Hegel and Nicholas of Cusa – part two

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

What Hegel read but never acknowledged and what all the academics missed. Why?


From Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften, in six volumes, Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, volume 2

pp. 80-81

Another ardent anti-scholastic was Nicholas from Cusel [Cusa in Latin], a village in the district of Trier (Treves), where he was born in the early fifteenth century. He so distinguished himself by his brilliance, erudition and taste that he was made a doctor of theology, bishop of Brixen, and also a cardinal. In his De docta ignorantia praecisionis veritatis inattingibilis (On learned ignorance of the unattainability of exact truth) he attacked in particular the craze of the scholastics for debating any subject even if it utterly transcended the bounds of human reason. In his own philosophising he was closer to a skeptical attitude. In another work, De coniecturis (On speculation), he declared that any human proposition with real content was no more than a probable assumption. He also dealt with more particular metaphysical questions in other works.

pp. 341-353

The history of the Platonists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as described up to now, contains far more that is worthy of note than that of those of their contemporaries who were true Aristotelians. The latter were for the most part mere Latin translators of and commentators on Aristotle’s writings. What was particular to them, such as George of Trebizond, Gennadius Georgius Scholarius etc. in their dispute with the Platonists, has already been mentioned in the historical discussion of this dispute, where I also touched on the most important circumstances of their lives.

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), detail of relief ‘Cardinal Nicholas before St. Peter’ on his tomb by Andrea Bregno, church of St. Peter in Chains, Rome

More attention is due to Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, not so much as a true Aristotelian, but as an original writer who had educated himself by the methods of Aristotelian philosophy. He had primarily occupied himself with the study of mathematics and hence applied his mathematical concepts to metaphysical subjects, in particular theology. But his mathematical concepts are just as incomprehensible in themselves as is his metaphysical application of them, and for this reason Nicholas of Cusa’s philosophy, insofar as it is original, might be termed a kind of mathematical mysticism. Apart from writings specifically devoted to mathematics and theology, his most important philosophical works are the following: De docta ignorantia liber I (On learned ignorance [three books]); Apologia doctae ignorantiae liber I (Defence of learned ignorance [one book]); De coniecturis libri duo (On speculation [two books]); De sapientia libri III (On wisdom [three books]).1 The contents of the first of these are quite different from what one would expect from its title. A metaphysic is constructed on the idea of the absolute maximum, which is simultaneously absolute oneness, from which Nicholas ultimately seeks to explain also the positive dogmatics of religion and the mysteries of the Trinity and the Redemption. The docta ignorantia (learned ignorance) consists in the recognition that the absolute maximum or absolute oneness is unknowable per se, because all knowledge must be mediated through a number, yet this maximum is greater than any number. Hence the result of this recognition is a learned ignorance.2 Nicholas does not here undertake to investigate how we attain to the idea of the maximum or absolute oneness; he merely assumes that it is presupposed by all men and is the end of their rational endeavour. Only an imperfect, symbolic knowledge of the maximum is possible; the symbol is drawn from mathematics. The maximum is absolute oneness and thus coincides with the minimum; it is absolutely necessary, eternal, and the eternal foundation of the world.3 It passes first into the Trinity. The maximum as absolute Oneness is God; this oneness repeats itself or begets equality with itself (the divine Son), and the union of oneness with its equality constitutes the third person of the divinity (the Holy Spirit). Ab unitate gignitur unitatis aequalitas; connexio vero ab unitate procedit et ab unitatis aequalitate.4 (Equality of oneness is begotten from oneness, but union proceeds from oneness and from equality of oneness.)

Part two/to be continued…



1. Besides the above-mentioned edition of the works of Nicholaus of Cusa (Basel 1565, 3 folio volumes), two other editions exist. The first was published in Germany, probably at Basel, and is lacking several of Nicholas’ works. See Hamberger’s Nachrichten von den vornehmsten Schriftstellern, vol. IV, P. 768. The second is more complete. As the dedicatory letter shows, it was prepared by Jacob Faber of Estaples. Its description reads: Haec accurata recognitio trium voluminum operum clarissimi P. Nicolai Cusae Card. ex officina Ascensiana recenter emissa est; cuius universalem indicem proxime sequens pagina monstrat. Vaenundantur cum caeteris eius operibus in aedibus Ascensianis; III Voll. fol. (This careful revision of three volumes of the works of the famous Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, was recently issued by the Ascensian Press, of which a complete catalogue appears on the next page. They are available together with the rest of his works from the Ascensian Publishing House; Three folio volumes), with no indication of the year and place of printing. At the end of De mathematica perfectione (On mathematical perfection) in volume 3 there is a note that the entire collection was printed at Paris in 1514. To this work in volume 3 is appended the De concordantia catholica (On Catholic concordance). This edition is the one I have before me.

