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St. Macrina’s Exegesis of the Parable of the Sower

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Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

The following allegorical interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (Matt.13: 24 -30) comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, On the Soul and the Resurrection, which describes a conversation St. Gregory had with his sister, St. Macrina, shortly before her death. Platonic philosophy is discussed throughtout the work. It has been called Phaedo Christianus due to its similarities in theme and setting to Plato’s Phaedo, which records discussions of Socrates on the soul before he drank the hemlock.

“To Macrina, the good seeds are the impulses of our soul which are capable, when directed towards the good (i. e., God), of producing virtue. The bad seed is sin, which is construed as a confusion of our judgment of what is, in fact, good.” (Matz, p. 278).

Matt.13
[24] Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
[25] But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
[26] But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
[27] So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
[28] He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
[29] But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
[30] Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

AND who, she replied, could deny that truth is to be found only in that upon which the seal of Scriptural testimony is set? So, if it is necessary that something from the Gospels should be adduced in support of our view, a study of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares will not be here out of place. The Householder there sowed good seed. …  But the “enemy,” having watched for the time when men slept, sowed that which was useless in that which was good for food, setting the tares in the very middle of the wheat. The two kinds of seed grew up together; for it was not possible that seed put into the very middle of the wheat should fail to grow up with it. But the Superintendent of the field forbids the servants to gather up the useless crop, on account of their growing at the very root of the contrary sort; so as not to root up the nutritious along with that foreign growth.

Now we think that Scripture means by the good seed the corresponding impulses of the soul, each one of which, if only they are cultured for good, necessarily puts forth the fruit of virtue within us. But since there has been scattered amongst these the bad seed of the error of judgment as to the true Beauty which is alone in its intrinsic nature such, and since this last has been thrown into the shade by the growth of delusion which springs up along with it (for the active principle of desire does not germinate and increase in the direction of that natural Beauty which was the object of its being sown in us, but it has changed its growth so as to move towards a bestial and unthinking state, this very error as to Beauty carrying its impulse towards this result;

and in the same way the seed of anger does not steel us to be brave, but only arms us to fight with our own people; and the power of loving deserts its intellectual objects and becomes completely mad for the immoderate enjoyment of pleasures of sense; and so in like manner our other affections put forth the worse instead of the better growths),— on account of this the wise Husbandman leaves this growth that has been introduced amongst his seed to remain there, so as to secure our not being altogether stripped of better hopes by desire having been rooted out along with that good-for-nothing growth.

If our nature suffered such a mutilation, what will there be to lift us up to grasp the heavenly delights? If love is taken from us, how shall we be united to God? If anger is to be extinguished, what arms shall we possess against the adversary?

Therefore the Husbandman leaves those bastard seeds within us, not for them always to overwhelm the more precious crop, but in order that the land itself (for so, in his allegory, he calls the heart) by its native inherent power, which is that of reasoning, may wither up the one growth and may render the other fruitful and abundant: but if that is not done, then he commissions the fire to mark the distinction in the crops. If, then, a man indulges these affections in a due proportion and holds them in his own power instead of being held in theirs, employing them for an instrument as a king does his subjects’ many hands, then efforts towards excellence more easily succeed for him. But should he become theirs, and, as when any slaves mutiny against their master, get enslaved by those slavish thoughts and ignominiously bow before them; a prey to his natural inferiors, he will be forced to turn to those employments which his imperious masters command. This being so, we shall not pronounce these emotions of the soul, which lie in the power of their possessors for good or ill, to be either virtue or vice. But, whenever their impulse is towards what is noble, then they become matter for praise, as his desire did to Daniel, and his anger to Phineas, and their grief to those who nobly mourn. But if they incline to baseness, then these are, and they are called, bad passions.

Bibliography

Callahan, Virginia Woods (Trans.). On the Soul and the Resurrection. In: Virginia Woods Callahan, Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works. (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 58). Washington DC: CUA Press, 1967.

Matz, Brian J.  Ascetic Readings of the Agricultural Parables in Matt 13:1-48 in the Cappadocians. In: Ed. Hans-Ulrich Weidemann, Asceticism and Exegesis in Early Christianity, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. pp. 268−283.

St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection (De anima et resurrectione).  Migne Patrologia Graeca vol. 46, cols. 11−160. Paris: 1863. [Greek text]

St. Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection. Trans. William Moore, Henry Austin Wilson. In: Eds. Philip Schaff & Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series 2, Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa (NPNF2-5‎). New York: Scribner, 1917 (orig. ed. 1893).

