The Six Enneads, by Plotinus

First Tractate.

On the Kosmos or on the Heavenly System.

1. We hold that the ordered universe, in its material mass, has existed for ever and will for ever endure: but simply to refer this perdurance to the Will of God, however true an explanation, is utterly inadequate.

The elements of this sphere change; the living beings of earth pass away; only the Ideal-form [the species] persists: possibly a similar process obtains in the All.

The Will of God is able to cope with the ceaseless flux and escape of body stuff by ceaselessly reintroducing the known forms in new substances, thus ensuring perpetuity not to the particular item but to the unity of idea: now, seeing that objects of this realm possess no more than duration of form, why should celestial objects, and the celestial system itself, be distinguished by duration of the particular entity?

Let us suppose this persistence to be the result of the all-inclusiveness of the celestial and universal — with its consequence, the absence of any outlying matter into which change could take place or which could break in and destroy.

This explanation would, no doubt, safeguard the integrity of the Whole, of the All; but our sun and the individual being of the other heavenly bodies would not on these terms be secured in perpetuity: they are parts; no one of them is in itself the whole, the all; it would still be probable that theirs is no more than that duration in form which belongs to fire and such entities.

This would apply even to the entire ordered universe itself. For it is very possible that this too, though not in process of destruction from outside, might have only formal duration; its parts may be so wearing each other down as to keep it in a continuous decay while, amid the ceaseless flux of the Kind constituting its base, an outside power ceaselessly restores the form: in this way the living All may lie under the same conditions as man and horse and the rest man and horse persisting but not the individual of the type.

With this, we would have no longer the distinction of one order, the heavenly system, stable for ever, and another, the earthly, in process of decay: all would be alike except in the point of time; the celestial would merely be longer lasting. If, then, we accepted this duration of type alone as a true account of the All equally with its partial members, our difficulties would be eased — or indeed we should have no further problem — once the Will of God were shown to be capable, under these conditions and by such communication, of sustaining the Universe.

But if we are obliged to allow individual persistence to any definite entity within the Kosmos then, firstly, we must show that the Divine Will is adequate to make it so; secondly, we have to face the question, What accounts for some things having individual persistence and others only the persistence of type? and, thirdly, we ask how the partial entities of the celestial system hold a real duration which would thus appear possible to all partial things.

2. Supposing we accept this view and hold that, while things below the moon’s orb have merely type-persistence, the celestial realm and all its several members possess individual eternity; it remains to show how this strict permanence of the individual identity — the actual item eternally unchangeable — can belong to what is certainly corporeal, seeing that bodily substance is characteristically a thing of flux.

The theory of bodily flux is held by Plato no less than by the other philosophers who have dealt with physical matters, and is applied not only to ordinary bodies but to those, also, of the heavenly sphere.

“How,” he asks, “can these corporeal and visible entities continue eternally unchanged in identity?”— evidently agreeing, in this matter also, with Herakleitos who maintained that even the sun is perpetually coming anew into being. To Aristotle there would be no problem; it is only accepting his theories of a fifth-substance.

But to those who reject Aristotle’s Quintessence and hold the material mass of the heavens to consist of the elements underlying the living things of this sphere, how is individual permanence possible? And the difficulty is still greater for the parts, for the sun and the heavenly bodies.

Every living thing is a combination of soul and body-kind: the celestial sphere, therefore, if it is to be everlasting as an individual entity must be so in virtue either of both these constituents or of one of them, by the combination of soul and body or by soul only or by body only.

Of course anyone that holds body to be incorruptible secures the desired permanence at once; no need, then, to call on a soul or on any perdurable conjunction to account for the continued maintenance of a living being.

But the case is different when one holds that body is, of itself, perishable and that Soul is the principle of permanence: this view obliges us to the proof that the character of body is not in itself fatal either to the coherence or to the lasting stability which are imperative: it must be shown that the two elements of the union envisaged are not inevitably hostile, but that on the contrary [in the heavens] even Matter must conduce to the scheme of the standing result.

3. We have to ask, that is, how Matter, this entity of ceaseless flux constituting the physical mass of the universe, could serve towards the immortality of the Kosmos.

And our answer is “Because the flux is not outgoing”: where there is motion within but not outwards and the total remains unchanged, there is neither growth nor decline, and thus the Kosmos never ages.

