Notes on Platonism Vol.1

§ I

Aug/19

All the different political formations that Plato identifies, are all identified as ruled by elites. It is only the case that democracy is the exception because it is merely an ephemeral interregnum prior to tyranny.  In this manner, there are really only three stable types of rule – rule by military, rule by merchant, rule by despot. Each implicitly performs the priestly/clerical function of enforcing  and upholding some shared good/moral life.  Thus, to make a MacIntyrean conclusion, modes of political organisation only fundamentally differ in regards to the inherited traditions of thought that the rulers operate within. Said traditions of thought are what predispose the human character of given rulers to making certain assumptions about moral psychology/human nature etc., which colour how they confront political problems. Rule by “despot” becomes the clearest in light of (bio)leninism – a ruler who secures loyalty not through martiality or money, but through raising the periphery’s status to secure their loyalty – levelling the social order. This is despotism. “Democracy” is the most ethically repugnant form of political organisation. 

§ II

Aug/23

The Platonic tradition is right to argue that writing is fundamentally precluded from capturing certain features of the subject of discourse. For Plato, writing externalises memory with the undesirable result that consciousness appears to fail to include its own contents. For Plotinus, writing temporalises the space of consciousness and translates the simultaneously present contents of consciousness as an extension within time. Either way, writing naturally lends itself to the profane and to reification and in so doing has this fundamentally phenomenal relation to the various objects-themselves that writing is supposed to represent. Writing can never truly produce a structure that thoroughly captures its object. 

For the Platonic tradition; intellect is its objects, and truth is revealed through a self-disclosing intellectual activity, i.e. recollection. Yet, truth is itself a veil for an origin that falls outside of all representation. Such an understanding of truth then means that truth cannot adequately linguistically be communicated to another because any representation would rupture the unity of subject and object.

§ III

Aug/25

Creation, says Plotinus in a thoroughly poetic manner, is awake and alive at every point. Each thing has its own peculiar life though we, as our senses cannot discern the life within wood and stone, deny that life; 

Their living is in secret, but they live.1

By this conception, from the Timaeus’s world-soul, Neoplatonism bridges the gap between appearance and reality, solving the paradox of multitude in unity. 

We do not declare the Soul to be one in the sense of entirely excluding multiplicity. This absolute oneness belongs only to the higher nature, we make it both one and manifold; it has part in the nature which is divided among bodies, but it has part also in the indivisible, and so again we find it to be one.2

§ IV

Aug/30

Plotinus writes that the reason souls turn from the divine is due to the evils of resulting from a dominance of self-will over the naturally endowed, higher intellective capacities of man that make man, man. As per the Aristotelian definition, to be human is to be an animal possessing logos. Naturally then, his highest possible activity is a contemplation of sorts, and his highest end must be something that fully satisfies his intellect. The evil results from denying this, and in denying this, instead of intellect, will is dominant. If will dominates over intellect, man in his justifications of self-ownership and freedom of will from higher reality/universals, the identification of his natural end drifts and differs. In more extreme cases it is totally abolished from his view – this is the natural consequence of voluntarism. 

He cannot be fulfilled lest he by chance wills himself to his right end, but this possibility seems contradictory, as this would mean willing himself back into being governed by logos. Plotinus and Aquinas converge in identifying man’s natural end in the primal principle of generation; God – whose vision of, and thus union with, alone can be the full satisfaction of his nature, for contemplating the divine is man’s highest activity given his essence as logos-driven, and so to have union with and direct knowledge of the highest truth is his natural telos. 

Now, merely it being in his nature does not make it by necessity how he will act, but by necessity how he may be truly fulfilled – that is, happy – or in the much more robust Greek – Eudaimonia (from Eudaemon meaning “good spirit(ed)”). In such a unified state, Plotinus writes of it as;

…rest unbroken: for how can that seek change, which all is well; what need that reach to, which holds all within itself; what increase can that desire, which stands utterly achieved?3

In union with the Divine Mind, man’s intellection is fully satisfied. In union with the perfect, man achieves perfection. Now this divinity is in someway already in him, as per Aristotle’s maxim that causes subsist in some manner in their effects, yet his essence isn’t the divine essence – that is external to him. By it being external to him, he does not possess it in perfect fullness, and in so identifying said externality he identifies it as his superior and so humbles himself in making said external identification. 

