March 3, 2021
Episode 113: Mateusz Stróżyński on Spiritual Practices in Plotinus
In this episode we discuss spiritual practice in Plotinus. We start from the human condition as embodied beings, part of an organism, and the primordial tolma which led to this ‘fallen’ state. Stróżyński then leads us back ‘up’ to the undescended state of the human self, the noetic human being. Stróżyński pursues his elucidation of Plotinian anthropology from two perspectives, from that of the embodied human being seen from the macrocosmic perspective as the necessary expression of the Good in the many, and thus as in fact a facet of the beautiful, ordered whole that is the living kosmos, and from that of the microcosmic human soul stuck in the kosmos, for whom the embodied life is a fallen state. This multidirectional approach helps to elucidate in precisely which sense there is ‘something wrong’ in the human condition which needs to be addressed by the philosopher, while still maintaining the integral wholeness and perfection of reality.
Along the way we discuss his ideas about the meditative disciplines which Stróżyński sees as the practical means through which the Plotinian philosopher of antiquity would have pursued this ascent to higher states of consciousness and being.
Specific topics discussed also include:
- The Plotinian idea of tolma, the noetic ‘audacity’ which he sometimes makes the culprit for human embodiment, framed in terms of the five ‘greatest kinds’, which constitute the categories of reality at the noetic level,
- The phenomenology of the embodied human as limited, subject to outside influence, and usually unconscious of his higher nature (which makes up the majority of the human being) and of the whole field of lower, bodily impulses,
- The spiritual practices taught by Plotinus for the cultivation of identification with the higher self rather than with the body, which Stróżyński postulates were mostly taught orally, but traces of which can be found in the Enneads, including:
- A practice of ‘turning away’ from the world of the bodily senses, which Stróżyński interprets as especially important in the early stages of spiritual practice, and
- The mind-expanding ‘imagination-experiments’, wherein Plotinus asks us to create visual imagery of the immaterial realities (which is impossible, and the impossibility of which leads, with luck, to a creative cessation of discursive thinking).
Mateusz Stróżyński (born 1979) is classicist, philosopher, psychologist and psychotherapist. He is interested in contemplation and spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy, primarily in the Platonist tradition (Plotinus and Augustine), but he has also published on Marcus Aurelius and the medieval Christian mystic Angela of Foligno. He is an associate professor in the Institute of Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University (AMU) in Poznań, Poland, and the Director of the Institute since January 2021. His plans for the nearest future include an international research project on Angela of Foligno and heterodox Franciscan movements ca. 1270-1320 (awarded recently by the National Science Centre in Poland) as well as completing a book on the contemplation of the intelligible world in Plotinus.
Publications about Plotinus:
- Filozofia jako terapia w pismach Marka Aureliusza, Plotyna i Augustyna (Philosophy as Therapy in Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus, and Augustine), Poznań 2014 (in Polish).
- “The Aporetic Method in Plotinus’ Enneads“, Symbolae Philologorum Posnaniensium 24, 1 (2014) 17-31.
- “The Self as Hypernoetic Intellect in Plotinus’ Philosophy”, Hermes 148, 1 (2020) 53-68.
- “The Ascent of the Soul as Spiritual Exercise in Plotinus’ Enneads“, Mnemosyne (2020) (Advance Articles).
- “Spiritual Exercise in Plotinus: the Deictic Method”, Classical Philology (forthcoming).
- “The One as Giver in Plotinus: metaphysical and spiritual implications”, a talk given at Cambridge Center for the Study of Platonism on October 19th, 2020.
- N. Banner. The indeterminate self and its cultivation in plotinus. In Richard Seaford, John Wilkins, and Matthew Wright, editors, Self and the Soul: Essays on Ancient Thought and Literature in Honour of Christopher Gill, pages 139–159. Oxford Uni- versity Press, Oxford, 2017.
- S. R. L. Clarke. Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL/London, 2016.
- J. Deck. Nature, Contemplation, and the One. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1967.
- John Dillon. Plotinus and the Transcendental Imagination. In James P. Mackey, editor, Religious Imagination, pages 55–64. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1986.
- P. Hadot. Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993. Translated by Michael Chase.
- Idem. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Blackwell, Oxford, 1995. Translated by Michael Chase.
- Idem. L’union de l’âme avec l’intellect divin dans l’expérience mystique plotinienne. In G. Boss and B. Seel, editors, Proclus et son influence: actes du colloque de Neuchâtel, 1985, pages 3–27. Editions du Grand Midi, Neuchâtel, 1986.
- S. Rappe. Self-knowledge and Subjectivity in the Enneads. In Lloyd P. Gerson, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, pages 250–74. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.