Plato’s 19 Proofs of the Immortality of the Human Soul

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William Blake, The Spirit of Plato Unfolds His Worlds to Milton in Contemplation

Is man immortal, or is he not? If he is not, all our disputes are mere amusements, or trials of skill. In this case, truth, reason, religion, which give our discourses such pomp and solemnity, are … mere empty sound, without any meaning in them. But if man is immortal, it will behove him to be very serious about eternal consequences; or, in other words, to be truly religious.
~ Edward Young, Night Thoughts

Art: William Blake, The Spirit of Plato unfolds his Worlds to Milton in Contemplation.

A SpectatorN earlier article proposed the cataloging of Plato’s various proofs for the immortality of the human soul. A fair effort to survey earlier literature has failed to uncover previous systematic attempts; the relative scarcity of studies on this topic generally is unfortunate (and not a little puzzling) given how central the soul’s immortality is for Plato’s philosophy.

As Plato’s proofs are many and subtle we shall proceed incrementally, adding little by little to the present article, until something like a thorough survey is accomplished.

To begin with, some general points.

First, we may in this context distinguish between two kinds of proofs: (1) logical arguments and (2) experiential demonstrations. By an argument we mean a set of propositions or premises, which, by formal rules of logic, imply a definite conclusion; or a set of propositions that together increase the probability that a conclusion is true (i.e., a probabilistic argument.)

By a demonstration we mean an attempt by Plato to bring to our conscious awareness an insight by means other than logical argument. In many cases with Plato this amounts to eliciting an anamnesis (an un-forgetting or recollection) of some previously known or latent knowledge. For example, we previously considered how Plato’s contemplation of the Form of the Good in Symposium 211–212 can be seen as a demonstrative proof of the existence of God. Similarly, some passages of Plato seem intended to evoke in the reader an experiential awareness of the soul’s immortality.

Second, some of Plato’s proofs are more distinct and easy to identify and characterize than others. What may at first seem a single proof may have several variations or senses that merit separate consideration. Here, inasmuch as we are approaching the topic at a data-gathering stage, we will incline more towards separating than aggregating potentially distinct proofs.

Third, some proofs appear in more than one dialogue. Initially we shall be content to, mostly, associate each proof with the dialogue in which it occurs most prominently.

A Bibliography, also to be developed over time, is added. In general the 20th century literature on immortality of the human soul is meager — an indication of the radical materialism that has lately dominated.

One motivation for pursuing the present project is to inform investigation of a related question, namely: have later philosophers introduced many new and original proofs for the immortality of the human soul, or have they, in this area as in many others, more or less only added ‘footnotes’ to Plato? To anticipate somewhat, it is tentatively proposed that one productive way to address this question is to consider three relevant works from different time periods: (1) Book 1 of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (which makes frequent reference to Plato’s main work on the soul, Phaedo), (2) Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology (prominently subtitled, On the Immortality of the Soul), and (3) Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (Nights 6 and 7; “Containing The Nature, Proof, and Importance of Immortality.”)

Plato’s Proofs of Immortality

1. Cyclicity argument.

Source: Phaedo 70c–72e.

Summary: All things proceed from their opposites. Just as death proceeds from life, life must proceed from death. Therefore the soul cannot permanently perish.

2. Recollection (or innate knowledge) argument.

Source: Phaedo 72e–77d; cf. e.g., Meno.

Summary: It appears that we know things that we have not learned in this lifetime — as shown by the fact that when they are made salient, we grasp them immediately and they seem already familiar. This suggests to Plato that we have lived before in a pre-existence; and if our souls existed before this life, they will exist after this life.

3. Affinity argument.

Source: Phaedo 78b–84b.

Summary: There are two levels of reality — the temporal and changing, and the Eternal and immutable; the soul has an innate affinity for eternal things (e.g., Platonic Forms; Truth, Beauty and Moral Goodness; mathematical and religious truths); therefore its own nature must be eternal.

4. Form of Life argument.

Source: Phaedo 102b–107b.

Summary: The soul is not only alive itself, but gives life to the body. Therefore it is intimately connected with the essence or Form of Life. Hence it would be illogical or inconsistent for the soul itself to perish.

