AN ESSAY ON THE BEAUTIFUL
(from the Greek)

by PLOTINUS

[Thomas Taylor - Translator]

[The Select Works of Plotinus 1792]

as published in “Theosophical Siftings” Volume -4-





PREFACE

[Page 3] THE present issue of THEOSOPHICAL SIFTINGS is a reprint of an exceedingly rare little volume, published in London in the year 1792. The translator was Thomas Taylor, the famous Platonist, and it is one of the most difficult of his works to procure.

Of Plotinus, the author of the treatise "On the Beautiful", here translated, The Theosophical Glossary says that he was the noblest, highest, and grandest of all the Neo-Platonists after the founder of the school, Ammonius Saccas. He was the most enthusiastic of the Philalethians or "lovers of truth", whose aim was to found a religion on a system of intellectual abstraction, which is true Theosophy, or the whole substance of Neo-Platonism.

If we are to believe Porphyry, Plotinus has never disclosed either his birthplace or connexions, his native land or his race. Till the age of twenty-eight he had never found teacher or teaching which would suit him or answer his aspirations. Then he happened to hear Ammonius Saccas, from which day he continued to attend his school. At thirty-nine, he accompanied the Emperor Gordian to Persia and India, with the object of learning their philosophy. He died at the age of sixty-six, after writing fifty-four books on philosophy. He reached Samâdhi (highest ecstasy or "re-union with God", the divine Ego) several times during his life, as said by a biographer. "So far did his contempt for his bodily organs go, that he refused to use a remedy, regarding it as unworthy of a man to use means of this kind".

Again we read: "As he died, a dragon (or serpent) that had been under his bed, glided through a hole in the wall and disappeared" — a fact suggestive for the student of symbolism.

He taught a doctrine identical with that of the Vedantins, namely, that the Spirit-Soul emanating from the One deific principle, was, after its pilgrimage, re-united to It.

Editor Theosophical Publishing Services


INTRODUCTION

[Page 4] IT may seem wonderful that language, which is the only method of conveying our conceptions, should, at the same time, be an hindrance to our advancement in philosophy; but the wonder ceases when we consider, that it is seldom studied as the vehicle of truth, but is too frequently esteemed for its own sake, independent of its connection with things. This observation is remarkably verified in the Greek language; which, as it is the only repository of ancient wisdom, has, unfortunately for us, been the means of concealing, in shameful obscurity, the most profound researches and the sublimest truths. That words, indeed, are not otherwise valuable than as subservient to things, must surely be acknowledged by every liberal mind, and will alone be disputed by him who has spent the prime of his life, and consumed the vigour of his understanding, in verbal criticisms and grammatical trifles. And, if this is the case, every lover of truth will only study a language for the purpose of procuring the wisdom it contains; and will doubtless wish to make his native language the vehicle of it to others. For, since all truth is eternal, its nature can never be altered by transposition, though by this means its dress may be varied, and become less elegant and refined. Perhaps even this inconvenience may be remedied by sedulous cultivation; at least, the particular inability of some, ought not to discourage the well-meant endeavours of others. Whoever reads the lives of the ancient Heroes of Philosophy, must be convinced that they studied things more than words, and that Truth alone was the ultimate object of their search; and he who wishes to emulate their glory and participate their wisdom, will study their doctrines more than their language, and value the depth of their understandings far beyond the elegance of their composition. The native charms of Truth will ever be sufficient to allure the truly philosophic mind; and he who has once discovered her retreats will surely endeavour to fix a mark by which they may be detected by others.