- Idem. Reading Neoplatonism: Non-Discursive Thinking in the Texts of Plotinus, Proclus and Damascius. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2000.
- J. Rist. Integration and the Undescended Soul in Plotinus. American Journal of Philology, 88(4):410–422, Oct. 1967.
- F. M. Schroeder. Form and Transformation: A Study in the Philosophy of Plotinus. Queens University Press, Montreal, 1992.
- R. Wallis. Nous as Experience. In R. Baine Harris, editor, The Significance of Neoplatonism, pages 121–154. International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, Norfolk, VA, 1976.
Carl Jung, Friedrich Schelling, Imagination, Interview, Memory, Nous, Philosophy, Plato, Plotinus, Sigmund Freud, Soul, Spiritual Practices, Transcendent Consciousness
Allen G. Anderson
March 3, 2021
Stróżyński deserves an award—and a wide readership—for his work to recover the anagogic practices in the Enneads! This is huge.
I think Stróżyński’s account brings much-needed clarity to the sense in which, for Plotinus, our souls are both fallen and yet remain undescended. And I’m glad this came through in the interview.
I had hoped there might be some discussion of the question of individual intellects, since that was brought up in the last episode. I’m not quite sure where Stróżyński comes down on this issue, but in his discussion of the ascent from Nous to the One in the anabatic method proper, in his paper, “The Ascent of the Soul as Spiritual Exercise in Plotinus’ Enneads”, he says:
“But the difficulty is that Plotinus does not think that the One is our deepest self, it is rather our individual intellect which is our highest and deepest ‘I’.”
This strongly suggests he thinks that we each have an individual intellect, and that it is the highest aspect of the self. But perhaps, given the distinction he discusses at IV.4.4.10–14 between “being” and “having”—where the former indicates the reflexive identification of the self with some activity of soul which is not the self, and the latter represents the reflective, conscious grasping of that same activity as distinct from the self as subject of that activity—it isn’t, strictly speaking, wrong to say that the self does not “have” an individual intellect, because it “is” an intellect that has all the lower activities associated with soul (discursive contemplation, reasoning, imagination, sense-perception, bodily awareness).
Personally, I wonder if it’s a distinction without a difference. Could it be the case that there is indeed a single Nous, that the individual can ascend to the level of Nous, and in so doing become one with Nous, while retaining something like a perspective that is its own, and hence it’s individuality in some sense? But who knows. I’ve got a lot more studying to do.
March 3, 2021
Thank you for your kind remarks. Plotinus is not a systematic thinker in the sense that we can easily find unambiguous answers to all of the main topics he raises in the Enneads. We have to proceed by reconstructing his views on the basis of the material we have and as a result various scholars provide different reconstructions based on different readings of the Enneads. It seems that my reading of Plotinus’ metaphysics and anthropology differs on some points with that of Earl Fontainelle, which makes discussions all the more interesting.
You can also hear that our terminology is slightly different. My approach is to use the traditional philosophical language (intellect, intellection, intelligible, reason, imagination etc.) and try to pour new (or rather a very old) wine into those old wineskins. For instance, the association of “intellect” with something abstract, called, disinterested is very new and very modern. It was quite natural for Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century to say that will, desire, and love are as much a part of intellectus as the knowledge of truth and he defined will as “appetitus intellectualis”. But reactions to Spinoza’s “amor intellectualis Dei” is strikingly different – modern readers assume that this amor is somehow cerebral, because it is intellectualis. Ridiculous.
When it comes to individual intellects, my reading is based on Plotinus’ claim in 5.7 that if our personhood, self or our distinct “I” were to disappear, really and ontologically, at any stage of the philosophical journey, the whole journey wouldn’t make any sense. Here Plotinus is incompatible with the ideas of the Advaita Vedanta in which the subject of experience, of the fall and the liberation is really the One, which plays hide and seek with itself, pretending to be fallen and separate, and then regaining its full self-awareness. Plotinus says:
“Is there an idea of everyone? Yes, if I and each one of us have a way of ascent and return to the intelligible, the principle of each of us is there.” (126.96.36.199-3). Note that he usually uses “we” (ἡμεῖς), while here we have this powerful ἐγώ! In other treatises he also says “no real being ever ceases to be” (188.8.131.52-6), meaning our noetic self” and saying that in the intelligible there is “one particular soul which is yours, one which is the soul of this particular man, and one which is another’s” (184.108.40.206-3).