5. Vitiating principle argument.

Source: Republic 10.608e–611a.

Summary: Every thing has its own principle of destruction, unique to it and innate (e.g., for a body, disease); if a thing is destroyed, it is only by this unique, endogenous principle. The soul has a unique destructive principle, namely vice; yet even the worst vice is not sufficient to completely kill the soul; and since nothing else besides a thing’s internal destructive principle can make it totally perish, the soul must be immortal.

6. Justice argument.

Source: Republic, Book 10 (e.g., 10.612−4, and the Myth of Er that follows).

Unless there are rewards or punishments after this life, it would violate our innate sense of justice. For example, an evil man could avoid punishment for misdeeds by dying. In short, an afterlife of the soul is required to reconcile our strong and innate sense of fairness with the seeming disregard of Fate to moral justice in this life.

7. Simplicity argument.

Source: Republic 611b, Phaedo 78b-d; cf. Plotinus, Enneads 1.1.2, 1.1.9, 1.1.12.

Summary: A thing composed of many elements is susceptible to decomposition; but the soul is a single substance, uncompounded and hence incorruptible.

8. Self-moved mover.

Source: Phaedrus 245c–246a.

Summary: While the soul moves the body, and it moves itself, it is itself not moved by anything external to it. Since being destroyed would imply movement of some sort, the soul, not moved by anything extrinsic, cannot be destroyed and must be imperishable.

9. Universal interest and yearning.

Source: Symposium 201–212.

Diotima’s speeches in Symposium revolve around the subject of immortality. Several senses of immortality are pursued, such as the begetting of children and the imparting of ideas or virtue to other people, leading up to the addressing of immortality in the religious sense. The overall drift is that human beings seem exceptionally interested in immortality and orient much of their lives to striving for it. This would not be logical unless immortality is possible.

10. Proof via purification.

Source: Republic 10.611b–612a; cf. Plotinus Enneads 1.1.12 and especially 4.7.10.

A proof by demonstration. One who is suitably purified, intellectually and morally, may obtain immediate awareness of the soul’s true nature and its immortality.

11. Replenishment argument.

Source: Phaedo 72a-e; cf. Republic 10.611b-d
Summary: Unless the world were not replenished with living souls, eventually all things would be dead; rather, the world is continually replenished with living souls, who must exist somewhere outside of this world before entering. As Socrates puts it, ” if all things that have life should die, and, when they had died, the dead should remain in that condition, is it not inevitable that at last all things would be dead.” (Phaedo 72c). Whether this is merely another statement of, or implicit in, the cyclicity argument is a topic for further consideration.

12. Afterlife testimonies.

Source: Republic Book 10 (Myth of Er).

If we take the Myth of Er literally, then it purports to be an eye-witness account of someone who has personally observed the extra-mundane life of souls. It seems fairly clear that Plato intend us to take the Er myth more than literally; nevertheless, it does serve more or less as an implicit reference by Plato to the genre of survival testimony, of which numerous examples, ancient and modern, exist.

13. Trusted authority.

Source: Meno 81a-b.

Among the Plato’s lesser arguments for the soul’s immortality is an appeal to authority: honored and trustworthy figures of the past have taught it.  The wisest and best of men are the most confident of survival of soul.

14. Tradition and custom.

Source: ?

Widespread or universal tradition implies that belief in immortality is in our common human nature.   This is conceptually different from the proof by trusted authority, though the two clearly go together. (E.g., one function of trusted authority is precisely to articulate most clearly the common knowledge or tradition.) I do not have a definite source for this in the dialogues, but include it here, tentatively, because another source mentioned it in connection with Plato. (Both the tradition and the trusted authority proofs, however, are taken up by Cicero.)

15. Limitless capacity.

Source: ?

Human beings seem to have a limitless capacity for knowledge, which would serve no purpose if the soul did not outlive the body. Here again, I have no definite source for this yet, but the idea is implicit in Plato’s general view of Man’s innate divinity and noetic and moral capabilities; and the Neoplatonist view (derived from Plato) that each human soul contains a copy of all Forms.

16. Example of Socrates.

Source: Apology, Phaedo, Crito.

Socrates’ absolute and unfeigned confidence in the face of death, his nonchalance, and what even approaches an eagerness to shuffle off the mortal coil constitute a demonstrative proof. His actions, that is, testify at least as eloquently as his words to the soul’s immortality.

