The purpose of the article is to demonstrate that the ascent of the soul as one of the fundamental spiritual exercises in Plotinus’ philosophy can be approached from three perspectives: anabatic proper, aphaeretic and agnoetic. All of them are based on the hierarchical structure of knowledge and being in Plotinus’ philosophy, but they differ in details. The methods are reconstructed on the basis of the analysis of selected passages from the Enneads.
The purpose of this paper is to reconstruct a type of spiritual exercise in Plotinus’ philosophy, which is most often referred to as ‘ascent’. I am going to show that, in fact, in the Enneads there are three distinct methods involved in this exercise, which can be studied, to a certain extent, separately. Those types of exercises or methods I propose to call ‘anabatic (proper)’, ‘aphaeretic’ and ‘agnoetic’.
The interest in spiritual exercises in the field of ancient philosophy is usually associated with the work of Pierre Hadot.1 In recent decades the question of the practical dimension of ancient philosophy has attracted many scholars with various methodological approaches. It seems that Stoicism is the philosophical school which has been studied most often with regard to spiritual exercises,2 but the presence of such exercises is widely acknowledged also within the Platonic tradition. Students of Plotinus have always recognized the existence of a spiritual method in the Enneads, which aimed at reaching inner transformation and union with the One. Classical books, like the works by René Arnou or Jean Trouillard, referred to that spiritual method, generally, as the purification of the soul.3 Spiritual exercises in Plotinus and the idea of ascent as one of the primary or the primary spiritual exercise in Plotinus has also been long present in scholarship.4 However, it has not yet been proposed to investigate this exercise as consisting of the three methods which I would like to elucidate here.
Before I proceed with the analysis, two points need to be clarified. The first is the very concept of spiritual exercise. Pierrre Hadot’s approach suggests a slightly anti-intellectual or rather anti-discursive attitude, which results in an impression that conceptual reasoning and other mental activities, traditionally associated with philosophy, are not really spiritual. The French scholar often tries to contrast the theoretical with the practical in philosophy, giving the greater import to the latter. This impression seems to have had some impact on the scholarship, since, for example, Brian Stock, in one of his recent books about spiritual exercises in Augustine, has suggested that the notion of the exercitatio animi, introduced by Henri-Iréné Marrou, sounds too intellectual, whereas Pierre Hadot’s concept of spiritual exercise is much more appropriate, because it embraces also physical and emotional practices.5 Even though Stock does not say that what is intellectual has to be excluded from the spiritual, but rather emphasizes the need for a broader definition of the latter, it is significant that a historian of philosophy feels the need to avoid something that sounds too intellectual, as if it were a flaw.
This aspect of Hadot’s approach has been noticed and criticized by Martha Nussbaum who argued that both his and Michel Foucault’s “emphasis on habits and techniques de soi too often obscures the dignity of reason”.6 The same problem was also pointed out by Sellars according to whom “Hadot has, it seems, forgotten the role of
The second point that needs to be discussed briefly is the terminology that I use in distinguishing the three methods of ascent. The first method I propose to call ‘anabatic’, which may sound odd or redundant, since
The second method of ascent, the ‘aphaeretic method’, has also specific meanings both in the Enneads and in the earlier philosophical tradition. The most concise exposition of this kind of exercise can be also found in 5.3.9, so I will begin there. The essence of aphaeresis9 as a method of ascent is not so much becoming active at a given level of the soul, but rather separating the self from a level of the soul or distinguishing the self as the subject from those activities which it performs and those objects which it perceives by means of those activities.10
The process of aphaeresis or abstraction was treated briefly by Aristotle with regard to mathematical objects in his discussions of them in Physics (2.2) and Metaphysics (13.3).11 Geometry abstracts from the sensible beings everything apart from their solidity (
Alcinous in the tenth chapter of his Didaskalikos enumerates three types of spiritual exercises leading to the noetic intuition of God. First, he mentions aphaeresis: ‘The first way of conceiving God is by abstraction of these attributes, just as we form the conception of a point by abstraction from sensible phenomena, conceiving first a surface, then a line, and finally a point.’ (
As we can see, both the ‘anabatic proper’ and ‘aphaeretic’ methods can be found in Alcinous, corresponding to the third and the first of his three ways to God. Plotinus also describes two subtypes of the aphaeretic exercise, which has already been termed in the scholarship the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ aphaeresis.17 I will analyze Plot. 6.8.15-21 as an example of the second type of this method. The latter, objective aphaeresis is the first way which Alcinous talks about, that is, abstracting from God all that does not belong to his nature. The subjective variant of it consists in abstracting from our self whatever is alien to its nature and here Plotinus is clearly inspired by Plato’s description of the ‘exercise in dying’ in Phaedo (most of all, 64c and 80e) as well as the First Alcibiades.
For the third method I suggest the name ‘agnoetic’, which does not have any tradition in the literature on the subject. Probably, Plotinus either alludes here, or at least has in the back of his mind, a passage from Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates is described by Alcibiades as being so fascinated with beautiful boys and so overcome by ecstatic desire (
2 The Self and Consciousness
Before proceeding further, I would like to clarify the meaning of two terms which seem crucial in understanding this topic, namely, the self and consciousness. There is no single term for ‘the self’ in Plotinus; he uses words such as
Pauliina Remes referred to this aspect of the self as the “subject of consciousness” or “the conscious center”.23 Consciousness is another important concept in Plotinus and there is also no single term for it. Plotinus uses terms such as
Remes postulates also a distinction between reflexive and reflective. Reflexivity means the reference of the conscious subject to himself and the fundamental, general consciousness of the soul is always self-reflexive, meaning that the soul is always aware of itself in an immediate way. Reflectivity, on the other hand, signifies a peculiar type of consciousness which is mediated by mental representations. Another important distinction made by Remes is into pre-reflective, reflective and “supra-conceptual intuitive states”. All of them are fundamentally reflexive, but the first group pertains to the bodily self-awareness which is non-conceptual and non-representational, the second group pertains to self-consciousness based on conceptual thinking, while the third group pertains also to non-representational and immediate, but higher, spiritual or contemplative forms of awareness, associated with the pure soul, Intellect and the One.
