“At first the soul was united with the Gods …”

Along the lines of the Simplicius passage I mentioned in my January update, today, my Discover Weekly updated. One of the pieces, “What Fills the Gap” (Will Cady) features passages from an Alan Watts lecture — Part 2 of “Out of Your Mind.”

There’s a lot of Phaedrus and Timaeus energy here, especially in this bit: “What exists, reality itself, is gorgeous; it is the plenum, the fullness of total joy.” Sounds like what is without color, without shape, and without solidity, something that is truly real and truly beautiful. (This was split from a passage where Watts is evidently discussing the cosmos, but it rings a bit different on its own, yes?) But I digress. I’m not a big fan of how the drum (synth?) sounds in this piece or the singer’s voice, but it’s an effective composition overall. The stormclap (which evokes the Myth of Er in the Republic) is a nice touch. Let’s talk about Watts instead.

Here is the Simplicius:

Μία ἠ ὄλη ζωὴ καὶ εἷς βίος, τῇδε κἀκεισε μεταβαλλὀμενος.
All of life is one, and the life you live is one, alternating between here and there.

Simplicius, On Epictetus volume 2, 135,30

What’s interesting about the Watts lecture is how it seems to present a more optimistic and pro-generation version of the passage that is in some ancient Platonists, such as Hermias.

Here is Watts:

Let’s suppose that you were able every night to dream any dream that you wanted to dream. And that you could, for example, have the power within one night to dream 75 years of time. Or any length of time you wanted to have. And you would, naturally as you began on this adventure of dreams, you would fulfill all your wishes. You would have every kind of pleasure you could conceive. And after several nights of 75 years of total pleasure each, you would say, “Well, that was pretty great.” But now let’s have a surprise. Let’s have a dream which isn’t under control. Where something is gonna happen to me that I don’t know what it’s going to be. And you would dig that and come out of that and say, “Wow, that was a close shave, wasn’t it?” And then you would get more and more adventurous, and you would make further and further out gambles as to what you would dream. And finally, you would dream … where you are now. You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.

And here is the passage in the first volume of Hermias/Syrianus’ commentary on the Phaedrus:

Originally and at first the soul was united with the gods and that ‘one’ of its was joined to the gods. Then, withdrawing from that divine union, it descended to intellect and no longer possessed [all] there is (ta onta) in a unified manner and in one but gazed upon it and saw it by means of simple apprehensions and, as it were, direct contacts (thixis) [on the part] of its intellect. Then, withdrawing from intellect too and descending to reasoning and discursive thought, it no longer gazed upon it by means of simple apprehensions either, but by moving syllogistically and step by step and one thing after another from premisses to conclusions. Then, departing too from pure reasoning and the psychic mode (idiôma), it descended into generation and was infected with great irrationality and confusion. It must, then, return once more to its own origins and go back once more to the place whence it descended. And in this ascent and restoration these four types of madness assist it. Muse-engendered [madness] brings into concord and harmony those of its parts that have fallen into disorder and have declined into indeterminacy and discord and are afflicted with great confusion, while telestic renders the soul perfect and whole and equips it to operate at the intellective level (noerôs); for Muse-engendered madness tunes and orders the parts alone, while telestic makes it function as a whole and renders it whole so that its intellective part too is active. For after it has descended the soul seems to be shattered and weakened and the circle of the Same, i.e. its intellective part, is obstructed (pedan), and the circle of the Other, i.e. its opining part, suffers many bends and twists, [and] therefore it functions [only] one part at a time (merikôs) and not with its whole being (kata pasan heautên). Dionysiac possession, then, after the harmonisation of [the soul’s] parts, renders it perfect and makes it function with its whole being and live intellectively. Apollonian, on the other hand, causes all of its multiplicitous (peplêthusmenos) powers and the whole of it[s being] to return to its one and [thus] revives [it]. (Hence [the god] is called Apollo as leading the soul back ‘from the many’ (apo tôn pollôn) to the One.) And, finally, Erotic [possession], receiving the unified soul, joins this one of the soul to the gods and to intelligible beauty.

Hermias: On Plato: Phaedrus 227A–245E, trans. Baltzly & Share, 93,19-30, brackets theirs

We could also keep Plotinus’ I.6 (On Beauty) in mind here, which is definitely in conversation with what Hermias/Syrianus is writing at that point given the topic. Proclus also discusses this topic at length in many places, especially in Book 5 of the Timaeus commentary. If I remember correctly, there’s a Republic essay passage of his that’s really close to what Hermias/Syrianus has here, but that could be a mistaken memory.

So you see what I mean by optimism — that potential-focused passage from Watts, almost giddy with the idea of coming down into generation, versus the sober “what fresh [mess] is this” outlook in Platonism. (Watts is not a Platonist or Platonizing.) The soul does become giddy for generation, giddy for thrill-seeking and the imitation of the Gods in an applied science way at a certain point in its cycle; this is a constant push and pull, a constant going forth and coming back. We all know the giddiness and we all know the return. And from a certain point of view, this is all simultaneous. How dizzying.

Watts’ lectures (at least, those I’ve heard) are very different in tone from how his life developed and ended, as he struggled with alcoholism — generation is hard on all of us, and emotional pain and stress are especially hard to manage. We are all working on ourselves, making progress however we can, and all of us — including me, including you, including people you idolize online and strangers who anger you and those you never even think about — struggle with our own vulnerabilities and our own flaws. The danger that comes from staring into the mirror that shows the self starkly is one reason why it’s important to have a compassion practice when one is working on one’s spiritual growth and why what the Platonists said about managing the irrational soul (its appetites and its emotions, everything that comes from the body) — especially Simplicius when he was commenting on Epictetus, a Stoic — are so grounding. They are harsh in their writing style because we all give ourselves excuses, and sometimes we need to be shocked out of that complacency and away from distortion and harm to the self. The difficulty of embodiment and its challenges also shows why it’s so important to accept that nobody who is embodied can be perfect and why we need to distinguish the potential of who someone is and the potential of what they teach from those shadows.

Anyway, that’s a quick bit of intellectual interest for the day.

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