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Philosophy as Transformation,
This review is from: Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision (Paperback)
The French philosopher Pierre Hadot (b. 1922)is known for his studies of ancient philosophy and for his teaching that philosophy is not a mere academic study. Instead, for Hadot, philosophy is a spiritual training and a way to understand one's life in the company of a teacher and like-minded individuals. Hadot's mastery of ancient philosophy and his understanding of the philosophic endeavor pervade this short outstanding introduction, written in 1963, to the life and thought of Plotinus (205 -- 270 A.D.), the most significant exponent of the philosophy known as neoplatonism.
Hadot's book on Plotinus is subtitled "The Simplicity of Vision." A good way of approaching it is to understand what Hadot means by "simplicity." Neither Plotinus nor Hadot make easy or "simple" reading. "Simplicity" here is contrasted with "multiplicity" or with what Plotinus calls "the composite." The composite is the world of everydayness, with its collage of change, a multitude of different things, and human emotions which pull in different directions and tend at each moment to tear the individual and groups of people apart. Most of the time, Plotinus thinks, we live in this composite world. We fall into the mistake of believing that it is all there is. But there is more to reality, and it lies within. By changing the way we look at things and ingrained habits and passions, we can try to redirect our attention to the purely simple -- without parts or multiplicity -- which brings goodness, beauty and stability to life.
It is Hadot's merit to show the depths of Plotinus, to explain the appeal of his vision, and to save it from misunderstanding and instant rejection in a scientific, materialistic culture. Hadot stresses the immanent character of Plotinus's vision of simplicity. For the most part, he finds that Plotinus's vision is internalized and rests upon understanding oneself in a new way, rather than in finding an "All" or and "Absolute" somehow separate from the self. Although Plotinus begins with the dualistic contrast between matter and spirit, Plotinus does not end there but moves to a philosophy of all-inclusiveness or nonduality in which terms such as "inside" or "outside" or "self" and "other" tend to lose their meaning. Plotinus does not teach creationism in the manner of the Gnostics, a Platonic demigurge, or some understandings of western theism. He sees the nature of the good and of reality as inherent to the world we see everyday and available to those who seek it through a redirection of effort. Hadot would suggest to a modern audience, I think, that because of the nature of philosophical/religious understanding and its object, as developed in Plotinus, such understanding could not "conflict" with scientific understanding which abstracts from the whole and deals with particulars. Plotinus believed that Plato and Aristotle had basically taught all the substantive teachings necessary for philosophy. Thus his teachings were devoted to exegisis, to meditation, and to spiritual growth.
Plotinus' teachings are sometimes thought to be otherworldly, aloof, and remote from the world of sense and from human contact. Hadot shows that Plotinus can be understood in a different way. The difficult teaching culminates in a manner in which the rare experience of contemplative ecstacy can be combined with living with one's fellows in daily life in teachings of compassion, gentleness, and sociability. Ultimately, Hadot teaches, Plotinus's teachings inform daily life instead of constituting a flight from it. I was reminded of the title of a recent book by the American teacher of Buddhist meditation, Jack Kornfield, "After the ecstasy, the laundry" which seems to capture something of how Hadot understands Plotinus. Hadot explains Plotinus's underlying vision in short chapters devoted to love, the virtues, companionship, and solitude, with references to Plotinian texts, the biography of Plotinus by his student Porphyry, and by parallels to modern thinkers including Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein.
Hadot sees Plotinus's importance as part of a tradition of spiritual, mystical thought that, among other things, allows one to live in the everyday and pursue the teachings of science without falling into scientism or the senseless never-ending pull back and forth of one's own emotions and desires. A great deal of contemporary spiritual, meditative thought, whether Buddhist, Western, or untied to any religious tradition has commonalities with and much to learn from Plotinus. As Hadot concludes:
"Today we are even more inwardly divided that was Plotinian man. We are still, however, capable of hearing Plotinus's call. There can be no question of slavishly imitating the spritiual itinerary of Plotinus here in the late twentieth century; that would be impossible or illusory. Rather, we must consent, with as much courage as Plotinus did, to every dimension of human experience, and to everything within it that is mysterious, inexpressible, and transcendent." (p. 113)
Readers with an interest in spirituality and religion will benefit from knowing Hadot and Plotinus.