The Philosophy of Plotinus: Part Six

Movement and rest in ‘thought’, the most intense activity and stillness in unity

Plotinus called the grasp by Intellect of the immaterial object – their  immediate identity and unity – ‘intuitive thought’.

‘(Intellect)…is the level of intuitive thought which grasps its object immediately and is always perfectly united to it, and does not have to seek it outside itself by discursive reasoning: and we at our highest are Intellect, or Soul perfectly formed to the likeness of Intellect …’1

As with every aspect in his distinction between the universe of matter and the senses and the universe in Intellect, Plotinus made the logic of discursive reasoning (which he equated with sense perception) the deficient copy of intuition (dialectic) in Intellect.2

In order to use language, discursive thought has to consider things sequentially, it passes from one point to another, it endlessly divides.3 This is the method of description. Such reasoning is utterly inadequate to address the relationship between soul and the One – it is a hindrance to the love which desires beyond Form. Discursive thought is inseparable from the burden of sensory life. The need to reason thus results in a diminution of the independence of ‘thought’:

‘Does the soul use discursive reasoning before it comes and again after it goes out of the body? No, discursive reasoning comes into it here below, when it is already in perplexity and full of care, and in a state of greater weakness; for feeling the need of reasoning is a lessening of the intellect in respect of its self-sufficiency…’4

Dialectic is the method of Intellect. Dealing with the truths of the higher cosmos, it involves a surrendering to the illumination of God’s light in which Intellect ceases a

‘wandering about the world of sense and settles down in the world of intellect, and there it occupies itself, casting off falsehood and feeding the soul in what Plato calls “the plain of truth,” using his method of division to distinguish the Forms, and to determine the essential nature of each thing, and to find the primary kinds…and then, keeping quiet…it busies itself no more, but contemplates, having arrived at unity. It leaves what is called logical activity, about propositions and syllogisms, to another art, as it might leave knowing how to write…whatever is submitted to it it perceives by directing intuition…’5

Intuitive reasoning ‘is a static activity and a kind of reflection of Intellect…’.6 It is practised separate from the body, because the body would only impede its inquiry.7 It is an activity of our true self in which it moves with a motion which is not bodily but of its own life.8

The desire for a unifying intuition underlies Plotinus’ doctrine. Not only can we intuit being, Plotinus theorised on the direct intuition of the Good:

‘…our power is that of knowing the intelligible by means of the intelligence: but this Entity (the First Existent or The Good) transcends all of the intellectual nature; by what direct intuition, then, can it be brought within our grasp?’9

He answered:

‘But possess yourself of it by the very elimination of Being and you hold a marvel. Thrusting forward to This, attaining, and resting in yourself, seek to grasp it more and more – understanding it by that intuitive thrust alone, but knowing its greatness by the Beings that follow upon it and exist by its power.’10

He believed that any intuition, particularly that of the Good, depends on how much of what is being intuited we have within ourselves. An intuition is a ‘direct intellectual act’, an intellection of self. In being known, the subject is excluded.11 Soul therefore holds that act not as a memory in time, dependent on an external source, which memory can be easily lost, but as a possession of its eternal essence.12

In its intuition in Intellect, Soul looks first to what is a unity and then to what is multiple, to all that is.13 It possesses and becomes the totality of things, but imperfectly. It grasps not a pure unity, but

‘all the intellectual facts of a many that constitutes a unity. For since the object of vision has variety (distinction within its essential oneness) the intuition must be multiple and the intuitions various, just as in a face we see at the one glance eyes and nose and all the rest.
But is not this impossible when the object to be thus divided and treated as a thing of grades is a pure unity?
No: there has already been discrimination within the Intellectual-Principle; the Act of the Soul is little more than a reading of this.
First and last is in the Ideas not a matter of time, and so does not bring time into the Soul’s intuition of earlier and later among them. There is a grading by order as well: the ordered disposition of some growing thing begins with root and reaches to topmost point, but, to one seeing the plant as a whole, there is no other first and last than simply that of the order.’14

