Summary of Plotinus

The first philosophy book I ever bought—above is the exact cover—was the The Essential Plotinus. Conversations with a friend in the summer after high school in 1973 awoken me, as Hume did Kant, from my dogmatic slumber. At the time my friend was something of a devotee of Plotinus, having studied him in a metaphysics class. I eagerly bought the book and carried it around with me, although I didn’t understand much of it. But I have fond memories of the book. It marked the beginning of a long intellectual journey for, unbeknownst to me at the time, the world of the mind was beckoning.

Plotinus (c. 204/5 – 270) was a major Greek-speaking philosopher of the ancient world. In his philosophy there are three basic principles: the One , the Intellect, and the Soul.[1] He is generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism,[2] a mystical form of Platonism that thrived in Late Antiquity. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Pagan, Islamic, Jewish, Christian and Gnostic metaphysicians, as well as other mystics.

The One – Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, godlike, totally transcendent One containing no division, multiplicity or distinction. The One is beyond all categories of being and non-being. The One isn’t a thing or a person; it isn’t the sum of all things; and it isn’t sentient or self-aware. But the One is the first principle; it is good; and nothing could exist without it. The One is the source of the world, but it doesn’t create the world by willful action. Instead, reality emanates from the One, as an outpouring or overflowing of its nature in an ongoing temporal process. In other words, the One reflects itself onto lower planes, but these reflections represent limits on the ‘s perfection.

Nous – The first emanation from the One is Nous (Divine Mind, Logos, Thought, Reason, Intelligence.) This intelligence contemplates both the One, as well as its own thoughts, which Plotinus identifies with the Platonic Forms (eide).

Soul – The second emanation brings soul, the creative power of which is divided into the upper aspect, World Soul, which remains in contact with Nous, and the lower aspect, identified with nature, which allows for individual human souls.

Matter – The third emanation results in matter, the lowest level of being, and is thus the least perfected level of the cosmos.

Mystical Experience – To experience the is be in ecstatic union with it, a union Porphyry says that Plotinus achieved multiple times in his life. This union with the is probably related to enlightenment, and other concepts of mystical union common to many Eastern and Western traditions.

This Metaphysics – The concept of the One is similar to the concept of Brahman in Hinduism. It also has much in common with pantheism, the view that god and reality are the same thing. This idea that all reality is divine shows up throughout the history of philosophy and religion—most notably in the pantheism of Spinoza. The idea that nous contemplates Platonic ideas finds echoes in St. Augustine. And, no doubt, other parallels could be drawn between Plotinian metaphysics and other thinkers.

Happiness – Human happiness for Plotinus is beyond anything physical, attainable only within consciousness—the incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul. If we achieve true happiness, we can ignore pain and suffering, as our minds will be capable of focusing on eternal things. Thus the happiness of enlightened individuals cannot be disturbed, for in contemplation they experience the inner peace of union with the One.

Knowledge – Plotinus distinguished between: sense knowledge, which gives us little truth as it is about the changing physical world; reasoned cognition, which gives us knowledge of essences (Platonic forms); and ecstasy, which consists in intuition of, and connection with, the One. This climax of knowledge that consists in an ecstatic or intuitive mystical union with the One is something achieved by only a few.

Reflections – I am generally skeptical of this kind of metaphysical speculation. I’m just too influenced by Kant to believe that this kind of metaphysics can be sufficiently justified. I also believe that Plotinus basically has it backwards. His is a top-down system that starts with mind and ends with matter. But I’m a bottom-up or evolutionary thinker. Cosmic evolution begins with matter and mind slowly emerges. Of course this is something of a chicken or the egg question, and the issue of whether mind or matter is the eternal principle is a long-standing one in metaphysics. So I will say Plotinus does some pretty good top-down thinking.

Disclaimer – This is a very brief outline of Plotinus’ thinking, and I refer readers to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or Wikipedia for more. I also thank my old friend Dan Dunay for long ago introducing me to Plotinus.

Advice on Taking a Philosophy Class

I’d like to share an anecdote from a previous philosophy class I taught many years ago. I also thought it might serve as advice for students who are taking their first class. Specifically, advice about what not to ask!

