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Lecture Twenty-second: The General Character of the Philosophy of Plotinus

PLOTINUS is one of the greatest names in the history of philosophy, the classical representative of one of the main lines of human thought; he is the Mystic par excellence. And what makes his Mysticism more important is that he presents it as the ultimate result of the whole development of Greek philosophy. Further, if we look to the development of thought after Plotinus, we can see that it was mainly through him, and through St. Augustine as influenced by him, that Mysticism passed into Christian Theology and became an important element in the religion of the middle ages and of the modern world.

What is Mysticism? It is religion in its most concentrated and exclusive form; it is that attitude of the mind in which all other relations are swallowed up in the relation of the soul to God. This conception may become more intelligible if we recall one or two points in the nature and history of religion. The relation of the soul to God—of the individual, conscious of his finitude, to the whole in which he and all other creatures are embraced, and to the principle or Being who gives unity to that whole—is not at first a clearly recognised factor, much less a predominant factor, in the conscious life of man. But it is always implied in that life; it is presupposed in all our consciousness of the world and of ourselves; and reflexion makes us aware that, without the recognition of it, we cannot understand either the intelligible world or the mind that knows it. Further, it is the fact from which religion springs; for it is just because this idea underlies all our consciousness that we are unable to rest in any finite object, or even in the whole world of finite objects, as complete in itself or as a perfect satisfaction of all our desires; and, for the same reason, we are equally unable to find such complete reality or such perfect satisfaction in the inner life of the self or in any of its states as such.

This inability to rest in the finite as its own final explanation, or to be satisfied with it as an ultimate good, is the real source of the superstitions that darken and confuse the life of the savage. It is the source, at a more advanced stage, of that imaginative effort to idealise particular objects, and, above all, to idealise man himself, which is the creator of mythology. Finally, as the reflective tendency, the tendency to turn back upon the self, gains predominance over the tendency to seek reality in external objects, it is the source of a subjective religion, such as appeared in later Israel, a religion that divests its God of every likeness to anything in the heavens above or in the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth, which, in short, removes from him everything but the bare nature of a thinking subject as such. In this latter religion God, as a spiritual being, seems to come close to the very self of man and to lay his hand directly upon man's inner life, upon “the very pulse of the machine”; yet at the same time to stand apart from him as another self, before whom “his mortal nature doth tremble like a guilty thing surprised.” “Whither shall I go from thy spirit, whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, there art thou: if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.” The thought of God's holiness, his utter isolation and stainless purity, and at the same time of a nearness to man which is yet complete separation from him, makes the worshipper shrink into himself with an awe of which he can only partly free himself by the most scrupulous obedience to the divine laws. For to think of the Absolute as spiritual, and yet as standing over against us like another finite subject—between whom and our own subjectivity a great gulf is fixed—is to have religion in its sternest form, a religion which may purify the soul from the base compliances of idolatry, but which at the same time is apt to petrify it in its isolation. In spite of its moral spirit, however, we have to recognise that this religion also, so long as it remains in its pure type, falls short of the idea of religion; for the worship of a God who is conceived as an abstract subject, though more elevating, is as one-sided as the worship of a God who is conceived purely as an object. And we cannot say that the principle of religion has become self-conscious, till God is clearly conceived as the unity presupposed in all being and all thought, the One who is alike beyond mere subjectivity and mere objectivity.

Now the Mysticism which finds its classical expression in Plotinus consists just in the predominant and even exclusive consciousness of this negative unity. God, for the Mystic, is the One who is presupposed in all, God as God, as the unity above the difference of subject and object, to which everything is related and which itself is related to nothing. The Absolute One is, indeed, necessarily conceived as the source of all that is; but, for Mysticism, the negative so decisively preponderates over the positive relation, that God and the world cannot be included in one thought. The religious consciousness thus tends to exclude and substitute itself for all other consciousness, leaving no place, or at least a quite separate and lower place, for any intellectual interest in nature or man as apart from the contemplation of God, or for any practical interest in secular ends, social or individual, apart from the realisation of God's life within us. Something of the same purely religious attitude of mind had been shown, no doubt, in later Judaism; but the Jew was always defended against the extreme of Mysticism by his strong sense of the separate personality of God and man, and, as a consequence, his vivid consciousness of moral obligation as involved in the worship of God. In Plotinus, however, the barrier between the infinite and the finite is thrown down, and the former is brought into immediate contact with the latter, so that every distinction and relation of the finite vanishes away. Religion ceases to be the consecration of life or of any of its secular interests, and becomes itself the whole of life—the gulf into which man throws all his earthly joys and sorrows, the anodyne with which he puts to sleep the energies of will and thought, all the cares of his divided life, and ultimately his divided life itself. For the one supreme desire of the Mystic comes to be this: to merge the consciousness both of the world and of himself in the consciousness of God, or rather, we should say, in God himself.

