Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECOND TRACTATE On Virtue - The Ethical Treatises, being the Treatises of the First Ennead
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SECOND TRACTATE On Virtue - Plotinus, The Ethical Treatises, being the Treatises of the First Ennead [253 AD]
The Ethical Treatises, being the Treatises of the First Ennead, with Porphry’s Life of Plotinus, and the Preller-Ritter Extracts forming a Conspectus of the Plotinian System, translated from Greek by Stephen Mackenna (Boston: Charles T. Branford, 1918).
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Since Evil is here, “haunting this world by necessary law,” and it is the Soul’s design to escape from Evil, we must escape hence.
But what is this escape?
“In attaining Likeness to God,” we read. And this is explained as “becoming just and holy, living by wisdom,” the entire nature grounded in Virtue.
But does not Likeness by way of Virtue imply Likeness to some being that has Virtue? To what Divine Being, then, would our Likeness be? To the Being—must we not think?—in Which, above all, such excellence seems to inhere, that is to the Soul of the Kosmos and to the Principle ruling within it, the Principle endowed with a wisdom most wonderful. What could be more fitting than that we, living in this world, should become Like to its ruler?
But, at the beginning, we are met by the doubt whether even in this Divine-Being all the virtues find place—Moral-Balance (Sophrosyny), for example; or Fortitude where there can be no danger since nothing is alien; where there can be nothing alluring whose lack could induce the desire of possession.
If, indeed, that aspiration towards the Intelligible which is in our nature exists also in this Ruling-Power, then we need not look elsewhere for the source of order and of the virtues in ourselves.
But does this Power possess the Virtues?
We cannot expect to find There what are called the Civic Virtues, the Prudence which belongs to the reasoning faculty; the Fortitude which conducts the emotional and passionate nature; the Sophrosyny which consists in a certain pact, in a concord between the passionate faculty and the reason; or Rectitude which is the due application of all the other virtues as each in turn should command or obey.
Is Likeness, then, attained, perhaps, not by these virtues of the social order but by those greater qualities known by the same general name? And if so do the Civic Virtues give us no help at all?
It is against reason, utterly to deny Likeness by these while admitting it by the greater: tradition at least recognises certain men of the civic excellence as divine, and we must believe that these too had in some sort attained Likeness: on both levels there is virtue for us, though not the same virtue.
Now, if it be admitted that Likeness is possible, though by a varying use of different virtues and though the civic virtues do not suffice, there is no reason why we should not, by virtues peculiar to our state, attain Likeness to a model in which virtue has no place.
But is that conceivable?
When warmth comes in to make anything warm, must there needs be something to warm the source of the warmth?
If a fire is to warm something else, must there be a fire to warm that fire?
Against the first illustration it may be retorted that the source of the warmth does already contain warmth, not by an infusion but as an essential phase of its nature, so that, if the analogy is to hold, the argument would make Virtue something communicated to the Soul but an essential constituent of the Principle from which the Soul attaining Likeness absorbs it.
Against the illustration drawn from the fire, it may be urged that the analogy would make that Principle identical with virtue, whereas we hold it to be something higher.
The objection would be valid if what the soul takes in were one and the same with the source, but in fact virtue is one thing, the source of virtue quite another. The material house is not identical with the house conceived in the intellect, and yet stands in its likeness: the material house has distribution and order while the pure idea is not constituted by any such elements; distribution, order, symmetry are not parts of an idea.
So with us: it is from the Supreme that we derive order and distribution and harmony, which are virtues in this sphere: the Existences There, having no need of harmony, order or distribution, have nothing to do with virtue; and, none the less, it is by our possession of virtue that we become like to Them.
Thus much to show that the principle that we attain Likeness by virtue in no way involves the existence of virtue in the Supreme. But we have not merely to make a formal demonstration: we must persuade as well as demonstrate.
First, then, let us examine those good qualities by which we hold Likeness comes, and seek to establish what is this thing which, as we possess it, in transcription, is virtue but as the Supreme possesses it, is in the nature of an exemplar or archetype and is not virtue.
We must first distinguish two modes of Likeness.
There is the likeness demanding an identical nature in the objects which, further, must draw their likeness from a common principle: and there is the case in which B resembles A, but A is a Primal, not concerned about B and not said to resemble B. In this second case, likeness is understood in a distinct sense: we no longer look for identity of nature, but, on the contrary, for divergence since the likeness has come about by the mode of difference.
What, then, precisely is Virtue, collectively and in the particular? The clearer method will be to begin with the particular, for so the common element by which all the forms hold the general name will readily appear.
The Civic Virtues, on which we have touched above, are a principle or order and beauty in us as long as we remain passing our life here: they ennoble us by setting bound and measure to our desires and to our entire sensibility, and dispelling false judgement—and this by sheer efficacy of the better, by the very setting of the bounds, by the fact that the measured is lifted outside of the sphere of the unmeasured and lawless.
