Thursday, April 21, 2016

Plotinus's Metaphysics of Creative (Self-)Contemplation

In my previous post I introduced the idea of Mathematical Neo-Platonism (MNP), where a transcendent source -- analogous to the One/Good in historical Neo-Platonism -- is seen as generating the Platonic reality of mathematics which in turn generates the physical universe in which we find ourselves. This MNP is a long-term project I am working on, and I hope to write more about it in the future. But since MNP obviously harks back to historical Neo-Platonism, especially the system of Plotinus, I want to say more about the latter in this post, where I give some historical background to my proposal for MNP. I also want to discuss Plotinus because his system is highly interesting in itself and deserves much wider recognition as being the true birthplace of Absolute Idealism in Western philosophy.

Plotinus (c. 204/5-270)
Plotinus's relation to Plato
In the Plotinian system, as laid down in Plotinus's only work, the Enneads, all of reality flows from a first and self-causing principle, called both "the One" and "the Good", which produces all remaining levels of reality (Intellect, Soul and Nature) through a process commonly called "emanation" (though it is important to note that Plotinus himself uses this term only rarely). The One and the other levels of reality are called "Hypostases" by Plotinus. The Plotinian system, though essentially syncretic in that it combines different ideas from Platonism, Aristotelianism and Stoicism, was intended by Plotinus as a faithful rendering and development of Plato's 'real philosophy' as expressed not only in the Platonic dialogues but also in Plato's letters and especially his oral teachings in the Academy (as recollected by some of Plato's students, notably Aristotle). Thus Plotinus himself would have strongly objected to the label "Neo-Platonist". He saw himself simply as a Platonist, a follower of Plato first and foremost. However, it is commonly agreed that Plotinus, in his attempt to develop systematically the Platonic philosophy, in fact developed an original system of his own.

Nevertheless, in order to understand Neoplatonism, it is convenient to start with Plato and see how Plotinus went from there. As every student of philosophy learns, Plato distinguished two realms in reality: on the one hand the spatiotemporal realm of physical reality, where everything is in constant flux and nothing truly 'is', and on the other hand the non-spatiotemporal realm of true being, i.e. the Ideas or Forms that give intelligible order to the physical flux. Physical objects were said to "participate" in the Forms, where "participation" (methexis) was understood by Plato as the relation in which an image stands to its archetype. Thus, as Plato said, the spatiotemporal flux is "a moving image of Eternity", i.e. a spatiotemporal image of the Forms beyond space and time. It remains unclear, however, exactly how Plato thought about the way in which physical objects come to participate in the Forms. In the Timaeus Plato invokes a divine craftsman, the Demiurge, who created the physical world by using the Forms as paradigms in giving shape to unformed matter. But it is doubtful whether Plato intended this creation story to be taken literally or merely as a philosophically useful myth to indicate a higher but ineffable truth. Such a use of myth and simile is after all common in Plato's dialogues.

Further unclarities in Plato
It also remains unclear in Plato where both the realm of Forms and the spatiotemporal realm 'come from', i.e. what their ontological origin or basis is. Without the structuring influence of the Forms the spatiotemporal realm would be pure chaos, nothing but unordered matter, but why this unordered matter should exist at all is, as far as we known, nowhere explained by Plato. The same holds for the realm of Forms. Here it is important to keep in mind that Plato's Demiurge was not an all-creating God: the Forms and unordered matter were given beforehand, not created by the Demiurge. It is true that Plato, with the famous analogy of the sun, suggests that the Forms are somehow subordinated to a highest Form called "the Good". Thus in the Republic he writes:

Plato in Raphael's painting
"The School of Athens"

"What the Good itself is in the intelligible realm, in relation to understanding and intelligible things, the sun is in the visible realm, in relation to sight and visible things." (508c)

But it is unclear whether this relation between the Good and the other Forms is meant primarily in an epistemological sense, with the Good merely making possible our knowledge of the Forms (and thereby of physical objects as well), or whether this relation is also meant in an ontological sense, such that the Good is the ultimate source of the being of the Forms. The narrowly epistemological interpretation is suggested by Plato's explicit focus, in the analogy of the sun, on the epistemological activities of understanding and sight. The more broadly ontological interpretation is partly suggested by Plato's comparison of the Good with the sun, which after all is the precondition for the existence of life on Earth; so likewise the Good may be the precondition for the existence of the Forms.

