Porphyry on The Life of Plotinus

There is a copy of Stephen McKenna’s translation of Plotinus’s The Enneads available online, and in includes his student Porphyry’s “Life of Plotinus”, which in itself is a fascinating read because of its depiction of intellectual life and the intellectual outlook in the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the Greco-Roman world. And in the life of Plotinus, and the meaning “philosophy” for the ancients, we see something of the grandeur of the mental structure of consciousness, of authentic Reason as it was understood by the ancients, and of philosophy as an heroic quest for emancipation. Proud Reason, proudly reasoning.

There is a passage in Porphyry’s memoir that caught my attention, because it is so poignant

“Amelius was scrupulous in observing the day of the New-Moon and other holy-days, and once asked Plotinus to join him in some such celebration. Plotinus refused: “It is for those Beings to come to me, not for me to go to them.”
What was in his mind in so lofty an utterance we could not explain to ourselves and we dared not ask him.”  (p. 8)

Here, the thing that puzzled Porphyry and his contemporaries, and made them fearful about Plotinus’s “lofty” reply, is the sheer grandeur of Man as philosopher and as mental being. The very name “philosopher” is treated in Porphyry with an unusual reverence that is not typical in today’s speech. In Plotinus’s reply, though, we see why: he has declared his independence of the gods, and now demands of them that he be respected, at least, as their equal, if not their superior. Mental man (and mental woman, too, as Plotinus had female students also) no longer grovels at the feet of the gods, but now demands from them recognition. In the ancient world, the philosopher is a revolutionary, who refuses any longer to serve as plaything or toy of the gods. Plotinus’s confederates were in awe of this bold statement by Plotinus because it was Man’s “declaration of independence” — the confirmation of the philosopher as free being and free spirit.

In Plotinus’s simple statement is expressed the full grandeur of philosophy and of the mental consciousness structure which the philosopher seeks to faithfully represent and live out. There is something of this same heroic pride and confident spirit in Diogenes, who famously exclaimed, upon being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, “Come! Buy a Master!” And it is foreshadowed in Socrates.

It is not that Plotinus did not believe in the gods and the lesser intelligences below the “Supreme” or “the One”. Quite the contrary, in fact. This new confidence, this new boldness, that awed his contemporaries and confederates was precisely because he knew them well. The true philosopher had seen through all the irrational superstitions about the gods, had uncloaked them, as it were, and now demanded that they recognise him at the very least as their equal. That’s what Plotinus is saying here: It’s not for me to demonstrate and prove myself and my value to the gods. It’s for the gods to demonstrate and prove to me their value. The same breath-taking boldness and pride toward the “gods” we also find in William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche: “I am Man. Do not mistake me for what I am not!”

There is the true majesty of the mental consciousness, and why the name “philosopher” often struck awe, even in some cases fear, amongst the ancients.

What does Plotinus’s statement bring to mind otherwise? In The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser takes tremendous interest in, and is very moved by, Odysseus’s remark upon finding himself alive  after his shipwreck, where he rises from the ocean and speaks “Eim Odysseus” — “Am Odysseus” — the discovery of a human identity. And what a tremendous distance has been covered from this “am Odysseus” to Plotinus’s statement: “It is for those Beings to come to me, not for me to go to them”!

It is this majestic aspect of the mental and of the human form that is today in danger of being overcome once again by superstitions of all kinds, which I especially find promoted in advertising and branding, in “technocratic shamanism”, managerialism and propaganda — those things that represent the now “deficient mode” of the mental consciousness structure as “rationalism” or as “techno-science”, as opposed to the “contemplative” wisdom of Plotinus.

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4 responses to “Porphyry on The Life of Plotinus”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Those who are alarmed about the descent into materialism are right to be so because “non-being” is purely material being — the state of inconscient matter.The more man identifies with matter, the more inconscient he becomes likewise, and so approaches the state of “Non-Ens” The closer the soul approaches this state of non-Ens, the more intense the Angst, anxiety and paranoia.

    This is the nature of the “Kali Yuga”, and is the present state of the world.

  2. davidm58 says :

    Again, lining up with my EPO reading this morning. From page 150:

    “The demands and pains placed upon man by this emergent structure [of Mental Consciousness] are reflected in the exertions and struggles of the ancient heroes to assert themselves in the world. 44”

    [Footnote #44: “We use the word ‘assert’ here deliberately (in German ‘behaupten’), for it is in the head (Haupt), the bearer of the brain, that plays the decisive role in the mental structure…”]

    “The demeanor of Odysseus – or of any other Greek hero – which manifests his boastfulness and self-adulation, is symptomatic of his compulsion to bridge the gap rent by matricide [the crisis/chaotic transition that accompanied the end of the deficient mythical], as well as to assert himself.

    Those vainglorious monologues of the Greeks, which have always seemed embarrasing because of their boastfulness and exaggeration, are accordingly an expression of the mania and compulsion of these heroes to regard themselves as seriously as the already emerging mutation demanded. Only a man still unsure of himself is given to boasting as the only way of establishing his status; this is why the ancient Greek had to assure himself by swaggering: he had destroyed the security of his maternal world and stepped out into the diurnal brightness of the colmnar solar temple.

    What was then taking place in moderation…became increasingly and perilously one-sided with the onset of rationality. It is almost as though the material-crazed man of today were the ultimate victim of the avenging mother – materialistic supremacy [mother = mater = materialism]. Besides, a world in which only the man or the father (or his representative, the son) has staus and worth is ultimately inhuman.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      “material-crazed man of today” is a pretty good description of the Kali Yuga, actually, and it’s ironic given that science now speaks, like Paul Davies, of “The Myth of Matter”. There you have something of gebser’s “double-movement” — an illustration of it.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    It is sad how materialism has delayed the march of knowledge, not only delayed it but perverted its healthy path in the name of false progress. No wonder we are living in the kali yuga abyss but as you said in other post that this is no time for despair after all life is in continual transition either to rise again or demise.

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