4. Time and Eternity in Plotinus and the - Философское антиковедение и классическая традиция

Философское антиковедение и классическая традиция

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4. Time and Eternity in Plotinus and the Plotiniana Arabica
One could go on to follow the ramifications of Einstein’s views in contemporary debates within the philosophy of science between presentists (those who believe only the present exists) and eternalists. Here, one would have to discuss MacTaggart’s influential distinction between A-series (a series of events that are relative to the present, such as “one year ago”, considered less real) and B-series (events that have permanent temporal labels, such as “New Year’s Eve 2011”, considered more real), and go on discuss the views of such current advocates of block-time as Huw Price and Julian Barbour. But that will have to be the topic of another publication.

Instead, I’d like to consider what I think are some similar views to that of Einstein in Plotinus, the third-century CE founder of Neoplatonism, and an adaptation of his thought in the so-called Theology of Aristotle, a ninth-century Arabic work that was highly influential on Islamic thought.

The broad outlines of Plotinus’ thought are well known: from the ineffable first principle imperfectly known as the One or the Good, reality emanates forth timelessly and eternally, like light from a lamp. This emanation first produces the Intellect (Greek nous), which contains the Platonic forms of sensible reality. Since it is unchanging, the Intellect is characterized by eternity (Greek aiôn), which can be considered the life of the intellect.0 More precisely, Plotinus describes eternity as “that unchanging life, all together at once, already infinite, completely unswerving, standing in and directed toward the one”,0 or else as “life in rest, in the same thing and identically, already infinite”.

From the hypostatized Intellect derives the hypostasis of Soul, and it is not until this stage that time appears upon the scene. Originally consubstantial with the Intellect, the Soul eventually gets tired of remaining in the intelligible world and contemplating the intelligible Forms. Some force or faculty within it feels curiosity and a desire to become independent and individualized. As a result, it “temporalizes itself”, creating the sensible universe at the same time as it creates time. Whereas eternity can be said to be the life of the intellect, time is the life of the soul.

I find it interesting that according to Plotinus, there’s an ethical element to the distinction between time and eternity. Soul abandons Intellect and creates time because it’s unsatisfied with its lot – its eternal contemplation of the forms and proximity to the One – and wants more. But the very fact that time and/or the soul always wants something more explains why it’s never complete, never really what it is, but always one-thing-after-another.0 Eternity, by contrast, is already precisely what it is, and therefore has nothing further to seek for. Whereas eternity is the satisfied repose of something that already is all that can be, already possessing, all at once, everything it could ever desire,0 time is the headlong, endless pursuit of something more, since by definition it cannot possess everything it desires all at once.

This, as Pierre Hadot has repeatedly stressed, is a key theme in Greek moral thought. Most of us are unhappy most of the time precisely because we are never happy with what we’ve got, but always believe that we need something else in order to be happy: the result of this spiritual restlessness is, of course, that we are never actually happy but postpone our happiness indefinitely to that hypothetical future in which we will win the lottery, get that big promotion, or finally be able to buy that new I-Phone. Should we ever actually achieve any of these things, of course, we derive only the most fleeting enjoyment from them, because by that point our hopes, desires and acquisitiveness have seized upon another object, which, once again, we are convinced will bring us happiness.
4.1. Plotinus on “always”

One of the points Plotinus emphasizes when trying to make clear the difference between time and eternity is the potentially misleading function of the word “always” (Greek aei). We see this in a passage from Ennead III 7 [45] 6, where, speaking of eternity, he writes0:

So it does not have any “this and that”; nor, therefore, will you be able to separate it out or unroll it or prolong it or stretch it; nor, then, can you apprehend anything of it as before or after. If, then, there is no before or after about it, but its “is” is the truest thing about it, and itself, and this in the sense that it is by its essence or life, then again there has come to us what we are talking about, eternity. But when we use the word “always” and say that it does exist at one time but not at another, we must be thought to be putting it this way for our own sake; for the “always” was perhaps not being used in its strict sense, but, taken as explaining the incorruptible, might mislead the soul into imagining an expansion of something becoming more, and again, of something which is never going to fail. It would perhaps have been better only to use the word “existing”. But, as “existing” is an adequate word for substance, since, however, people thought becoming was substance, they required the addition of “always” in order to understand [what “existing” really meant]. For existing is not one thing and always existing another, just as a philosopher is not one thing and the true philosopher another, but because there was such a thing as putting on a pretense of philosophy, the addition of “true” was made. So too, “always” is applied to “existing”, that is “aei” to “on”, so that we say “aei on [aion],”, so the “always” must be taken as saying “truly existing”; it must be included in the undivided power which in no way needs anything beyond what it already possesses; but it possesses the whole.

