To the Lady Violet Lebas.
Dear Lady Violet — You are discursive and desultory enough, as a reader, to have pleased even the late Lord Iddesleigh. It was “Aucassin and Nicolette” only a month ago, and today you have been reading Lord Lytton’s “Strange Story,” I am sure, for you want information about Plotinus! He was born (about A.D. 200) in Wolf-town (Lycopolis), in Egypt, the town, you know, where the natives might not eat wolves, poor fellows, just as the people of Thebes might not eat sheep. Probably this prohibition caused Plotinus no regret, for he was a consistent vegetarian.
However, we are advancing too rapidly, and we must discuss Plotinus more in order. His name is very dear to mystic novelists, like the author of “Zanoni.” They always describe their favourite hero as “deep in Plotinus or Iamblichus,” and I venture to think that nearly represents the depth of their own explorations. We do not know exactly when Plotinus was born. Like many ladies he used to wrap up his age in a mystery, observing that these petty details about the body (a mere husk of flesh binding the soul) were of no importance. He was not weaned till he was eight years old, a singular circumstance. Having a turn for philosophy, he attended the schools of Alexandria, concerning which Kingsley’s “Hypatia” is the most accessible authority.
All these anecdotes, I should have said, we learn from Porphyry, the Tyrian, who was a kind of Boswell to Plotinus. The philosopher himself often reminds me of Dr. Johnson, especially as Dr. Johnson is described by Mr. Carlyle. Just as the good doctor was a sound Churchman in the beginning of the age of new ideas, so Plotinus was a sound pagan in the beginning of the triumph of Christianity.
Like Johnson, Plotinus was lazy and energetic and short-sighted. He wrote a very large number of treatises, but he never took the trouble to read through them when once they were written, because his eyes were weak. He was superstitious, like Dr. Johnson, yet he had lucid intervals of common sense, when he laughed at the superstitions of his disciples. Like Dr. Johnson, he was always begirt by disciples, men and women, Bozzys and Thrales. He was so full of honour and charity, that his house was crowded with persons in need of help and friendly care. Though he lived so much in the clouds and among philosophical abstractions, he was an excellent man of business. Though a philosopher he was pious, and was courageous, dreading the plague no more than the good doctor dreaded the tempest that fell on him when he was voyaging to Coll.
You will admit that the parallel is pretty close for an historical parallel, despite the differences between the ascetic of Wolf-town and the sage of Bolt Court, hard by Fleet Street!
To return to the education of Plotinus. He was twenty-eight when he went up to the University of Alexandria. For eleven years he diligently attended the lectures of Ammonius. Then he went on the Emperor Gordian’s expedition to the East, hoping to learn the philosophy of the Hindus. The Upanishads would have puzzled Plotinus, had he reached India; but he never did. Gordian’s army was defeated in Mesopotamia, no “blessed word” to Gordian, and Plotinus hardly escaped with his life. He must have felt like Stendhal on the retreat from Moscow.
From Syria his friend and disciple Amelius led him to Rome, and here, as novelists say, “a curious thing happened.” There was in Rome an Egyptian priest, who offered to raise up the Demon, or Guardian Angel, of Plotinus in visible form. But there was only one pure spot in all Rome, so said the priest, and this spot was the Temple of Isis. Here the seance was held, and no demon appeared, but a regular God of one of the first circles. So terrified was an onlooker that he crushed to death the living birds which he held in his hands for some ritual or magical purpose.
It was a curious scene, a cosmopolitan confusion of Egypt, Rome, Isis, table-turning, the late Mr. Home, religion, and mummery, while Christian hymns of the early Church were being sung, perhaps in the garrets around, outside the Temple of Isis. The discovery that he had a god for his guardian angel gave Plotinus plenty of confidence in dealing with rival philosophers. For example, Alexandrinus Olympius, another mystic, tried magical arts against Plotinus. But Alexandrinus, suddenly doubling up during lecture with unaffected agony, cried, “Great virtue hath the soul of Plotinus, for my spells have returned against myself.” As for Plotinus, he remarked among his disciples, “Now the body of Alexandrinus is collapsing like an empty purse.”
How diverting it would be, Lady Violet, if our modern controversialists had those accomplishments, and if Mr. Max Muller could, literally, “double up” Professor Whitney, or if any one could cause Peppmuller to collapse with his queer Homeric theory! Plotinus had many such arts. A piece of jewellery was stolen from one of his protegees, a lady, and he detected the thief, a servant, by a glance. After being flogged within an inch of his life, the servant (perhaps to save the remaining inch) confessed all.
Once when Porphyry was at a distance, and was meditating suicide, Plotinus appeared at his side, saying, “This that thou schemest cometh not of the pure intellect, but of black humours,” and so sent Porphyry for change of air to Sicily. This was thoroughly good advice, but during the absence of the disciple the master died.
Porphyry did not see the great snake that glided into the wall when Plotinus expired; he only heard of the circumstance. Plotinus’s last words were: “I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and to merge it in the universally divine.” It is a strange mixture of philosophy and savage survival. The Zulus still believe that the souls of the dead reappear, like the soul of Plotinus, in the form of serpents.
Plotinus wrote against the paganizing Christians, or Gnostics. Like all great men, he was accused of plagiarism. A defence of great men accused of literary theft would be as valuable as Naude’s work of a like name about magic. On his death the Delphic Oracle, in very second-rate hexameters, declared that Plotinus had become a demon.
Such was the life of Plotinus, a man of sense and virtue, and so modest that he would not allow his portrait to be painted. His character drew good men round him, his repute for supernatural virtues brought “fools into a circle.” What he meant by his belief that four times he had, “whether in the body or out of the body,” been united with the Spirit of the world, who knows? What does Tennyson mean when he writes:
“So word by word, and line by line,
The dead man touch’d me from the past,
And all at once it seem’d at last
His living soul was flashed on mine.
And mine in his was wound and whirl’d
About empyreal heights of thought,
And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world.”
Mystery! We cannot fathom it; we know not the paths of the souls of Pascal and Gordon, of Plotinus and St. Paul. They are wise with a wisdom not of this world, or with a foolishness yet more wise.
In his practical philosophy Plotinus was an optimist, or at least he was at war with pessimism.
“They that love God bear lightly the ways of the world — bear lightly whatsoever befalls them of necessity in the general movement of things.” He believed in a rest that remains for the people of God, “where they speak not one with the other; but, as we understand many things by the eyes only, so does soul read soul in heaven, where the spiritual body is pure, and nothing is hidden, and nothing feigned.” The arguments by which these opinions are buttressed may be called metaphysical, and may be called worthless; the conviction, and the beauty of the language in which it is stated, remain immortal possessions.
Why such a man as Plotinus, with such ideas, remained a pagan, while Christianity offered him a sympathetic refuge, who can tell? Probably natural conservatism, in him as in Dr. Johnson — conservatism and taste — caused his adherence to the forms at least of the older creeds. There was much to laugh at in Plotinus, and much to like. But if you read him in hopes of material for strange stories, you will be disappointed. Perhaps Lord Lytton and others who have invoked his name in fiction (like Vivian Grey in Lord Beaconsfield’s tale) knew his name better than his doctrine. His “Enneads,” even as edited by his patient Boswell, Porphyry, are not very light subjects of study.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52