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Perils Of The Examined Life

The Neoplatonist Dilemma

Any inclined to study the nature of being best heed the following advice: don’t go shopping for Ultimate truth unless you’re damn well ready for the consequences.  Such words may seem harsh but experience suggests they’re true.  Contrary to what many may think, gaining a better sense of one’s place in the grand scheme frequently depresses rather than ennobles.  Nowhere is this bitter quandary more evident than within the study of Neoplatonism.  Though long considered one of the cornerstones of mystical theory, Neoplatonism often stimulates an all too familiar pathology; desperate souls searching for existential meaning find themselves cast into the nihilistic void of personal absurdity.  Their new found ontological insights offer very little in the way of individual purpose or ethical direction.  Sometimes it gets worse.  A debilitating sense of insignificance is all too often the payoff for those dedicated to the search for expanded perspective.  They feel more lost and existentially adrift than ever before.  But never let it be said the more enlightened go down without a fight.  Desperate to imbue their lives with purpose, many cunningly craft around this ancient philosophical tradition elaborate interpretations reflective of their own desires and priorities.  Equivocation springs like flowers after a morning rain.  While no ontological or spiritual system is free from such revisionist drama, the deft intellectual evasions surrounding Neoplatonism are as revealing as the philosophy itself.  This is hardly surprising.  After all, when it comes to spawning existential tension and discord Neoplatonism is in a class by itself.  Few such schools have the ability to so effectively drive the unwary seeker to the edge of literal self destruction.  Predictably, given its widespread influence within mystical studies, the psychological perils of the Neoplatonist model easily overflow into the body of many of the world’s other spiritual systems.  A closer look at the basic metaphysics of this seminal philosophy may indeed suggest Socrates had it wrong.  Maybe it’s the “examined” life that is not worth living.

Neoplatonism is a school of thought that flourished from the third century A.D.  It’s most conspicuous proponent was the Roman (nee Alexandria) thinker Plotinus.  The fundamental tenants of Neoplatonism as articulated by Plotinus were first formally recorded by his student Porphyry in a treatise referred to as the Enneads Within these pages lay a concise and systematic conception of Being accompanied by pages of the protracted and poetic expatiation so common to the time.  Though the ancient world was filled with different imaginative ontological theories the future development of human religious and mystical thought would clearly attach a superior importance to the ideas of Plotinus.  True to its name, Neoplatonism advanced the development of traditional Platonic thinking.  Though Plato waxed extensively on many a conundrum, Plotinus primarily concerned himself with the ontological side of his work.   In many ways the Enneads seem a logical extension and extrapolation of that most fundamental of Platonic principles, the concept of Forms.

As any freshman philosophy student knows, Plato claimed what appears to be substantively real to our senses is in fact pure illusion.  The myriad of objects and bodies we continually perceive are actually just empty reflections devoid of substance; no more real than the shadows on the wall as related in his venerable allegory of the cave.  The only true reality lies within a metaphysical realm known as the World of Forms where the ideal essences (or forms) of all existence reside and from which all sensory objects derive their reflected appearance.  What we mistake for reality are the ephemeral reflections of the corresponding Form of any given object.  In other words, the appearance of our world and all within are no more “real” than those images otherwise perceived in a mirror or on a movie screen.  The only “reality” within our existence is that of our poor deluded consciousness doing the perceiving.

In firm accord with Plato’s notion of our empty world of appearance Plotinus moves deeper.  Beyond the World of Forms, he claims there to be only one true entity: what he labels The One.  The One is the ultimate, singular, formless source of all and, to the eternal consternation of our limited minds, eludes any functional description.  It’s simultaneously everything and nothing.  Though an undifferentiated whole, The One is not a static entity.  From The One emanates Spirit.  Spirit is best conceived as the backdrop or tapestry upon which all existence is woven.  It is simultaneously the irreducible foundation of Being and the dynamic and intelligent energy of The One’s formative power.

Plotinus claims Spirit to be filled with a lesser hierarchy of entities referred to as Souls.  He believes all worldly entities have corresponding souls of varying degrees of complexity.  Humans, animals, insects, plants, rocks it matters not, all have their own individual souls.  Prior to descending into our perceived reality these souls existed in perfect union within the fabric of Spirit.  Though there are a myriad of different Souls of differing capacities, the most dominant Soul within Spirit is known as the Soul of All.  The Soul of All is the intermediary between Spirit and the perceptible universe and is often known as the creative power of Spirit.  In the theater of material existence the Soul of All is the playwright, set designer and director who assigns and scripts the multitude of lesser, individual souls their designated roles.  However, though they may be guided by the Soul of All, individual souls have their own relative degree of intelligence, awareness and will.

