On being too late

15 04 2022


The Hercules of Hades is able to speak of his bravery. But he esteems it a small thing now that he has passed to a region more sacred and has arrived in the intelligible realm; he is now endowed with a strength more than Herculean for those battles which are the battles of the sages.

-Plotinus, The Enneads

Virtus in astra tendit, in mortem timor
Praesens ab astris, mater, Alcides cano.
Poenas cruentus iam tibi Eurytheus dabit:
Curru superbum vecta trancendes caput.
Me iam decet subire coelestem plagam:
Inferna vici rursus Alcides loca.

(Valour fares starward, fear, to the realm of death. In living presence, mother, from the stars Alcides speaks; soon shall bloody Eurystheus make thee full recompense; o’er his proud head shalt thou in triumph ride. But now ‘tis meet that I pass to the realm above; Alcides once again has conquered hell.)

-Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus


25 10 2010

Missing the universe within

I have to confess that I wanted to like this movie, and to a certain extent, I did. AG thought it lacked a coherent narrative structure, but as far as I was concerned, it was pretty watchable. The sets were fascinating, but not always authentic (people have complained that the way the Roman soldiers were dressed was more appropriate for soldiers a few centuries before). The most staunch criticism is the liberties it took with history: Rachel Weisz, while easy on the eyes, would not have been the same age as Hypatia when she died at the age of 65. There was probably no library at the Serapion when it was levelled to the ground in the fourth century. Some critics have taken issue with this, and for some these inaccuracies seem to be the main thrust of their criticism. That, and the fact that the Christians of the time were portrayed as the swarthy Taliban avant la lettre, running through the streets with clubs shouting, “God is one”.
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The fount of philosophy

23 08 2010

Souls cannot ascend without music.


The common intellectual history of the West, especially since the Enlightenment, has stated that philosophical thought grew out of a rejection of the old mythologies that had come before it. The Greeks were the first “Europeans”: those who truly began to question the ungodly superstitions of the Egyptians and Babylonians, as well as their own. The evident skepticism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle is thought to be at the very least inimical to the interests of classical Greek religion. Philosophy is thus seen as the beginning of the death of myth, and the prelude to the rational world in which we inhabit today.

It is a very reassuring story, but it is not necessarily the real one. Recent scholars have begun to dig into the roots of ancient philosophy, and are finding more continuity than rupture; more sympathy with “ancient superstition” than an inveterate form of rationalist positivism. There was of course the hubbub of a couple of months back when a scholar came up with evidence that the Platonic dialogues were embedded with Pythagorean musical scales. There came forth the idea, quite foreign to modern people used to the “data in, discourse out” model of philosophizing, that the text has more in it than words and ideas. It is a sort of divine play in itself: a representation of the eternal cosmogony. On the other hand, many scholars are seeing at the root of the philosophical enterprise an ancient method of inner transformation that is quite distant from our own ideas of philosophy. Philosophy was more tied to ritual and religion than it is in contemporary practice. What philosophy was trying to do initially was not break free from the “mythology” that came before it, but radically return to its source.
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Notes on historic Neoplatonism

29 07 2010

Just jotting some stuff down…

It seems to me that the birth of modern religiosity in the West was born out of two condemnations: one of Meister Eckhart’s mystical premises, and the other of Pico della Mirandola’s magical theses. In the former, we have various ideas that reflect the monistic mysticism of Plotinus, such as “one sees God with the same eye by which God sees him”, or something like that. In the condemnation of Pico della Mirandola, you have the condemnation of the last vestiges of theurgy in the West; the idea that supernatural intervention could penetrate the human reality outside of the direct supervision of the Church. This premise was particularly problematic for those pious ears:

There is no science that assures us more of the divinity of Christ than magic and Cabala.

Since then, we have had a particularly dualistic view of these phenomena. While it is true that such a purifying tendency has always existed in the Christian religious consciousness, it is in these two condemnations that one side of the argument got the upper hand. From there we are led to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the birth of modern science, and the rest. The paranoia is that if Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, look like anything else in the history of the world, they would be false and pagan. “Natural revelation”, “natural contemplation”, and “natural magic” were thus topics that had to be taken off the table.

On writing

25 05 2010

The wise men of Egypt, I think, also understood this, either by scientific or innate knowledge, and when they wished to signify something wisely, did not use the forms of letters which follow the order of words and propositions and imitate sounds and the enunciations of philosophical statements, but by drawing images and inscribing in their temples one particular image of one particular thing they manifested the non-discursiveness of the intelligible world, that is, that every image is a kind of knowledge and wisdom and is a subject of statements, all together one, and not discourse or deliberation.

-Plotinus, Enneads V.8.6

On Nature

30 06 2009


Were one to ask Nature why it produces, it might- if willing- thus reply: “You should never have put the question. Silently, as I am silent and little given to talk, you should have tried to understand. Understand what? That what comes to be is the object of my silent contemplation- its natural object. I am myself born of contemplation; mine is a contemplative nature. The contemplative in me produces the object contemplated much as geometricians draw their figures while contemplating….. Within me I preserve traces and principles of my source and of the principles that brought me into being. They too were born of contemplation and without action on their own part gave me birth. But they are greater than I: they contemplated themselves and thus I was born.”

