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Lecture Twenty-third: The Place of Plotinus in the Development of Greek Philosophy

IN the last lecture I tried to define the position of Plotinus as the great representative of Mysticism. I showed that up to a certain point the logic of Mysticism and that of Pantheism were alike. Both point to an absolute unity which is presupposed in all existence and in all knowledge; and both regard it as essential to a true view of things that the consciousness of this unity should be awakened, and that it should he treated as the basis of everything else, the principle upon which all other truth depends. Both, therefore, follow the via negativa, and regard our ordinary view of finite things as one that must be abandoned, and even inverted, by him who would know the reality which is hid beneath appearance. But here the similarity ends. For, in the first place, the Pantheist—at least if we take Spinoza as representing Pantheism in its most characteristic form—is one who thinks it possible to have knowledge and, indeed, scientific knowledge of the Absolute; while for Plotinus the Absolute is beyond knowledge, and can only be apprehended in an ecstasy in which all distinct thought is swallowed up and lost. And, in the second place, Spinoza, though he agrees with Plotinus in maintaining that we must transcend our immediate consciousness of things in order to reach the Absolute, yet contends that neither the ideas of matter and mind, nor even those of individual minds and bodies, are in this process finally negated and abolished. On the contrary, they are taken up into our thought of the Absolute and reproduced from it. If, therefore, all things, as represented in our immediate experience, are treated as illusory and unreal, yet it is held that there is a higher point of view from which we can see all things in God, and that, as so seen, they have a divine reality. On the other hand, though Plotinus holds that all things and all minds presuppose the absolute unity, and that we can understand neither the world nor ourselves except in relation to it, he cannot admit that it is immanent in them or they in it. Rather he conceives the One as complete in itself apart altogether from the natural, and even from the spiritual world; nor will he admit that either sense or intelligence can apprehend God in his essential being. Hence the universe is for Plotinus a hierarchy of powers stretching up from the darkness of matter to the light of pure intelligence; and even the highest of these powers is regarded only as a product of the Absolute and not as in organic unity with it. These powers, indeed, to use a favourite metaphor of Plotinus, are at best but the images placed outside the temple, which cannot express or represent the perfect beauty of the God within. As for the Hebrew religion there was a Holy of Holies, into which the High Priest could enter only once a year, so for Plotinus the One is a God that hides himself, and can only be apprehended by the spirit in the rare moments when it has stripped itself of all finite conditions, and even of its conscious intelligence.

Now at first it might seem impossible to explain this view of Plotinus without falling back on some eastern influence. When we consider how Plato regarded the vision of the poet and the prophet as, indeed, inspired, but an inspired madness—in other words, as a kind of intuitive perception which could give no intelligible account of itself, and was therefore far lower than the reflective insight of the philosopher, it seems absurd that Plotinua should appeal to him, as the founder of a philosophy which maintains that we approach nearest to the divine in an ecstatic state of feeling in which all definite thought is lost. When, also, we remember how Plato exalted the dialectical process, as enabling us to reach a comprehension of the universe, not as a bare unity nor as a collection of separate elements, but as an organic system, in which the whole should be known through the distinction and relation of all the parts, it seems strange that Plotinus should attribute to him a theory which separates the highest unity from all difference and regards the world not as an organism, but as a hierarchy of degrees of reality, rising up to an Absolute which transcends them all. Still less, it might be thought, can we find anything like the Mysticism of Plotinus in the definite conceptions and clearly articulated logic of Aristotle, whose God is self-conscious reason, and whose interest is so far from being absorbed by theology, that it extends to every form of finite existence. And, if in the Post-Aristotelian schools we find a narrowing of such interests and a tendency to concentrate on the subjective life of the individual, yet a system like that of the Stoics, which laid such emphasis on the unity of all things, and especially on the ultimate identity of mind and matter, and which regarded God as immanent in the universe, could hardly be supposed to have much affinity with a philosophy which separated the material from the spiritual, and withdrew God altogether from the world. Looking at the history of Greek philosophy in this way, we might be disposed to regard the Mysticism of Plotinus, not as the culminating phase of Greek thought, but rather as a complete transformation of it by some powerful influence from the East.

