Most of us eventually ask those profound questions: Who am I? From where have I come, and where am I going? Is life the beginning and the end? Is there such a thing we call the soul? Various cultures and religions have their own interpretations, and modern science is of little help. So it is to human thought and experience, rationally structured by the mind, that our present inquiry will hopefully give us a clearer understanding of the nature of the soul. Even as human experience accepts the notion of the soul, so too is it the ground for denying its existence. The latter view has an able spokesman in the name of David Hume, an eighteenth century philosopher. He denies that we have any idea of the Self as distinct from our perceptions. As he says:
“All our perceptions are distinguishable and separable, and we can discover no self apart from or underlying these perceptions. The problem about the substance of the soul had, therefore, better be dismissed. For we can make no sense of it.” 10If we accept Hume’s notion of the soul, then there would be no further discussion. It seems true that sense experience gives us no evidence to establish the existence of something as intangible as the soul. Although we share in Hume’s world of the senses, there is another that very few of us share in. This is the world of the mystic, the saint, the seer. Their experience is attained by withdrawing from the realm of sense into the self, quitting outer reality in search of the inner sanctuary where soul may be found. Here one finds wisdom, and knowledge of the divine.
Plotinus is often called the Father of Western mysticism. He attempted to understand his inner experiences by formulating a doctrine of soul based on sound reasoning, and critical argument. These inner or mystical experiences seem as rare to Western minds as they are common to the mystics of the East. The great difficulty in either tradition is the problem of articulating the experience in terms that people can relate to. It is often claimed that mystical experiences by virtue of their nature are indescribable, but this is not always the case, for Plotinus has left a philosophy rich in description. What he came to experience within himself became the means of describing a greater reality beyond, and that is but a reflection or image of the divine within every human soul. Birth is not the beginning nor is death the end when speaking of the soul, they are only the doors we pass through on our journey from the spiritual realm to the physical world, and through which we return again in a continuous cycle. Only the body comes into being and passes away; it is the vehicle through which the soul takes residence in its long journey back to its source. As the body is the means for soul growth and development so that it may reenter the spiritual planes enriched by its experiences, so also is it the means by which the soul stumbles and falters, obscured by its embodiment in matter.
There are features in the account of soul found throughout the writings of Plotinus. There is always a tripartite division; the transcendent higher Universal Soul, which he equates with the One; the immanent but separate lower form of Soul that acquires attributes as held in the Intellectual Sphere, and the particular souls that give life to living things. Our individual souls are offshoots of Universal Soul, which have the whole present in them, yet able to expand themselves by contemplation into universality.
The spiritual state of the soul in body depends on its attitude and self-image. If it devotes itself to the interests of the physical body, it becomes trapped in the particularity of material life, and isolated from the whole. The soul becomes imprisoned in body, and cut off from an awareness of its high destiny. Yet, it is still possible for a person to rise above the cares of earthly life to transcendent soul, and union with the One. The return of the soul to its source has nothing to do with movement in space, and union can be attained while still in the body. Plotinus, however, proposed that permanent union is possible only at death. The mystical process is one of interiorization, of turning away from the external world, of concentrating one’s powers inwardly instead of dissipating them outwardly, and then waiting for the One to declare His presence in the ultimate union.
Plotinus teaches that we are more than soul. We do not come down altogether, the highest part of ourselves remaining in the Intellectual Realm even when we are embodied, and we can share in its self-transcendence and contemplate the One, although our experience of this highest state can only be rare and fleeting since we are handicapped by the body. As he says:
“Such is the life of the divinity and of divine and blessed men: detachment from all things here below, scorn of all earthly pleasures, the flight of the Lone to the Alone. Enneads VI.9.11.
The soul itself must be immortal if it can be shown that its source is immortal. “If life is not essentially self-living and immortal, it must be a compound that must be traced back through its constituents until an immortal substance is reached. Something deriving movement from itself, and therefore debarred from accepting death.” Enneads IV.7.11.