§ V

Sep/07 

Socrates saw that the use of ethical predicates must only be governed by given evaluative criteria whereas Plato supposed that if this is to be so, that if there are to be objective standards for the use of such predicates. Moreover, that for Plato, it must be the case that such predicates are used to refer to objects, and objects belonging not to the multifarious changing world of sense but to another unchanging world. Said realm is apprehended by the intellect precisely through its dialectical ascent, whereby it grasps the meaning of abstract nouns and other general terms. 

Their objects are the Forms through the imitation of which or participation in which the objects of sense-perception have the characters that they have. The highest of these objects being the Good, the Republic presenting progress in rational argument, culminating in a vision of the Form of the Good. However the Good, is not one among the other forms we contemplate: they belong to the realm of unchanging existence – the Good dwells beyond. As is later developed through the course of philosophical history, through the later Platonists and Medievals, this is God. 

What the forms and the Good and their treatment by Plato here mean is that a theory of meaning has been thrust upon the scene of western philosophy. As MacIntyre writes, 

the logician has entered moral philosophy. Moral philosophy, forever, will necessarily incorporate the logical analysis of moral concepts, the theory of human purposes, motives, of social formation.4

We can see all three interests that underlie these pursuits, the epistemological, the psychological and the political meeting in the central parts of the Republic. We could even say that the best parts of the Republic display a kind of tripartite harmony. Such is the beauty of Plato’s work. 

§ VI

Sep/08 

The One is all things and no one of them; the source of all things is not all things; yet it is all things transcendentally – all things having run back to it: or more correctly, not all as yet are within it, they will be.5 

Plotinus, as does Aristotle, privileges, of the four causes material/formal/efficient/final, the final cause. All things are One in that they are all teleologically constituted by the One – they all have their final end in him. Yet the One is none of them, because prior to any of the objects of creation having fully united themselves with the ineffable One, they are distinct from him. The One is totally subsistent, not dependent on anything, seeking nothing, possessing nothing, lacking nothing – totally perfect and generates the cosmos by an exuberant overflowing of itself. 

The Plotinian cosmology is generated through hypostatic emanations – each emanation never completely severed from its prior. Consequently, this cosmology is a Chain-of-Being in a very strict sense whereby each prior is necessarily dependent on that which is above itself. Nature dependent on the World Soul, dependent on the Nous, dependent on The One. When something is ensouled, that is to say – has life, it is not seen as ensouled in the spatial sense. To illustrate – when you have a plant which you prune, the parts of the plant you have lopped off for the most part are now dead. Yet the plant itself is very much alive. 

This phenomenon misled many of the Presocratics to identify soul as a spatially extended substance that permeates through the plant. Lop off one part and you’ve amputated the plant – the disconnected part is dead because you dispersed it’s soul atoms or something or rather. Plotinus rejects this absurdity. Nothing here must be understood spatially because Soul never was in space. Rather, the World Soul imbues nature with the life-principle and you have merely severed the connection with this part of the plant to it. This raises the issue of our previous elaboration on emanations however, because each emanation can never be completely severed from its prior. The Neoplatonic explanation then would be that the dead plant part is in some sense it is now further down this Chain of Being, further from the Soul than it was prior. 

But, looking more minutely into the matter, when shoots or topmost boughs are lopped from some growing thing, where goes the soul that was present in them? Simply, where it came: soul never know spatial separation and therefore it was always within the source.6

Soul exists independent and transcendent to the plant. At the furthest reaches of these emanations, you get pure matter, which is really just noise which cannot exist independent of some sort of form. 

§ VII

Oct/02

Plotinus writes that for there to be any subsequent creation, it must be grounded in a non-composite, absolutely single unity that is the foundation and first principle of generation. This is the One and it is a necessary being that transcends Being, insofar as Being is of composition and the One is beyond such composition. Standing before all things, he writes, there must exist a Simplex, differing from all its sequel, self-gathered not interblended with the forms that rise from it, and yet able in some mode of its own to present to those others.  If there were nothing outside all alliance and compromise, nothing authentically one, there would be no Source. No source, no creation. Nothing from nothing. Yet that would be contrary to all immediate experience and contrary to the very fact of a given agent capable of said experience since both of these things are composites that exist in some manner. Deduced from this starting point of the thinking agent and his composite experience we arrive at a transcendent, non-composite cause of our very relation between thinking agent and composite objects of experience. As the Scholastic maxim goes – there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses. Even to posit Plato’s anamnesis, recollection would have to be awoken somehow, and this would primarily happen as a result of sensory experience. God is perfect – no privations, the beginning of all powers and perfections which all other powers and perfections are a partial imitation of.

§ VIII

Oct/16 

Lord my God, grant, I beseech you, 

That I may be made beautiful within, 

And that everything outside me may become dear within me.

May I consider only the wise man to be rich.

Bestow as much of this gold, 

Refined by fire, 

As none but the temperate man may bear or take away.

§ IX

Oct/16

The first part, of the above prayer, is an allegory to the somewhat disputed Second Alcibiades which concerns the nature of prayer. Prayer in Marsilio Ficino’s formulation is;

…the ardent disposition of the pure soul, a disposition devoted to God and desirous of what is seen to be good.7

Naturally, it is the object of the intellect that the Platonic/Aristotelian and Christian tradition hold to be the most fitting object of desire for man. The highest of all things one can contemplate being God himself. On the “gold, refined by fire”; 

Revelation 3:18 | I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.

Socrates seeks the good. Which good? Marsilio Ficino writes that it is; 

Wisdom, that is, consciousness of divine truth, which God alone can grant, which the beautiful soul alone is strong enough to receive, the soul that is temperate, pure, and bright.8

What should we ask for first? Ficino tells us that it is wisdom that may make us worthy. It is certainly the action of an intemperate, perhaps even irrational man to ask for any gift of which he cannot be due. So, we might also ask then; who is exactly worthy of divine wisdom? Who is ready to bear its light? The man who the cardinal virtues, that is, through the civil and purifying virtue of the purified soul, has cleansed his soul so that he has become beautiful, that is, totally pure and clear, and has chosen virtue, divine wisdom alone, the treasury of all riches, as his model.

For this reason we beseech God, the Father of all, and His servants to breathe favourably upon us, that may be cleansed by their kind and gracious favour. Socrates directly asks for this shining gold of divine wisdom in this dialogue. He does not ask proudly, nor yet mildly. Indeed, intemperate men are granted very little consciousness of truth but God embraces within Himself the whole of this limitless consciousness.9

Therefore he has asked for as much of this gold as only a temperate man is able to carry. This is indeed the burning gold which John, in Revelation, advises us to buy.

§ X

Oct/07

Meister Eckhart writes that by the eternal generation of the Logos through the Father’s self-quest, the Father becomes conscious of himself, and the love reflected back to the Father by the Son is the Holy Spirit10. Marsilio Ficino writes that there is nothing in the world more like the divine trinity than the Sun11. In the singular substance of the Sun a three-fold nature of sorts exists that distinct in relation yet exists in a subsistent unity. The first of said natures is a natural fecundity from the senses, the second being its manifest light flowing out of this fecundity, ever equal to it, and thirdly its power to heat which is a virtue equal to both. The fecundity represents The Father as the first principle from which all derive their existence; light, likened to intelligence, represents The Son conceived of intelligence; and heat stands for the loving Holy Spirit.

The reception of Christ by a ‘virgin’, Eckhart holds to analogously signify the fact that for God’s knowledge to manifest, the intellect (Christ as Logos, hence the analogy of intellect) must be ‘void’. As long as the active intellect is dominant and occupied with abstraction, thought, imagination, and perception, the mind will remain incapable of receiving the unconditioned Truth. Consider the Buddhist parable of the monkey mind. No idea represents or signifies itself. It always points to something else, of which it is a symbol. Since man has no ideas, except those abstracted from external objects, he cannot be blessed by mere idea. Analogously, this means that no interpretation interprets itself – hence the absurdity of sola scriptura. All interpretations (e.g., rules, abstracted principles, symbols, etc.) point to something else. Since all abstracted forms are interpretations, abstracted forms themselves cannot render content determinant as previously explored. Hence, as long as one is focused on mental constructions, perceptions and other such things, one cannot begin to adequately approach the source of all these manifestations.12

§ XI

Oct/24

God doesn’t make mistakes – God has not “forsaken the world” or his creation. To assert as such is nonsensical and requires holding to a mix of deism and anthropomorphism. Let us consider two arguments, one from Proclus, another from Aquinas.

