Plotinus on Contemplation

“Supposing we played a little before entering upon our serious concern and maintained that all things are striving after Contemplation, looking to Vision as their one end — and this, not merely beings endowed with reason but even the unreasoning animals, the Principle that rules in growing things, and the Earth that produces these — and that all achieve their purpose in the measure possible to their kind, each attaining Vision and possessing itself of the End in its own way and degree, some things in entire reality, other in mimicry and image — we would scarcely find anyone to endure so strange a thesis. But in a discussion entirely among ourselves there is no risk in a light handling of our own ideas (Plotinus, Enneads III.8, ch. 1, MacKenna tr., p. 239).

Thus begins Plotinus’ great essay that we know by the title “Nature, Contemplation, and the One”. The remainder of the text suggests that he is in fact fairly serious in what he suggests, but this disclaimer shows that he recognizes its unusual character. He does at a later point say in effect, “and now for the serious part”. In the “playful” part, he is deliberately stretching the meaning of contemplation, challenging us to apply it in many more cases than we would expect. In the “serious” part, he narrows the meaning to cases that come close to instantiating the identity Aristotle speaks of between thought and what it thinks.

Scholars believe this essay was part of Plotinus’ single largest work, which his student and editor Porphyry divided into four separate pieces, including “On the Intellectual Beauty” and “Against the Gnostics”. I wanted to compare what he says about contemplation with what Aristotle says. I find that even when I don’t agree with Plotinus, his work often has a kind of poetic appeal.

Aristotle speaks of contemplation as the characteristic activity of the gods, and as the ultimate end of human life. Plotinus here suggests that all nature aims at contemplation. Aristotle never says that, but it is in a way implicit between the lines. If the first cause is characterized by pure contemplation, and is the ultimate end behind all particular ends for which things do what they do, then in that sense all things aim at contemplation.

The characterization of contemplation as “Vision” is not one I would want to endorse in an Aristotelian context, at least without major qualification. The way Plotinus speaks of it, this Vision seems like a case of what Kant would call intellectual intuition — a kind of immediate grasping of some deep content.

I agree with Kant and Hegel that humans can “immediately” grasp deep content in holistic fashion only after and because we have previously done the work needed to understand it, which typically involves what Aristotle calls “thinking things through”, and what I have called interpretation and (after Paul Ricoeur) the long detour. I want to read Aristotle in a way that is compatible with this.

As it stands, Plotinus’ notion of Vision seems designed to exclude mediation, consonant with his emphasis on the simplicity of the One as the source of all things. For Plotinus, Vision is an immediate holistic “seeing” of deep truth.

I think Aristotelian contemplation is holistic too, but that any holistic Vision or immediate intuition achievable by humans and acceptable to Aristotle must have a cumulative, retrospective, reflective character that depends on previous insight and work, like apperception does in Kant and Hegel. I would suggest that Aristotelian contemplation could be elaborated as apperceptive entelechy.

“Well — in the play of this very moment am I engaged in the act of Contemplation? Yes; I and all that enter this play are in Contemplation: our play aims at Vision; and there is every reason to believe that child or man, in sport or earnest, is playing or working only towards Vision, that every act is an effort towards Vision; the compulsory act, which tends rather to bring the Vision down to outward things, and the act thought of as voluntary, less concerned with the outer, originate alike in the effort towards Vision” (ibid).

Here we begin to see in detail the vast extension of contemplation Plotinus is “playfully” suggesting. All things either are contemplation or aim at contemplation. In effect, he is treating Vision as a name for the Good at which all things aim.

“[L]et us speak, first, of the earth and of the trees and vegetation in general, asking ourselves what is the nature of the Contemplation in them, how we relate to any Contemplative activity the labor and productiveness of the earth, how Nature, held to be devoid of reason and even of conscious representation, can either harbour Contemplation or produce by means of the Contemplation which it does not possess” (ibid).

For Aristotle, the earth has a nature or internal source of motion, and plants as living things have an elementary kind of soul corresponding to their abilities for growth and nutrition. But even motion is a primitive kind of entelechy, of which contemplation is the highest form. Aristotle may not see contemplation everywhere, but he does see entelechy everywhere.

Incidentally, the English word “consciousness” was first coined by Locke’s friend, the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, to express ideas he found in Plotinus.

“To begin with, since in all [Nature’s] production it is stationary and intact, a Reason-Principle [logos] self-indwelling, it is in its own nature a Contemplative act. All doing must be guided by an Idea, and will therefore be distinct from that Idea: the Reason-Principle then, as accompanying and guiding the work, will be distinct from the work; not being action but Reason-Principle it is, necessarily, Contemplation” (ch. 3, p. 240).

