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Plotinus – First Ennead, Tractate III: On Dialectic [The Upward Way]

In this tractate, Plotinus discusses how a metaphysician should apply the philosophical practice of dialectic to assist in gaining an understanding of God, essentially raising one’s consciousness so as to become more godlike.

The Oxford Dictionary defines dialectic as the “inquiry into metaphysical contradictions and their solutions.” Plotinus goes into a deeper explanation of how dialectics are applied in the search for ultimate Truth and knowledge of the Divine.

It is the Method, or Discipline, that brings with it the power of pronouncing with final truth upon the nature and relation of things—what each is, how it differs from others, what common quality all have, to what Kind each belongs and in what rank each stands in its Kind and whether its Being is Real-Being, and how many Beings there are, and how many non-Beings to be distinguished from Beings.

Dialectic treats also of the Good and the not-Good, and of the particulars that fall under each, and of what is the Eternal and what the not-Eternal—and of these, it must be understood, not by seeming-knowledge [“sense-knowledge”] but with authentic science.

This is a lot to digest, so let’s identify the key points.

First, according to the dialectic method as applied to metaphysics, the only way to come to an understanding of divine Truth is through careful analysis and comparison between two opposites. Think of the yin and yang symbol. The whole is made up of two different halves, each the opposite of the other, yet containing a seed of the other. So, when Plotinus is talking about understanding Being by comparing Real-Being with non-Being, it would seem that he is describing the comparison between the Forms as posited by Plato with the manifestations of those archetypal Forms in this reality.

But then Plotinus takes this to the next step, which is knowledge of God, or as he states, the Eternal. In order to come to a complete understanding of God, one must experience direct contact with God and compare that with that which is not God, presumably the Soul which exists within each of us, the Soul being from God, but not God.

This is probably enough for today. Meditate on this a little and I will have another installment up soon.

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Plotinus – First Ennead, Tractate II: On Virtue

In this tractate, Plotinus describes how virtue enables us to become godlike.

He begins by asserting that while “virtue is one thing, the source of virtue is quite another.” The source of virtue is the Supreme God, but since the Supreme is perfection, virtue does not exist within the realm of the Divine.

So with us: it is from the Supreme that we derive order and distribution and harmony, which are virtues in this sphere: the Existences There, having no need of harmony, order or distribution, have nothing to do with virtue; and, none the less, it is by our possession of virtue that we become like to Them.

Plotinus goes on to state that “our concern is not merely to be sinless but to be God.” Since “man is the very being that came from the Supreme,” the goal of being virtuous is to purify our being and return to our divine state.

Plotinus concludes this tractate by pointing out that we should not model ourselves and our virtues on the examples of virtuous people, such as saints. Instead, we should look directly to the source of virtue in order to return to our divine nature.

For it is to the Gods, not to the Good, that our Likeness must look: to model ourselves upon good men is to produce and image of an image: we have to fix our gaze above the image and attain Likeness to the Supreme Exemplar.

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Plotinus – First Ennead, Tractate I: The Animate and the Man

This tractate explores the connection between the body and the Soul, focusing on the question of where emotions and experiences reside. Basically, determining whether emotions like fear and courage are experienced by the Soul or by the physical body.

Plotinus establishes that the Soul is immortal, and since it cannot be threatened by the physical danger, it cannot be the source of these emotional states.

Now what could bring fear to a nature thus unreceptive of all the outer? Fear demands feeling. Nor is there a place for courage: courage implies the presence of danger. And such desires as are satisfied by the filling or voiding of the body, must be proper to something very different from the Soul, to that only which admits of replenishment and voidance.

Plotinus then goes on to argue that humans possess what he terms the Animate, which is essentially a combination of a physical body with the immortal Soul.

Now this Animate might be merely the body as having life: it might be the Couplement of Soul and body: it might be a third and different entity formed from both.

Plotinus later explores the question of perception, inquiring into whether the Soul can perceive things in the physical realm. He posits that the Soul perceives sympathetically, essentially picking up reverberations from what the body experiences on the physical plane.

The faculty of perception in the Soul cannot act by the immediate grasping of sensible objects, but only by the discerning of impressions printed upon the Animate by sensation: these impressions are already Intelligibles while the outer sensation is a mere phantom of the other [of that in the Soul] which is nearer to Authentic-Existence as being an impassive reading of Ideal-Forms.