A closer view of the facts, however, enables us to see that the philosophy of Plotinus was no product of the East, but the legitimate outcome of the previous history of Greek speculation; and that, however Eastern influences may have affected it, they acted only as favourable conditions for its own development. It may, I think, be shown that the idea of the transcendent and unknowable unity of the Absolute is simply the final expression of that dualistic tendency, which had been working in Greek philosophy from the time of Anaxagoras.

The first step in this direction is taken in the Philebus and Timaeus in which the intelligible world of ideas, which is eternal, unchanging, and in perfect unity with itself, is set in opposition to the world of sense which exists in time and space, and is therefore essentially manifold, ever in conflict with itself and perpetually changing. Further, while this intelligible world in its unity is identified with the divine intelligence, the world of sense is regarded as having its basis or substratum in an infinite or indefinite something which Plato seems to identify with space or with that which gives to phenomena their spatial and temporal character. And, in connexion with this, Plato already gives expression to an idea which was to play a great part in Plotinus, the idea that the sensible world is a mere image or semblance of the ideal world, and that matter is the quasi-substance in which this image is reflected, and in which it takes its peculiar form. Lastly, Plato maintains that, while the intelligible world is the object of pure intelligence, the sensible world is apprehensible only by sense and opinion. We are not, therefore, to take the world of sense and opinion as objectively identical with the intelligible world, or the intelligible world as only the world of sense perfectly understood. On the contrary, it is his view that the sensible world cannot be apprehended by the pure reason, for it has in it a material element which can be grasped only by a kind of ‘spurious intelligence’; in other words, we can only explain it by imperfect analogies borrowed from the relations of things in the sensible world itself, such as the clay used by the artist to mould his figures, or the passive mirror in which reflexions are cast from without Hence it follows that the sensible world in its spatial and temporal existence, its self-externality and change, has something which permanently baffles conception and definition.

This contrast reappears in an even stronger form in the philosophy of Aristotle. It is true that from one point of view Aristotle corrects the negative conception of the world of sense to which Plato tended. He refuses to give that world up to opinion and reclaims it for science, which can, he holds, grasp the inmost nature of each of the substances which belong to it, and determine their essential attributes. He holds further, that, even when such demonstrative science is not possible, we can still trace out the effects of the action and reaction of substances upon each other either universally or in the generality of cases. Even in the sphere of human conduct, where contingency takes the largest place, we can find law and order. What is even more important, Aristotle, stimulated probably by his biological studies, shows a tendency in some passages to do away with the fundamental contrast between form and matter, or to reduce it to an opposition of elements which are correlative with each other. He is, however, unable to maintain this point of view or to work out an organic conception either of the world in general or of the nature of man. And the very fact that he has given to matter a more positive character than it had from Plato, in the end lands him in a more pronounced and definite dualism. This is shown both in his conception of the relation of reason to the other elements of human nature, and in his view of the nature of God and of his connexion with the world. For reason in man is conceived as an absolute intuitive power, which yet has to realise itself in and through the sensitive nature which belongs to him as an animal; and all the speculative power of Aristotle is taxed to bring together these irreconcilable elements. In like manner, the pure self-consciousness of God, in which subject and object and the activity that relates them to each other—νοῦς, νοητόν and νόησις—are perfectly unified and which, therefore, is complete in itself without reference to any other object, cannot logically be conceived as going beyond itself to create the finite world of movement and change. For though the latter involves the former as that on which it depends for its existence, the former cannot be regarded as involving the latter, or as in any way essentially related to it. The world in time and space is a realisation of the pure unity of thought in a matter in which it can never be perfectly realised; but the existence of such matter seems in no way to be accounted for by the purely ideal principle of thought. Thus we are obliged to refer the world to God, but God seems by his nature to have no need of the world, and, indeed, to be incapable of acting upon it. In short, there seems to be no reason for the existence of the world at all—except the presupposed matter, which, if it exists, cannot but come under the dominion of the universal principle in so far as its nature admits.

