Sunday, January 31, 2010
Plotinus contra modernity
Plotinus’ thought is sublime. We find in it not only an important statement of the classical theistic position that all reality derives from an absolutely simple first cause, but also the notion that our fulfillment lay in our return to that cause. (The theme of God as our First Cause and Last End, He from Whom the world derives and to Whom it will return, would later go on to provide the structure for Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.) As Fr. Copleston has said, “from the point of view of Christianity itself, Neo-Platonism had an important function to fulfil, that of contributing to the intellectual statement of the Revealed Religion, and so the convinced Christian cannot but look with sympathy, and a certain reverence, on the figure of Plotinus, to whom the greatest of the Latin Fathers (and so the Universal Church) owed no inconsiderable debt.” (A History of Philosophy, volume I)
Nor is it in metaphysics alone that we can find inspiration in him. There is also his moral vision. Consider this beautiful passage from the first tractate of the Fifth Ennead (MacKenna translation):
What can it be that has brought the souls to forget the father, God, and, though members of the Divine and entirely of that world, to ignore at once themselves and It?
The evil that has overtaken them has its source in self-will, in the entry into the sphere of process, and in the primal differentiation with the desire for self-ownership. They conceived a pleasure in this freedom and largely indulged their own motion; thus they were hurried down the wrong path, and in the end, drifting further and further, they came to lose even the thought of their origin in the Divine. A child wrenched young from home and brought up during many years at a distance will fail in knowledge of its father and of itself: the souls, in the same way, no longer discern either the divinity or their own nature; ignorance of their rank brings self-depreciation; they misplace their respect, honouring everything more than themselves; all their awe and admiration is for the alien, and, clinging to this, they have broken apart, as far as a soul may, and they make light of what they have deserted; their regard for the mundane and their disregard of themselves bring about their utter ignoring of the divine.
Admiring pursuit of the external is a confession of inferiority; and nothing thus holding itself inferior to things that rise and perish, nothing counting itself less honourable and less enduring than all else it admires could ever form any notion of either the nature or the power of God.
We see from these words that Plotinus would condemn not only the naturalism that is the ruling ideology of our age, but also the liberalism that is its moral concomitant. It is “self-will” and “the desire for self-ownership” that leads the soul to deny its true source in the divine. (Libertarians take note.) The O’Brien translation has “desiring to be independent” in place of “self-ownership,” and renders the next sentence: “Once having tasted the pleasures of independence, they use their freedom to go in a direction that leads away from their origin.” We are by nature oriented to the divine; that alone can fulfill us. When, as moderns are prone to do, we make an idol of freedom and “reserve the right” to pursue some other good as if it were highest, we implicitly deny our nature. The resulting madness leads us “further and further” from the divine to the point of what Plotinus calls “self-depreciation” and the pursuit of what is “inferior” to the soul – sensual pleasure, money, and worldly power. The sequel to thus living contrary to reason, like mere animals, cannot fail to be a tendency to sentimentalize the non-human world. “Honouring everything more than themselves; all their awe and admiration is for the alien” – Plotinus might as well have been describing the contemporary environmentalist or animal rights activist. That the liberal-cum-naturalist avant-garde now effectively denies reason itself (in the name of reason!) would have surprised Plotinus not at all.
Plotinus rises up to condemn this modernist disease. We must be grateful to him for that. Not that his work was without error. His conceptions of both God and the soul need to be corrected in an Aristotelian-Thomistic direction (or so we A-T types would contend). His ethics, like that of all Platonists, is excessively rigorist because of its failure to see that the soul is the form of the body, and thus that man is an essentially embodied creature. For the Platonist, “each pleasure and pain is a sort of nail which nails and rivets the soul to the body,” as the Phaedo memorably puts it. But from the A-T perspective – though itself too austere from the point of view of the modern liberal – this is a touch melodramatic. Pleasure must always be subordinated to intellect, and to the knowledge of God which is our natural end, but it has its place in a normal human life. For A-T, you can enjoy your top sirloin, martini, and tobacco, then retire to the bedchamber with the wife, all in good conscience. Some asceticism now and then is a good thing for everyone. And an entire life of asceticism is indeed a higher form of existence for those called to sacrifice lower goods in the interests of a single-minded pursuit of the highest one. But the lower goods remain goods, and those who do not have the calling in question are guilty of no moral failing for pursuing them in moderation.
All the same, in the age of MTV, pot clinics, internet pornography, and “supersizing,” Plotinus’ stern ethos is a welcome corrective. Compared to the war between the ancients and the moderns, the dispute between Platonists, Aristotelians, and Thomists and other Scholastics is a mere family squabble.