Based upon this quote, it appears that the Soul, being divine in origin and immortal, has direct knowledge of the Platonic forms. The Soul thereby is able to identify the sensations from the physical world because of their connection to the ideals existing within the realm of forms. This reminds me of how, in music, a string will vibrate when a note of the same key is played on a different string. For example, if you play a D note on the A string, the D string will also vibrate.

That’s all I have for this tractate. We will look at the next one soon.

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“The Six Enneads” by Plotinus: Introduction

I have been considering doing a blog series on Plotinus for a while. Now seems like a good time to do so. I had previously read some of his work, but never the complete Enneads, which was something I had endeavored to do. I was first introduced to Plotinus in college when I was fortunate enough to study W.B. Yeats under the guidance of the late Prof. Phillip Marcus, who was considered to be “one of the world’s leading Yeats scholars.” Prof. Marcus assigned passages from Plotinus to the class to help us better understand the complex occult symbolism in Yeats’ work.

Here is a little background information for those who are unfamiliar with Plotinus.

Plotinus was a major Hellenistic philosopher who lived in Roman Egypt. In his philosophy, described in the Enneads, there are three principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. His teacher was Ammonius Saccas, who was of the Platonic tradition. Historians of the 19th century invented the term neoplatonism and applied it to Plotinus and his philosophy, which was influential during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Much of the biographical information about Plotinus comes from Porphyry’s preface to his edition of Plotinus’ Enneads. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, and Islamic metaphysicians and mystics, including developing precepts that influence mainstream theological concepts within religions, such as his work on duality of the One in two metaphysical states.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Prophyry was a disciple of Plotinus. Prophyry stated that Plotinus’ goal was “’…intimate union with the God who is above all things’ and testified that during the time he knew him Plotinus ‘attained this end four times.’” Union with God once in a lifetime is amazing; four times is almost unfathomable for me.

At this point, it is worth considering the structure of this work. I think this is important because I suspect there is a mystical symbolism in the structure of the text itself.

The word “enneads” comes from the Greek word “ennea,” which means nine. So essentially, an ennead is a group of nine. Each of the six enneads contains nine tractates, which, as we have seen already deal with the three metaphysical principles (the One, the Intellect, and the Soul ) that comprise Plotinus’ philosophy. This gives us a 3-6-9 structure. Now, I am not going to go into detail about the mystical significance of this number combination, but suffice to say that Nikola Tesla asserted that “If you only knew the magnificence of the 3, 6 and 9, then you would have the key to the universe.”

I think this is enough of an introduction for now. Going forward, I will be publishing a blog post for each of the tractates, which should be a total of 54. If you have any interest in following along, I will be using the translation by Stephen MacKenna and B. S. Page. Hopefully, some of you will read along and join in a discussion.

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Thoughts on Poem 712 by Emily Dickinson: Because I could not stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Over the past few months, I have been having virtual literature discussions with one of my closest friends, and we recently discussed this poem. I had read through it multiple times prior to our discussion and took many notes. Still, in talking about the nuances of this masterpiece, we discovered more hidden symbolism and meaning. So my goal in this post is to cover some of the themes we discovered in the text. It is by no means exhaustive, and if you have insights you would like to share, please do so in the comments section (available for 14 days after publication of this post).

The obvious theme is that the speaker is describing the afterlife by personifying Death and Immortality. As is implied in the first stanza, many of us hasten through our lives without giving much thought to our impending deaths. But eventually, Death does come for us all. It is also worth noting that Dickinson differentiates between Death and Immortality. One could conclude that dying does not necessarily mean that the soul will unite with the Eternal.

Something that my friend and I discussed was the possibility that the speaker is somehow wedded, either to Immortality or to Death. There are multiple images that support this interpretation. When couples get married, they would often leave together in a Carriage. In the third stanza, there is mention of a Ring and Children. And in the fourth stanza, we learn that she is wearing a Gown, and more importantly, a Tulle, which is a veil.

Now, one could argue that the Tulle might represent the veil between this world and the afterlife. This is also a valid interpretation and worth considering.

Finally, there is one other symbol that we discussed which may be of interest, and that is the biblical Scarlet Woman from Revelation. If you look closely at the sixth stanza, you can find the imagery there. The mention of “Centuries” implies the passing of a millennium, which feels shorter than “the Day.” The Day could be interpreted as the Judgement Day. The “Horses’ Heads” could then be viewed as a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. All of these signs are pointing “toward Eternity,” manifested by the Second Coming of Christ. If one accepts this interpretation, then the conclusion of this poem takes on an ominous tone.

