- Philosophic Silence and the ‘One’ in Plotinus by Nicholas Banner
The principle that is, for Plotinus, both origin and goal of all things is labelled, for convenience, the One (as not being many), or—equivalently—the Good. Plotinus is clear that even these titles may be misleading, since this principle (whatever it is) is not one thing among many, nor can we even truly say that it exists (as if its existence were something added to its being or un-being). Nothing that we can say of it is really true, and we cannot ever strictly know or understand it. It must seem to follow that, having nothing true to say of it, nor any way of grasping its nature, we had better simply be silent, as Plotinus agrees (for example, in Ennead VI.8 .11, 1–3). This does not stop him from continuing to write at length about this strange One, and to advise on ways to come to some sort of para-intellectual acquaintance with it: “[the Intellect] . . . goes out of its mind ‘drunk with the nectar’; then it falls in love, simplified into happiness [haplotheis eis eupatheian] by having its fill, and it is better for it to be drunk with a drunkenness like this than to be more respectably sober” (Enneads VI.7 .35, 24–27). This un-intellectual, unvoiced knowledge is regularly compared to what is uncovered in initiation ceremonies such as the Mysteries, whose secrets are revealed only to the few, whether because they cannot be understood by the many or should not be revealed to the unworthy—and maybe this was why Plotinus and his fellow students promised not to write down their teacher’s teaching (so Porphyry claimed, Life of Plotinus, 3.24–29). The task is rather patheîn than matheîn (to be affected rather than to learn, as Aristotle said of the Mysteries, fr.15 Ross).
It is this perennial metaphor that Banner addresses in the first half of his book, describing how such secrets, or boasting that one knows such secrets, were marks of social dominance in philosophical culture. Philosophical silence, so he argues, “never lost its original cultural associations” (104). Plotinus’s hermeneutical technique, locating the thought of the One’s ineffability both in ancient myths and in Plato’s works, was also a way of dominating the material he studied: no corner of his philosophy was “not also informed by an esoteric privileging of knowledge,” a show of superior insight (125).
In the second half of his book, Banner offers a moderately sympathetic history, through “Middle” to “Late” Platonism (and including reference to such “unphilosophical” texts as the Chaldaean Oracles and the Hermetic Corpus), of the erosion of a pre-Platonic confidence in the power of reasoning to uncover the real nature of things, and a corresponding reliance on “transcendent ways of knowing,” which themselves undermine their own reliability (148). The nature of the “highest” cannot be known or expressed even by a philosophical elite (whose claims to superior insight must therefore, at least, be questionable). Everything that even Plotinus says about the One is only a gesture, or a sort of recipe for, perhaps, forgetting everything one thought one knew: aphele panta, “take away everything” (Enneads V.3 .17, 38). Even the denial of any description of the One is rather an apophasis than a sterêsis: as Aristotle also reckoned, to say that X is not A is not to claim that X is not-A, something other than A, but rather to reject all such predication as a veil before the Unknowable. As Heraclitus said, Apollo neither asserts nor denies, but gives a sign (22B93DK). Plotinus’s essays are also signs, or gestures: a performance that may have an effect on those who trouble to follow it. He is not, despite appearances, offering an abstract theory about life, the universe, and everything, but rather a way of abandoning false hopes and fears, of becoming “drunk” with love. [End Page 554]