Questions for the Great Plotinus

1 What is the One?

The One is the Good, the superessential and the superabundant. The One is one because of the rule of Prior Simplicity. Everything is resolved into a greater coherence, and the greatest coherence is absolute and perfect, complete, beautiful oneness. All being derives from the One, all good.

2 What is Nous?

Nous is Intellect or Divine Intellect, or Mind. It is the real of Real Being, being first of all Beings and the second divine hypostasis. When that which emanates from the superessential One returns in proper contemplation to the One, the Forms, the Archetypes are eternally generated as a coherent image of the One, for Divine Intellect contemplates the One, and in its mind this contemplated object is the Forms, also mighty beings. They do not exist in Mind as a set, full of diversity and variety, but are the one coherent Reason for all diversity and variety.

3 What is World Soul?

Soul, or World Soul, or the All is the third divine hypostasis and the last, and weakest. So abundant is Nous that from it also emanates that which turns back and in contemplation of the Intellectual Form generates the undivided but distinguishable forms. World Soul is Nature, in its lower parts, and nourishes the world of objects where when form is joined to matter, forms become distinct, separate. From World Soul emanates a dream, as it were a mirror, and in this mirror are reflected the forms that it generates by contemplating Divine Intellect.

4 What are Forms?

Forms exist at each level except the One, which is absolutely one and nothing else. The Forms of Intellect result from the Intellectual matter, which emanates from the One, as it turns in contemplation. They are a generated compound of intellectual matter and One. World Soul, which is the spiritual matter emanating from Intellect, beholds these forms and generates in turn forms, as the Forms of Intellect meet it, creating the substance of soul. Forms are the principle of intelligible coherence in a thing. We must think of them according to their substance, which is not physical, has none of the degenerate separations that create space about it. We must rise in abstraction to their contemplation, and by moving our consciousness higher in World Soul, a part of which our souls are, distinguished from it by being united to matter in body, we must contemplate the forms of Intellect, and thereby rise to contemplate the One. This is to have the intellectual satisfaction of understanding at such a high level that everything below it is intuitively graspable and to have the wisdom of knowing the what is good.

5 What is better, the acorn or the oak?

The acorn, for it contains the principle of what follows and has not degenerated into a loss of simplicity and union by acquiring more substance and growing.

6 What are the two movements?

There is the movement away and the movement back, and that is all. The first is downward for it is away from its source, and it is a degradation. The second is upward for it is back, and it is ennobling. The second is contemplation, the first privation. Matter, being the last movement away, is absolute privation and thus it is metaphysical evil. It is the disposition utterly away from the Good, how than can it be anything but evil? When matter receives form then you have shapes and qualities and objects, and in so far as matter participates in Form it returns and rises and it is a good. But it is an image in a mirror, which is dreamed by World Soul, and remember, it is a mirror that does not exist. We must not be seduced downward, but return in contemplation of the higher, not the lower.

8 What is the Self?

Divisions within Soul produce the various souls which are the forms of human being. Just as there is a higher and a lower World Soul, in keeping with the two motions, there are higher and lower portions of each human soul. The higher is concerned with gazing along with World Soul, of which it always remains a part, at Nous. The lower nourishes corporeal substance, and ministers to the body that which comes from the realm of Intellect: Form. Our consciousness, now, slides between the two polarities of the lower and higher soul. It is dragged down by the appetites and passions, which it ought to leave to run with as little attention as possible, and not be trapped, distracted or much less habituated to the corporeal demands for satisfaction. Instead it should detach itself from the lower soul and seek the higher, closer to the World Soul of which it is a part, directing its attention toward higher things: Contemplation of the Nous. This is virtue, as attention to the lower is vice.

9 What is matter?

Matter is that which receives forms. World Soul’s power is weakness, and its emanation is weak: nothing can come from it, for it is essential nothingness. Matter is primal evil in that it is impassible, neither desiring nor responding to form, but being that last movement away which is also nothing. Without form you have no shape, no color, no quality, nothing. That which receives form, receives these things, and that we call matter. When matter receives form we have the world of our senses, but if we propose that the forms must inform matter and provide everything, including substance, then we must say that matter is nothing, absolute privation, primal evil.

10 What is wrong with the Gnostics?

There are three things. First is that they are ignorant and incoherent. I would say they do to the divine Plato what Christians say they do to their Scriptures. There is no Hellenism in them, no logic, no rigor, no examination, no close discussions of the technical terms of Aristotle, no wrestling with the difficulties of ancient philosophy but only irresponsible uses of chimerical suggestions. They are doctrinally incorrect, for there are three divine hypostases, and no more. The second thing is that they are irreverent. They do not accord to the divine what is due to it: they have no fear to make up absurdities and ascribe inelegancies that are completely arbitrary. They say what ought not to be said. The third is that they do not appreciate the order and beauty of the physical world, and so manifest their contempt of Form and the higher which is manifested in the lower. You can’t do that without turning on the Good. The whole thing is rubbish.

