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THREE: THE GODLIKE MAN: ARISTOTLE TO PLOTINUS - John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man 
The Perfectibility of Man (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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THE GODLIKE MAN: ARISTOTLE TO PLOTINUS
Aristotle was Plato’s pupil; his indebtedness to Plato is obvious and extensive, so obvious and so extensive that the neo-Platonists write of Aristotelianism as if it were no more than a sub-branch of Platonism. Modern commentators, in contrast, tend to insist upon the points of difference between Aristotle and Plato. Plato the patrician, the idealist, the mystic, is contrasted with Aristotle the “philosopher of the common man,” or at least of the educated citizen, not particularly imaginative but, in compensation, not easily persuaded into phantasy.
There is certainly one crucial point of philosophical disagreement between the two philosophers: Aristotle entirely rejects Plato’s theory of forms and, more especially, that “form of the good” which was to be the corner-stone of neo-Platonic mysticism. A knowledge of the form of the good, even if there were such a thing, would, Aristotle argues, be practically useless to mankind. How will a doctor become a better doctor, or a general a better general, he rhetorically asks, as a result of knowing the form of the good? What the doctor needs to know is in what health consists, what the general needs to know is in what victory consists. A mere knowledge of the form of the good does not carry with it, as Plato seems to have presumed, a knowledge of the nature of, let alone an enhanced capacity to pursue, these highly particularized ends. One cannot perfect oneself in a particular task, that is, merely in virtue of a knowledge of the form of the good.
To perfect oneself, Aristotle suggests, is to achieve an end, a specific end. The general perfects himself as a general by achieving victories over his opponents, the doctor perfects himself as a doctor by achieving health in his patients. And, as we have already seen, Aristotle presumes that there must be an end appropriate to man as such, as distinct from man qua general and man qua doctor. The only problem is in what that end consists. Aristotle’s preliminary answer is that the end for man is eudaimonia—traditionally, if somewhat misleadingly, translated as “happiness” or “well-being.” This is not to be identified with pleasure. There are many things we would continue to desire, he says, even if no pleasure attached to them. We have still to discover, then, its precise character.
To settle this point Aristotle falls back, in a traditional Greek fashion, on the conception of a function.1 Not only man qua sculptor or craftsman, he argues, but man as such must have a function peculiar to him. This cannot be “living,” or “experiencing sensations,” both of which men share with the beasts. Man’s special function must involve the exercise of what is peculiar to man, his rationality, the highest part of his soul. And just as the specific task of any carpenter is identical with the specific task of a good carpenter, the only difference being that the good carpenter is better at performing that task, so similarly, if man’s task is to exercise the highest part of his soul the good for man must consist in his exercising the highest part of his soul in the best possible manner. The good for man, then, is “an activity of soul in accordance with goodness or (on the supposition that there may be more than one form of goodness) in accordance with the best and most complete form of goodness.”2
A problem still remains: to determine the nature of that “best and most complete form of goodness,” by exercising his soul in accordance with which the perfect man will excel. Further investigation reveals, according to Aristotle, that the “best and most complete form” of goodness is “speculative activity.” For the man devoted to speculative activity has the most “complete” life; he is the most self-sufficient of beings; he is engaged in an activity which seeks no end beyond itself but is worth having for its own sake; he most fully realizes the nature of man—since “the intellect more than anything else is the man.” Perfection, then, is only to be found in speculative activity.* A man, Aristotle goes on to suggest, can live the speculative life only in so far as “he has a divine element in him,” only in so far as he is capable of living like the gods. Like Plato before him, Aristotle puts himself in direct and conscious opposition to the Greek tradition, as expressed by Pindar, that it is wrong for men to try to imitate the gods. “We ought not to listen,” Aristotle admonishes us, “to those who counsel us ‘O man, think as man should’ and ‘O mortal, remember your mortality.’”3 If, he admits in the Metaphysics,4 there ever was a case where men might provoke the jealousy of the gods, it is when they attempt to achieve knowledge of the divine. But the poets lie, Aristotle assures us, when they say that the gods are capable of jealousy.
There is, it should be noted, an important ambiguity in Aristotle’s conception of “speculative activity.” When we read that the speculative life is an “activity” or that it concerns itself with “intellectual problems,” we naturally identify it with the life of trying to find out, the life of the scientist or the scholar or the philosopher. But what Aristotle sets up as the ideal is not theorising but contemplation. “It stands to reason,” he writes, “that those who have knowledge pass their time more pleasantly than those who are engaged in its pursuit.”5 “Activity,” it also turns out, does not imply actually doing anything: “there is an activity not only of movement but of immobility, like that of thought.”6
Here, perhaps, Aristotle stands most at odds with the general tendency of post-Renaissance thought, which tends to value the journey more than the arrival, the process of finding out more than the truth arrived at, the doing rather than the having. “Our happiness will never consist,” Leibniz wrote in 1718, “and ought not to consist, in a full enjoyment, in which there is nothing more to desire, and which would make our mind dull, but in a perpetual progress to new pleasures and new perfections.”7 The contrast between Aristotle and Lessing is even more startling: “If God held enclosed in His right hand all truth,” Lessing tells us, “and in His left hand the ever-living striving for truth, although with the qualification that I must for ever err, and said to me ‘Choose,’ I should humbly choose the left hand and say ‘Father, give! Pure truth is for Thee alone!’”8
Aristotle, or so his official doctrine suggests, would most certainly choose the right hand. Some of his successors in the Christian tradition—most notably perhaps Gregory of Nyssa9 —were to argue that the contemplation of God was itself a “perpetual discovery” and that its delight consisted in that fact. But only in the eighteenth century did it come to be widely believed that man’s aspirations should be unending, that his enjoyments do not lie in fruition but in action. (Just as for Newton, as not for Aristotle, a body will continue in uniform motion in a straight line unless it is brought to rest by an external force. Rest, that is, is not its “natural” condition.)
“We mistake human nature,” writes Adam Ferguson in 1767, “if we wish for a termination of labour, or a scene of repose.” When men seek “pure enjoyment, or a termination of trouble,” he tells us, they “overlook the source from which most of our present satisfactions are really drawn”—the activity itself.10 “Perfection,” on this view, attaches to the performance of a task, not to the attainment of a state of repose. Aristotle’s immediate successors, in contrast, condemned Aristotle for placing too much, not too little, emphasis on the value of mental activity. Indeed, in Aristotle’s own theory of happiness—which makes of it at once an activity and an end—it is not too fanciful to detect a conflict between Aristotle the practising biologist, conscious of the joys of problem-solving, and Aristotle the metaphysician in search of a final end in which man can find rest.
Aristotle’s conception of the speculative life as one of contemplation rather than of discovery is tied up with his view that the perfect life is god-like. It would be absurd, Aristotle says, to ascribe any of the practical virtues to God—justice, or bravery, or temperance or generosity. These are all of them virtues which make sense only in a secular situation, and they arise out of human limitations.11 Continence can no more be ascribed to God than adultery, honesty no more than theft. It would be equally absurd, presumably, to suppose that God could have intellectual problems, or that there is anything for him to discover. So by a process of exclusion Aristotle concludes that the divine goodness must consist in simple contemplation.
But now a new problem arises. What is there that God could find value in contemplating? Nothing less than the fully perfect, certainly, and nothing except God himself is fully perfect. Aristotle concludes, therefore, that God contemplates nothing but himself.12 And by reflection back on man, relying on the premise that the perfect man will be godlike, this has the consequence that the true happiness, the perfection of man, too, must consist in the contemplation of “divine things”—a view which brings Aristotle very close to the Plato of the Timaeus.
It is not possible, Aristotle freely grants, for a man to live the wholly godlike life; only God can do this. “After all,” Aristotle writes of the contemplative man, “he is a man and a member of society and, in so far as he is, he will choose to act on moral grounds. And this means that he will have need of external goods to permit him to live on the human level.”13 The speculative man, that is, still has to live the life of an ordinary citizen. In that sense, the best life for a man, as distinct from God, will inevitably be a “mixed life,” in which contemplation is conjoined with purely moral excellences. But it is easy enough, all the same, to see how the mystics and the neo-Platonists could convert Aristotle to their own purposes.
For Aristotle’s emphasis, at this point in the Nicomachean Ethics, is on the slight degree to which the contemplative man needs to participate in everyday life. If, like everybody else, the contemplative man depends upon the “ordinary necessities of life,” the fact remains that he requires, for his purposes, no more than a competence. Nor does he depend upon the existence of other men in order to exercise his goodness. It may sometimes be helpful to him, perhaps, to work with other men; but he does not need them. “He [the wise man] can speculate all by himself, and the wiser he is the better he can do it.”14
This is one important difference between the perfect life of contemplation, and that wholly practical moral life which is, for Aristotle, the second-best life. A just man needs his fellow-men in order to exercise his justice upon them; a man cannot be generous with his money if he has no money to be generous with. Neither the just nor the generous man, that is, can be self-sufficient. It is the (almost entire) self-sufficiency of the theoretical life which is the supreme test of its perfection. Aristotle does not deny, of course—any more than Plato did—that to live such a life a man must first have been trained, initiated into the practical moral life. To that degree he is dependent upon other men. The contemplative man, furthermore, is not metaphysically self-sufficient. Man, unlike God, is not capable of metaphysical self-sufficiency; that, indeed, is why he is not wholly perfectible. But when he contemplates the divine, man comes as near to self-sufficiency as is humanly possible.
So, in Aristotle as in Plato, there is a contrast between philosophical and civic goodness—even if it is not as sharply defined in Aristotle as it is in Plato—and full perfection attaches only to the first. No doubt, Aristotle is prepared to describe a person with a high degree of civic goodness as possessing “a perfect character”—immaculate perfection, the sort of perfection displayed by such Old Testament exemplars as Noah and Job—but the mere fact that in order to display purely moral excellences a man with “a perfect character” needs his fellow-men prevents him, in Aristotle’s eyes, from attaining true, deiform, perfection.
Aristotle’s reservations about the relationship between the contemplative life and the life of civic goodness were historically much less important than his description of the contemplative life as “godlike.” The Hebraic ideal, like the older Greek ideal, was active rather than contemplative. When Christianity went in search of philosophical authority for the view that in contemplation men came closest to God, it had to seek it in Greek philosophy. And in Aristotle’s doctrine that in order to live the contemplative life men, once they have been morally trained, need only the minimum of possessions and the minimum of contact with their fellow-men, Christians thought that they could find a philosophical justification for the monastic life—or even for the extremes of anchoritism.
The philosophers of the Hellenistic period took over the Platonic-Aristotelian suggestion that the best life, the life in which men achieve perfection, involves self-sufficiency. But activity, they argued, always involves the pursuit of some not-yet-achieved end. As against Aristotle, then, the life of contemplative activity could not be self-sufficient. The best life, the Hellenistic philosophers all agreed, was a life of ataraxia (peace of mind). The only question was how this could be achieved.
It is at first sight extraordinary that the three most influential Hellenistic schools of philosophy—the Sceptics, the Epicureans, the Stoics—should all agree, for all their notable differences on most other matters, that peace of mind was the supreme end to be sought after. This is one of the rare occasions on which the influence of social change on philosophy is direct and obvious. The third century was one of constant political struggle, in which the Athenians sought to throw off their Macedonian rulers. The old confidence had gone. One must not, of course, exaggerate. The greatest period of Greek mathematics and astronomy was yet to come; Archimedes was only seventeen when Epicurus died in 270 bc; Hipparchus was born eighty years later. What had gone, at least for the time being, was not ability but audacity. And that is reflected, above all, in the writings of the philosophers. Even when, like Plotinus, they are actually developing original ideas, they pretend that they are not. “These teachings,” he writes, “are, therefore, no novelties, no inventions of today.”15 No earlier Greek philosopher felt that he had to protect himself against the accusation of being original. One can see what had happened, almost equally well, by contrasting the comedies of Menander, their well-bred tolerance, their ingenious plots, with the unrestrained comic exuberance of Aristophanes. It is not surprising to discover that Menander learnt his philosophy from Epicurus.
The Epicureans agreed with Aristotle that the perfect life would be a life of happiness, but unlike Aristotle they identified happiness with pleasure, which, on their view, consists in freedom from fear and pain. They denied that speculative activity is valuable for its own sake. “Vain is the discourse of that philosopher,” wrote Epicurus or one of his followers, “by which no human suffering is healed.”16 Here we observe that turning against science, against the idea that inquiry was valuable for its own sake, which is so notable and so disquieting a feature of the Hellenistic age. Science—in particular the atomic theory which Democritus had invented and Epicurus had developed—is useful, according to the Epicureans, only in that it helps to free men from their fear of the gods and from their fear of death, both of which disturb their peace of mind. It destroys the fear of death by pointing out that death, as the cessation of sensations, is neither to be feared nor sought after; death lies “beyond good and evil.” It destroys all fear of the gods by demonstrating that “a blessed and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness.”17
At the same time, Epicurus is not, in the matter of the Olympian religion, a revolutionary; we can think of him, rather, as a reformer. At least he is a reformer in so far as he continues to think of the gods as persons; he is a revolutionary only in denying that the gods take any interest in human affairs, and more particularly, that they are “envious and interfering.” The gods are immortal and their happiness is without blemish; they are perfect, then, but only in that Epicurean sense of perfection which identifies it with absolute happiness. It is fitting that they should be worshipped, because they possess such immaculate perfection, but to expect them to respond to prayers and sacrifices, or to fear their anger, would be wholly ridiculous.
Epicureanism, not uncommonly characterized as “swinish,” has often been condemned as an ethic of self-indulgence. So in the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the Franklin is described as “Epicurus’s own son” on the ground that
Nothing could be further from the truth. Epicurus was, indeed, ascetic to a fault. “When we say,” he wrote to Menoeceus, “. . . that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation.”18 Indeed, his ideal can most fairly be represented as a kind of secular monasticism. Peace of mind, according to Epicurus, can only be effectively secured in “a quiet private life withdrawn from the multitude.”19 Ideally, this will be withdrawal into a community of like-minded friends, the kind of community represented in its perfection by the life of the gods, as Epicurus had described it. The wise man will neither marry nor engage in politics, but neither will he, in the manner of the Cynics, live the life of a mendicant; he will seek an income sufficient to ensure that he is not dependent on others for the satisfaction of his simple needs.20
Once again, then, self-sufficiency emerges as a criterion of perfection, but now manifested in membership of a self-contained community rather than, as in the Cynic-Stoic tradition, in the individual man. The positive content of perfection lies in a pleasant calm, not in theoretic activity, which is only a necessary condition of our acquiring such calm. Can men achieve perfection, thus defined? They cannot, it would seem, since they cannot wholly free themselves from pain. On the other hand, Epicurus—himself a lifelong sufferer—explicitly says that “he who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect.”21 This is a consequence of the fact that “the term of evil is brief.”22 Provided men do not permit the fear of pain to suffuse their life with anxiety they will find pain when it comes, Epicurus thought, easy enough to bear; the perfection of a life is not invalidated by an occasional, transitory, pain.
The great importance of Epicureanism in our story is that, for all that it does not deny the gods—publicly at least, although many of its critics alleged that it did so privately—it is a fully secularized analysis of perfection. By achieving a peaceful calm, men admittedly live a life which is “godlike.” The “godlike” character of the good life is, however, in a sense accidental. Man’s perfection is not defined by way of, nor does it in any sense depend upon, the gods. Were there no gods, the Epicurean analysis of perfection would be quite unaffected. It is for men to perfect themselves; the gods will neither help them to do so, nor hinder them from doing so. There is no suggestion that by perfecting themselves men will come to “live with the gods,” or that they will cease to be human and become divine, or that they will acquire a higher metaphysical status, or that they will fulfil a function divinely laid down for them. Simply, the happy life is the best life; to perfect oneself is to live the best life. It is not in the least surprising that when men came, in the modern world, to look for a way of defining perfection which was independent of religion, they turned for that purpose to Epicurus. Modern utilitarianism is by no means identical with ancient Epicureanism; for one thing, it has served as an instrument of social reform. But it took over from Epicureanism its secular interpretation of perfection.