We have a parallel in our earth, constant from eternity to pattern and to mass; the air, too, never fails; and there is always water: all the changes of these elements leave unchanged the Principle of the total living thing, our world. In our own constitution, again, there is a ceaseless shifting of particles — and that with outgoing loss — and yet the individual persists for a long time: where there is no question of an outside region, the body-principle cannot clash with soul as against the identity and endless duration of the living thing.

Of these material elements — for example — fire, the keen and swift, cooperates by its upward tendency as earth by its lingering below; for we must not imagine that the fire, once it finds itself at the point where its ascent must stop, settles down as in its appropriate place, no longer seeking, like all the rest, to expand in both directions. No: but higher is not possible; lower is repugnant to its Kind; all that remains for it is to be tractable and, answering to a need of its nature, to be drawn by the Soul to the activity of life, and so to move to in a glorious place, in the Soul. Anyone that dreads its falling may take heart; the circuit of the Soul provides against any declination, embracing, sustaining; and since fire has of itself no downward tendency it accepts that guiding without resistance. The partial elements constituting our persons do not suffice for their own cohesion; once they are brought to human shape, they must borrow elsewhere if the organism is to be maintained: but in the upper spheres since there can be no loss by flux no such replenishment is needed.

Suppose such loss, suppose fire extinguished there, then a new fire must be kindled; so also if such loss by flux could occur in some of the superiors from which the celestial fire depends, that too must be replaced: but with such transmutations, while there might be something continuously similar, there would be, no longer, a Living All abidingly self-identical.

4. But matters are involved here which demand specific investigation and cannot be treated as incidental merely to our present problem. We are faced with several questions: Is the heavenly system exposed to any such flux as would occasion the need of some restoration corresponding to nourishment; or do its members, once set in their due places, suffer no loss of substance, permanent by Kind? Does it consist of fire only, or is it mainly of fire with the other elements, as well, taken up and carried in the circuit by the dominant Principle?

Our doctrine of the immortality of the heavenly system rests on the firmest foundation once we have cited the sovereign agent, the soul, and considered, besides, the peculiar excellence of the bodily substance constituting the stars, a material so pure, so entirely the noblest, and chosen by the soul as, in all living beings, the determining principle appropriates to itself the choicest among their characteristic parts. No doubt Aristotle is right in speaking of flame as a turmoil, fire insolently rioting; but the celestial fire is equable, placid, docile to the purposes of the stars.

Still, the great argument remains, the Soul, moving in its marvellous might second only to the very loftiest Existents: how could anything once placed within this Soul break away from it into non-being? No one that understands this principle, the support of all things, can fail to see that, sprung from God, it is a stronger stay than any bonds.

And is it conceivable that the Soul, valid to sustain for a certain space of time, could not so sustain for ever? This would be to assume that it holds things together by violence; that there is a “natural course” at variance with what actually exists in the nature of the universe and in these exquisitely ordered beings; and that there is some power able to storm the established system and destroy its ordered coherence, some kingdom or dominion that may shatter the order founded by the Soul.

Further: The Kosmos has had no beginning — the impossibility has been shown elsewhere — and this is warrant for its continued existence. Why should there be in the future a change that has not yet occurred? The elements there are not worn away like beams and rafters: they hold sound for ever, and so the All holds sound. And even supposing these elements to be in ceaseless transmutation, yet the All persists: the ground of all the change must itself be changeless.

As to any alteration of purpose in the Soul we have already shown the emptiness of that fancy: the administration of the universe entails neither labour nor loss; and, even supposing the possibility of annihilating all that is material, the Soul would be no whit the better or the worse.

5. But how explain the permanence There, while the content of this sphere — its elements and its living things alike — are passing?

The reason is given by Plato: the celestial order is from God, the living things of earth from the gods sprung from God; and it is law that the offspring of God endures.

In other words, the celestial soul — and our souls with it — springs directly next from the Creator, while the animal life of this earth is produced by an image which goes forth from that celestial soul and may be said to flow downwards from it.

A soul, then, of the minor degree — reproducing, indeed, that of the Divine sphere but lacking in power inasmuch as it must exercise its creative act upon inferior stuff in an inferior region — the substances taken up into the fabric being of themselves repugnant to duration; with such an origin the living things of this realm cannot be of strength to last for ever; the material constituents are not as firmly held and controlled as if they were ruled immediately by a Principle of higher potency.

