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The Cone of Plotinus: Ontologies of Profusion and Particularization

I believe it is helpful when understanding how Plotinus viewed the degrees of Being, how the problem of how the production of the Many from the One is to be resolved (referred to here), it is helpful to picture to two, end-to-end comes often used to illustrate conic sections, above. For Plotinus uses two kinds of complimentary images. The first is that the Hen (The One, The Expressed) is comprehensive. It is the kind of totality which even transcends numericity, not even having Being predicated of it. It stands as a kind of outer limit, the widest circle which contains (gives birth to) all that is within it. In this way, most simply put:

1. The Hen is completely empty, so empty it overflows, producing something other.

2. This is the Nous (mind) which is born of looking at the Hen, in a kind of mirroring contemplation which constitutes its existence, producing a varigated Being.

3. And through this perfect mirroring gaze it achieves the productive capacity of the Hen, and produces the Soul.

4. The Soul is an activity which does not merely abide, but compelled to motion produces her opposite, sensation.

The movement is towards the particularized. The Hen has all things moving through it, perhaps in a Deleuzian vein we can call these intensities, though it is perfectly empty. From this are narrowings of hierarchies of existence, which can be viewed as if the upper mouth of the cone were heading towards it point. And the very end of this process is “matter” which may be said to have no-being, in the sense that it exists merely as a privation of the One, the absence of Being, something that Augustine took up in his analysis of Evil as a privation and that can be seen in Spinoza’s epistemology where falsity consists in privation.

A diagram to clarify these relations:

Plotinus’s heirarchy of Being is more famous than his thinking of any unity at all as a kind of profusion. In a wonderful analogy he compares the activity of the soul to that of a mirror. In this way we can say that the ultimate profusion of the One/Expressed (Hen), acts as something like both a great descending circle (the upper half of the diagram), but also as a kind of central point, that radiates out, growing weaker as it goes, as light would, until it reaches its outermost limit in a darkness (matter), which exists merely as a privation. In this sense anything that has being has it to the degree that it expresses/reflects the totality of the One, its activity consisting of what fills it. And in this way as well, matter serves as both an infintesmal point (the very nexus of the two cones), which does not exist, but also as an outer ring where the radiation of the Hen does not reach.

How did it come to be then, and what are we to think of as surrounding the One in its repose? It  must be a radiation from it while it abides unchanged, like the bright light of the sun which, so to speak, runs round it, springing from it continually while it abides unchanged. All things which exist, as long as they abide in being, necessarily produce from their own substances, in dependence on their present power, a surrounding reality directed to what is outside them, a kind of image of the archetypes from which it was produce; fire produces the heat which comes from it; snow does not only keep its cold inside itself. Perfumed things show this particularly clearly. As long as they exist, something is diffused from themselves around them, and what is near them enjoys their existence. (5.1 [10].6 27-37)

But one must consider light as altogether incorporeal, even if it belongs to a body. Therefore, “it has gone away” or “it is present” are not used of it in their proper sense, but in a different way, and its real existence is an activity. For the image in a mirror must also be called an activity: that which is reflected in it acts on what is capable of being affected without flowing into it; but if the object reflected is there, the reflection too appears in the mirror and it exists as an image of a colored surface shaped in a particular way; and if the object goes away, the mirror-surface no longer has what it had before, when the object seen in it offered itself to it for activity. (4.5 [29] 7.33-49)

These analogies of light and reflection, along with the hierarchies of Being risk becoming highly abstract, uninteresting, arcane structurings, if we take them as simply esoteric truths. But the hierarchies of Being are not just ontological strata, they are guideposts for how an investigating thinker should think of their own position in the world. They entail a phenomenology of projects that each person should engage in, the vision that oneself and one’s consciousness too is hierarchical. Part of this prescription is to the way that we “see” other objects, in particular how we binarize ourselves into subject/object relations. Plotinus’s analogies of light are more than analogies in that they invite us to see that any object that we orient ourselves toward is necessarily in existence through the same sharing of the field as we. Plotinus presses us to collapse the subject/object binary.

This is captured in his dichotomy of “looking at things” and “looking with light”. One might look at things in the world and never notice that light that illumines them, but if one learns to look “with” the medium, one participates in the very processes of illumination and is no longer captured by the illusions of particularization, the largely assumed cut-off nature of things.

One thing is an object of vision for it, the form of the sensible object, another is that by which [i.e. the light] it sees the form of it [the sensible object], which [the medium] is also an object of sensation for it, while being other than the form [of the sensible object] and the cause for the form of being seen and is concomitantly seen both in the form and with the form; for this reason the light does not yield a clear sensation of itself, because the eye is turned toward the illuminated object; but whever it [i.e. the light] is nothing but itself, it sees in an immediate intuition…This then is what the seeing of Intellect is like; this sees by another light the things illuminated by that first nature [i.e. the One or Good as the sun of the intelligible universe], and sees the light in them; when it turns attention to the nature of the things illuminated, it sees the light less; but if it abandons the things it sees and looks at the medium by which it sees them, it looks at pure light (5.5 [32]. 7.2-8; 16-21).

Such an investigative approach allows one to trace out the continuities which exist between oneself and what one investigates, something he compares to the radii of lines from the center of a circle, only apparently detached from one another:

[The One] is contemplated in many beings, in each and every one of those capable of receiving him as another self, just as the center of a circle exists by itself, but in every one of the radii in the circle has its point in the center and their lines bring their individuality to it. For it is with something of this sort in ourselves that we are in contact with god and are with him and depend upon him; and those of us who converge towards him are firmly established in him (5.1 [10]. 11. 9-15)

I do not really view this rather spiritual-sounding account to be spiritualized at all, but rather aimed at the concrete dynamics of power itself, the way in which things vividly express themselves in what for us is the most realized terms. If nothing else these metaphysics must prove themselves pragmatically, as means to find connections between parts which help us explain and read the world (and ourselves).

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One response to “The Cone of Plotinus: Ontologies of Profusion and Particularization

  1. henadology November 12, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    It can be misleading to think of the One as Totality; it is Totality only in a special sense. The One is any unit, purely qua one. Since “one” is the widest possible determination—wider than Being, because even a nonbeing is some one—it “contains” all the others, but not in the way that Being does (i.e., all together *in* one). The pragmatic application of the concept—practical henology—suffers if it is hypostatized.

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