In a recent book, Danny Hutchinson gives a very clear interpretation of the Plotinian view of consciousness. He also offers English terms for the Greek terminology of Plotinus.27
In the last chapter of an early treatise 5.1 Plotinus suggests that even though our soul is always aware of its activities, ‘we’ certainly are not aware of the higher functions of our own soul. It is the result of our fall and happiness is nothing else than regaining the awareness of those higher functions. Plotinus then wonders how it is possible that we can be unaware of, let us say, our intellect, even though it is our intellect and intellect is self-aware. His answer is that ‘we’ become aware (and he uses
3 Being and Having
Let us now take a look at how the Plotinian concepts of the self and consciousness are embedded in his view of the fall of the soul and its purification and return to the One. I would like to comment on an important, albeit not often discussed passage from Enneads 4.4 in which Plotinus is describing in conceptual terms the mechanism of the fall. The passage concerns memory, but Plotinus gives here a much broader view on his concept of the fall. Plato’s metaphor of a winged soul chariot falling from heaven onto earth (which we find in Phdr. 248a-249d) is here translated into more conceptual language:
γένοιτο γὰρ ἄν, καὶ µὴ παρακολουθοῦντα ὅτι ἔχει, ἔχειν παρ᾿ αὑτῷ ἰσχυροτέρως ἢ εἰ εἰδείη. εἰδὼς µὲν γὰρ τάχα ἂν ὡς ἄλλο ἔχοι ἄλλος αὐτὸς ὤν, ἀγνοῶν δὲ ὅτι ἔχει κινδυνεύει εἶναι ὃ ἔχει· ὃ δὴ πάθηµα µᾶλλον πεσεῖν ποιεῖ τὴν ψυχήν.28
For it could happen that, even when one is not conscious that one has something,29 one holds it to oneself more strongly than if one knows. For perhaps if one knew, one would have it as something else, being different oneself, but if one does not know that one has it, one is liable to be what one has; and this is certainly the experience which makes the soul sink lower.
Plotinus is describing here two opposite states, one of ‘being’ something and the other of ‘having’ this.30 Three terms used here to describe consciousness are
Plotinus describes here the cause of the ‘fall’ or ‘sinking’ (
The purpose of spiritual exercise is therefore not to become merely reflectively aware of the soul’s activities, but rather to include them into a total, integrating self-awareness which is intimately linked to imagination. It seems, however, that the reflective, conceptual awareness of certain activities is an essential part of the process, but that, in the end, the ‘knowing that we have it as something else’, as Plotinus puts it, becomes an experience of being fully awake to all the levels of the soul’s activity, where those activities are reflected in the mirror of imagination, and thus we can be aware of them with the whole of our soul.
What I call the mobile self has an ability to become various activities across the spectrum of the soul. Plotinus suggests that becoming the lower activities of the soul, connected to the body, which is the essence of the fall of the soul, is strongly associated with mixing the self with those activities through the lack of awareness of those activities as distinct from the self. I would like to invoke yet another passage which links the dynamics of being and having with the self and consciousness. It seems that in ascent there is a certain bipolarity, where the poles are the object and the subject of experience. At a given level of the soul, the self grasps an object through particular activity and experiences itself as the agent of that activity. This vantage point, which is a subject with relation to an object, is what the self is and not what the self has; but when it becomes what the self has and the self identifies with a higher level of the soul, the lower level of the self is, as it were, objectified.
Plotinus describes it in a language that is closer to experience in the treatise 5.8, where he says: ‘he must give his own self up to what is within and become, instead of one who sees, the one who is seen by another, shining out with such intellectual acts which come from over there’ (
4 Grasping What Is Not the Self: The Anabatic Method Proper
Perhaps, the best, at the same time most concise and comprehensive, example of the anabatic exercise can be found in chapter nine of Plot. 5.3. Towards the end of the previous chapter, Plotinus introduces the idea of ascent, by saying that ‘by reasonings of this kind our soul also is led back up to it [Intellect], considering itself to be an image of Intellect, as its life is a reflection and likeness of it, and when it exercises intellection, it becomes godlike and intellect-like’ (
Later in the same chapter, we have again reference to the levels of the soul’s activity with a further instruction on how to ascend by those levels:
Εἰ δέ τις ἀδυνατεῖ[ τὴν πρώτην] τὴν τοιαύτην ψυχὴν ἔχειν καθαρῶς νοοῦσαν, δοξαστικὴν λαβέτω, εἶτα ἀπὸ ταύτης ἀναβαινέτω. Εἰ δὲ µηδὲ τοῦτο, αἴσθησιν ἐµπλατύτερα τὰ εἴδη κοµιζοµένην, αἴσθησιν δὲ καὶ ἐφ’ ἑαυτῆς µεθ’ ὧν δύναται καὶ ἤδη ἐν τοῖς εἴδεσιν οὖσαν. Εἰ δὲ βούλεταί τις, καταβαίνων καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν γεννῶσαν ἴτω µέχρι καὶ ὧν ποιεῖ· εἶτα ἐντεῦθεν ἀναβαινέτω ἀπὸ ἐσχάτων εἰδῶν εἰς τὰ ἔσχατα ἀνάπαλιν εἴδη, µᾶλλον δὲ εἰς τὰ πρῶτα.34
But if someone is unable to grasp this kind of soul which exercises pure intellection, let him take the soul which forms opinions, and then ascend from this. But if he cannot even do this, let him take sense-perception, which acquires the forms in broader extension, and sense-perception by itself with its powers which is already in the forms. But if someone wants to, let him descend to the generative soul and go right on to what it makes, and then ascend from there, from the ultimate forms to the forms which are ultimate in the opposite sense, or, rather, to the primary forms.