The heavens, on the contrary, must have persistence as a whole, and this entails the persistence of the parts, of the stars they contain: we could not imagine that whole to endure with the parts in flux — though, of course, we must distinguish things sub-celestial from the heavens themselves whose region does not in fact extend so low as to the moon.

Our own case is different: physically we are formed by that [inferior] soul, given forth [not directly from God but] from the divine beings in the heavens and from the heavens themselves; it is by way of that inferior soul that we are associated with the body [which therefore will not be persistent]; for the higher soul which constitutes the We is the principle not of our existence but of our excellence or, if also of our existence, then only in the sense that, when the body is already constituted, it enters, bringing with it some effluence from the Divine Reason in support of the existence.

6. We may now consider the question whether fire is the sole element existing in that celestial realm and whether there is any outgoing thence with the consequent need of renewal.

Timaeus pronounced the material frame of the All to consist primarily of earth and fire for visibility, earth for solidity — and deduced that the stars must be mainly composed of fire, but not solely since there is no doubt they are solid.

And this is probably a true account. Plato accepts it as indicated by all the appearances. And, in fact, to all our perception — as we see them and derive from them the impression of illumination — the stars appear to be mostly, if not exclusively, fire: but on reasoning into the matter we judge that since solidity cannot exist apart from earth-matter, they must contain earth as well.

But what place could there be for the other elements? It is impossible to imagine water amid so vast a conflagration; and if air were present it would be continually changing into fire.

Admitting [with Timaeus; as a logical truth] that two self-contained entities, standing as extremes to each other need for their coherence two intermediaries; we may still question whether this holds good with regard to physical bodies. Certainly water and earth can be mixed without any such intermediate. It might seem valid to object that the intermediates are already present in the earth and the water; but a possible answer would be, “Yes, but not as agents whose meeting is necessary to the coherence of those extremes.”

None the less we will take it that the coherence of extremes is produced by virtue of each possessing all the intermediates. It is still not proven that fire is necessary to the visibility of earth and earth to the solidarity of fire.

On this principle, nothing possesses an essential-nature of its very own; every several thing is a blend, and its name is merely an indication of the dominant constituent.

Thus we are told that earth cannot have concrete existence without the help of some moist element — the moisture in water being the necessary adhesive — but admitting that we so find it, there is still a contradiction in pretending that any one element has a being of its own and in the same breath denying its self-coherence, making its subsistence depend upon others, and so, in reality, reducing the specific element to nothing. How can we talk of the existence of the definite Kind, earth — earth essential — if there exists no single particle of earth which actually is earth without any need of water to secure its self-cohesion? What has such an adhesive to act upon if there is absolutely no given magnitude of real earth to which it may bind particle after particle in its business of producing the continuous mass? If there is any such given magnitude, large or small, of pure earth, then earth can exist in its own nature, independently of water: if there is no such primary particle of pure earth, then there is nothing whatever for the water to bind. As for air — air unchanged, retaining its distinctive quality — how could it conduce to the subsistence of a dense material like earth?

Similarly with fire. No doubt Timaeus speaks of it as necessary not to the existence but to the visibility of earth and the other elements; and certainly light is essential to all visibility — we cannot say that we see darkness, which implies, precisely, that nothing is seen, as silence means nothing being heard.

But all this does not assure us that the earth to be visible must contain fire: light is sufficient: snow, for example, and other extremely cold substances gleam without the presence of fire — though of course it might be said that fire was once there and communicated colour before disappearing.

As to the composition of water, we must leave it an open question whether there can be such a thing as water without a certain proportion of earth.

But how can air, the yielding element, contain earth?

Fire, again: is earth perhaps necessary there since fire is by its own nature devoid of continuity and not a thing of three dimensions?

Supposing it does not possess the solidity of the three dimensions, it has that of its thrust; now, cannot this belong to it by the mere right and fact of its being one of the corporeal entities in nature? Hardness is another matter, a property confined to earth-stuff. Remember that gold — which is water — becomes dense by the accession not of earth but of denseness or consolidation: in the same way fire, with Soul present within it, may consolidate itself upon the power of the Soul; and there are living beings of fire among the Celestials.

But, in sum, do we abandon the teaching that all the elements enter into the composition of every living thing?

For this sphere, no; but to lift clay into the heavens is against nature, contrary to the laws of her ordaining: it is difficult, too, to think of that swiftest of circuits bearing along earthly bodies in its course nor could such material conduce to the splendour and white glint of the celestial fire.