11 What is a good Platonic joke?

You know that Platonists believe in transmigration of the soul. We say that the greatest punishment for the bad is to be reincarnated as an oyster, do you know why?

12 Why?

Because an oyster lives in a cave of his own making.


August Plotinus

Walking on the summer sidewalks that are yellow from all seasons, hearing the tired but uninterrupted ring of insects, seeing the train on the embankment above me rushing neither with engine or caboose but simply an abrupt column of articulated aluminum tubes, the same no matter which direction it goes in, and reading Plotinus, I think of that image which is time, that flux under the aegis of an archetype being produced by the contemplation of Eternity.

Late August in Philadelphia

Already the oaks are casting their acorns. The yellow leaves of walnuts are descending, and soon the walnuts themselves will thud. Signs of the times and the descent of school.

Philadelphia seems to stay in the low eighties when the humidity is low in the summer, and the skies are deep blue and everything remains green, or has this year. When the humidity is high, it does not settle for low eighties but enters the brutalities of heat, a stagnation full of the mindless noise of insects. I am hoping that this coming week’s warmth is the summer’s last hurrah, and for the lash of rain to mitigate it.

Then let autumn come: more clothes to wear, hot tea, baking and soup, the decline of daylight, the bare branches in the cold wind, the all-embracing winter that brings us all the spectrum of blue light. As high summer is a realm of stagnation, of the multiplication of spring brought into dissolution, autumn returns to contemplation. And winter is the realm of thought.

In Tune with Plotinus

One Ennead down, five to go. The introductory material I’ve read was excellent. O’Meara was difficult, but followable and clear enough. Plotinus is not a reducible philosopher, and that’s a great difficulty in introducing one. He’s like Charles Williams, naturally resisting popularization. O’Meara has done astonishingly.

I must say Armstrong’s Loeb translation is jolly helpful too. The brief introduction is a compact correspondence to O’Meara and the footnotes are bright and crucial. I don’t think I could have come a better way. I feel wonderfully in sympathy with the Great Plotinus. I thought reading Enneads would be a thing of pushing and pushing hard, but I am not pushing myself all that much now that I’ve got a measure of how he goes. The things he talks about and where he goes with them pulls one along. It is my cup of tea. I am in sympathy and I am being transformed.

And matter is primal evil.

One has to grin. Matter is not primal evil, but one see’s his point and can say matter is. He is so very almost entirely right that one does not have to wonder why this meant so much to St. Augustine. You know what’s also helpful about Armstrong, besides pointing out all the quotation and allusions to ancient philosophy? Pointing out the places where the Confessions make use of something.

How Plotinus Is Done

I spent two early hours reading two difficult chapters on an introduction to Plotinus. It was intense effort. Afterward I did a little Latin and then a hundred pages of a trifle of a book, then some more on Plotinus, reading carefully, thinking, making sure I had each step of the argument. I covered a lot of territory but few pages in a way I haven’t done since I was reading Jonathan Edwards back in the day. And this was slower.

Plotinus is a tough nut to crack. If you pick up the Enneads and start at the beginning you are liable to get nowhere at all. He is of such a strange world, that I don’t think most of us could just come to him. Maybe if you’d been doing ancient philosophy you could, but I haven’t. And he did not write well.

Plotinus advanced the conversation though. He took Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the commentaries and he moved forward on what he could. Not many people do that. But it is tough even to know which direction is up in his world. I’m hoping after this lucid and rigorous introduction I’ll be able to proceed, but Plotinus is tough.

So tough, that now I’m getting into him I’m finding people’s mistakes about him. It happens anytime you do history: you find discrepancies in the accounts, more than just interpretations. There are people who are not interested in reading the primary sources and there are people who are. (Do not read history by the first.) But there are people who are interested in reading the primary sources who are not interested in finding out what the writer was after, what he wanted to do. They are interested in completing their system, in putting a piece in a place they need a piece for. Such a one, for example, appears to be Peter Kreeft. It is probably an uncharacteristic error. He’s good on lots of things, specially Plato whom he obviously loves. He interprets, it seems to me, Aristotle to be more of a Platonist than perhaps he ought, but that’s for all I know a valid interpretation. Anyway, I can’t really judge that, and the truth is that Kreeft cares more about the divide between ancient and modern philosophy, which makes distinctions between ancient philosophers indiscernible cracks. But what he says about Plotinus on the body and matter is wrong; he nearly makes Plotinus out to be a Gnostic. You can see why he does it: Plotinus is unexpected and subtle. Besides being that, he says in one place matter is not evil and in another that it positively is. Apparently he believes matter is evil, but only when it does not achieve form. Having form is what matter is for, and it should be attentive to that and not degrade itself. He believes humans are bad when they are distracted from higher things to material things, so that material evil comes before moral evil; mater is the reason for moral evil. It sounds to me oddly like the fall in Origen: the souls were bored with the bliss of contemplation, they looked elsewhere, they fell. In Plotinus matter seduces soul by little slips, and gradual turns, leading to more of matter and less of form, or mind. At least that’s how it was explained by O’Meara, if I understood him correctly. And it seems Plotinus had a higher place for beauty and ugliness than he did for good and evil. That’s a hunch on my part, but this would explain how to take him.

