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[43] Lecture II. Plotinus Philosophy became a way of life in the ancient tradition because of the relationship leading Greek philosophers saw between philosophy and the highest human good, or eudaimonia—happiness as we conventionally but inadequately translate it.1 For them, philosophical thought and understanding, which bring to human life, as they think, a full grasp of the ultimate truth about human nature and the human good, are a necessary , and if brought to completion a sufficient, source of fulfillment and happiness for us. This applies as much to the Platonist philosophers of late antiquity, to whom we turn in this second lecture, as it does to Socrates and his earlier successors. But there is one key contrast between Platonist philosophy and all the predecessor Greek philosophies. All Greek philosophers in both the classical and the Hellenistic periods conceived philosophy, and its task in providing us with our highest good, as addressing human beings as fully committed to life in the familiar world of physical objects, with properties we come to know through the use of our natural capacities of sensation, and to our life experience deriving from our own place in this world. This is a world of personal concerns with involvements that affect our daily lives, and of social and political issues to be addressed through philosophically informed principles that define good living and lead us to a this-worldly happiness. Thisissoevenif,forsomeearlierphilosophers,suchahappylifewould be rewarded with an even happier afterlife as a spirit, no longer as such an embodied denizen of the physical world, and even if some earlier philosophers recognized additional, and crucially important, human activities related to knowledge of a higher reality than the physical. In short, in the whole prior history of Greek philosophy, philosophy is aimed at helping us live the lives we all know we have got, in the here and now—and never mind (from the point of view of a happy human life) any supposed afterlife, lived under other than the conditions of embodiment that we know all too well. The happy life of immortality is at best a distant hope, one that may vaguely inspire weaker minds, which might need such reassurance , in order to live a decent this-worldly life. In the prior tradition, 1. In writing this lecture, I have drawn on chapter 6 of my book Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus. In preparing the published version, I was able to refer to written comments of A. A. Long and Jaclyn Maxwell, presented at the seminar after I delivered the lecture. I thank them for their comments and assistance. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 44 such a hope is not appealed to in any way by a proper philosopher—that is, by any actually happy person—in shaping and pursuing their life. In turning to Plotinus and late Platonism, we step into a different philosophical world.2 The value and function of philosophy for these Platonists are not to enrich and deepen our this-worldly life, as they were for the classical and Hellenistic philosophers, but, much more, to disengage us, and take us away, from it, even while we are (perforce) living it. In Plotinus’s theories of human nature—of the human essence—and, as a result of that, of human happiness or the human good, as we will see, we, the human persons that we are, who live either well or badly as embodied living beings, are not in fact essentially embodied things at all; our life, the life of the persons that we are, lies not at all in acts or experiences of the senses, or in the choices and actions that make up our daily lives in our families, with our friends, and in our societies. Our life, Plotinus thinks, lies exclusively in activities of pure intellectual thinking that we, all of us, engage in all the time, but most of us without even realizing it; our task is to become as self-conscious as possible of this activity, and to constantly focus our minds upon it. This is something we can do, in principle , even while, qua embodied animal, living an embodied life. If we do this, we lift ourselves altogether out of the this-worldly world, and up to a world of pure intellectual thinking, in which our true life has, all along, been taking place—but now, if we reach the final goal of self-purification from the...


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