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December 28, 2005


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I have been reading Brian's book on the mystic teachings of Plotinus as contained in the Enneads, entitled "Return to the One" and have just finished the chapter on "Image is Illusion". One of the concepts presented here is mentioned several times earlier in the book and concerns the idea that all the objects in this physical universe that we apprehend with our senses are imperfect reflections of higher immaterial realities. An accepted tenant of Greek philosophy of that time apparently was that whatever forms exist in the world out there also exist in the inner world of spiritual consciousness, ie. the concept of spiritual forms being the reality behind all the multitude of sensations that we apprehend with our physical senses and that all that is here in the physical universe is a poor and insubstantial shadow of what is existant in a spiritual region of consciousness that most of humankind is unaware of.
This is one aspect of Plotinus,s teachings that I'm reluctant to go along with especially if it is intended to be interpreted literally. Putting it bluntly I can see no reason for over 90% of phenomena that we experience in this physical world to exist in a higher region of consciousness. For example the organic lifeforms that are a feature of existance in this world are deemed to be unnecessary in the spriritual regions of conscious and therefore there would be no justification for the form of anything even vaguely resembling the attractiveness of the opposite sex not to mention the scent of flowers, taste of fruits and the sound of birdsong etc.
Hindu temples are famed for the forthright sculpted images of celestial gods and godesses holding out the promise of physical perfection on some other plane of existance, but once you remove the need for sexual reproduction and the requirement to move across a terrestrial landscape you remove the need for almost all of the visually recognisable features that define the "form" underlying the sculptor's creation.
Admittedly my interpretation of this Greek concept may be somewhat limited and crude but in essense I'm wondering what the necessity for most form is outside of the constraints of a physical universe. Could Brian or anyone else explain to me where I'm going wrong with my current understanding of the teaching of Plotinus.

Peter, forgive this delayed response to your comment. I’ve had a “reply to Plotinus comment” on my computer’s to-do list since you posted it on New Year’s Day. But obviously not putting things off wasn’t on my list of resolutions. Your recent email message has jarred me into activity.

You raised some very good points. I don’t think your understanding of Plotinus/Plato is off. I’ve vaguely had the same qualms you brought up. I just haven’t given the subject much concentrated thought. Not that thinking is of much good here, as I’m sure you’d agree.

I mean, either the Forms are real, or they aren’t. I have no idea which is true. The notion of some sort of mathematical Form-reality makes a lot of sense to me (and to most mathematicians) since the physical laws of nature are, rather amazingly, capable of being described in numerical form.

But I agree with you that this is a far cry from what Plotinus seems to be saying: that each and every thing found here on earth —worms, fish, dogs, rocks, etc.— also can be found in the “intelligible” realm of the Forms. I don’t know whether to take this literally or figuratively (or, in some other way).

By and large, Plotinus’ teachings resonate with me. They make more sense, on the whole, than any other mystic philosophy. However, some of the details don’t. Again, I can’t say whether this is due to my admitted spiritual ignorance, or to Plotinus’ own unknowing.

What concerns me, not only with Plotinus but with every mystic I’m aware of, is the stark contrast between seeming knowledge of spiritual reality and evident un-knowledge of what science tells us about physical reality. If mystics are really able to know the deeper workings of the cosmos, why are they so unknowing about the physical laws of nature and the universe?

If a mystic held forth about God, and also was able to come up with a true statement about the laws of nature that wasn’t known before (resolving the incompatibility of relativity and quantum theory, for example, which would earn the mystic a Nobel prize), I’d have tremendous confidence in that mystic’s spiritual pronouncements.

Getting back to Plotinus, it may be that he had some mystical visions that he took to be genuine. When he speaks of the higher worlds, it certainly sounds as if he is talking from direct experience. But I could be wrong.

It does indeed seem to be contradictory to have all the multiplicity here also there, in a spiritual realm. Plotinus’ basic cosmology is to go from One to Many. So, as you said, why would there be so much Many in the world of Forms? Shouldn’t the cosmos get simpler as you go higher?

True, Plotinus does say that the Many in the intelligible world is much more unified than the manyness here. In his book, “Nature Loves to Hide,” physicist Shimon Malin discusses how compatible Neoplatonism is with modern physics. So as long as we don’t take Plotinus super-literally, I still think that his philosophy meshes nicely with scientific thought.

Personally, I’m much attracted to Plotinus’ teachings about the ineffable nature of the One. I find his teachings about the World of Forms less attractive. But again, this might be due to my own ignorance of what lies beyond this existence. It’s just that I can understand (more or less) how everything returns to One. If there wasn’t some One to begin with, how can anything else get started or be created?

The intermediate stage of the Forms is less comprehensible. I can only hope that one day all will be revealed, from the lowest to the highest.

To Brian, Peter D, and readers:

For a better, broader, and more comprehensive understanding of this issue, than Plotinus has offered so far, please go and read the brief scientific paper:

"The Categorical-Analytic Meaning of Truth" which can be found here:


--- tao

To Brian and readers:

For other related writings and serious scientific analysis of some of the general issues which are touched upon here in Church of the Churchless, please go to:


--- tao

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