The ontological interpretation is also suggested by Plato's description in the Republic of the Good as "beyond being" (509b), since this could be interpreted as meaning that the Good is the source of being as such and 'is' therefore prior to being (though "being" here means the intelligible being of the Forms, not the existence of unordered matter, since the latter, according to Plato, lacks true being). This ontological interpretation of Plato's notion of "the Good beyond being" is controversial, however, because this notion could also be interpreted in a narrowly epistemological fashion, such that the Good in imparting knowability on the other Forms remains itself unknowable, much like the sun light that makes objects visible cannot itself be seen (it is visible only as reflected by those objects). As thus unknowable, the Good would not itself be part of the intelligible being of the other Forms and would in that sense be "beyond being", but not in the ontological sense of being their origin.

Plotinus's transformation of Platonism
It was in the light of these unclarities in Plato that Plotinus attempted to systematize Platonism. He did so by basically making two moves. Firstly, Plotinus choose decisively for the ontological interpretation of Plato's "Good beyond being" as referring to the self-causing cause of all reality. Much of Plotinus's originality and importance for philosophy today lies in how he conceived this self-causing capacity of the Good or (to use Plotinus's own term) the One, as this supplies us with a very interesting and still relevant answer to Leibniz's famous question why there is something rather than nothing (I will return to this below). Secondly, Plotinus systematized Platonism by breaking radically with Plato's dualism: instead of seeing the intelligible realm of Forms and the spatiotemporal realm of the physical flux as two separate ontological domains, Plotinus sees them both as produced by the One and indeed as both existing in the One. In the Plotinian scheme, the One produces ('emanates') the Platonic realm of Forms, which Plotinus identified with the Aristotelian notion of the Divine Intellect. The Intellect in turn emanates Soul, which finally emanates the material world of Nature.

But this should not be understood as meaning that each later Hypostasis exists somehow outside of the earlier Hypostasis that produced it. Rather, Plotinus makes it quite clear that each later Hypothesis exists only inside the preceding Hypostasis: thus Nature exists inside Soul, which in turn exists inside Intellect, which finally exists inside the One (cf. Wallis 1995: 51). In this way Plotinus could say that "all things belong to It [i.e. the One, PS] and are in It" (Enneads, V.4.2). Thus Plotinus transformed Platonism in a thoroughgoing monism where only the One or the Good really exists and all other levels of reality are somehow produced inside the One as the Hen Kai Pan (All-In-One). How and why does this production occur, according to Plotinus?

The productive power of the One
For all his revolutionary innovations in philosophy (and there are many, a we will see), Plotinus was still, of course, a child of his time. This is particularly clear in his explanation of emanation as a necessary consequence of the One's supreme perfection and goodness. It was a commonly shared assumption in Greek antiquity that perfection is necessarily productive of something beyond itself, something that reflects that perfection, such that perfection automatically produces an external image of itself (cf. Remes 2008: 43). For Plotinus, the authority of this assumption was guaranteed by the fact that it can also be found in his hero, Plato, who in the Timaeus (29e) describes the creator of the physical world, the Demiurge, as a naturally good being and therefore as wishing that the world resembles his own goodness as much as possible. In later scholastic philosophy (which, through Augustine, was strongly influenced by Neoplatonism), this productive power of perfection was known as the principle that bonum est diffusivum sui (goodness is self-diffusing).