The Greek word for eternity is aiôn, and a popular etymology, current at least since the time of Aristotle, analysed it as deriving from aei (“always”) + ôn (“being”), so that eternity would mean “always being”. The temptation, then, is to think of what’s eternal as something that just exists for a long time, and perhaps forever. But this is wrong, says Plotinus: what is eternal is not what exists for a long or infinite time, that is, what has a long or infinite duration, but what has no duration at all. What’s eternal or in eternity is not in time, but has an existence that is atemporal or durationless.
5. Plotinus apud Arabes
Sometime in the first half of the 9th century CE, a group of translators at Baghdad, centered around the great philosopher Abū Yūsuf Ya‘qūb ibn Ishāq al-Kindī (ca. 801-873) set about translating a number of Greek philosophical texts into Arabic. Among these was the so-called Theology of Aristotle, a text which, although purporting to be by Aristotle, in fact consisted in a series of paraphrased extracts from the last three books of Plotinus’ Enneads, together with explanatory glosses and interpolations. Scholars are still divided as to the exact origin and purpose of this work, but the fact remains that it ended up being extremely influential on subsequent Islamic philosophy.0

In the eighth treatise of this work, the author of the Theology is discussing the ways we can come to know the Intelligible world. If we wish to see this world, he writes, we should begin by looking at the soul, which contains things like the senses and the intelligence. We are to abandon sense and follow intelligence, for although sense allows us to know such individual beings as Socrates, intelligence allows us to grasp the universal man (al insān al-mursal p. 11, 9 Badawi). In this world, the soul possesses universal notions only by means of discursive reasoning, which starts out from specific premisses and continues, following logical steps, until it reaches a conclusion. Things are different in the intelligible world: there, one can see the universal ideas with one’s one eyes (‘iyānān), since everything is fixed, stable and perpetual. The author continues as follows:

Plotinus, Ennead,

V, 1, 4

Translation Armstrong (Loeb Classical Library), modified

Theology of Aristotle, p. 111, 12f. Badawi = 107-108 Dieterici = vol. II, p. 269, §120-121


Translation Lewis (in Plotini Enneades,

vol. II, Paris-Brussels 1959)

ἀλλ’ ἐν αἰῶνι πάντα, καὶ ὁ ὄντως αἰών, ὃν μιμεῖται χρόνος περιθέων ψυχὴν τὰ μὲν παριείς, τοῖς δὲ ἐπιβάλλων. Καὶ γὰρ ἄλλα καὶ ἄλλα αὖ περὶ ψυχήν· ποτὲ γὰρ Σωκράτης, ποτὲ δὲ ἵππος, ἕν τι ἀεὶ τῶν ὄντων· ὁ δὲ νοῦς πάντα. Ἔχει οὖν [ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ] πάντα ἑστῶτα ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ, καὶ ἔστι μόνον, καὶ τὸ «ἔστιν» ἀεί, καὶ οὐδαμοῦ τὸ μέλλον–ἔστι γὰρ καὶ τότε–οὐδὲ τὸ παρεληλυθός–οὐ γάρ τι ἐκεῖ παρελήλυθεν–ἀλλ’ ἐνέστηκεν ἀεὶ

...all things are in eternity, and the true eternity, which time imitates, running round the soul, letting some things go and attending to others. For around Soul things come one after another: now Socrates, now a horse, always some one particular being, but Intellect is all things. It has therefore everything standing in the same thing, and it merely is, and its “is” is forever, and nowhere does the future exist, for then too it is – nor the past – for nothing there has passed – but they are always present (enestêken)

wa-innamā hiya qā’ima faqa, wa-l-qiyām hunāika dā’im bi-lā zamān mā

in wa lā ātin, wa-ālika anna al-ānī hunāika ā

ir wa-l-mu

īy mawjūd

Cleave to mind, because sense knows only individual things, such as Socrates and such-and-such a horse; sense is only capable of apprehending articular things, whereas mind lets you know what ‘man’ is in general, and what ‘horse’ is in general...the substances in that noble world being all of them permanent and abiding in one thing of them; they are simply permanent. Existence0 there is everlasting, without time past or future, because the future there is present and the past existent

As is often the case, the Arabic paraphrase of Plotinus contained in the Theology of Aristotle here says basically the same thing as Plotinus, only a bit more explicitly. Plotinus says the Intellect “is” is forever, that it has no place for the future or for the past. The Arabic Paraphrast comes right out and says why this is the case: if there is no past or future time in the Intelligible world, as Plotinus stated, it is because the future there is present and the past existent.

