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.

Book Review: At The End of An Age

Lukacs, At The End of An Age, cover picture

At the End of an Age is a small book, and John Lukacs’ elegant yet simple prose could easily lull you into thinking it is an easy read.  It doesn’t take many pages, though, to realize that every paragraph in this book (or rather, book-length essay) is laden with complex ideas and meaning.  I found myself rereading whole pages to make sure I understood, and I suspect that I would need to read the whole book two or three times to pick up on all of his points.  That being said, the book is worth it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the ostensible thesis of the book is that the modern age, which Lukacs calls the “bourgeoisie age” is nearing its end.  He offers cogent arguments and examples in support and, in general, makes a strong case.  As it happens, I agree with him; I wrote something very similar on this blog a couple weeks ago, before I had ever read Lukacs.  I think that anyone with some level of historical awareness can see that our civilization is gearing up for a drastic change.  Other historians I have read would have spent the entire book (or 12, in the case of Toynbee) expanding on their particular theory.  Lukacs, having laid out his arguments, then moves up to a higher, more meta-historical level.  Lukacs is interested not just in how history works, but in the epistemology and metaphysics of history and its relationship to the other sciences.  These are deep waters indeed.  Only Lukac’s strong voice and skill as a writer keep the reader from sinking.  Since I lack his mastery, I will not attempt to explain his points here, but will merely mention a couple of his main themes.

Lukacs believes that in history, as in quantum physics, the phenomena is ultimately inseparable from the observer.  The historian does not just record history but, in the act of writing it, actually influences and creates it.  This means that true objectivity is impossible for the historian, and that a purely deterministic conception of history is as obsolete as deterministic physics was after Heisenberg.  This matches up with comments I have occasionally made about history as a narrative.  History is based on fact but, ultimately, is a literary discipline.  This historian doesn’t just tell the story, he creates it.

Another major theme in the book is the role of the human mind in creating history.  Lukacs asserts that “the inclinations of men’s minds” and their beliefs are more important than their competence or any material factor.  “Mind” in this sense means consciousness or soul, separate from brain and body.  Lukacs believes in the power of the mind to influence reality and manifest different potentialities.  Comparative metaphysics is far from my specialty.  However, this sounds very similar to the writings of various New Thought philosophers,  particularly Earnest Holmes and his Science of Mind disciples.  I wonder to what extent the young John Lukacs was influenced by these metaphysical systems.  Regardless, the take away is that if a historian wants to understand a person or group he needs to go beyond studying their situation and strive to understand their minds.

Overall, I found many ideas in this book which I could agree with, or at least try on for size.  There were a few arguments, however, with which I did take minor issue.  In an early section of the book, as part of an overview of various ways the social structures of the current age are breaking down, he discusses the trend towards women’s equality in the workplace and announces that,

Women thought (or, rather, convinced themselves) that they were reacting against the age-old and often senseless categories and assertions  of male authority; yet their dissatisfaction often arose not because of the oppressive strength but because of the weakness of males.  The rising tide of divorces and abortions, the acceptance of sexual liberties, including pre-marital (and sometimes post-marital) habits of frequent copulation and other forms of cohabitation, the increasing numbers of unmarried women and single mothers, the dropping birth rate–thus the decline of the so-called “nuclear” family–were, especially after 1955, grave symptoms suggesting vast social changes.  They included the perhaps seldom wholly conscious, but more and more evident, tendency of many young women to desire any kind of male companionship, even of a strong and brutal kind, if need be at the cost of their self-respect. (pp. 23-24)

He offers no support for this complex, arguable, and potentially inflammatory claim.  This is not the sort of paragraph you just casually slip into a book without offering evidence to back it up.  This is the sort of thing which would have caused me, when I was still a teaching assistant grading papers, to circle the whole paragraph with red pen and write “BURDEN OF PROOF” in the margin.

Lukacs is also universally deprecatory of post-modernism in all of its forms, seeing it as a basically vague and degenerate direction for scholarship and culture.  That is a legitimate, if somewhat reactionary stance.  However, Lukacs, who escaped communist Hungary as a young man, is also blatantly anti-Marxist.  Since, as a historian, Lukacs could not help but be aware of the many contributions that Marxism has made to post-modern analysis and art, I have to question whether he might not be biased on the whole subject of post-modernism.

Finally, Lukacs is dismissive of any value in mathematics for the study of history.  As a “quant”, I feel compelled to respond.  As evidence, he cites his own non-deterministic, non-objectivist view of history as well as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which say that 1) Any non-trivial mathematical system contains some postulates which can not be proven without going beyond the system.  2) No mathematical system is capable of proving its own consistency.  Personally, I have been fascinated by Gödel’s theorems since I first studied them in an Abstract Algebra class that I took as a college junior.   As an illustration of what they mean, consider Euclid’s geometrical system, as set down in the Elements.  Euclid begins “A point is that which has position but no dimension.”  The entire system doesn’t work without this axiom, yet there is no way to prove that a point has no dimension using only Euclidean geometry.  You would need to introduce propositions from topology and/or calculus–which are themselves systems which contain propositions which can not be proven without introducing even more complex systems of mathematics.

Kurt Gödel in 1925 [public domain via Wikimedia]

Kurt Gödel in 1925 [public domain via Wikimedia]

And yet, geometry works quite well enough for most purposes, as do topology and calculus.  Granted, the incompleteness theorems seem to imply that a grand-unified theory of history, in the sense of of a closed form solution (plug all the variables into the equation, predict what will happen next) is impossible.  But applied math and statistics are about approximations, empirical formulas, noisy data, and models that work “well enough”, with a quantifiable margin of error.  The incredible advances over the past fifty years in fields like data mining, complexity theory, machine learning, and signal processing have paved the way for a useful discipline of mathematical history, probably within our own lifetimes.  Such a system will only be one more tool for the historian to use, and the results must not be allowed to dominate the historical narrative itself.  But to dismiss all mathematical history out of hand because it will not be an internally provable system seems like a major error.  Even in a non-deterministic universe, mathematical modeling can still provide startling and useful insights.

Despite these minor qualms, I truly enjoyed this book and would recommend it.  Overall, in fact, it is the kind of book I would like to write myself some day.  I will absolutely be reading (and probably reviewing) more of Lukacs’ works in the future.