into a higher existence than properly belongs to them, and become the organs of human, or animal, or, at the lowest, plant life. For Plotinus follows Plato in maintaining that all forms of life are ultimately identical. The higher principle of soul is in them all, and the distinction merely means that the particular soul has had a less or greater fall, and has sunk into less or more forgetfulness of its divine origin. But such forgetfulness is never final, and it is possible for every soul gradually to retrace the process of its descent, and to rise from the lowest to the highest stage of finite existence. Nay, it is possible for it finally to become delivered from the body altogether and to be restored to its unity with the universal soul, with the universal intelligence, and finally with the Absolute One itself.
It is at once obvious that in this view of the soul we have a concentration of all the difficulties of the system of Plotinus. The soul comes in, as with Plato, to reconnect the material with the spiritual worlds, which have been set in such antagonism that they cannot be directly united. But, if it is to bind the two worlds, it must have something of the nature of both. The possibility of such mediation, however, is itself inconsistent with the absolute opposition of the terms to be united, and the link of combination itself tends to break into two. For the soul, after all, belongs to the higher world; and even when, by the aid of the general principle that the higher form of being always produces a lower copy of itself, we have supposed it to give rise to a material universe upon which it impresses the likeness of its own unity, we need also the supposition of a fall of the particular souls, ere we can bring them into the material world or conceive them as identifying themselves with particular parts of it. And this fall has again itself to be explained by something defective in the nature of these particular souls, which made it impossible for them to maintain themselves in the intelligible world to which they originally belonged—a defect which it is altogether impossible to explain, if the intelligible world is as absolutely separated from the material world as Plotinus maintains it to be. Or, if we adopt the other alternative, and refer the defect to a pre-existing matter which, if it exists, must be invaded by powers derived from the spiritual world, this only throws the difficulty a step farther back, and forces us to ask why matter itself must exist, and why perfection must produce imperfection. Why, if the One be complete in itself and perfect, need there be anything else besides the One? Or why, even supposing that the One must manifest itself in an intelligence and an intelligible world, must that intelligence go on to produce a lower manifestation of itself, which involves as a condition of its realisation the existence of matter—matter being essentially evil and producing evil in everything into which it enters as a constituent element?
The difficulty in which Plotinus is involved, as has already been indicated, was in itself insoluble; for it was impossible on his principles to discover any logical connexion between the material and intelligible worlds. He had insisted with such one-sided emphasis upon the opposition of these two terms that he was not able to discern the necessary relation that binds them to each other. The pure unity of the self-conscious intelligence is, indeed, as Plotinus saw, the opposite of the dispersion and self-externality of the world in space and time; but it is its opposite counterpart and cannot therefore in thought be separated from it. Hence they do not need any tertium quid to bring them into connexion with each other. Or, putting it otherwise, their difference and relation involve that they are complementary elements in one whole, and the unity of that whole is the only tertium quid required. It is the usual expedient of dualism to try to bridge the gulf it has made by putting some intermediate nature between the opposites which cannot be directly brought together; but, if the gulf really exists, such a middle term will contain in itself both the contradictory elements and will need another middle term to combine them. The only possibility of mediation for such an antagonism is that the opposites should be recognised as essentially related, and, therefore, as the differentiation of a higher unity. On the other hand, if the opposites be not regarded as related, except externally and through an intermediary, a farther division and abstraction becomes necessary. If we have, on the one side, the pure unity of self-consciousness maintaining itself through the difference of subject and object, and, on the other side, the essential difference and self-externality of the material world in space and time; and if these two be not regarded as necessarily united, we are driven in both cases to explain the combination of unity and difference in both worlds by the matter in which the unity is realised. Nor does it make any essential distinction that, in the intelligible world, we have an ideal matter which produces only a transparent difference, and in the sensible world a real matter which is capable only of an external synthesis.
The result of this failure of the mediation of the soul is that in the Plotinian scheme we have at the one extreme bare unity, and at the other bare difference, connected by a threefold mediation. In other words, just because Plotinus does not conceive the soul as the unity of the intelligence with the material world, but as a tertium quid that partakes of both, he is obliged on the one side to deny that the absolute unity is a unity of differences, or that it ever goes out of itself into the difference of self-consciousness; and he is obliged to deny, on the other side, that matter is ever really brought into subjection by the unifying principle in the material world. What he gives us, therefore, is a subordination-system, in which the attempt is made by many intermediates, to overcome the separation of absolute opposites, which cannot be brought into any intelligible relation with each other. And the assertion that the One is above, and matter is below existence and knowledge, only shows that the very idea of an intelligible world is destroyed by dualism, that is, by a theory which divides the world between absolute opposites and refuses to carry them back to any ultimate unity. Thus, to hold that there is, at the one extreme, a positive unity which is completely separated from difference, and which is not capable of being differentiated or determined even by itself, although it is somehow regarded as the source of all the fulness and multiplicity of existence, and, at the other extreme, an essentially negative manifold which cannot be unified, and yet which is somehow externally brought under the unity of ideal forms, is to heap contradiction upon contradiction. Yet all this is not more than the necessary result of the first step towards dualism which was taken by Plato. And, what is still more important, all this is the necessary result of the logic of Mysticism, in so far as Mysticism with one of its voices refers all reality to God, and yet with the other represents the finite existence which is thus negated as somehow subsisting apart from God, even if it be only in order to deny itself. For Mysticism, as we have seen, differs from Pantheism in this, that it does not follow its negative movement to the end; and, just because it fails to do so, it is unable to get beyond its negations to a new positive. In its intense religious concentration it would seem to claim everything for God and leave nothing to his creatures; yet it never loses the consciousness of their independent reality in that of their relation to him. Or rather, perhaps, we should say, that it is so afraid of lowering the divine by connecting it with the finite, that it gives to the finite a kind of independent, though shadowy and illusory existence, which is separate from the divine.
