How Hermes Trismegistus Warped the History of Philosophy, Or Why Nobody Reads Plotinus Today
A radical assertion: Plotinus is an essential, even liberatory, important thinker that we start to need reading seriously again. If we want to understand Leibniz and Spinoza, who I think are crucial to understanding our networked age, and point the path beyond Cartesian-Kantian individualism in philosophy, then all roads lead back to Plotinus. Really.
I realize this is not a common set of assertions. And there’s many reasons why Plotinus isn’t generally high on anyone’s reading list these days, not to mention those of us who study philosophy. So in what follows, I’ll explain my sense of why he vanished, why it might be hard to at first see how radical he is, why we need to rediscover him, and how to do so.
Usually the reason why nobody reads Plotinus today is that they get a quote here or there, and it seems so terrible or far fetched, and seems to justify the general story about him. I’ll explain why this quotation problem exists, but first, I want to describe the general story it tends to support. The standard take on Plotinus is that he’s an irrationalist mystic in Platonic clothing, and that he turns Plato’s rigorous thought into little more than new-agey mystical nonsense of a quasi-pan/monotheistic sort. What’s more, Plotinus and his school began the deification of Plato, and even believed in various forms of magic, mixing this with their philosophy, in the process setting the progress of rational inquiry back such that it took nearly a thousand years to once again separate science and philosophy from alchemy, and nearly as long to separate Plato and Aristotle from his school’s many influential yet distorting misreadings of them. And as for his possible uses today, as a thinker of ‘the One,’ isn’t Plotinus the perfect example of the sort of totalizing philosophy so many of us have been taught to react to with little more than horror?!
Turns out, Plotinus has been seriously misread. But to explain why will involve a story of mishaps that is often as strange as it is funny.
Some Cases of Mistaken Identity, Mixed with Hidden Doctrines
To start with, Plotinus’ massive major work, The Enneads, had it’s widest readership for nearly a thousand years after the fall of Rome by means of it’s Arabic translation, in which it was called The Theology of Aristotle. Oops. And while it is unclear precisely who did the translating, paraphrasing, and misattributing, some believe it was within the circle of Al-Kindi (for more, see the lengthy article on this here).
So that’s the first problem. What’s more, however, the highly systematic, massively proto-Spinozist tract, really a proto-Ethics if there ever was one, in which Proclus geometricized Plotinus (and threw a few of his own ideas in as well), known later in Latin as the famed Liber de Causis (‘Book of Causes’), was also attributed to Aristotle when it was translated into Arabic, and then into Latin.
And this helps to explain both why Neoplatonism seems to vanish from the scene even as its ideas seemed to be everywhere, as well as why the Arabic and early medieval interpretations of Plato and Aristotle seems so damn odd. Because everyone seemed to think that the works of Plotinus, Proclus, and Aristotle were written by the same guy. For those who know these texts, just imagine trying to read those together assuming they were all coming from the same mind. Yikes.
But there’s more, and this helps explain why Plotinus gets a really bad rap as a terrible reader of Plato and Aristotle, one that fundamentally distorts them. It was widely assumed in the Hellenistic world that Plato didn’t put all his teachings in this writings, that he had a ‘secret doctrine’ which was largely mystical, and hence, that his texts had to be read allegorically for clues of this deeper tradition that tied him back into the Pythagorean tradition more firmly than would be apparent on the surface. Much of the justification for this was a passage in Aristotle in which he mentions that Plato had an unwritten teaching of this nature.
What’s more, in the nearly thousand years of reading of Aristotle and Plato, Hellenistic scholars found various ways of defeating Aristotle’s criticisms of Plato, and in the words of many critics, ‘folding’ Aristotle’s insights into Plato. And Plato and Aristotle were generally read as two sides of one approach, Aristotle leading the way with logic and the physical world, Plato for the spiritual and transcendental (for a great summary of all this, see Gerson and Dillon’s excellent and short introduction to Neoplatonic Philosophy: Introductory Readings). The result was an oral and written tradition melding Plato and Aristotle such that they represented two aspects of a larger, Pythagoreanized synthesis. Which is why the often selective reading of Plato and Aristotle used to justify the implicit and oral ‘secret teachings’ of Plato, assumed hidden in allegorized form, became simply taken for granted at this time, and wasn’t an odd quirk of Plotinus and his school.