2. Nicol(aus) Cus(a), De docta ignor(antia), Book 1, ch. 1–3, Vol. 1, fol. 2

3. Ibid. Book I, ch. 4–8

4. Nicholas also expresses this as follows: Quemadmodum generatio unitatis ab unitate est una unitatis repetitio; ita processio ab utroque est repetitionis illius unitatis, sive mavis dicere, unitatis et aequalitatis unitatis ipsius unitio. Ibid. Book II, ch. 6. Vol. I fol. 4. (Just as generation of oneness is one repetition of oneness, so the procession from both is oneness of the repetition of this oneness—or, if you prefer the expression – is oneness of oneness and of the equality of this oneness. [Trans. The reference is incorrect, which is the reason I was at first unable to identify this quote: the source is De docta ignorantia, Book I, ch. 9])

English translations of the works of Cusanus by Jasper Hopkins

Hegel and Nicholas of Cusa

Hegel (1770-1831) with his Berlin students, Sketch by Franz Kugler


What Hegel read but never acknowledged and what all the academics missed. Why?

No direct connection has ever been established between Nicholas of Cusa and Hegel. It has been accepted that Hegel did not know of him.1 In fact, there is clear evidence that Hegel knew of Cusanus, and in detail. Not only did Bruno twice specifically refer to him, and with the highest praise, Buhle, whose history Hegel read, discussed Cusanus at length, citing all of his most important works.

In the first volume of his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion Hegel quoted Eckhart from one of his sermons – ‘The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see him.’2 In volume III of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy Hegel discussed Böhme – ‘the first German philosopher’ the reading of whose works was ‘wondrous,’ over eleven pages,3 giving five pages in the same volume to Bruno, yet he never even mentioned Cusanus – a figure in the German mystical tradition between Eckhart and Böhme.

But the ‘divine’ Cusanus who Bruno named, ‘the inventor of geometry’s most beautiful secrets,’ is Bruno’s guide in Cause, Principle and Unity,4 in which Bruno referred to key aspects of Cusanus’ philosophy. Bruno again named and referred to Cusanus as ‘divine’ in The Ash Wednesday Supper, citing his single most important treatise, De Docta Ignorantia.5

Particularly, in the same volume of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel wrote simply of Bruno ‘The fullest information about him is to be found in Buhle’s history of philosophy.’6 In that extremely interesting work (not only because of the sections on Cusanus but because in it Buhle discusses the impact of Neoplatonism, Kabbalism and Hermeticism in general on German philosophy) Buhle wrote on Cusanus in detail, naming his most significant treatises.7

Why did Hegel never even name Cusanus, in any of his writing – a man who was far more philosophical, and in the ‘Hegelian manner,’ than either Eckhart and particularly Böhme, of whom Hegel also wrote that his articulation was ‘unmistakably barbarous’ and that he ‘grasps the antitheses in the harshest, crudest fashion’?8

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). From a painting by Meister des Marienlebens (Master of the Life of the Virgin), located in the hospital at Kues (Germany)

My contention in my thesis will be that Hegel never named Cusanus, not only because he was so indebted to one who was known to be a Christian mystic/Neoplatonist (I have identified more than thirty points in the philosophy of Cusanus which occur in that of Hegel), but because to do so would immediately open to question the nature of Hegel’s vaunted concepts (several of which, I will contend, came directly from Cusanus), the apparent intellectual rigour of his philosophy, and particularly, the meaning of his ‘reason’ – his claims to and for it.

In denying through his utter silence the significance of Cusanus and the foresight of his genius, Hegel was emblematic not only of the German intellectuals of his time (with regard to Spinoza then Swedenborg and Oetinger and later, Nietzsche with regard to ‘Saint Max’ Stirner) but of Western culture as a whole – suppressing key elements of our history, of what has made us, so that we may perceive ourselves, as Hegel did, the bearers and masters of ‘Reason.’9

We of the West believe it has been our ‘reason’ – understood as linguistic, conceptual and particularly propositional – that has enabled us to achieve so much and attain global domination. Mysticism, the myth goes, was only a stage that was shed long ago.

What if ‘reason’ were understood to function not only linguistically, conceptually and propositionally (the reason of patriarchy) but in a manner that has been relegated to and powerfully utilised in the mystical, in ‘the feminine’?

What if philosophers were to be materialists (Heaven forbid!) and recognise, consistent with science, that our brains function wholistically in relation to the world – and philosophise honestly about ‘reason’ on that material basis?

What would happen to our belief in our supremacy then – even as Asia rises?

And what new areas for philosophy might be opened up?

Part one/to be continued…

In subsequent posts I will publish a translation of Buhle’s writing on Cusanus.