17. Socrates’ desire to convince others.

Source: Phaedo

Beyond his own confidence in immortality, Socrates is intensely concerned to convince others of it. Such benevolent zeal is indicative of well-founded sincerity and possession of an important truth.

18. Socrates’ sign.

Source: Apology.

One reason Socrates gives for his confidence is that his habitual sign or daemon, which customarily warns him in case of danger, did not oppose him in attending his trial. This, Socrates, fully expecting a death sentence, took as strong evidence that his execution posed no harm. Insofar as Socrates believed his sign, and Socrates is a trusted source, this constitutes evidence for the immortality of the soul. Moreover, insofar as, from the testimony of others, we are persuaded of the sign’s trustworthiness independently of Socrates’ own evaluation of it, that is additional positive evidence for immortality.

19. Conviction of Plato.

Plato also seems intensely concerned with convincing readers of the soul’s immortality. His arguments are clearly presented in a spirit of something more than detached speculation. Cicero puts it well.

Even if Plato gave no reasons for his belief — see how much confidence I have in the man — he would break down my opposition by his authority alone; but he brings forward so many reasons as to make it perfectly obvious that he is not only fully persuaded himself, but desirous of convincing others.
~ Cicero, Tusc. Disp. 1.21.49

Thus Cicero alludes here to two different proofs:  Plato’s authority, and his desire to convince others; and the sheer number or proofs Plato produces is seen as evidence of the latter.

Bibliography

Suggestions are welcome. The goal, however, is not to produce a comprehensive bibliography, but mainly to include works that attempt to consider Plato’s arguments in their totality.

Apolloni, David. Plato’s Affinity Argument for the Immortality of the Soul. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 34(1), 1996, 5–32. (Study of the argument in Phaedo 78b-80d.)
https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_philosophy/v034/34.1apolloni.pdf

Bett, Richard. Immortality and the Nature of the Soul in the PhaedrusPhronesis, 31(1), 1986, 1–26.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182241

Chase, Thomas. Cicero on the Immortality of the Soul. Cambridge, MA 1851 (repr. 1872).
https://books.google.com/books?id=T8INAAAAYAAJ

Connolly, Tim. Plato: Phaedo. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web, 13 June 2015. (See also References therein.)
http://www.iep.utm.edu/phaedo/

Cornford, Stephen (Ed.). Edward Young: Night Thoughts. Cambridge, 1989 (repr. 2008). https://books.google.com/books?id=-2Q2MgAACAAJ

DeGraff, Thelma B. Plato in Cicero. Classical Philology, 35(2), 1940, 143–153.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/264959

Elton, Matthew. The Role of the Affinity Argument in the Phaedo. Phronesis, 42(3), 1997, 313–316.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182565

Ficino, Marsilio. Platonic Theology, On the Immortality of the Soul. Michael J. B. Allen (Trans.), James Hankins (Ed.). 6 vols. Cambridge, MA, 2001–2006.
https://books.google.com/books?id=cQZrkQEACAAJ

Frede, Dorothea. The Final Proof of the Immortality of the Soul in Plato’s Phaedo 102a–107a. Phronesis, 23(1), 1978, 27–41.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182027

Gallop, David. Plato’s ‘Cyclical Argument’ Recycled. Phronesis, 27, 1982, 207–222.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182153

Gaye, Russell K. The Platonic Conception of Immortality and its Connexion with the Theory of Ideas. Cambridge, 1904 (repr. 2014).
http://books.google.com/books?id=XwWuAgAAQBAJ

Gertz, Sebastian Ramon Philipp. Death and Immortality in Late Neoplatonism: Studies on the Ancient Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo. Leiden, 2011.
http://books.google.com/books?id=Kzgca5UpTFwC

Geddes, W(illiam) D(uguid). Platonis Phaedo. 2nd ed. London: MacMillan, 1885.
https://archive.org/details/phaedopla00plat

Gilfillan, George (Ed.) Young’s Night Thoughts. Edinburgh, 1853.
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/33156/33156-h/33156-h.htm

Gould, Richard. Cicero’s Indebtedness to the Platonic Dialogues in Tusculan Disputations I. Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1968.