The Problem of Evil in Neoplatonic Thought

18 12 2008

But it is as if two people were living in the same well-built house; one of them criticizes its structure and its builder, although he keeps on living in it all the same. The other, however, does not criticize; in fact, he affirms the builder has constructed the house with consummate skill, and he awaits the time when he will move on, and no longer have need of a house… He who finds fault with the nature of the universe does not know what he is doing, nor how far his arrogance is taking him. The reason is that they do not know about the successive order of things, from the first to the second to the third, and down to the last things; nor do they know that we must not abuse those things which are lower than the first, but gently acquiesce in the nature of all things.


Boys cannot understand the counsel of their elders, nor peasants the thoughts of the wise. However, with unbecoming arrogance, the earthly creature Man often presumes to fathom the reasons of divine nature, and search into the purpose of its providence. And, what is worse, men of all ages blasphemously discuss the divine mysteries at banquets, even in brothels. Pythagoras justly prohibited speaking of these mysteries without divine insight. No man, but the divine, Campano, perceives the divine… It should therefore be enough for man to know that the beautiful working of this single universe is governed by a wise architect, on whom it depends. From goodness itself only good can spring. And what proceeds from that can only be ordered well. Therefore, everything should be accepted for the best. Who thus understands the divine, and loves it, is divine by nature, good in practice, joyful in hope, blessed in reward.

-Marsilio Ficino

Of the most ridiculous of people who pretend to be philosophers, the most foolish are those who toil over the “problem of evil”.  This most of all is like chasing your own tail. If you want to understand evil, look at yourself, at your own fears, and your own mortality. The chaos in your own heart is the cause of the chaos outside of it.

The only satisfactory resolution to the problem of horrible things happening to us is, to echo Plotinus, to realize that this house that we live in now is only a temporary stop in our pilgrimage towards eternity. We are, as both of the divines say, called to a higher life, on the cusp of eternity and time, eternal life and temporary death. There is no other way to make sense of the atrocities and tragedies experienced here; providence is beyond the grasp of the human mind. Only the invoking of the divine in ourselves can save us and bring back light from the darkness. The only way to escape the evils of our animal existence is to leap over the human towards the divine. This is more a ritual, a surrender to the One using the things of this world to recognize our own falleness, than a puzzle to be solved by the humanly clever.

On not chasing your own tail

4 09 2008

In this aspect of Plotinus’ thought, moreover, we find a critique of human reflection and consciousness that had been set in motion by the discovery of of different levels of the self. In both cases, the simplicity of life escapes the grasp of reflection. Human consciousness, living, as it does, split into two, and occupied by calculations and projects, believes that nothing can be found until it has been searched for; for the only way to build is to put various pieces together; and that it is only by using means that one can obtain an end. Everywhere it acts, consciousness introduces something intermediate. Life, by contrast, which is able to find without searching, invents the whole before the parts and is end and means at the same time- which, in a word, is immediate and simple- is incapable of being grasped by reflection. In order to reach it, just as in order to reach our pure self, we shall have to abandon reflection for contemplation.

-Pierre Hadot, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision

For me, having started the study of “philosophy” at a young age (perhaps not as systematically as some, but still), most of what passes for philosophical reflection really comes down to chasing your own mental tail. That is, it comes down to trying to justify life with mere human thought, and that in the end is quite impossible. The ultimate answer comes down to an absolute simplicity before the question is asked. The ultimate journey of the mind to God is a return to itself. The crown of reason is to use it in order to surpass thought.

What of all of the problems that our society is faced with, then? Should we not argue ethics, politics, and other life issues? Indeed, we should, or rather, we have to. There is no real way around it. And there, of course, logic and reason provide us with the only tools that we can use on this side of death. But to avoid the ultimate question, that of the return to the self into itself through knowledge of God, and by this finding hapiness, is the real burning question of philosophy. All else derives from it.

It is only this transformation that will change anything anyway. You have to start with a change of self.

Plotinus’ Doctrine

26 08 2008

And yet a literary monument from antiquity is something very different from a modern composition. Nowadays, it is possible for an author to say, “I am Madame Bovary.” Today, authors lay themselves bare, expressing and liberating themselves. They strive for originality, for what has never been said before. Philosophers set forth their system, expounding it in their own personal way, freely chosing their starting point, the rhythm of their expositions, and the structure of their work. They try to stamp their own personal mark on everything they do. But like all productions of the last stages of antiquity, the Enneads are subject to servitudes of a wholly different nature. Here, originality is a defect, innovation is suspect, and fidelity to tradition, a duty. “Our doctrines are not novel, nor do they date from today: they were stated long ago, but not in an explicit way. Our present doctrines are explanations of those older ones, and they use Plato’s own words to prove that they are ancient.”

-Pierre Hadot, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision

On Form

29 07 2008

To perpetuate the image of “an ordinary man”, to represent an individual, is not art. The one thing worthy of detaining our attention, and of being fixed in an immortal work of art, can only be the beauty of an ideal form. If one is going to sculpt the figure of a man, let him gather together everything beautiful as he can find. If you’re going to make a statue of a god, says Plotinus, do as Pheidas did when he sculpted his Zeus: “He did not use any sensible model, but he took him as he would be, if Zeus wished to appear before our eyes”.

-Pierre Hadot, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision