Something Beautiful from Plotinus

This week, I ended up reading Ennead I.6, “On Beauty,” because I encountered a quotation from it twice, and it seemed like completing the repetition triad was in order. I would like to share the quotation with all of you, which makes a satisfying tetrad.

How, then, can you see the kind of beauty that a good soul has? Go back into yourself and look. If you do not yet see yourself as beautiful, then be like a sculptor who, making a statue that is supposed to be beautiful, removes a part here and polishes a part there so that he makes the latter smooth and the former just right until he has given the statue a beautiful face. In the same way, you should remove superfluities and straighten things that are crooked, work on the things that are dark, making them bright, and not stop ‘working on your statue’ until the divine splendour of virtue shines in you, until you see ‘Self-Control enthroned on the holy seat.

Plotinus, trans. Gerson., Ennead I.6.9

My first encounter was on Instagram — because I follow OnePhilosophia and a few similar accounts, Instagram suggests Stoic stuff fairly frequently because AI can’t tell the difference. Someone had posted a photograph of the quotation that began Chapter 4 of a popular everyday Stoicism book, and the author had quoted Plotinus. It was both weird and hilarious because, as I said on Twitter, one would think that a Stoic would use ler page real estate well and devote that opportunity to familiarizing readers with actual Stoics. Then again, Platonic revivals come after Stoic revivals, so nature is healing. 🙏

The second place was in one of Tim Addey’s videos, which I intended to space out viewing but actually devoured over the course of a day or two, in the context of the self coming to know oneself and the development of virtue.

My third encounter was reading the bit in the Enneads translation by Gerson when someone asked me what had been quoted in the Stoicism book, and so I passed that along and queued up the whole Ennead for reading.

My approach to reading Plotinus, since his style is very different from a commentary, has been to tackle Enneads as they come up in footnotes within other things I am reading. “On Beauty” is itself a beautiful treatise, and some passages — like at I.6.7 when the piercing longing for the Good is discussed — reminded me of the religious experience that happened to me last May, and while I don’t know whether we are discussing the same thing or not, I would definitely characterize what happened along the lines of what is under discussion here. It’s impossible to see something truly beautiful and for it not to have an impact on one’s life.

I went to bed late last night because I was doing creative writing — I’m rewriting and extending what was once a short story because I’m stuck brainstorming through how to get a main character where she needs to go in my main project — and it was already late, and then I started reading Proclus and it kind of ballooned into me being awake until the sentences no longer connected in my brain.

It was half past midnight by the time I fell asleep. Curiously, I vaguely remember my dreams, and they were all about either reading or learning, as if sleep had never in fact happened and I was still reading texts and watching Platonism videos on YouTube. I awoke early with racing thoughts about virtue and the way people treat one another and just how fucking hard it is when there are communities with competing, absolutely valid needs who just shout at one another and hurt one another in ballooning escalations of conflict. (There are many examples, and most of the ones that came to mind involve progressives eating one another alive on various topics.) My mind tends to connect many of these issues to the idea of interference patterns within material existence, echoing some things that I had read in Proclus’ Parmenides commentary about the Forms and how at less peripheral levels of reality, even opposites can coexist, if I read and remember that correctly. The video from Addey got me thinking a lot about what it means — and where we end up — if one approaches issues from a steadier place. It also made me consider how dangerous it can be to equate developing virtue and justice to adhering to the undertow of human opinion, which constantly shifts.

On an entirely different note, I was simultaneously thinking a lot about piety, doing right by the Gods, and how easy it is for us to delude ourselves into patterns of behavior/thinking that undermine reestablishing contact with the Gods and building a steady foundation for the future. One of the oracles I received this week was ὕβριν μίσει, hate hubris. It fed into my other thoughts because the point of asking for what will help me achieve arete each week is to contemplate the maxims I receive. As long as I have been active online, things that I have seen within polytheist communities that I know will have longitudinal negative impacts on building sustainable religious movements have weighed like an anchor on my heart, plunging me into a sea of disquiet — the choice to hold literal interpretations of myths close instead of fighting for our right to exegesis as if progressive Christian interpreters are the only ones allowed to do such things and draw valid meaning; the choice to persist in using racist symbols instead of asking a God to sow a new token in the world, as the Gods are overflowing with goodness and oracular insights are powerful connections that we can and should consult with questions that address what we actually need to know; the choice to “proactively” curse people online instead of dealing with one’s own trust issues and their root causes; and so on. I’m describing a range of behaviors based only on things that I have witnessed; I know that I am also not blameless because I am also human. My sensitivity to this situation increased last year after the religious experience because the longitudinal negative impacts, in my assessment, create blocks to having deep engagement with the Gods for future polytheists and those just entering our communities. I think about whether or not my actions are acting in service of cultivating that good ambient environment or not all of the time now, and I try not to let my sorrow about the environment as it currently stands drag me down too much.

Both trains of thought above involve a person, or group of people, separating out what is important from the noise all around us to reach a good solution — and they also involve humility, acknowledging where we have dug trenches and wasted time and effort on harmful things that we mistook for actions and positions that support justice and piety within ourselves and our communities.

This post meandered a lot from the original quotation, but within the meander, I hope that readers have come away with a helpful perspective to contemplate. I will close with something said earlier in “On Beauty.” I like the end of this because it highlights that there is always the ability to do better (note/update: I do realize that the context for what is quoted below is slightly different from how I am applying it, but the concepts are transferrable).

This is indeed what I regard as an impure soul, dragged in every direction by its chains towards whatever it happens to perceive with its senses, with much of what belongs to the body adulterating it, deeply implicating itself with the material element and, taking that element into itself due to that adulteration that only makes it worse, it exchanges the form it has for another. It is as if someone fell into mud or slime and the beauty he had is no longer evident, whereas what is seen is what he smeared on himself from the mud or slime. The ugliness that has actually been added to him has come from an alien source, and his job, if indeed he is again to be beautiful, is to wash it off and to be clean as he was before.

Plotinus, trans. Gerson., Ennead I.6.5


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