When, however, philosophy has reached this point a further regress becomes necessary. If we can abstract from the relations of the pure self-consciousness of God to the world in space and time, this means that we can break away the self from the not-self, the pure unity of self-conscious thought from the manifoldness and externality of the objective world. And this step was taken in the Post-Aristotelian philosophy. In particular, the Stoics sought to fortify the individual against all the chances and changes of the world by teaching him to retire into himself, and to treat everything that was not in his own power as unnecessary and without value for him. It is true that the Stoic conceived himself as in his inmost being one with the Universal Reason, and therefore with God as the principle of the Universe, and that in this unity all distinctions, even the distinction of mind and matter, seemed to be transcended. But as his conception of God was not less abstract than his conception of the self, the idea of unity with God could add nothing to the idea of unity with self. To live in harmony with nature, both with the nature of the world without and with the nature of the self within, meant, therefore, nothing more than to treat every particular object and end as indifferent, and to fall back upon the simple ‘I am I’ of self-consciousness as complete in itself and self-sufficient.

But this immediately suggests another question and prepares the way for a further regress. If we confine self-consciousness to itself and treat it as a complete whole, which needs nothing else for its fulfilment, must we not carry our abstraction further? It was simply by reason of the division and opposition, the vicissitude and change, which are the characteristics of the world in space and time, that Plato and Aristotle regarded it as an imperfect world, a world that does not conform to the demands of the intelligence, and cannot, therefore, be regarded as altogether real. But can we escape such division and antagonism, vicissitude and change, by confining ourselves to the pure intelligence and its κόσμος νοητός? Does not self-consciousness itself involve division and opposition between the subject-self and the object-self—a division and opposition which is no doubt immediately transcended in the perception of the identity of the two factors, but which must exist in order to be transcended? If such difference and opposition can exist, and yet be overcome and brought to unity, why might not the same be conceived to be possible in the case of the difference and opposition of the world in space and time? If, on the other hand, it cannot be overcome in the latter case, why should we expect to find the problem more easy to solve in the case of the intelligence itself?

In one aspect of it, the antagonism between the subject and the object in self-consciousness is not the easiest, but the most difficult, of all antagonisms to reconcile, just because the opposites are not external to each other, but brought together in the essential unity of one life. Is not the greatest of all divisions our division against ourselves, the most violent of all conflicts the battle we have to wage with ourselves? What are the struggles of opposing forces in the outward world to the struggle of the solitary spirit with itself? When the soul withdraws itself from its conflict with the world, does it not often find a worse enemy within, than it had ever to face without? If we take self-consciousness in its concrete form, we soon discover that in it the universal or spiritual nature of man is at war with the special feelings and desires of the individual. If, on the other hand, we endeavour with the Stoic to purge self-consciousness from all that is particular, to raise it above all the perceptions and desires that belong to the individual as such, and to identify it with a universal reason which seeks to know and to realise nothing but reason itself, we find that it becomes emptied of all content or meaning whatsoever, except that which it derives from the very particular consciousness it rejects. Hence by a necessary dialectical transition the Stoic's pride or consciousness of inward strength passes into its own opposite and becomes a consciousness of absolute weakness and dependence on that which is beyond itself. Thus, as we have already seen, the spiritual bankruptcy of Scepticism is the necessary result of the recoil upon the abstract self which cuts it off from every external support. With the Stoic the soul was raised to an absolute pinnacle of self-confidence by the denial of value to every particular object or interest that could influence it. But such self-confidence is close upon self-despair; and it becomes self-despair so soon as the subject, thus isolated in its subjectivity, begins to comprehend its own isolation. The Sceptic needs only to realise what he means by his own admission, that the negation of knowledge applies to the subject as well as to the object, and what we may call the comedy of Scepticism turns into tragedy. The spectator who stood aloof and watched the process of self-contradiction in which all opinions and dogmas, all objective truth and reality, were dissolved, is himself drawn upon the stage to experience the fate of the puppets he was watching. If the world we behold without is an “insubstantial pageant,” we ourselves to whom it appears must be “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Now it might be said that if the consciousness of the pure subject as such be found to have no completeness or reality in itself, any more than the consciousness of the object, the true resource is to regard them both as factors in a unity, which lose their meaning when torn away from each other, but have their value restored to them, when they are brought together as elements in one whole. According to this view, it is just by rising to the consciousness of the absolute reality of the one principle which is present both in object and in subject, both in the world and in the mind that knows it, that we learn to estimate aright the relative reality of these elements.