The class was introduction to philosophy and the book we used covered: the existence of god; the problem of evil; death and immortality; personal identity; mind-body problem, free will; knowledge; objectivity of ethics; why should we be moral; and the meaning of life. Now our memories are notoriously bad, so I can’t be sure of the details, but this is a reasonable reconstruction of what happened. There was one student who greeted each new chapter with a certain kind of question. Here’s a sampling:

“I just read the chapters about god and evil, and the book suggested that the arguments for god’s existence aren’t good and that evil counts against the existence of god. But we all know god exists, so what’s the point of those chapters?”

“I just read the chapter about death, and the book suggested that we may not be immortal. But we all know we are immortal, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about mind/body, and the book suggested that we are entirely physical. But we all know that we have souls, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about personal identity, and the book suggested that this idea is problematic. But we all know that identity is real, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about free will, and the book suggested that there are problems with this idea. But we all know free will exists, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about knowledge, and the book suggested that we may not know what knowledge is. But I know what I know, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about ethics, and the book suggested that ethics might be subjective. But we all know that ethics is objective, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

“I just read the chapter about the meaning of life, and the book says this is a tough question. But the meaning of life is to love god, so what’s the point of the chapter?”

Now these weren’t the exact questions, but they capture the spirit of them. I won’t say much except that this person wasn’t philosophical, but he was arrogant. He pretended to know what the more educated are unsure of. I hope he’s not in politics.

Psychological Impediments to Good Thinking

“Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know.” ~ Montaigne

Good reasoning is hard because we are largely non-rational and emotional beings.1 Here are some psychological impediments to good reasoning. Remember that I am not getting paid to share this information about cogent reasoning. I could make more money going on late night TV and peddling nonsense like so many others do. My goal is to educate.

1.  Loyalty, the herd Instinct, and provincialism impede good reasoning 

Loyalty – Our chances of surviving and flourishing increase if we are loyal to our in-group.

Herd Instinct – Keeps our beliefs and actions within boundaries set by group. Wanting status, we pontificate about things we know nothing about, and we don’t tend to change our minds or admit mistakes. We’d rather keep being wrong than admit we were wrong.

Provincialism – We identify with the ideas and behaviors of the in-group. We see things from our in-group’s point of view and reject unpleasant truths about our groups.

2. Prejudice, stereotypes, scapegoats, and partisan mind-sets 

Prejudice – Loyalty and provincialism lead to prejudice against out-groups, and to thinking in terms of,

Stereotypes –  Having bad opinions about individuals or groups that aren’t justified by the evidence. This promotes out-group intolerance, and tolerance of in-group foibles.

Scapegoats – People or groups who we blame for our problems—Jews, Latinos, atheists and today, especially, immigrants. Faced with complex problems, people accept scapegoating and then don’t have to be self-reflective. All of this leads to a

Partisan Mind-Set – Perceiving evidence and judging arguments from our side only. Good thinkers have an open mind about truth; they know a counter argument may be good.

3. Superstitious Beliefs – There are coincidences—bad things happen after mirrors break and astrology columns are occasionally correct, just like broken clocks are right twice a day. But sensible beliefs are based on sufficient evidence, not small or biased samples. Bad things happen on friday the 13th, just like they do on other days.

4. Wishful Thinking & Self-Deception – In general we believe things we want to be true and deny things we find distasteful.

Wishful Thinking –  Believing things we want to be true but which are almost certainly not.

Self-deception – Believing something that at a deeper level we know isn’t true. (This can have tragic consequences. For example think about colonialism.)

5. Rationalization and Procrastination 

Rationalization – A kind of self-deception when we ignore or deny unpleasant evidence so we can feel justified in doing or believing what we want to do or believe. This often leads to

Procrastination – The favoring of immediate gratification over long-term healthy goals. We have a bias for short-term gain over long-term ones.

6. Unconscious psychological strategies, or defense mechanisms

Suppression – We avoid thinking about stressful thoughts and thus avoid anxiety.