From Proclus; 

For if all things which exist have a natural appetition of their good; and if further there are things which derive their well-being from themselves and things which demand another’s help, things which have the cause of their good within them and things to which it is external: then in proportion as the former are nearer to the giver of their desire, so must they be superior to that which needs an extraneous cause of good and has its existence or its activity completed only by reception from without. Since, then, the self-sufficient has more likeness to the Good itself (yet falls short, in that it participates good and is not itself the primal Good), it is in some way akin to the Good, inasmuch as it can furnish its good out of its own being, whereas that which not only participates, but does so through an external medium, is at a further remove from the primal Good which is nothing else but good.13

This is all to say, that which is self-sufficient either in its existence or in its activity is superior to what is not self-sufficient but dependent upon another existence, said other existence which is the cause of its completeness. Said completeness may be as fundamental as its own existence. God is pure actuality, and thus without privation and so utterly perfect – God is the primal Good, Goodness itself. Now turning to Aquinas;

Everything that can be and not-be has a cause. For, considered in itself, it is indifferent to either, so that something else must exist which determines it to one. Since, then, it is impossible to go on to infinity, there must exist a necessary being which is the cause of all things that can be and not-be. Now, there is a certain kind of necessary being whose necessity is caused. But in this order of things, also, progression to infinity is impossible; so that we must conclude to the existence of something which is of itself necessary being. There can be but one such being…14

This, all men speak of as God.  Continuing the quotation;

Everything other than God, therefore, must be referred to Him as the cause of its being. Moreover, God is the maker of things inasmuch as He is in act. But by virtue of His perfection, God embraces the perfections of all, thus He is virtually all things. He is, therefore, the maker of all things. But this would not be the case if something besides God were capable of being otherwise than from Him; for nothing is of such a nature as to be from another and not from another, since if a thing is of a nature not to be from another, then it is through itself a necessary being, and thus can never be from another. Therefore, nothing can be except from God. 

God is transcendent but also immanent in the world – not a first principle that creates and then as a separate entity that leaves creation to be. If such a Deist God were the case, a God that creates then can be radically distinct from creation, creation would lose its universal predicate of existence and so cease to be. But that would mean that creation wouldn’t exist, which is evidently not the case and so Deism is not true. Only God is truly self-sufficient.

God has far from “forsaken” the world, or made it or any such particular of it out of mistake because he consciously supports the very existence of everything that has a particularised existence. In fact, as God is the Good, and causes subsist in their effects, creation, man, by his very existence is supported by this Primal Good, is dependent on the primal good and so is also good in some manner too. Perfection-itself makes no mistakes because that would be a privation of intellect, yet pure act has no privations of any kind and so makes no mistakes. 

[NOTES]

[1] Plotinus., 1948. The Enneads. Boston: C.T. Branford Co. IV.4 § 3.

[2] ibid., IV.9 § 2.

[3] Plotinus, The Enneads, V.1 § 4.

[4] MacIntyre, A., 2011. A Short History Of Ethics. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 43.

[5] Plotinus, The Enneads, V.2, § 1. 

[6] ibid., V.2, § 2. 

[7] Ficino, M. and Farndell, A. Gardens Of Philosophy. M-Y Books, 2012. 19.

[8] ibid., p.20.

[9] ibid., p.20.

[10] Ekhart, Meister. The Complete Mystical Works. The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, Sermon One Pf.1, Q101 , QT.57, 32.

[11] Ficino, Marsilio. De Sole, Book of the Sun. Sphinx 6: A Journal for Archetypal Psychology and the Arts, London, 1994, § XII, 14.

[12] Kurak, M. The Epistemology of Illumination in Meister Eckhart. Philosophy and Theology, 13(2), 2001, pp.275-286.

[13] Proclus and Dodds, E, The Elements Of Theology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004, 11.

[14] Thomas, Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975. Book Two: Creation, 48, 49.

Leave a Reply