Now such a view, as I have already indicated,1 carries with it a complete inversion of all our ordinary thought. The ordinary consciousness indeed rests on the presupposition of a unity beyond all difference; but it does not directly set that unity before itself as an object, or at least, does not treat it as exclusive of other objects. Here, on the other hand, the unity is no longer presupposed, but made the immediate object of thought; and, in the direct gaze at it, everything, even the thought which makes it an object, seems to be cancelled. The world is not denied a lower kind of reality, but its interests are regarded as external to the higher life; and the soul, emptied of all finite content, can have no desire but to break down the last barrier which separates it from the divine.

At this point, however, there arises a peculiar difficulty of Mysticism, which tends even to confound it with its extreme opposite. For the mystic who finds everything in God seems to speak the same language as the Agnostic who finds nothing in him, or who finds in him only the negation of all that we can perceive or know or think. In the ascent to the divine unity, the mystic loses hold of everything by which he could positively characterise it, and when he arrives at it, it is with empty hands. He begins by separating from it everything that is material, removing from it every attribute which we attach to things conditioned by time and space. He is thus enabled to determine it as eternal and indivisible “without variableness or shadow of turning,” as resting ever in its own pure self-identity. But he cannot stop here; he must go on to deprive it of all, even ideal, activity. Thus, in the first place, he excludes from it all discursive thought, all thought which moves by inference from one point to another; for such discourse of reason, he contends, always involves incompleteness, involves that we pass from one imperfect notion to another, seeking to complete our consciousness of the object or to find an ultimate reason for it. Thus there remains only the possibility of a pure self-consciousness, such as Aristotle attributes to the divine Being, an intuitive consciousness which, in one supreme act of vision, sees the whole as one with itself through all its differences. But Plotinus declares that even such a consciousness as this, even pure self-consciousness with its transparent duality of subject and object, must rest upon a unity which is above itself. To find the absolute One, therefore, we must free ourselves from all the conditions of an intelligence which goes out of itself to any object, even if that object be immediately recognised as identical with itself. The absolute unity, which is the presupposition of all difference, is, as Plato had said, “beyond being” and “beyond knowledge”; for even the ‘I am’ of self-consciousness breaks away from it.

“Wherefore,” says Plotinus,2 “it is in truth unspeakable; for if you say anything of it, you make it a particular thing. Now that which is beyond everything, even beyond the most venerable of all things, the intelligence, and which is the only truth in all things, cannot be regarded as one of them; nor can we give it a name or predicate anything of it. But we try to indicate it to ourselves as we are able. When, therefore, in our difficulties about it, we say that it neither perceives itself, nor is conscious of itself, nor knows itself, it must be considered that, in using such language, we are getting at it through its opposites. Thus, if we speak of it as knowable and as knowing, we are making it manifold; while if we attribute thought to it, we are treating it as in need of thinking. If, indeed, in any way we suppose thinking to be associated with the One, we must regard such thinking as unessential to it. For what thought does is to gather many elements to a unity and so to become conscious of a whole; and this it does even when it is its own object, as is the case in pure thinking. But such a self-consciousness is one with itself, and has not to search beyond itself for anything; whereas, if thought be directed to an external object, it has need of that object and is not pure thinking. Thus that which is absolutely simple and self-sufficient needs nothing whatever, while that which is self-sufficient in the second degree, needs nothing but itself, that is, it needs only to think itself. And its end being only in relation to itself, it makes good its own defect and attains self-sufficiency by the unity which it gives to all the elements of its consciousness—having communion with itself alone and directing all its thought to itself. Such consciousness, then, is the perception of a manifold content, as indeed is indicated by its name (συναίσθ ησις = conscientia); and the thinking which is presupposed in it, when it thus turns upon itself, ipso facto finds its unity broken: for even if it only says, ‘I am in being,’ it speaks as one who makes a discovery, and that with good reason, for being is manifold. Thus when in the very act of apprehending its own simple nature, it declares ‘I am in being’ (ὂν εἰμί), it fails to grasp either being or itself… It appears, therefore, that, if there is something which possesses absolute simplicity, it cannot think itself.”