Self-movement implies immortality. Even if life can be considered a condition imposed upon matter, “ . . . still the source from which this condition entered the matter must necessarily be admitted to be immortal simply by being unable to take into itself the opposite of the life that it conveys.” Enneads IV.7.11.
Life is more than a condition imposed upon matter; it is an independent principle. The individual soul is considered to be the free and responsible cause of its own actions. In its higher life, out of the body, it is altogether free, but since it is involved with the body it is subject to the necessity that controls our physical reality. Its degree of freedom or involvement is very much dependent upon itself. It is inevitable that the soul will ‘decline’ toward the material world for the sake of creation, but its attitude toward its own decline is the critical factor. The test for the soul is whether it falls in love with itself and its creative powers; once it does it forgets its source and the duty to return. Plotinus conceives the descent as a kind of ‘natural leap,’ such as men make toward marriage or toward the performance of noble deeds. It involves neither freedom nor compulsion, in the sense of a rational choice, but on actions that come naturally. The soul voluntarily descends through its own desire to do so, but in so doing alienates itself from the ultimate source because the soul becomes entangled in matter, the principle of evil. But the descent is also involuntary because it is a necessity. As he says:
“ . . . the soul was given by the goodness of the Creator to the end that the total of things might be possessed of intellect, for thus intellectual it was planned to be, and thus it cannot be except through Soul.” Enneads IV.8.1.
Once the soul falls in love with its own powers, it desires to stand apart; it is eager to create, and by turning outward adds the universe to its concern. Thus souls descend for better or worse, and the soul is its own responsibility. Its actions decide its fate in this world and the one to follow.
Plotinus believed that plants, animals, mankind, and stars are endowed with soul in varying degrees. Since soul is the principle of life, it is immortal, but beings are subject to birth and death; they are mortal. The doctrine of metempsychosis, better known as reincarnation, arises in his philosophy as an account of the passage of soul from body to body. The notion of rebirth is best expressed by his analogy to a stage play:
“It comes to no more than the murder of one of the persons in a play; the actor alters his make-up and enters in a new role. The actor, of course, was not really killed; but if dying is but changing a body as the actor changes a costume, or even an exit from the body like the exit of the actor from the boards when he has no more to say or do–though he will return to act on another occasion–what is there so very dreadful in this transformation of living beings one into another? Surely this is better than if they had never existed; that would mean the bleak quenching of life, precluded from passing outside itself; . . . Thus every man has his place, a place that fits the good man, a place that fits the bad: each within the two orders of men makes his way, naturally, reasonably, to the place, good or bad, that suits him, and takes the position he has made his own. There he talks and acts, in blasphemy and crime or in all goodness; for the actors bring to this play what they were before it was ever staged.” Enneads III.2.15-17.
An individual is never completely exempt from remembering his past deeds and actions. The power of the soul to remember incidents in former lives seems to be a quality or function of the disembodied soul, but the embodied soul is forgetful of such things; it is, therefore, guided to its proper place by individual conditions, and by a higher power that maintains the universal scheme. The passing of the soul from life to life is not an arbitrary or capricious event based on the will or desires of the individual soul. Rather, it is a passage determined by a preordained Justice and the conditions it has itself made and will be held accountable for.
“Thus a man, once a ruler, will be made a slave because he abused his power and because the fall is to his future good. Those that have misused money will be made poor–and to the good poverty is no hindrance . . . . It is not an accident that makes a man a slave; no one is a prisoner by chance; every bodily outrage has its due cause. The man once did what he now suffers.” Enneads III.2.13
There may be a tendency to believe that an aspect of predestination is at work here. Because souls return to meet the conditions they have created does not entail a precise enactment of events that predestination might imply. The term “fate” probably conveys a better meaning in Plotinus’ thought.