Plotinus generally seems to use logos in a sense that is derived from Stoicism, rather than any Platonic or Aristotelian source. Logos is a — arguably the — fundamental explanatory principle in Stoicism. It has relations with Platonic and Aristotelian concepts, but is a distinct notion or family of notions in its own right. For the Stoics, everything has an indwelling logos or rational principle that internally governs it, and the logos has a divine origin.

“And does this Reason-Principle, Nature, spring from a contemplation? Wholly and solely” (ibid).

He doesn’t explain this, but instead proceeds to qualify it.

“The Contemplation springing from the reasoning faculty — that, I mean, of planning its own content — [Nature] does not possess” (p. 241).

Nature neither reasons explicitly, nor plans how to achieve its aims.

“Because to plan for a thing is to lack it: Nature does not lack; it creates because it possesses. Its creative act is simply its possession of its own characteristic Essence; now its Essence, since it is a Reason-Principle, is to be at once an act of contemplation and an object of contemplation” (ibid).

The idea of starting from fullness rather than lack is appealing. Aristotle’s way of doing this is to emphasize entelechies everywhere. Every entelechy is in a way complete in itself.

Aristotle complements this by saying that the living things that have natures are more immediately moved by desire. Plato, however, strongly identifies desire with a kind of lack. Plotinus therefore seems to want to downplay the role of desire, and identifies nature with the fullness of a creative act. If this is not the creativity of the translator, we have here a reference to creation, as distinct from making. Creation is also not part of Platonic or Aristotelian vocabulary.

Plotinus is said to have read works by Numenius, a Neo-Pythagorean who was impressed by the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. I don’t have my Loeb edition handy to check the Greek. (Incidentally, Armstrong’s complete translation of Plotinus in the Loeb edition is more accurate and less flowery than the more common MacKenna I am using here. Kevin Corrigan’s translation in his Reading Plotinus is also better, but I don’t have that handy either.)

The “act” part seems to be a reference to actuality or being-at-work. This is also an important concept for Plotinus, though in contrast to Aristotle he ultimately subordinates it to potentiality.

“Thus the act of production is seen to be in Nature an act of contemplation, for creation is the outcome of a contemplation which never becomes anything else, which never does anything else, but creates by simply being a contemplation” (ibid).

Aristotle makes the more specific claim that the what-it-is of things is the outcome of thought thinking itself that contemplates. He would not collapse this together as Plotinus does, into a claim that nature’s act of production is an act of contemplation.

“[W]hat we know as Nature is a Soul, offspring of a yet earlier Soul of more powerful life; that it possesses, therefore, in its repose, a vision within itself; that it has no tendency upward nor even downward but is at peace, steadfast, in its own Essence;” (ch. 4, p. 241).

Aristotle calls nature an internal source of motion, but not a soul (psyche). On the other hand, the things he regards as having a nature (plants and animals) he also regards as having a soul. But the notions of soul in Aristotle and Plotinus are also vastly different. While Aristotle is careful to stay close to what can be observed by anyone, Plotinus makes the soul a much grander thing with much stronger properties.

“Of course, while it may be convenient to speak of ‘understanding’ or ‘perception’ in the Nature-Principle, this is not in the full sense…; we are applying to sleep a word borrowed from the wake” (pp. 241-242).

Here he acknowledges he is stretching things.

“In the same way, human beings, when weak on the side of contemplation, find in action their trace of vision and of reason: their spiritual feebleness unfits them for contemplation; they are left with a void, because they cannot adequately seize the vision; yet they long for it; they are hurried into action as their way to the vision which they cannot attain by intellection. They act from the desire of seeing their action, and of making it visible and sensible to others when the result shall prove fairly well equal to the plan. Everywhere, doing and making will be found to be either an attenuation or a complement of vision” (p. 242).

Long ago, I was profoundly impressed by this argument that all action aims at contemplation, which he returns to further on. Looking at it now, it strikes me that this thesis may be implicitly counterposed to Aristotle’s idea of the priority of actuality, which, as we will see, Plotinus does not agree with. Aristotle also would never be so one-sidedly dismissive of doing and making, even though he agrees that contemplation is “even more” to be valued.

“The primal phase of the Soul — inhabitant of the Supreme… — remains unchangeably There; but in virtue of that first participation, … a secondary phase also participates in the Supreme, and this secondary goes forth ceaselessly as Life streaming from Life; for energy runs through the universe and there is no extremity at which it dwindles out” (ch. 5, p. 242).

“Energy” here is actuality or being-at-work, now explicitly associated with something secondary.

