The Tenderness of Vision

2 07 2008

Hadot Reads Plotinus

[Plotinus] gently accepted the multiple levels of our being, and all he tried to do was reduce this multiplicity as much as possible, by turning his attention away from the “composite”. For him, it was necessary that mankind learn to tolerate itself.

-Pierre Hadot, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision

Plotinus is without a doubt the father of mysticism in the Western world. His language, elan, and depth have been imitated by countless Christian mystics, and his ideas of knowledge as turning within into oneself continues to influence all spiritual seekers from the cloistered Carmelite nun in traditional habit to the New Age ex-hippie in a yoga class.  Plotinus can be exceptionally beautiful to read, but his is often a hollow beauty, a beauty that is inaccessible, fleeting, and of little application to daily life. Pierre Hadot, in his book on Plotinus, seeks to plant the third century Alexandrian philosopher both in heaven and on earth. He endeavors to show that, especially towards the end of his life, Plotinus was well aware of our condition as corporeal creatures, and sought always to purify his followers for the ultimate re-encounter with the ineffable One.

Hadot’s volume is slim, a little over a hundred pages, but in typical fashion he manages to say in a paragraph what others need a long, drawn-out tome to articulate. Hadot’s Plotinus is very much a human but far from vulgar creature: he both struggles with his body (Porphyry begins his biography of Plotinus with now infamous line: “Plotinus seemed ashamed of being in a body”) and accepts it as a fellow traveller in his path to return home to God. He spent much time and energy fighting against the anti-material views of the Gnostics, saying in a rather beautiful fashion that one cannot criticize the harmonious construction of the cosmos that we have been given. Plotinus is both a man of fame and a man abandoned by his peers towards the end of his life, he both suffers and rejoices, sings and remains silent, and above all he lived by the Delphic axiom: Know thyself.

What is there to stop us, someone might say, from looking towards God without abstaining from any pleasure, and without supressing our anger? What is to stop us, let us say, from keeping the name of “God” in mind, and yet being kept ensnared by every passion, and not trying to eliminate any of them? What shows God to us is virtue, as it comes to be in the soul, accompanied by wisdom. Without this genuine virtue, God is only a word. -(from the Second Ennead)

Hadot makes the point quite early that while Plotinus’ earlier treatises concerned flights into the immaterial, ecstasies, and the beauty of the spiritual world, his later treatises concerned ethical issues: how to live a virtuous life. For the earlier Plotinus, daily life was a bit of an afterthought, a “treading water” between ecstasies that a few select souls experience. Later on, Plotinus shifted gears and sought to purify himself and his disciples of anger, concupiscence, and greed, and to give them a lack of attachment to those things that are passing away. He gave sober advice to one disciple that his spiritual malaise was probably caused by his lack of physical care for himself and not something “spiritual” per se. Having been abandoned by most of his friends later in life, he died trying to resign himself to the ultimate deterioration of his always weak body, and to maintain the gentleness that always manifested itself in his character.

Hadot ends his meditation on Plotinus by expounding upon the duality that modern people have to straddle in their daily and contemplative lives. On the one hand, there is a profound distrust of mysticism and “mystification”, an intellectual drive by modern man to reduce everything to sex, drugs, economics, and other banal phenomena. On the other hand. there exists the idea of spirituality as a personalized escape mechanism, one that little affects our daily lives but provides us emotional nourishment to make the “lifestyle choices” that best suit us. Hadot warns us that neither extreme is what Plotinus was aiming for. In all things, it is a question of balance: we cannot merely live for the “spiritual highs” that the contemplative life offers us, nor can we see the “mystical” as being the result of escapist delusion. Man must learn that both constitute his nature, both are necessary in a life that leads to union with God.

I end by citing the very last lines of Hadot’s book:

Today, we are even more inwardly divided than was Plotinian man. We are still, however, capable of hearing Plotinus’ call. There can be no question of slavishly imitating the spiritual itinerary of Plotinus here in the late twentieth century; that would be impossible or illusory. Rather, we must consent, with as much courage as Plotinus did, to every dimension of human experience, and to everything within it that is mysterious, inexpressible, and transcendent.


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8 02 2019
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DewaPoker88

The Tenderness of Vision | Reditus

27 01 2019
Iamblichus

Reblogged this on Reditus.

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