Again, these are just thoughts and impressions regarding this poem. I suspect there is even more going on than I am aware of. There are definitely layers of symbolism and hidden meaning in this text. I welcome you to share any thoughts you may have.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman

In our current society, poets and poetry rarely get the broad recognition they deserve. An exception to this is The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman. When she read this poem to the nation as the Youth Poet Laureate at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2021, I for one was floored. That a 22-year-old poet could compose such powerful and timely words, and present them with poise, dignity, and inspired optimism, renewed my belief in the power of words to foment change in our world. Regardless of which side of the political divide we may find ourselves, it is impossible to deny that Ms. Gorman’s words were able to bridge that divide and offer hope in what was a difficult time.

In her introduction to the printed version of the poem, Oprah Winfrey wrote:

Everyone who watched came away enhanced with hope and marveling at seeing the best of who we are and can be through the eyes and essence of a twenty-two-year-old, our country’s youngest presidential inaugural poet.

I am in complete agreement.

There are two short excerpts from this incredible poem that I would like to share.

And so we lift our gazes not
To what stands between us,
But to what stands before us.
We close the divide,
Because we know to put
Our future first, we must first
Put our differences aside.

The truth of this statement is self-evident. We cannot advance as a nation, or as a species, unless we learn to stop vilifying those who have differing opinions and beliefs. Focus needs to shift from differences to commonalities.

So while we once asked: How could we
possibly prevail over catastrophe?
We now assert: How could catastrophe
possibly prevail over us?

This past year has been hard for all of us, and our world continues to pose challenges. But challenges, while painful to work through, often provide the spark of heroic inspiration needed to “climb the hill.” Every journey has a point where the odds seem insurmountable. We stand at this threshold. But as Amanda Gorman shows us, we can take that next step and move toward ushering in a better world for all people.

I strongly encourage you to go out and buy a copy of Ms. Gorman’s poem. It is important that we support those creative individuals who inspire us to become the best that we can be.

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“Sonnet 40: Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all” by William Shakespeare

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Then, if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceives
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty:
And yet, love knows, it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.

In this sonnet, we are presented with a love triangle that is interesting even by modern standards. The speaker is a man who is in love with a younger man. The younger man decides to have sex with the older man’s wife or mistress. The older man, so enamored by the younger man, seeks to reconcile his feelings of love with the pain of jealousy and betrayal, as he becomes aware that his love for the younger man is not enough to satisfy the younger man’s desires.

What strikes me the most about this poem is the pure honesty. Shakespeare cuts right to the heart of complex human emotion and in a mere 14 lines conveys layers of passion and suffering. You can actually sense the speaker’s feeling of being torn between love and hate, compassion and anger, trying desperately to reconcile the conflicting emotions within. And while we may not have personally experienced the same situation, I suspect we can all relate to the feeling of being torn between love and anger.

I hope you enjoyed this poem. Have a great day, and keep on reading.

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Thoughts on “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke

This is the first book that Susanna Clarke has published since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which was published in 2004. I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, so I was eager to read Ms. Clarke’s latest, which although not as great as her first novel, it is still very good.

Piranesi is the story about a person living in an alternate reality, and the text is structured as journal entries. There are some interesting and creative aspects to the book, structurally, but I should say up front that my wife listened to the text as an audiobook and did not enjoy it. I can see how this text would not translate well to spoken word. So, if you are planning to read this book, you should read it and not listen to it.

That said, I figure we can look at a couple passages.

These are the Drowned Halls.

On the Periphery of this Region the Waters are shallow, tranquil, and covered with water lilies, but in the centre they are deep and treacherous, full of broken Masonry and drowned Statues. The majority of the Drowned Halls are inaccessible, but some can be entered from the Upper Level.

(pp. 34 – 35)

The dimension where Piranesi exists is a kind of labyrinthine house, which contains animals and water and statues. What is interesting about this passage is the implication that the house, with its rooms of water, represents the subconscious, the aspects of the psyche which grant individuals glimpses of other dimensions. The deeper you go into the waters of the subconscious mind, the more treacherous it becomes. One runs the risk of “drowning” in this other realm. And the line “The majority of the Drowned Halls are inaccessible, but some can be entered from the Upper Level” implies that most areas of the subconscious mind are not accessible to us, but some may be entered by exiting our normal state of awareness, or the Upper Level. Interestingly, certain words are capitalized, giving them a sense of being proper nouns, or names. Most intriguing is Masonry. While this might be coincidental, I could not help wondering whether it is an allusion to the secret rites of the Masonic order. Ritual is often used to evoke non-ordinary states of consciousness in individuals.