Stoicism, in contrast, is essentially religious in its attitude: in Rome, it came to be “the religion of educated men.”23 For the Stoics, there is no question that, in principle at least, man is perfectible. This is a direct consequence of the fact that he is rational and therefore godlike. The Stoics reaffirm the old Pindaric teaching that “men and gods are of the same race” but now in a new sense; the emphasis is not on their sharing the same passions—a Stoic god has no passions—but on their common rationality. “Reason . . . is a common attribute,” writes Seneca, “of both gods and men, in them it is already perfected, in us it is capable of being perfected.”24 Man perfects himself, then, by becoming like God. The Stoic ideal of perfection, unlike the Epicurean ideal, is essentially God-centred, deiform, perfection. But in what does likeness to God, for a Stoic, consist?
It is not easy to answer this question briefly. Stoicism had a long history; some five hundred years separated Zeno, who founded the Stoic School in the third century bc, from the last of the ancient Stoics, Marcus Aurelius. And its history was not only long but complex and diversified. The early Stoics were logicians and physicists; in their eyes a knowledge of logic and physics was essential to the perfected man. The Stoic Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in the sharpest possible contrast, offered thanks to Providence that he was preserved, for all his addiction to philosophy, from “poring over textbooks and rules of logic or grinding at natural science.”25 But certain doctrines persist, lending unity to the long succession of Stoic thinkers, even if others were greatly modified when Stoicism broke its connexions with Greek cosmology and forged new relationships with the Roman state.
The Stoics always emphasize that Plato is their master. In Cicero’s De natura deorum, for example, the Stoic Balbus appeals to the authority of “Plato, that divine philosopher” and the Epicurean Velleius refers sneeringly to “your master Plato.”26 This can seem very strange to the modern reader, if he comes to the Stoics from the Phaedo and the Republic. But the Plato the Stoics so greatly admired is the cosmological Plato, the Plato of the Timaeus, and the ethical Plato, the Plato of the early Socratic dialogues, rather than the metaphysical Plato.
In the Timaeus, Plato describes the manner in which this world “came to be, by the god’s providence, in very truth a living creature with soul and reason.”27 This conception of the world, as “a living creature with soul and reason,” the Stoics took over from Plato, although they modified it in two respects. In the first place, their world-soul is corporeal, as Plato’s is not. In the second place, they thought of Providence not as creating the “world-soul” but as being the ruling principle within it. (Some commentators, indeed, have taken this to be Plato’s real view, as distinct from his mythological fancies.) “All this universe which encompasses us is one,” writes Seneca, “and it is God: we are associates of God; we are his members.”28 Nature, as the Stoics conceive it, is a fiery world-soul in perpetual change—their cosmology is a curious mixture of Plato and Heraclitus. To speak of it as being “governed by providence” is to draw attention to the fact that this change is rationally determined for the benefit of the rational beings the world contains—gods and men.
The arguments by which the Stoics defended their position, arguments which Cicero ascribes to Zeno, begin from the assumption that Nature must exhibit all perfections, since it is the most excellent of all things. Therefore, Zeno argued, it must be not only eternal, but wise, blessed and divine. Since its parts are sentient, it must be sentient; since it gives birth to beings which are animate and wise, it must itself be animate and wise.29 Here are the beginnings of arguments which were to play a very large part in Western theology, even when it made a radical distinction between the Creator and the created Universe—arguments which take it as their point of departure that God is the most perfect of all things, and that the less perfect cannot give rise to the more perfect.30 But the peculiarity of Stoicism, from the Christian point of view, lies in its identification of God with Nature.
So “likeness to God” is for the Stoics a very complex notion. It involves conformity to God’s will, but not, in an Hebraic sense, obedience. “I do not obey God,” writes Seneca, “but I assent to what he has decided.”31 (One is reminded of a famous remark and an equally famous comment: Margaret Fuller’s “I accept the Universe” and Carlyle’s “Gad, she’d better!”) So far as God is thought of as a legislator his laws are not specific commands, of the type represented in the Ten Commandments: they are laws of nature. (No doubt the Stoics, like many another after them, sometimes succumbed to the temptation to play upon the ambiguity of “natural law,” to think of laws of nature as at once universal and irresistible and as something which a wicked man can break, just as he can break the law of the land.) The sage, the perfected man, sees how things happen and conforms his will to that course of events, not to a commandment. But since God is rational we can also make the same point by saying that the sage lives “in accordance with reason.”
“The end may be defined,” so Zeno taught, “as life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things, and is identical with Zeus, lord and ruler of all that is.”32 To live in accordance with nature, to be rational, to conform to what God wills, to be godlike, are all identified, since God, Nature, Reason, Providence can be distinguished only by abstraction; in substance they are identical. “For what else is Nature,” Seneca asks rhetorically, “but God and the Divine Reason that pervades the whole universe and all its parts?”33
The Christian critics of Stoicism were quick to point to what they took to be a contradiction within Stoicism, between the conception of God as Providence and the conception of God as Nature. “Although they [the Stoics] say that the providential being is of the same substance as the being he directs,” writes Origen, “they nevertheless say that he is perfect and different from what he directs.”34 But for the Stoics there was no incompatibility in saying both that God and man were “of the same substance” and that God directs all things. Men differ from God, in their view, only in so far as a particular natural event differs from Nature as a whole; man, to use one of the favourite Stoic metaphors, is “a particle of God.” Since God is a fiery spirit, man is a “fiery particle,” and since he is a particle of God, perfection lies in principle within man’s reach.
Undoubtedly, however, the Stoics had a difficulty to face. If man is a particle of God, why is he not automatically perfect? Imperfection, according to the Stoics, arises from the fact that men fail to see things as they are, and therefore “give their assent to false judgements.” Avarice, for example, is simply the false judgement that money is good; correct that judgement, by bringing men to see how little value attaches to the ownership of pieces of metal, and their avarice will be conquered.
Marcus Aurelius sums up thus: “The good life can be achieved to perfection by any soul capable of showing indifference to the things that are themselves indifferent. This can be done by giving careful scrutiny first to the elements that compose them, and then to the things themselves; bearing also in mind that none of them is responsible for the opinion we form of it.”35 (Compare the Buddhist teaching that “people are tied down by a sense-object when they cover it with unreal imaginations; likewise they are liberated from it when they see it as it really is.”)36 In other words, if we look carefully at those things which are “indifferent”—unworthy of a rational man’s concern—we shall see at once that they are of no importance in themselves. If, however, we fail to look at them carefully we may wrongly suppose that they demand action on our part; that they must be pursued, or desired, or regretted. So Marcus Aurelius is continually urging himself, in a manner which came to be familiar in the writings of the Christian moralists, to look in detail at fame, or sexual love, or power, and thus to see it for what it is, and how little worthy it is of a rational being’s attention—to see, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “the skull beneath the skin.” The irrational man fails to do this. As a result of bad training, or the promptings of instincts which “blind the understanding,” he is attracted by the superficial appearance of things and therefore attaches to them an importance they do not possess.
It is still anything but clear how “a particle of God” can exhibit even this degree of irrationality, how he can fail to see things as they are. In a metaphor which the medieval church was to apply to heretics, Marcus Aurelius suggests that a man can estrange himself from Nature, cutting himself off from it like a branch from a tree, but a branch which still retains sufficient life to be grafted on again “by grace of Zeus the author of all fellowship.”37 This way of looking at man’s relationship to Nature, however, ascribes to him a kind of free will quite incompatible with the Stoic view of Nature as a system of providentially-governed changes. Indeed, the problems which came to be most characteristic of Christian theology—the problem of explaining the existence of moral evil in a providentially governed universe, the problem of explaining how man can exercise any freedom whatever in such a universe, the problem of explaining how man can be at once an image of God and corrupt—all broke out for the first time in their full force within Stoic theology. Insist too strongly on the providential government of the universe, and the conclusion seems to follow that man has no need of moral effort. Insist on man’s capacity to “cut himself off” from Nature and it is no longer possible to argue that all things form part of a single providentially-governed Nature. Insist that man is a “particle of perfection,” an “image of God,” and the natural inference is that he has no need to strive for perfection; insist that he constantly goes astray and the perfection of the universe as a whole is threatened.
