The Ethics and the Enneads on Virtue: the Perfection of Self by a Self-focused Man – Part Two

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence)

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

Where contemplation is the culmination of the Ethics, it is the substance of The Enneads. For both Aristotle and Plotinus, contemplation is the highest and perfect form of activity.19 It is non-discursive and self-contained, but whereas for Aristotle it is an aesthetic and intellectual appreciation by the perfect man20 of knowledge already acquired – the full experience of what it is to be eudaimon, for Plotinus it is the means for the attainment of ‘knowledge’ in the hypostasis of Intellect21 and for the aesthetic perfection of self. For Aristotle, unlike practical activity, nothing is to be gained from contemplation except the pleasure of its own act,22 for Plotinus contemplation, which for him was creative, carries Soul to its source. For both, it is the manifestation of the divine within.23

Aristotle wrote about ‘good’, ‘virtue’, ‘moral’ and the less complete ‘eudaimonia’ in relation to practical life, but these concepts only find their meaning in Plotinus’ system in the shadow of his understanding of contemplation. In The Virtues (I.2) Plotinus equated virtue with attaining likeness to God24 – by ‘becoming just and holy, living by wisdom’. Any possible misunderstanding that this might be in reference to practical life is denied by the conclusion of the first sentence – ‘we must escape hence.’25 He wrote that there are civic and purificatory virtues. The civic virtues (prudence, fortitude, sophrosyny and rectitude) are a principle of beauty in us as long as we remain focused on this life but they are inferior to the purificatory virtues, those same virtues, when they are focused away from this life and on God. As purificatory virtues, they enable the paring away from the Soul of not only the body’s moods and passions but of the body itself.26 His thought on eudaimonia drew the same conclusion.27

In his definition of ‘virtue’ Aristotle used the term ‘rational principle’. Plotinus used the same term, mystically – Soul carries rational-principles (or reason-principles or Forms) from Intellect to the quasi-hypostasis of Nature. Again, production in Nature is the expression of contemplation.

On the subject of contemplation, intellect and reason – even when Aristotle wrote about contemplative intellect, about the contemplation of ‘those things whose first principles are invariable’,28 his use of ‘contemplation’ and ‘intellect’ were not intended to have mystical content. Similarly with his use of the term ‘reason’ – they were all applied to this world – but not so for Plotinus, whose philosophy was based on an antipathy to matter.29

Although the word ‘love’ occurs seven times in the quotation from the Ethics but only twice in that from The Enneads, Aristotle in the Ethics regarded as far superior a life ruled by reason than one ruled by feeling30 – the stronger the emotion, the more critical he was of it. Plotinus was at the other end of the spectrum on this matter – never have the emotions pressed more forcefully against the constraints of reason and rationalisation than in The Enneads.

But there are underlying connections between the person Aristotle and Plotinus most favoured in these books. Not only was the focus of each, in different ways, on the perfection of an individual self, those who could be most eudaimon were recognised as an elite31 who could not contribute to their community’s life with that activity. Further, Kathleen Wilkes wrote ‘The contemplative life is fully attainable only insofar as man (my italics) can become god-like, and the constant and irremovable block to this is that he is biologically an animal.’32

Both Aristotle and Plotinus believed that eudaimonia is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue and that through virtue one can attain the highest good. That attainment for Aristotle was to be in this world, for Plotinus, in the world ‘beyond’.



19. Ethics 1177a5-25

20. Ibid., 1176a10-29

21. Paul Henry suggested that the hypostases of One, Intellect and Soul should be considered less as entities than as spiritual attitudes. Paul Henry. ‘The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought’. In The Enneads, op. cit., li

22. Ethics 1177a25-b13

23. Ibid., 1177b13-33

24. Plotinus quoted Plato ‘Likeness to God is a flight from this world’s ways and things’, Theaetetus 176AB

25. The Enneads I.I.I

26. Ibid., 1.2.3 Also ‘the man will work for the final Disengagement; he will live, no longer, the human life of the good man – such as Civic Virtue commends – but, leaving this beneath him, will take up instead another life, that of the Gods.’ I.2.7

27. ‘a life of mingled good and ill…could not be deserved to be called a life of happiness; it misses the Great, both in the dignity of Wisdom and in the integrity of Good. The life of true happiness is not a thing of mixture. And Plato rightly taught that he who is to be wise and to possess happiness draws his good from the Supreme, fixing his gaze on That, becoming like to That, living by That.’ Ibid., 1.4.16

28. Ethics 1138b35-1139a16

29. Plotinus, like Plato, confusingly used the term ‘reason’ both in reference to an activity of the physical body and the activity of Soul. For the two, the former activity is concerned with the material world and the latter with contemplation of and in the spiritual. As with the two realms, the first reason is the inferior copy of the latter. Ficino’s contribution to this confusion of reason as a function of matter with (disembodied) spiritual contemplation is exemplary: ‘Reason by itself grasps the incorporeal Reasons of all things…reason investigates heavenly things, and does not have a seat of its own in any part of the body, just as divinity also does not have a particular seat in any part of the world…(followed immediately by) Reason…perceives not only those things which are in the world and the present, as sensation does, but also those which are above the heaven, and those which have been or will be.’ Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, trans. J. Sears. Dallas, Spring Publications, 1985, Speech V Chapter 2, 84-85.

30. Ethics 1168b32-1169a23, 1179b7-1180a15

31. Aristotle: Discourses on ethical theory ‘are incapable of impelling the masses towards human perfection.’ ibid., 1179b7-29, Plotinus: ‘to those of power to reach, it is present; to the inapt, absent.’ The Enneads VI,9,7. Barnes op. cit. referred to Aristotle’s ‘egoistic eudaimonism’. Ibid., 31

32. Wilkes op. cit., 352

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