Plotinus: The Mystic of the Late Roman Empire
Plotinus, a major philosopher of the ancient world, was born in Alexandria in CE 205. He died in Rome in CE 270, forty-odd years before the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Toleration first allowed Christians to worship freely throughout the Roman Empire. He therefore lived in a time of intense religious and philosophical debate.
At first, Plotinus wrote nothing, following the precept of his master Ammonius Saccas, but, after persuasion by his disciple and biographer Porphyry (CE 233-305), he eventually put his thoughts into a book, The Enneads. His line of thought is not always easy to follow, but his meticulous narrative is enlivened by his vivid use of metaphor and the depth of his spiritual insight.
Plotinus describes the various levels of reality: at the highest level of Being is the One, the Good, beyond Being where all is peace. From here there is an outgoing, downward movement of creation through various levels of being until generation stops at the material world, the final limit of its unfolding and the last trace of the higher reality from which the creative energy originally came. Here all is multiplicity and change. The task of the philosopher is the return to the One and unification with the Good, which, with great effort, is attainable in this life. The following extracts from The Enneads reflect Plotinus’ deep spirituality.
The yearning of the soul
So we must ascend again towards the Good, which every soul yearns for. Anyone who has seen it knows what I mean when I say that it is beautiful. They will attain it who make their way up to the higher world and focus on it intently and strip off all we have put on in our descent. And as he goes up he passes all that is alien to God and alone sees the One, alone, unified, pure, on which all things depend and to which all look and are and live and know; for it is the cause of all being, life and knowledge. And anyone who sees this vision will be seized by such love and joy and longing to be united with it. Whoever has not yet seen it will yearn for its goodness, but he who has seen it delights in its beauty and is full of wonder and pleasure, struck by a vision that brings no pain, loving with a real love and pierced with longing. He laughs at all other loves and shuns all that he once thought beautiful.
Look at the beauty inside yourself
Withdraw into yourself and look. If you do not see yourself as beautiful then do as a sculptor does with a statue he wants to make beautiful: he cuts away here, polishes there, makes one part smooth and clears another until he has given his statue a beautiful face. Like him, cut away all that is superfluous, straighten what is crooked, bring light to all that is dark and never stop sculpting your own statue until the godlike glory of goodness shines on you, until you see goodness enthroned on its holy shrine.
The nature of the soul
Soul is certainly beautiful, the most beautiful of all, lying in pure light and clear radiance; in it lies the nature of real beings. This beautiful universe is but a shadow and an image of it. The soul lies in full glory and lives a blessed life: it overwhelms with awe all who see it and enter into it, as they must, and become one with it.
Often I have woken up out of the body into myself, and, beyond all other things I have gone into myself. I have seen a most wonderful beauty and felt more than ever assured of communion with a higher order, experiencing the best life and becoming one with the divine. I have stationed myself in it and once I reached this supreme state I established myself above everything else in the spiritual realm. After being in the divine, I came back down from the spiritual to the mental. I am puzzled that I can now be coming down and how my soul ever came to be in the body, after she has revealed what she really is.
The descent of the soul
In the spiritual world souls remain with the All Soul and are free from care and trouble … but there comes a stage when they descend from the universal to become a part and self-absorbed; and as if they were tired of being together they each go to a place of their own. When a soul does this for a long time, flying from the All Soul and standing apart, it no longer is turned to the spiritual; it has become a part and is isolated, weak and full of care. Severed from the whole it settles on one single being.
With this comes the shedding of the wings, the enchaining in the body. It has fallen and now operates through the senses, debarred from the spiritual. It is a captive; this is the burial, the encavement, of the soul. Yet, in spite of all this, it always possesses something divine. Souls then necessarily become amphibious, as it were, compelled to live the life up above and the life here down below. Those which are able to associate more with the spiritual live more the life there, but those with little association, by nature or chance, live more the life here.
See the light and hear the voice from within
We must believe what we have seen when the soul suddenly is filled with light. For this light is from Him and is Him.… The light comes from nowhere, and it goes nowhere, now it is seen, now it is not seen. We must not run after it, but prepare ourselves for the vision and then wait quietly for it to appear as the eye waits for the rising of the sun. Then the sun appears over the horizon, ‘coming out of the ocean’ as the poets say, and allows the eye to look at it…. It is a wonder that He is present without having come; He is nowhere, yet there is nowhere in which He is not. One can be surprised at this at first, but one who knows would more likely be surprised at the opposite.
The centre of a circle exists by itself, but every one of the radii in the circle has its point in the centre and the lines bring their individuality to it. Some centre like this is within ourselves by which we are touched, are linked and dependent; and those of us who converge there are firmly held by Him.
We must turn our power of listening inwards and hold it to attention there. It is as if we hope to hear a long-desired voice and let all other sounds pass and are alert for that best of all sounds. So we must let go what we hear with the senses, other than what we have to, and keep the soul’s understanding pure and ready to hear the voice from above.
The soul becomes as happy as she was long ago
There the soul would not exchange this union for anything, not even if someone handed her the whole universe, because there is nothing still better, nothing more good. For there is no going any higher; all else, however high, lies on the downward path. Now it can judge well and know that this is what it desired, and establish that there is nothing better than this. For there is no deceit there; where could she find anything truer than the Truth? So it acknowledges that this is it, says so later, but is silent now; it knows that its happiness is not a delusion. It does not say this because its body is tingling with joy, but because it has become as happy as it was long ago. It says that all those things which delighted it before – high offices, power, wealth, beauty, knowledge – it now scorns, as it has now found better things than these.… If all other things around it were destroyed it would be happy that it was alone in its union. Such great happiness has it reached.
A chorus filled with God
We are always around Him, but don’t always look towards Him. Like a choir, although it may be singing in order around the conductor, may turn and look away, but whenever it turns back again it sings beautifully being in tune with Him. So we are always around Him - there would be a total dissolution without him, we would no longer exist - but we are not always turned to Him. But when we do look at Him our goal and purpose is achieved; we are at rest. We no longer sing badly but sing a chorus filled with God.
Hurry to embrace Him
Whoever has seen knows what I am saying. The soul takes another life as it approaches God and becomes part of Him, and when she is in this state she knows that the master of true life is present and nothing else is needed. On the contrary she must put aside everything else and rest in Him alone and become Him alone, cutting away everything that we are immersed in. And so we must hurry to escape from here and be impatient with what binds us, so that we embrace Him totally and leave no part of us that is not in contact with Him.
Extracts from Anthony Pitman, Know Thyself.