And, further, these Civic Virtues—measured and ordered themselves and acting as a principle of measure to the Soul which is as Matter to their forming—are like to the measure reigning in the over-world, and they carry a trace of that Highest Good in the Supreme; for, while utter measurelessness is brute Matter and wholly outside of Likeness, any participation in Ideal-Form produces some corresponding degree of Likeness to the formless Being There. And participation goes by nearness: the Soul nearer than the body, therefore closer akin, participates more fully and shows a godlike presence, almost cheating us into the delusion that in the Soul we see God entire.
This is the way in which men of the Civic Virtues attain Likeness.
We come now to that other mode of Likeness which, we read, is the fruit of the loftier virtues: discussing this we shall penetrate more deeply into the essence of the Civic Virtue and be able to define the nature of the higher kind whose existence we shall establish beyond doubt.
To Plato, unmistakably, there are two distinct orders of virtue, and the civic does not suffice for Likeness: “Likeness to God,” he says, “is a flight from this world’s ways and things”: in dealing with the qualities of good citizenship he does not use the simple term Virtue but adds the distinguishing word civic: and elsewhere he declares all the virtues without exception to be purifications.
But in what sense can we call the virtues purifications, and how does purification issue in Likeness?
As the Soul is evil by being interfused with the body, and by coming to share the body’s states and to think the body’s thoughts, so it would be good, it would be possessed of virtue, if it threw off the body’s moods and devoted itself to its own Act—the state of Intellection and Wisdom—never allowed the passions of the body to affect it—the virtue of Sophrosyny—knew no fear at the parting from the body—the virtue of Fortitude—and if reason and the Intellectual-Principle ruled—in which state is Righteousness. Such a disposition in the Soul, become thus intellective and immune to passion, it would not be wrong to call Likeness to God; for the Divine, too, is pure and the Divine-Act is such that Likeness to it is Wisdom.
But would not this make virtue a state of the Divine also?
No: the Divine has no states; the state is in the Soul. The Act of Intellection in the Soul is not the same as in the Divine: of things in the Supreme, Soul grasps come after a mode of its own, some not at all.
Then yet again, the one word, Intellection, covers two distinct Acts?
Rather there is primal Intellection and there is Intellection deriving from the Primal and of other scope.
As speech is the echo of the thought in the Soul, so thought in the Soul is an echo from elsewhere: that is to say, as the uttered thought is an image of the soul-thought, so the soul-thought images a thought above itself and is the interpreter of the higher sphere.
Virtue, in the same way, is a thing of the Soul: it does not belong to the Intellectual-Principle or to the Transcendence.
We come, so, to the question whether Purification is the whole of this human quality, virtue, or merely the forerunner upon which virtue follows? Does virtue imply the achieved state of purification or does the mere process suffice to it, Virtue being something of less perfection than the accomplished pureness which is almost the Term?
To have been purified is to have cleansed away everything alien: but Goodness is something more.
If before the impurity entered there was Goodness, the Goodness suffices; but even so, not the act of cleansing but the cleansed thing that emerges will be The Good. And it remains to establish what (in the case of the cleansed Soul) this emergent is.
It can scarcely prove to be The Good: The Absolute Good cannot be thought to have taken up its abode with Evil. We can think of it only as something of the nature of good but paying a double allegiance and unable to rest in the Authentic Good.
The Soul’s true Good is in devotion to the Intellectual-Principle, its kin; evil to the Soul lies in frequenting strangers. There is no other way for it than to purify itself and so enter into relation with its own; the new phase begins by a new orientation.
After the Purification, then, there is still this orientation to be made? No: by the purification the true alignment stands accomplished.
The Soul’s virtue, then, is this alignment? No: it is what the alignment brings about within.
And this is . . . ?
That it sees; that, like sight affected by the thing seen, the soul admits the imprint, graven upon it and working within it, of the vision it has come to.
But was not the Soul possessed of all this always, or had it forgotten?
What is now sees, it certainly always possessed, but as lying away in the dark, not as acting within it: to dispel the darkness, and thus come to knowledge of its inner content, it must thrust towards the light.
Besides, it possessed not the originals but images, pictures; and these it must bring into closer accord with the verities they represent. And, further, if the Intellectual-Principle is said to be a possession of the Soul, this is only in the sense that It is not alien and that the link becomes very close when the Soul’s sight is turned towards It: otherwise, ever-present though It be, It remains foreign, just as our knowledge, if it does not determine action, is dead to us.
So we come to the scope of the purification: that understood, the nature of Likeness becomes clear. Likeness to what Principle? Identity with what God?
The question is substantially this: how far does purification dispel the two orders of passion—anger, desire and the like, with grief and its kin—and in what degree the disengagement from the body is possible.
Disengagement means simply that the soul withdraws to its own place.
It will hold itself above all passions and affections. Necessary pleasures and all the activity of the senses it will employ only for medicament and assuagement lest its work be impeded. Pain it may combat, but, failing the cure, it will bear meekly and ease it by refusing assent to it. All passionate action it will check: the suppression will be complete if that be possible, but at worst the Soul will never itself take fire but will keep the involuntary and uncontrolled outside its own precincts and rare and weak at that. The Soul has nothing to dread, though no doubt the involuntary has some power here too: fear therefore must cease, except so far as it is purely monitory. What desire there may be can never be for the vile; even the food and drink necessary for restoration will lie outside of the Soul’s attention, and not less the sexual appetite: or if such desire there must be, it will turn upon the actual needs of the nature and be entirely under control; or if any uncontrolled motion takes place, it will reach no further than the imagination, be no more than a fleeting fancy.