Now I know what you’re wondering, why would these lesser souls who are otherwise firmly ensconced and blissfully existing in Spirit ever wish to leave such a pure and perfect state of being?  What compels them to debase themselves by allowing the Soul of All to use them as bit players in the drama of existence?  Plotinus suggests, like actors everywhere, individual souls often have an imprudent sense of ambition and a desire to “assert themselves.”  This dubious urge impels them to descend into the material world and adopt an appearance of an individual reflective image.  These “imaged” souls thus become what we refer to as the objects of existence.  But don’t be fooled; just because individual souls like you and me now seem to have a sensory appearance and a sense of identity doesn’t mean we have any hard physical reality.  As per Plato, any sense of solid materialism remains illusory.  We are all essentially differing aspects of pure consciousness.

We descended souls play our parts in the master plan of reality whose purpose is known only to the Soul of All.  The tragedy according to Plotinus is once any given soul has made the move to emanate out of Spirit into the physical world they lose sight of their true nature.  They forget they’re an ethereal part of a greater, unified whole and now actually believe themselves a separate finite reality.  They begin to buy into and live the illusion.  The result of this disconnect is to be swallowed whole by the nature of corporeal life replete with all its inevitable temptations and suffering.

For those oblivious to the extent of this worldly peril, Plotinus pitilessly lays out the gruesome details in fine Platonic fashion.  He claims worldly existence is intrinsically false.  Separation and illusion is contrary to our fundamental unified relation to Spirit and the One.  Nothing within our mortal nature has the ability to contribute toward the ideal or perfect life.   He insists no soul can be in eternal harmony or consistent with its true nature while continuing to occupy the worldly realm of illusion.  Only when our souls reunite with Spirit can existential equilibrium be restored.  Only after leaving the illusions and torments of the physical plane can we regain our true bearing and once again luxuriate in the inherent bliss of our essence.  In other words, for we fallen souls ultimate redemption is only available through a return to our original, ideal condition; a return to the One of which we are a part.             Occasionally some more enlightened souls begin to realize the shadowy, empty nature of their world of appearance.  They begin to appreciate how their desire to assert themselves within this world has created a fundamental contradiction between their current situation and their true essence.  At this critical point the daunting truth emerges.  If we wish to find our way back to where we belong we must cease living the lie of life.  Only upon leaving the physical plane can we reclaim our authentic nature.

That physical death may afford a more ideal existential condition than life can be a startling and unsettling revelation.  In response to such bleak and extreme logic many claim neither Plato nor Plotinus have the right handle on the nature of existence.  Unfortunately, any trapped within this proverbial vale of tears will never know for sure.  However, the critical importance of Plotinus and his Neoplatonist brethren within the scope of ontological and transpersonal theory lies in the enduring integrity of this existential hierarchy.  The notion of an illusory world of souls splintered from a singular entity enjoys continued wide spread acceptance in many philosophies and mystical systems spanning a wide range of cultures and epochs.  It’s difficult to dismiss the veracity of those core ideas having transcended the time and circumstances of their origin.  The Eastern wisdom traditions thrive on this metaphysical model.  The fundamental precepts of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Taoist thought all embrace the idea of an undifferentiated ultimate source from which consciousness or soul emanates.  They all espouse the essential empty character of sensory existence and sanction the concept that our true nature is only realized through a return to an ultimate, eternal source.  Western religions also endorse these essential concepts as evidenced within the voluminous mystical works of Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars.  The most familiar articulation of the Neoplatonist ideal likely lies in the observations of the thirteenth century Dominican friar Meister Eckhart.  He spoke for a wide array of present and future Gnostics when claiming there is only one reality known as the “Ground.” Eckhart notes how the “overflow” from the Ground of Being creates an appearance of a reality in which the unaware must toil and from which they must eventually return back to their source.