Plotinus defined ‘intuition’ as ‘knowledge with identity’.15 It is by such a method that Soul might attain the highest, and a complete unity with the One – in which it cannot distinguish itself.16 He made the greatest possible distinction between Soul’s intellection and the body’s sensory perception:

‘…the Soul is unfailingly intent upon intellection; only when it acts upon this image-making faculty does its intellection become a human perception: intellection is one thing, the perception of an intellection is another: we are continuously intuitive but we are not unbrokenly aware: the reason is that the recipient in us receives from both sides, absorbing not merely intellections but also sense-perceptions.’17

Consciousness is the reflection of the life of Intellect, through the soul’s engagement with body. Plotinus criticised conscious awareness as being

‘likely to enfeeble the very activities of which there is consciousness; only when they are alone are they pure and more genuinely active and living; and when good men are in this state their life is increased, when it is not spilt out into perception, but gathered together in one in itself.’18

Not all outside Intellect seek to attain it because the requisite motives are ‘reasoned’, but all look to the Good because it is before all ‘reason’.

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Notes

1. Armstrong, op. cit., vol. I, xxi

2. In the analogy of the Divided Line in Bk VI of the Republic, illustrating the relation between the two orders of reality and states of ‘mind’, Plato allowed knowledge by the direct apprehension (vision) of truth through Intelligence (Dialectic) or by Mathematical Reason. Belief and illusion function in the physical realm, giving mere opinion.

3. Plotinus believed that the language of numbers may help us to a direct apprehension of the realities of the intelligible universe and the One.

4. IV,3.18. In a most interesting sentence, implying a relationship between intuition and ‘pre-reason’, Plotinus wrote: ‘And again the reasoning thing is not of that realm: here the reasoning. There the pre-reasoning.’ VI,7.9.

5. I,3.4

6. IV,3.18

7. ‘But what about reasoning and intellect? These no longer give themselves to the body; for their work is not done through the instrument of the body: for this gets in the way if one uses it in rational investigations.’ IV,3.19. Plotinus wrote of his experience of descending from Intellect to discursive reasoning. IV,8.1.

8. Plotinus referred to this as ‘…the superior life of reason…’ III,4.6. Reason functions above chance. Cf. Bergson.

9. III,8.9

10. III,8.10

11. See following note.

12. ‘(A self-intellection is not)…something entering from without, to be grasped and held in fear of an escape…’ IV,3.25. ‘When we seize anything in the direct intellectual act there is room for nothing else than to know and to contemplate the object; the subject is not included in the act of knowing, but asserts itself, if at all, later and is a sign of the altered; this means that, once purely in the Intellectual, no one of us can have any memory of our experience here. Further, if all intellection is timeless – as appears from the fact that the Intellectual beings are of eternity, not of time – there can be no memory in the intellectual world, not merely none of earthly things but none whatever: all is presence. There; for there is no discursive thought, no passing from one point to another.’ IV,4.1.

13. IV,4.1. ‘…the unity of the Soul’s faculty (of intuition) is not incompatible with multiplicity in the object; it does no possess all its content in a single act of thought; each act is incomplete in itself, but all are being constantly exercised; the faculty is permanently there and its effects are external. The object itself is no unity and can therefore harbour a multiplicity which previously it did not contain.’ Ibid.

14. IV,4.1

15. IV,4.3

16. ‘Soul must see in its own way; this is by coalescence, unification; but in seeking thus to know the Unity it is prevented by that very unification from recognising that it has found; it cannot distinguish itself from the object of this intuition. None the less, this is our one resource if our philosophy is to give us knowledge of The Unity.’ VI,9.3. Plotinus distinguished between Soul’s understanding given by contemplation and Intellect’s apprehension of presence: ‘Wisdom and understanding consist in the contemplation of all that exists in the Intellectual-Principle, and the Intellectual-Principle itself apprehends this all (not by contemplation but) as an immediate presence.’ I,2.6.

17. IV,3.30

18. I,4.10

I will soon begin a series on the philosophy of the Neoplatonist Henri Bergson.

2 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Plotinus: Part Six

    • Thanks Tach, Bergson’s a very important philosopher – he was a key vehicle for the continuation of Neoplatonic mysticism in the West into the 20th century. I hope you like the series. Phil

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