In Job's Balances \ III \ Vehement Words|
And yet the history of philosophy is greatly mistaken if it insists on seeing in the succession of philosophic systems a logical connection, and believes that our present age has not only appropriated all the achievement of the ancients, but has also progressed far beyond them. Hegel did indeed study Plotinus with full reverence, but his secret, his alÍthinÍ egrÍgorsis, or "true awakening" (Enn. III, vi, 6), was clearly not revealed to him any more than it has been to Plotinus's latest commentators, Hartmann and his school, and the rest. It is probable that this mystery did not reveal itself to them precisely because they studied Plotinus so conscientiously. Plotinus, who wrote nothing till he was fifty and never re-read anything he had once written, is not to be studied, still less fixed into the chain of historical development. We should not be misled by the fact that Plotinus himself gathered together all elements of previous Greek philosophy into his "system" and thus has summed up the thousand years' work of the Greek spirit; he "served history" thereby, as every man living on earth serves history. But if we wish to grasp the true task of a philosopher we must first free him from the temporal conditions and the historic surroundings in which the momentary whim of existence placed him. Or we must at least learn to see in these circumstances, if not an actual hindrance to his creative work, yet only one of the many external stimuli to reflection.
Thus people are fond of talking of the difficulties of political life in Plotinus's age. The Roman Emperors obtained the throne by force and wielded their power as arbitrarily as they came by it. People are fond of simply explaining Plotinus's desire to flee from the world by the circumstances of his time. It seems quite "natural" that Plotinus would have thought and spoken differently if he had lived in another age. I repeat, on the contrary, that such "explanations" serve only to hide the truth from our eyes. Had Plotinus lived in the Middle Ages, or in the age of Pericles, or under the reign of Louis XIV, he would only have said the same thing that he does in his Enneads, in another language. Was the "arbitrariness" and bestial cruelty which ruled in Rome in the third century A.D. unknown in other ages? Would the glory of the age of Queen Elizabeth of England or the Roi Soleil of France have so blinded Plotinus's eyes as to make him believe in the rightness of human existence? Porphyry tells us that Plotinus was ashamed of his body; can one believe that dependence on the body would have seemed less wretched to him if he had lived in an age when arbitrariness appeared in the cloak of justice and strict legality? Would he not then have striven with all his forces to free his soul from the physical (tÍn psychÍn chŰris eÓnai toŻ sŰmatos)?
Or would he then not have praised the conquest of the fear of death ( aphobia toŻ thanatou) as the supreme courage (andreia)? Would he not then have seen his philosophical ideal in the possibility of raising ourselves up above knowledge (epistÍmÍ), for knowledge means the Logos and the Logos means multiplicity? But if this is so, then even in the age of Queen Elizabeth or Louis XIV, Plotinus's ambition and philosophic sentiment would have caused him to flee without a look behind from this realm of self-evident truths, where there sits enthroned, not unnamed emperors of a day, but the "eternal" disembodied ideal principle whose eternal name is "natural necessity" (physikÍ anankÍ). It was precisely this natural necessity and the self-evident truths which accompany it against which Plotinus fought, and it is to this that he refers when he says that the soul, in so far as it is in the body, rests in deep sleep.
Any one can convince himself of this by reading with sufficient attention the ninth book of the second Ennead in which Plotinus argues against the Gnostics. Long before Plotinus's day the ancient world had come, under the influence of Plato, and still more of the Cynics and Stoics, to believe that the "body" is the source of evil upon earth. Plotinus was apparently the first of the heathen philosophers to accept this doctrine wholly and unconditionally and to transmit it to the Middle Ages as a principle admitting of no doubt and requiring no revision. There is every reason to suppose that this principle was a precondition for the diffusion of Christianity in the world of Graeco-Roman civilization. The Old Testament begins with the words: En archÍi epoiÍsen ho Theos ton ouranon kai tÍn gÍn (In the beginning God created heaven and earth). The beginning of the fourth Gospel is different: En archÍi Ín ho logos.
The doctrine of the Old Testament in the phraseology of Genesis was absolutely inacceptable to the Graeco-Roman world. In this respect the Gnostics proved themselves much firmer and more consistent than the other Christian sects of the first century A.D.; they rejected vehemently the Old Testament and its God, the Creator of heaven and earth. If we ask what made them renounce the Old Testament, we see plainly that they were impelled by the same wish which also inspired Plotinus: to free the soul from the body. The Gnostics, too, were ashamed and afraid of the "body"; they, too, were convinced that all evil on earth proceeds from the body, and drew the conclusion that man must free himself from it if he would free himself from evil. I should like to quote here a remarkable passage from Valentinus preserved in the works of Clement of Alexandria: "From the beginning (ap' archÍs) you are immortal and children of eternal life; you want to divide Death among you, to conquer him, to destroy him in you and through you, to annihilate and exterminate him. If you destroy the world before it destroys you, you will be rulers over all that is created and transitory." These words express with rare strength and originality a thought already known to us which gave life and content to many chapters of Plotinus's Enneads. The Gnostics see the source of evil in the "world", i.e. in physical existence. They maintain that man is by nature immortal and heir to eternal life; only in so far as he is bound up with the outer world is he delivered over to corruption and death. We must therefore overcome and destroy the world: then all power will lie in man's hands, and death, the supreme terror, will be terrible no more.