In the philosophy of Plotinus, this principle was expressed in such a way that the One produces a sequence of external images: first the Intellect, which -- qua image of the One's perfection -- is itself also productive, namely, of a second image called "Soul", which finally produces a third image, namely, the material world of Nature. This, then, is what "emanation" means for Plotinus: the 'overflowing' of perfection into an external image, or rather a series of such images. In this way Plotinus greatly expanded on Plato's conception of participation as the relation in which an image stands to its archetype. One possible misunderstanding, however, should be avoided here: Plotinus's claim that perfection produces an external image of itself should not be understood as meaning that this image exists independent or outside of its source. For, as we noted above, Plotinus conceived of the lower Hypostases as somehow existing inside the higher Hypostases, ultimately inside the One as Hen Kai Pan. Thus the sequence of images produced by the One should rather be seen as a sequence internal to the One; they constitute an internal unfolding of the One's self-intuition (more about that below). As I will argue below, however, this account of emanation in terms of self-awareness stands much closer to the original core of Plotinus's system than his more traditional account in terms of productive perfection.

Tensions in the Plotinian system
Note that the Plotinian sequence of Hypostases is also a gradual falling way from the One's perfection, as each image is somewhat less perfect than its archetype, until finally, at the lowest level of Nature, we encounter the pure chaos of unordered matter, which Plotinus identities with absolute evil. But how can this be? How can what is perfect generate something that is less perfect and, indeed, ultimately evil? To explain this, Plotinus invoked a second principle (besides the first one that perfection necessarily produces), namely, the principle that the product is always less than its producer. Thus, for Plotinus, in the act of production something of the producer's power is inevitably dissipated and the resulting product is therefore invariably of lesser quality. So whereas the One is a perfectly simply unity, its products are increasingly less unified and more and more 'infected' by plurality, since, for Plotinus, unity is more perfect than plurality. 

This second principle, that the product is less than its producer, was really Plotinus's own invention; it cannot be found in earlier philosophers. It is commonly agreed that it is one of the weakest points in the Plotinian system. The principle is really a mere ad hoc expediency, needed to explain the obvious imperfections of the physical universe in which we live, notably the presence of suffering and evil. Apart from facilitating that explanation, the principle is not given any independent motivation by Plotinus (cf. Armstrong 1962: 32; Wallis 1995: 60). This second principle is all the more problematic in light of the fact that it is obviously at odds with the assumed supreme perfection of the One, which Plotinus also theorizes as omnipotence, the power to create everything possible. Indeed, Plotinus sees the power of the One as implying a principle of plenitude: all that can be created will be created (cf. Lovejoy 1964: 62; Wallis 1995: 64). But if the One is supremely perfect and omnipotent, how then could it be limited in its ability to create an image of itself? After all, there 'is' nothing outside the One by which its creative power could be limited, simply because the One is the self-causing All-In-One. So not only is the second principle ad hoc, it is also inconsistent with Plotinus's basic assumption that the One is supremely perfect, omnipotent and creator of all.

A further reason to be dissatisfied with the Plotinian system is the fact that Plotinus (like all later Neoplatonists) does not spell out any clear mechanism by which emanation occurs. True, the first principle (that perfection necessarily produces) explains to a certain extent why the One generates something beyond itself, but how this generation occurs remains shrouded in mystery. Here Plotinus offers no more than emanative/radiative metaphors taken from the physical world, like light and heat radiating from the sun, or the diffusion of cold from snow or scent from something scented (cf. Armstrong 1962: 31; Wallis 1995: 41-42). Relying on such metaphors Plotinus speaks of the One as a "generative radiance" (Enneads, VI.7.36.20). Of course, for Plotinus the legitimacy of this 'radiative' conception of the One rested firmly on the authority of Plato's analogy between the Good and the sun. But can such a merely metaphorical approach to the One's productive activity be truly satisfying from a philosophical point of view? Plotinus does insist that we must purify such metaphors from their material limitations before applying them to the One and the other Hypostases (with the exception of the material world of Nature, where emanation does take that crudely physical form). But this leaves unaltered the fact that Plotinus's entire explanation of how emanation occurs remains metaphorical and therefore offers no true understanding. This is especially so because the emanative metaphors refer to processes in time and space, whereas the One and its productive activity are essentially non-spatiotemporal (indeed, time and space only emerge on the lower levels of Soul and Nature). So the notions of emanation and radiation are actually very unsuited to clarify what is going on when the One produces its sequence of self-images (cf. Corrigan 2005: 28).