Now I have to read the primary material and see what I get from that, if anything–Plotinus is tough, I may founder. There are now sufficient introductory materials where I think I’ll be able to get oriented sooner or later and make it through enough of Plotinus to tell. And I’m rooting for O’Meara. Which makes me think: there are two ways of studying things, that I can tell: there are historians who can maintain their balance by debunking. They are not sentimental, but the problem can be they are condescending. I think Barbara Tuchman is that way. The opposite is to love what you’re studying, but it is hard sometimes not to be loyal and get the thing wrong because you’re fond. Still, I think it is the wiser way–give me those historians–and wiser for me to do something I’m interested in understanding and explaining than in debunking for the sheer zeal of truth (which I ain’t got like I got love). Plotinus will never gather the support Plato commands, and rightly so. But his influence on the thought of the Church is enormous, and he should have his advocates and explainers. He deserves some devotion, at least to be handled better than Kreeft does.

Plotinus has not been without devotion, fortunately. Stephen McKenna was an Irish contemporary of James Joyce. He supported himself by reporting, and so one day reporting in Russia purchased some Greek texts of Plotinus. He returned to Dublin intending to study, live on as little as he could by doing journalism, and translating Plotinus. He had the encouragement of a man called E. R. Dodds who wrote an essay on Plotinus everybody quotes in anything about Plotinus still (and I can’t lay my hands on it in Philadelphia without paying JSTOR 12 bucks). Eventually McKenna, who was studying English prose styles and making a thorough business of it, decided that Plotinus could not be done with less than a life of dedication. He just worked on Plotinus and lived however he could. His finished product was revised by someone else and published (in a tome I got from the library) in 1930 by Faber & Faber. I think it is very unlikely T.S. Eliot, with his background in philosophy, would not have handled the editorial process, but I do not know. But here’s the point: that’s how Plotinus is done. Today, McKenna has been superceded and the Loeb volumes have a translation by Arthur Hillary Armstrong, based on a critical edition of the Greek not available back in McKenna’s time. Anything done before A.H. Armstrong started writing on Plotinus is superceded, except Dodds, everything after is legitimate. But here’s the point: all that work only for more work is how Plotinus is done.

My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

My Name Is Asher LevMy Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
The book is summarized in its epigraph: “Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.” – Picasso.

It is the first book I’ve read by Chaim Potok, but it will not be the last. He knew how to write, when to describe, how to persist, when a point had been made. This book is intense, stark, vivid, replete, dreadful, astonishing and right. It is full of a zeal for truth. Think about it: if you tell lies so that people realize the truth, you’re serious. Art lives in its effects.

It is a book about art. About what art is, what it does, what it is for. The ingenious thing here is to give us the coming of age story of a Hasidic Jew who is not merely an artist, but a great one. I do not mean that it is about a celebrity, but one of a more intense consciousness, a wrestler, if you will, with darker demons. As he grows in understanding of his vocation, he has to understand and he has to explain, and what Chaim Potok gives us here is worth the book even if you don’t like the story (the story is tremendous, though). You can ask the book the question, Why is art a lie which makes us realize the truth? or, How is art a lie which makes us realize the truth? You will get an answer, a satisfying and an ingenious answer.

Because it is about a Hasidic Jew, it is of course about religion. It is full of it–if Chaim Potok did not grow up a Hasidic Jew then I will be in awe of him for what he has done. What you learn about that way of life is beyond informative, but even beyond that, the book demands that the reader wrestle, as the narrator wrestles and as Potok’s prose makes one wrestle, with the relationship of religion and vocation. It is a strong thing about the twentieth century: what shall I call it? A frenzy and madness for truth? A deep need for truth at all costs. What about the individual and truth? I think Potok implies that individual appropriations of truth, genuine personal encounters with TRUTH, these things are the real basis of worthwhile religion; and I think he’s right. Our common humanity is something located deep in the self.

Do you know where this Hasidic Jew reaches when he needs an aesthetic form to talk about ultimate suffering and sacrifice? Here’s where Potok was controversial and I think brilliant. He doesn’t have his character just randomly reach somewhere, but shows how he grows in the understanding, wrestles with a tradition his own has sought to disown, that he has with infinite labor and great sacrifice begun to understand and finally appropriates it ancestrally. I’m giving nothing away, you’ll read about it on the first page. But the point is not what, it is how. How does Asher Lev come to be the painter of the Brooklyn Crucifixion?

Ribbono Shel Olom!