I submit it would be hard to find a pithier summary of the “block universe” view we have found emerging from Einstein and developed by physicists and philosophers over the past century or so, than the formulation “the future is present and the past existent”. The difference, and it is an important one, is that Plotinus and his paraphrast reserve this durationless mode of being for the intelligible world, allowing the sensible, phenomenal world in which we all live to be characterized by flowing time. Defenders of the block universe view, for their part, tend to speak instead of reality vs. illusion: reality is tenseless, whereas our perception of that reality, is, owing to some psychological or physiological quirks of our nature, artificially tensed and divided into past, present and future. The distinction may be more terminological than substantive, however: both Plotinian Neoplatonists and contemporary eternalists agree that the fundamental nature of reality is timeless, while the passage of time is, in some sense, a secondary, derivative, or illusory feature of our experience.
6. Conclusion: some thoughts on methodology

We thus seem to have found a close parallel between conceptions of time set forth, on the one hand, by a third-century CE Egyptian-born Neoplatonist and his followers, and, on the other, by a German Jew from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Now, of course, someone might accept the broad outlines of what I’ve just presented, but respond by saying “So what?” It seems quite unlikely that Einstein ever read Plotinus, much less the Plotiniana Arabica. Why is it interesting that two thinkers, so different in history, cultural, linguistic and intellectual background happened to come up with similar ideas?

One might answer that one possible explanation of this coincidence is that the ideas in question are simply correct: Einstein came up with them on the basic of his scientific training, Plotinus on the basis of his philosophical studies and, perhaps, his personal mystical experience. Or perhaps we don’t need to hazard such a risky proposition, and can content ourselves with adopting Max Jammer’s (1999, 212) view that

there persist throughout the history of scientific thought certain ideas, patterns, or paradigms that may have been influential, even if only subconsciously, on the construction of a new theory (...) a study of such anticipations can provide some information about the ideological background that supported the formation of the new theory.

This study of “the informative importance of anticipations”, which the historian M. Sachs (1973) has called “invariant ideas with respect to change from one contextual framework to another”, may thus be one a number of methods capable of shedding light on the scientific theories that shape our modern world.

II. Boethius on time, eternity, providence

and philosophy as a way of life
Born sometime between 475 and 480, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius made it his life’s work to provide the Latin-speaking world with complete access to Greek philosophical instruction. To do so, he set out to do nothing less than translate into Latin and comment upon all of Aristotle and Plato. He was not able to complete this plan, however, partly because he also wrote a number of other important treatises, on music, astronomy, geometry, and theological issues, and partly because his life was cut short when he was accused of treason in 524 under the reign of Theodoric,0 thrown in jail, and condemned to death.0 It seems to have been in prison, or perhaps merely under house arrest,0 that Boethius wrote his most famous work, the Consolation of Philosophy. Here, following an ancient philosophical and literary tradition, he mobilized the resources of philosophy to provide comfort for someone in a difficult position. Yet this consolation was addressed not, as was customary, to a friend, acquaintance or family member, but to himself.0 Unlike most of the Greco-Roman tradition of consolation, however, Boethius’ Consolation is staged as a dialogue, written in prose interspersed with verse, between the imprisoned Narrator – Boethius himself – and a female personification of Philosophy.

Few ancient works have been subject to such divergent modern interpretations. Although its title and content seem to place it squarely within the literary genre of the consolation,0 some influential commentators have claimed that the Consolation of Philosophy is in fact a parody of a consolation.0 In particular, the philosophical arguments of the work’s second half are held to be deliberately feeble, in order that the reader may conclude that philosophy is ultimately unable to provide consolation.0 I believe that this viewpoint is profoundly wrong-headed, and based on inadequate knowledge of the literary genre of the consolation and, above all, of the nature and structure of the Neoplatonic philosophical curriculum at the end of Antiquity. In what follows I’ll argue that Boethius’ Consolation is an excellent example of the ancient conception of philosophy as therapy for the soul: as such, it uses both rhetorical techniques and rational arguments in a way that echoes the progressive nature of the Neoplatonic philosophical curriculum. In the second part of this paper, I’ll discuss the three main arguments Boethius uses to try to resolve the apparent conflict between divine prescience and human free will, paying particular attention to the way he mobilizes Neoplatonic definitions of time and eternity.
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