The hidden core of the Plotinian system
I suspect that these problems in the Plotinian system have a much deeper source, which has to do with how Plotinus conceives of the productive power of the One. As we have seen, when Plotinus explains the One's productive power in terms of perfection, he is voicing an idea that was quite common in Greek antiquity (i.e. "everything that is perfect produces something else"). However, there is a strange lack of overlap between this notion of productive perfection and Plotinus's explanation of the One's self-causation in terms of self-awareness -- terms that are surprisingly close to what the German Absolute Idealists Fichte, Schelling and Hegel would say almost two millennia later. It seems to me that it is here, in his ideas about the One as a self-causing self-awareness, that Plotinus's true originality and importance lies.

I would like to venture the hypothesis that Plotinus himself did not fully understand the true significance of this discovery, that the One is self-producing through self-awareness, and that he therefore 'fell back' on the traditional idea of perfection in order to explain the One's production of the other Hypostases. That is to say: if Plotinus had stuck consistently to his innovative conception of the One as self-causing self-awareness, he would also have explained the One's production of the other Hypostases as following from that primordial self-awareness. Such an idealist explanation of the Hypostases would also be more in line with Plotinus's insistence that the sequence of Intellect-Soul-Nature is really a sequence of images produced by the One and -- note! -- within the One qua all-encompassing totality. For doesn't this imply that the sequence of Hypostases is really just an internal unfolding of the One's self-awareness, such that each Hypostasis is a determinate stage in that unfolding? I suspect that that is the essential core of the Plotinian system -- a core that more or less remained hidden, however, under the traditional Greek notion of productive perfection.

It is easy to appreciate that Plotinus's true originality lies in his conception of the One as self-causing self-awareness. His claim that there must be a self-causing cause of reality was totally new in classical Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, as was his explanation of that primordial self-causation in terms of self-awareness. It is true that Plotinus's conception of the One in terms of self-awareness owes a lot to Aristotle's conception of the Unmoved Mover as the Divine Intellect whose activity consists solely in self-contemplation, to the extent even that Aristotle defines God as a "self-thinking thought" or "thought thinking thought". But for Aristotle this did not mean that God was self-causing, nor did it mean that the Unmoved Mover was, through this self-contemplation, the efficient cause of the rest of reality. In fact, for Aristotle the Unmoved Mover was merely the final cause of reality, the telos towards which everything strived. It was therefore a truly revolutionary move when Plotinus radicalized the Aristotelian notion of a divine self-awareness by transforming it into the self-causing cause of reality as such.

This originality is also apparent from Plotinus's break away from Plato's ontological dualism. For it was precisely Plotinus's conception of the One as the self-causing cause of reality that allowed his radical monism, i.e. his reduction of all of reality to a single, all-encompassing principle. Finally, the fact that Plotinus conceptualized this self-causing principle in terms of self-awareness is also what underlies another aspect of the Plotinian system that is commonly regarded as highly innovative, namely, his doctrine of creative contemplation, where each Hypostasis (i.e. each image) is produced through the contemplative activity of the preceding Hypostasis (cf. Deck 1991: 19; Gatti 1996: 26). For it is the One's self-awareness which ultimately drives this process of creation through contemplation. Thus I think we are justified in seeing Plotinus's conception of the One as self-causing self-awareness as the original core of his system. Let us therefore take a closer look at this remarkable doctrine.