1. ‘…Nicholas of Cusa (whom Hegel surprisingly never mentions)…’ Michael Inwood, A Hegel Dictionary, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, 140. Magee, citing Beck, wrote ‘we know that Schelling was influenced by reading Nicholas (Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors, The Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969, 71)…However, Hegel never mentions Cusa anywhere in his published writings or in his lectures.’ In the footnote to this Magee (who otherwise writes excellently on the relationship between Hegel, mysticism and Hermeticism, arguing that Hegel was an Hermetic mystic) expressed a standard view ‘David Walsh notes that although there is no evidence that Hegel ever read Cusa, he was indirectly influenced by him through J.G.Hamann and Giordano Bruno.’ Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2001, 28. Redding wrote ‘In Hegel’s case, Spinozistic and Cusan elements (were) reflected through the speculative thought of Schelling,’ Paul Redding, Hegel’s Hermeneutics, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1996, 31, also ‘Jacobi had not only introduced the German reading public to Spinoza but also to Giordano Bruno, and thereby, indirectly to Nicholas of Cusa.’ Paul Redding, Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche, Routledge, London, 2009, 126. Hodgson wrote ‘Hegel was familiar with Bruno through Schelling’s work as well as that of J.G.Buhle and F.H.Jacobi,’ Peter C. Hodgson, Ed., G.W.F. Hegel, Theologian of the Spirit, Fortress, Minneapolis, 2007, 274. Jasper Hopkins wrote ‘Nicholas does not anticipate, prefigure, foreshadow, etc., Kant, so also he does not anticipate Copernicus or Spinoza or Leibniz or Berkeley or Hegel. …In retrospect, Nicholas must be regarded as a transitional figure some of whose ideas (1) were suggestive of new ways of thinking but (2) were not such as to conduct him far enough away from the medieval outlook for him truly to be called a Modern thinker. Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel never mention him, although Kepler, Descartes, and Leibniz do. …Nicholas’s intellectual influence on his own generation and on subsequent generations remained meager.’ Jasper Hopkins, ‘Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464): First Modern Philosopher?’, Renaissance and Early Modern Philosophy, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 26 (2002), pp. 13-29, 28-29.

2. The editor wrote that Hegel was familiar with the writing of Eckhart from 1794. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion vol. I, Ed. Peter C. Hodgson, Trans., R.F.Brown, P.C.Hodgson, J.M.Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2007, 347

3. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume III Medieval and Modern Philosophy, Trans. Robert F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2009, p. 95

4. Giordano Bruno, Cause, Principle and Unity (De la causa, principio e uno, 1584), Trans. and Ed., Robert de Lucca and Essays on Magic, Trans. and Ed., Richard J. Blackwell, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, pp. 96-7

5. Giordano Bruno, The Ash Wednesday Supper (La Cena de le Ceneri, London, 1584), Ed. and Trans., Edward A. Gosselin and Lawrence S. Lerner, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1995, pp. 139, 150

6. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume III, op. cit., p. 62

7. Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Widerherstellung der Wissenschaften, vol. 2, Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, p. 81 and p. 342ff

8. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume III, op. cit., p. 103

9. Plotinus wrote his phenomenology of consciousness rising not through its ‘shapes’ or (with a Christian patina) ‘stations’ but hypostases one and a half thousand years before Hegel’s.

English translations of the works of Cusanus by Jasper Hopkins

From mysticism to materialism – ‘the tremendous power of the negative’, before which everything but change is doomed

NGTS-10b: Discovery of a Doomed Planet

By arguing that Hegel was not only a mystic, but that he was specifically the consummate Neoplatonist, I address in my thesis the part his philosophy played in a continuum that was and is by its nature always open to development – running from the idealism of Plotinus (consciousness is primary) to its ‘inversion’ in the materialism of Marx (matter is primary). My thesis also argues that Hegel’s system, encapsulated in his Encyclopaedia, is based on Proclus’ triad of triads and that Hegel was fully aware of Cusanus whose De docta ignorantia was also structured on that triad, never mentioning him both because of the degree to which he was indebted to him and because of the implications of that acknowledgement. I provide evidence from Hegel’s own sources.

Konstantin Yuon

Konstantin Yuon, ‘A New Planet,’ 1921. Tempera on cardboard, The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

I address Magee’s claim that Hegel was an Hermeticist and argue that Magee misrepresented both the Hermetica and Hermeticism in order to argue that claim. I also argue that the response of the ideologues of the bourgeoisie to the revolutionary core that Marx and Engels brought out in Neoplatonism encapsulates why Hegel’s thorough-going Neoplatonism is not acknowledged by them. With ‘the tremendous power of the negative’ – the source of all development, before which everything is also ‘doomed’ – as that core, this current is the greatest current in Western philosophy, and now, as dialectical materialism, is the epistemology of the future.


