Plotinus’ Impact on Civilization



I’m nearly done reading the works of Plotinus—a simple statement, to sum up nine months of work. Plotinus’ Enneads have been, for me, the hardest material to read in my program of reading the Great Books. They are even slightly worse than Spinoza’s Ethics, which is an accomplishment indeed.

To be fair, the last thing that Plotinus thought he was writing was a basic introduction to his philosophical system. All of his written works were intended as discussion notes for seminar like classes with his advanced students. His student Porphyry did the best he could to edit them into a cohesive book, considering this was never the intended purpose. It is a shame that most of Porphyry’s own writings have been lost. For all we know, he wrote his own introductory book on Plotinian Philosophy, or at least essays that would have made his teacher’s writings more accessible. As it is, though, Plotinus is hard going.

So why take the time to read the Enneads? Well, there’s always Mortimer Adler‘s argument that reading the very hardest of the great books is the most effective way to improve your reading and, ultimately, your writing. This, or course, is my main reason for doing the Great Books project at all. But in the case of the Enneads we should also consider the incredible breath and magnitude of the work’s influence on at least two major world civilizations: our own Western Civilization and Islam.

One of the key culture complexes in Western Civ. is Christianity, and Christianity contained a major neo-Platonist strain from the very beginning, starting with the works of Paul and John. Plotinus, the greatest of the neo-Platonists, was unashamedly pagan yet, even during his own lifetime (circa 203-270 CE) many of his ideas were adopted by Christian writers. After his death his works continued to be taught in Rome and elsewhere, where they were studied by the newly converted Augustine, who saw them as the key to understanding Christianity. From Augustine to Abelard, Plotinian neo-Platonism was the dominant factor in medieval Christian theology and philosophy. After Abelard the influence other major wellspring of Western Philosophy, Aristotle, waxed while that of Platonism, including Plotinus, waned. Now, however, particularly since Jung’s writing, the balance seems to be tipping back towards Platonic idealism. Even a brief survey of the various “new thought” movements, such as Science of Mind shows them to be laden with various platonic ideas. The same is true of archetypal psychology, where frequently quote Plotinus and acknowledge their debts to him.

Meanwhile, a couple centuries after Plotinus a new religion, Islam, emerged and quickly expended into an international civilization. In the early days Mohamed and his immediate successors were more concerned with morality than with philosophy or theology. As Islam matured intellectually, however, in the seventh or eighth century, its thinkers began to get serious about theology, and especially metaphysics and eschatology. Like Augustine before them they found most of what they needed in Plotinus, adopting the idea of the Logos or World Soul as the primary force of creation and the theory that human souls, as emanations of the world soul, could be perfected through virtue to become one with God. The golden age of Islamic philosophy lasted from about 700 CE to about 1000 CE. During this time, most of the greatest philosophers in Islam such as Ibin Sina (Avicenna), al Kindi, and al Biruni, studied and were heavily influenced by Plotinus’ Enneads. Meanwhile new sects of Islam, particularly the Sufi, fastened on the mystical aspect pf Plotinus’ teaching and embedded it in their own practices.

It is impossible to overstate the contributions of Plotinus to these two religions and the civilizations to which they belong, and that alone means that it is worth it to study the Enneads…even if they take nine months to read.

Further Reading
Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster. 1944.
Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. Simon and Schuster. 1950.
Henry, Paul. “The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought” in The Enneads. Penguin. 1991.
Holmes, Earnest, The Science of Mind. Putnam.  1997.

Perils of Reading Great Books out of Order (Pre-Plotinus)

I am now more than a year into my program of reading the Great Books to improve myself as a writer. At the onset I promised myself that, as much as was practical, I would try to read the the books in the order they were written. This is the advice that Grand Great Books Guru Mortimer Adler gives in How to Read a Book and elsewhere, since going in order allows you to trace the development of the “great conversation” of Western thought.

I was doing pretty well until I began working my way through Plato, but then I got bogged down. After reading seven dialogues plus the book-length Republic and writing seven blog posts on Platonic philosophy, I decided to skip ahead–surely eight works were enough to give me a taste of Plato’s work, and the dialogues would still be there when I got back to them, right?

All was well until I went to read Plotinus’ Enneads. I’ve been looking forward to Plotinus: not only was he the greatest of the neo-Platonists, and a fundamental influence on early Christian philosophy, but he was the last important pagan philosopher. I knew that as soon as I finished his works I could sail merrily into the middle ages. I knew he had a reputation as a tough author, but I didn’t see how much worse he could be than those I had already read.