Here Plotinus reminds the reader, again, of the ultimate goal of this exercise, which is attaining noetic activity (‘pure intellection’ in Armstrong’s translation), which is one level above the image of Intellect, that is, the rational or reasoning soul. At the same time, the author behaves here as a considerate and experienced teacher, aware of the fact that this exercise might be not so easy for his disciple and not always end successfully in the state of the noetic contemplation. In such a case, his advice is to ‘descend in order to ascend’, that is, to begin the exercise from the level of the soul, which seems more familiar to the reader. In the meantime, he introduces yet another level, which had not been mentioned in the hierarchy delineated at the beginning of the chapter, namely, the ‘soul which forms opinions’, the
Plotinus says that if the reader is unable to experience directly this level of the soul’s activity, he can feel free to start from a lower level, the sensible, or even from the generative one (soul-trace). What can be observed in this passage is the dynamism of this exercise in terms of moving up and down the ladder of the soul. The essence of this practice seems to consist in ‘grasping’ (
It is the activity of grasping that is an essential feature of the anabatic method of raising the soul from its entanglement in the sensible experience to its pure, intellectual state and above, towards the union with the One. Grasping seems to refer to the act of being aware of any given activity of the soul in such a way that the self realizes vividly that it is not this activity, but that it only has this activity at its disposal. The grasping is then the same as having as something external (in 4.4.4). Such a conscious experience of being a subject of e.g. sense-perception, desire or emotion, discursive thinking, etc., means that one can enjoy a certain distance and freedom with regard to this activity.36
Plotinus also suggests that in order to achieve it we need the reflective consciousness. It is not enough to be generally aware of, let us say, the activity of our imagination in the sense that when I am daydreaming, I apprehend the images that come to mind. In order to free the self from being mixed with imagination, I have to grasp it, to consciously attend to the activity of my imagination in order to realize that I am more than that. In 5.3.9 Plotinus admits that gaining this distance is difficult, so the reader is advised to begin lower and try to grasp sense-perception first. After grasping one level, however, the reader should try to move one step higher and maintain the distance towards the higher level of activity as well.
What makes the anabatic exercise possible is not only an inherent mobility or even fluidity of the self in Plotinus (which is the self’s ability to become the agent of various activities), but also the fact that hierarchically organized layers of both macrocosmic (the hypostases) and microcosmic (the levels of the soul) reality do not have sharply delineated boundaries, but their contours are, in a way, blurred.37 One level flows into another without having to overcome any barrier, because the human soul is a continuum.38 Plotinus seems to have borrowed Plato’s unusual term
In Plot. 5.3.9 we therefore have a short exposition of the anabatic method, in terms of its goal, inner mechanism and possible difficulties, but also in other places Plotinus teaches this method, and he does it in a different way, namely, through something that could be called a written meditation rather than a condensed instruction. An example of this is treatise 5.1, which is in its entirety an anabatic exercise. Plotinus begins by an exhortatory address to the reader, inviting him to participate in the spiritual exercise:
ἐνθυµείσθω τοίνυν πρῶτον ἐκεῖνο πᾶσα ψυχή, ὡς αὐτὴ µὲν ζῷα ἐποίησε πάντα ἐµπνεύσασα αὐτοῖς ζωήν, ἅ τε γῆ τρέφει ἅ τε θάλασσα ἅ τε ἐν ἀέρι ἅ τε ἐν οὐρανῷ ἄστρα θεῖα, αὐτὴ δὲ ἥλιον, αὐτὴ δὲ τὸν µέγαν τοῦτον οὐρανόν, καὶ αὐτὴ ἐκόσµησεν, αὐτὴ δὲ ἐν τάξει περιάγει φύσις οὖσα ἑτέρα ὧν κοσµεῖ καὶ ὧν κινεῖ καὶ ἃ ζῆν ποιεῖ· καὶ τούτων ἀνάγκη εἶναι τιµιωτέραν, γιγνοµένων τούτων καὶ φθειροµένων, ὅταν αὐτὰ ψυχὴ ἀπολείπῃ ἢ χορηγῇ τὸ ζῆν, αὐτὴ δὲ οὖσα ἀεὶ τῷ µὴ“ ἀπολείπειν ἑαυτήν”.41
Let every soul, then, first consider this, that it made all living things itself, breathing life into them, those that the earth feeds and those that are nourished by the sea, and the divine stars in the sky; it made the sun itself, and this great heaven, and adorned it itself, and drives it round itself, in orderly movement; it is of a nature other than the things which it adorns and moves and makes live; and it must necessarily be more honourable than they, for they come into being or pass away when the soul leaves them or grants life to them, but soul itself exists for ever because “it does not depart from itself”.
This is no exercise for beginners. Plotinus is asking the reader to identify with the cosmic soul, which is creating and enlivening all material beings, and thus immediately disengage from the narrow, fallen view of the self entangled in sensible experience. In the context of the being/having distinction it is interesting that Plotinus points out here that it is essential for the self to identify with the cosmic soul in the sense of realizing that we are this great soul. Is the state of being the cosmic soul or identification with it by the human self a negative process, while having it as something different would be something positive? This does not seem the case. When we take a closer look at the quoted passage, we will notice that Plotinus emphasizes, on the one hand, that our self has to move as high as to realize that we are the cosmic soul which creates all things and breathes life into them, but, on the other hand, he almost immediately points out what our self is not when we realize that. Plotinus says that from the point of view of this cosmic soul we see that it is ‘a nature other than’ (
It is not the end of the journey, however, since only the union with the One is the ultimate end. So, in a sense, the self at this point does not yet realize that it has this cosmic activity as something different; it identifies fully with it and from that point dis-identifies from everything below that. The treatise will continue to lead the self beyond the soul towards Intellect and then to the One. But temporary identification with the cosmic soul cannot be taken as something bad in Plotinus’ philosophy. It is already a high degree of purification, because the soul at this level transcends those faculties which are connected to the body and which bring us unhappiness, anxiety, passions, etc.