The Crab Nebula and its pulsar

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 2.50.04 pm

‘Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist’ A

‘Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist’ B

Top image

Bottom image


Coincidentia oppositorum


NGC 2392: Double-shelled planetary nebula

‘(Coincidentia oppositorum is) a state or condition in which opposites no longer oppose each other but fall together into a harmony, union, or conjunction…a unity of contrarieties overcoming opposition by convergence without destroying or merely blending the constituent elements…it…sets forth the way God works, the order of things in relation to God and to each other, and the manner by which humans may approach and abide in God’

H. Lawrence Bond in Nicholas of Cusa, Selected Spiritual Writings, trans., H. Lawrence Bond, Paulist Press, New York, 1997, 335-336 




What is ‘reason’?

The brain: the place of consciousness and thought

What is ‘reason’? How do we reason? Ask a philosopher these questions about what they claim is their practice and what they most pride themselves on, and you will most likely be met with examples or…by a rabbit in the headlights. They take it for granted – you do philosophy, ipso facto, you reason. In philosophy, suffused with overt and – post the rise of science – concealed gods, reason is held to be linguistic and primarily propositional. On this, philosophy is its own worst argument. The time is long overdue for the Man of Reason with his patriarchal dualisms that Lloyd and particularly Plumwood exposed so well to be got rid of, so it is good to hear another and at least equally important form of reason – non-linguistic, non-propositional, rich, dialectical, wholistic, fluid and instantaneous (on this occasion in relation to morality) – to get a smidgen of a run on The Philosopher’s Zone – I refer to intuition.

(Academic) philosophers, you will be hearing a lot more of intuition (and of more ‘primitive’ forms of ‘reason’) as brain science develops and what is increasingly getting an airing in adult education courses with the decline of that stage of bourgeois ideology known as postmodernism – I refer to mysticism, to which intuition is central – is absorbed by an eager public, leaving those who are committed to that which is only linguistic and propositional further behind.

Reasoning is what the brain does towards our acquiring knowledge of the world (matter reflecting on matter) and the brain draws on all of its potential towards that end – the truth of the achievement of that end being tested in practice (distinct from the linguistic contemplation, divorced from practice, of philosophy). As Lenin wrote ‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. Kant disparages knowledge in order to make way for faith: Hegel exalts knowledge, asserting that knowledge is knowledge of God. The materialist exalts the knowledge of matter, of nature’  Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our philosophic dead!


On light, vision and knowledge

Konstantin Yuon, ‘A New Planet,’ 1921. Tempera on cardboard, The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

There is light. Light enables vision of a world in flux and in perceiving the world we desire to know it, to move towards absolute knowledge of it. Yet whence that light and where does that world exist – are we in it or is it in us? What is the method for knowing it? How do we bring into play the full range of our capacities? As a materialist or as an ‘idealist’? As one who holds that objective reality or matter is primary or as one who holds that consciousness or ‘mind’ takes precedence? What is the difference between ‘X is idealistic’ and that X is philosophically committed thus? Can we not use the lesson in that distinction to overcome a crippling impediment to the development of our knowledge, thereby enhancing both our ability to know the world and the potential for greater harmony in our lives in relating with it?


What does materialism have to do with mysticism?

Michelangelo, ‘The Awakening Slave’, marble, c. 1520-23, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence. A profound feeling for the dynamic physical world, informed by Neoplatonism.

Not only is materialism indebted to mysticism – as Marx implicitly acknowledged when he correctly described Hegel’s philosophy as mystical1 – mysticism and its influence pervade Western culture.

The contribution of mysticism in all areas has been profound – to literature, the visual arts, religion, particularly to and through philosophy with its concealed priesthood (which priesthood was identified by the Dionysian priest Nietzsche), to science – it inspired Copernicus to the greatest scientific hypothesis (the Divine Light not the earth is at the centre of the world), and Kepler (in a wonderful yet imperfect world the planetary orbits are elliptical, not circular).

In the West its primarily Neoplatonic form, in reflecting the contradictory, poetic dynamism of the world and having been ‘stood on its feet’ by Marx became the philosophical engine of dialectical materialism itself.2

We in the West, on the back of all that has been achieved, believe a monumental lie, a monumental arrogance, a monumental delusion – that while others worship idols, stare at their navels, are committed to ‘failed’ or ‘backward’ ideologies or are obsessed with filial piety, we have risen above this to become the triumphal bearers of (linguistic, conceptual) ‘Reason’.

We wear this self-awarded badge as a cultural definition. It is the belief we have relied on to most distinguish the West from the rest.

The impact of mysticism argues against this. Linguistic reason, bounded, manipulable and governed by rules and a core tool of all authoritarians and ideologues from Plato onwards is not the only form of reason. At the heart of mysticism is another – powerful and fluid, complex, subtle and evanescent. And in the inspiration of its ‘connectedness’, immensely creative.