This attitude of mind reaches its extreme expression, and, we might even say, its explanation, in the theory that all moral and natural evils are to be referred to something which in itself is purely negative and unreal, but which yet, as an element in the life of the creatures, turns into the positive opposite of God. Mysticism is a religious experience in which the feeling of God is at its maximum of intensity, an intensity which defeats itself, because it absolutely refuses to expand into a consciousness of God in the world. To it God seems to be at once nothing and all things: nothing, because He transcends every definite form of reality, and all things, because nothing can be apart from him. Thus every word which it utters has instantly to be retracted on account of its inadequacy. Some of the finest expressions of this attitude of the soul—in which it seems to itself to be ever alone with God without any world between, and is alternately attracted and annihilated by his presence—may be found in the Confessions of St. Augustine. But when St. Augustine expresses his deepest religious feelings, we find that he repeats the thoughts and almost the very words of Plotinus. Thus in that great passage in which Augustine gives an account of his last conversation with his mother, Monica, about the life of the redeemed in heaven, he tells us how at first their thoughts tried to climb by means of images derived from the highest things in the natural world to some idea of the bliss of perfect union with God, and how, as they talked and expressed to each other their longing for it, they seemed for a moment “to reach out to it with the whole force of their hearts.” And he tells us how, after this moment of ecstatic feeling, words came again, and they tried to express what they had felt; and what they said to themselves was this: “Suppose all the tumult of the flesh in us were hushed for ever, and all sensible images of earth and sea and air were put to silence: suppose the heavens were still, and even the soul spoke no words to itself, but passed beyond all thought of itself: suppose all dreams and revelations of imagination were hushed with every word and sign and everything that belongs to this transitory world: suppose they were all silenced—though, if they speak to one who hears, what they say is: ‘We made not ourselves, but He made us who abides for ever’—yet suppose they only uttered this, and then were silent, when they had turned the ears of the hearer to Him who made them, leaving him to speak alone, not through them but through himself, so that we could hear his words, not through any tongue of flesh nor by the voice of an angel, nor in thunder, nor in any likeness that hides what it reveals; suppose, then, that the God whom through such manifestations we have learnt to love, were to be revealed to us directly without any such mediation—just as, but now, we reached out of ourselves and touched by a flash of insight the eternal wisdom that abides above all; suppose, lastly, that this vision of God were to be prolonged for ever, and all other inferior modes of vision were to be taken away, so that this alone should ravish and absorb the beholder, and entrance him in mystic joy, and our life were for ever like the moment of clear insight and inspiration to which we rose—is not this just what is meant by the words ‘Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord?’ ”
How deeply Neo-Platonism must have sunk into the spirit of St. Augustine, when, in describing the highest moment of his religious experience, he adopts almost verbally the language in which Plotinus tries to depict the mystic ecstasy of the individual soul as it enters into communion with the soul of the world!10
- 1. V, 4, 1.
- 2. V, 2, 1.
- 3. This ideal matter may have been suggested by the νοητὴ ὒλη of Aristotle. But Aristotle does not conceive his intelligible matter as entering into the objects of pure intuitive reason. Cf. Vol. I, p. 336.
- 4. The subject of the Categories is discussed by Plotinus in the first three books of the sixth Ennead, which really form a connected treatise. His views are explained and criticised with much insight and clearness by von Hartmann in his Geschichte der Metaphysik. See especially Vol. I, p. 135 seq.
- 5. στασις and κίνησις. Plotinus adopts the terminology of Plato by whom κίνησις is used in a general sense for all change or activity (see Vol. I, p. 213). Rest and motion in the proper sense are for Plotinus categories of the sensible world.
- 6. This was suggested by Plato, as we have seen (Vol. I. p. 217 seq.), but it is in Plotinus only that it is fully developed.
- 7. V, 8, 4. Cf. Whitaker, The Neo-Platonists, p. 63. See also p. 194, where the parallel conceptions of Dante are referred to.
- 8. I, 8, 4.
- 9. IV, 2, 1.
- 10. V, 1, 2.