“How, then, are we to speak of it?” asks Plotinus. “We speak, indeed, about it,” he answers, “but itself we do not express: nor have we any knowledge or even thought of it. How, then, can we speak of it at all, when we do not grasp it as itself? The answer is that, though it escapes our knowledge, it does not entirely escape us. We have possession of it in such a way that we can speak of it, but not in such a way that we can express it; for we can say what it is not, but not what it is. Hence we speak of it in terms borrowed from things that are posterior to it, but we are not shut out from the possession of it, even if we have no words for it. We are like men inspired and possessed, who know only that they have in themselves something greater than themselves—something they know not what—and who, therefore, have some perception of that which has moved them, and are driven to speak of it, because they are not one with that which moves them. So it is with our relation to the absolute One. When we use pure intelligence, we recognise that it is the mind within the mind, the source of being and of all things that are of the same order with itself; but we see at the same time that the One is not identified with any of them but is greater than all we call being, greater and better than reason and intelligence and sense, though it is that which gives them whatsoever reality they have.”3

In these words we have a picture of the embarrassment of the mystic when he tries to say what is that divine unity which is above all things. He is obliged to dismiss, one after another, every predicate as inadequate, and to characterise the One as the negation of all things other than itself. Even the names ‘Good’ and ‘One’ he finally has to reject as expressing rather what it is in relation to us than what it is in itself. And to say that this relation is negative, and that, for instance, we call it ‘One’ simply in opposition to the multiplicity of the finite, does not enable us to escape the difficulty; for a negative relation is still a relation, and must have some positive basis. Nor would there be any meaning even in denying a predicate of a subject with which it had no point of community.

If, therefore, we are to cut off all such community between the Absolute and Infinite and the relative and finite, we cannot even negatively relate the former to the latter. But thus we seem to be landed in the abyss of Agnosticism, and to have lost the last characteristic by which our thought could take hold of the Absolute. We cannot even determine it by negation of the finite, but have to go on to deny even our negative predicates. Such failures in our speech as to the Absolute are for Plotinus explained by the fact that the Absolute is not presented as a definite object but παρουσίαν ἐπιστήμη ς κρείττονα4 in an immediate contact which is above knowledge. What we are speaking of is too near to us to become properly an object for our thought, and when we try to make it an object, we fall away from it. And the difficulty seems to be that while in every movement of our thought we always presuppose it, we are always looking from it to something else, and to look directly at it, and to realise it in itself, is for our consciousness to return, as it were, to the source from which it sprang, and to lose itself therein. It is to still all the movement of the world without and of the soul within, and to be filled with God alone. It is, in the expressive language of Plotinus, the “flight of the alone to the Alone,” of the spirit divested of all finitude to the absolute One.5