Hackforth, R. Immortality in Plato’s Symposium. Classical Review, 64(2), 1950, 43–45.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/703569

King , J. E. (Trans.) Cicero: Tusculan Disputations. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA, 1927 (rev. 1945).
http://www.amazon.com/dp/0674991567

MacKenna, Stephen (Trans.), Plotinus: The Enneads. 1st edition. London, 1917. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Web, 16 June 2015.
http://sacred-texts.com/cla/plotenn/index.htm

MacKenna, Stephen (Trans.); Page, B. S. (Ed.), Plotinus: The Enneads. 2nd edition. London, 1956.

O’Brien, Michael J. Becoming Immortal in Plato’s Symposium. In: Douglas E. Gerber (Ed.), Greek Poetry and Philosophy: Studies in Honour of Leonard Woodbury. Chicago, 1984, pp. 185–205.
http://commonweb.unifr.ch/artsdean/pub/gestens/f/as/files/4610/26399_133233.pdf

Patterson, Robert Leet. Plato on Immortality. University Park, PA, 1965.
http://books.google.com/books?id=GRtDAAAAIAAJ

Peabody, Andrew P. (tr.) Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. Boston, 1886.
https://archive.org/details/cicerostusculand00ciceiala

Shorey, Paul. Review of The Platonic Conception of Immortality, and its Connexion with the Theory of Ideas, by R. K. Gaye. Philosophical Review, 14(5), 1905, 590–595.
http://books.google.com/books?id=MJZJAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA590

Shorey, Paul (Tr.). Plato’s Republic. 2 vols. (Loeb Classical Library: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6). Cambridge, MA, 1935 (repr. 1969).
http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0059.tlg030.perseus-eng1:1.327a

Smith, John. A Discourse Demonstrating the Immortality of the Soul. In: John Smith, Select Discourses, London J. Flesher, 1660; repr. in E. T. Campagnac (ed.), The Cambridge Platonists, Oxford, 1901, pp. 99-157.
https://books.google.com/books?id=CC8qAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA99

Snyder, James G. Marsilio Ficino. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web, 22 June 2015.
http://www.iep.utm.edu/ficino/

Spring, Charles. On the Essence and Immortality of the Soul. London, 1865. http://books.google.com/books?id=xnwXAAAAYAAJ

Stanford, Charles S. A Catalogue of Books Treating on the Immortality of the Soul. New York, 1853. (Also appended to: Charles S. Stanford, Phaedo: Or, The Immortality of the Soul, New York, 1854.)
http://books.google.com/books?id=n4k0JOmmsJYC&pg=PA231

Stuart, Moses. Cicero on the Immortality of the Soul (Questionum Tusculanaram, Liber 1). With Notes and Appendix. Andover, MA, 1833.
https://books.google.com/books?id=VQeTJX8ARXoC

Stull, William. Reading the Phaedo in Tusculan Disputations 1. Classical Philology, Vol. 107, No. 1 (January 2012), pp. 38-52.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/663216

Uebersax, John S. Plato Divinus: Is Plato a Religious Figure? Web, 15 June 2015.
http://www.john-uebersax.com/books/Uebersax-Divinus-Plato-draft-June-2015.pdf

Westerink, Leendert. G. (Trans.). The Greek Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo. Vol. 1 (Olympiodorus) & Vol 2 (Damascius). Prometheus Trust, 2009.
https://books.google.com/books?id=68ZOAQAAIAAJ

Written by John Uebersax

September 8, 2015 at 1:00 am

Porphyry on the Mystical Experiences and Initiation of Plotinus

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fancy_dc_AS 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.)

23.
[a]
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.

[b]
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.

[c]
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.

[d]
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.

[e]
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.

[f]
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.

[g]
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.

Discussion

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.

Besides the Symposium, important touchstones for the Ladder of Love as a spiritual exercise are Enneads 1.6 (On Beauty), 5.8 (On Intelligible Beauty), and 1.3 (On Dialectic; chapters 1 and 2).

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)

References

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>

finisx

Written by John Uebersax

April 14, 2015 at 9:15 pm

The Oracle of Delphi on Plotinus

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fancy_dropcase_SOME time after his death, one of Plotinus’ pupils, Amelius, consulted the oracle at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi concerning the fate of his master’s soul. Porphyry (to whom we owe the transmission of the Enneads), recorded the oracular response in On the Life of Plotinus 22. Shown below is the prose translation of Stephen MacKenna, Thomas Taylor’s poetic version, and the Greek text.  A followup post relates Porphyry’s analysis of the oracle and supplies some psychological observations.