The Soul itself will be inviolately free and will be working to set the irrational part of the nature above all attack, or if that may not be, then at least to preserve it from violent assault, so that any wound it takes may be slight and be healed at once by virtue of the Soul’s presence, just as a man living next door to a Sage would profit by the neighbourhood, either in becoming wise and good himself or, for sheer shame, never venturing any act which the nobler mind would disapprove.
There will be no battling in the Soul: the mere intervention of Reason is enough: the lower nature will stand in such awe of Reason that for any slightest movement it has made it will grieve, and censure its own weakness, in not having kept low and still in the presence of its lord.
In all this there is no sin—there is only matter of discipline—but our concern is not merely to be sinless but to be God.
As long as there is any such involuntary action, the nature is two-fold, God and Demi-God, or rather God in association with a nature of a lower power: when all the involuntary is suppressed, there is God unmingled, a Divine Being of those that follow upon The First.
For, at this height, the man is the very being that came from the Supreme. The primal excellence restored, the essential man is There: entering this sphere, he has associated himself with the reasoning phase of his nature and this he will lead up into likeness with his highest self, as far as earthly mind is capable, so that if possible it shall never be inclined to, and at the least never adopt, any course displeasing to its over-lord.
What form, then, does virtue take in one so lofty?
It appears as Wisdom, which consists in the contemplation of all that exists in the Intellectual-Principle, and as the immediate presence of the Intellectual-Principle itself.
And each of these has two modes or aspects: there is Wisdom as it is in the Intellectual-Principle and as in the Soul; and there is the Intellectual-Principle as it is present to itself and as it is present to the Soul: this gives what in the Soul is Virtue, in the Supreme not Virtue.
In the Supreme, then, what is it?
Its proper Act and Its Essence.
That Act and Essence of the Supreme, manifested in a new form, constitute the virtue of this sphere. For the Supreme is not self-existent Justice, or the Absolute of any defined virtue: it is, so to speak, an exemplar, the source of what in the soul becomes virtue: for virtue is dependent, seated in something not itself; the Supreme is self-standing, independent.
But taking Rectitude to be the due ordering of faculty, does it not always imply the existence of diverse parts?
No: There is a Rectitude of Diversity appropriate to what has parts, but there is another, not less Rectitude than the former though it resides in a Unity. And the authentic Absolute-Rectitude is the Act of a Unity upon itself, of a Unity in which there is no this and that and the other.
On this principle, the supreme Rectitude of the Soul is that it direct its Act towards the Intellectual-Principle: its Restraint (Sophrosyny) is its inward bending towards the Intellectual-Principle; its Fortitude is its being impassive in the likeness of That towards which its gaze is set, Whose nature comports an impassivity which the Soul acquires by virtue and must acquire if it is not to be at the mercy of every state arising in its less noble companion.
The virtues in the Soul run in a sequence correspondent to that existing in the over-world, that is among their exemplars in the Intellectual-Principle.
In the Supreme, Intellection constitutes Knowledge and Wisdom; self-concentration is Sophrosyny; Its proper Act is Its Dutifulness; Its Immateriality, by which It remains inviolate within Itself, is the equivalent of Fortitude.
In the Soul, the direction of vision towards the Intellectual-Principle is Wisdom and Prudence, soul-virtues not appropriate to the Supreme where Thinker and Thought are identical. All the other virtues have similar correspondences.
And if the term of purification is the production of a pure being, then the purification of the Soul must produce all the virtues; if any are lacking, then not one of them is perfect.
And to possess the greater is potentially to possess the minor, though the minor need not carry the greater with them.
Thus we have indicated the dominant note in the life of the Sage; but whether his possession of the minor virtues be actual as well as potential, whether even the greater are in Act in him or yield to qualities higher still, must be decided afresh in each several case.
Take, for example, Contemplative-Wisdom. If other guides of conduct must be called in to meet a given need, can this virtue hold its ground even in mere potentiality?
And what happens when the virtues in their very nature differ in scope and province? Where, for example, Sophrosyny would allow certain acts or emotions under due restraint and another virtue would cut them off altogether? And is it not clear that all may have to yield, once Contemplative-Wisdom comes into action?
The solution is in understanding the virtues and what each has to give: thus the man will learn to work with this or that as every several need demands. And as he reaches to loftier principles and other standards these in turn will define his conduct: for example, Restraint in its earlier form will no longer satisfy him; he will work for the final Disengagement; he will live, no longer, the human life of the good man—such as Civic Virtue commends—but, leaving this beneath him, will take up instead another life, that of the Gods.
For it is to the Gods, not to the Good, that our Likeness must look: to model ourselves upon good men is to produce an image of an image: we have to fix our gaze above the image and attain Likeness to the Supreme Exemplar.