In Plotinus then we see in an extreme form the religious inversion of man's ordinary consciousness. Our ordinary consciousness rests, indeed, as all intelligence must rest, on a presupposed unity, but it seldom makes that unity the direct object of thought, still less separates it from all other objects, as that which is central, all-inclusive and all-transcending. Nor does religion at first altogether change, though it may modify, this ordinary way of thinking. Rather, in spite of occasional movements of feeling, in which the infinite, as it were, breaks in upon the finite, it on the whole remains a secular consciousness, for which the world is a collection of independent things and beings, and the good of man's life still seems to lie in a number of separate interests—of which religion is only one, though it may be one of the most important. God is not yet represented as the absolute One, in whom we and all things “live and move and have their being.” Thus we seem to move from one thing to another, from one interest to another, while the all-encompassing circle, within which all objects and interests are comprehended, can hardly be said to exist for us. Our thought rests on difference as the primary fact—on the difference of one thing from another and of the self from the not-self—and, if the unity be recognised at all, it is as a unity of external relation or synthesis. It is a great step in advance, nay, it is like a rending of the veil under which the meaning of life is hid, when it is realised that all the differences of our consciousness presuppose its unity. And it is not unnatural that when this consciousness first arises, it should appear in a one-sided and exclusive form. Mysticism, as it is expressed by Plotinus, represents the first overpowering realisation of this idea, in which no place, or at least no logical place, is left for any other thought. We can, therefore, understand how it is that he dwells so much upon the conception that the One is always with us and within us, though we seldom realise its nearness. But, just because we do not realise this, our life, he contends, is disorganised and at discord with itself, or rather with a principle in it which is deeper even than the self. We look outward instead of looking inward, and we look inward instead of looking upward. Our first is that which ought to be last, and our last is that which ought to be first.

The only way, therefore, in which we can put ourselves in harmony with the truth of things and of our own being, is by an entire inversion of the usual attitude of our consciousness. “A soul that knows itself,” he declares, “must know that the proper direction of its energy is not outwards in a straight line,” that is, out from itself to an object, “but that it moves in that way only by external influence; while the movement that really conforms to its nature is round about a centre, a centre which is not without but within it. In this, its true movement, then, it will circle round that principle from which it derives its life, and will attach itself to the same centre to which all souls ought to cling. To that centre the gods always move, and it is because they so move that they are gods; for that which is closely attached to the central principle is divine; while a soul that withdraws itself from that centre sinks into a man with his complex and animal nature.”6 Yet Plotinus bids us remember that all this is merely an analogy; for the soul is not a circular figure in space, nor does it move in a circular course, and what is expressed by this metaphor is a relation of spiritual nearness and dependence. We have therefore to use the analogy without forgetting its difference from the thing illustrated. For “bodies by their nature cannot enter into real communion with other bodies, but incorporeal things are not kept apart by corporeal obstructions. If they are separated from each other it is not by place but by difference and antagonism of nature, and when this disappears they are immediately present to each other. Now the One, having no difference in it, is, therefore, omnipresent; and we are always present to it, except in so far as we alienate ourselves from it. It, indeed, cannot make us its aim or centre, but it is itself our true aim and centre. Thus we are always gathered around it, though we do not always turn towards it. We may compare ourselves to a chorus which is placed round a Choragus, but which sings out of tune so long as it directs its attention away from him to external things; but when it turns to him, it sings in perfect harmony, deriving its inspiration from him. So it is with us: we are always gathered around the divine centre of our being; and, indeed, if we could withdraw from it, our being would at once be dissolved away, and we should cease to exist at all. But, near as it is to us, often we do not direct our eyes to it. When, however, we do so direct our gaze, we attain to the end of our desires and to the rest of our souls, and our song is no more a discord, but, circling round our centre, we pour forth a divinely inspired chorale. And in the choral dance we behold the source of our life, the fountain of our intelligence, the primal good, the root of the soul.”7

This passage is a good illustration of the way in which Plotinus becomes possessed with a sacred enthusiasm which turns his words into poetry, whenever he tries to express the relation of the soul to God. I quote them, however, for another purpose, namely, as expressing very clearly his view that the usual attitude of the soul is essentially perverted. In the ordinary consciousness, we take shadows for realities, and realities for shadows; we are equally blind to our own nature and to the nature of the things around us. The beginning of wisdom for us, therefore, is to renounce all that from this false point of view we seem to know. Still, even when we do make this renunciation, we are at first like men who turn from the reflexions of light in other things to the sun, and who, though they are looking at pure light, are so dazzled by it that they can see nothing at all. So, in turning our souls to the unity, which is the presupposition of all our consciousness of other things, we lose sight of every image of sense or imagination, and we are even carried beyond all the definite thought by which we distinguish one object from another. We are, so to speak, in perfect light, where we can see as little as in perfect darkness. For all definite thought of objects or of ourselves is got by distinction of elements within the whole, and when we turn our thoughts to the unity of the whole itself, we can find nothing by which to characterise it. Even the attempt to characterise it by negation, as we have seen, is self-contradictory: for that which is negatively related to the finite, is still finite. Thus the inmost experience of our being is an experience which can never be uttered, or which becomes self-contradictory whenever it is uttered.