Plotinus was, however, the first to put these ideas in treatise format. While he’s certainly known to be quite original in his own views, his take on Plato and Aristotle seems to have been pretty standard for the readers of these texts at the time. In all this, Aristotle was reconfigured as a semi-wayward Platonist, and Plato as a quasi-Pythagorean mystic. Those who leaned to the Aristotle side tend to be called Peripatetics (for the way those in the Lyceum supposedely liked to walk when they taught), while those who leaned to the more mystical side were Neoplatonists or even Neopythagoreans. But in fact, all of these had what ultimately would be considered Neoplatonistic traits today, due to the wide influence of the notion that Plato’s unwritten, secret teaching, of largely Pythagorean cast, was the frame in which both Plato and Aristotle were to be read. It is a grand synthesis of all these models that Plotinus puts forward in his Enneads, even though it’s unclear the extent to which the massively disorganized sets of treatises and notes were reshaped by his student Porphyry when put into the shape we have today. And it is this text, and those inspired by it, such as Proclus’ systematized version of Plotinus’ views, which then went on to exert such a massive if often unacknowledged influence on both Christian and Islamic philosophy.
And this is why you end up with all these strange doctrines being imputed to Aristotle and Plato during this time. Plato ends up being used for largely Pythagorean aims through the Latin Rennaissance up to and including into the Enlightenment. Which helps explain why a lot of bad readings of Aristotle and Plato are laid at the feet of Plotinus and his school, which in all actuality isn’t quite Platonic or Aristotelian at all, but rather, some new, strange thing that simply use Plato and Aristotle to create something completely different, really a mystical Neopythagoreanism mixed with all of the above, with some late Roman influences like Stoicism and Epicureanism thrown in for good measure.
But it only gets stranger.
How A Mythical Figure Wrecked Havoc With the History of Philosophy
Up until around the 1600’s, all the Greeks were read, within not only the Christian tradition, but often in the Islamic tradition as well, within the larger context of Hermeticism. In fact, it’s not until around the 1600’s that it was proven that the so-called Corpus Hermeticum was not one of the most ancient books ever written, but actually written around the same time as Plotinus and other Neoplatonists composed their primary works. And we don’t even know who wrote the Corpus today, yet this text (really a collection but often treated as a unit), was so widely understood as more ancient than the dialogues of Plato, that Cosimo de Medici on his deathbed famously had Marcello Ficino stop his new translations of Plato’s dialogues from the Greek, so that the could translate for him instead the newly acquired works of the Corpus. It wasn’t until Isaac Casaubon came along, a few years before Descartes wrote his Meditations, that a strong argument was made to disprove the authenticity and dating of the Corpus, as well as the faulty reading of the Ancient Greeks and others based around it.
According to the books of the Corpus, the works of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and all the Greeks were the inheritors of a secret wisdom, which could only be put in riddles to protect its knowledge from the masses, and which was bequeathed to the ancient Greeks by Pythagorus. What’s more, Pythagorus himself supposedly studied in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and it was supposedly in Egypt where he learned these deep truths, as did Moses, who passed them down to the Jews, which is why the Ancient Greeks and Jews eventually produced montheistic philosophies that overcame the polytheistic tendencies of their people. Pythagorus and Moses were taught this deep monotheism by descendents of the most ancient sage, Hermes Trismegistus, often depicted as the origin of the Greek god Hermes, and either as a student of the Egyptian god of writing named Thoth, or sometimes even Thoth himself. From Thoth/Hermes to Hermes Trismegistus to Moses to Pythagorus, the order sometimes shifts around in the Hermetic tradition, but the basic idea of a deeply philosophical, mystically mathematical monotheism comes to be in something like this fashion (and for more on this, see Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s excellent The Western Esoteric Tradition: A Historical Introduction, along with the classic works of Frances Yates).
In hindsight, it seems obvious that the Corpus was a book influenced by Neoplatonism, mixed with the religious ideas of late Hellenism. Causabon simply pointed out that there were parts of the Corpus that couldn’t have been quite so ancient, because they were anachronistic, and dated the text in the Hellenistic period. But up until this point, Thoth, Hermes, Moses, Pythagorus, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and all the Greeks were most often seen as avatars of what was generally called the prisca philosophia, the ‘perenial philosophy’ of which monotheism, astrology, number and geometry worship, and Neoplatonic synthesis were all a part. That these figures were all sides of the same larger tradition, with many branches leading off into specific philosophies and monotheisms, was simply widely accepted as fact.
All of which helps explain a bit of why it may be difficult get a sense of why these texts seem so strange today. Rather than simply descry this context as a terrible misunderstanding, we need to understand the impact this all had on the history of philosophy. To read Plotinus today is also to disentangle him from all this, and attempt to get a sense of his texts within yet also beyond this very odd reception.
For anyone interested in where I think a reading of Plotinus can go today, linking him to everything from Deleuzian virtual philosophy to decostruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and issues in the philosophy of mathematics, check out my next mini-article here: The Philosophy of the Future: Plotinus as Dynamic Set Theorist of the Virtual (Realy!!)