In the anabatic meditation found in 5.1 there is an element similar to the quoted passage from 5.3. Also here Plotinus, having described a relatively high level of consciousness, encourages the reader to go back for a moment to the lower faculties of the soul:
ἥσυχον δὲ αὐτῇ ἔστω µὴ µόνον τὸ περικείµενον σῶµα καὶ ὁ τοῦ σώµατος κλύδων, ἀλλὰ καὶ πᾶν τὸ περιέχον· ἥσυχος µὲν γῆ, ἥσυχος δὲ θάλασσα καὶ ἀὴρ καὶ αὐτὸς οὐρανὸς ἀκήµων. νοείτω δὲ πάντοθεν εἰς αὐτὸν ἑστῶσα ψυχὴν ἔξωθεν οἷον εἰσρέουσαν καὶ εἰσχυθεῖσαν καὶ πάντοθεν εἰσιοῦσαν καὶ εἰσλάµπουσαν· οἷον σκοτεινὸν νέφος ἡλίου βολαὶ φωτίσασαι λάµπειν ποιοῦσι χρυσοειδῆ ὄψιν διδοῦσαι, οὕτω τοι καὶ ψυχὴ ἐλθοῦσα εἰς σῶµα οὐρανοῦ ἔδωκε µὲν ζωήν, ἔδωκε δὲ ἀθανασίαν, ἤγειρε δὲ κείµενον.42
Let not only its encompassing body and the body’s raging sea be quiet, but all its environment: the earth quiet, and the sea and air quiet, and the heaven itself at peace. Into this heaven at rest let it imagine soul as if flowing in from outside, pouring in and entering it everywhere and illuminating it; as the rays of the sun light up a dark cloud, and make it shine and give it a golden look, so soul entering into the body of heaven gives it life and gives it immortality and wakes what lies inert.
Here we can find the familiar hierarchy of the soul’s activity, since Plotinus first mentions the body (just as in 5.3.9), then the ‘body’s raging sea’ (
The self is not narrowed or diminished by distinguishing itself from all those things, but it is enlarged and expanded: ‘when you look at it without its accretions and take it in its purified state, you will find that very same honourable things which [we said] was soul, more honourable than everything which is body’ (
Οὕτω δὴ τιµίου καὶ θείου ὄντος χρήµατος τῆς ψυχῆς, πιστεύσας ἤδη τῷ τοιούτῳ θεὸν µετιέναι, µετὰ τοιαύτης αἰτίας ἀνάβαινε πρὸς ἐκεῖνον· πάντως που οὐ πόρρω βαλεῖς· οὐδὲ πολλὰ τὰ µεταξύ. λάµβανε τοίνυν τὸ τοῦ θείου τούτου θειότερον τὸ ψυχῆς πρὸς τὸ ἄνω γειτόνηµα, µεθ᾿ ὅ καὶ ἀφ᾿ οὗ ἡ ψυχή.45
Since the soul is so honourable and divine a thing, be sure already that you can attain God by reason of its being of this kind, and with this as your motive ascend to him: in all certainty you will not look far; and the stages between are not many. Grasp then the soul’s upper neighbour, more divine than this divine thing, after which and from which the soul comes.
The stages to God (the One) are not many, says Plotinus, because, in fact, the self must only move up to the level of Intellect and from then attain to the One. Here he uses the same word that I suggested was an important, technical term in the anabatic exercise, that is,
And as at the sensible level the self first had to become aware of all the universe from the point of view of the cosmic soul and discern itself from this universe, now it has to become aware of all the intelligible Forms from the point of view of what Plotinus calls ‘pure Intellect’ and only then to turn attention to this pure Intellect in itself: ‘see pure Intellect presiding over them, and immense wisdom, and the true life of Kronos, a god who is fullness and intellect’ (
In various places Plotinus insists on the necessity of transcending even the noetic self with its subtle otherness between the subject and the object of awareness, because there is no otherness in the One. In 5.1 he says that, first, the One is the source of Intellect, so there is a possibility of taking, as it were, one step back from Intellect in order to grasp it as something we have and not are. But the difficulty is that Plotinus does not think that the One is our deepest self, it is rather our individual intellect which is our highest and deepest ‘I’. So from the point of view of the hierarchical structure of the soul realizing that it is the intellect in us, which is the core self which has all other activities but is not them, is the end of the anabatic process.
It may also seem that Plotinus abandons the method of grasping, if not ascent itself, when he encourages the reader not to move up by grasping, but, quite unexpectedly, to pray, invoking the One as God, ‘not in spoken words, but stretching ourselves out with our soul into prayer to him, able in this way to pray alone to him alone’ (
This suggests that the One cannot be grasped as something external to the self, but only through the union with it, through experiencing it as ‘another self’. It is curiously consistent with the process of making the actual self of our experience an object of awareness of a higher self, as described in 5.8.11. The crucial difference is that in the final union the One is experienced as if it were our deepest self, while in fact it is our intellect which is, ontologically speaking, the core and centre of our consciousness and identity. At the point of the final union the One is being clearly experienced as the self and not as something outside the self or something distinct from the self. The favourite Plotinian geometrical metaphor for the ‘receiving the One as another self’, given in 5.1.11, is the coming back of the radius to the centre of the circle.