We may illustrate this point by reference to a controversy which has arisen in our own time in reference to the Logic of Hegel and its connexion with the other parts of his philosophy, especially the philosophy of Nature. That Logic ends with the conception of a pure self-consciousness in which all the differences of the object and the subject have become transparent, or are seen to be the essential differentiation and manifestation of the unity of the self. And the next step taken by Hegel in the beginning of his philosophy of Nature is to set up the opposite of this ideal unity, namely, the conception of the objective world determined as in space, and therefore as existing in limitless self-externality.

Now this step has often been objected to by critics of Hegel as involving a mauvais pas, that is, as an attempt to puss from thought to reality by a transition which has no logical rationale. In reality, however, this step is only one, and perhaps the most obvious, of the results of the Hegelian principle of dialectic, by which the complement of an imperfect conception is sought in its opposite; and the idea that such a step is illegitimate is closely akin to the fundamental error of the Greek dualism. In truth, we cannot separate the pure unity of self-consciousness from its correlate, the world in space and time; any more than we can conceive unity without multiplicity or the positive without the negative. Either the whole conception of the nature of thought, as it is expressed in the Hegelian Logic, must be rejected, or this step must be taken as one of the most luminous and natural illustrations of it. In other words, the whole process of Hegel's philosophy is a movement from the abstract to the concrete: it is a process in which the statement and solution of the simpler differences and antagonisms of thought gradually leads to a deeper, more complex and comprehensive view of the subject. It is, therefore, quite in accordance with his usual method that, when he reaches the idea of self-consciousness as purely and transparently one with itself in all the diversity of its subjective and objective aspects, he should at once proceed to that which is obviously the opposite counterpart of this, the continuous self-externality of the world in space and time. And the whole further course of Hegel's speculation is just an attempt to show that even this greatest of all antagonisms cannot be understood, except as based upon a still more complex and concrete unity: in other words, that the consciousness of self and the consciousness of the not-self cannot be made intelligible, unless they are both referred back to that which is deeper and more comprehensive than either, the consciousness of God.

To this point I shall have to return. For the present I refer to it only to illustrate by contrast the process of thought by which the Stoic gave rise to the Neo-Platonic philosophy. For the movement of speculation in Greece took a course directly opposed to that of the dialectic of Hegel. In other words, the progress of Greek philosophy was not from the abstract to the concrete, but rather from the concrete to the abstract. In the Post-Aristotelian philosophies it made a regress from the object upon the abstract subject, and endeavoured to treat the life of that subject as complete in itself. And when in turn the bare self of the subject was shown to be, in its isolation, insufficient for itself and self-contradictory, the Neo-Platonist sought to find truth by a still further regress upon the unity that is presupposed in the duality of the life of the subject, the bare One, which is beyond all difference and division. The One was, therefore, taken in its abstraction, as having in it no difference or division, not even that of the pure self-consciousness. Yet at the same time, this unity had to be conceived as the source of all things and therefore as containing them virtually or potentially in itself. Hence we have the strange contradiction in the Mysticism of Plotinus, of which I have already spoken. For, on the one hand, Plotinus isolates the Absolute from everything and refers it to itself alone, and prohibits us from regarding it as requiring the existence of anything else than itself, or even as having any relation to such existence. From this point of view, therefore, we have to think of it as so self-contained and complete in itself that our consciousness of it falls entirely outside of it. Thus we cannot properly attach any name to it, cannot call it even ‘the One’ or ‘the Good,’ lest we should bring it down into relation with that which is other than itself. Yet, on the other hand, it is the very dependence of all other things on something beyond them that has made us assert its transcendent being; and we are obliged to think of it in relation to them, in order to regard it as absolute. Hence, from this point of view, we have to take the names by which we call it as expressing its true nature; we have to regard it as really the One, the beginning or first principle from which everything else springs, and as really the Good, the end to which everything else tends. We have seen a modern philosopher, Mr. Spencer, driven into the same impasse, just because he is compelled to treat the Unknowable, to which he refers back all things, as also the creative force which manifests itself in all things. And, indeed, the difficulty is one which is familiar to us in some phases of ordinary religion, which refers all things to God, and yet is afraid to speak of any necessity in God's nature to reveal himself in and to the world, lest such necessity should seem to make him dependent on that which is not himself.