Escher's Self-portrait in a spherical mirror
The One as self-causing self-awareness
The remarkable fact is that Plotinus was the very first philosopher who spoke of God (or rather, in Plotinian terms, the One) as being "self-caused" (aition heautou): "the extraordinary phrase "self-caused" [...] appears here for the first time in the history of philosophy so far as we know" (Gerson 2011: 34). Equally revolutionary, as Gerson notes, was Plotinus's description of the One as "making itself from nothing" (Enneads, VI. These were revolutionary claims in the context of Greek philosophy, where the existence of reality had always been taken for granted as something unproblematic, something that needed no explanation. Hence, as we already noted, neither Plato's Demiurge nor Aristotle's Unmoved Mover presents us with an all-creating God. This no doubt had to do with the fact that the ancient Greeks simply had no conception of absolute nothingness and therefore could not imagine that the universe might not have existed. Thus Leibniz's famous question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" could not have occurred to them. But somehow this changed with Plotinus. He was the first philosopher to realize that not only the things in reality require explanation, but also reality itself. In that way Plotinus was remarkably modern. In a sense he anticipated Leibniz's rationalist Principle of Sufficient Reason, which obligates us to explain everything. As Leibniz noted, this principle forces us to ultimately postulate self-explaining principles, because otherwise the Principle of Sufficient Reason would commit us to an infinite regress of explanations. Plotinus was the very first philosopher to recognize that fact, as witnessed by his revolutionary claim that the One is self-causing.

Plotinus's description of the One as "making itself from nothing", however, should not be understood in temporal terms, as if at first there was nothing and then a moment later the One suddenly created itself. In time, obviously, such self-causation is impossible. We should remember here that the One, according to Plotinus, essentially exists outside of time and space, with the latter only emerging in the lower Hypostases of Soul and Nature. So in that sense Plotinus's idea of divine self-creation is not as absurd as it might initially seem. Still, everything turns on Plotinus's ability to give a credible account of how this self-creation could occur. As already indicated, it is also in this respect that Plotinus's thought was highly innovative, since his account of the One's self-causation through self-awareness was completely original -- similar insights were only to re-emerge in the Absolute Idealisms of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel! Here especially Fichte's notion of the self-positing Self, i.e. the Self that produces itself by being self-aware, should be mentioned as particularly close to Plotinus's conception of the One: "The One [...] made itself by an act of looking at itself. This act of looking at itself is, in a way, its being." (Enneads, VI.8.16.19-21) 

The comparison with Fichte's notion of self-positing is all the more apt because both Fichte and Plotinus stress the immediate, intuitive nature of the self-causing self-awareness. To stress this immediacy Plotinus compares it to a "self-touching" rather than explicit self-knowledge (cf. Enneads, V.3.110.40-43). The self-awareness of the One is, at its deepest level, not mediated by concepts nor by the subject-object duality that characterizes discursive knowledge. It is a form of self-awareness where the subject is immediately aware of itself as its own object, and indeed where the subject is nothing but this immediate self-awareness. Plotinus says this quite explicitly: "It will have only a kind of simple intuition directed to itself. But since It is in no way distant or different from Itself, what can this intuitive regard of Itself be other than Itself?" (Enneads, VI.7.38-39) Some of Plotinus's most beautiful passages are about this special nature of the One's self-awareness, which is of course not surprising since this concerns the very heart -- the ontological core -- of the Plotinian system. Here are some examples:

"His essential being is His self-directed activity; and this is one with Himself. So He gives Himself being, for his activity continually accompanies Him. If, now, His activity does not become but always is, and is a kind of wakefulness which is not other than the one who is awake, being an eternal wakening of super-intellection (hypernoêsis), then He is as He waked Himself to be." (VI.8.16)

"It is, at the same time, the beloved, love as such, and love of itself, for it is beautiful only in and for itself... In it, being and its desire for itself are one... It is itself that which it loves; which is to say, it brings itself into existence." (VI.8.5.1-8, 16, 14).