5 Taking Away What Is Not the Self: The Aphaeretic Method
In the previous section I proposed to look at the anabatic exercise through the lens of the grasping aspect, that is, focusing attention on various activities of the soul and the objects apprehended through those activities. By doing this, the self, which unconsciously identified with and clung to the things external to it, is able to disentangle itself by establishing itself as distinct from them. But the exercise of ascent seems to have another important aspect which is often described by Plotinus by the use of the words
Ψυχὴν οὖν, ὡς ἔοικε, καὶ τὸ ψυχῆς θειότατον κατιδεῖν δεῖ τὸν µέλλοντα νοῦν εἴσεσθαι ὅ τι ἐστί. Γένοιτο δ᾿ ἂν τοῦτο ἴσως καὶ ταύτῃ, εἰ ἀφέλοις πρῶτον τὸ σῶµα ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ δηλονότι σαυτοῦ, εἶτα καὶ τὴν πλάττουσαν τοῦτο ψυχὴν καὶ τὴν αἴσθησιν δὲ εὖ µάλα, ἐπιθυµίας δὲ καὶ θυµοὺς καὶ τὰς ἄλλας τὰς τοιαύτας φλυαρίας, ὡς πρὸς τὸν θνητὸν νευούσας καὶ πάνυ. Τὸ δὴ λοιπὸν αὐτῆς τοῦτό ἐστιν, ὃ εἰκόνα ἔφαµεν νοῦ σῴζουσάν τι φῶς ἐκείνου…48
It is probable, then, that he who intends to know what Intellect really is must know soul, and the most divine part of soul. This could happen also in this way, if you first of all separated the body from man (and, obviously, from yourself), and then the soul which forms it and, very thoroughly, sense-perception and desires and passions and all the rest of such fooleries, since they incline so very much towards the mortal. What remains of soul is this which we said was an image of Intellect preserving something of its light …
In this passage Plotinus is not so much encouraging the reader to grasp the hierarchical levels of the soul as to separate the self from them. As I have pointed out in the previous section, the grasping in itself contains an element of dis-identifying with the things which the self was mixed with. But in this passage this negative aspect of taking away what is not the pure self is central. This aspect could be called ‘aphaeretic’. In this variant of the exercise the practitioner tries to realize that the self is not the same as the body, then, that it is not the same as the soul-trace, the sensible powers, the reasoning power etc.49
It seems that, as Collette and Carabine point out,50 we should distinguish within this method two variants: a subjective and an objective one. It seems that the first one is described in the already discussed passage (Plot. 22.214.171.124-9), where it is the self that needs to be purified of all accretions. In other words, the practitioner has to realize that his ‘I’ is ultimately completely alone, in the sense that it is not anything particular, delineated or possessing form of any kind. If the subjective aphaeresis means gradual stripping of the self of all the activities that are at its disposal and all the objects that it apprehends through them, the objective version of this exercise is focused not so much on the self as on the One. Of course, Plotinus believes that the One is ultimately experienced as ‘another self’, so at the final stage of the journey the difference between the core human self and the One as the centre of everything is no longer perceived. But in several places Plotinus proposes this alternative way towards the union with the One, where we should focus on separating everything from the One rather than from ourselves.
For instance, in 6.9 Plotinus says: ‘But the cause of all things is none of them. So we must not even call this One good, the good which he gives, but the Good in another way beyond all goods’ (
εἴ ποτε καὶ αὐτοὶ ἐν αὐτοῖς ἐνίδοιµέν τινα φύσιν τοιαύτην οὐδὲν ἔχουσαν τῶν ἄλλων, ὅσα συνήρτηται ἡµῖν, καθὰ πάσχειν ὅ τί περ ἂν συµβῇ[ καὶ] κατὰ τύχην ὑπάρχει… εἰς ὃ δὴ ἀναβάντες καὶ γενόµενοι τοῦτο µόνον, τὰ δ᾿ ἄλλα ἀφέντες, τί ἂν εἴποιµεν αὐτὸ ἢ ὅτι πλέον ἢ ἐλεύθεροι, καὶ πλέον ἢ αὐτεξούσιοι;51
if we ever see in ourselves a nature of this kind which has nothing of the other things which are attached to us by which we have to experience whatever happens by chance … when we ascend to this and become this alone and let the rest go, what can we say of it except that we are more than free and more than independent?
He emphasizes that the goal is not only to discuss the nature of the One by means of philosophical concepts and arguments, but to see it internally. But the object of this seeing must be purified or stripped of all the other things. Interestingly, the subjective and objective versions of the aphaeretic exercise apparently cannot be completely separated from each other, because the deepest self is always experienced as the deepest centre of all existence, when the One becomes ‘another self’. So for a moment Plotinus switches to subjective language, when he says that in the ascent we have to let go of all the things that are ‘attached to us’, which is the basic mechanism of the aphaeretic method in its subjective mode.
The result of separating every activity and every object from the self is, Plotinus writes, ‘becoming this alone’ and the experience of ultimate freedom and independence, which are fundamental characteristics of the One in this treatise. We can also see here that the aphaeretic method is in fact a part of ascent in general, because it is performed by the hierarchical movement up the spectrum of the soul. In the passage quoted above (6.8.15) Plotinus talks about ascending (
Chapters sixteen and seventeen are mostly speculative discussions of the nature of the One in its relation to Intellect; they especially aim at pointing out the transcendence of the One as ‘waking and hyper-intellection’ (
αὐτὸς ἄρα αὑτῷ ὅ ἐστι πρὸς αὑτὸν καὶ εἰς αὑτόν, ἵνα µηδὲ ταύτῃ πρὸς τὸ ἔξω ἢ πρὸς ἄλλον, ἀλλὰ πρὸς αὑτὸν πᾶς. Καὶ σὺ ζητῶν µηδὲν ἔξω ζήτει αὐτοῦ, ἀλλ’ εἴσω πάντα τὰ µετ᾿ αὐτόν· αὐτὸν δὲ ἔα.52
He himself therefore is by himself what he is, related and directed to himself, that he may not in this way either be related to the outside or to something else, but altogether self-related. And you when you seek, seek nothing outside him, but seek within all things which come after him; but leave him himself alone.
