De Anima: Plotinus
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
Fundamental to the philosophy of Plotinus (204-70) is the essential divinity of the Universe. The intelligible world above, the sensible world below, bound together into a whole by the World Soul. Divinity permeates the entire Universe and all things within it, constantly engaged in a diastolic/systolic movement of divinity through a matrix that is the Soul. The World Soul is within all things, acting as the tertium quid of divine Intellect, and the souls that are in everything are part of the World Soul. The human soul is then part of the World Soul, particularized into a specific time and place, yet not partitioned off from it. The human soul is of three parts, the highest being the Intuitive Soul, then the Reasoning Soul, and lowest is the Unreasoning Soul. In addition to possessing soul, the human form has a measure of the Intellectual-Principle and thus has a divine essence as well. The Intuitive Soul always remains above within the World Soul, contemplating the Intellectual-Principle. Like a musical instrument, the individual is meant to bring himself or herself into harmony, the Intuitive Soul representing the highest pitch, or the Term, the Reasoning Soul is then the Mean that the individual needs to raise towards the Intellectual-Principle, towards the divine. By acceding to the rational principle in oneself, the soul putting off its earthly concerns, what remains is that Divine Being, recognized as our Authentic Existence in the divine essence that is the Universe; "our concern is not merely to be sinless but to be God (Enneads I.2.6)."
The question of a soul entering a body, according to Plotinus, takes two forms. First is that of the transfer of a soul from one material body to another, or else from an aerial or fiery body into a body of material form. Second is the transfer of a soul from a wholly bodiless state to that of any form of body. Plotinus makes a distinction here between pure matter and a body in material form. Matter on its own is chaotic, unorganized, and it is the body, bearing the Forms from the Intellectual-Principle, that gives matter orderly form. And body is generated by Soul. "Never was this All (the Universe) unensouled, never did body subsist without soul, never was this Matter unelaborated (IV.3.9)." We speak of the 'entry' of the soul into body and of the 'ensoulment' of body only as a means of discussing such matters, when they "must in fact be co-existent." And Matter could not ever be "left aside as wholly isolated," for if that was true then "the Divine Beings are not everywhere but in some bound place, walled off, so to speak." Arguing against the Gnostics, Plotinus posed three principles, or hypostases, in the Universe; the One, the Intellectual-Principle, and Soul, "no more than three and no fewer'we are not to introduce superfluous distinctions (II.9.2)." Soul proceeds from the Intellectual-Principle, animating the Universe into movement, Soul being the 'self-moved.' "In the absence of body, soul could not have gone forth, since there is no other place to which its nature would allow it to descend; since go forth it must, it will generate a place for itself; at once body, also, exists (IV.3.9)." Unlike Christian or Gnostic thought, Soul is not ensnared in matter. "The Cosmos is ensouled, not by a soul belonging to it, but by one present to it; it is mastered, not master; not possessor, but possessed." Plotinus likens the Cosmos to "a net which takes all its life, as far as it stretches, from being wet in the water'the sea spreads out, taking the net with it just so far as it will go, for no mesh of it can strain beyond its set place'so far as the universe extends, there soul is; and if the universe had no existence, the extent of soul would be the same; it is eternally what it is (IV.3.9)."
The Universe is a whole, a single entity reflective of the One. It is not created by an act of will, but rather "the world, we must reflect, is a product of Necessity, not of deliberate purpose; it is due to a higher Kind engendering in its own likeness by a natural process (III.2.3)." Although we speak of the Universe being engendered, or proceeding forth from the One, this cannot be taken in a sequential sense, for the divine principles being eternal can have no beginning or end, and all things coexist together and at once. The Cosmos and the Universe in which it is contained may be likened to a circle. "As in the circle the center, the radial distances, and the outer circumference all exist at the same time, so also in the paradigms there are no parts that are earlier in time and others that come to be later, but all are together at once ' rest, procession, and reversion (Proclus: Commentary on the First Book of Euclid's Elements 152)." We may liken the center to the One, the radial distances to the Intellectual-Principle, and Soul to the circular form of the circumference, that is reflective of the center and ever seeks to return to the center. The Soul acts as a channel through which Authentic Being extends from and reverts back to the One in an ever constant diastolic/systolic movement characterized as being at rest in potentiality within the One, proceeding forth, and returning into perfection by its reversion into the One.