Putting these metaphysical problems aside, it has still to be determined in what the perfection of the individual soul consists. Marcus Aurelius is fond of describing the perfected soul by means of a geometrical metaphor. It is, he says, a soul which has attained a “perfectly rounded form.” To perfect oneself is to become a “totally rounded orb, rejoicing in its own rotundity.”38 If we approach the Stoics by way of Parmenides, these remarks no longer surprise us. The soul, like Being, to be perfect must be rounded. And we recall our own metaphors: “a well-rounded personality,” “an all-round education.” Roundedness implies, above all, completeness. The “rounded-soul” contains in itself whatever is valuable, and therefore does not need to move outside itself. When a cricketer is described as an “all-rounder,” this conveys that he is good in every department of cricket, at bowling, batting and fielding. Similarly, the “rounded-soul” will be good in every department of virtue.
But there is a great difference between the two cases, according to Stoic teaching. A man can be a good cricketer either because he is an all-rounder or because he is exceptionally good in some one department of cricket; he can be an excellent batsman even although he is a poor bowler. There is no analogy to this, so the Stoics argue, in the case of virtue. Virtue is a general condition of the soul, which no doubt finds expression in a particular way on a particular occasion—as justice, let us say, rather than as courage—but which a man either has or lacks as a whole. (It is more like “health” or “physical fitness” than it is like “being good at cricket.”)
It had been a Platonic doctrine, deriving from Socrates, that the various virtues are so inextricably entangled that one cannot exist without the other. It is impossible for a man to “specialize,” as it were, in a particular virtue. For the Stoics, too, virtue is essentially one—although it can be diversely manifested, in different circumstances, as prudence, or temperance, or justice. “Virtue,” according to the Stoic Ariston, “when it considers what we must do or avoid, is called prudence; when it controls our desires and lays down for them the limits of moderation and seasonableness in our pleasures, it is called temperance; when it has to do with men’s relations to one another and their commercial dealings, it is called justice.”39 Either, then, a man has a virtuous soul, or else he is wholly devoid of virtue. We cannot properly say of him that, for example, “he is a just man but imprudent.”
This explains the notorious Stoic paradox: a man is either perfect or he is bad. For if a man lacks any virtue he altogether lacks virtue. If virtue is treated as the performance of an external act, then, of course, a man can be virtuous in one respect and not in others; he can, for example, be cowardly and yet be a temperate drinker. But to the Stoic what matters is not the external act, but the condition of the soul, the possession of a certain kind of will, or moral intention. The coward’s will is infected, and so, therefore, is his temperance. On the one side stands the Sage, the perfected man, the man whose will is unblemished; on the other side the mass of unregenerate humanity.
Since the Sage possesses perfect virtue, his soul is also “rounded” in the sense of “lacking nothing which is valuable.” No doubt, the Stoics agreed with Aristotle, however godlike a man is, he is still human; even a Sage must eat, must seek public office, must acquire a reasonable competence. But whereas Aristotle described health and wealth as “goods,” i.e. as having value in themselves, this the Stoics wholly denied. Even less were they prepared to accept the Epicurean view that pleasure is good. Cicero quotes Zeno as asserting that “virtue is the only desirable good”;40 that became the official Stoic doctrine. Although health and freedom from pain are “advantages” they are not goods. The perfected man will in general pursue them, as Nature instructs him to do, but he remains “indifferent” to them; it will not matter to him if he loses his health, or is racked by pain. His perfection is unaffected by such losses, just because health and freedom from pain are not, in any proper sense of the word, “goods.”
In a loose sense, the Stoics were prepared to admit, goodness attaches to health and wealth, and virtue to doing what is civically appropriate, but this is only because the pursuit of advantages and the maintenance of decorum are for the most part rational. “When I don suitable attire,” writes Seneca, “or walk as I should, or dine as I ought to dine, it is not my dinner, or my walk, or my dress that are goods, but the deliberate choice which I show in regard to them”41 —not the character of my action, as such, but the rationality of my choice.
If health and wealth were goods in any but this derivative sense, so the Stoics argued, no man could preserve his equanimity, his peace of mind. Health and wealth he may lose at any moment, for reasons which lie completely outside his control. Virtue is the one thing attachment to which is compatible with serenity, since perseverance in virtue lies entirely in the power of man’s will. So the Stoic view that only virtue is good is a deduction from the Platonic principle to which Aristotle had found it impossible wholly to commit himself: that the man who possesses the good stands in need of nothing else, that he is wholly self-sufficient, perfect in a metaphysical sense. Their ideal of virtue is regularly described by the Stoics in the now familiar language of metaphysical perfection: Cicero tell us that virtue for Zeno was simple, unique and one;42 Stoic writers constantly speak of virtue as that which is complete in itself, which requires no supplement, which contains no defect.
In many respects, indeed, the Stoic ideal of perfection resembles the ideal of perfection incorporated in some sections of the Bhagavad-Gītā, in which the sage is represented as a being who “is the same to friend and foe,” who “puts away both pleasant and unpleasant things,” who “has no expectation,” who is “free from exultation, fear, impatience and excitement.”43 Similarly, the Stoic wise man, according to Diogenes Laertius, is “passionless”; he will never feel grief; he is not “pitiful” and makes “no allowance for anyone.”44 It is not simply a matter, as it was for Plato, of subduing the passions, of controlling them by reason. Sometimes, influenced by Plato, the Roman Stoics talk in this way. But for orthodox Stoicism the Sage must not only control but destroy his passions. No surprise need be felt that the Stoics found it difficult to nominate examples of a Sage.
If Sages are so rare, however, and if, short of perfection, there is only badness, the ordinary man may well despair—he may turn away from the pursuit of virtue on the ground that it is wholly unattainable. The imperfect man, the Stoics point out in reply, may in certain respects do what the perfected man—the Sage—does; the imperfect man, too, may serve his fellow-man and may act so as to preserve his health and wealth. In a sense, he is then a “better man” than those who seek what the Sage would avoid or act in ways which he would find unsuitable. The fact remains that since such men do not act with perfect detachment, they cannot properly be described as being morally good. Many Christian theologians have argued, in the same spirit, that although a pagan is in some respects “better” if he acts justly rather than unjustly, he nevertheless lacks true moral goodness since his just act is not motivated by a love of God. As the Westminster Confession puts it: “Works done by unregenerate men—although, for the matter of them, they may be things which God commands . . . are sinful and cannot please God. . . . And yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.”45
Men who without themselves being Sages act as the Sage would act, must not, on the Stoic view, be thought of as possessing a measure or degree of perfection—any more than, for the Westminster Confession, a virtuous pagan possesses a degree of Christian perfection. For the Stoics, as we said, a man is either completely perfect or completely imperfect. Until the very moment he achieves perfection, he should be regarded as wholly vicious. If we can speak of a man as “making progress” towards perfection, this should not be taken to mean that perfection is no more than the final stage in a gradual progress, in which perfection is more and more nearly approached. At the end, there is a sudden leap, quite unlike anything that has gone before, somewhat as if a blinded man whose eyes had been gradually healing behind a bandage were suddenly to have the bandage removed.
The contrast, and comparison, with what were to be orthodox Christian doctrines is an interesting one. The contemporary critics of Stoicism laughed at the Stoic doctrine that there was, in the end, a sudden leap into perfection. Did this mean, they asked, that a man might go to bed on Sunday night perfectly bad and wake up on Monday morning a perfected sage? Perfection, they argued, could only be achieved, in so far as it could be achieved at all, as the culmination of a steady progress.