Stephen MacKenna Translation

Source: Stephen MacKenna (‘Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus‘, The Enneads, vol. 1, London, 1917; Section 22 = pp. 22–23)

22. … Apollo was consulted by Amelius, who desired to learn where Plotinus’ soul had gone. And Apollo, who uttered of Socrates that great praise, ‘Of all men, Socrates the wisest’–you shall hear what a full and lofty oracle Apollo rendered upon Plotinus.

I raise an undying song, to the memory of a gentle friend,
a hymn of praise woven to the honey-sweet tones of my lyre
under the touch of the golden plectrum.

The Muses, too, I call to lift the voice with me
in strains of many-toned exultation,
in passion ranging over all the modes of song:

even as of old they raised the famous chant to the glory of Aeacides
in the immortal ardours of the Homeric line.

Come, then, Sacred Chorus,
let us intone with one great sound the utmost of all song,
I Phoebus, Bathychaites, singing in the midst.

Celestial! Man at first but now nearing the diviner ranks!
the bonds of human necessity are loosed for you
and, strong of heart, you beat your eager way
from out the roaring tumult of the fleshly life
to the shores of that wave-washed coast [1]
free from the thronging of the guilty,
thence to take the grateful path of the sinless soul:

where glows the splendour of God,
where Right is throned in the stainless place,
far from the wrong that mocks at law.

Oft-times as you strove to rise above
the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life,
above the sickening whirl, toiling
in the mid-most of the rushing flood
and the unimaginable turmoil,
oft-times, from the Ever-Blessed,
there was shown to you the Term still close at hand:

Oft-times, when your mind thrust out awry
and was like to be rapt down unsanctioned paths,
the Immortals themselves prevented, guiding you
on the straightgoing way to the celestial spheres,
pouring down before you a dense shaft of light
that your eyes might see from amid the mournful gloom.

Sleep never closed those eyes:
high above the heavy murk of the mist you held them;
tossed in the welter, you still had vision;
still you saw sights many and fair
not granted to all that labour in wisdom’s quest.

But now that you have cast the screen aside,
quitted the tomb that held your lofty soul,
you enter at once the heavenly consort:

where fragrant breezes play,
where all is unison and winning tenderness and guileless joy,
and the place is lavish of the nectar-streams the unfailing Gods bestow,
with the blandishments of the Loves,
and delicious airs, and tranquil sky:

where Minos and Rhadamanthus dwell,
great brethren of the golden race of mighty Zeus;
where dwell the just Aeacus,
and Plato, consecrated power,
and stately Pythagoras
and all else that form the Choir of Immortal Love,
that share their parentage with the most blessed spirits,
there where the heart is ever lifted in joyous festival.

O Blessed One,
you have fought your many fights;
now, crowned with unfading life,
your days are with the Ever-Holy.

Rejoicing Muses,
let us stay our song and the subtle windings of our dance;
thus much I could but tell, to my golden lyre,
of Plotinus, the hallowed soul.

1. Armstrong (p. 66, n1) notes: “The oracle is full of Homeric tags: here we have a reminiscence of Odyssey 5, 399,” and “this whole passage seems to be based on an allegorical interpretation of Odysseus’s swim ashore after the wreck of his raft.”  Cf. Enneads 1.6.8 for Odysseus’ voyages as an allegory of the soul’s journey. Source: Armstrong, Arthur Hilary (tr.).  Plotinus. The Enneads, in 7 vols., (Loeb Classical Library), vol. 1, Cambridge, Mass., 1966 .

Thomas Taylor translation

Source: Thomas Taylor, Select Works of Plotinus. London, 1817; repr. 1895 (G. R. S. Mead, ed.), pp. lxvi–lxvii.

To strains immortal full of heav’nly fire,
My harp I tune well strung with vocal wire ;
Dear to divinity a friend I praise,
Who claims those notes a God alone can raise.

For him a God in verse mellifluous sings,
And heats with golden rod the warbling strings.
Be present Muses, and with general voice
And all the powers of harmony rejoice ;

Let all the measures of your art be try’d
In rapt’rous sounds, as when Achilles dy’d.
When Homer’s melody the band inspir’d,
And god-like furies every bosom fir’d.

And lo ! the sacred choir of Muses join,
And in one general hymn their notes combine.
I Phoebus in the midst, to whom belong
The sacred pow’rs of verse, begin the song.