It seems as though Plotinus must have looked on the Gnostics as friends and allies; he too taught, as we remarked, that it is our task to free the soul from the bonds of the body, he too preached flight from the world of phenomena. But when he heard his own words from the mouths of the Gnostics, he fell into indescribable rage; the whole ninth book of the second Ennead is an expression of this rage. Plotinus declares - as though he himself had never said anything of the sort - that to blame the world is the supreme blasphemy; but to scorn the Creator of the world is worse blasphemy still. In contradiction to the Gnostics he speaks here of the visible world in almost the same enthusiastic words with which he speaks in the other books of the intelligible world. Historians have, as was to be expected, found a "simple" explanation for this inconsistency; the Greek was showing itself in Plotinus, and the Greek reverence for physical beauty.
A simple explanation! People are right to say that simplicity is often worse than guile. Where, then, is the "Asiatic influence" of which we heard so much before? And was Plotinus no Greek when he cried, "Let us flee from this world as quickly as possible"? Or when he taught that the only way to the highest end was monos genesthai, to cast off the outer world utterly? And was Plato, who said almost exactly the same, no Greek?
It is clear to him who wishes to see that "simple" explanations are out of place here. Here are reasons of quite another kind. Plotinus, apparently, could not endure logical elaboration of his thoughts. He himself could cast off visible, physical things, he could strive to free himself from the world, he could prefer death to life. But when the Gnostics make all these changing moods into unalterable truth, i.e. into universally valid and necessary judgments, then Plotinus grows furious. He himself never re-read what he had once written down. How did he feel now when he suddenly saw and heard that something which he had only felt and said at certain times, and only for himself, was suddenly proclaimed by the Gnostics (and that with the help of Mercury's wand!) as eternal truth, as something that always is, always has been, and always will be, and that cannot be otherwise? Yes, he had written that he had only attained that freedom without which union with God would have been impossible, through forgetfulness of the sensuous world and complete concentration on himself. And what he wrote was undoubtedly true; from time to time he needed that great inner peace in which nothing, not even "natural necessity", binds and oppresses man.
But does it then follow that the world was created by an evil God, and that we have to blame the world? That we should content ourselves with the world of ideal entities created by the hand of man and praised by the Gnostics and Stoics? The world is in a bad state, he had said, and so he had thought and written. Certainly, one can pass through this stage, but one cannot and should not make a "truth" out of it. We know how carefully Plotinus avoided all positive definitions of his Supreme Being to which he - intentionally, of course - gave the unmeaning name "the One". Hyperkalos, hyperagathos (beyond all measure beautiful, beyond all measure good), he says of it. He would not even call it a being; he declared it was epekeina noŻ kai noÍseŰs (beyond understanding and thought). All these negations and super-superlatives clearly had the one meaning and purpose, even as Plotinus's command to "soar aloft above knowledge": to free us, not from the gift which God brought us, but from those self-evident truths which are added by our reason (again, in Epictetus's words, by Mercury's wand), and by means of which the multifarious and self-contradictory material of experience is transformed into an immovable, eternally unchanging, and thus "comprehensible" idea.
For so it is: to attain freedom we must forget all that is outside us. And forget only in that measure in which knowledge binds us, in so far, that is, as that which we once experienced pretends to absolute power over us. Plotinus's "forgetting" is not to be understood as though he were trying to eliminate from his soul everything that it had been granted to experience. On the contrary, as his angry attacks on the Gnostics show, to escape from the outer world means for him to disenchant the soul from the eternal truths of reason which command man to see in the "natural" the bounds of the possible. Plotinus saw in these "bounds" set by reason the same enchantement et assoupissement of which Pascal tells us later. And he saw too that this spell and this charm are not at all natural, but exceedingly unnatural, indeed, supernatural. Read for example a section in the sixth book of the first Ennead (chapter ix), a section which I think that I can, without risking the accusation of arbitrariness (or even at that risk, for daring is sometimes necessary), translate by the following passage from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov:
"He (Alyosha) turned round abruptly and went out of the old monk's cell. His soul was overflowing with enthusiasm and thirst for space and liberty. Above him stretched the dome of heaven, beyond reach of eye, sown with a thousand glittering stars. The Milky Way, only faintly apparent as yet, shimmered from the zenith to the horizon; the luminous and still night held the earth in its embrace. Against the sapphire blue of heaven arose the white towers and golden cupolas of the cathedral. In the flower beds round the house the splendid flowers of autumn had sunk to sleep till morning. The silence of the earth mingled with the silence of the sky; the mystery of earth mingled with the mystery of the stars. Alyosha stood there and gazed; then suddenly he fell to earth as though struck down... He embraced it weeping, he watered it with his tears and swore in his ecstasy to love it, to love it to the end of his days. Why did he weep? He wept with delight even in the stars which shone in the void, and was not ashamed of his ecstasy. It was as though invisible threads which bound together all God's infinitely numerous worlds were suddenly joined together in his soul, and it trembled at the touch of those unknown worlds."