But, though the mischief arising from the study of words is prodigious, we must not consider it as the only cause of darkening the splendours of Truth, and obstructing the free diffusion of her light. Different manners and philosophies have equally contributed to banish the goddess from our realms, and to render our eyes offended with her celestial light, Hence we must not [Page 5] wonder that, being indignant at the change, and perceiving the empire of ignorance rising to unbounded dominion, she has retired from the spreading darkness, and concealed herself in the tranquil and divinely lucid regions of mind. For we need but barely survey modern pursuits to be convinced how little they are connected with wisdom. Since, to describe the nature of some particular place, the form, situation and magnitude of a certain city; to trace the windings of a river to its source, or delineate the aspect of a pleasant mountain; to calculate the fineness of the silkworm's threads, and arrange the gaudy colours of butterflies; in short, to pursue matter through its infinite divisions, and wander in its dark labyrinths, is the employment of the philosophy in vogue. But surely the energies of intellect are more worthy our concern than the operations of sense; and the science of universals, permanent and fixed, must be superior to the knowledge of particulars, fleeting and frail. Where is a sensible object to be found, which abides for a moment the same; which is not either rising to perfection, or verging to decay; which is not mixed and confused with its contrary; whose flowing nature no resistance can stop, nor any art confine? Where is the chemist who, by the most accurate analyzation can arrive at the principles of bodies; or who, though he might be so lucky in his search as to detect the atoms of Democritus, could by this means give respite to mental investigation? For every atom, since endued with figure, must consist of parts, though indissolubly cemented together; and the immediate cause of this cement must be something incorporeal or knowledge can have no stability and enquiry no end. Where, says Mr. Harris, is the microscope which can discern what is smallest in nature? Where the telescope which can see at what point in the universe wisdom first began? Since, then, there is no portion of matter which may not be the subject of experiments without end, let us betake ourselves to the regions of mind, where all things are bounded in intellectual measure; where everything is permanent and beautiful, eternal and divine. Let us quit the study of particulars, for that which is general and comprehensive, and through this, learn to see and recognize whatever exists.

With a view to this desirable end, I have presented the reader with a specimen of that sublime wisdom which first arose in the colleges of the Egyptian priests, and flourished afterwards in Greece; which was there cultivated by Pythagoras, under the mysterious veil of numbers; by Plato, in the graceful dress of poetry; and was systematized by Aristotle, as far as it could be reduced into scientific order; which, after becoming in a manner extinct, shone again with its pristine splendour among the philosophers of the Alexandrian school; was learnedly illustrated with Asiatic luxuriancy of style by Proclus; was divinely explained by lamblichus: and profoundly delivered in the writings of Plotinus. Indeed, the works of [Page 6] this last philosopher are particularly valuable to all who desire to penetrate into the depths of this divine wisdom. From the exalted nature of his genius, he was called Intellect by his contemporaries, and is said to have composed his books under the influence of divine illumination. Porphyry relates, in his life, that he was four times united by an ineffable energy with the divinity; which, however such an account may be ridiculed in the present age, will be credited by everyone who has properly explored the profundity of his mind. The facility and vehemence of his composition was such, that when he had once conceived a subject, he wrote as from an internal pattern, without paying much attention to the orthography, or reviewing what he had written; for the celestial vigour of his intellect rendered him incapable of trifling concerns, and in this respect, inferior to common understandings, as the eagle, which in its bold flight pierces the clouds, skims the surface of the earth with less rapidity than the swallow. Indeed a minute attention to trifles is inconsistent with great genius of every kind, and it is on this account that retirement is so absolutely necessary to the discovery of truths of the first dignity and importance; for how is it possible to mix much with the world, without imbibing the false and puerile conceptions of the multitude; and without losing that true elevation of soul which comparatively despises every mortal concern ? Plotinus, therefore, conscious of the incorrectness of his writings arising from the rapidity, exuberance and daring sublimity of his thoughts, committed their revision to his disciple Porphyry; who, though inferior in depth of thought to his master, was, on account of his extraordinary abilities, called by way of eminence the Philosopher.