From a philosophical perspective there’s no denying Western thought has come a long way from the heady days of sensory authority.   The empirical/materialist certainties championed by the likes of Hume, Locke and Berkeley seem like archaic museum pieces compared to the more penetrating and evolved perspectives of contemporary thought.   Starting with the work of Kant and trudging forward through such philosophical movements as the German Idealists, Pragmatists, Radical Empiricists and the Process schools, Western philosophy has been deconstructing and undermining the integrity of a fixed and solid world for the last three hundred years.   Perhaps most edifying to modern sensibilities is the work within the fields of quantum and field theory now supporting the ideas of a physical world of transitory and empty appearance more accurately conceived as energy rather than substance, unbound by conventional notions of time and space and highly dependent on consciousness for structure.  Such developments seem eloquently foreshadowed in the stanzas of Shakespeare’s Prospero who famously likens corporeal existence to “the baseless fabric of this vision” and equates our lives to “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Of course understanding the true nature of existence is one thing, finding ways to accommodate it is something altogether different.  For many the notions of an ethereal world of appearance remain a curious sidebar to the more immediate task of forging a practical existence amongst the objects and bodies continuously bombarding our senses.  In other words true reality is not the reality most people recognize or deal with.  To paraphrase Sartre, many live in concert with a shit load of “Bad Faith.”  Though this world’s “empty illusions” may not be real in the literal existential sense, failure to successfully deal with them in a cautious and common manner can bring about a string of distinctly unpleasant results.  Few would advocate testing the veracity of the empty nature of matter by stepping in front of an illusory truck.  Let’s face it, trying to find value or purpose within a world of pure illusion presents some formidable challenges.  However, for many of more expansive perspective Ultimate Truth is not something easily ignored.

The haunting implication of Plotinus’s words seemingly leave little alternative to the logically inclined.  Given our ultimate condition the most reasonable response to our predicament might seem ending our corporeal life and returning to the better circumstances of our true nature.  Surprisingly, in the Enneads suicide as an option is never mentioned.  Seemingly trapped in the face of the dire and nihilistic inevitability of his own reasoning Plotinus nonetheless grasps for a constructive ethos of hope and purpose.  When pressed to reconcile our behavior with our essential nature he feebly perfumes the air with high minded though vacuous platitudes.  We receive recommendations about living in accord with the beautifully organized universe, realizing our capability to be good, fulfilling the capacities endowed to us or grounding our actions in intelligible principles.  One draws the impression he readily recognizes the facts but strains to avoid the obvious.  Affected nobility aside, such suggestions seem hollow and incoherent afterthoughts offered in the hope of making the best of a grim situation.  The Truth is our souls, for some unknown grand purpose, have taken a tragically bad turn and landed on the wrong side of the tracks in the neighborhood of existence.  Though suicide may seem extreme, given Plotinus’s reigning conviction in the delusional and unnatural nature of physical existence what else can we think?  How else can we right the wrong?  If the return to the original, perfect and unified One is the prime directive of all existence wouldn‘t it be best to swallow hard, take our lumps and do the obvious?   Why continue screwing around trying to perfect the fundamental flaw in an irretrievably flawed plan?  What ultimate good is served by trying to act in accord with the principles of a no win situation?  Under these circumstances it would seem Plotinus joins the ranks of the likes of Aristotle and Nietzsche who suggest the best thing for all of us would to have never been born.

Of course Plotinus is historically not the only one to try and sugarcoat the obvious.  The Neoplatonist  conception of the relation between humans and the Ultimate entity of existence has produced many cultural attempts towards creating purpose within the realm of empty perception.  In the ninth century Shankara declared the Vedas to essentially articulate the same illusory, non-dual nature of existence as Plotinus.  While falling short of recommending self annihilation, Shankara at least had the virtue of being more consistent to his ontology.  He espoused study and mysticism to recognize that our true nature was one of “torment without resolution.”  Nice.  Obviously such merciless sentiment may seem too harsh for human consumption.  Fearing the resulting anarchy, mayhem and desperation wide acceptance of this perspective may breed; a host of successive Hindu thinkers have tried to socially sublimate this abiding reality.  Sages such as Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Aurobindo, while not denying Shankara’s essential truth, have tried molding his bleak pronouncement into a constructive and meaningful ethos.  Suggesting we move beyond pure self interest, they encourage communal service and promote an active sense of “doing unto others…”  The similarities between these recommendations and those of Plotinus are clearly evident.  However, these same thinkers and many of similar spiritual bend often attempt to instill a sense of individual meaning within an otherwise nihilistic ontology by promoting a clever ideological tactic known as the “hero concept.”

In his vast analysis of cultural myths, Joseph Campbell frequently notes the recurring role and necessity of the hero within human society.  The hero sacrifices of himself physically or spiritually for the well being of others.  Possibly the most well known institutionalization of the spiritual hero appears in certain Buddhist sects regarding the concept of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is a spiritually enlightened human who forsakes his place in the dearly coveted Nirvana to remain within the illusory physical realm to help show the way to other less enlightened souls.   On the surface it appears to be the height of selfless though incomprehensible behavior.  Virtually every theology or philosophy sharing the same ontological perspective as Neoplatonism has their own version of this story.   The idea of the spiritual hero is designed to effectively fuse the need for personal purpose with social practicality.  However, I can’t help but feel such kinds of optimistic and empowering ideals are more the creation of human minds than any specific revelation from the Soul of All.  The desperation to instill a sense of individual purpose and simultaneously maintain a firm hand over the hoards of potentially self combustible minions is a powerful motivator.  It’s important to be able to differentiate those ethical structures crafted for the good of society as opposed to those relevant to the fulfillment of any individual destiny.  They may or may not be the same.