However, in our fallen state and, unfortunately, in the last few centuries also publically, ideologically, and culturally, we are constantly told that the self or the person is something separate, isolated, independent etc. That is why we are trapped in believing that it is either the modern insulated self or the Advaitan wave realizing that it is really the ocean. Plotinus teaches the middle way, namely, that “the soul when it is altogether apart is particular without being particular” (220.127.116.11-33). By “soul” I take him to mean “human intellect in Intellect”, since soul is used in multiple meanings in different contexts. We are distinct and different, but not separate. Chesterton famously said that heresies are originated when people cannot tolerate the paradoxical truth and choose easy black-and-white extremes, instead of both/and. This applies to this case, I believe.
My reading is that our “I” (as Plotinus puts it ἐγώ or εἰμί in 5.3) is really hypernoetic intellect, which is above being, above form, it is potential, intelligible matter, pure seeing without any objects or specifications. But it timelessly expresses itself in this marvelous cascade of activities or actions, really, that is, intellect proper, reason, imagination, perception, trace of soul, body. In this sense we are intellects, but not just intellects-beings or intellects-forms, but in fact formless intellects in love (6.7.35).
The problem is what is the relationship between this hyperintellect and the Good and Intellect. I think that since Plotinus believes that our souls are parts of soul as such, our intellects are parts of Intellect as such, therefore, our hypernoetic intellects are parts of the hypernoetic Intellect as such, that is, the first creation of the Good, this formless, indefinite seeing, which turns towards the Good and gives birth to all things in itself.
And Plotinus says that there is ἐτερότης, difference, between the Good and this Intelligible Matter, Dyad, Pre-Intellect etc., so there must be Difference operating here and making us distinct from the Good always, irrevocably. In the contemplation of the Good we are not aware of the difference and Plotinus says it disappears, but not ontologically (we would be destroyed, annihilated – who would report the union?), but epistemologically, in our experience. We feel as if we are the Good, but objectively we are not.
There might be in the Good some “prototype” of our individual intellect, in some sense, and my hypothesis would be that we enter the One precisely through this “place” through which we come out, but since in the Good all is present μὴ διακεκριμένα, “indistinctly”, it is not a self. But I think it’s possible to think that our individuality is grounded in the Good as well. After all, all things are in it and are not in it, they are in it not as themselves but as the Good (see the end of 5.5).
March 3, 2021
Absolutely wonderful and nourishing.
March 3, 2021
March 3, 2021
I am not sure if you are going to do anymore episodes on the spiritual practice of Plotinus beyond the work and excellent interview of Mateusz Stróżyński, but another decent bit of scholarship in this area is:
Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice by Stephen R. L. Clark..
University of Chicago Press
March 3, 2021
Kenneth, thanks for reminding me I’d forgotten to put in the Recommended Reading section! It’s there now, including Clark’s excellent treatment.
March 3, 2021
I think there are some scholarly contributions which discuss exercises in Plotinus in some detail. I’m certainly not a πρῶτος εὑρετής! Sara Rappe writes about it in “Reading Neoplatonism”, Lacrosse in his book about dialectic, Michael Sells in his articles and book about apophasis and unsaying, Dillon in an article on “transcendental imagination” in Plotinus, and recently – Stephen Clark and Nicholas Banner. A Polish scholar and translator of Plotinus, Adam Krokiewicz, commented briefly on 5.8.9 luminous sphere exercise already in the 1940s (in Polish).
April 25, 2022
Thank you for your contributions and for these references.
I reviewed your article linked above “The Aporetic Method in Plotinus”, and consulted some of the references you have pointed to.
Recently I listened to episode 25 of this podcast, and the authors here reminded me of the Tubingen school.
I found this very interesting from Michael Sells about aporia and apophasis
And this in Dillon
ref: “John Dillon: Plotinus and the Transcendental Imagination”, in
Religious imagination, 1986, edited by James Mackey
And finally Sara Rappe
“Over many centuries, Neoplatonism, based now in Alexandria, now in Athens, associated itself with a fixed textual tradition – the corpus of Plato’s dialogues and the exegetical tradition associated with it…. and yet more than the adherants of any other ancient philosophical lineage the Neoplatonists insisted that wisdom could be located only outside all texts and outside all language”. So how do we get an understanding of this non-discursive knowledge? Rappe tries to answer this question.
Her approach so some extent can be seen in this review of her book by John Dillon (available on JSTOR)
One aspect of her method is also on display here, where she is showing how ‘statue animation’ may be done
E C J Williams
July 16, 2022
Mateusz Stróżyński has published a new paper which is in English.
Spiritual Exercise in Plotinus: The Deictic Method
Classical Philology 117 (3), 495-517
July 31, 2022
Thanks for the link. It’s a good paper.