“All goes softly since nothing here demands the parade of thought or act upon external things: it is a Soul in vision and, by this vision, creating its own subsequent — this Principle (of Nature), itself also contemplative but in the feebler degree… a Vision creates the Vision ” (p. 243).

The implicit complaint against the “parade of thought” has to do with Plotinus’ strong bias for intuitive immediacy over what Aristotle would call “thinking things through”. I think Plotinus is perhaps the best proponent of this view that I disagree with — certainly better than the followers of Schelling and Jacobi who attacked Hegel.

“[T]his explains how the Soul’s creation is everywhere: where can this thing fail to be, which is one identical thing in every soul? Vision is not cabined within the bournes of magnitude.”

In Plotinus’ modified Platonic view, Soul is not just the form of a living body, but plays a huge role in the formation and governance of the world. There is a soul of the world or soul of the all; nature is a kind of soul; and there is a transcendent Soul that is Nature’s prior. Every individual soul has a direct connection to the transcendent Soul.

“This, of course, does not mean that the Soul is present at the same strength in each and every place and thing — any more than it is at the same strength in each of its phases.”

“The Charioteer (the Leading Principle of the Soul, in the Phaedrus myth) gives the two horses (its two dissonant faculties) what he has seen and they, taking that gift, showed that they were hungry for that vision; there was something lacking to them: if in their desire they acted, their action aimed at what they craved for — and that was vision, and an object of vision” (ibid).

Here he refers to imagery from Plato’s Phaedrus, while re-centering the myth around his own notion of Vision. He again dwells on the superiority of contemplation to action.

“Action, thus, is set towards contemplation and an object of contemplation, so that even those whose life is in doing have seeing as their object” (ch. 6, p. 243).

“[T]hey desired a certain thing to come about, not in order to be unaware of it but to know it, to see it present before the mind…. We act for the sake of some good; this means not for something to remain outside of ourselves, not in order that we may possess nothing but that we may hold the good of the action. And hold it, where? Where but in the mind?” (ibid).

“This vision achieved, the acting instinct pauses; the mind is satisfied and seeks nothing further” (p. 244).

Aristotle would agree that a maximally complete entelechy like contemplation is in a way better than any incomplete entelechy, such as would be associated with action. Even so, his emphasis on the priority of actuality leads to a much more positive valuation of acting, doing, and making. Also, for Aristotle contemplation is a being-at-work. And I at least also think of it as a particular kind of acting and doing, even though it is different from external acting and doing.

“[N]ow we come to the serious treatment of the subject — In proportion to the truth with which the knowing faculty knows, it comes to identification with the object of its knowledge” (ibid).

What he says here about knowledge resembles the Aristotelian identity of thought and the thing thought, broadened to include a kind of proportional applicability. On the other hand, Aristotle seems to view knowledge as a discrete relation, which if taken strictly would seem to rule out any kind of proportional applicability or approximation.

“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 to 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” (ibid).

Though the strong implications of Soul and the initiatory rhetoric are distinctive to Plotinus, what is really essential here is that “the Idea must not be left to lie outside”. Aristotle and Hegel would both wholeheartedly endorse this part.

“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” (ibid).

Plotinus has a much more individualist point of view than Aristotle. For him we are ultimately each “alone with the Alone”. A direct personal relation to the One makes all human social relations seem insignificant by comparison. For Aristotle, participation in social relations is essential to being human, and this is a good thing, not just a distraction from personal spiritual development.

“All the forms of Authentic Existence spring from vision and are a vision. Everything that springs from these Authentic Existences in their vision is an object of vision — manifest to sensation or to true knowledge or to surface-awareness. All act aims at this knowing; all impulse is toward knowledge” (ch. 7, p. 245).

Now in the “serious” part, he repeats what was initially supposed to be the “playful” claim that all things either are contemplation or are oriented toward it.

“[T]he creating powers operate not for the sake of creation and action but in order to produce an object of vision. This same vision is the ultimate purpose of all the acts of the mind and, even further downward, of all sensation, since sensation also is an effort towards knowledge; lower still, Nature, producing similarly its subsequent principle, brings into being the vision and Idea that we know in it. It is certain, also, that as the Firsts exist in vision all other things must be straining towards the same condition; the starting point is, universally, the goal” (ibid).

Aristotle would never speak of “creating powers”. While he certainly recognizes distinctions between immediate, intermediate, and ultimate ends, he would also never deny that what a thing essentially does is its end.

“[T]he procreative act is the expression of a contemplation, a travail towards the creation of many forms, many objects of contemplation, so that the universe may be filled full of Reason-Principles and that contemplation may be, as nearly as possible, endless…. So Love, too, is vision with the pursuit of Ideal-Form” (ibid).

