Keepin' it Real with the Old School Raccoons
Furthermore, since I don't have time to check my sources, I can also spread the rumor that his thinking found its way into Christianity, first through Origen, then to Dionysius, on to John Scottus Eriugena, over to Meister Eckhart, and then on up to us. Therefore, like, say, Hermes -- even if the thrice-great one didn't undergo the formality of actually "existing" -- one could go so far as to say that Plotinus is one of a handful of Uber-Coons. Each of these men kept the Raccoon dream alive and passed it forward, preserving and prolonging the vertical in the horizontal, so that it would always be accessible to later generations, including our masters, Herman and Toots. That's pretty much all you could ask of a fellow.
Being that Plotinus represented the best of the world Christians came to inherit, it makes perfect sense that the early Christians would make some attempt to reconcile their new understanding with his, just as we would like for Christianity to make sense in the modern world in which we find ourselves. This does not mean that we reduce religion to the passing fashions of the day; rather, the opposite. Real religion is always capacious enough to make room for anything humans can throw at it, whether natural selection, psychoanalysis, heliocentrism, whatever.
Religion can and must be "flexible" without ever being amorphous or unprincipled, just as it must be uncompromising without being rigid. You could say that it must always retain both its geometrical and musical aspects, on pain of becoming sclerotic and deathbound. When that happens, it's always the fault of the humans, who kill the nonlocal spirit with the local letter, or the free-ranging music with the static geometry. New age types do the opposite, spoiling the beautiful geometry, or architecture, with bland muzak.
Here is why we love Plotinus: unlike, say, Alan Watts -- to pick a name out of thin air -- Plotinus' overriding concern was to embody his realization and to bring it down into the world. If your realization is real, you can do nothing less, because, on the one hand, "wisdom begins with awe of God," but it also works the other way around: awe of God is one of the first fruits of true wisdom, since we know without a doubt that this wisdom did not come from us. So if you think you inwardly "know God," and yet, nothing about your outward behavior changes, then you have to question your realization.
In short, if you don't walk it like you talk it and run it like you spun it, then you're probably just an enchanting or seductive gasbag at best. If your words do not come from realized wisdom, then what good are they? They will mimic the form, but they will be lacking the substance that gives them life and makes them real. In one sense this is a "subtle" difference, but in another sense, it is as obvious as the difference between.... between everything, vertically speaking.
What I mean is that there is scale of hierarchical values in the cosmos, and this scale is proof enough of the Divine, at least for people who are able to perceive it in all domains. As we move up this scale, things become simultaneously "lighter," and yet, have more existential heft. They are lighter because they specifically preserve and convey the celestial light that transcends them, but heavier because they endure, being that they partake of the eternal.
Most of the profane art that dominates our age has the opposite structure -- a thick surface that repels spirit and reflects only the lower human realm, accompanied by a gloomy kind of heaviness that "falls" or drags us down, rather then helping us "stabilize," like an axis. To the extent that it is "alive," it is only alive with the creepy-crawly things of the unconscious, so it is more like "living matter" than matter come to Life. Look at one of Michelangelo's statues and you see the miracle of matter come to life: again, geometry + music. This is to mimic the Creator. The other way is to mock him.
In Plotinus' metaphysics, the summit of reality is the One, which, for reasons we will get into later, is necessarily good (and the source of goodness, just as it is the source of all unity). In turn, the purpose of life is to 1) realize the One, and 2) crystalize this realization in the herebelow. This formula actually works both ways, so that the cultivation of virtue leads toward the vision of the One, while vision of the One should result in purification and unity of the Self. If this purification does not occur -- either as cause or effect -- then the whole exercise serves no useful purpose, either for the individual or the collective.
Hadot points out that for the ancients, philosophy was not the cold and dead, dryasdust academic game it has become for most moderns. To the contrary, it mainly connoted a way of life. Studying under a venerable philosopher was much more analogous to converting to a religion and delivering oneself into the hands of a spiritual master; its ultimate purpose was transformation of the self, not merely filling one's head with lofty ideas. The ideas are only useful to the effect that they serve as enzymes or catalysts that bring about real change.