At one point in the story, Piranesi meets a “Prophet” who offers to tell Piranesi how his world came into existence.

He looked gratified by my interest. ‘Then I will tell you. It began when I was young, you see. I was always so much more brilliant than my peers. My first great insight happened when I realised how much humankind had lost. Once, men and women were able to turn themselves into eagles and fly immense distances. They communed with rivers and mountains and received wisdom from them. They felt the turning of the stars inside their own minds. My contemporaries did not understand this. They were all enamoured with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. As if merit was a function of chronology! But it seemed to me that the wisdom of the ancients could not have simply vanished. Nothing simply vanishes. It’s not actually possible. I pictured it as a sort of energy flowing out of the world and I thought that this energy must be going somewhere. That was when I realised that there must be other places, other worlds. And so I set myself to find them.’

(pp. 88 – 89)

This is an interesting concept, and it is one which I have pondered. If everything is energy, and the First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed from one form to another, and if thoughts and consciousness are forms of energy, then what happens to our collective consciousness? Does it take on new forms, or does it flow somewhere else? What is the effect of conscious energy on other forms of energy? If the energy patterns still exist, can the be “re-collected”? These are deep questions about the very fabric of our reality. I don’t claim to have any answers, but this is one of those cases where the answers are not as important as the questions.

Anyway, to close, I will say I enjoyed this book. I would recommend both of Susanna Clarke’s books.

Thanks for stopping by and have a great day.

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Thoughts on “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

When I was a college student, I took a course on Environmental Literature, where we read such writers as Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Mary Oliver, and others. It was an inspiring course and spoke to my environmentalist sensibilities. The Overstory by Richard Powers would be a worthy addition to a course on Environmental Literature.

This book is exquisitely written and full of insightful and thought-provoking passages about humanity’s connection to trees and the natural world. In fact, as I was reading this book, I took copious notes regarding sections that were of interest and worthy of writing about in this post, but there is one passage that stands out for me above all others in this book:

“You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit. “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian takes the bait. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

(p. 336)

As a person who takes environmental issues seriously and who feels that climate change is the greatest existential threat facing humanity, I am often baffled at the apathy and denial that I see around me. I could not understand why people would refuse to heed the recommendations of scientific experts. But Powers identifies the problem and the solution. Facts and data do not inspire. Stories do. Oscar Wilde famously wrote: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” You can beat people over the head with statistics and argue until you are out of breath, but that will never change another person’s mind. But art, or a powerful story, these can speak directly to a person’s soul.

I had an English professor in college who told me that the books and poems we read matter. The Overstory validates what my professor told me all those years ago. This book matters, and I suspect that anyone reading this book will be a different person by the time they finish.

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Thoughts on “Giantess” by Charles Baudelaire

When Nature once in lustful hot undress
Conceived gargantuan offspring, then would I
Have loved to live near a young giantess,
Like a voluptuous cat at a queen’s feet.

To see her body flower with her desire
And freely spread out in its dreadful play,
Guess if her heart concealed some heavy fire
Whose humid smokes would swim upon her eye.

To feel at leisure her stupendous shapes,
Crawl on the cliffs of her enormous knees,
And, when in summer the unhealthy suns

Have stretched her out across the plains, fatigued,
Sleep in the shadows of her breasts at ease
Like a small hamlet at a mountain’s base.

(Translation by Karl Shapiro)

I read this poem a couple times and sense a few possible interpretations of what Baudelaire is expressing.

My initial interpretation is that Baudelaire is describing a sexual desire towards, everything. In the original French as well as in Shapiro’s translation, “Nature” is capitalized, emphasizing the importance. The poem could then be seen as describing passion towards all creation, that the entire living Gaia is the object of Baudelaire’s desire. One can imagine hills and meadows transforming into objects of sensuality for Baudelaire, as all of Nature stirs his passion.

Next, I had a sense that Baudelaire was expressing a personal tendency towards being submissive, of desiring a strong and dominating woman. The image of him as a cat at his lover’s feet, or crawling up onto her knees, provides the impression that he enjoys being the subservient plaything of a woman.

And this leads to the final interpretation, which would likely have been Freud’s first, that the giantess symbolizes Baudelaire’s mother. He appears to feel a sense of comfort from the giantess’s breasts not unlike the comfort a young child receives from its mother’s breasts. Additionally, Baudelaire seems to echo the sense of bonding a child experiences from sitting upon a mother’s lap.

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