Porphyry on the Mystical Experiences and Initiation of Plotinus
S described in the previous post, Porphyry reports that, after Plotinus died, Amelius asked an oracle of Apollo (generally assumed to be that of Delphi) about the fate of Plotinus’ soul. In section 22 of Life of Plotinus, Porphyry supplies the oracular response. It isn’t fully clear whether this eulogy of Plotinus was actually composed by the oracle. Another view is that Plotinus’ associates composed it, and then submitted it to the oracle for approval. In either case, it is clearly a work of some interest and importance.
In section 23 of Life of Plotinus, Porphyry goes on to supply an excellent summary of the oracle, and this is also of interest. For one thing, it is here that Porphyry mentions Plotinus’ mystical experiences of Union with the Absolute. First Porphyry’s remarks are supplied below, then we will make several observations concerning his remarks.
Note, incidentally, that Plotinus’ discussion of mystical experiences in the Enneads (e.g., in 1.6, On Beauty) strongly influenced St. Augustine, who reports his own such experiences in the Confessions.
The translation of Stephen MacKenna (1917) is used, except that passages which quote verbatim or closely paraphrase the oracle are placed in italics. (Comments in square brackets are mine.)
Good and kindly, singularly gentle and engaging: thus the oracle presents him, and so in fact we found him. Sleeplessly alert — Apollo tells — pure of soul, ever striving towards the divine which he loved with all his being, he laboured strenuously to free himself and rise above the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life:
Ἐν δὴ τούτοις εἴρηται μὲν ὅτι ἀγανὸς γέγονε καὶ ἤπιος καὶ πρᾶός γε μάλιστα καὶ μείλιχος, ἅπερ καὶ ἡμεῖς οὕτως ἔχοντι συνῄδειμεν· εἴρηται δ᾽ ὅτι ἄγρυπνος καὶ καθαρὰν τὴν ψυχὴν ἔχων καὶ ἀεὶ σπεύδων πρὸς τὸ θεῖον, οὗ διὰ πάσης τῆς ψυχῆς ἤρα, ὅτι τε πάντ᾽ ἐποίει ἀπαλλαγῆναι, πικρὸν κῦμ᾽ ἐξυπαλύξαι τοῦ αἱμοβότου τῇδε βίου.
and this is why to Plotinus — God-like and lifting himself often, by the ways of meditation and by the methods Plato teaches in the Banquet [Symposium], to the first and all-transcendent God — that God appeared, the God who has neither shape nor form but sits enthroned above the Intellectual-Principle and all the Intellectual-Sphere.
Οὕτως δὲ μάλιστα τούτῳ τῷ δαιμονίῳ φωτὶ πολλάκις ἐνάγοντι ἑαυτὸν εἰς τὸν πρῶτον καὶ ἐπέκεινα θεὸν ταῖς ἐννοίαις καὶ κατὰ τὰς ἐν τῷ Συμποσίῳ ὑφηγημένας ὁδοὺς τῷ Πλάτωνι ἐφάνη ἐκεῖνος ὁ θεὸς ὁ μήτε μορφὴν μήτε τινὰ ἰδέαν ἔχων, ὑπὲρ δὲ νοῦν καὶ πᾶν τὸ νοητὸν ἱδρυμένος.
There was shown to Plotinus the Term [i.e., goal] ever near: for the Term, the one end, of his life was to become Uniate [i.e., united with God], to approach to the God over all: and four times, during the period I passed with him, he achieved this Term, by no mere latent fitness but by the ineffable Act.
To this God, I also declare, I Porphyry, that in my sixty-eighth year I too was once admitted and entered into Union.
Ὧι δὴ καὶ ἐγὼ Πορφύριος ἅπαξ λέγω πλησιάσαι καὶ ἑνωθῆναι ἔτος ἄγων ἑξηκοστόν τε καὶ ὄγδοον. Ἐφάνη γοῦν τῷ Πλωτίνῳ σκοπὸς ἐγγύθι ναίων. Τέλος γὰρ αὐτῷ καὶ σκοπὸς ἦν τὸ ἑνωθῆναι καὶ πελάσαι τῷ ἐπὶ πᾶσι θεῷ. Ἔτυχε δὲ τετράκις που, ὅτε αὐτῷ συνήμην, τοῦ σκοποῦ τούτου ἐνεργείᾳ ἀρρήτῳ καὶ οὐ δυνάμει.