Unfortunately, Plotinus is not only hard to read, his work is heavily based on that of Plato and Aristotle. By the time I had made it through the introductory matter in the Penguin edition, I realized that I had gone too far too fast. Plotinus continually references The Republic, Phaedo, and The Nicomachaean Ethics–all of which I had read quickly without bothering to study them deeply or writing blog posts, as well as Timaeus, Parmenides, The Sophist, The Categories, De Anima, and The Metaphysics–all of which I had skipped in my impatience. Therefore, regretfully, I am now putting my Plotinus aside for a few weeks and going back to classical Greece. Look for more Plato and Aristotle posts in the near future.

Clouds of Aristophanes

Aristophanes’ play The Clouds is fascinating in a number of ways, not least because it contains one of the earliest literary mentions of Socrates.  Socrates, or at least the complex of ideas that Socrates came to represent, would become one of the most important figures in the Western tradition and the well-spring of one the two most important strands of Western philosophy (the other of which would begin with Aristotle).  At the time of The Clouds, however, Socrates was just starting to become a salient figure–a well known local character, but not yet the famous philosopher who would be immortalized by Plato and others.

Aristophanes picked Socrates to be his caricature of a “modern” teacher at least partially because Socrates’ famously homely appearance would lend itself to a hilarious and recognizable mask.  When the Socrates character first came on stage in the original performance the actual Socrates stood up so the crowd could admire the resemblance.  Shortly before this period Socrates seems to have spent considerable time talking to sophists and other pre-socratic philosophers, prior to fully developing his own philosophy, so this portrayal as a Sophist is not completely unwarranted.  On the other hand, the main criticism that Aristophanes levels against the sophistic school, that they are willing to argue both sides of an issue and are more concerned with the argument itself than the truth, is decidedly not applicable to Socrates’ mature philosophical methods, as portrayed by Plato. Plato’s  Socrates is only interested in understanding universal truths, and seeks them not through argument but by admitting his own ignorance and asking questions.  We must keep in mind, though, that The Clouds was written decades before Plato’s dialogues.

Plato’s Socrates rejects Aristophanes’ caricature in The Apology,

I will begin at the beginning, and ask what is the accusation which has given rise to the slander of me, and in fact has encouraged Meletus to proof this charge against me. Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes, who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations.

We should remember, though, that the framing of this statement might represent a revisionist attempt on the part of Plato.  The Clouds was a popular play and many copies were made.  Plato might have been concerned that the play was tarnishing the memory of his teacher, and gone out of his way to refute the impression.

Antique Bust of Socrates, Paulus Pontius, 1638 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Antique Bust of Socrates, Paulus Pontius, 1638 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

The basic plot of the play is that Strepsiades, whose son Phidippides has racked up huge debts in his name, goes to the “Think Shop”, a sort of school of sophistry run by Socrates.  His goal is to learn rhetoric so well that he can argue his way out of paying his creditors.  After finding that he is too old to follow Socrates’ logical acrobatics, he decides to send Phidippides in his stead.  Phidippides learns so well that he is later able to publicly beat his father and justify it so convincingly that no one can argue with him.

The Clouds, of course, is a story about conflict between old and new systems of education.  The old system, represented by Strepsiades, emphasized military training and memorizing traditional poetry, preparing a young citizen to be a successful hopelite citizen-soldier.  The new system of the sophists was also practical, since it emphasized rhetoric and public speaking  to make the student successful in lawsuits or the assembly.  To Aristophanes, who thought that his fellow Athenians were far too litigious, and was at heart a social conservative, the new system would have provided a rich field for ridicule, even if generational conflict was not a classic subject for comedy.  As is often the case with the deeply intellectual comedy of Aristophanes, however, there were deeper philosophical issues in play.

“What is the best form of education?” is one of the perennial philosophical questions.  We will meet it again repeatedly in the Great Books.  On a more meta level, the Great Books movement in general represents one side of a modern debate about education.  At the risk of oversimplification, Great Books proponents believe in a more traditional form of education based on the core literature and concepts of Western Civilization, as opposed the newer “progressive” or “democratic” systems of education which emphasize relativism, openness, and inclusion of minority viewpoints.  The Great Books approach is based primarily on that used in ancient universities in the high medieval through early Victorian periods, as adapted by such Victorian reformers as John Henry Newman.  Its primary modern champions were Mortimer Adler and his associates.  More recently writers such as Allan Bloom, John Lukacs, and Donald Kagan, though they shy away from associating themselves with the Adler clique, have argued for a similar approach.  The progressive/democratic approach was first articulated in the works of John Dewey, reached its full realization during the culture wars of the 1960’s, and is taught as dogma in nearly every Education graduate program today.