The reader is asked to separate everything from the One, which may lead to the attempt to imagine the One as being somehow outside the whole reality that is known. Plotinus is emphasizing that it is as much outside as inside, pointing out that the seeking must take place within the existing reality, not in some imaginary other world. He says that the One is not outside, but it is the ultimate outside, because all things are within it. At the same time, the One is the ultimate inside as the source out of which everything else proceeds. The end of the treatise repeats the aphaeretic effort to enter the union with the One, when Plotinus says that all things
µετουσίᾳ γάρ τινι αὐτοῦ ἐστί, καὶ εἰς τοῦτο ἡ ἀναγωγὴ πάντων. αὐτὸς δὲ ἤδη παρ᾿ αὑτοῦ οὔτε συνοχῆς οὔτε µετουσίας δεόµενος, ἀλλὰ πάντα ἑαυτῷ, µᾶλλον δὲ οὐδὲν οὐδὲ τῶν πάντων δέοµενος εἰς αὑτόν· ἀλλ’ ὅταν αὐτὸν εἴπῃς ἢ ἐννοηθῇς, τὰ ἄλλα πάντα ἄφες. ἀφελὼν πάντα, καταλιπὼν δὲ µόνον αὐτόν, µὴ τί προσθῇς ζήτει, ἀλλὰ µή τί πω οὐκ ἀφῄρηκας ἀπ᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐν γνώµῃ τῇ σῇ. ἔστι γάρ τινος ἀφάψασθαι καὶ σέ, περὶ οὗ οὐκέτι ἄλλο κείµενον µόνον τοῦτο ἀληθείᾳ ἐλεύθερον, ὅτι µηδὲ δουλεῦόν ἐστιν ἑαυτῷ, ἀλλὰ µόνον αὐτὸ καὶ ὄντως αὐτό, εἴ γε τῶν ἄλλων ἕκαστον αὐτὸ καὶ ἄλλο.53
exist by some kind of participation in him, and it is so to this that their origin is to be traced. But he himself has no longer any need from himself of holding together or participation, but is all things by and in himself—but rather none of them, and he does not need all things to be himself; but when you speak or think of him, put away all the other things. When you have put away all things and left only himself, do not try to find what you can add, but only if there is something you have not yet taken away from him in your mind. For even you can grasp something about which it is not possible any more to say or apprehend anything else; but it is something which has its place high above everything, this which alone is free in truth, because it is not enslaved to itself, but is only itself and really itself, while every other thing is itself and something else.
The paradoxical statement that the One is all things and none of them lies at the foundation of the objective aphaeresis, because the One’s immanence, the fact that it is, at the same time, the centre of everything and the infinite sphere within which all other things exist, ensures the reader that the process of subtracting or letting go of everything will not lead into some kind of meaningless void, but into the One. This time Plotinus does not emphasize the subjective side of the experience (namely, that if we take away everything, we end up also with our core self), but rather the objective side, namely, that the One is the source and ground of being. But the mechanism of separating or subtracting is the same in both types of the aphaeretic method.
As I pointed out earlier, the subjective and objective modes of the aphaeretic exercise are merely different ways of approaching the same experience, sometimes combined in the course of the same meditation. When we are ‘only ourselves and really ourselves’, having taken away every activity of the soul and every object of activity, we are, in fact, becoming the One as our ‘another self’. The aphaeretic paths to the ultimate self of the individual and to the One as the ‘another self’ of everything, culminate in one vision, as Plotinus explains at the end of 6.9:
τὴν ἐναντίαν δὲ δραµοῦσα ἥξει οὐκ εἰς ἄλλο, ἀλλ’ εἰς αὑτήν, καὶ οὕτως οὐκ ἐν ἄλλῳ οὖσα⟨ οὐκ⟩ ἐν οὐδενί ἐστιν, ἀλλ’ ἐν αὑτῇ· τὸ δὲ ἐν αὑτῇ µόνῃ καὶ οὐκ ἐν τῷ ὄντι ἐν ἐκείνῳ· γίνεται γὰρ καὶ αὐτός τις οὐκ οὐσία, ἀλλ’ ἐπέκεινα οὐσίας ταύτῃ, ᾗ προσοµιλεῖ.54
But if it [the soul] runs the opposite way, it will arrive, not at something else but at itself, and in this way since it is not in something else it will not be in nothing, but in itself; but when it is in itself alone and not in being, it is in that [the One]; for one becomes, not substance, but ‘beyond substance’ by this converse.
6 Losing the Awareness of What Is Not the Self: The Agnoetic Method
It seems that there is also a third aspect or variant of ascent which can be found in the Enneads. In 6.9 Plotinus writes:
Πάντων τῶν ἔξω ἀφεµένην δεῖ ἐπιστραφῆναι πρὸς τὸ εἴσω πάντη, µὴ πρός τι τῶν ἔξω κεκλίσθαι, ἀλλὰ ἀγνοήσαντα τὰ πάντα καὶ πρὸ τοῦ µὲν τῇ αἰσθήσει, τότε δὲ καὶ τοῖς εἴδεσιν, ἀγνοήσαντα δὲ καὶ αὑτὸν ἐν τῇ θέᾳ ἐκείνου γενέσθαι, κἀκείνῳ συγγενόµενον καὶ ἱκανῶς οἷον ὁµιλήσαντα ἥκειν ἀγγέλλοντα, εἰ δύναιτο, καὶ ἄλλῳ τὴν ἐκεῖ συνουσίαν.55
The soul must let go of all outward things and turn altogether to what is within, and not be inclined to any outward things, but losing the awareness of all things (as it did formerly in sense-perception, but then in the realm of Forms) and even losing the awareness of itself, come to be in contemplation of that One, and having been in its company and had, so to put it, sufficient converse with it, come and announce, if it could, also to another that transcendent union.