Though lacking any certainty as to what the Ultimate demands of us, those more practically disposed may infer there to be some actions more congruent with our circumstances than others.  Surely such an intelligent entity as the Soul of All has some purpose in mind when it cast us in our current physical roles.  While this assumption may sound reasonable the expectation that we humans can deduce such a purpose is anything but.  What we may deem personally constructive or meaningful relative to our situation may have no relation to any grand plan.  We can never know for sure.  No recognizable template of example exists within our common experience to divinely validate one form of behavior over another.  Until such time as we can decipher the intentions of the Soul of All we have no basis for favoring such humanistic guidelines as the Buddha’s plea for compassion over the indifferent cruelty of self interest so graphically displayed in nature.  In point of fact, many of the world’s great theological tracts clearly demonstrate the unfathomability of ultimate intentions by human beings.  Borrowing from a religious tradition sharing in Plotinus’s mystical structure, the Hindu devotional epic the Mahabarata concludes with the divinely ordained destruction of the whole of humanity at the battle of Kurukshetra.  I doubt many of a deep ethical bend saw that one coming.

The most unsettling element of Plotinus’s thought is his emphasis on detailing the structure of existence without offering any specific way to engage the world consistent with this reality.  This new enlightenment leaves us few meaningful choices.  His lack of articulated purpose thrusts us into a more dire moral absurdity then those who would reduce our existence to the random byproducts of purely physical forces.  In any cosmic chaos theory we at least have the option of defining our own ethos independent of any larger imperative.  Plotinus’s insistence that our souls are willful, rogue entities who’ve lost sight of their proper place torments us by implying our physical incarnation is an act of our own intention.  This is much worse than the opposite; claiming our souls to be the complicit though unwitting tools of the Soul of All.  In the latter case we could at least justify our continued existence through the belief that our lives serve some higher, albeit unknown purpose.   However, by inferring our existence to be the result of misguided ambition we’re left with little recourse but to believe we continue to physically exist outside the boundaries of Ultimate intention.  That’s a ton of alienation for the existentially astute to handle.

I’m fairly certain Plotinus never meant to leave us in such an untenable position.  He often speaks of the personal liberation available to those understanding our true nature.  Accepting the empty and transient nature of the material world would seem to take the edge off what might otherwise be a hard and conflicted existence and instill hope for our inevitable salvation.  In other words, whatever we choose to do in this illusory world of shadows is of no enduring consequence so why sweat it?  However, Plotinus seems to make a critical oversight.  Though claiming material existence to be fundamentally alien to our essential nature he nonetheless seems to assume every soul, once incarnated, has a primal desire to continue to exist in the material world.  Accordingly, these souls will try to resolve their existential conundrums within the framework of physical life thus eliminating suicide as a possible solution.  He may feel our inability to easily recognize a purpose to our existence is of little consequence.  After all, who are we to second guess the greater powers that be?  Our job is to maintain a faith that our struggles of existence serve a necessary function towards a greater end and keep on willfully plodding along in ignorance of our designated roles.  Certainly such a perspective has effectively functioned for many.  However, for those of a more critical and less abiding disposition such mystical rationalizations won’t cut it.  I believe Plotinus badly underestimates the radical possibility that the desire for one’s own ultimate happiness overrides any other considerations.   Under such circumstances it’s easy to see how many may be tempted to expedite their return to the “bliss of eternal unity” by taking the suicidal fast track to liberating their souls.

Later Neoplatonists would try to palliate the desolate possibilities within Plotinus’s scheme.  Like a necessary afterthought, many would reach to instruct us in how to best live in accord with this radical reality.   They would try instilling a sense of worldly purpose by self prioritizing a host of virtuous worldly actions as conditions of a virtuous soul.  Others would go so far as to advise finding solace in the meaningless nature of our material existence.  Porphyry’s student, Iamblichus immediately springs to mind.  Reinforcing the notion that nothing within the material world can convey any sense of true purpose, he claimed just understanding the true relationship of human life to the Ultimate is sufficient for happiness and meaning.  Obviously Iamblichus was a man of very limited desire.  Unfortunately such deep forbearance serves more to sidestep the essence of Plotinus’s carefully crafted ontology than to impart any degree of meaningful purpose to human existence.