What, however, we have here specially to notice is that the peculiar form taken by the philosophy of Plotinus is due just to its being a kind of summary, or concentrated expression, of the whole movement of Greek philosophy. Plotinus represents the universe as distributed into a series of stages or degrees of reality, reaching up from matter to God; and in these different stages we have, as it were in an abbreviated form, the different stages in the development of Greek thought. In particular, we have to notice that he reaches his Mysticism not directly but through a previous Idealism, and we may add, through a previous Spiritualism. He is first of all an idealist who, like Plato and Aristotle, maintains the supreme reality of form as opposed to matter, of the intelligible essences or principles of things as opposed to the contingency of their particular manifestations. But farther, already in Plato and still more distinctly in Aristotle, these universal forms are conceived as gathered up and concentrated in the intelligence, as the principle of the intelligible world, which is eternally realised in God and capable of being realised in all rational creatures and therefore in man. Aristotle, indeed, did not especially connect his view of reason in man with his conception of the divine reason. But the Stoics, who regarded reason as at once a universal principle and as constituting the self of every individual, familiarised the world with the idea of a civitas deorum et hominum, in which each member is an independent, self-determining being. And Plotinus, as he enters into the inheritance of Greek philosophy, accepts the Stoic doctrine of the supreme reality of spirit, while he breaks entirely with the simple identification of spirit and matter, by which the Stoics attempted to escape from dualism. He falls back, therefore, upon the spiritualism of Plato's later philosophy, and maintains the reality of the intelligence and the intelligible world, as above and beyond the world of appearance and sense, and as the source and end of all its life: and also, like Plato, he finds in the soul of the world and the soul of man a mediating principle which connects the former with the latter.

But, again, while he thus takes up the position of an idealist or spiritualist as against materialism, and in the sharpest way opposes the pure intelligence, which abides in itself and is eternally in unity with itself, to the world of spatial externality and temporal change, which is ever in conflict with itself, he has learnt from the development of Post-Aristotelian philosophy to regard the regress upon thought, upon intelligence, upon subjectivity, as only a stage on the way to a still deeper reality, to an Absolute which in its unity is beyond even the difference of self-consciousness. Hence, while he develops the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and gives to their idealistic and spiritualistic system a sharper and fuller expression than it had found in their own writings; while he gives new definiteness to that substitution of the unity of the intelligence for the unity of ideas which is suggested in Plato's later works; and while he works out the hints of Aristotle as to the opposition between the intuitive and the discursive intelligence much more fully than is done in the Metaphysic and the De Anima, he is not content with these results, but hastens on to what seems to him a still higher point of view, and, after turning Idealism and Spiritualism against Materialism, he ends by turning Mysticism against both.

Yet none of these points of view is so insisted upon as altogether to set aside the others; and even the material world, though reduced to a world of shadow and appearance, is still left as a distinct stage of being, outside the spiritual world; while the spiritual world and the Spirit that includes all other spirits in itself, are also maintained as a distinct sphere of being, from which finally we climb up to the One which is above being and above knowledge, and which in one way excludes and in another way includes everything else.

This account of the genesis and nature of the system of Plotinus at once suggests a special difficulty, for which he was bound to find some kind of solution. We have seen that his upward progress depended upon a negative logic, like that of Spinoza, by which all difference and determination were gradually removed as involving something finite and defective. At each successive stage, therefore, the process was supposed to get rid of an element of unreality and dependence; for, while the lower always has need of the higher, the higher is regarded as having no need of the lower to support or manifest it. Hence, when we arrive at the highest, it is treated as having no need of anything but itself. Such a process, however, is one which cannot be reversed, and it seems as if in ascending, Plotinus had drawn up the ladder after him and left himself no possibility of descending again. Yet as the existence of the lower forms of being is not denied, and the highest as absolute is that from which every other form of being must be derived, some way downward has to be found. The One, as complete in itself, has no need to create; nay, it seems as if it would be a contradiction to its essential nature that it should create. Yet it has created, and Plotinus is bound in some way to account for the fact, and to cut the knot if he cannot untie it. And it is all the more necessary for him to do so, because the same problem repeats itself at every step of the way downwards.