Linguistic reason draws on this ‘connectedness’ as its proponents seek to contain and deny it. The artist and theologian Plato is a prime example. I refer you to the lyrical power of the Ion

For a Poet is indeed a thing ethereally light, winged, and sacred…

When we wake in the middle of the night with the solution to a long-standing problem, had we been dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’, or might trotting chairs and fluttering wings have borne fruit in creative ‘space’?3

Or when you round a corner and bump into a stranger – no time for considered words and structured sentences – think of the richness, at multiple levels, of what has taken place in your brain – in a moment’s silence. Such a cognitive experience (that of ‘first impressions’) is so intense it merges seamlessly with the physical. This thinking is the ever-present underlay of what is done linguistically.

Intuitive thought draws most directly on our connectedness – to all that comprises us, to what we remember, and to the world. It provides us with perhaps our deepest cognitive experience of the world. That this has been given mystical meaning does not detract from its objective nature and potential.

In considering what comprises ‘reason’, the materialist must begin with how the brain functions in totality, recognising that its functions bear on the whole dialectically, that they are inseparable and plastic, and not focus only on the brain’s capacity for linguistic expression.



1. Marx wrote: ‘I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker…The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.‘ Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Postface to the Second Edition 1873, Penguin, London, 1982, p. 103.

2. See William Franke’s two volume anthology On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2007

3. Hegel himself wrote ‘it is also inadequate to…(say) vaguely that it is only in the waking state that man thinks. For thought in general is so much inherent in the nature of man that he is always thinking, even in sleep. In every form of mind, in feeling, intuition, as in picture-thinking, thought remains the basis.’
G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, Part Three of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), Trans., William Wallace, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971, 69

The philosophy of Plotinus: on contemplation

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Wilhelm Uhde, 1910. Oil on canvas, private collection. 'No doubt the wisdom of the artist may be the guide of the work; it is sufficient explanation of the wisdom exhibited in the arts; but the artist himself goes back, after all, to that wisdom in Nature which is embodied in himself; and this is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unity but rather a unity working out into detail.’ Enneads V.8.5. The ‘faceting’ of ‘Analytic Cubism’ could be interpreted as depicting the ghostly, fragmentary nature of material existence at the same time as seeking to evoke the second hypostasis, Intellect.

The object dissolved in the unity of consciousness: Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Wilhelm Uhde, 1910. Oil on canvas, private collection. ‘No doubt the wisdom of the artist may be the guide of the work; it is sufficient explanation of the wisdom exhibited in the arts; but the artist himself goes back, after all, to that wisdom in Nature which is embodied in himself; and this is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unity but rather a unity working out into detail.’ Enneads V.8.5.
The ‘faceting’ of ‘Analytic Cubism’ could be interpreted as depicting the ghostly, fragmentary nature of material existence at the same time as seeking to evoke the second hypostasis, Intellect.


But how are you to see into a virtuous Soul and know its loveliness? 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.

The Enneads I.6.9

Plotinus’ Enneads are built on contemplation. Its practice enables Soul to rise to Intellect. Inseparable from the notion of will, contemplation is the self-directed and self-contained thought of the higher realm. For Plotinus contemplation, thought and life are synonymous. They are most true and perfect in Intellect. The contemplation of Ideas is above the contemplation of images and the contemplation of the Good is above the contemplation of Ideas.

Plotinus differentiated between contemplation and reasoning,1 defining ‘reasoning’ as ‘the research into what a thing has in itself’, into that which exists independently. He asked whether ‘research’ means not yet possessing.2 Again, contemplation is not concerned with the mass, size or shape of matter perceived by the senses. It draws upon a higher vision which nurtures the Soul in its purpose3

Plotinus wrote of ‘creative contemplation’.4 Contemplation is perfect creative activity, and the latter occurs spontaneously when the former is entered into. In its activity, contemplation creates what is contemplated – from the weak and dreamlike contemplation underlying creation by Nature to that by Soul which in its contemplating (since it is more complete and therefore more contemplative than Nature) gives birth in a way and to a product superior to that of Nature.