This is the difficulty with which Plotinus is ever struggling, and we might say passionately struggling, using all the resources of intellect and imagination in the effort to exhibit and overcome it. To this he returns again and again from new points of view, as if driven by the pressure of a consciousness which masters him, which by its very nature can never get itself uttered, but which yet he cannot help striving to utter. He pursues it with all the weapons of a subtle dialectic, endeavouring to find some distinction which will fix it for his readers, and he is endlessly fertile in metaphors and symbols by which he seeks to flash some new light upon it. Yet in all this struggle and almost agony of effort after expression, he is well aware that he can never find the last conclusive word for it; and he has to fall back on the thought that it is unspeakable, and that his words can only be useful if they stimulate the hearer to make the experience for himself. “God,” says Plotinus, “is neither to he expressed in speech nor in written discourse; but we speak and write in order to direct the soul to him, and to stimulate it to rise from thought to vision, like one who points the upward road which they who would behold him have to traverse. Our teaching reaches so far only as to indicate the way in which they should go, but the vision itself must be their own achievement.”8 In other words, we can stimulate men and set them in the way to realise what is the inmost fact of their being; but we cannot reveal to them what everyone must discover for himself, because it lies beyond sense, beyond imagination, and even beyond intelligence, and can only be realised in an ecstasy of unutterable feeling.

There is, however, a certain ambiguity about such expressions, which it is important for us to clear up before we go further. For, up to a certain point, the language of Mysticism and the language of Pantheism are identical with each other, or separated only by subtle differences which it requires some discrimination to detect. Thus the words of Tennyson—

“That which we dare invoke to bless,

Our dearest faith, our ghastliest doubt,

He, They, One, All, Within, Without,

The Power in darkness whom we guess”—

might seem to express only that mingled certitude and despair with which Plotinus approaches the ultimate secret of spiritual life; but they really indicate something more. They are the utterance of one who seeks God in the world and not out of it, though in the failure of language to express the fulness of his consciousness of the Infinite in the finite, he is forced to borrow the language of an Agnostic. The positive meaning, however, is perceptible through the negation, though Tennyson is still something of a mystic.

But hear another voice in which the Pantheistic note rings out more clearly. When in Goethe's Faust Gretchen questions the hero of the play whether he believes in God or no, the answer is: “Who may name him, or who can venture to declare ‘I believe in him?’ Who can feel him, and who can dare to say: ‘I believe in him not?’ The All-embracer, the All-sustainer, does He not embrace and sustain thee, me, himself? Does not the heaven arch over us and the earth stand firm beneath? And do not the eternal stars arise and look down upon us as with the eyes of a friend? Do not I see eye to eye with thee, and do not all things at once press home upon thy heart and brain, and weave themselves together in eternal mystery, visibly, invisibly, around thee? Fill thy heart full with it, and when thou art entirely wrapt up in the bliss of feeling, call it what thou wilt, call it joy, heart, love, God. I have no name for it: feeling is all in all; names are but noise and smoke clouding the glow of heaven.”

All this seems at first closely akin to the ecstasy of Plotinus, but there is an essential difference which reveals itself when we look more closely. We have passed with Goethe from the transcendent God of Mysticism to the immanent God of Pantheism, from Plotinus to Spinoza. But the likeness and difference of the two systems is such that it may be useful to dwell for a short time upon the comparison of them.