Genius sublime! once bound in mortal ties,
A daemon now and more than mortals wise.
Freed from those members that with deadly weight
And stormy whirl enchain’d thy soul of late;

O’er Life’s rough ocean thou hast gain’d that shore,
Where storms molest and change impairs no more;
And struggling thro’ its deeps with vig’rous mind,
Pass’d the dark stream, and left base souls behind.

Plac’d where no darkness ever can obscure,
Where nothing enters sensual and impure ;
Where shines eternal God’s unclouded ray,
And gilds the realms of intellectual day.

Oft merg’d in matter, by strong leaps you try’d
To bound aloft, and cast its folds aside ;
To shun the bitter stream of sanguine life,
Its whirls of sorrow, and its storm of strife.

While in the middle of its boist’rous waves
Thy soul robust, the deep’s deaf tumult braves;
Oft beaming from the Gods thy piercing sight
Beheld in paths oblique a sacred light:

Whence rapt from sense with energy divine,
Before thine eyes immortal splendours shine;
Whose plenteous rays in darkness most profound,
Thy steps directed and ilium in ‘d round.

Nor was the vision like the dreams of sleep,
But seen while vigilant you brave the deep;
While from your eyes you shake the gloom of night,
The glorious prospects burst upon your sight;

Prospects beheld but rarely by the wise,
Tho’ men divine and fav’rites of the skies.
But now set free from the lethargic folds,
By which th’ indignant soul dark matter holds;

The natal bonds deserted, now you soar,
And rank with daemon forms a man no more.
In that blest realm where love and friendship reign,
And pleasures ever dwell unmixt with pain;

Where streams ambrosial in immortal course
Irriguous flow, from deity their source.
No dark’ning clouds those happy skies assail,
And the calm aether knows no stormy gale.

Supremely blest thy lofty soul abides,
Where Minos and his brother judge presides;
Just AEacus and Plato the divine,
And fair Pythag’ras there exalted shine;

With other souls who form the general choir
Of love immortal, and of pure desire ;
And who one common station are assign’d,
With genii of the most exalted kind.

Thrice happy thou! who, life’s long labours past,
With holy daemons dost reside at last;
From body loosen’d and from cares at rest,
Thy life most stable, and divine thy feast.

Now ev’ry Muse who for Plotinus sings,
Here cease with me to tune the vocal strings;
For thus my golden harp, with art divine,
Has told—Plotinus! endless bliss is thine.

Greek Text

This is from the French/Greek online edition of the Enneads at the Ancient Greek and Latin website of Philippe Remacle et al.  The source is possibly Creuzer (1835) or Kirchoff (1856).Line numbers have been added and a couple of vowels changed to conform to the Loeb edition (Armstrong, 1966).

22.

Ὁ γὰρ δὴ Ἀπόλλων ἐρομένου τοῦ Ἀμελίου,
ποῦ ἡ Πλωτίνου ψυχὴ κεχώρηκεν, ὁ τοσοῦτον

10
εἰπὼν περὶ Σωκράτους·
Ἀνδρῶν ἁπάντων Σωκράτης σοφώτατος,
ἐπάκουσον, ὅσα καὶ οἷα περὶ Πλωτίνου ἐθέσπισεν·

Ἄμβροτα φορμίζειν ἀναβάλλομαι ὕμνον ἀοιδῆς
ἀμφ᾽ ἀγανοῖο φίλοιο μελιχροτάτοισιν ὑφαίνων

15
φωναῖς εὐφήμου κιθάρης χρυσέῳ ὑπὸ πλήκτρῳ.
Κλῄζω καὶ Μούσας ξυνὴν ὄπα γηρύσασθαι
παμφώνοις ἰαχαῖσι παναρμονίαισί τ᾽ ἐρωαῖς,
οἷον ἐπ᾽ Αἰακίδῃ στῆσαι χορὸν ἐκλήιχθεν
ἀθανάτων μανίαισιν Ὁμηρείαισί τ᾽ ἀοιδαῖς.