‘And my act of contemplation makes what it contemplates, as the geometers draw their figures while they contemplate…What happens to me is what happens to my mother and the beings that generated me, for they, too, derive from contemplation, and it is no action of theirs which brings about my birth; they are greater rational principles, and as they contemplate themselves I come to be.’5

Contemplation is the true source of all production6 and activity and it is the goal to which these aspire at every level, from the earth and plants of Nature, upwards to the Soul’s contemplation in Intellect of the One.7 Because it is not perfect, Soul is eager to penetrate and unite with the object of its contemplation which is for it an object of knowledge.8

Plotinus distinguished between creative activity in Intellect and in this world. Though also – like the Soul(s of the strong) – driven by recollection, a longing for inward vision, and the desire to share that vision, those with weak souls create an object in the sensory world as a focus for outward sight – a poor imitation of the object of inward vision and of the contemplative process of and in the other world. We contemplate in that one in order to create all else, by becoming One.9

‘Men, too, when their power of contemplation weakens, make action a shadow of contemplation and reasoning. Because contemplation is not enough for them, since their souls are weak and they are not able to grasp the vision sufficiently, and therefore are not filled with it, but still long to see it, they  are carried into action, so as to see what they cannot see with their intellect. When they make something, then, it is because they want to see their object themselves and also because they want others to be aware of it and contemplate it, when their project is realised in practice as well as possible.’10

In Intellect, contemplation (thinking), substance and being are the same. In it, there are no parts but there is complete unity and identity of the ‘knowing faculty’ (Soul – become the activity of knowing) and the non-physical, known object of its knowledge (Being). Soul enters Idea as Idea infuses Soul.11

Plotinus proposed a method for ‘dematerialising’ by contemplation the visible universe comprised of separate elements in order to ‘see’ that of the spiritual intelligible in which all elements have no perceptible shape, magnitude, temporal or spatial difference – since each is all, and all, though distinct, are an infinite one.

‘Let us then apprehend in our thought this visible universe, with each of its parts remaining what it is without confusion, gathering all of them together into one as far as we can, so that when any one part appears first, for instance the outside heavenly sphere, the imagination of the sun and, with it, the other heavenly bodies follows immediately, and the earth and sea and all the living creatures are seen, as they could in fact all be seen inside a transparent sphere. Let there be, then, in the soul a shining imagination of a sphere, having everything within it, either moving or standing still, or some things moving and others standing still. Keep this, and apprehend in your mind another, taking away the mass: take away also the places, and the mental picture of matter in yourself, and do not try to apprehend another sphere smaller in mass than the original one, but calling on the god who made that of which you have the mental picture, pray him to come. And may he come, bringing his own universe with him, with all the gods within him, he who is one and all, and each god is all the gods coming together into one; they are different in their powers, but by that one manifold power they are all one; or rather, the one god is all; for he does not fail if all become what he is; they are all together and each one again apart in a position without separation, possessing no perceptible shape – for if they did, one would be in one place and one in another, and each would no longer be all in himself…nor is each whole like a power cut up which is as large as the measure of its parts. But this, the [intelligible] All, is universal power, extending to infinity and powerful to infinity; and that god is so great that his parts have become infinite…’12

Everything that exists and happens in the higher universe has its poor copy in this one – objects in this universe are the replicas of Forms in the other, physical reason the replica of contemplative reason, physical sight the replica of the vision of Intellect, physical activity in the creation of an object to be seen with a vision limited to the sensation of that object the replica of contemplative activity in the creation of an object which enables vision.

One acts in and engages with this world because one’s capacity for contemplative activity, for vision, is lacking. In Intellect, through contemplation, the subject’s thought and the object of desired knowledge (that is – being, itself the product of contemplation) have identity as self-living sight and real substance, as the partless essence of what is, complete within itself.

‘…as contemplation ascends from nature to soul, and soul to intellect, and the contemplations become always more intimate and united to the contemplators, and in the soul of the good and wise man the objects known tend to become identical with the knowing subject, since they are pressing on towards intellect, it is clear that in intellect both are one, not by becoming akin, as in the best soul, but substantially, and because thinking and being are the same.’13

The wise man is so because he has become vision, directed within himself.14 In contemplating (creating and seeing) eternity within oneself, one moves towards it.15 In bringing one’s contemplation to vision, one perceives substance from within it,16 and comes to unity with oneself. One contemplates…(One)self – as the god ‘silently present’. 17

‘But whoever has become at once contemplator of himself and all the rest and object of his contemplation, and, since he has become substance and intellect and “the complete living being”, no longer looks at it from outside – when he has become this he is near, and that Good is next above him, and already close by, shining upon all the intelligible world. It is there that one lets all study go…’18

Contemplation and living Being unite in Intellect as truth, beauty, eternal life and vision. The life (activity) of ‘Mind’ is far superior, far more vital, creative and real, than life in this world.



1. On this point which is crucial not only to an understanding of this Platonic/Neoplatonic current in philosophy and its influence on the Western visual arts, but, more broadly, to an understanding of how our reasoning functions, Plotinus, like Plato, confusingly used the term ‘reason’ both in reference to an activity of the physical body and the activity of Soul. For Plato and Plotinus, the former activity is concerned with the material world and the latter with contemplation of and in the spiritual. As with everything in 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, pp.84-85.