Spinoza, like Plotinus, rises to the assertion of the one substance by negation of all that is finite, and for him all that is determined is finite. It is his doctrine that ‘determinatio est negatio,’ and that, therefore, to get rid of all negation we must drop all determination. But thus the ultimate reality will be absolutely indeterminate, and in seeking for a purely positive or affirmative being, a substance which is beyond all limitations, we seem to be landed in the most abstract of all negations. Spinoza, however, immediately identifies the idea of the indeterminate with that of the self-determined, the causa sui, which is perfectly determined by itself, and, therefore, receives no determination from without, but is rather the source of the determination of all other things. And, on this basis, he proceeds to treat the one substance as manifesting itself in an infinity of attributes and modes. It is, indeed, an important question, whether in this second process he does not contradict the first or, in other words, whether, in the movement downwards, he can consistently reassert the reality of that which in his movement upwards he has denied to be real. But for my present purpose I need not farther explain or criticise the logic of his system. I need not ask whether Spinoza has justified his transition from the indeterminate to the self-determined, or whether, in his negation of the limits of the finite, he still leaves it open to himself to admit a reality in finite things, which is not negated: whether, in other words, he has a right on his own principles to conceive of the absolute substance as manifesting itself in attributes and modes. In any case it is very clear that he does so conceive it, and that for all those finite things, which he treats as negative and illusory in themselves, he finds in God a ground of reality, of a self-assertive, self-determining, self-maintaining being, which can as little be destroyed or annihilated as the divine substance itself. Nay, we may even say that for Spinoza the divine substance is not, except as it is in them. Spinoza's philosophy is, therefore, a true pantheism. Everything is lost in God, yet in a sense everything is again found in him. And God, as is indicated in the oft-quoted phrase Deus sive Natura, is conceived as the immanent principle of the universe; or perhaps we should rather say the universe is conceived as immanent in God. When, therefore, it is said that Spinoza is ‘not an Atheist but an Akosmist,’ in other words, that he denies the reality of the world but not of God, this, if it be the truth, is not the whole truth. For to Spinoza both movements of thought—the movement by which he dissolves the finite in the infinite, and the movement by which he finds the finite again in the infinite—are equally essential. If for him the world be nothing apart from God, on the other hand, God is nothing apart from his realisation in the world.

Now this Spinozistic solution of the difficulty is not possible for Plotinus. With him the via negativa involves a negation of the finite or determinate in all its forms, which makes it impossible to find the finite again in the infinite. The Absolute One decisively repels the many, and cannot in any way admit difference or multiplicity into itself. Its unity, therefore, must be conceived not as immanent but as transcendent. And if it be still connected with the determinate and manifold, it must be only as its external cause or source, and not as a principle which manifests itself therein. The One must, indeed, be the fountain from which all being springs, but it cannot be the reality into which all other existence is taken up and absorbed. Plotinus is, therefore, not a pantheist but a mystic; and though he refers everything to God, yet he cannot, like Spinoza, treat either the material or the spiritual world, either extension or thought, as the attributes of God. Hence, if in the upward movement of his logic, Plotinus distinctly leaves behind every order of being, even the intelligence, and in a sense condemns them all as unreal, yet this with him is no merging of all or any form of finitude in the infinite. Thus we have the strange paradox that the Being who is absolute, is yet conceived as in a sense external to the relative and finite, and that He leaves the relative and finite in a kind of unreal independence, an independence which has no value, and yet from which it as finite cannot escape. These words, indeed, as we shall see afterwards, do not express the exact thought of Plotinus, but they may serve sufficiently to indicate that aspect of his system which I am trying to illustrate, namely, that while he thinks the true attitude of the soul to be one in which the light of reason is extinguished in the ecstasy of union with God, he at the same time regards the spiritual world as in some way coming out from God, and even as repelled into difference from him. The soul seeks to lay down the burden of its finitude, to escape from the body and to rise above all the interests of its finite life; even of its very consciousness of self it would divest itself, as of something that still shuts it out from God. But this last barrier is so strong that the soul cannot, except for a few favoured moments, forget its separate existence. Thus we have, on the one side, a life which is nothing apart from God, and which, nevertheless, can never be united to him, except as it loses itself altogether; and, on the other side, an Absolute, which yet is not immanent in the life which it originates, but abides in transcendent separation from it. It is this contradiction which gives a kind of troubled intensity to the writings of Plotinus and makes them the supreme expression of Mysticism.

  • 1. Vol. I, p. 34.
  • 2. V, 3, 13.
  • 3. V, 3, 14.
  • 4. VI, 9, 4.
  • 5. VI, 9, 11.
  • 6. An allusion to the θηρίον ποικίλον καὶ πολυκέϕαλον of Plato (Rep. 588 c). Cf. Phaedrus, 230 A.
  • 7. VI, 9, 8.
  • 8. VI, 9, 4.