For Christianity, however, there are two sudden breaks in a man’s moral development; one is his experience of divine grace, the other is death. In general, Christian theologians have argued that only after death can men achieve perfection, that in this life the best they can hope for is moral progress. But many of them have also argued that men can be suddenly transformed—and, some have said, perfected—by divine grace. The question whether perfection is the culminating point in a gradual progress or involves a sudden leap from sinfulness to a totally different condition of the soul—involving what Plato called “a conversion of the soul”46 —was, indeed, to be a principal point at issue between optimistic secularists and their theological opponents.
How is individual perfection related, for the Stoics, to social perfection? The Stoics were greatly influenced by the Cynics, and the Cynic Diogenes had already announced that he was a “citizen of the world.” The early Stoics, in particular, thought of themselves as members of a single society, passing beyond all national boundaries, a society united by its conformity to reason. Zeno wrote a Republic which was, in part, a criticism of Plato’s Republic. Where it departed from Plato was in its universality. It was a “world-state” which governed all men, without distinction between Greek and barbarian, slave and free men. “For what is a Roman knight,” Seneca was later to write, “or a freedman’s son, or a slave? One may leap to heaven from the very slums.”47 There is more than a little appropriateness in the fact that of the two great Roman Stoics, one, Epictetus, was a slave, the other, Marcus Aurelius, an emperor.
Zeno’s republic contained nothing corresponding to the Platonic classes: all its members had an equal responsibility to be fully rational. Merely in virtue of his perfect rationality, a Stoic was a member of such an ideal state, a community of Sages, much as for Plato a philosopher governed his life by the law of the ideal republic. And difficult as it was to construct such a society, it was not, so the Stoics argued, impossible in principle. The Stoic also admitted, it is true, his allegiance to that particular state in which he was born, as, in the words of Epictetus, “a small image of the Universal state.” But if later Stoics did particular service to the Roman State, the most cosmopolitan of actual states, Stoicism was in its first beginnings a doctrine which had revolutionary import, a movement towards perfection in human society as in the human individual. This sharply distinguished it from Epicureanism, or from any form of solitary asceticism.
In the event, however, what was secondary in Stoicism, the performance of those acts which the Sage would think it “proper” to perform, came to assume a central position. Stoicism was converted into a practical morality, a way of living in the State as it existed and making the best of one’s life as an ordinary citizen. Moral progress, rather than the ideal of total perfection, was in Roman times the ideal which the Stoic moralist set before men, as Epictetus does in his Discourses.48 It was still argued that only the Sage was perfect, and that all other men were bad. But since the condition of Sagehood was excessively rare, properly ascribable only to remote Greek heroes like Hercules and Odysseus—the Odyssey was read as a moral allegory, a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress of the Sage—or perhaps to Socrates, to Diogenes the Cynic, or to such Stoic Fathers as Zeno and Cleanthes, the best thing to do was to concentrate on persuading men, however imperfect, to perform those kinds of acts which the perfect Sage would also, if so differently, perform. Duty and rationality, rather than detachment and self-sufficiency, came to be the everyday Stoic ideals. This was not the last time that an impossible ideal of perfection was to be replaced, for all practical purposes, by a humanly attainable objective; much the same thing happened in the seventeenth century in reaction against the rigorous moral ideals of Augustinianism.
The great importance of the Stoics, however, was that they put before men a human exemplar of perfectibility, the Sage. He was a godlike being, in virtue of his rationality, but he was not a metaphysically remote being; he was human, and his perfection was, in principle, accessible to human beings. “Set before your mind the question,” writes Epictetus, “what would Zeno or Socrates have done?” And again: “If you are not yet Socrates, you still ought to live as one who wishes to be Socrates.”49 When men moved away from theological ideals of perfection, they turned to Stoicism, just as they turned to Epicureanism, in search of an ideal which was humanly attainable. They turned, however, to Roman rather than to Greek Stoicism—to an ideal of conduct which emphasized rationality rather than absolute self-sufficiency, which exhorted men to seek civic responsibility, impartiality and justice rather than to seek absolute detachment. For Augustinian Christians, in contrast, the attractiveness of Stoicism lay in its very absoluteness, in its insistence that man must try to be godlike, and that to do this he must first release himself from all human concerns.
“The history of Christian philosophy,” writes Henry Chadwick, “begins not with a Christian but with a Jew, Philo of Alexandria, elder contemporary of St. Paul.”50 Philo read the Old Testament, and more particularly the Pentateuch, in the light of Greek philosophy. His God is at once the personal God of Abraham and Jacob and the God of Xenophanes and of Greek speculation after him, immutable, infinite in perfection, sufficient to himself. He set theologians on that path which was to lead to the definition of God laid down, for example, by the Vatican Council: “There is one true and living God, Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, almighty, eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in intelligence, in will and in all perfection, who as being one, sole, absolutely single and immutable spiritual substance, is to be declared as really and essentially distinct from the world, of supreme beatitude in and from Himself, and ineffably exalted above all things beside Himself which exist or are conceivable.”51
For Philo converts the “unchangeable Jahweh” of the Old Testament—unchangeable only in the sense that he is steadfast, not given to changing his mind—into a God who is unchangeable in the Greek, metaphysical, sense of that word. And at the same time he converts a Jahweh who is “one” merely in having no competitors into a God who is simple and indivisible, as Parmenides understood simplicity and indivisibility. “It is one of the facts that go to make His blessedness and supreme felicity,” Philo writes, “that His being is apprehended as simple being, without other definite characteristic.”52 It is this God, at once Jahweh and a metaphysical being, in relation to whom man’s perfection is defined.
The path to perfection, as Philo envisages it, begins with faith, a faith in God comparable to Abraham’s. This is a point at which Philo breaks sharply with the Greek tradition. There is nowhere in Greek thought any suggestion that faith is a virtue, let alone that it is “the queen of virtues,”53 to quote only one of Philo’s ecstatic descriptions of it. In a sense, it is true, the Stoics exhort us to have faith in the Universe, in its providential ordering, but Philo means by “faith” more than that: it involves, also, faith in the teachings of a revealed religion.
The next step on the path to perfection consists in destroying the passions, so as to achieve a Stoic freedom from desire. (Of the passions, the most fatal, according to Philo, is spiritual pride, the lust to be equal to the gods—the Greek hubris.) As the soul ascends still further towards God, it recognizes in the body a fatal obstacle. Only by divesting itself of all that belongs to the body can the soul achieve perfection. “The soul that loves God,” Philo writes, “having disrobed itself of the body and the objects dear to the body and fled abroad far away from these, gains a fixed and assured settlement in the perfect ordinances of virtue.”54 This does not imply extreme asceticism, of which Philo disapproves; it does imply a Stoic “lack of concern” for the body. But even the Stoic Sage has not, according to Philo, reached true perfection. In the end, triumphing over the sensuality of the body, the soul can hope to perfect itself by achieving a vision of God—or, at least of one of the “powers” or “manifestations” of God. The most important of these powers is what Philo calls “Logos,” the “Word,” the main means by which God communicates with the world: it is God as Thought, as distinct from God as pure Being.55 But the manifestations of God also include the world itself. That is why a man can arrive at a vision of God through “philosophy,” i.e. an understanding of the nature of the world, seen as an emanation of God’s light—although he may also arrive at such a vision directly, as Moses did.
Of God, according to Philo, nothing positive can be said. Except in so far as he vouchsafes to give men a revelation of his nature, he is in detail unknowable—the vision of God is a blinding light, not the clear sight of an articulated object. The God seen in such a vision has no properties in common with man; we can say of him only that he is eternal, self-existent, omnipotent, omniscient, for these predicates belong to himself alone, and place him outside of every genus. We cannot possibly ascribe to him, as the Stoics did, such properties as rationality, let alone, as the Old Testament seems to do, wrath and anger. If the Old Testament is divinely inspired, even although, read literally, it ascribes to God attributes which are quite unworthy of him, this is only to say that it is quite wrong to read the Old Testament literally: it should be read as allegory.* The Old Testament stories “are no mythical fictions . . . but modes of making ideas visible, bidding us resort to allegorical interpretation.”56
By such means, Philo does for the Old Testament what Greek philosophy had done for both the Olympian religion and the mystery religions; he dehumanizes it, converts it into a metaphysics. The consequences of this dehumanizing were to be incalculable.
