Saturday, January 16, 2010

Descent and Ascent (Plotinus on the Broken Man)

Today's article will deal with the causes of unhappiness in Plotinus.  Before I begin, I must make a quick confession.  I largely believe that Plotinus is a faithful interpreter of Plato, so there isn't any (or at least very few) substantial disagreements between the two authors.  However, this does not mean that they say the same things in the same ways.  Instead, I consider Plotinus a systematizer of Plato.  As a result, in reading Plato, I will often focus on a single dialogue (as I did on the Phaedo earlier).  When reading Plotinus, I will instead focus on the system as a whole.

Since Plotinus' view of unhappiness is a part of a much larger system, some preliminaries are neccesary.  I will discuss Plotinus' metaphysics in detail in future posts.  For now, I will simply introduce the system and how it works.  Basically, reality is divided into a hierarchy, with the following parts:

The One -> The Intellect -> The Soul -> The Body -> Matter

Each part "emanates" from the previous part, and serves as an instantiation of the earlier part that serves as its paradigm.  For example, the intellect includes all of the forms.  All of the forms are a unity (they have a oneness).  Therefore oneness serves as a paradigm for the forms in the intellect.  Perhaps an unrelated example might be clearer.  Brad Pitt serves as the paradigm for all photographs of Brad Pitt.  In a sense, these photos instantiate Brad Pitt, as they are pictures of him, and he is the paradigm of these pictures, in that they are good photos of him in so far as they actually resemble him.

Notice the curious position of the soul in this hierarchy.  It lies between intellect and body.  However, it has different relationships to both intellect and body.  Intellect serves as its paradigm.  The soul becomes more like that of which it is an image the more it comes to understand.  Conversely, the body is a principle of instantiation of the souls (or at least part of souls), allowing there to be different people living different lives.  However, the bodies are not the paradigm of souls; they are mere conditions of the soul.

In other words, we (our souls) are stuck in the middle of a cosmic hierarchy.  We are not identical with the one and we are not identical with the forms.  Nor are we identical with the body or matter.  The one, the principle of all unity, is the good.  Matter, complete formlessness that exists as a condition of body, is evil.  (Note that Plotinus never says the body is evil, just matter).

We can never change our nature and take a different place in the hierarchy.  Part of that nature is that we have desires related to our bodies that drag our souls away from our intellect whose fulfillment is understanding.  These bodily desires can never be completely rooted out, as the body is a condition of our soul's existence.  In effect, we have two sorts of desires.  The first are those intrinsic to our soul's own nature, that is, desire to know, which is the desire to attain the principle of our own understanding.  The second are those extrinsic to our soul's on nature, the bodily desires that we have by virtue of our bodies that are a necessary condition of our individuation.

We therefore are in a constant struggle between the intellect, the paradigm of our own existence, and our bodies, a necessary condition of our existence.  This conflict can never be escaped by us or by any other soul, as we will continue to have a middling position on the cosmic hierarchy.  As a result, happiness will always be difficult for human beings.

Painting: The Ladder of Divine Ascent or The Ladder of Paradise. Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai.


  1. Very good stuff, some of the most thoughtful writing about Plotinus I've seen on the Internet. Be careful about the emanationism and hierarchy, though: it's been very overstated in our post-Enlightenment world. See Armstrong's entry in The Cambridge Companion to Later Greek and Early Mediaeval Philosophy. The word "hierarchy" doesn't even enter into the historical record until Pseudo-Dionysius.

    You say: "We can never change our nature and take a different place in the hierarchy." But we (human beings) exist at all levels of that "hierarchy." The highest part of Soul is always in Nous. We are always connected with true, perfect Being, we just aren't aware of it.