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Such, so far as they can be ascertained, are the most important facts in the life of Plotinus. Interwoven with these, we find some legendary details which vividly illustrate the superstition and credulity of the age. It is evident from his childish talk about the numbers six and nine that Porphyry was imbued with Pythagorean ideas. Accordingly, his whole account of Plotinus is dominated by the wish to represent that philosopher under the guise of a Pythagorean saint. We have already alluded to the manner in which he exalts his hero鈥檚 remarkable sagacity into a power of supernatural prescience and divination. He also tells us, with the most unsuspecting good faith, how a certain Alexandrian philosopher whose jealousy had been excited by the success of his illustrious countryman, endeavoured to draw down the malignant influences of the stars on the head of Plotinus, but was obliged to desist on finding that the attack recoiled on himself.421 On another occasion, an Egyptian priest, by way of exhibiting his skill in magic, offered to conjure up the daemon or guardian spirit of Plotinus. The latter readily consented, and the Temple of Isis was chosen for the scene of the operations, as, according to the Egyptian, no other spot sufficiently pure for the purpose could be found in Rome. The incantations were duly pronounced, when, much to the admiration of those present, a god made his appearance instead of the expected daemon. By what particular marks the divinity of the apparition was determined, Porphyry omits to mention. The philosopher was congratulated by his countryman on the possession of such a distinguished patron, but the celestial visitor vanished before any questions could be put to him. This mishap was attributed to a friend281 鈥榳ho, either from envy or fear, choked the birds which had been given him to hold,鈥 and which seem to have played a very important part in the incantation, though what it was, we do not find more particularly specified.422.
To get rid of superstitious beliefs was, no doubt, a highly meritorious achievement, but it had been far more effectually57 performed by the great pre-Socratic thinkers, Heracleitus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus. These men or their followers had, besides, got hold of a most important principle鈥攖he vital principle of all science鈥攚hich was the reign of law, the universality and indefeasibility of physical causation. Now, Epicurus expressly refused to accept such a doctrine, declaring that it was even worse than believing in the gods, since they could be propitiated, whereas fate could not.119 Again, Greek physical philosophy, under the guidance of Plato, had been tending more and more to seek for its foundation in mathematics. Mathematical reasoning was seen to be the type of all demonstration; and the best hopes of progress were staked on the extension of mathematical methods to every field of enquiry in turn. How much might be done by following up this clue was quickly seen not only in the triumphs of geometry, but in the brilliant astronomical discoveries by which the shape of the earth, the phases of the moon, and the cause of eclipses were finally cleared up and placed altogether outside the sphere of conjecture. Nor was a knowledge of these truths confined to specialists: they were familiar alike to the older Academy, to the Peripatetic, and to the Stoic schools; so that, with the exception of those who doubted every proposition, we may assume them to have been then, as now, the common property of all educated men. Epicurus, on the other hand, seems to have known nothing of mathematics, or only enough to dispute their validity, for we are told that his disciple Polyaenus, who had previously been eminent in that department, was persuaded, on joining the school, to reject the whole of geometry as untrue;120 while, in astronomy, he pronounced the heavenly bodies to be no larger than they appear to our senses, denied the existence of Antipodes, and put the crudest guesses of early philosophy on the same footing with the best-authenticated results of later observation. It is no wonder, then, that during the whole58 continuance of his school no man of science ever accepted its teaching, with the single exception of Asclepiades, who was perhaps a Democritean rather than a disciple of the Garden, and who, at any rate, as a physiologist, would not be brought into contact with its more flagrant absurdities..
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So far our investigation has been analytical. We have seen Plotinus acquire, one after another, the elements out of which his system has still to be constructed. The first step was to separate spirit from matter. They are respectively distinguished as principles of union and of division. The bodies given to us in experience are a combination of the two, a dispersion of form over an infinitely extended, infinitely divisible, infinitely changeful substratum. Our own souls, which at first seemed so absolutely self-identical, present, on examination, a similarly composite character. A fresh analysis results in the separation of Nous or Reason from the lower functions of conscious life. And we infer by analogy that the soul in Nature bears the same relation to a transcendent objective Nous. Nous is essentially pure self-consciousness, and from this self-consciousness the world of Ideas is developed. Properly speaking, Ideas are the sole reality: sensible forms are an image of them impressed on matter through the agency of the world-soul. But Nous, or the totality of Ideas, though high, is not the highest. All that has hitherto occupied us, Nature, Soul, and Reason, is316 pervaded by a fundamental unity, without which nothing could exist. But Soul is not herself this unity, nor is Reason. Self-consciousness, even in its purest expression, involves a duality of object and subject. The notion of Being is distinct from the notion of oneness. The principle represented by the latter, as the cause of all things, must itself transcend existence. At the same time, it is revealed to us by the fact of our own personal identity. To be united with oneself is to be united with the One.?
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Yet if Plato鈥檚 theology, from its predominantly rational character, seemed to neglect some feelings which were better182 satisfied by the earlier or the later faiths of mankind, we cannot say that it really excluded them. The unfading strength of the old gods was comprehended in the self-existence of absolute ideas, and moral goodness was only a particular application of reason to the conduct of life. An emotional or imaginative element was also contributed by the theory that every faculty exercised without a reasoned consciousness of its processes and aims was due to some saving grace and inspiration from a superhuman power. It was thus, according to Plato, that poets and artists were able to produce works of which they were not able to render an intelligent account; and it was thus that society continued to hold together with such an exceedingly small amount of wisdom and virtue. Here, however, we have to observe a marked difference between the religious teachers pure and simple, and the Greek philosopher who was a dialectician even more than he was a divine. For Plato held that providential government was merely provisional; that the inspired prophet stood on a distinctly lower level than the critical, self-conscious thinker; that ratiocination and not poetry was the highest function of mind; and that action should be reorganised in accordance with demonstrably certain principles.118.
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Another distinguished compliment was paid to Plotinus after his death by no less an authority than the Pythian Apollo, who at this period had fully recovered the use of his voice. On being consulted respecting the fate of the philosopher鈥檚 soul, the god replied by a flood of bombastic twaddle, in which the glorified spirit of Plotinus is described as released from the chain of human necessity and the surging uproar of the body, swimming stoutly to the storm-beaten shore, and mounting the heaven-illumined path, not unknown to him even in life, that leads to the blissful abodes of the immortals.423
We are still anxious to know whether our perception of a real world comes to us by an exercise of thought, or by a simple impression of sense鈥攚hether it is the universal that gives the individual reality, or the individual that shapes itself, by some process not explained, into a universal鈥攚hether bodily movements are the causal antecedents of mental functions, or mind rather the reality which gives truth to body鈥攚hether the highest life is a life of thought or a life of action鈥攚hether intellectual also involves moral progress鈥攚hether the state is a mere combination for the preservation of goods and property, or a moral organism developing the idea of right. And about these and such like questions Aristotle has still much to tell us.... His theory of a creative reason, fragmentary as that theory is left, is the answer to all materialistic theories of the universe. To Aristotle, as to a subtle Scottish preacher [Principal Caird] 鈥榯he real pre-supposition of all knowledge, or the thought which is the prius of all things, is not the individual鈥檚 consciousness of himself as individual, but a thought or self-consciousness which is beyond all individual selves, which is the unity of all individual selves and their objects, of all thinkers and all objects of all thought.鈥167
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21 August, 2019 - 13:08
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