Can all men, in principle, hope to achieve such a degree of perfection as is involved in the vision of God? At this point, Philo’s position is in some degree predetermined by the existence of a sacred book, conceived of as “revelation”—even if it has to be interpreted allegorically—and of prophets, conceived of as men especially inspired by God. Since only some men have been chosen by God to receive his revelations, it is impossible to argue that all men have the same possibility of perfecting themselves. Without a revelation, faith can only be a truncated faith. For philosophy, by itself, can demonstrate nothing more than the existence of God; only by revelation can man pass beyond that point to a knowledge of God’s plans for man. By this argument Philo preserves the authority of the Old Testament as the principal source of revelation; philosophy can interpret, but cannot contradict, its teachings about God’s relationship to man. Revelation acts as a bridge, as it were, between God and man, a bridge metaphysics is unable to construct.
This is an exemplification of Philo’s more general doctrine that to strive is not enough. When a man has achieved as much as he can by his own efforts, he realizes his own insignificance; only with the aid of divine grace can he take the final step, to the ecstasy of direct contact with God. “And the man who has despaired of himself is beginning to know Him that IS.”57
In the Republic Plato had suggested that “the form of the good is seen last and with difficulty”;58 he had compared seeing it with looking at the sun: he had argued that the sight of the form of the good was not for all men. But Plato was none the less convinced that if men cannot achieve the vision of the form of the good this is only because they do not have the right sort of soul or have not had the right sort of training. For Aristotle, too, this is why not all men are capable of living the contemplative life. Philo is the first explicitly to argue that human effort to reach perfection, however talented and skilled, is not enough. Perfection is, in the last resort, God’s gift, even if, for Philo, that gift is bestowed, not arbitrarily, but only on those who have made themselves ready to receive it. “Strictly speaking,” he writes, “the human mind does not choose the good through itself, but in accordance with the thoughtfulness of God, since He bestows the fairest things upon the worthy.”59
The doctrine of grace, it is true, was not a wholly unfamiliar one. In Plato’s Ion, it is suggested that the “rhapsode”—the public reciter of Homer’s poetry—achieves his effects not by the exercise of skill but because he is possessed by a god. And in Homer himself, it many times happens that a character feels himself to be divinely assisted so as to be able to act “beyond his powers.” But there is no suggestion in Homer or Plato that perfection can be reached in this way. Ion’s imitative art is, in Plato’s eyes, a very lowly one; the divine assistance offered to the heroes in Homer is temporary and precarious.60 The importance of Philo was that he made of God’s working in man a fundamental condition of man’s perfectibility.
Philo’s influence on such fellow-Alexandrians as Clement and Origen was extensive. However, for all that their ways of thinking so often ran parallel, he does not seem to have directly influenced Plotinus or Plotinus’s neo-Platonic followers.61 Unlike Philo, Plotinus does not have the problem of reconciling Greek with Hebrew ideas; he may—there is considerable disagreement among scholars on this point—have felt the influence of India, but he is extraordinarily remote from those mystery religions, each with their Redeemer and many with their “special revelations,” which flourished in Plotinus’s third-century Rome. There is no sign in his writings of contact with orthodox Christians, not even with the Platonized Christianity of Justin Martyr or Clement of Alexandria. He regarded himself not as a “neo-Platonist,” as we now describe him, but as a Platonist, pure and simple, although his Plato was a very special and limited one, the Plato of isolated passages, scattered through his dialogues, which could be read in a quasi-mystical way.
Plato had suggested in the Republic that the soul has three parts; in the Timaeus he calls them “three distinct forms of soul.”62 Plotinus, however, distinguishes in man two different souls, the true or “upper” soul and the embodied or “lower” soul. The embodied soul is, for Plotinus, to be controlled but not ignored; it is, as we might express the matter, entitled to its rations. There is, too, a kind of “civic goodness” appropriate to it; its demands in this regard have to be respected. The fact remains that to achieve his true end, to discover what he has it in himself to be, man must identify himself, not with his embodied soul, but with his immaterial or “true” soul. Sin and suffering belong only to the embodied soul, the true soul is by nature divine. But to become divine men must first, as it were, rediscover their true soul and identify themselves with it; that is the only way in which they can follow the precept, laid down in the Theaetetus, to become like God. To be virtuous, in the sense of “civic goodness,” is not enough, seeing that, Plotinus agrees with Aristotle, it is impossible to ascribe temperance, for example, to the godlike; “temperance” is a quality possessed by men who are not wholly free of the body they have learnt to control.
The object of the true soul, according to Plotinus, is to repair that relationship with “the One” which is natural to it; that is its proper end, and only in such a relationship can it find perfection. What Plotinus meant by “the One,” however, it is difficult to the point of impossibility to say. Like the form of the good in Plato’s Republic it “transcends even being.”63 For a being, Plotinus argues, must always be a being of a certain form, and that implies limitation. So not even Parmenides went far enough, in Plotinus’s eyes, in his denial of distinctions, in so far as he identified the One with “Being.” The One is certainly not to be identified with the supreme intellect, because intellect involves a distinction between the mind and its objects, and no distinctions are admissible within the simplicity of the One. “Think of The One as Mind or as God,” Plotinus writes, “you think too meanly.”64 Sometimes, Plotinus calls the One the Good, with a reference back to Plato, but this is only to remind us that it is the supreme end or aim. He even calls it—as well as the simple, the unconditioned, the transcendental—“the father.” In some sense, it “begets all things” but certainly not with a father’s love, nor even by any causal means. It creates by the overflow of its perfection. “Seeking nothing, possessing nothing, lacking nothing,” Plotinus writes, “the One is perfect and, in our metaphor, has overflowed, and its exuberance has produced the new.”65
It is easy enough to understand the fascination of Plotinus for Greek-educated Christians. He sets up a perfect “One” as something which lies above good, or being, or intellect, but which is at the same time, by its very nature, creative. It is a One which is wholly non-finite, undetermined, and yet inconceivably rich and comprehensive in nature. It is a “One” which “takes flesh” in the sense that it embodies itself, but which does so by an “overflow,” i.e. without losing anything of its original nature. And what is thus embodied can return, without loss, to the One from which it emerged.
When we look more closely, no doubt, we can see the impossibility of reconciling Plotinus’s metaphysics either with Christian morality or with Christian theology—an impossibility arising from the fact that the “One” is in no sense a personal or a providential God, a source of grace or redemption or revelation, and can be none of these things without losing its character as the “One.” But we need not, all the same, feel any surprise that neo-Platonism provided Christianity with so much of its metaphysical framework, especially when it was conjoined, naturally if not altogether consistently, with the similar, but more Hebraic, theology of Philo.
To return now to our special concern, the progress of the individual soul. The individual soul “finds itself,” achieves perfection, by a process of “cutting away” whatever ties it to the bodily. Plotinus takes over the Orphic-Platonic metaphor of the imprisoned soul; the soul has to free itself from the body and only in that process can discover its own true nature. It finds itself, that is, by excluding what is not itself. It establishes its supremacy over the merely bodily, in the first place, by the exercise of such virtues as temperance; by these means it can achieve what the Stoics, but not Plotinus, understood by perfection. To reach a higher level, the level of the Intellect, it must engage in strenuous intellectual activity—Plato’s dialectic; to achieve its final perfection, it must move above the level of the intellect to a purely intuitive contemplation of the One.66
In Aristotle, we suggested, the ideal of the contemplative life is in some degree dissociated from the rest of his ethics. No doubt, the contemplative life is the supreme good, the final end for all men. But Aristotle draws a distinction between the moral and the intellectual life, the first being the characteristically human life, the second a life man can live only in virtue of the fact that he possesses something divine within him. Much that Aristotle says on this point was certainly taken over by Plotinus. The contrast Plotinus draws between the “true” and the embodied self, for example, is more than hinted at when Aristotle says that the “divine particle” which makes it possible for us to live the contemplative life “is superior to man’s composite nature.” But it is characteristic of Plotinus that he seeks to unify at the same time as he seeks to distinguish. The composite self is in the end divine, too; the practical life is also theoretical. And, in particular, contemplation is not an end which only the divine particle in man seeks, it is the end which everything seeks.
