Philosophy and the Solar System
Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus attempted to solve the problem of the relationship between a spiritual universe and our physical world. The structure of the observable heavens served as the model upon which their theories took form. Although they did not have the benefit of telescopes, their unaided vision affirmed that the stars and planets were in motion, and planetary motion seemed oddly circular. What they failed to realize, for want of a developed science and technology, was the immense size of the universe and the relative obscurity of the earth in relationship to it.
In the case of Plotinus, his system was not grounded entirely on astronomical theories, but rather on the structure of his own inner or visionary experiences. If this is the case, then his thought is better understood in terms of the make-up of the heavens as we know it today, rather than on the inadequate astronomical theories of his own time. If Plotinus’ inner experiences were true for him, and the structure of his metaphysics kept firmly in accord with those experiences, then what his thought embraces is that model of the heavens we know today as the solar system.
The idea of a solar system, that is, a seemingly stationary sun with a group of planets in revolution about it, was a novel idea to the early Greeks. But philosophy at that time had little knowledge of how the heavens were constructed. Plotinus believed his system could explain everything in terms of absolutes using terms such as eternal and infinite to describe the universe of time and space. Although it is difficult to see how his system describes the universe as a whole, it does show how the three hypostases might work within a different framework.
The task then is to conceive Plotinus’ system of three hypostases, the Divine Triad, in terms of the structure of the solar system. At the summit of the system is the One; he constantly refers the One by analogy to the sun. As the One “over-flows” producing the Intellectual-Realm, so too the sun issues forth the planetary spheres, a unity in diversity. As the planetary spheres turn about their source in contemplation of the One, the World Soul or the Earth, belonging essentially to the Intellectual Sphere, generates in its own contemplative power the things of the physical world. The planetary spheres, each distinct in their own orb, together keep and hold the divine intelligence as they circle in contemplation of their source, the Sun. Plotinus was without the knowledge of what a solar system might have been, but his thought points to the idea of a solar system. In his words:
“The only reasonable explanation of act flowing from it lies in the analogy of light from a sun. The entire intellectual order may be figured as a kind of light with the One in repose at its summit as its King: but this manifestation is not cast out from it, that would cause us to postulate another light before the light, but the One shines eternally, resting upon the Intellectual Realm; this, not identical with its source, is yet not severed from it nor of so remote a nature as to be less than Real-Being; it is no blind thing, but is seeing, self-knowing, the primal knower.” Enneads V.3.12.
Plotinus conceives the Intellective powers as circling around the One as the planets circle the sun. The One being at the summit is also at the center of the solar system. The planets representing diversity within unity maintain the individual characteristics of the One as defined by Plato’s Theory of Forms. The planetary Beings, as the second hypostasis, while holding the Ideas encompassed within the One, become consolidated within the sphere of the Earth, carrying the power of life to the planet. As Plotinus has said, the three hypostases are not separate or exclusive from each other, but are together everywhere, with the One, or the sun, at the center. The sun is thought of as the physical manifestation of the One. The planets are the physical manifestation of the Intellectual Realm. The Earth is considered the third hypostasis or World Soul, and the means Intellect and Being come to exist as things and life in the physical world.
The One expresses the Idea of creation through the power of the star. As the ultimate unity, and undifferentiated source of totality, it is not known, discursively, even to itself. It does not remain self-contained, it goes out of itself into its “otherness;” its over-flowing is an over-flowing into diversity and multiplicity. As the Intellectual Realm turns to contemplate its source the One comes to know itself as Self, and assumes Self-Hood. It is one system of three hierarchies, with contemplation and generation as the dynamics of each stage. Plotinus even alludes to planets as if moving in a solar system with these words:
“Thus the Intellective power circles the Supreme which stands to it as archetype to image. The archetype is intellect-in-unity; the image in its manifold movement about its Prior [the One] has produced the multiplicity by which it is constituted Intellect or Mind; that prior has no movement; it generates Mind by its sheer wealth.” Enneads VI.8.18. “The planets are divine in virtue of cleaving to the One because they remain linked with the Primal Soul, and through it possess the vision of the Intelligible World.” Enneads IV.3.11.
The idea here is that the universe is a Spiritual universe; that the power of stars generates life. Plotinus’ words become figurative and even dramatic when he says:
“ . . . By the power of Soul the manifold and diverse heavenly system is a unit: through Soul this universe is a God: and the sun is a God because it is ensouled, so too the stars; and whatsoever we ourselves may be, it is all in virtue of Soul . . . .” Enneads V.1.2.
The sun represents the One, a unity that Plotinus speaks of as un-nameable and un-knowable because it contains potentially all that can be known without distinction or differentiation. The One does not remain self-locked, it pours forth its radiant energy as a star. Just as consciousness seems independent of the elements of which the body is composed, so too the heat of the sun must be akin to creative power. It must be independent of the material of which the sun is composed. This radiant energy is focused within the planetary orbs as an image of the One, and each planet represents a distinct and diverse characteristic that makes the One knowable. Here the unity of thought as bestowed by the One becomes manifest as a multiplicity of ideas. Discursive Reasoning is at once potential and possible.
The planetary spheres, as the Intelligible Realm, and second hypostasis of the Divine Triad, manifest that unity-in-diversity through which each contains and radiates its own unique character and quality. The Earth, or third hypostasis, represents birth, growth; the fertile womb of humanity in which reasoning takes on actuality. The sun transmits life to the Earth through light, heat, and magnetism, and the planets share in the work by blending their fields with the solar radiation. We might even say that the Earth is our divine mother, and that we have been sired by that celestial power that is the ultimate source of all life–the Sun.
Creation is not without a purpose. We are divine through that which has given us life, and our purpose can only be realized through that process which sustains the very existence of the universe itself.