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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).

Plotinus and the Degrees of Being Conception: Ennead V ii, 1

Ennead V ii, 1: On the Genesis and Order of Things Following The Proto

The Hen is all things
but not a single one [oudè hén];
for the arche of all things is not all things,
but in that particular way it is all things, that is to say thither
they run.
Rather, they do not yet exist,
but they will be.

How then does [it all] come out
of a Simple One which has in itself
no intricate appearance,
nor any kind of folds whatsoever?

It is because there is no-thing [oudèn] in itself
that through this out of itself come
all things,
that Being [tò òn] may be;

through this
he himself is not existing [ouk ón],
he, the progenitor of itself. But as such
this is the prime engendering.
Being complete,
to not seek, to not hold, to not need,
in some kind of overflowing,
and overplenteousness of itself
it has made [pepoíêken] another.

So the becoming to itself
is turned and filled,
born toward itself gazing, &
this is the Nous.
& the-standing-towards-that,
the Being of itself she made, as her view
towards itself is Nous.

As it stood towards itself, that it may see,
out of the same nous it becomes and Is.
This one
now being such as that one,
The likeness [tà hómoia] creates the potency [dúnamin],
pouring out the many
– and this image is of itself –
just as before

the prime of itself poured out.
& out of the substance [tês ousías] this energeia
Is the Soul, the becoming of that abiding
& so the Nous-of-the-abiding-before-itself
has become.
Yet not abiding she creates, but
Motioned she is born
a phantom [eídôlon].

However looking there, whence born,
she becomes full,
Advanced into another motion her contrary she engenders ,
a phantom of herself, sensation [aísthêsin],
the nature [phúsin] within natural things [en toîs phutoîs].

& not one thing before itself has been hung up, or cut off.
For this reason
it appears that the upper Soul comes
all the way into natural things.
For in any way she comes,
as if something of herself is in natural

But surely not all of her is in natural things,
but her coming
into being [gignoménê] in natural things
is in this way,
as far & so much as she advanced downward,
into the sub-stasis [hupóstasis]
her other
creating in her going out

and her eagerness [prothumía] for
what’s worse.
Then that before this,
that coming right out of the Nous,
Allows the Nous to abide in itself.

[the Greek text, édition Kirchhoff]

Why Plotinus?

Some recent posts on panpsychism, Spinoza and the such had me returning to the Ur-panpsychist, as least as I read the history of the thought. It was Plotinus who helped structure the very influential, non-dualistic, Neo-Platonist Christian theology of Augustine, to some degree safeguarding from heresy the conception of an ontology of degrees of Being throughout the Medieval ages and the Renaissance. But Plotinus is dramatically under-read, especially in view of his pivotal, and quite influential position within the history of philosophy. Part of this problem has I believe been due to the translation of his work, his writings/lectures compiled and edited by his student Porphry, The Six Enneads. This is not to say that the translations are poor (there are several recent translations out after a historical dearth), but rather that for me they often still grasp at something in the text emphasizing the wrong, or at least importune, threads. They can either verbosely, or somewhat sterilely isolate the “concept” in the writing, and ignore the texture of it, the dexterity and one might say, the luminosity.

For those interested in the history of panpsychism the above is a translation of a passage that is quite important to many of the thinkers that follow. One may recognized immediately aspects of Hegel (reflexivity to the One), Spinoza (radiating degrees of causal dependence upon the One), and even Deleuze (that things that will be “runs through” the One) and Badiou (how Being is created via the Nous) in the framing of the emanation of Being from the Hen. I hope to discuss some of these in future posts, as they are quite intriguing. I present this passage precisely because, although the Enneads is quite long (more than a 1,000 pages in some editions), it may all really come down to this passage (and a few others). If one grasps this, one grasps a whole historical thread of though stretching nearly 2000 years to the present, a thread that has repeatedly dipped beneath the fabric which is has sewn, only to appear again.

Also, this short passage allows one to deal with metaphysics straight on, in a condensed, small space, to try to take it whole and see what one can draw from it. One asks often, what good is metaphysics? Perhaps with this short passage (and another I hope to post), we can see what is being proposed, and even look to what it means for our very lives, the way that we look at and solve problems.

Notes on the Translation

Obviously, I put it into verse. The purpose of this is several fold. The first that the Greek itself if quite condensed, as the language tends to be, but also as the philosopher can push it; and poetry actually is probably the best formal approximation of this condensation of meaning and effect. The verse form forces a reader to pause and consider the kerneling of phrases, just as the Greek would require. In this sense, the line breaks hopefully serve to translate the relationship between the ideas present such that mere prose could not. In this vein I also tried to steer clear of excessive explication within the text itself. Translators of philosophy in Greek often “fill in” the meaning that they think is implied by word-use and word-choice, in effect erasing the fullness of what is being invoked. (With Plato this is disastrous.) Where the implications are open I tried to leave them as open as possible so that one could continue to think along with the writer.

As to the text itself there are several basic decisions I made:

To Hen: This is Plotinus’ crowning concept, and is universally translated as The One. Quite accurately of course. But because “hen” is also the aorist (past) participle of the verb “hiemi” which means anything from  “to set in motion,” “to hurl,” “to let flow, burst” even in context “to speak”, the Hen is The One, but also The-Having-Set-In-Motion. To restrict its conception merely to the former is to dramatically cleave its meaning. Even this simple translation difficulty I think has lead to a misreading of the very core conception of Plotinus’ view. So when thinking about the Hen, think of both a Oneness, but also a flowing out, an activity.

arche: Is both the principle and the origin. It is something like a foundation, but is more active.

(phuton) phutois: I translate this “natural things” instead of “plants” as many rightful translators do (as in the section that follows he makes the distinction between phuton and the animal without logos, the latter having the power of sense-perception. This is because I believe that Plotinus is not thinking of this plant or that, but rather of the entire profusion of “growth” that is shown in both plants and animals, the raw aspect of what we regularly call and imply by “Nature” per se. This is an important translation point for the general argument of panpsychism that I believe that Plotinus holds.

Nous: Of course this is “mind” often translated as “intellect”.

autos, etc.: Plotinus uses the reflexive to great degree here, and in more than one gender. I direct the meaning toward this itself, himself, herself, though it can also mean “the same” with obvious philosophical precedent.

There are several other points of translation where I differ from the main line, so perhaps as always, check with other translations to get the full spectrum of possible readings. For instance, I take care to maintain the shifts in gender accomplished here, where Plotinus moves from neuter Hen, to a masculine progenitor to a female engendering and a female soul, always looking back upon the neuter, itself.

The translation is not meant as anything to be taken as authoritative, but rather an experiment in form so as to largely provide a gateway for those interested in Plotinus who have not read him directly, and perhaps an occasion for thought, for those who have studied him more closely.