Plotinus and the Cosmic Dance

One of the great ironies of history is that the last great "pagan" philosopher of antiquity, Plotinus, the founder of the movement that is now called "neoplatonism", turned out to be a major influence on Christian theology and mysticism -- indeed, not just for Christianity, but for Jewish and Islamic spirituality as well.

Born of Roman parents in upper Egypt around 205 AD/CE, we know next to nothing of his early life until he began, at the relatively late age of 28, the study of philosophy in Alexandria, then the intellectual capital of the world. After ten years of such study, Plotinus then set off with an imperial military expedition bound for Persia and possibly India, where he hoped to learn more about the wisdom of the East. But with the sudden death of its leader, the expedition broke up and Plotinus fled back west, ending up in Rome. For the next thirty or so years Plotinus, who himself remained unmarried, resided with his generally wealthy patrons, teaching their children and lecturing informally to groups of guests until he died in 270.

A friend and disciple, Porphyry, collected and edited Plotinus' lectures into the six books known as "The Enneads", each one having nine treatises (ennea means "nine" in Greek). In them Plotinus not only mapped out a world-view, but even a manner of living that was at once as mystical as philosophical, one that viewed the whole universe as being, as it were, a single living, breathing organism, with ourselves seen as members of that same organism, growing and pulsating with the very life of God!

A: The Philosophical Foundations

Plotinus' thought was grounded principally in the philosophical world-view of Plato and that the foundation and cornerstone of this platonism was, for Plotinus, the dualism between matter and spirit and the primacy of the latter. The material world, if not evil, is, at best, a shadowy projection of the real world, which is that of spirit, and that at the head of this spiritual world, as its ground or origin, stands the Absolute, the supremely Beautiful, the unqualified and ultimately unknowable Good. Although human souls are "emanations" or outflowings of this divine self-manifestation, and thus also "divine", they are not, properly speaking, parts of the divinity itself.

Instead, Plotinus, following Plato, held for a distinct deity consisting in three divine "hypostases": the Absolute (existence or Being in itself), the Intellect-principle (or divine Mind that engenders all creation), and the World Soul or guiding force that shapes the world and enlivens it. Indeed, it is probably not too much to say that without the assist of Plotinus' understanding of the platonic doctrine of three divine "hypostases" there would be no such thing as a worked out Christian doctrine of the Trinity -- which only came about in the following century.

Why then was not Plotinus himself a Christian? It would appear that to his mind, even the earliest forms of Christianity were hopelessly confused with Gnosticism -- a hodge-podge of oriental myth and philosophical dualism (as witnessed by the recent publication of the Egyptian Nag Hammadi fragments) which down-graded creation to the point that even a platonist such as Plotinus could not tolerate.

B: The Contemplative Ascent

If Plotinus' metaphysics was rooted in the vision of a timeless past, the heart of his philosophical method is expressed in the dynamic contemplation of an eternal now that is ever-present and readily available through a dialectical process of meditation and expanded awareness. Like all dialectical processes, it consists in three stages.

First (the thesis): The systematic effort to expand and deepen one's awareness of the presence of God in all things. This realization or conscious awareness is absolutely fundamental -- without it we can not hope to have even advanced to "square one" in spiritual growth. In fact, we might even say that without it one is destined to remain enmeshed in a world of sensory impressions, and with them, a childish and superficial idea of God. God is not just the "creator" of the universe or even just a divine "architect", nor even just its "ground" or "sustainer" -- if by that we imagine God as a kind of divine Hercules holding up the universe. Rather, God, the Absolute, is pure Being, as some of the medieval philosophers put it, is "Being-in- itself". In fact, to habitually share, or at least the ability to frequently return to this realization of God's presence in everything is probably not only the quickest way to spiritual advancement, it is, in fact, the key to all genuine philosophical thinking which without this "intuition of being" remains purely an academic exercise.

Second (the antithesis): If God or the Absolute is the "Ground" of our very existence, then it stands to reason that, if "God is in all" or in everything, then (to reverse the above perspective) then it is just as true to say "All is in God". Or as Plotinus himself put it, not only is God "everywhere in every way" but "God is the everywhere in whom all else exists". In other words, we are not separate creatures living a completely independent existence from one another, or even less in any kind of an independent existence apart from God. In fact, to put it even more strongly, as did the great 14th. century Rhineland mystical theologian, Meister Eckhart, we, as well as every other creature, to the extent that we exist -- which is to share in God's being -- are ourselves God!

Third (the final "synthesis"): if "God is in All", and "All is in God", then we might as well go further and speak of a culminating state of consciousness where "God" (seen as present in the universe) "is in God" (seen as both its origin and end). Or another way of putting it, God is now seen as "All in All". However this realization remains more than just a kind of mystical mathematics or a verbal slight of hand. It represents the culmination of a state of ecstatic awareness that is rarely reached in this life (Porphyry admits that Plotinus himself reached it only three or four times in all his lifetime). Even St. Paul seems to have experienced it only once. Certainly it represents a kind of "Peak Experience" far beyond that envisioned by Abraham Maslow in his famous book on the subject. In fact, in Christian literature, this final stage is generally understood to be the result of a special grace from God -- something persons can ready themselves for, but which only the Holy Spirit can fulfill. While the first two stages of awareness can be gained through ascetic purification of the senses and systematic meditation, the rest depends on God.

C: The Future of Neoplatonism

It is often said today that the quest for a deepened "spirituality" is rapidly replacing loyalty to any particular institutional "religion". In that case, does Plotinus and "neoplatonism" have anything to offer for this quest?

I believe so. And this for several reasons. First, it is ecumenical in the broadest sense. Not only has neoplatonism deeply influenced Christian, Muslim, and Jewish mysticism in the past, it also, through it's platonic roots, shares something of the mystical traditions of the East which Plotinus wished to further investigate. That the platonic doctrine of the three "hypostases" in God is paralleled not only in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but also by the Hindu Advaitist doctrine of God as sat (Being), chit (Thought), ananda (Bliss or Love) may be no mere coincidence.

The second reason, however. may be even more important. As our exponentially growing knowledge of the vast immensity of the universe more and more dwarfs the old sureness of our human uniqueness as "the measure of all things", we may need more than ever before the cosmic dimensions of Plotinus' vision of creation as a cosmic dance wherein all creatures in their infinite variety form a vast chorus that reflects and multiplies the infinity of God.

Of course, a few choreographical changes may be necessary. For Plotinus, the universe was eternal, so also was the dance. We now know that this is most unlikely. Nor is the platonic doctrine of the emanation of souls into a shadowy world of matter likely to gain many adherents today. Instead, the pattern revealed by the world in evolution suggests quite the opposite movement -- an outpouring of divine creative energy into matter engaged in the process of spiritualization.

Still, if, as Plotinus said, our task was to "strive to bring back the divine in ourselves to the divine in the universe", then how much more is important, in light of our contemporary understanding of things, that each of us may take our proper part in the cosmic dance before the the final curtain falls. For only then, as St. Paul put it, will "God become all in all."

R W Kropf
7/21/2000


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