Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision
By Pierre Hadot. Translated by Michael Chase
Publisher: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
The French philosopher and historian Pierre Hadot has transformed the way we look at ancient philosophy today by uncovering the spiritual kernel in Greco-Roman philosophy. He states as his thesis that:
The greatest lesson which the philosophers of Antiquity - and above all Plotinus - have to teach us is that philosophy is not the complicated, pretentious, and artificial construction of a learned system of discourse, but the transformation of perception and life, which lends inexhaustible meaning to the formula - seemingly so banal - of the love of the Good.
Ever since the Middle Ages, philosophy has been viewed as a kind of learned discourse, often full of incomprehensible jargon. Hadot, who died in 2010, devoted his academic life to reminding academics of philosophy as a way of life and as spiritual practice.
Hadot’s was one of the few voices within academia speaking out in defence of mysticism. As A. I. Davidson writes:
Pierre Hadot is well aware of the fact that the Plotinian journey of the soul is, as often as not, viewed suspiciously nowadays, as though the call to the mystical is a deceptive invitation to mystification…. He … insists that Plotinus’s lived experience was not a means of escape, not a way of evading life but of being absolutely present to it. If we ignore those dimensions of human experience that include the “mysterious, inexpressible and transcendent”, we shall succumb to another kind of mystification, one that is “just as tragic, although more subtle.”
Many of Hadot’s books are written in a style accessible to all, while still upholding the highest standards of precision and rigor. Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, Hadot says, was written “from the heart, in a kind of moment of enthusiasm.”
In Plotinus Hadot offers a breathtaking synthesis of the essential spiritual teachings of this third century Roman philosopher. He argues that, to understand Plotinus, one must understand that he is discussing the mystical experience of union with “the One” - a term Plotinus used interchangeably with “the Good” to denote the highest reality. For example, Plotinus describes the soul’s realization:
She says - “It’s him!” - she enunciates this later; for the moment she says it in silence. She is filled with joy,… because she has become once again what she was before, when she was happy. She says she despises… everything which used to give her pleasure. … If everything else round her were to be destroyed, that would be just what she wanted, so that she could be close to him in solitude. Such is the joy to which she has acceded.
Plotinus gave clear directions on how to attain the spiritual dimension: “We must leave behind all sensible hearing, unless it is unavoidable, and keep the soul’s power of perception pure and ready to hear the voices from on high.” As Hadot summarized his instructions, “We must place ourselves in a disposition of calm restfulness, in order to perceive the life of Thought.”
The Greek word nous is a key term in Plotinus’s philosophy. Plotinus describes nous as an ubiquitous divine presence:
It is not the case that it came, in order to be present; rather, if it is not present, it is you who have absented yourself. If you are absent, it is not that you have absented yourself from the All - it continues to be present - but rather that, while still continuing to be present, you have turned towards other things.
He says that nous is rooted in the One or the Good, the essence of which is love and grace, and that its beauty and radiance is beyond words. Nous is usually translated as Spirit or, more often, Intellect:
The Intellect is beautiful; indeed it is the most beautiful of all things. Situated in pure light and pure radiance, it includes within itself the nature of all beings. This beautiful world of ours is but a shadow and an image of this beauty. … It lives a blessed life, and whoever were to see it, and - as is fitting - submerge himself within it, and become One with it, would be seized by awe.
For Plotinus, the Forms (translating the Greek word idea, meaning vision) shape us and everything around us. In the World of Forms all is light, and “the splendour is without end”. Since the World of Forms shapes the material world, Plotinus did not view the material world or the human body as evil; he only saw in them varying degrees of the Good because nothing can exist without some traces of the Good in it. What is evil is our obsessions. Hadot explains:
It is not life within the body which prevents us from being aware of our spiritual life; the former is, as such, unconscious. Rather, it is the concern we have for our bodies. This is the true fall of the soul. We allow ourselves to be absorbed by vain preoccupations and exaggerated worries.
While Plotinus’ essential teaching focused on mystical realization, he was also concerned with the question of how one is to live daily life. After one glimpses life up above, one lives life below as a preparation for contemplation through the practice of the virtues, especially gentleness and compassion. As Hadot describes Plotinus’s teaching:
Attention paid to the Spirit does not exclude attention to other people, to the world, and to the body itself…. Such attention is mildness and gentleness. Once transformed, our vision perceives, shining on all things, the grace that makes God manifest…. Then there is no longer an outside and an inside: only one single light, towards which the soul feels only gentleness: [as Plotinus says,]“The better one is, the more kind he is towards all things and towards mankind.”
Plotinus left no writings. His responses to the questions of disciples, along with spontaneous discourses, were published thirty years after his death under the title Enneads by one of his closest disciples, Porphyry.
Porphyry also wrote a biography of Plotinus. In it he tells us that his teacher took care of orphans entrusted to him by their parents:
Although he was responsible for the cares and concerns of the lives of so many people, he never - as long as he was awake - let slacken his constant tension directed towards the Spirit. He was gentle and always at the disposition of everyone who had any kind of relationship with him. This is why, although he spent twenty-six entire years in Rome, and acted as arbitrator in disputes between many people, he never made a single enemy amongst the politicians.
As Porphyry recalls, those who were fortunate to come in contact with him were transformed:
By the mere presence of his spiritual life, the sage transforms both the lower part of himself and the people who come in contact with him. From one end of reality to the other, the most effective mode of action is pure presence. The Good acts on the Spirit by its mere presence; the Spirit acts on the soul, and soul on the body; all by their presence alone.
Plotinus was an embodiment of the Good for his contemporaries. He had himself acquired the qualities of the Good he described: “The Good is gentle, mild, and very delicate, and always at the disposition of whomever desires it.”
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