How Plotinus Makes Use of the Material World

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I include below two extracts from the ‘Enneads’ (Gk: ‘the nines’) – or what might be referred to as the ‘nine categories’ of the life work of the great Greek philosopher Plotinus (204-270 CE). I doubt Plotinus – who did not even care about the state of his physical body – would have cared much whether his words were passed on or not. We owe a debt of gratitude for the preservation of these essentially beautiful words, to the untiring efforts of the main student of Plotinus – namely ‘Porphyry’.  In my opinion, far too much is said about Plotinus that diverts the student of inner development away from the correct path. Although, for instance, often and continuously referred to as the ‘founder’ of neo-Platonism, Plotinus had a teacher – Ammonius Saccas (of Alexandria in Egypt) – and if anyone was responsible for creating a ‘new wave’ of Plato’s philosophical understanding, it was Ammonius Saccas and not Plotinus, but neither man, I suspect, would have recognised the term ‘neo-Platonism’ – stating that what they follow is the ‘correct’ or ‘true’ lineage of Plato (as originally taught to Plato by Socrates, and eventually passed on to Aristotle), which has been precisely and exactly passed down through the generations over hundreds of years. In this respect, this approach is very similar to the spiritual lineages of Chinese civilisation, whereby a qualified master carefully teaches a few good disciples over many decades, to follow a systematic path of physical discipline and psychological development. Plotinus advocates a relationship with the physical world that involves an understanding of it as incomplete, but otherwise definitely existing in nature, in a sense that its ‘heaviness’ can keep the average person anchored firmly to the temporal realm, with no ability to ‘see beyond’ its superficial manifestation. Regardless of the sophistication of his method, that is the rarefied and clear dissection of perception and non-perception – Plotinus NEVER denies the existence of the material world – he simply uses it as the springboard for his method. If there was no material world (which is often admitted as being ‘beautiful’ by Plotinus), there could be no transcendent method. The point is that the realm of ideas (for Plotinus) exists within the material world, but also appears to exist as if disembodied from it – and yet it is only within a human-body, that the reality that Plotinus believes lies beyond its material limitations, is realised. This is a point often missed by those who would have use believe that Plotinus ‘rejects’ the relevancy or existence of the material world, he certainly does not. For all its limitations and inconsistencies, without a material world that provides (through evolutionary development) a conscious being to appreciate it, there can be no ‘transcendent’ system of philosophical insight. Therefore, it must be truthfully stated (as Plotinus does), that a continuously changing beauty exists beyond any concepts of ‘static’ beauty, and that such a beauty with regards to that which lives is ‘beautiful’, but that even that which is ‘dead’ is also ‘beautiful’ when viewed in a certain way. Although Plotinus advocates (for a time) a ruthlessly ‘looking within’, he does not permanently ‘reject’ the physical world he strives to ‘look beyond’. He fully admits that once a higher view of existence is attained, it must be applied not only to the realm beyond material existence, but also to the material world itself. The beauty of insight is applicable to both form and void, and yet lies also beyond form and void (with no inherent contradiction). For Plotinus, true beauty is arrived at through a strict and disciplined life-style and form of meditation – and yet once inner and outer unity successfully realised – it has absolutely nothing to do with the method through which it has been attained.

‘He that has the strength, let him arise and withdraw into himself, foregoing all that is known by the eyes, turning away for ever from the material beauty that once made his joy. When he perceives those shapes of grace that show in body, let him not pursue: he must know them for copies, vestiges, shadows, and hasten away towards That they tell of. For if anyone follow what is like a beautiful shape playing over water- is there not a myth telling in symbol of such a dupe, how he sank into the depths of the current and was swept away to nothingness? So too, one that is held by material beauty and will not break free shall be precipitated, not in body but in Soul, down to the dark depths loathed of the Intellective-Being, where, blind even in the Lower-World, he shall have commerce only with shadows, there as here.’

Plotinus: 1st Ennead – 6th Tractate – 8th Section

‘Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.

When you know that you have become this perfect work, when you are self-gathered in the purity of your being, nothing now remaining that can shatter that inner unity, nothing from without clinging to the authentic man, when you find yourself wholly true to your essential nature, wholly that only veritable Light which is not measured by space, not narrowed to any circumscribed form nor again diffused as a thing void of term, but ever unmeasurable as something greater than all measure and more than all quantity- when you perceive that you have grown to this, you are now become very vision: now call up all your confidence, strike forward yet a step- you need a guide no longer- strain, and see.’

Plotinus: 1st Ennead – 6th Tractate – 9th Section

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