"He is borne, so to speak, to His own interior as if in love of the clear light which is Himself, and He is what He loves. That is, He gives Himself being, since He is a self-dwelling activity." (VI.8.16)

"Its thinking of Itself is Itself, and exists by a kind of immediate self-intuition, in everlasting rest..." (V.4.2)

Conclusion: A Metaphysics of Creative (Self-)Contemplation
As I noted above, Plotinus lacked a proper explanation of exactly how the emanative process takes place, i.e. how the One generates the other Hypostases as a sequence of images. In this regard he basically went no further than the metaphors based on radiative processes in physical reality, such as light radiated by the sun or scent diffused by something scented. Given the spatiotemporal nature of these metaphors, they are thoroughly unsuited to make intelligible exactly how the One generates reality. I have ventured the hypothesis that this is so because Plotinus himself did not yet fully understand the consequences of the revolution he had brought about in philosophy, namely, his conception of the One as self-causing self-awareness, which anticipated Absolute Idealism. Since the One, according to Plotinus, basically is this self-causing self-awareness, Plotinus should have explained the 'emanative' process as following from that self-awareness. That would have been the only consistent position. But that is not what he did. To explain the productive power of the One, Plotinus harked back to traditional Greek philosophy and employed the ancient idea of productive perfection ("everything that is perfect produces something else"). One could say that Plotinus in this regard remained too much of a Platonist, remaining caught in the Platonic analogy of the sun, which is the central source of Plotinus's conception of the One as a "generative radiance". In this way Plotinus actually fell behind his own discovery, the self-causing capacity of self-awareness.

It is important to note that the traditional idea of productive perfection figures in no way in Plotinus's account of how the One causes itself through self-awareness. One could say that the One's perfection (which includes self-sufficiency and omnipotence) follows from the One's self-causation through self-awareness. But that perfection is in no way needed to explain how that self-causation is possible, for here the notion of immediate self-awareness suffices. Hence it seems plausible that Plotinus's notion of productive perfection is indeed just a left-over from the Greek tradition and not essential to Plotinus's own original contribution, i.e. his insight in the self-causing capacity of divine self-awareness. This is also clear when we look at what the Hypostases are supposed to be according to Plotinus, namely, images: the One produces as its image the Intellect, which in turn produces as its image the Soul, which finally produces Nature as its image. Isn't it clear, if we take into account that the One is self-causing self-awareness, that this entire sequence of images is nothing but the unfolding of that primordial self-awareness? Especially if we remember that Plotinus conceived of the lower Hypostases as somehow existing inside the higher Hypostases, and ultimately inside the One as Hen Kai Pan. Thus the sequence of images produced by the One should be seen as a sequence internal to the One, an internal unfolding of the One's self-contemplation.

-Armstrong, A.H. (1962), Plotinus. New York: Collier Books.
-Corrigan, Kevin (2005), Reading Plotinus: A Practical Introduction to Neoplatonism. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press.
-Deck, John N. (1991), Nature, Contemplation, and the One: A Study in the Philosophy of Plotinus. Burdett: Larson Publications.
-Gatti, M.L. (1996), "Plotinus: The Platonic Tradition and the foundation of Neoplatonism", in: Lloyd P. Gerson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
-Gerson, Lloyd (2011), "Goodness, Unity, and Creation in the Platonic Tradition", in: John F. Wippel (ed.), The Ultimate Why Question: Why Is There Anything at All Rather than Nothing Whatsoever?, pp. 29-42. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.
-Lovejoy, Arthur O. (1964), The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
-Remes, Pauliina (2008), Neoplatonism. Stocksfield: Acumen.

-Wallis, R.T. (1995), Neoplatonism. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.


  1. "everything that is perfect produces something else"

    A different approach would be, that everything is part of itself (the One is his own hypostases). This results in permanent emanation

    1. Take the tree of life for instance.

      Prelude: A circle represents the ultimate perfection (it symbolizes infinity on the simpliest imaginable way).

      Look at the very first circle. It represents pure infinity. It contains everything that was, is and will be. So the second circle, the third and so on.

      The more circles you take, the more the "outside" bounds represents what really is: true perfection / infinity.