Plotinus (204-270): The Enneads

I was introduced to the Neoplatonic philosophy of Plotinus by Anthony Damiani in 1968 when I was at Cornell. Anthony was the proprietor of American Brahman, a used bookstore at 118 West State Street in downtown Ithaca. He would give free weekly seminars in his store that attracted some dozen Cornell students and two math professors. Quoting profusely from Plato, the Neoplatonists, Sufi and Zen Masters, Chinese and Hindu sages, he taught us the perennial philosophy of spiritual enlightenment. Anthony often read from Stephen MacKenna's translation of Plotinus' Enneads. I checked out these volumes from the Cornell Library, and my mind was carried aloft by the cosmic vision of Plotinus. I bought a condensed version in Turnbull's edition which contained an appendix citing Plotinus's influence on St. Augustine, Dante, Spenser, Coleridge, and Emerson. I recall the excitement when buying the complete Stephen MacKenna translation of Plotinus Enneads at the Sphinx Bookstore near Harvard Square in September 1970 at half price. Then a few years later I bought the Thomas Taylor translation (1794) of The Enneads at a used bookstore opposite Harvard's Widener Library for 25¢. It was Nathan Pusey's copy, former President of Harvard (1953-1971).
    I'm citing my favorite passages from Plotinus below. The first on "Beauty" is a meditation exercise on spiritual purification. But it's equally applicable to writing good poetry— "cutting away all that is excessive" until it shines in splendour. The second passage is a vision of being one with the Supreme. This occurs when we outgrow Being (ego-self) and realize our Transcendental Being (Cosmic Self). Then we experience the blessed life of the gods. I disagree with Plotinus that we take no pleasure of the earth in our flight to heaven, for this earth is heaven for those who can truly see and hear. This is the poet's task to make us experience the Transcendent here and now on earth. (Peter Y. Chou)

The Enneads: "On Beauty" (circa 250 A.D.)

Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself
beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be
made beautiful; he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes
this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown
upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive,
straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast,
labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling
your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike
splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely
established in the stainless shrine... Never did eye see the sun
unless it had first become sunlike, and never can the soul have
vision of the First Beauty unless itself be beautiful.

— Plotinus (204-270), The First Ennead
     Sixth Tractate, Part 9, "On Beauty"
     translated by Stephen MacKenna,
     4th Edition revised by B.S. Page
     Faber & Faber Ltd., London, 1969, p. 63


The Enneads: "flight of the alone" (conclusion)

Things here are but signs that show to the wise how
the Supreme God is known; the enlightened sage
reading the sign may enter the holy place and make
the vision real. This Term, attained only by those
that have overpassed all, is the All-Transcending.
There is thus a converse in virtue of which the
essential man outgrows Being, becomes identical
with the Transcendent of Being. He that knows
himself to be one with This, has in himself
the likeness of the Supreme; if from that
heightened self he can pass higher still—
image to archetype— he has won
the term of all his journeying.

This is the life of gods and of godlike and
blessed men— liberation from the alien
that besets us here, a life taking
no pleasure in the things of earth—
a flight of the alone to the Alone.

— Plotinus (204-270), The Sixth Ennead
     Ninth Tractate, Part 11, Closing Lines
     The Essence of Plotinus
     Based on the translation of Stephen MacKenna,
     Compiled and Edited by Grace H. Turnbell,
     Oxford University Press, NY, 1948, p. 222

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Plotinus
• Athenaeum Library: Plotinus, The Enneads
• Sacred Texts: Plotinus, The Six Enneads

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P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
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