Here you can clearly see that Plotinus drew a sharp distinction between (n) and mere (k). As I wrote somewhere in my book -- here it is, p. 211 -- "(n) has a transformative effect on the person who understands it, as it raises and expands the level of being, which in turn 'makes room' for more (n)." Therefore, if "understanding" only takes place in the mind, then it is again of little use. (n) is obviously quite different from profane knowledge, which can be passed from head to head without regard for qualifications. Again, so long as you aren't mentally retarded, you can understand Darwinism or other purely mental abstractions.
To know God means to do so with one's whole being -- body, mind, and spirit. It is knowledge of a totally different order. In fact, a spiritual practice will again primarily involve the gradual transformation of the self, as the light and warmth of (n) does its purificatory work. (Indeed, to know Darwinism "body, mind and soul" -- if such a perversity were possible -- would be to renounce one's humanness and to render oneself lower than the beasts.)
Look at it this way: philosophy is love of Sophia, or wisdom. And if you really love someone, you don't just do it with words. In fact, as often as not, words can conceal an absence of love. Real love is action is it not? We show our love in a multitude of nonverbal ways that give it real substance and depth. Look at liberals. They "love" their country, but not enough to put the words into action and actually defend it. Rather, for them, the essence of love is to criticize our country ("dissent is the highest form of patriotism"). This is like saying that the highest form of coonjugal love is for Mrs. G. to nag me.
I am reminded of Bion, who didn't even want to know if a patient was married, for he would decide that for himself. In other words, it is common for people to be "married," which only obscures the fact they they aren't, not really really. This is no different than someone who has a Ph.D, but isn't actually educated, or someone like Keith Olbermann, who is a "journalist," but not really. You know what they say: language was given to man so as to conceal his thoughts. Note that the very first words out of Adam's mouth are lies. And you tell me that Darwinism has more wisdom than Genesis!
This is why a Plotinus and an Alan Watts represent philosophical antipodes, despite any surface similarities in language. For Plotinus, "the practice of the virtues ensures a connection between the ecstatic and the everyday" in an entire style of life, and in particular, in one's relations with others. It is "the transformation of one's whole being, a practice of virtue and contemplation that makes one present to Spirit while not excluding the presence of other people, the world, and even the body."
This is absolutely in contrast to Alan Watts, who used Zen as a pretext to argue that morals were just repressive forces of social control. True, the conscience can be transcended, but from above not below. In the case of the former, one becomes conscious of the reality from which morality flows, so that the actions of the sage are at one with it. One no longer has to think about whether one is doing the right thing. It hardly means that one is free to do "just anything," or that anything the sage does is by automatically moral. But almost all cults and fraudulent gurus rely on that (lower) self-serving formulation.
To know God means that "we are never quite the same again." True, the intensity of the experience may ebb and flow, but we organize our lives "in such a way that we are once again prepared for contemplation." In other words, we prepare ourselves to be receptacles of grace: "We must concentrate ourselves within, gathering ourselves together to the point that we can always be ready to receive the divine presence when it manifests itself again." Con-centration -- i.e., to gather oneself around the center -- is the very reflection and vehicle of Unity on the human plane.
In contrast, dispersal of one's energies toward the periphery automatically results in alienation from God. So to focus upon God is nothing less than dwelling in our own ultimate unity -- body, mind and spirit. This is why Plotinus "exhorts us to a conversion of attention.... If we wish to be conscious of those transcendent things already present in the summit of the soul, we must turn inward and orient our attention toward the transcendent."
Thus, we are constantly preparing the temple for God, the temple being our minds and bodies. When he sweeps in and makes himself known, it is a grace, but if the grace is truly appreciated for what it is, we never cease attempting to make ourselves worthy of it. It is not a denial of life but a "lived plenitude," "not a means of escape, not a way of evading life but of being absolutely present to it."
Never stop sculpting your own statue. --Plotinus
(All quoted material taken from Plotinus or Simplicity of Vision)