20
Ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε Μουσάων ἱερὸς χορός, ἀπύσωμεν
εἰς ἓν ἐπιπνείοντες ἀοιδῆς τέρματα πάσης·
ὕμμι καὶ ἐν μέσσαισιν ἐγὼ Φοῖβος βαθυχαίτης·
δαῖμον, ἄνερ τὸ πάροιθεν, ἀτὰρ νῦν δαίμονος αἴσῃ
θειοτέρῃ πελάων, ὅτ᾽ ἐλύσαο δεσμὸν ἀνάγκης

25
ἀνδρομέης, ῥεθέων δὲ πολυφλοίσβοιο κυδοιμοῦ
ῥωσάμενος πραπίδεσσιν ἐς ᾐόνα νηχύτου ἀκτῆς
νήχε᾽ ἐπειγόμενος δήμου ἄπο νόσφιν ἀλιτρῶν
στηρίξαι καθαρῆς ψυχῆς εὐκαμπέα οἴμην,
ἧχι θεοῖο σέλας περιλάμπεται, ἧχι θέμιστες

30
ἐν καθαρῷ ἀπάτερθεν ἀλιτροσύνης ἀθεμίστου.
Καὶ τότε μὲν σκαίροντι πικρὸν κῦμ᾽ ἐξυπαλύξαι
αἱμοβότου βιότοιο καὶ ἀσηρῶν εἰλίγγων
ἐν μεσάτοισι κλύδωνος ἀνωίστου τε κυδοιμοῦ
πολλάκις ἐκ μακάρων φάνθη σκοπὸς ἐγγύθι ναίων.

35
Πολλάκι σεῖο νόοιο βολὰς λοξῇσιν ἀταρποῖς
ἱεμένας φορέεσθαι ἐρωῇσι σφετέρῃσιν
ὀρθοπόρους ἀνὰ κύκλα καὶ ἄμβροτον οἶμον ἄειραν
ἀθάνατοι θαμινὴν φαέων ἀκτῖνα πορόντες
ὄσσοισιν δέρκεσθαι ἀπαὶ σκοτίης λυγαίης.

40
Οὐδέ σε παμπήδην βλεφάρων ἔχε νήδυμος ὕπνος·
ἀλλ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἀπὸ βλεφάρων πετάσας κληῖδα βαρεῖαν
ἀχλύος ἐν δίνῃσι φορεύμενος ἔδρακες ὄσσοις
πολλά τε καὶ χαρίεντα, τά κεν ῥέα οὔτις ἴδοιτο
ἀνθρώπων, ὅσσοι σοφίης μαιήτορες ἔπλευν.

45
Νῦν δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ σκῆνος μὲν ἐλύσαο, σῆμα δ᾽ ἔλειψας
ψυχῆς δαιμονίης, μεθ᾽ ὁμήγυριν ἔρχεαι ἤδη
δαιμονίην ἐρατοῖσιν ἀναπνείουσαν ἀήταις,
ἔνθ᾽ ἔνι μὲν φιλότης, ἔνι δ᾽ ἵμερος ἁβρὸς ἰδέσθαι,
εὐφροσύνης πλείων καθαρῆς, πληρούμενος αἰὲν

50
ἀμβροσίων ὀχετῶν θεόθεν ὅθεν ἐστὶν ἐρώτων
πείσματα, καὶ γλυκερὴ πνοιὴ καὶ νήνεμος αἰθήρ,
χρυσείης γενεῆς μεγάλου Διὸς ἧχι νέμονται
Μίνως καὶ Ῥαδάμανθυς ἀδελφεοί, ἧχι δίκαιος
Αἰακός, ἧχι Πλάτων, ἱερὴ ἴς, ἧχί τε καλὸς

55
Πυθαγόρης ὅσσοι τε χορὸν στήριξαν ἔρωτος
ἀθανάτου, ὅσσοι γενεὴν ξυνὴν ἐλάχοντο
δαίμοσιν ὀλβίστοις, ὅθι τοι κέαρ ἐν θαλίῃσιν
αἰὲν ἐυφροσύνῃσιν τ᾽ ἰαίνεται. Ἆ μάκαρ, ὅσσους
ὀτλήσας ἀριθμούς ἀέθλων μετὰ δαίμονας ἁγνοὺς

60
πωλέεαι ζαμενῇσι κορυσσάμενος ζωῇσι.
Στήσωμεν μολπήν τε χοροῦ τ᾽ εὐδίνεα κύκλον
Πλωτίνου, Μοῦσαι, πολυγηθέος· αὐτὰρ ἐμεῖο
χρυσείη κιθάρη τόσσον φράσεν εὐαίωνι.

SONY DSC

Written by John Uebersax

March 29, 2015 at 1:09 am