2. Enneads, III,8,3

3. ‘When therefore he who is embarked on the contemplation of this kind imagines size or shape or bulk about this nature, it is not Intellect which guides his contemplation because Intellect is not of a nature to see things of this kind, but the activity is one of sense-perception and opinion following sense-perception.’ VI,9,3. Thus, an attempt to accurately depict the physical appearance of a person or an object, because it would focus the viewer’s attention on the sensory world, is not only not necessary but might distract the Soul from its purpose. Porphyry wrote of Plotinus ‘He showed, too, an unconquerable reluctance to sit to a painter or a sculptor, and when Amelius persisted in urging him to allow of a portrait being made he asked him, “Is it not enough to carry about this image in which nature has enclosed us? Do you really think I must also consent to leave, as a desirable spectacle to posterity, an image of the image?”’ Porphyry, ‘On the Life of Plotinus and the Arrangement of His Work’  in  The Enneads, Third ed. Abridged. Trans. S. MacKenna. London: Penguin, 1991, cii.

4. III,8,5

5. III,8,4. Compare with Plato on birth in Phaedrus. Also compare with Rorty on Aristotle’s notion of activity: ‘An activity can only be identified as such if it has been brought to its natural fulfilment: so, for instance, the activity of reproduction has not occurred unless an offspring has been produced…’ A. Oksenberg Rorty, ‘The Psychology of Aristotelian Tragedy’. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XVI (1991), pp.70-71.

6. ‘… all things are a by-product of contemplation…the truest life is life by thought…’  III,8,8.

7. ‘… all things aspire to (the activity of) contemplation, and direct their gaze to this end – not only rational but irrational living things, and the power of growth in plants, and the earth which brings them forth…’ III,8,1. ‘…we must strike for those Firsts, rising from things of sense which are the lasts. Cleared of all evil in our intention towards The Good, we must ascend to the Principle within ourselves….It must be our care to bring over nothing whatever from sense, to allow nothing from that source to enter into Intellectual-Principle…’ VI,9,3.

8. ‘The Soul has a greater content than Nature has and therefore it is more tranquil; it is more nearly complete and therefore more contemplative. It is, however, not perfect, and is all the more eager to penetrate the object of contemplation, and it seeks the vision that comes by observation … it possesses its vision by means of that phase of itself from which it had parted.’ III,8,6.

9. Nietzsche believed that the artist of genius, inspired by the Dionysiac impulse, goes beyond physical phenomena and, through an inward vision, finds unity with the eternal One: ‘Only insofar as the genius in the act of artistic creation coalesces with this primordial artist of the world, does he know anything of the eternal essence of art; for in this state he is, in a marvellous manner, like the weird image of the fairy tale which can turn its eyes at will and behold itself; he is at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator.’ The Birth of Tragedy, (1872) Section 5, in F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, Trans. W. Kaufmann. New York, Vintage, 1967, p.52 and ‘…the tragic artist…creates his figures like a fecund divinity of individuation…and as his vast Dionysian impulse then devours his entire world of phenomena, in order to let us sense beyond it, and through its destruction, the highest artistic primal joy, in the bosom of the primordially One. The Birth of Tragedy, Section 22, in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, op. cit., p.132. The same religious belief in creativity was held by another extremely influential vitalist and Neoplatonic contemporary of Nietzsche’s – Bergson, whose best known work is titled Creative Evolution (1907).

10. III,8,4. See note 1. Superior to representational art with its referent in this world is the art of which it is desired to evoke, in the viewer’s ‘mind’ through contemplative ‘reason’, its referent in Intellect – the art of physical creation (resulting in the viewer’s critical appreciation of the work of another) contra the art of contemplative creation (in which the viewer is stimulated to complete the process, internally). On the determination of aesthetic value: ‘“Do you think that it will be a poor life that a man leads who has his gaze fixed in that direction, who contemplates absolute beauty with the appropriate faculty and is in constant union with it? Do you not see that in that region alone where he sees beauty with the faculty capable of seeing it, will he be able to bring forth not mere reflected images of goodness but true goodness, because he will be in contact not with a reflection but with the truth? And having brought forth and nurtured true goodness he will have the privilege of being beloved of God, and becoming, if ever a man can, immortal himself.”’ Symposium, 211a-212c.

11. ‘In proportion to the truth with which the knowing faculty knows, it comes to identification with the object of its knowledge. As long as duality persists, the two lie apart, parallel as it were to each other; there is a pair in which the two elements remain strange to one another, as when Ideal-Principles laid up in the mind or Soul remain idle. Hence the Idea must not be left to lie outside but must be made one identical thing with the Soul of the novice so that he finds it really his own. The Soul, once domiciled within that Idea and brought to likeness with it, becomes productive, active; what it always held by its primary nature it now grasps with knowledge and applies in deed, so becoming, as it were, a new thing and, informed as it now is by the purely intellectual, it sees (in its outgoing act) as a stranger looking upon a strange world. It was, no doubt, essentially a Reason-Principle, even an Intellectual Principle; but its function is to see a (lower) realm which these do not see.’ III,8,5. Compare with. Met., and De Anima 430a: ‘…(intellect) is itself thinkable just as the thought-objects are, for in the case of things without matter that which thinks is the same as that which is thought. For contemplative knowledge is the same as what is so known. …Each of the objects of thought is potentially present in the things that have matter, so that while they will not have intellect, which is a capacity for being such things without matter, the intellect will have within it the object of thought.’

