Excerpts from Pagan and Christian

From Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety – Dodds:

A story which begins with Philo and St Paul and ends with Augustine and Boethius is much too long to be told in four lectures, even if l were competent to tell the whole of it. I have therefore judged it best to concentrate my attention on the crucial period between the accession of Marcus Aurelius and the conversion of Constantine, the period when the material decline was steepest and the ferment of new religious feelings most intense. In calling it ‘an Age of Anxiety’ I have in mind both its material and its moral insecurity;

I am interested less in the issues which separated the combatants than in the attitudes and experiences which bound them together.

Joseph Bidez described our period as one in which ‘Men were ceasing to observe the external world and to try to understand it, utilize it or improve it. They were driven in upon themselves. … The idea of the beauty of the heavens and of the world went out of fashion and was replaced by that of the Infinite.’

And in this glittering house of many mansions the earth appeared as the meanest mansion of all: it was held to be compact of the mere dregs and sediment of the universe, the cold, heavy, impure stuff whose weight had caused it to sink to the centre.

As time went on, this traditional antithesis between the celestial world and the terrestrial was more and more heavily emphasised,’ and it was increasingly used to point a moral. In the recurrent topos of the fight of the soul through the universe-imagined as taking place in a dream, or after death, or sometimes just in waking contemplation- we can trace a growing contempt for all that may be done and suffered beneath the moon.

Much the same feeling underlies the long and splendid passage where Plotinus in his last years, drawing both on Plato and on the Stoics, interprets the grandeurs and miseries of human life in terms of a stage performance.

For him, as for the aged Plato, man’s earnest is God’s play, performed in the world-theatre by ‘fair and lovely living puppets’ – puppets who mistake themselves for men and suffer accordingly, though in truth they are but external shadows of the inner man, the only truly existent, truly substantial person.’ This is linked with Plotinus’ general doctrine that action is everywhere ‘a shadow of contemplation and an inferior substitute for it.’ When cities are sacked, their men massacred, their women raped, it is but a transitory moment in the endless drama: other and better cities will arise one day, and the children conceived in crime may prove better men than their fathers. That seems to be his final word on the tragic history of his time.

From Plotinus this attitude of contemptuous resignation was transmitted to the later Neoplatonic schools, Christian as well as pagan. To Gregory of Nyssa, for example, human affairs are but the play of children building sand castles which are promptly washed away; as Father Danielou says, his entire work is penetrated by a deep feeling of the unreality of the sensible world, which he calls goAteia, a magical illusion, echoing a phrase of Porphyry.’ And Augustine in turn declares that ‘this life is nothing but the comedy of the human race’.

But no Stoic or Aristotelian, and no orthodox Platonist, could condemn the cosmos as a whole. Where we meet such condemnation we must suspect that it derives ultimately from a source farther east, a dualism more radical than Plato’s. The visible cosmos as a whole could only be called evil in contrast with some invisible Good Place or Good Person outside and beyond the cosmos: radical dualism implies transcendence!

…Plotinus could accept the equation of Matter with evil only by reducing both to the status of marginal products, the limiting point of the outgoing from the Absolute.

To the majority of Gnostics it was unthinkable that such a world should have been created by the Supreme God: it must be the handiwork of some inferior demiurge- either, as Valentinus thought, an ignorant daemon unaware of any better possibility; or, as Marcion thought, the harsh and unintelligent God of the Old Testament; or again, as in other systems, some angel or angels in revolt against God.

Origen, however, maintained the substance of the Gnostic view; he attributed the creation to the action of certain ‘bodiless intelligences’ who became bored with contemplating God and ‘turned to the inferior’

Plotinus v the Gnostics.

The unio mystica recognized by the Church was a momentary illumination, granted only occasionally, perhaps but once in a lifetime. And whatever energies it might release and whatever assurance it might bestow, the human being who experienced it did not thereby shed his human condition; it was as an ordinary mortal that he had to live out his life on Earth. The heretical mystic, on the other hand, felt himself to be utterly transformed; he had not merely been united with God, he was identical with God and would remain so for ever. For ‘the great Catholic mystics’ read ‘Plotinus’, for ‘the heretical mystic’ read ‘certain Hermetists and Christian Gnostics’, and the distinction applies perfectly to our period. Plotinus also rejected firmly the megalomaniac claim of the Gnostics to a monopoly of the divine presence. For him God is present to all beings, and the power of becoming aware of that presence is a capacity ‘which all men possess, though few use it’ (r, vi, 8.2.4). ‘If God is not in the world’, he tells the
Gnostics, ‘then neither is he in you, and you can have nothing to say about him’ (n, ix, I6.zs).

‘belief in the possibility of an intimate and direct union of the human spirit with the fundamental principle of being, a union which constitutes at once a mode of existence and a mode of knowledge different from and superior to normal existence and knowledge’.


He is also, with his pupil Porphyry, the only person of our period who is stated in so many words to have enjoyed mystical union. Four times, according to Porphyry, in the six years that the two men worked together ‘Plotinus lifted himself to the primal and transcendent God by meditation and by the methods Plato indicated in the Symposium’; Porphyry himself had attained the same goal but once, many years later . And we have the testimony of Plotinus himself in the unique autobiographical passage where he speaks of occasions when ‘I awakened out of the body into myself and came to be external to all other things and contained within myself, when I saw a marvelous beauty and was confident, then if ever, that I belonged to the higher order, when I actively enjoyed the noblest form of life, when I had become one with the Divine and stabilized myself in the Divine.’ Elsewhere Plotinus has described in memorable prose, if not the mystical union itself, at any rate the steps which lead up to it. He tells us that when we have achieved through intellectual and moral self-training the right disposition, we must practice a discipline of negation: we must think away the corporeal opaqueness of the world, think away the spatio-temporal frame of reference, and at last think away even the inner network of relations. What is left? Nothing, it would seem, but a centre of awareness which is potentially, but not yet actually, the Absolute.

The last stage of the experience comes by no conscious act of will: ‘we must wait quietly for its appearance’, says Plotinus, ‘and prepare ourselves to contemplate it, as the eye waits for the sunrise.’ But what then happens cannot properly be described in terms of vision, or of any normal cognitive act ; for the distinction of subject and object vanishes. I quote one of Plotinus’ attempts at description:

The soul sees God suddenly appearing within it, because there is nothing between : they are no longer two, but one; while the presence lasts, you cannot distinguish them. It is that union which earthly lovers imitate when they would be one flesh. The soul is no longer conscious of being in a body, or of itself as having identity-man or living being, thing or sum of things… For who it is that sees it has no leisure to see. When in this state the soul would exchange its present condition for nothing in the world, though it were offered the kingdom of all the heavens: for this is the Good, and there is nothing better.

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