Now a full explanation of the views of Plotinus on this subject would carry us beyond the point we can reach in this lecture; but one remark may be made by way of preparation, namely, that the logical movement of Plotinus, the movement in which he is guided by definite and explicit thought, is always upwards; while, in describing the movement downwards, he has to take refuge in metaphors and analogies, the full meaning of which is never explicitly stated or realised. These metaphors and analogies, indeed, often involve a quite different principle from that which is expressed in his account of the way upwards. To put this point more definitely. In the upward process we have, as has been indicated in the last lecture, simply the ordinary dialectic of the finite—that dialectical movement of thought which is initiated, whenever it is discerned that finite things are fleeting and unreal in themselves; or, in other words, that every definite form of existence or thought, when taken as a res completa, becomes self-contradictory and forces us to look beyond itself for a deeper principle of reality. Further, this dialectical movement is taken by Plotinus in a purely negative sense; and it is not suspected by him that what, in one aspect, is negated, must in another be taken up into that higher reality which is reached by negation of it. Consequently, the end which Plotinus ultimately reaches is the absence of all determination; it is that to which we cannot even give the name of the One, except by opposition to the multiplicity which is set aside.

On the other hand, when Plotinus attempts to show how the infinite One gives forth the successive phases or degrees of reality down to the lowest, his idea of its completeness in itself seems to prevent his achieving his purpose or conceiving it as in any way going beyond itself to them. And in defect of any logical transition, he is obliged to have recourse to images which, if they mean anything, imply that the One is not the self-centred Absolute which it was described as being. “The Good or the One,” says Plotinus, “cannot look to anything but itself: yet it is the fountain of all actualities and makes them like itself, yet without any activity directed toward them.” How, then, are we to throw light on the conception of such an inactive principle which yet is the fountain of all activity? Plotinus objects to the Gnostic idea of emanation as involving that the One goes beyond itself; but yet he tells us that it, “as it were, overflows, owing to its excessive fulness of reality, and so produces another than itself.”1 More frequently he compares it to the sun which, he asserts, gives forth light and heat without in any degree losing by its radiation. There is a “radiance that shines out around it while it abides in itself, as the sun has a bright halo round it, which it continually produces, though itself remaining undiminished.”2 And he even goes on to set it forth as a general law that everything that exists must beget some other existence which is dependent on it as an image on the original. “Thus fire produces heat, and snow does not retain its cold in itself. And above all, things that are sweet-smelling are an evidence of this; for, as long as they exist, they send forth a scent into the surrounding air which is enjoyed by all beings that are in the neighbourhood. Everything in its perfection generates another, and that which is eternally perfect has an eternal generation, producing ever something lower than itself.”

Now it is at once evident that such metaphors either prove nothing at all, or they prove the reverse of what Plotinus seeks to establish. For, in the first place, I need hardly say that no material thing can act and send forth an influence without ipso facto exhausting some of its latent energy; and the idea that the sun pours forth light and heat without any diminution of its resources, only shows the immature state of physical science in the time of Plotinus. But, even overlooking this point, there is a false abstraction in the attempt to divide between what a thing is and does in relation to itself, and what it is and does in relation to other things. What is indicated by such metaphors, is not that anything has an outgoing or transeunt activity which is altogether different and separable from the immanent activity that constitutes its real being; but rather the reverse, namely, that nothing exists except as it manifests itself, and that the very idea of a self-directed activity, which only accidentally produces an external effect, is irrational and baseless. Least of all can we think of the Absolute as having an external effect which is not necessarily involved in its own nature. The metaphors of Plotinus, therefore, so far as they show anything, seem to show that an absolutely self-centred and self-directed activity is impossible, or possible only so far as the Being to whom it belongs includes all other being in his own. In any case, they give us no real explanation of the problem they are intended to solve, namely, how God, who is absolutely complete in himself, can yet be the source of existences which are external to him and not included in the process of his own life.

  • 1. V, 2, 1.
  • 2. V, 1, 6.