Reconsidering the Sources of the Self in the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Periods

The Accidental Tourist: Breakaway Soulhood in Plotinus and its Selfiness

James Wetzel

If Plotinus were to have made Charles Taylor’s roster of the self’s sources, he would have found himself shoehorned between a Plato who equates self with the mind’s self-ordering recognition of order and an Augustine whose sin-infused Platonism upends the self-ordering mind from its cosmic context (creation) and leaves it as something less than a purely ordering principle. In Ennead 4.8, an early treatise on the descent of souls into bodies, it does seem, at least at first, that Plotinus is something of a conceptual halfway house between the moral rationalism of a Plato and Augustine’s grace beyond reckoning. The soul of the universe, serenely contemplating the perfect intelligibility of all things, eternally begets singular souls that simultaneously look upwards for mind-lit order and downwards for a darkening light. They descend as they tire of grand unity and opt for a more sharply edged individuation; they ascend to make sense of it all and return to Momma soul. If Plotinus is read “after” Augustine (always a dubious idea), he is likely to be read to harbor a doctrine of the soul’s fall. But matters prove more complex than that. The adventure of (individual) soul outside the resplendent confines of bodiless perfection speaks to matter’s eternal participation in the good, or, less metaphysically, to the strange possibility of a self-perfecting that leaves room for care of others as such. In his short biography of Plotinus, Porphyry writes: “So he kept his own company at the same time as being with others, and never relaxed his attention to himself, or his constant reversion to intellect (νοῦς).”

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