In the later Hellenistic world, particularly among the elite of the Roman Empire, the dominant educational philosophy that emerged was a essentially a synthesis of the old gymnasium education and sophism, and post-Socratic philosophy.  This gives me hope that our own civilization may yet learn to balance the ideals of the Great Books movement with those of Dewey and his disciples.

A Great Idea At The Time (Book Review)

Beam, Alex. (2008). A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books.  New York: Public Affairs
In this post I will detour slightly from my exploration of the Great Books to discuss a book about the Great Books.  More specifically, Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (2008) is the story of the “Great Books Movement” which started as a teaching fad in the 1920’s and grew to become a pop culture phenomenon in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World, housed in their specially made bookcase, was a fixture in our house when I was a child.  Yesterday I visited my father for Thanksgiving and noticed that it still occupies a prominent place along one wall of his guest bedroom.  As a youngster I took its presence for granted.  Except for one abortive attempt to read the Iliad when I was twelve, I don’t think I ever opened them.  Much later I learned that my father had bought the set second hand before I was born.  For him I believe the books were a symbol that even though he had not been able to finish college he has never stopped working to educate himself.  In this respect, I think he is like most people who ever bought the set.  They were always marketed as a way for middle class Americans, denied the sort of liberal education available to their social “betters”, to improve themselves.

The books in the Britannica set were nearly unreadable–heavy hard backs set in a tiny font with no footnotes.  Most of the translations are dreadful.  To make matters worse, because they were so expensive, no one felt like it was OK to underline in them or take notes in the margins.  A paperback Penguin edition of a classic was almost always the way to go, if you were actually going to read and study it.

Beam’s book tells the story of how the set came to be, and why there are still so many copies around.  With humor and insight he takes us from the first Great Books courses at Columbia and Chicago, through the genesis of the idea to sell a single collection that would encapsulate the entire western cannon, through the hard-sell door-to-door marketing of the 1960’s, and finally to the state of the Great Books movement today.  I found the book delightfully readable.

A Great Idea at the Time mostly avoids bias, except in one area.  It is clear from the first page that while Beam acknowledges Mortimer Adler’s brilliance, he truly doesn’t care for Adler, as a person.  The book is sprinkled with comments such as “…to be reading Mortimer Adler’s two autobiographies and watching his endless, self-promotional television appearances was a nightmare from which I am still struggling to awake.” (p. 5) He paints a picture of Adler as a hilariously pompous, egomaniacal huckster.  I myself have read enough of Adler’s writing and seen enough of his videos to conclude that he probably was rather full of himself.  Certainly, Beams ability to describe such a powerful character lends strength and color to his story.  Still, once must be aware that his opinion of one of the main personalities in the story has clearly slanted the narrative.

Mortimer Adler (Center for the Study of the Great Ideas via WikiMedia)

Mortimer Adler (Center for the Study of the Great Ideas via Wikimedia)

Reading this book as made me more aware of the ways in which my own relationship to the Great Books differs from that of Mortimer Adler, his mentor Robert Hutchins, or their many disciples.  Their interest started as an attempt to shore up a higher education system which they saw as fragmenting into overspecialization.  The Great Books were seen as a vehicle to teach reading and critical thinking to undergraduates.  I myself, as a teaching assistant, worked for two professors who successfully incorporated great books into their respective undergraduate business courses.  These days, however, I am no longer involved in post secondary education.

Over time, the Great Books project became a business venture for Encyclopaedia Britannica and an exercise in platform building for Adler, yet I don’t see any way that I will personally make money by studying the Great Books, or even by blogging about them.

The customers who bought the books mostly did so out of an appeal to their own insecurity and feeling of educational inadequacy.  As a published academic author with a terminal professional degree, it is hard for me to seriously claim that I feel inadequate.  There are still plenty of things which I would like to learn about, but that isn’t the same thing.

So if none of the motivations which have driven other people to embrace the Great Books affect me, then why am I doing it?

It’s because I am a writer, and a writer functions by inputting a large amount of other people’s writing, filtering and processing it through a mind shaped by his own life experience, and then outputting a relatively small amount of his own writing.  If I had to guess, I would say that I probably read at least 500,000 words for every 1,000 words of finished prose I write.  For me reading The Great Books, or at least good books, is a way to ensure a higher quality of inputs to the system which will, hopefully, lead to a higher quality of output.  Any further posts I write about the Great Books will be written, and should be read, with that in mind.