|Ordinary to Extraordinary: Soul's Self-Knowing in Plotinus|
|Written by Avery Solomon|
BEING GOOD WITHOUT KNOWING GOOD
In many of his tractates in the Enneads, Plotinus takes us on a journey through life, being and intelligence, and into The One or Good beyond being. These principles are not only aspects of reality, but inner dimensions of our being and phases of realization.
Now just as these three [One, Nous, Soul] exist for the system of Nature, so, we must hold, they exist for ourselves. I am not speaking of the material order--all that is separable--but of what lies beyond the sense realm in the same way as the Primals are beyond all the heavens; I mean the corresponding aspect of man, what Plato calls the Interior Man. 5.1.10
Within this simple and powerful linear framework Plotinus explores many non-linear and paradoxical problems. To begin with the most immediate paradox: while we have these authentic dimensions we don’t know it. A great 13th century mystic philosopher Meister Eckhart speaks of the “divine birth” which is continually going on in us, but adds “if we are not aware of it, what good is it?” Good question.
Plotinus insists that Soul’s paradoxical nature is “neither wholly impartible nor wholly partible but both at once.” 4.2.2. Moreover, it is not that soul is partial here in the world and impartible in some other realm: “Even here it is not exclusively the partible soul: it is still the impartible as well:” 4.1.1 Even our perception has an indivisible essence: “what in it [soul] knows partition is parted without partibility; undivided as giving itself to the entire body, a whole to a whole, it is divided as being effective in every part. 4.1.1 And he tell us “it is indivisible as dwelling entire in the total and entire in any part.” This essence and presence of soul gives us hope. At the same time, we don’t recognize our true nature because we are looking elsewhere, we are susceptible to distraction.
In the tractate on Nature Contemplation and the One, Plotinus begins with the playful, but real suggestion: right now, we are engaged in contemplation, and everything we experience in nature is a result of contemplation:
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…. 3.8.1
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. 3.8.3
Thus we can start our journey from right here in experience, and find the impartible essence which bring us to self-recognition. As we begin to recognize the essence of knowing, we come to also know our own unknown essence.
AWARENESS OF AWARENESS,
Our first exploration is becoming aware of awareness. Plotinus gives us some practical advice.
Hence our self-knowing ensues because it is in virtue of this thing present that we know all other things;
or because we know the faculty which discerns this principle of knowledge by means of the faculty itself;
or because we become actually identical with the principle. 5.3.4
Phase 1: Hence our self-knowing ensues because it is in virtue of this thing present that we know all other things
When we experience a tree, we do not usually note that it is not an independent object, tree, but a [known] tree. In every experience there is sentiency, awareness, presupposed. Even the most basic sense experience, memory, phantasy, depends on the knowing principle. The fact of being sentient, of being aware of a world and body, of having experience, means awareness is immediately present. In virtue of this quality of known-ness that we can have experience at all: and the fact of being aware at all is the guarantee that we can come to self-awareness. As Jung says in his essay “On the Nature of the Psyche” the difference between “I know” and “I know that I know” is a qualitative shift.
Phase 2: or because we know the faculty which discerns this principle of knowledge by means of the faculty itself; To become aware of this fact that all contents are known contents, that objects are contents of awareness, is the first step toward self-knowing. A further phase is to put more attention on the awareness of contents than on the contents, inner or outer. You have taken a first step toward disentangling awareness. We become aware of awareness itself, not by reflection from the objects, but by an inner re-orientation. By turning attention back onto itself.
Phase 3: we become actually identical with the principle.
From being aware of knowing, we move to being-knowing, or knowing by being. As Plotinus says a little later on:
“Are we to suppose that all we can do is to apply a distinct power of our nature and come thus to awareness of that Intelligence as aware of itself? Or may we not appropriate that Intelligence--which belongs to us as we to it--and thus attain to awareness, at once, of it and of ourselves?
Yes: this is the necessary way if we are to experience the self-knowledge vested in the Intelligence. And a person becomes Intelligence when, ignoring all other phases of his being, he sees through that only and sees only that and so knows himself by means of the self--in other words attains the self-knowledge which the Intelligence possesses. 5.3.6
In phase 2 we are active, here we have to let go, ignore all contents, outer sensations and inner thoughts and feelings, and relax into the underlying space of awareness. Let go of even the search to know the knower: because you are the knower. Invite the Intelligence principle in us to participate in its knowing by identity.
Plotinus condenses the first two phases above into one, giving a view of Self as a “double knower”:
Thus the self-knower is a double person: there is the one that takes cognizance of the principle in virtue of which understanding occurs in the Soul or mind; and there is the higher, knowing himself by the Nous with which he becomes identical: 5.3.4
This description of knowing is parallel to the double nature of Soul described above as both divisible and inviolable. In Astronoesis, these two modes of knowing are translated as understanding, by which soul reasons about the universe, and insight which is direct immediate self-cognition. When you do know by identity, you know at once yourself and what is known: you are knowing yourself. It is Nous intrinsic to Soul which allows Soul to be self-knowing, and ultimately to know anything at all. Hence, dia-noesis (reason) presupposes noesis.
A little later in 5.3, Plotinus gives a variation of the famous “what am I?” practice, for disentangling awareness:
One certain way to this knowledge is to separate first, the man from the body--yourself, that is, from your body; next to put aside that Soul which moulded the body, and, very earnestly, the system of sense with desires and impulses and every such futility, all setting definitely towards the mortal: what is left is the phase of the Soul which we have declared to be an image of the Divine Intellect, retaining some light from that source, like the light of the sun which goes beyond its spherical mass, issues from it and plays about it. 5.3.9
Anyone not of the strength to lay hold of the first Soul, that possessing pure intellection, must grasp that which has to do with our ordinary thinking and thence ascend: if even this prove too hard, let him turn to account the sensitive phase which carries the ideal forms of the less fine degree, that phase which, too, with its powers, is immaterial and lies just within the realm of Ideal-principles. 5.3.9
In several other beautiful passages, Plotinus tells us about “turning around.”
“Of what is There we have direct knowledge, not images or even impressions; and to know without image is to be… When we look outside of that on which we depend we ignore our unity; … If we could but be turned about--by our own motion or by the happy pull of Athene--we would see at once God and ourselves and the All.” 6.7.5
In 5.1.12 he says that the inner presence is always there, but it does not reach our awareness. To become aware, he advises us to put aside the sounds of perception and thought:
If there is to be perception of what is thus present, we must turn the perceptive faculty inward and hold it to attention there. Hoping to hear a desired voice we let all others pass and are alert for the coming at last of that most welcome of sounds: so here, we must let the hearings of sense go by, save for sheer necessity, and keep the Soul's perception bright and quick to the sounds from above. 5.1.12
TO BE IS TO KNOW
As we deepen our contemplation, we come to the identity of knowing and being that characterizes Contemplation.
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 thing with them; and in the advanced Soul the objects of knowledge, well on the way towards the Intellectual-Principle, are close to identity with their container. 3.8.8
In a transcript of a class from 1984, Anthony Damiani, author of Astronoesis says:
if you wanted to investigate the nature of consciousness, could you do it by reading books about it? Yes, to some extent, a little bit. So an enquiry into the nature of the self - sure, it starts off with reading, getting acquainted with some ideas, you even think you know what your teacher is telling you, right? But then the next point is a little harder… if you really want to investigate the nature of consciousness, what would you have to do? … : Be it, right? And then investigate deeper into it. In meditational practices you succeed in isolating what this I-ness is (what) this consciousness is in you. You're identified with this consciousness. You're no longer identified with the psychosomatic, You're no longer dwelling in memories, anticipations, reflections ...that's all gone. You're in this state of consciousness, you are this consciousness. You are this awareness. Now you can start your investigation into consciousness. [14:53-55]
NOUS TEACHES US SELF-AWARENESS
Plotinus also holds out the possibility that if we cannot directly contemplate, we are being made ready for contemplation by our association with the cosmos, which he has already told us is a Contemplation.
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; what they have not been able to achieve by the direct path, they hope to come at by the circuit. 3.8.6.
“Circuit” here is our cyclical dance with the movement of the universe. As soul, we are learning from Noesis how to know itself. Damiani says in Astronoesis: “Unit Soul has an inviolable sanctity, in the sense that it's an image of God that can't be violated. But it can be individuated and determined and fulfill a certain potential which is in the Mind of God,…” We eventually are being awakened to the intrinsic self-awareness of the Nous. In fact, this is the purpose of experience here in the cosmos: teaching the soul how to know itself.
Our way is to teach our Soul how the Intellectual-Principle exercises self-vision; the phase thus to be taught is that which already touches the intellective order, that which we call the understanding or intelligent Soul, indicating by the very name (dia-noia) that it is already of itself in some degree an Intellectual-Principle or that it holds its peculiar power through and from that Principle. 5.3.6
So the entire cosmos as a school for learning. Through our associating with cosmos as contemplation, we assimilating, or being assimilated, to intelligence. A wise Buddhist philosopher said that the difference between an ordinary person and the sage, is that for the ordinary person, things don’t appear as they really are. For the sage, things appear as they actually exist. Contemplation dissolves this separation of appearing and authentic existence. We can know ourselves as we are and we know the universe as it is—neither a material separate substance, nor nothing, but a “natural” state of contemplation in which every content arise without disturbing the unity.
Damiani, Anthony. Astronoesis: juxtaposing cosmology and the philosophy of Plotinus. Larson. 2000.
Deck, John. Nature Contemplation and the One. Larson. 2003
Hadot, Pierre. Plotinus; Simplicity of Vision . University of Chicago. 1993
Meister Eckhart. Sermons.
Plotinus. Enneads. (trans. Mckenna) Larson. 1991