Denial – We deny our situation by interpreting it as less stressful.

7. Benefits of Self-Deception, Wishful Thinking, & Denial

Self-deception reduces stress and anxiety. Rejecting doubt for belief may do the same. The placebo effect or fondly recalling a bad past may also be examples of the value of SD. But then while self-deception helps young people fight wars, it also helps leaders send young people to their death.

8. Pseudoscience & the Paranormal 

Scientists generally know what they’re talking about. That’s why cell phones, computers, cars, lights, airplanes, ships, GPS, antibiotics, vaccines, furnaces, air conditioners, TVs, dentistry, rain coats, hiking boots, etc. work. That’s why about 1/2 of all newborns no longer die before age 2, as they did for almost all of human history. That’s why you have clean water from your tap! Yet people still believe in

Pseudoscience – About 1/3 or more Americans—in the 21st century!—believe in each of the following: ghosts, witches, alien UFOs, alien abductions, astrology, and more. Why are people so gullible?

One reason is that although real science produces results, it is esoteric and often tells us what we don’t want to know. It tells us the universe probably arose spontaneously out of nothing, that it is unimaginably large, that it will eventually die, that we are modified monkeys, and that we have cognitive biases against believing such things. But pseudoscience usually tells us positive things. The astrologer and fortune-teller predict good things and the medium tells us we can talk to our dead relatives.

Consider astrology. Why do people believe in it when it has been shown to be worthless? (If your destiny is determined by the star under which you are born, then all born under that star should have the same destiny. But they don’t.) Part of the reason people still accept it is that charlatans have found ways to make such nonsense seem plausible. They make horoscopes so vague that anyone can see themselves in their description.

Or consider paranormal phenomena like  ESP in all its varieties. Summarizing over a century of research, the National Research Council has concluded that there is no scientific justification whatsoever for believing in such things—not a single shred of evidence. Why then do people persist in believing? Research has shown that personal experience plays a large role in such beliefs. For example, a gambler attributes a winning streak to some special power rather than the random fluctuation we call luck.

Premonitions are similar. They are just a coincidence between thoughts and events. If you have enough thoughts, sometime events will correspond to them. People remember when premonitions come true, and forget when they don’t. (This is called confirmation bias.) While pseudoscience remembers successes and ignores failures, science places it hypothesis to severe tests, with independent verification and repetition of observations and experiments. Real science doesn’t rely on coincidence or anecdote.

9. Lack of a Good Sense of Proportion 

The basic reason we have so many cognitive bugs has to do with our evolutionary history. Behavior guided by the intellect is a late evolutionary development compared to responses motivated by desires and emotions which affect the more primitive parts of the brain. (So you may fear flying rather than driving even though the former is much safer. Or you may fear dying from a foreign terrorist attack even though you are infinitely more likely to be killed by a fellow citizen.) Our primitive brains evolved in biological eras when almost nothing was known about cause and effect. Modern science is very recent.

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1. This is a summary of Chapter 6 of, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life, a great college textbook out of which I have taught many times.)

Summary of the Harvard Grant Study: Triumphs of Experience

A Harvard study followed 268 undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 for 75 years, regularly collecting data on various aspects of their lives. The findings were reported in a recent book by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant: Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.

Here are five lessons from the study pertaining to a happy and meaningful life. First, the most important ingredient for meaning and happiness is loving relationships. Even individuals with successful careers and good physical health were not fulfilled without loving relationships. Second, money and power are small parts of a fulfilling life; they correlate poorly with happiness. Those most proud of their achievements are those most content in their work, not the ones who make the most money. Third, we can become happier in life as we proceed through it, despite how we started our lives. Fourth, connection with others and work is essential for joy; and this seems to be increasingly true as one ages. Finally, coping well with challenges makes you happier. The key is to replace narcissism with mature coping mechanisms like concerns for others and productive work.

