In Job's Balances \ III \ Vehement Words


     It might be said that my suggestion, far from removing the difficulties of understanding Plotinus, rather to some extent emphasizes the impossibility of removing them. Plotinus was only able to write what he did if he did not read through again what he had once written - then what are we, his remote readers, to do? To understand Plotinus's thought we have to study his writings, to read them not once but many times, and to seek precisely for that definition which he tries in all ways to avoid. In other words, to study Plotinus means to kill him, and not to study him means to renounce him. What is to be done? how can we find a way out of this absurd position? Manifestly there is only the one way out which he found himself: even if we have good eyes, we must read his writings, but not re-read them. We must, therefore, seek in him no unity of thought, no power of conviction, no marshalling of truths. We must suppose that all the "proofs" which he gives in his writings are only his inevitable tribute to the scholastic tradition.

     Plotinus was "professor", no "writer", and was, therefore, bound only to say what all those who learnt from him by attending his classes or reading his books could and must recognize. He was also a great philosopher, and therefore his thoughts must also preserve their force through centuries and even thousands of years, and to compel all to submission; for in this and this alone, in the force and ability to compel, to subdue, to conquer, do we all see the fundamental mark of true genuineness of thought. For this reason every thought seeks and strives for precision: for one can submit only to strict and limited requirements; and conversely, where there is no strictness or precision, there can be no word of compulsion; there begins the realm of freedom which no longer differs from the arbitrariness so hated by man. Thus it is not necessary to read through again what has once been written down, for there is also no necessity to impose on oneself or others a repetition of what has once been said and to do away with "contradictions" in one's statements. Knowledge, epistęmę, is there the logos; but the logos is the treacherous multiplicity which pursued Plotinus all his life.

     Naturally, too, the word "multiplicity" has not the definiteness in Plotinus which is forced on it by those who, against his will, or, if you like, in defiance of his behest, ceaselessly "read through" (study philologically) his works, and endeavour to make his philosophy the property of all humanity. Like nearly all expressions used by Plotinus, this word can "admit" various interpretations; or rather, it has not one meaning but several. How could this be otherwise, when, on the one hand, Plotinus's task consisted of expressing the "inexpressible", and on the other hand, his "system" tried to combine all the elements out of which Greek philosophy had grown up in its thousand years of existence? The "inexpressible" can only be expressed, for those who take it seriously at all, if the words which veil it are as changeable, as ambiguous, as transitory as itself. Is not then any attempt, such as was made in Plotinus's school, to "reconcile" Plato and Aristotle, or Plato and the Stoics, a renunciation, from the outset, of any "doctrine"? Was not Plotinus's teacher, the porter Sakkas, quite right when he forbade his pupils to disseminate his teaching? And did not Plotinus himself, who infringed his master's prohibition, tell us that there lay a very deep significance in the rule of the Eleusinian sages only to reveal mysteries to the initiated? And yet he permitted his pupils to publish his works, which he had never read through and would certainly never have written down if he had remained true to himself; and in fact, he only began writing after the completion of his fiftieth year.

     How are these contradictions to be resolved? But, indeed, it is doubtful whether they should be resolved in every case. Naturally, if one wants to see in Plotinus a "teacher", which he also really was, then one must attempt a solution, or at least pretend to attempt it. But supposing we disregard his work as a teacher, together with the virtues and talents of which the devoted Porphyry tells? It is often just as profitable to forget a thing as to remember it. Suppose we assume that all the information which has come down to us was untrue, that Plotinus never taught any one, never was guardian to any one, administered no property, cured no senators, etc.? That he was not particularly anxious to reconcile Plato and Aristotle; that these activities represented precisely that "multiplicity" so remote from and so alien to Plotinus; that all this is the sleep of the soul still wholly sunk in the body, and that Plotinus's true task in life did not consist in sleeping himself and letting others sleep; but he could only devote himself to his true task in rare moments (not at all often - pollakis - as he says himself), when he, without knowing why and how, "suddenly" (eksaiphnęs) approached That which all our knowledge declares to be pure "Nothingness"?