The design of the following discourse is to bring us to the perception of the beautiful itself, even while connected with a corporeal nature, which must be the great end of all true philosophy and which Plotinus happily obtained. To a genius, indeed, truly modern, with whom the crucible and the air-pump are alone the standards of Truth, such an attempt must appear ridiculous in the extreme. With these, nothing is real but what the hand can grasp or the corporeal eye perceives, and nothing useful but what pampers the appetite or fills the purse; but unfortunately, their perceptions, like Homer's frail dreams, pass through the ivory gate; and are consequently empty and fallacious, and contain nothing belonging to the vigilant soul. To such as these a treatise on the beautiful cannot be addressed; since its object is too exalted to be approached by those engaged in the impurities of sense, and too bright to be seen by the eye accustomed to the obscurity of corporeal vision. But it is alone proper to him who is sensible that his soul is strongly marked with ruin by its union with body; who considers himself in the language of Empedocles, as

" Heaven's exile, straying from the orb of light; "

[Page 7] and who so ardently longs for a return to his true country, that to him, as to Ulysses when fighting for Ithaca,

"Slow seems the fun to move, the hours to roll;
His native home deep-imag'd in his soul."

[Pope’s Homer’s Odyssey, Book xiii, ver 37]

But here it is requisite to observe that our ascent to this region of Beauty must be made by gradual advances, for, from our association with matter, it is impossible to pass directly, and without a medium, to such transcendent perfection; but we must proceed in a manner similar to those who pass from darkness to the brightest light, by advancing from places moderately enlightened, to such as are the most luminous of all. It is necessary therefore, that we should become very familiar with the most abstract contemplations; and that our intellectual eye should be strongly irradiated with the light of ideas which precedes the splendours of the beautiful itself, like the brightness which is seen on the summit of mountains previous to the rising of the sun. Nor ought it to seem strange, if it should be some time before even the liberal soul can recognize the beautiful progeny of intellect as its kindred and allies; for, from its union with body, it has drunk deep of the cup of oblivion, and all its energetic powers are stupefied by the intoxicating draught; so that the intelligible world, on its first appearance, is utterly unknown by us, and our recollection of its inhabitants entirely lost; and we become familiar to Ulysses on his first entrance into Ithaca, of whom Homer says,

" Yet had his mind, thro' tedious absence lost
The dear remembrance of his native coast."

[Odysey, Book xiii, ver 223]

For,

"Now all the land another prospect bore
Another port appeared, another shore,
And long continued ways, and winding floods
And unknown mountains crowned with unknown woods: "

until the goddess of wisdom purges our eyes from the mists of sense and says to each of us, as she did to Ulysses,

" Now lift thy longing eyes, while I restore
The pleasing prospect of thy native shore."

For then will

"......the prospect clear,
The mists disperse, and all the coast appear."

Let us then, humbly supplicate the irradiations of wisdom, and follow Plotinus as our divine guide to the beatific vision of the Beautiful itself; for in this alone can we find perfect repose, and repair those destructive clefts [Page 8] and chinks of the soul which its departure from the light of good, and its lapse into a corporeal nature, have introduced.

But before I conclude, I think it necessary to caution the reader not to mix any modern enthusiastic opinions with the doctrines contained in the following discourse; for there is not a greater difference between substance and shade than between ancient and modern enthusiasm. The object of the former was the highest good and the supreme beauty; but that of the latter is nothing more than a phantom raised by bewildered imaginations, floating on the unstable ocean of opinion, the sport of the waves of prejudice and blown about by the breath of factious party. Like substance and shade, indeed they possess a similitude in outward appearance, but in reality they are perfect contraries; for the one fills the mind with solid and durable good, but the other with empty delusions; which like the ever running waters of the Danaïdes, glide away as fast as they enter, and leave nothing behind but the ruinous passages through which they flowed.

I only add, that the ensuing treatise is designed as a specimen (if it should meet with encouragement) of my intended mode of publishing all the works of Plotinus. The undertaking is, I am sensible, arduous in the extreme; and the disciples of wisdom are unfortunately few; but, as I desire no other reward of my labour, than to have the expense of printing defrayed, and to see Truth propagated in my native tongue; I hope those few will enable me to obtain the completion of my desires.

For then, to adopt the words of Ulysses,

“That view vouchsaf’d, let instant death surprise
With ever-during shade these happy eyes !


[Odyssey, Book vii, ver 303]


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