We are told that often when he was leaving the way, the Gods set him on the true path again, pouring down before him a dense shaft of light; here we are to understand that in his writing he was overlooked and guided by the divine powers.
Καὶ ὅτι λοξῶς φερόμενον πολλάκις οἱ θεοὶ κατεύθυναν θαμινὴν φαέων ἀκτῖνα πορόντες, ὡς ἐπισκέψει τῇ παρ᾽ ἐκείνων καὶ ἐπιβλέψει γραφῆναι τὰ γραφέντα, εἴρηται.
In this sleepless vision within and without, the oracle says, your eyes have beheld sights many and fair not vouchsafed to all that take the philosophic path: contemplation in man may sometimes be more than human, but compare it with the True-Knowing of the Gods and, wonderful though it be, it can never plunge into the depths their divine vision fathoms.
Ἐκ δὲ τῆς ἀγρύπνου ἔσωθέν τε καὶ ἔξωθεν θέας ἔδρακες, φησίν, ὄσσοις πολλά τε καὶ χαρίεντα, τά κεν ῥέα οὔτις ἴδοιτο ἀνθρώπων τῶν φιλοσοφίᾳ προσεχόντων. Ἡ γὰρ δὴ τῶν ἀνθρώπων θεωρία ἀνθρωπίνης μὲν ἂν γένοιτο ἀμείνων· ὡς δὲ πρὸς τὴν θείαν γνῶσιν χαρίεσσα μὲν ἂν εἴη, οὐ μὴν ὥστε τὸ βάθος ἑλεῖν ἂν δυνηθῆναι, ὥσπερ αἱροῦσιν οἱ θεοί.
Thus far the Oracle recounts what Plotinus accomplished and to what heights he attained while still in the body: emancipated from the body, we are told how he entered the celestial circle where all is friendship, tender delight, happiness, and loving union with God, where Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus, the sons of God, are enthroned as judges of souls — not, however, to hold him to judgement but as welcoming him to their consort
Ταῦτα μὲν οὖν ὅ τι ἔτι σῶμα περικείμενος ἐνήργει καὶ τίνων ἐτύγχανε δεδήλωκε. Μετὰ δὲ τὸ λυθῆναι ἐκ τοῦ σώματος ἐλθεῖν μὲν αὐτόν φησιν εἰς τὴν δαιμονίαν ὁμήγυριν, πολιτεύεσθαι δ᾽ ἐκεῖ φιλότητα, ἵμερον, εὐφροσύνην, ἔρωτα ἐξημμένον τοῦ θεοῦ, τετάχθαι δὲ καὶ τοὺς λεγομένους δικαστὰς τῶν ψυχῶν, παῖδας τοῦ θεοῦ, Μίνω καὶ Ῥαδάμανθυν καὶ Αἰακόν, πρὸς οὓς οὐ δικασθησόμενον οἴχεσθαι, συνεσόμενον δὲ τούτοις, οἷς καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι ὅσοι ἄριστοι.
to which are bidden spirits pleasing to the Gods — Plato, Pythagoras, and all the people of the Choir of Immortal Love, there where the blessed spirits have their birth-home and live in days filled full of joyous festival and made happy by the Gods.
Σύνεισι δὲ τοιοῦτοι Πλάτων, Πυθαγόρας ὁπόσοι τε ἄλλοι χορὸν στήριξαν ἔρωτος ἀθανάτου· ἐκεῖ δὲ τὴν γένεσιν τοὺς ὀλβίστους δαίμονας ἔχειν βίον τε μετιέναι τὸν ἐν θαλείαις καὶ εὐφροσύναις καταπεπυκνωμένον καὶ τοῦτον διατελεῖν καὶ ὑπὸ θεῶν μακαριζόμενον.
1. Porphyry tells us that Plotinus had at least four experiences of union with the Absolute, or God — in Platonic terms, the Form of the Good (Republic 6.507–6.509), or in Neoplatonic terms, the One beyond Universal Intellect (Nous) and beyond Being itself. In the literature of Western mysticism, this ultimate mystical experience is considered the fullest form of the beatific vision (literally, vision of the Good) one may have in this life. (We are also told here that Porphyry himself attained this experience).