Again this has a kind of poetic charm, but taking it literally relies on a collapsing of distinctions.

“In the advancing stages of Contemplation rising from that in Nature, to that in the Soul and thence again to that in the Intellectual-Principle itself, the object contemplated becomes progressively a more and more intimate possession of the Contemplating Beings, more and more one with them” (ch. 8, p. 245).

Here he returns to what we know from Aristotle as the strict identity of pure thought and what it thinks. As before, he wants to first greatly generalize and then to relativize it.

“[I]n the Intellectual-Principle itself, there is complete identity of Knower and Known, and this not by way of domiciliation, as in the case of even the highest soul, but by Essence, by the fact that, there, no distinction exists between Being and Knowing” (ibid).

Aristotle would agree.

“The Supreme must be an entity in which the two are one; it will, therefore, be a Seeing that lives, not an object of vision like things existing in something other than themselves” (pp. 245-246).

The Supreme in Plotinus is a name for the One. Aristotle’s first cause is identified with thought thinking itself, more or less equivalent to the Intellectual-Principle here. Plotinus is clearly not satisfied with Aristotle’s first cause, and posits the One above it. Aristotle in the Metaphysics argues at length why we should not follow the Pythagoreans and Plato in regarding the One as a source or cause.

“Every life is some form of thought…. But while men may recognize grades in life they reject grades in thought; to them there are thoughts (full and perfect) and anything else is no thought” (p. 246).

This is an important point. The thoughts that we embodied beings have in ordinary life are far from “full and perfect”, but we tend to act as though they were full and perfect.

“The essential is to observe that, here again, all reasoning shows that whatever exists is a bye-work [sic] of visioning” (ibid).

Once again, for Plotinus the immediate whole of the One is the complete source of everything. By contrast, Aristotle complements his account of the dependency of all things on the first cause by insisting that everything also depends on particular causes.

“The Highest began as a unity but did not remain as it began; all unknown to itself, it became manifold; it grew, as it were, pregnant: desiring universal possession, it flung itself outward, though it were better had it never known the desire by which a Secondary came into being…. The Whence is better; the Whither is less good: the Whence is not the same as the Whence-followed-by-a-Whither; the Whence alone is greater than with the Whither added to it” (ibid).

Overall, Plotinus seems to be conflicted about the goodness of manifestation and actualization. There are many texts like “On the Intellectual Beauty” that seem to present these in a positive light, and he sharply criticizes the Gnostics for their negative views of life in the world. But here he repeats in three different wordings that the One shut up within itself is better than the One complemented by a world.

For Aristotle, manifestation and actualization as such are unequivocally good, even if some true facts are not good. For Aristotle — in diametrical contrast to Plotinus here — the highest good should be called not a Whence but a Whither, the ultimate end of all things, that-for-the-sake-of-which. The first cause is a pure end.

“If, then, neither the Intellectual-Principle nor the Intelligible Object can be the First Existent, what is? Our answer can only be: The source of both…. Yet: our knowledge of everything else comes by way of our intelligence; our power is that of knowing the intelligible by means of the intelligence: but this Entity transcends all of the intellectual nature; by what direct intuition, then, can it be brought within our grasp?” (ch. 9, p. 247).

Here and below, Plotinus seems to refer to the One as a Being. In other texts, he says that the One is beyond being, and associates being with intellect. Even here, he associates all knowledge with intellect (the One would be beyond knowledge).

“To this question the answer is that we can know it only in the degree of human faculty: we indicate it by virtue of what in ourselves is like it. For in us, also, there is something of that Being; nay, nothing, ripe for that participation, can be void of it. Wherever you be, you have only to range over against this omnipresent Being that in you which is capable of drawing from It, and you have your share in it” (pp. 247-248).

Now he uses “knowledge” in a much looser way than above. The idea that what is highest is not entirely inaccessible to us is appealing.

“The Intellectual-Principle in us must mount to its origins: essentially a thing facing two ways, it must deliver itself over to those powers within it which tend upward; if it seeks the vision of that Being, it must become something more than Intellect.”

Elsewhere, Plotinus seems to suggest that if each thing “turns upward” toward what is above it and away from what is below, that which is below it will spontaneously carry on in the best possible way — i.e., better than if we were more actively looking down into it and intervening in it. Very different presentation notwithstanding, this always reminded me of the Tao Te Ching‘s idea of getting things done in the best possible way by “non-action”.

“For the Intellectual-Principle is the earliest form of Life: it is the Activity presiding over the outflowing of the universal Order — the outflow, that is, of the first moment, not that of the continuous process” (p. 248).

He identifies neither intellect nor the the One with the whole of things.