At the beginning it looks like a typical aphaeretic exercise and Plotinus uses one of the technical terms for the process of dis-identification (
Plotinus wants to convey here the fact that the soul, moved by an erotic desire for the One, does not only turn its attention away from all things, but that it, as a result, loses any awareness of their existence. This loss of awareness is a result of the narrowing of the focus, so to speak, just as in the case of Socrates’ erotic passion. In 126.96.36.199-2 Plotinus instructs the reader to ‘become indefinite in [his] thought’ (
Καὶ µήν, ὅτου ἂν ποθεινοῦ ὄντος µήτε σχῆµα µήτε µορφὴν ἔχοις λαβεῖν, ποθεινότατον καὶ ἐρασµιώτατον ἂν εἴη, καὶ ὁ ἔρως ἂν ἄµετρος εἴη. οὐ γὰρ ὥρισται ἐνταῦθα ὁ ἔρως, ὅτι µηδὲ τὸ ἐρώµενον, ἀλλ᾿ ἄπειρος ἂν εἴη ὁ τούτου ἔρως, ὥστε καὶ τὸ κάλλος αὐτοῦ ἄλλον τρόπον καὶ κάλλος ὑπὲρ κάλλος.56
Truly, when you cannot grasp the form or shape of what is longed for, it would be most longed for and most lovable, and love for it would be immeasurable. For love is not limited here, because neither is the beloved, but the love of this would be unbounded; so his beauty is of another kind and beauty above beauty.
Such a language is not used by Plotinus in 6.9.7, although we can associate this formless receptivity of awareness, which is suggested here, with love and desire to be completely open to the One. In 6.7.35 Plotinus claims that it is only ‘Intellect in love’ (
But in the agnoetic variant of ascent it seems that the self has to become not only drunk, but, as it were, drunk to the point of complete oblivion. Plotinus speaks here not only about becoming aware that the self is not the body, not the sense-perceptions and so on, but about something more radical, namely about eliminating all definite objects from awareness in order to make it empty, devoid of any qualities whatsoever (
But this exercise retains both the hierarchical structure of ascent and the gradual movement of purifying the self as the core centre of consciousness. The process of emptying consciousness of all qualities and objects has to be done first in the realm of sense-perception and only then in the realm of the Forms. Plotinus mentions also the last step, in between the Forms and the One, namely losing the awareness of the self, the ‘I’ distinct from any other object. When this core sense of the individual self is gone, what remains is the One as ‘another self’. The movement of the exercise is also consistent with ascent in general: turning attention towards an object within awareness and conscious dis-identification with that object as something external to the pure ‘I’. But in this agnoetic variant of ascent something more is going on, since it is not only about realizing the distinction between the self and everything else, but it is about eliminating this ‘everything else’ from conscious experience. If we take into account the metaphor of having and being, we might say that the self does not only cease to be all the external things with which it was identified; it also ceases, temporarily, to have them as well.
Another example of this variant can be found at the very end of Plot. 5.1. There Plotinus speaks metaphorically:
ὥσπερ εἴ τις ἀκοῦσαι ἀναµένων ἣν ἐθέλει φωνήν, τῶν ἄλλων φωνῶν ἀποστὰς τὸ οὖς ἐγείροι πρὸς τὸ ἄµεινον τῶν ἀκουστῶν, ὁπότε ἐκεῖνο προσέλθοι, οὕτω τοι καὶ ἐνταῦθα δεῖ τὰς µὲν αἰσθητὰς ἀκούσεις ἀφέντα, εἰ µὴ καθόσον ἀνάγκη, τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς εἰς τὸ ἀντιλαµβάνεσθαι δύναµιν φυλάττειν καθαρὰν καὶ ἕτοιµον ἀκούειν φθόγγων τῶν ἄνω.58
It is as if someone was expecting to hear a voice which he wanted to hear and withdrew from other sounds and roused his power of hearing to catch what, when it comes, is the best of all sounds which can be heard; so here also we must let perceptible sounds go (if there is no need to listen to them) and keep the soul’s power of apprehension pure and ready to hear the voices from on high.
The agnoetic mechanism here is expressed by an image of ‘withdrawing’ (
A part of this exercise can also be noticed in the treatise on beauty (1.6). There Plotinus speaks metaphorically about looking in similar terms. The journey towards the One requires ‘leaving outside the sight of his eyes’ (
I have proposed looking at the Plotinian ascent from three distinct, but intertwined, perspectives. A context for this was Plotinus’ metaphor of ‘being’ and ‘having’ various levels of the soul, where the fall consists of being the levels connected to the body rather than having them, and the purification is the effort to recognize that we have them at our disposal, but we are not them. The dynamics of being and having remains also at the higher levels of ascent, when the self moves through the pure soul and Intellect in order to reach the One.
The first aspect of ascent, the anabatic method proper, consists of the act of internal grasping (
The last variant of ascent, the agnoetic one, consists in making consciousness completely indefinite, without qualities or objects to perceive, in order to be able to receive the presence of the One. It retains both the fundamental movement through the levels of the soul and the separating activity which is in the forefront of the aphaeretic method, but the result of this radical form of meditation is the elimination of everything from the self. Not only does the self cease to be what it is not, it also ceases to have anything in its awareness. The sole object of awareness is the One.
Armstrong, A.H. (1967). The Architecture of the Intelligible Universe in the Philosophy of Plotinus. An Analytical and Historical Study. Cambridge.
Aubry, G. (2014). Metaphysics of Soul and Self in Plotinus. In: P. Remes and S. Slaveva- Griffin, eds., The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism, London, pp. 310-322.
Blumenthal, H.J. (1996). On Soul and Intellect. In: L.P. Gerson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Cambridge, pp. 82-104.
Bussanich, J. (1996). Plotinus’s Metaphysics of the One. In: L.P. Gerson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Cambridge, pp. 38-65.