The human soul, according to Plotinus, "is one nature in graded powers," these being three; one "always in the presence of the Divine Beings," a middle ground, and one in "this sphere." This is a unique feature in Plotinus' philosophy, that part of a soul always remains 'above.' "Sometimes the less noble part is dragged down and drags the mid-soul with it, though the law is that the Soul may never succumb entire (II.9.2)." The Intuitive Soul must remain 'above' ever in contact with the Intellectual-Principle, the Unreasoning Soul always joined to body below, as the soul acts as a channel, "illuminated and illuminating always." The Soul can never be fully parted off into other things, "the Soul is certainly not wrenched asunder by its presence at once in foot and toe," and only that part of it possessing the ability may interact in a body. This 'movement' into body is again not made by an act of will but by a natural process "to a recipient indicated by affinity of condition." The soul's 'movement' or 'descent' into body is only a means of transmission of the divine throughout the Universe, the soul "compelled to labor in care of care-needing things (IV.3.12)." Since a soul remains as one, part in the eternal realms of the divine, part embracing and caring for things, and only the lower part attaches to body, "adapting itself to times and seasons," the human soul is not transported by an ochema. Nor is there any need of the Gnostic pneuma. A soul does not descend through spheres of materiality, or become encrusted and trapped in a body, and needs no tertium quid between itself and body, as this would all be unnatural. Against the Gnostics Plotinus wrote, "Equally unreasonable is their introduction of that other soul which they piece together from the elements' How could any form or degree of life come about by a blend of the elements' How could such a soul be a bond holding the four elements together when it is a later thing and rises from them (II.9.5)'" All matter is already possessed of a body generated by a soul, and through soul is "all linked together in one unbroken chain, all eternal."
Like Herakleitos in search of himself, Plotinus advises, "Withdraw into yourself and look (I.2)." The lower soul is that part only that is connected to body and through body interacts in the physical universe. It is vegetative, controlling growth of the body, sensitive, receiving impressions and illusions, and unreasoning, being filled with the passions. But the Mean is the Reasoning Soul, whose natural inclination is towards the Intellectual-Principle. The Reasoning Soul can be dragged lower by the passions into earthly concerns of the Unreasoning Soul, but may, instead, move higher towards the Intuitive Soul. The process of attaining a "likeness to the gods" is made by adopting Aristotle's virtues: "never allowed the passions of the body to affect it, the virtue of Temperance ' knew no fear at the parting from the body, the virtue of Fortitude ' and if reason and the Intellectual-Principle ruled, in which state of Justice is the virtue of Righteousness (I.2.7)." This process is the "disengagement" that reunites the three parts of the human soul into a "primal excellence restored" (I.2.6). "Disengagement means simply that the soul withdraws to its own place (I.2.5)." Reaching toward "loftier principles and other standards," the "final Disengagement" is attained when the human soul, thus restored, is redeemed into the World Soul, or as Plotinus says, "Let us flee then to the beloved Fatherland'(I.6.8)." There is a mystical element in Plotinus, in that this disengagement from earthly concerns, and redemption into the World Soul can occur in an ecstatic state. The "final Disengagement" arrives at death, which, on the surface, looks much like the Gnostic or Hermetic concept of rejecting the physical world to retreat fully into the divine. That, however, would be to misunderstand Plotinus' conception of the Universe and how the soul interacts within it, what role the soul plays in the Whole. The Universe is a reflection of the One, the Whole then being beautiful and good. It is not to be rejected or fled from to some other place. Rather, through understanding one draws deeper into the whole of the Universe, finding their place, interacting with the gods as a god on the Whole. "In the Universe the middle and lower members are human beings; above them, the Heavens and the Gods that dwell there'humanity, in reality, is poised midway between gods and beasts (III.2.8)." Through ecstasy the Reasoning Soul may rise to join with the Intuitive Soul and commune with the gods, then return to rule over the body and effect divinity in the world below. In the final disengagement the same occurs, the tripartite soul reformed above then moves once more by its nature to another body with which it has an affinity. Its life on earth may affect its affinity to a body; that is, Plotinus accepted the idea of a judgement of the soul expressed in Plato, and reincarnation of souls. Developing the soul one can attain an affinity for a higher form, even attaining godliness. But the soul remains in the Universe, as the gods are in the Universe, and both are part of the movement of divinity throughout the Universe.
From the original consideration of the soul, where the concept was that of a physical part of the body formed as a receptacle of mind, it had then become a vehicle for the divine, the divine being identified with mind. With Plotinus the soul is not a vehicle in the sense of carrying the divine to body, but more of a conduit between the divine and body, a channel through which soul flows. The allegory of the soul compared to the string of a musical instrument gives Plotinus' best idea on this movement, as a kind of vibration resonating through the soul as an instrument for the divine, an instrument that requires proper tuning to facilitate its resonance. More so, Plotinus places the human soul in a broader metaphysics where it is assigned an integral function in the scheme of the whole Universe. This was already implicit in Plato when he described the World Soul as the agent of movement and the intermediary between the immutable divinity and the ever-changing physical universe. But Plotinus took this a step further in considering the human soul. With that he makes clear that the individual soul is only one of many and it is by the collective effort of human souls with the gods that the Universe is effected. "This Universe is good not when the individual is a sonorous voice like Linus, or a dumb stone, but when everyone throws in his own voice towards a total harmony, singing out a life (III.2.17)." Plotinus' soul is not part of body, and it is not so much part of the human form, as it is a part of the Universe.