Robert Waldinger, who now heads the Grant Study that began in 1938, recently gave a TedTalk about it that has been viewed more than 6 million times. While the study only includes white males, it does include those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. What the study show unequivocally is that the happiest and healthiest people are those who maintained close, intimate relationships. Moreover, personal relationships are just as important to your health as diet and exercise

“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely,” Waldinger said in his TedTalk. Something about satisfying relationships protects us from some of the harm done by aging. Furthermore, other things associated with happiness, like wealth and fame, do not make much difference.  Instead what matters is the quality and stability of our relationships. So casual friends or abusive relationships don’t improve the quality of our lives. (Waldinger also has a blog about what makes a good life.)

While many of us want easy answers to the question of how to be happy, Waldinger says that says that “relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.” But the evidence shows that that is how we find real happiness.

Reflections

Noteworthy is that these findings overlap almost perfectly with what Victor Frankl’s discovered about the meaningful life in his classic: Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl says we find meaning through: 1) personal relationships, 2) productive work, and 3) by nobly enduring suffering. The only difference is that Frankl doesn’t talk specifically about money, although no doubt he would agree that it is of secondary concern. Also noteworthy is how the findings of Vaillant and Frankl agree with modern happiness research. Here are just a few of the excellent books whose social science research supports these basic findings.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Is Existence Better than Non-existence? (Final Thoughts on Hope)

Surely the evidence that [humanity] has risen thus far may give [them] hope for a still higher destiny in the future. ~ Charles Darwin

People … yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. ~ E. O. Wilson

More than a month ago I began to exam the concept of hope. I voiced my conclusions in, “A Defense of Hope.” Here is a brief summary of my conclusions.

1 – I am neither optimistic or hopeful about the future because I don’t expect good outcomes, or anticipate that my wishes will come true.

2 – Hope is more fundamental than optimism, for optimism usually relies on a belief that a desirable outcome is probable, whereas hope is independent of probability assessments.

3 – I recommend an attitude of hope without expectations. This attitudinal hopefulness rejects despair, emanates from our nature, expresses itself as caring, spurs action, and makes my life better.

4 – I recommend wishful hopefulness for the same reasons, as long as it is possible that our wishes can be fulfilled, even though we don’t expect them to be.

5 –  I hope that life is meaningful, that truth, goodness, and beauty matter, that justice ultimately prevails, and that the world can be improved.

6 – Hope emanates from our biological drive to survive and reproduce, and may expand with the emergence of consciousness and culture.

7 – I can lose my hopeful attitude and give in to despair.

8 – Conclusion – We should (generally) adopt both attitudinal and wishful hopefulness. Still there are situations in which we should give up hope.

Final Thoughts – If attitudinal hopefulness is about acting and striving, do we express some cosmic longing by hoping for good things, and then acting to bring them about? Do we commune with reality by hoping, and if so does this mean that the cosmos is somehow good? Could this be what Plato meant when he said the idea of the good was at the apex of being and reality? Or is Schopenhauer right—our actions simply manifest a blind will, “full of sound and fury signifying nothing?”

The issue of hope then is linked with the question of whether existence is better, or could be better, than non-existence. If existence is better now, and will remain better than non-existence, then attitudinal and wishful hoping are good things. If existence is now worse than non-existence, but could become better than non-existence in the future, then we have to balance things like: how much worse it is now compared to how much better it might become and the probability of existence becoming better. If non-existence is always preferable to existence, then hope is a bad thing.

Unfortunately I don’t know whether existence is now, or will become, preferable to non-existence. I don’t know if it is better for humans and the universe to exist than not to. These questions are as unanswerable as trying to prove that “coffee with cream is better than black coffee,” or “that love is better than hate.”[i]

So in the end, without answers to my metaphysical musings, I return to the idea that it is generally better to hope than despair, with the usual caveats that my hoping attitude must be intrinsically satisfying and the objects of my hopeful wishing are realistic. So after all this searching I can do nothing more than echo William James and Fitz James Stephen: “Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes.” This isn’t much to hang your hat on, but at least this modest conclusion is intellectually honest. We don’t have to be embarrassed to claim that, while we don’t expect the best, we do hope that somehow things will work out in the end.

So now, after my search for hope, I agree with and truly understand this great quote:

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

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[i] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford University Press,) 133.