7. We can scarcely do better, in fine, than follow Plato.


In the universe as a whole there must necessarily be such a degree of solidity, that is to say, of resistance, as will ensure that the earth, set in the centre, be a sure footing and support to the living beings moving over it, and inevitably communicate something of its own density to them: the earth will possess coherence by its own unaided quality, but visibility by the presence of fire: it will contain water against the dryness which would prevent the cohesion of its particles; it will hold air to lighten its bulky matters; it will be in contact with the celestial fire — not as being a member of the sidereal system but by the simple fact that the fire there and our earth both belong to the ordered universe so that something of the earth is taken up by the fire as something of the fire by the earth and something of everything by everything else.

This borrowing, however, does not mean that the one thing taking-up from the other enters into a composition, becoming an element in a total of both: it is simply a consequence of the kosmic fellowship; the participant retains its own being and takes over not the thing itself but some property of the thing, not air but air’s yielding softness, not fire but fire’s incandescence: mixing is another process, a complete surrender with a resultant compound not, as in this case, earth — remaining earth, the solidity and density we know — with something of fire’s qualities superadded.

We have authority for this where we read:

“At the second circuit from the earth, God kindled a light”: he is speaking of the sun which, elsewhere, he calls the all-glowing and, again, the all-gleaming: thus he prevents us imagining it to be anything else but fire, though of a peculiar kind; in other words it is light, which he distinguishes from flame as being only modestly warm: this light is a corporeal substance but from it there shines forth that other “light” which, though it carries the same name, we pronounce incorporeal, given forth from the first as its flower and radiance, the veritable “incandescent body.” Plato’s word earthy is commonly taken in too depreciatory a sense: he is thinking of earth as the principle of solidity; we are apt to ignore his distinctions and think of the concrete clay.

Fire of this order, giving forth this purest light, belongs to the upper realm, and there its seat is fixed by nature; but we must not, on that account, suppose the flame of earth to be associated with the beings of that higher sphere.

No: the flame of this world, once it has attained a certain height, is extinguished by the currents of air opposed to it. Moreover, as it carries an earthy element on its upward path, it is weighed downwards and cannot reach those loftier regions. It comes to a stand somewhere below the moon — making the air at that point subtler — and its flame, if any flame can persist, is subdued and softened, and no longer retains its first intensity, but gives out only what radiance it reflects from the light above.

And it is that loftier light — falling variously upon the stars; to each in a certain proportion — that gives them their characteristic differences, as well in magnitude as in colour; just such light constitutes also the still higher heavenly bodies which, however, like clear air, are invisible because of the subtle texture and unresisting transparency of their material substance and also by their very distance.

8. Now: given a light of this degree, remaining in the upper sphere at its appointed station, pure light in purest place, what mode of outflow from it can be conceived possible?

Such a Kind is not so constituted as to flow downwards of its own accord; and there exists in those regions no power to force it down. Again, body in contact with soul must always be very different from body left to itself; the bodily substance of the heavens has that contact and will show that difference.

Besides, the corporeal substance nearest to the heavens would be air or fire: air has no destructive quality; fire would be powerless there since it could not enter into effective contact: in its very rush it would change before its attack could be felt; and, apart from that, it is of the lesser order, no match for what it would be opposing in those higher regions.

Again, fire acts by imparting heat: now it cannot be the source of heat to what is already hot by nature; and anything it is to destroy must as a first condition be heated by it, must be brought to a pitch of heat fatal to the nature concerned.

In sum, then, no outside body is necessary to the heavens to ensure their permanence — or to produce their circular movement, for it has never been shown that their natural path would be the straight line; on the contrary the heavens, by their nature, will either be motionless or move by circle; all other movement indicates outside compulsion. We cannot think, therefore, that the heavenly bodies stand in need of replenishment; we must not argue from earthly frames to those of the celestial system whose sustaining soul is not the same, whose space is not the same, whose conditions are not those which make restoration necessary in this realm of composite bodies always in flux: we must recognise that the changes that take place in bodies here represent a slipping-away from the being [a phenomenon not incident to the celestial sphere] and take place at the dictate of a Principle not dwelling in the higher regions, one not powerful enough to ensure the permanence of the existences in which it is exhibited, one which in its coming into being and in its generative act is but an imitation of an antecedent Kind, and, as we have shown, cannot at every point possess the unchangeable identity of the Intellectual Realm.

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24