So, according to Plotinus, “all things are striving after Contemplation, looking to Vision as their one end,” not merely all animate beings but “even the unreasoning animals, the Principle that rules in growing things, and the Earth that produces these.” They do not all, of course, achieve contemplation in the same manner or to the same degree, but each comes to possess it “in its own way and degree,” even if it is only as an image or a “mimicry” of the contemplation at which the perfected soul arrives.67
It is difficult, without plunging into the intricacies of Plotinus’s metaphysics, to understand how he defends this conclusion. But Plotinus’s metaphysics, at this point, may be thought of as a particular manner of interpreting and developing that gnomic utterance of Thales from which philosophy begins: “All things are full of gods.” In the subsequent history of Greek philosophy, such gods had been replaced by atoms in motion; the atomic theory of Democritus has no need of gods. Plotinus rejects the conception of mechanical explanation. All action, he argues, mechanical action as well as human action, must be governed by an idea, or a particular “Vision.” Fundamentally, then, action is contemplation coming into material embodiment.
The difference between the most primitive mechanical action and the highest perfection of the human soul—the contemplation of the One—is, in other words, a difference in degree only. Each is a form of contemplation, the difference lying in the kind and degree of contemplation. Similarly, even the most “practical” of men, the least contemplative by our ordinary standards, seek the material goods they pursue, according to Plotinus, only in order that they can grasp them in thought, in contemplation. Merely to possess them materially would be no satisfaction; to be satisfied by them, men must be aware of them.
The effect of this approach is that the whole of Nature appears as a “great chain of being,” to use the phrase Lovejoy has made familiar.68 Perfection involves climbing a ladder, advancing in grade, and in the process freeing oneself from the limits imposed on contemplation by one’s embodied individuality—kicking away, as it were, the ladder on which one has climbed up. In part, this is the language of the mystery religions, with their initiations, their “beginners” and “perfected,” their grades of illumination. But for Plotinus, as for Plato before him, entrance to a higher grade does not depend on initiation into rites and ceremonies, on participation in sacraments or on faith in the revelations of a sacred book, but rather on moral and intellectual activity. And the final effect is not that, as in the sacraments of the mystery religions, God enters into the worshipper, but that man approaches the One. During his long progress, man has to rely upon his own efforts; the One, unlike Philo’s God, is not the sort of thing which could take an interest in the soul’s strivings or help it by an exercise of grace. “It is not that the Supreme reaches out to us seeking our communion: we reach towards the Supreme.”69 It is true that Plotinus also tells us that “the higher cares for the lower and adorns it,” but this is a care for the Universe as a whole, not a grace granted to individuals.
About the exact nature of the final stage in perfection it is hard to be confident. Some passages in Plotinus suggest that the soul, when it contemplates the One, at the same time discovers its identity with it; other passages that it always preserves its individuality. Nor is this uncertainty surprising. If the One is defined as an immutable, eternal being, how, it is natural to ask, can a particular man, a being in time, enter into relation with the One except by ceasing to be man, becoming the One? But how, on the other hand, can it then be said that a man “loves and embraces” the One, a phrase which certainly suggests that he retains some measure of independence? Plotinus says of himself that he “cannot help talking in dualities . . . instead of, boldly, the achievement of unity.”70 So it would seem that in truth we unite with the One, although our speech betrays us into saying that we “love” or “see” or “have a vision of it.” The problem here involved—the problem of at once differentiating the perfected being from God and uniting him with God—was constantly to break out in Christian mysticism which, by its very nature, teeters on the brink of a pantheism quite incompatible with the Hebraic ingredient in Christianity.
What then was the Greek legacy? First and foremost the establishment of the idea of metaphysical perfection, and the ascription of that perfection to a Supreme Being, whether the Being was distinguished from or identified with Nature. Secondly, the view that human beings, or some human beings, could share, even if in a modified form, the metaphysical perfections of the Supreme Being—all his perfections except those which define his supremacy, such as his all-embracingness. Thirdly, the view that perfection involves knowledge, in some sense of the word. Even if, at its highest point, this is a knowledge that passes all understanding, it nevertheless must be, so the Greeks generally argued, based on knowledge in a more ordinary sense, involving a rational understanding of the Universe. Fourthly, a strong suggestion that this knowledge, and consequently perfection, could only be achieved by withdrawal from the world. But this was contradicted by the suggestion that it might be achieved in an ideal society. Fifthly, an attempt to set up a lower level of morality, short of perfection, which could serve as a practical aim for the ordinary citizen and, perhaps, as a preliminary stage on the path towards perfection. In what diverse ways these ideas were incorporated into, and rejected by, the manifold varieties of Christian teaching we must now turn to consider.
[1. ]For a fuller account of Aristotle’s views, which brings out their complexity, see W. F. R. Hardie: Aristotle’s Ethical Theory (Oxford, 1968).
[2. ]Nicomachean Ethics (NE), I. 7, as trans. J. A. K. Thomson (London, 1953; reissued in Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth, 1955), p. 39. All quotations from the Nicomachean Ethics are from this edition.
[* ]It will by now be apparent how the neo-Platonists were able to amalgamate Platonism and Aristotelianism: by devoting all their attention to that relatively short section of the Nicomachean Ethics (Bk. X, 7–9) in which Aristotle extols the speculative life. If one looks elsewhere in the Nicomachean Ethics a rather different Aristotle emerges, who everywhere advocates moderation, the performance of one’s civic duties, the use of “practical wisdom.” This was the Aristotle whom in the fourteenth century the Renaissance “civic humanists” were to resurrect. But for Christian and neo-Platonic perfectibilists, uninterested in civic goodness, Aristotle is above all the exponent of the view that the highest good is contemplative, and that in contemplation man becomes like a god.
[3. ]NE, X. 7; trans. Thomson, p. 305.
[4. ]Metaphysics, A. 2. 983a.
[5. ]NE, X. 7; trans. Thomson, p. 303.
[6. ]NE, VII. 14; trans. Thomson, p. 225.
[7. ]Leibniz: Principles of Nature and of Grace (1718), trans. from Philosophische Schriften, ed. Gerhardt, VI, 606, in A. O. Lovejoy: The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, Mass., 1936; repr. 1948), p. 248. Compare Lovejoy on this whole question.
[8. ]Lessing: Eine Duplik (A Rejoinder: 1778), in Werke, ed. Julius Petersen and W. von Olshausen (Berlin, 1925–35), Vol. 23, pp. 58–59, as trans. in H. B. Garland: Lessing (Cambridge, 1937; repr. 1949), ch. XI, p. 174.
[9. ]Gregory of Nyssa, as quoted in A. H. Armstrong, ed.: The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, ch. 29, p. 456. See also the passages collected in John and Charles Wesley: A Rapture of Praise; hymns sel. and introd. H. A. Hodges and A. M. Allchin (London, 1966), pp. 22–33.
[10. ]Adam Ferguson: An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Pt. I, Section I and Pt. I, Section VII; in the ed. by D. Forbes (Edinburgh, 1966), pp. 7, 42.
[11. ]NE, X, 8; trans. Thomson, pp. 307–8.
[12. ]Metaphysics,Λ. 9. 1074b.
[13. ]NE, X. 8; trans. Thomson, p. 307.
[14. ]NE, X. 7; trans. Thomson, p. 304.
[15. ]Plotinus: Enneads, V. 1. 8, as trans. Stephen MacKenna, 2nd ed. rev. B. S. Page (London, 1956), p. 376. All subsequent quotations from Plotinus are from this ed.
