In Job's Balances

Part III


Here on earth everything has a beginning, and nothing an end.


Plotinus's Ecstasies

Oh that my grief were thoroughly weighed, and all my calamity laid in the balances! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the seas; therefore my words are vehement.

- JOB, vi, 2 and 3.


     "In so far as the soul is in the body it rests in deep sleep," says Plotinus (III,vi,6).

     For a century past Plotinus's doctrine has been attracting increasing attention from philosophers. New works on Plotinus are continually appearing, and each fresh examination is another hymn in his praise. Some of his commentators do not hesitate to link him with divine Plato; hardly any one now doubts that his "doctrine" is that which is commonly called "philosophy" in the speech of today, i.e. primarily science - as no one doubts that Plato's "doctrine" is also science. The words quoted above: "Insofar as the soul is in the body it rests in deep sleep", are the key to Plotinus's philosophy. Is it possible to see in these words a scientific dogma? Can it be reconciled with all the other principles of the many and various sciences? In other words: will the law of contradiction, which has been invested with the supreme power of deciding the legality of human judgment, recognize this judgment as true and allow it freedom of movement among men with the other truths?

     I have said that the above words are the key to Plotinus's philosophy; indeed, one cannot understand him at all unless one remembers continually in reading the Enneads that the soul, in so far as it is bound up with the body, rests in deep sleep. On the other hand, the whole life of all men, as daily experience teaches us, is not the life of souls that are freed from the body, but of souls which are indissolubly bound up with the body. And yet these souls, which are bound up with the body, think; they seek and find truths which do not at all resemble dream-pictures, and the law of contradiction and all the laws dependent upon it unhesitatingly grant to these truths the final sanction. The question arises: What is the relationship between the truths found by a soul freed from the body and those found by souls still unfreed? Can there possibly be any relationship between them? Do they see one another, do they recognize one another?

     The Middle Ages raised the question of the two kinds of truth, the theological and the philosophical truths; they solved, or at least answered, this question in some cases as follows: what is true from the theological standpoint can be false from the philosophical, and vice versa. But the "standard theologian" of the Middle Ages did not admit such a contrast. Thomas Aquinas insisted strictly that truth, whether divine or human, is always alike. Principiorum naturaliter notorum cognitio nobis divinitus est indita, quum ipse Deus sit auctor nostrae naturae. Haec ergo principia etiam divina Sapientia continet. Quidquid igitur principiis hujusmodi contrarium est, est divinae Sapientiae contrarium: non igitur a Deo esse potest. Ea igitur quae ex revelatione divina per fidem tenentur non possunt naturali cognitioni esse contraria. (The knowledge of the principles known naturally to us is given us from God, since God is Himself the author of our nature. Therefore, divine wisdom also contains these principles. Thus whatever contradicts such principles, contradicts also divine wisdom: it cannot, therefore, be from God. Therefore, that which is believed on the strength of divine revelation cannot contradict natural cognition.) In other words, the fundamental principles of our cognition and of divine cognition are the same. This law is proved by a whole series of "igitur" ("therefores"), i.e. through the means or method of the same cognitio naturalis (natural cognition), the legitimacy of which was doubted and required justification. The infallible dialectician seems, therefore, to have fallen this time into a petitio principii so glaring that even a hasty and superficial reader would notice it.

     It is also true that the doctrine of two-fold truth is equally vulnerable. It is clear to any one that one and the same man cannot at the same time accept two mutually exclusive laws. If theological truth says that God created the world in six days, while philosophic truth assumes that the world has always existed, it is not possible that both philosophy and theology should be speaking the truth. Either philosophy or theology is mistaken. For it is naturally quite unthinkable that the law of contradiction, the most unshakable of all laws, should permit even one single exception; and here it is not a question of one exception, but of an infinitely great number. The Bible, the primary source of theological knowledge, contains an uninterrupted story of events which must from the standpoint of a reasonable man be considered senseless and unnatural. Must we then reject the doctrine of two-fold truth and return to the doctrine of the "standard theologian"?

     Ea quae ex revelatione divina per fidem tenentur non possunt naturali cognitioni esse contraria. (The truth of revelation and the truth cognized in natural wise cannot contradict one another.) It is still less possible that in face of any revelation, be it never so sublime, the law of contradiction, that supreme judge over life and death, should agree to abdicate the sovereign rights which it has acquired, God knows when and why. But let us turn back to Plotinus. Plotinus lived in a comparatively late age, when the "light from the East" had become accessible to the whole Graeco-Roman world. Nevertheless the Bible was for him a book like other books, and he could see in it no revelation. Does this mean that the question of two-fold truth did not arise for him? That he, in other words, did not feel the possibility of such sources of cognition as are closed to "natural" understanding, and reveal truths which are incompatible with the truths discovered in "natural" wise?

     The words quoted at the beginning of this chapter show us that this was not the case. Plotinus recognized truths which we, whether we will or not, must call revelations, which are entirely strange to the modern consciousness and even excite the highest degree of indignation. And now the main point: when Plotinus had to decide between "revealed" and "natural" truths, he unhesitatingly took the side of the former; ha gar hegeitai tis einai malista, tata malista ouk esti (V, v, 11) (that which appears most real to common consciousness has the least existence). And here the "common consciousness" is by no means the consciousness normal to other men, to the mob, tos pollos, even as the truths acquired with the help of the common consciousness are not truths only admitted by the mob. No, Plotinus himself, like all other men, is generally in the power of these truths, and only occasionally feels within him the strength to free himself from them. "Often I awake from my body to myself (pollakis egeiromenos eis emauton ek to smatos) and turn my attention away from the outer world to my inner self; then I behold the realm of wondrous beauty and gain the assurance that fate has destined me to a higher lot (ts kreittonos moiras einai). Then I live a higher life, I unite myself with God, sinking myself in Him, and reach exaltation above all that is comprehensible through the understanding" (IV, viii, 1).

     Just as with Pushkin, who, of course, did not know Plotinus. So long as Apollo does not call the poet to the holy sacrificial altar, he, like all other men, is wrapped up in the vain business of the world and is the most insignificant creature (Pushkin here uses a stronger and more truly adequate expression than Plotinus), among the other insignificant creatures of our world. And only in the rare moments when the divine voice sounds in the poet's sensitive ear, his soul, which had grown heavy in the world's business, soars like an eagle suddenly awakened towards the realm of wondrous and incomprehensible beauty, which common cognition holds for "essentially not-being". When Pushkin speaks thus, we hold his words for metaphor, or we even repeat silently with Aristotle: "Poets lie too much." But Plotinus is no poet, he is a philosopher whom even the present day awards a place of honour in the pantheon of the great searchers after truth. Are we to say of him too: "He lies too much"...? Or are we to do as has often been done with Plato: strike out all admissions of this sort and leave only the "well-founded", proven sentences? And are we to replace the awakening of which he speaks so often and so enthusiastically by another less daring word?

Orphus system

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