12. V,8,9. Compare with Phaedo on Plato’s differentiation between the visible world and the true world ‘not in nature’, attainable by those who have purified themselves through philosophy (108a-114c), Ficino: ‘Therefore go ahead; subtract its matter if you can (and you can subtract it mentally), but leave the design. Nothing of body, nothing of matter will remain to you. On the contrary, the design which came from the artist and the design which remains in the artist will be completely identical.’ Ficino op. cit., pp.92-93, and Bergson’s method for bringing duration into consciousness: ‘Matter (separate from consciousness) thus resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other and travelling in every direction like shivers through an immense body. In short, try first to connect together the discontinuous objects of daily experience; then resolve the motionless continuity of their qualities into vibrations on the spot; finally fix your attention on these movements, by abstracting from the divisible space which underlies them and considering only their mobility (that undivided act which our consciousness becomes aware of in our own movements): You will thus obtain a vision of matter, fatiguing perhaps for your imagination, but pure, and freed from all that the exigencies of life compel you to add to it in external perception. Now bring back consciousness…At long, very long, intervals, and by as many leaps over enormous periods of the inner history of things, quasi-instantaneous views will be taken, views which this time are bound to be pictorial, and of which the more vivid colours will condense an infinity of elementary repetitions and changes. In just the same way the multitudinous successive positions of a runner are contracted into a single symbolic attitude, which our eyes perceive, which art reproduces and which becomes for us all the image of a man running…The change is everywhere, but inward; we localise it here and there, but outwardly.’ Matter and Memory. (1896). Trans. N. Paul, W. Palmer. New York,1988, p.208.

13. III,8,8

14. ‘The Sage, then, has gone through a process of reasoning when he expounds his act to others; but in relation to himself he is Vision: such a man is already set, not merely in regard to exterior things but also within himself, towards what is one and at rest: all his faculty and life are inward-bent.’ III,8,7.

15. ‘What then, if one does not depart at all from one’s contemplation of it (eternity) but stays in its company, wondering at its nature, and able to do so by a natural power which never fails? Surely one would be (would one not?), oneself on the move towards eternity and never falling away from it at all, that one might be like it and eternal, contemplating eternity and the eternal by the eternal in oneself…eternity is a majestic thing, and thought declares it identical with the god…’ III,7,5.

16. Bergson believed that intuition probes the flow of duration, placing one within the object, giving an absolute.

17. V,8,11

18. VI,7,36


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’.



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.

My comment on ‘Nicholas of Cusa and the instruction of ignorance’

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), detail of relief ‘Cardinal Nicholas before St. Peter’ on his tomb by Andrea Bregno, church of St. Peter in Chains, Rome

From ABC Radio National 12.04.14

Your treatment of Cusanus from the perspective of bourgeois ideology – interspersed with nineteen product placements, appropriately detailed for those keen to make a purchase – was very interesting. Perspectivism, reconciliation, the acknowledgement and acceptance of difference and diversity… True, but why ‘neo-Platonic’ once and ‘Plotinus’ never? Could Inigo Bocken really believe that the reason why Cusanus is known as a mystic is because he had an aptitude for religious paradox? Cusanus was a Christian Neoplatonist. What are you collectively afraid of?

Now that the ideological caravans of modernism and post-modernism have run out of steam, what next? Mysticism? But this is a very hot potato – for two reasons:
– the primary Western form – Neoplatonism – has been treated by generations of academics as the pornography of modern Western philosophy, even as its Siren call has been eagerly responded to, particularly by male philosophers, and its profound influence on their work dissembled about or denied. To explore mysticism in this regard threatens to undermine gods, expose lies, damage careers and lay bare a cultural arrogance and self-delusion that we in the West are the champions of ‘Reason’ while others stare at their navels or are obsessed with filial piety
– as Marx recognised, its contradictory core is nothing but revolutionary. It rings the bell for the passing of all and everything but matter in motion itself – it speaks of a mobile infinity…’in some strange way’

No sooner did you present this genius and humanist to us than you buried him in the very academicism he despised and reacted against. Your speakers have sought to contain and gut the subject and bleed the passion that has inspired so much.

I think of Morawski’s definition of ideology: a system of belief…delimited by interests.

Philip Stanfield