The penalties that souls pay for their sins are not meted out by an angry God seeking vengeance, but an inevitable process that allows souls to regain their lost status. Again Plotinus states:
“ . . . no one can ever escape the suffering entailed by ill deeds done: the Divine Law is ineluctable, carrying bound up, as one with it, the fore-ordained execution of its doom. The sufferer, all unaware, is swept onward toward his due, hurried always by the restless driving of his errors, until at last wearied out by that against which he struggles, he falls into his fit place and, by self-chosen movement, is brought to the lot he never chose. And the law decrees, also, the intensity and the duration of the suffering while it carries with it, too, the lifting of chastisement and the faculty of rising from those places of pain–all by power of the harmony that maintains the universal scheme.” Enneads IV.3.24.
Plotinus conceives the return of the soul to its origin, or the ascent of the soul to its source in two ways. Death in the physical world is birth in the spiritual realm, but this does not mean that the soul returns to its source. If a soul has too great an attachment to the body, it will not recognize its true course and be pulled back to the Earth seeking rebirth. A soul that recognizes its nobler nature will seek its home in the Intelligible World and union with the One. For Plotinus, death is not a necessary condition for divine union. Union is attainable while still in the body, and is more aptly described as a mystical, or transcendental experience.
To have a mystical experience is one thing, to explain it is quite another. The language that Plotinus uses to express his experience is metaphysical, analogical, and emotional. But certain characteristics are definable. The road is an ascent, a movement upward from below. The increase of intensity and of concentration is a rise; the dispersion and diminution is a fall. The One is at the summit of the ascent. It is also within, since to be one with the Supreme is to be at the center of one’s Self. Although soul is within body, the soul must turn away from what is external and, as far as possible, ignore sense experience and bodily needs. The theme of inwardness is presented in terms of a progressive penetration into the interior of the soul; here penetration and elevation are the same.
Every soul is constituted by means of a two-way dynamism. The departure from the principle immediately prior and superior occurs, in a sense, simultaneously with the return to that same principle. As a result, any soul, while not identical with its Ideal, exists in its self-identity in an immediate relationship of union with and dependence upon its Ideal. Therefore, the being that knows itself also will know that from which it comes. Introversion is in a sense reversion or return upon one’s principle; and since the principle is always superior to the product, which derives from it and depends upon it, introversion is also elevation. Introversion and contemplation mark the path that all souls must tread in returning to their origin; but for Plotinus only the most virtuous souls ever reach their goal. He explains the method in this long quote:
“What then is our course? It is not a journey for the feet, nor of a coach or a ship. You must close your eyes and call instead upon another vision, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to use. But what is the operation of this inner vision? The soul must be trained to recognize all noble pursuits, then the works of beauty, not produced by art, but by the virtue of men known for their goodness. But how are you to see into a virtuous soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine. When you know that you have become this perfect work, when you are self-gathered in the purity of your being, nothing clinging from without, wholly true to your essential nature–when you perceive that you have grown to this, you may become this vision; now call up all your confidence, strike forward yet a step–you need a guide no longer–strain, and see.” Enneads I.6.9.
The souls successive stages of internalization and simplification correspond to and are identical with the three principles or hypostases. A soul immersed in body is at the last level of the lowest stage of the third hypostasis–the World Soul. The internalization of a soul’s awareness is the first step in transcending matter, which brings recognition of a higher level of reality, the second hypostasis, the Intellectual Realm. Union with the One, the first hypostasis, is a soul’s vision of creation. As Plotinus says:
“Thus we have all the vision that may be of Him and of ourselves; but it is of a self wrought to splendor, brimmed with the intellectual light, become that very light, pure, buoyant, unburdened, raised to the Godhead, or better, knowing its Godhood . . . .” Enneads VI.9.9.
Our star takes its exalted position in an even larger reality that exists in a vast realm to the edge of our Sentient Universe. Beyond this there is nothing but the utter void, no time no space no beginning no end. Thought is its own creation in the here and now, and appears to be part of a process that keeps everything going in an eternal cycle that begets new universes from old ones. It must be so, our universe was born and will die, there must be something to take its place. It is not possible that Thought, Spirit, and Soul cannot not Be. Matter exists for the sake of Mind, otherwise there would be no universe.