Plotinus, Ennead IV.8: On the Descent of the Soul into Bodies. Translation, Intro. & Commentary by Barrie Fleet.
Pp. 209, Las Vegas, Zurich, Athens, Parmenides Publishing,
Whitehead’s comment that the history of Western Philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato is seriously misleading. The first half of this history attempted to organize Plato’s doctrines, while the second half attempted to reject and overcome Platonism. Seven centuries after Plato’s death, Plotinus began the project to systematize Plato for the emerging Hellenistic culture under Roman hegemony. Parmenides Publishing is bringing out the Enneads with critical commentaries in handy pocket installments. This is the key treatise IV. 8, which raises the central and most crucial tension in Platonic exegesis: which tendency will prevail, the doctrine deriving from the allegory of the sun, that the Good is naturally self-diffusive and seeks to spread or communicate itself, or the equally Platonic doctrine, derivative from the cave as an allegory for philosophic education and liberation, that the higher is properly self-preoccupied and never stoops or inclines toward the lower; rather, it is for the lower to ‘convert’ and rise, through arduous purification and gradual perfection, to make contact with and eventually fuse with the higher? Both are present in Plotinus, and it must be admitted that this is one tension in Plato that he was not successful in resolving.
This manifests itself chiefly in the question of the reason for soul’s descent into body: was this a rebellion, resulting in a tragic ‘fall’ or punishment for an improper attempt by lower soul to seize power and exercise rule over a realm below it, rather than maintaining its gaze upwards, usurping the prerogatives of the higher hypostases? Or was it a generous and beneficent self-expenditure on the part of lower soul to transmit the order and peace which characterize the intelligible realm to the unruly and chaotic world of temporality, matter, and motion? Whatever the motive, this ‘missionary expedition’ was a failure; matter cannot be further organized than higher soul is already achieving, and lower soul is best counseled to expend all its energies to reverse its initial descent, escape this turbulent and unhappy realm, and return to its origin with higher soul – or even higher - for Plotinus opens up this possibility. So perhaps the ‘descent’, although a mistake, did have a point and a potentially more-than-happy ending! Plotinus claims to have actually made contact with the One four times during his life. And who is to say that this was not part of the ‘plot’ allowed, if not intended, by the One and source of all, so that the ultimate story is not one of rebellion and just punishment, but one of error and correction in a larger pattern of ‘divine comedy’? For the reader to decide – but here join Plotinus who begins the process of interpreting the texts.