[16. ]Trans. from H. Usener, ed.: Epicurea (Leipzig, 1887), p. 169. 14; in R. D. Hicks: Stoic and Epicurean (London, 1910), p. 191. For Epicurus generally, see C. Bailey: The Greek Atomists and Epicurus (Oxford, 1928); A. J. Festugière: Epicurus and His Gods, trans. C. W. Chilton (Oxford, 1955).
[17. ]Epicurus: “Sovran Maxims,” 1, as trans. R. D. Hicks in the Loeb edition of Diogenes Laertius: Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Vol. 2, p. 663. All subsequent translations from Epicurus are from this volume.
[18. ]“Letter to Menoeceus,” trans. Hicks, Vol. 2, p. 657.
[19. ]“Sovran Maxims,” 14; trans. Hicks, Vol. 2, p. 669.
[20. ]On the general idea of “retirement” in the Ancient World, compare A. J. Festugière: Personal Religion Among the Greeks (Berkeley, 1954), ch. IV.
[21. ]“Sovran Maxims,” 21; trans. Hicks, Vol. 2, p. 671.
[22. ]“Sovran Maxims,” 4; cf. Hicks, Vol. 2, p. 665. In this case I have not followed Hicks’s translation.
[23. ]The best general account of Stoic moral ideals in English is E. V. Arnold: Roman Stoicism (London, 1911; repr. 1958), which is actually, for all its title, fuller on Greek than on Roman Stoicism.
[24. ]Seneca: Epistulae morales, 92, as trans. R. M. Gummere, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1917–43), Vol. 2, p. 465. All quotations from Seneca’s Letters are from this ed.
[25. ]Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, I, 17, as trans. Maxwell Staniforth, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth, 1964), p. 42. All quotations from Marcus Aurelius are from this ed.
[26. ]Cicero: De natura deorum, II, xii and I, viii, trans. Rackham, Loeb ed., pp. 153, 23. Quotations are from this ed.
[27. ]Timaeus, 30b, as trans. Cornford: Plato’s Cosmology, p. 34.
[28. ]Epistulae morales, 92; Loeb ed., Vol. 2, p. 467.
[29. ]De natura deorum, II, viii; Loeb ed., p. 145.
[30. ]For a discussion of this argument and a bibliography, see David Sanford: “Degrees of Perfection” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 2.
[31. ]Epistulae morales, 96; cf. Loeb ed., Vol. 3, pp. 105–6: “Non pareo deo, sed adsentior.” In this case I have not followed the Loeb trans.
[32. ]Diogenes Laertius: Lives of Eminent Philosophers, VII, 88; Loeb ed., Vol. 2, pp. 195–97.
[33. ]De beneficiis, IV, vii, as trans. J. W. Basore in the Loeb Classical Library ed. of Moral Essays, Vol. 3 (London, 1948), p. 217.
[34. ]Origen: Commentary on St. John, XIII.
[35. ]Meditations, XI, 16, trans. Staniforth, p. 171.
[36. ]See Buddhist Scriptures, sel. and trans. Edward Conze, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth, 1959; repr. 1968), p. 104.
[37. ]Meditations, XI, 8, trans. Staniforth, pp. 168–69.
[38. ]Meditations, XI, 12; XII, 3, trans. Staniforth, pp. 170, 180. In the latter case I have not followed Staniforth exactly.
[39. ]Ariston of Chios, quoted in Plutarch: Moralia, 441a, as trans. W. C. Helmbold, Loeb Classical Library, Vol. 6 (London, 1939), p. 21.
[40. ]De officiis, III, viii, 35; cf. trans. by J. E. Higginbotham in Cicero on Moral Obligation (London, 1967), p. 148.
[41. ]Epistulae morales, 92; Loeb ed., Vol. 2, pp. 453–55.
[42. ]Academica, I, x; cf. trans. by H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1933; rev. 1951), p. 445.
[43. ]Bhagavad-gītā, XII, §15–19, as trans. in Hindu Scriptures, sel., trans. and introd. R. C. Zaehner, Everyman’s Library (London, 1966), p. 302.
[44. ]Lives, VII, 117, 118, 123; Loeb ed., Vol. 2, pp. 221, 223, 227.
[45. ]Westminster Confession, Section XVI, quoted from H. Bettenson, ed.: Documents of the Christian Church, World’s Classics (London, 1943; repr. 1946), p. 346.
[46. ]Republic, 518d.
[47. ]Epistulae morales, 31; Loeb ed., Vol. 1, p. 229.
[48. ]Epictetus: Discourses. See especially Bk. IV.
[49. ]Manual (Encheiridion), 33, 51; I give a rendering freely based on the trans. by W. A. Oldfather, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1926–28), Vol. 2, pp. 521, 535.
[50. ]In A. H. Armstrong, ed.: The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, p. 137. See also, for Philo generally, H. A. Wolfson: Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, 3rd ed. rev., 2 vols (Cambridge, Mass., 1962).
[51. ]The Decrees of the Vatican Council, ed. Vincent McNabb (London, 1907), Decree I, pp. 18–19.
[52. ]On the Unchangeableness of God, 55, as trans. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker in the Loeb Classical Library ed. of Philo’s works, 10 vols (London, 1929–62), Vol. III, p. 39. All quotations from Philo are taken from this ed.
[53. ]On Abraham, XLVI, 270; Loeb ed., Vol. VI, p. 133.
[54. ]On the Allegorical Interpretation of Genesis, II, xv, 55; Loeb ed., Vol. I, p. 259.
[55. ]For comparable Rabbinical views see Charles Guignebert: The Jewish World in the Time of Jesus (1935; Eng. trans. 1939; repr. New York, 1959, 1965), Bk. II, ch. 1, pp. 83–95.
[* ]Philo did not invent the allegorical method. It had been practised by the Greeks themselves on the writings of Homer; the Stoics made great use of it, especially in its etymological form; Philo inherits an Alexandrian rabbinical tradition which had already been forced into allegorizing in order to defend the Old Testament against Greek criticisms that it was nothing more than a collection of outdated myths.
[56. ]On the Creation, LVI, 157; Loeb ed., Vol. I, p. 125.
[57. ]On Dreams, I, X, 60; Loeb ed., Vol. V, p. 329.
[58. ]Republic, 517.
[59. ]A fragment from the lost fourth book of his Legum Allegoria (On the Allegorical Interpretation of Genesis), as trans. H. A. Wolfson in his Philo, Vol. 1, p. 442. This fragment is not included in the Loeb ed., but the text may be found in Fragments of Philo Judaeus, ed. J. R. Harris (Cambridge, 1886), p. 8.
[60. ]For some other examples of the workings of divine grace in Greek religious thought, see E. R. Dodds: Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, Wiles Lectures, 1963 (Cambridge, 1965), p. 90 n.
[61. ]Interpreting Plotinus is a very difficult task; his principal work, the Enneads, is a collection of essays, rather than a systematic book, written over a long period of time, and arranged for publication by Plotinus’s pupil Porphyry. It may well incorporate important changes in ideas. The inner tensions in Plotinus are particularly stressed in Philip Merlan’s article on Plotinus in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 6. See also Emile Bréhier: The Philosophy of Plotinus, trans. from the French ed. of 1952 by J. Thomas (Chicago, 1958); A. H. Armstrong on Plotinus in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, pp. 195–268; and, for a rather different view, J. M. Rist: Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge, 1967).
[62. ]Republic, 435 b–c;Timaeus, 89e, trans. Cornford, p. 353.
[63. ]Republic, 509b.
[64. ]Enneads, VI. 9. 6, trans. MacKenna, 1956, p. 619.
[65. ]Enneads, V. 2. 1, trans. MacKenna, p. 380.
[66. ]Enneads, IV. 8. 4; cf. MacKenna, pp. 360–61.
[67. ]Enneads, III. 8. 1, trans. MacKenna, p. 239.
[68. ]See note 7 above.
[69. ]Enneads, VI. 9. 8, trans. MacKenna, p. 622.
[70. ]Enneads, VI. 9. 10, trans. MacKenna, p. 624.