Rappe, S. (1996). Self-knowledge and Subjectivity in the Enneads. In: L.P. Gerson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, Cambridge, pp. 250-274.
Stróżyński, M. (2014). The Aporetic Method in Plotinus’ Enneads. Symbolae Philologorum Posnaniensium Graecae et Latinae 24.1, pp. 17-31.
Wakoff, M. (2015). Awaiting the Sun. A Plotinian Form of Contemplative Prayer. In: J.M. Dillon and A. Timotin, eds., Platonic Theories of Prayer, Leiden, pp. 73-87.
The concept of spiritual exercise was introduced by Rabbow 1954. Hadot discussed ancient spiritual practice mostly in his books published in the eighties and the nineties: 1987; 1992; 1995.
See esp. Foucault 2005; Nussbaum 1994; Sellars 2003.
Arnou 1967, 195-225; Trouillard 1955, 133-165. Among earlier studies cf. also Krakowski 1933; Moreau 1970, 173-178; Mossé-Bastide 1972, 109-112.
See Sells 1985, 47-65, and 1994; Dombrowski 1987, 701-712; Hadot 1987, 45-46 and 185-193; O’Meara 1993, 24 and 104; Lacrosse 1994, 97-104; Bussanich 1996, 40; Collette 2002, esp. 82-84 and 93-95; Rappe 1996, 250-274 and 2000; Stróżyński 2008, 38-69 and 142-178, and 2014; Clark 2016; Banner 2018.
Stock 2010, 22-26.
Nussbaum 1994, 353.
Sellars 2003, 116.
Cf. Lexicon Plotinianum, s.v.
On the relationship between aphaeresis and apophasis see Mortley 1975, 373; Sells 1985, 47-50, Carabine 1995, 119-126.
See Lear 1982.
Met. 13.3, 1078a9-26. Cf. Gerson 2005, 235.
Cf. Hadot 1987, 185-188; Baladi 1970, 28; Mortley 1975, 364-366 and 374-377; Guérard 1984, 190-191; Carabine 1995, 132-135. The aphaeresis as a type of ascent should be distinguished from the aphaeresis as a method of arriving at the concept of prime matter, devoid of qualities (see e.g. Plot. 1.8).
For the Greek text and translation I have used Summerell and Zimmer 2007 and Dillon 2002.
Pl. Smp. 210a-212a.
Pl. Smp. 210d, translation mine.
Collette 2002, 143 speaks about “objective
Pl. Smp. 216d; translation mine.
Dodds 1960, 5.
Remes 2007, 13-44.
Aubry 2014, 310.
Sorabji 2006, 20-21.
Remes 2007, 92-124.
There is an article by Warren 1964, 83-97. Blumenthal 1971, 99 n. 28 who criticized his views as “inadequate and in some places misleading” devoted some space to discussing various forms of consciousness or “the power which provides knowledge of what goes on within us” (ibid., 42, see also 88-99). See also Violette 1994 and Remes 2007, 92-124.
For the Greek text and translation I have used Armstrong 1966-1988. If translation is modified, it is always pointed out in a footnote. Here, the translation is mine.
Cf. the use of the word
Hutchinson 2018, 40-44.
Plotinus refers here to memory.
Recently, Raoul Mortley has devoted a chapter of his book to ‘being’ and ‘having’ in Plotinus, but he assumes a different perspective and uses a different methodology than the one used here (Mortley 2013, 79-93).
See Hutchinson 2018, 134-136.
Plotinus refers, of course, to Plato’s dialogues, especially R. 515c-e, Smp. 211b and Phdr. 246a.
Perhaps, this is a general level of discursive thought, as Cilento 1949, 42 suggests: “opinione (che comprende la ragione discorsiva, sia la
The language of freedom is not often used by Plotinus in the context of the goal of the spiritual journey. About freedom in general see Plot. 6.8. Cf. also Remes 2007, 180-185.
Cf. Deck 1967, 29; Armstrong 1973, 17-18; Lloyd 1986, 264; Blumenthal 1996, 91.
On the continuity cf. Mortley 1975, 376.
Armstrong suggests it comes from Laws 705a4, where the sea is called a neighbour of the city (in his Loeb-edition, vol. 5, 18 n. 2).
E.g. Plot. 188.8.131.52-7, 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168-5.
Plot. 22.214.171.124. The final quotation is Pl. Phdr. 245c.
It is possible that Plotinus refers here to the soul-trace, forming the body, which in his view of reality is in between the body and the soul, but it is not that clear. In the Timaeus, from which the expression was borrowed, Plato refers to
Strictly speaking, the material universe is not a separate hypostasis but a reflection of the creative power of the Soul-hypostasis.
The word play
Bréhier 1928, 215 described prayer in Plotinus as “une concentration intérieure de l’âme” and Rist 1967, 212 as “meditation and reflection on the One by a soul which is not distracted by the multiplicity of things”. See also the more recent article by Wakoff 2015, who speaks about the “awakening from the outer preoccupations” and “turning towards what is always present” (74-75). Plotinus discusses briefly what might be called ‘petitionary prayer’ in 4.4.40-44. In terms of spiritual exercise, he mentions prayer only two times—in the passage discussed here and in 5.8.9, where, at the climax of a visualization exercise, he instructs the reader who wants to experience the divine Intellect, to pray for it to come.
It is, as Rappe 1996, 258 put it, “a process of gradual detachment from the objects of consciousness”.
See Collette 2002, 143. Earlier: Carabine 1995, 132.
Plot. 126.96.36.199-17 and 21-24.
Plot. 188.8.131.52-23. Armstrong’s translation modified.
Many scholars, e.g. Armstrong 1967, 46, point out that in the ultimate experience of the One other objects are not merely irrelevant, but disappear from consciousness altogether. Such a contemplative state was also described by Forman 1990, 21 as “wakeful, contentless consciousness”.
Plot. 184.108.40.206-21. Armstrong’s translation, slightly modified.