I think Plotinus’s failure to vigorously articulate an ethos relative to his ontology bestows his ideas with a degree of integrity absent within many spiritual thinkers.  Though the implications of his ideas may leave us in one hell of a bleak existential bind, you have to admire his circumspection and humility.  His is a purity and honesty very rare within other mystics.  I’ve always found it troubling that those who would so sagely note the unknowability of the Ultimate have so much to say as to how to act in concert with its wishes.  In truth it would seem very difficult, if not highly pretentious, for Plotinus to declare any knowledge of what The One expects from we human souls.  Barring any direct mystical contact he may have experienced with The One or the Soul of All, any personal thoughts on how to best live are purely speculative.   However, even if such insights were the result of some sort of mystical contact with a transpersonal oneness (an event I wholeheartedly believe possible) I find it difficult to accommodate the notion our limited intellect and perspective could adequately translate such experience into a universal ethos.  Deducing the specific nature of the Ultimate is always going to be an uncertain exercise for us human beings.  Of course, such considerations have rarely stopped the likes of Plato, Eckhart, Ramakrishna, Aurobindo or a raft of other philosophers from drafting up veritable laundry lists of prescriptions on how to act in concert with the ultimate powers that be.  Predictably, such principles frequently seem more attuned to the inherent social necessities within any given community and the preservation of prevailing power structures rather than the imperatives of any ultimate intelligence.

Plotinus’s hierarchy of existence may not intrinsically preclude any sense of meaning or specific human purpose within the material world.  Though Plotinus’s vision of existence is clearly articulated and easily understood, the direct implications of his belief on human behavior remains so poorly defined as to invite a myriad of possible suggestions.   As noted above many thinkers within other traditions ascribing to the same fundamental ontological vision have drawn numerous positive and affirming conclusions regarding these same issues.  Clearly the Enneads have significant structural gaps into which key insights may be inserted.  Those more literally disposed can certainly be excused for feeling material life to be a vast morass of absurdity and wishing to subject their wrists to the razor.  However, many have used these ambiguities as opportunities to put a more optimistic and constructive spin on the Neoplatonist model.  Given the prevailing “starry eyed” condition of ontological study, this is an important though potentially disturbing development that cuts to the heart of many of our most deeply held assumptions.

The default notion of the mystical set seems to assert any glimpse into the cosmic scheme provides a more comforting perspective of existence than available within the often grim and ambiguous realities of tellurian life.  We avidly embrace the belief that knowing the ultimate order of existence will result in more satisfying lives imbued with higher meaning and purpose.  Though frail and confused, we’re nevertheless confident the powers that be have cast us poor humans into a role of nobility and significance within the grand scheme.  Surely there exists a necessary pattern of meaningful interconnectivity between ourselves and all other aspects of existence.  And who knows, such optimism may be well founded.  However, any who assume the Ultimate to be structured along such a life affirming trajectory do so out of hope not knowledge.  The mere existence of any interdependent pattern does nothing by itself to reveal any positive or ethical dimensions within our worldly life.  Any such cohesive scheme could just as easily be laden with what we would consider a host of baffling negative or indifferent consequences.   Plotinus’s philosophy provides a potent and necessary balance to this type of ontological bias.

As noted earlier, the significance of the ontological scheme articulated by the Neoplatonists continues to exert considerable influence within the field of mystical and transpersonal studies.  Plotinus was not the first to espouse the essential concepts of what would become the Neoplatonist model of existence.  However, his treatment was considerably less socially and theistically encumbered than those similar ideas formulated in Asia during the Axial age or the many mystically inclined who would follow.  As such the Enneads more readily invite an examination of the needs and imperatives of the individual within this omnipresent metaphysical model.  They demand ontological assessment based more on the icy dimensions of logic and reason than the more humanistic qualities of faith and intuition.  Most importantly, they seem to regard the vagaries of human action as essentially insignificant in the face of more dynamic and fundamental forces.  They function as a dispassionate counterweight to any same spiritual structure that would otherwise link human behavior to ultimate salvation.  While this perspective may seem psychologically intimidating and socially disastrous it may also very well be the most personally liberating and invigorating of all mystical postures.  If nothing within the physical realm is of ultimate consequence and material existence no more than a weigh station for our eventual return to our true essence than all are free to decide what course of behavior is best with impunity.  According to Plotinus the very existence of our awareness is saving grace alone.  We are already at this moment and forever more intrinsically perfect and pure.  How can you possibly improve on that?

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