Some esoteric and theosophical authors claim that Plotinus was one of a series of initiates into the “Greater Mysteries,” by which means he attained membership in the so-called Great White Brotherhood of Ascended Masters (whose other putative members include the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, etc.) Whether there is such a thing as an Ascended Master is a question beyond our capacity to answer here. (It would certainly go against Christian doctrine to place Jesus in this category, which would seem to imply status as a highly evolved human being, and not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity). But in any case Porphyry makes it very clear that the Greater Mysteries into which Plotinus was ‘initiated’ — and by which means he attained the beatific vision — are not hidden, arcane rituals the existence of which are only revealed to a select group.
Quite the contrary, Porphyry explicitly states that Plotinus reached exalted mystical states using the method presented in Plato’s dialogue, the Banquet (or, the Symposium). He’s clearly referring to the second speech of the prophetess, Diotima of Mantinea, which Socrates relates, called the Ladder of Love (Symposium 211–212).
This contemplative exercise begins with conscious appreciation of physical beauty in some person or thing, and proceeds by degrees to eventually contemplate Beauty Absolute, and from there the source of Beauty Absolute, which is God.
This contemplative method is not a secret, except insofar as it is hidden in plain sight — for to grasp the significance of this section of the widely read work, Symposium, does indeed require rare earnestness and dedication in a spiritual seeker.
2. It perhaps reassures us to learn from Porphyry that, despite Plotinus’ remarkable purity of soul, he was in fact human, and, like us, subject to trials and tribulations. We should not, therefore, suppose that Plotinus’ merely sailed through life effortlessly to his goal; he experienced the waves and storms, too.
As noted in the previous post, the oracle draws parallels between Plotinus’ life and the adversities which beset Odysseus on the raft before he reached the happy land of the Phaeacians (Odyssey, Book 5).
3. But we also learn how Plotinus overcame these difficulties. The oracle explains that, when Plotinus seemed in danger of taking a wrong direction, benevolent gods sent to him “shafts of dense light,” by which means his course was made true again. What precisely this means — how literally or how metaphorically we take this description — is not revealed. Porphyry understands it as referring to inspired guidance Plotinus received when writing. But perhaps something more is meant: that, in times of doubt or discouragement, Plotinus was sent those sorts of experiences which we call epiphanies. We have all had such experiences, and know how beneficial they are. Sometimes they are manifest as physical light — the breaking of a sunbeam through a cloud to illumine the landscape; or an object, bathed in sunlight, suddenly taking on new meaning or significance. Then there are epiphanies that take the form of insights or moments of mental clarity, revelations or unveilings.
Such epiphanies play a triple role:
- They often have specific content — a definite new insight or revelation.
- They may serve to alter the nature of our mental state generally — for example, taking our attention away from unimportant and distracting thoughts, to remember again (anamnesis) that whole transcendent domain, that of Truth, Beauty, and Moral Goodness; and so redirecting our attention and intentions to these domains, upon which meaning and true success in life so intimately depend.
- We often experience these events as, literally, God-sends; we feel attended to and loved by God; we feel reassured, grateful, thankful, our faith renewed.
4. But if such experiences are what the oracle meant, we should note that Plotinus did not simply wait passively for them. Instead he is characterized as heroically vigilant — ever careful lest his attention, inner or outer, fall asleep. So too should we, when we feel ourselves, like Odysseus toss about and at the mercy of life’s storms, strive to remain alert to those graces, epiphanies, and “beams of light” which God does send!
First draft (14 Apr 2015)
Armstrong, Arthur Hilary (tr.), Porphyry On the Life of Plotinus and the Order of His Works. In: Arthur Hilary Armstrong, Plotinus: Enneads. 7 vols. Loeb Edition. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA, 1966. (pp. 2–90)
MacKenna, Stephen (tr.), Porphyry: On the Life of Plotinus and the Arrangement of his Work. In: Stephen MacKenna (tr.), Plotinus: The Enneads. 1st edition. London, 1917. Accessed from Internet Sacred Text Archive, April 10, 2015. <sacred-texts.com/cla/plotenn/index.htm>
Porphyry (author); Adolf Kirchoff? (ed.). Περι Του Πλωτινου Βιου Και Τησ Ταξεωσ Των Βιβλιων Αυτου. Accessed from remacle.org, April 10, 2015. <remacle.org/bloodwolf/philosophes/plotin/vieplotin.htm>