     All this has, of course, nothing in common with the doctrine of Plato or the philosophy of Aristotle, still less with that of the Stoics. For all this is not in the first instance a "doctrine" at all, i.e. a science based on sufficient reason. Thus it comes that the succeeding generations, in so far as they have made Plotinus their own, have appropriated precisely something that is not present in Plotinus at all. One can, of course, repeat words and sentences, or even write out whole pages and chapters of the Enneads, as the famous Fathers of the Church and mystics did. Historians can take this occasion to write essays on Plotinus's historical significance, and the mockers can remark that the Eleusinian and other mysteries are no longer mysteries.

     But all this should not confuse us. The essence of mystery lies in the fact that it cannot be revealed, or rather, that even when revealed it does not cease to be mystery. Plotinus's historical significance is also illusory. He was, and could be, only influential in so far as his words were interpreted in accordance with the transitory needs and requirements of this or that historical epoch. And human needs and requirements do not consist in awaking from sleep. On the contrary, men wish to sleep and seek to put away all that could disturb peaceful sleep. It would be most convenient to remove the contradictions between the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. For contradictions excite, awaken, recall what one would fain forget... And that is why so much is said about "the positive tasks of philosophy", and that, too, is why all philosophers, not merely talkers who have made a profession of philosophy, but also genuine philosophers like Plotinus, are forced to present themselves to men as teachers; in no other way can they achieve justification of themselves before their contemporaries and posterity.

     But now, Socrates, whom Divinity itself declared the wisest of all men, called himself a gadfly, a spur (myops); in other words, he saw his task, not in soothing his fellow men with ready-made solutions of all the mysteries and all the riddles of life, but rather in taking peace away from those who had succeeded by their own forces in seeing in life no riddles and no mysteries.

     Socrates' words: "I know that I know nothing", are not, as we were taught, "irony"; neither does the god's commandment at Delphi, "Know thyself", mean that it is given to man to know himself. In Delphi men were offered not solutions of old riddles, but new riddles; every one knew that, and yet in the crises of their lives they questioned the oracle, as though a mysterious force were leading them thither where they would be still more confused. Finally, Socrates' daemon was also, of course, the incorporation of the "irrational residue", and might have proved to those who saw in Socrates the all-knowing master that not only the beginning, but also the end of philosophy is not rest, but unrest. The judges who tried Socrates' case were manifestly well aware whom they had to try, and in this respect showed themselves considerably more perceptive than our contemporaries who try to whitewash Socrates from the accusations leveled against him, or in extreme cases, endeavour, like Hegel, to see in "Socrates' fate" an unavoidable stage of the dialectical development of the idea.

     All this is not as the historians explain it; on the one hand it is all much simpler, on the other hand much more incomprehensible. It is simpler in so far as Socrates was really guilty of that for which he was prosecuted; he did really corrupt the youth and refused to recognize the gods which the Greeks worshipped. Not only he corrupts youth who accustoms it to idleness, drunkenness, etc.; there is a kind of "corruption" which evokes far more violent resistance than drinking and doing nothing. The rejection of the traditional worship of the gods is also compatible with a genuine and deep endeavour after the mysteries of another world. Socrates in his defence made no attempt to justify himself against the accusations brought forward; he calls himself a gadfly, he appeals to his daemon, not to the gods to whom his fellow-citizens sacrificed. But Anytus and Meletus never suggested anything else; if it was now our task to revise Socrates' trial, and if we also had the assurance that an acquittal would awaken him to life and make it possible for him to poison our existence as he poisoned that of his contemporaries, we should without hesitation pass the same sentence on him as was passed two thousand five hundred years ago. Incidentally, we should convince ourselves that, in spite of Hegel, "the spirit" has not developed or progressed in this long period. What men have always chiefly feared and fear to this day is "unrest". Men have always destroyed daemons and gadflies, and will always destroy them as unsparingly as they can.

Orphus system

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