“[I]t must of necessity derive from some other Being, from one that does not emanate but is the Principle of Emanation, of Life, of Intellect, and of the Universe…. [T]his can be no thing among things but must be prior to all things” (ibid).

The One is not a “thing” at all. For Aristotle, the first cause is a particular thing that is prior in nature to all other things. To be a being in the proper sense is to be a particular independent thing.

“And what will such a Principle essentially be? The potentiality of the Universe: the potentiality whose non-existence would mean the non-existence of all the Universe and even of the Intellectual-Principle which is the primal Life and all Life” (ch. 10, p. 248).

Here he makes the potentiality of the One prior to any actuality. Aristotle would strenuously object to this.

“Imagine a spring that has no source outside itself; it gives itself to all the rivers, yet is never exhausted by what they take, but remains always integrally what it was…. Or: think of the Life coursing throughout some mighty tree… it is the giver of the entire and manifold life of the tree, but remains unmoved in itself” (p. 249).

This image of something that constantly gives and never needs anything is powerful. Plotinus radicalizes and generalizes Aristotle’s notion of unmoved moving, making it a complete cause of things, which Aristotle never claimed it was.

“Thus we are always brought back to The One. Every particular thing has a One of its own to which it may be traced; the All has its One, its Prior but not yet the Absolute One; through this we reach that Absolute One, where all such references come to an end. Now when we reach a One — the stationary Principle — in the tree, in the animal, in Soul, in the All — we have in every case the most powerful, precious element: when we come to the One in Authentically Existent Beings — their Principle and source and potentiality — shall we lose confidence and suspect it of being — nothing?” (ibid).

I probably should go back to the Metaphysics, and pull out Aristotle’s discussions of oneness and the Pythagorean-Platonic claims that the One is something separate. I think he pretty conclusively shows that claims for a separate One are incoherent.

“Certainly, this Absolute is none of the things of which it is the source — its nature is that nothing can be affirmed of it — not existence, not essence, not life — since it is That which transcends all these. But possess yourself of it by the very elimination of Being and you hold a marvel. Thrusting forward to This, attaining, and resting in its content, 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” (ibid).

This seems like his more standard position that the One is not a Being. It also at least suggests the very useful approach of understanding a cause or a higher thing by examining what follows from it. But the extent to which Plotinus puts this into practice is limited.

“The Intellectual-Principle is a Seeing, and a Seeing which itself sees; therefore it is a potentiality which has become effective…. All actual seeing implies duality; before the seeing takes place there is the pure unity (of the power of seeing)” (ch. 11, p. 249).

The assertion that all seeing — and implicitly, all knowing — implies duality suggests a denial of Aristotle’s thesis that pure thought is simply identical with what it thinks. But again there is a mismatch that could also allow for doubt. Where Aristotle speaks of thinking, Plotinus speaks of seeing, and of knowing in some broad sense. For Aristotle, thinking and knowing are primarily discursive; for Plotinus, they are primarily intuitive.

“Now as our sight requires the world of sense for its satisfaction and realization, so the vision in the Intellectual-Principle demands, for its completion, The Good” (pp. 249-250).

Here he implicitly rejects Aristotle’s identification of thought thinking itself with the good. In modern terms, we are back to the model of the duality of consciousness of an object that is not Aristotle’s, and that Hegel strove mightily to overcome in favor of a more Aristotelian solution.

“It cannot be, itself, The Good, since then it would not need to see or to perform any other Act; for The Good is the center of all else, and it is by means of The Good that every thing has Act, while The Good is in need of nothing and therefore possesses nothing beyond itself” (p. 250).

For Plotinus, intellect sees and acts, while the One or The Good is above all that. For Aristotle, pure intellect is a pure entelechy that is also the the ultimate good for all things. Whether or not we say that it sees and acts depends on the meaning we attribute to seeing and acting.

“Once you have uttered ‘The Good’, add no further thought: by any addition, and in proportion to that addition, you introduce a deficiency. Do not even say that it has Intellection; you would be dividing it; it would become a duality, Intellect and The Good” (ibid).

“[W]e form a conception of its true character from its image playing upon the Intellectual-Principle (ibid).

“[A]ll the striving is on the side of the Intellect, which is the eternal striver and eternally the attainer (ibid).

For Aristotle, intellect is an entelechy, which I think would be exempt from “striving”. It is composite things that do the striving.

“The Source of all this cannot be an Intellect…. [T]here is That before them which neither needs nor possesses anything, since, needing or possessing anything else, it would not be what it is — The Good” (ibid).

Once again, Aristotle does not claim that his first cause is the “Source of all this”. Rather, it is the destination of all this.