Circumnavigating ‘The Circuit of the Different;’ exploring Proclus’ assertions and contestations in relation to Iamblicus & Plotinus – with reference to The Will, Happiness of the Individual, and The Charioteer analogy.
Submitted for Final Exam, Ancient Philosophy 351, Dr. Phillips, UTC, 12.3.07
The idea of Free Will is indeed a vexing one. A considerable argument can be made that those who do not struggle with it, as a concept, may in fact arguably be engaging themselves in a subtle form of intellectual/philosophical sophistry, possibly even self-deception. Whether the context is one of humanistic philosophy or Christian dogmatics – or even a combination thereof – it is a deeply contested issue that expresses itself within the dialogs of each successive generation’s thinkers. Before Calvin vs. Arminus, and Augustine vs. Pelagius; the luminaries of generations prior, found themselves very busy affirming and contesting one another’s views on the subject. Reaching back into the early foundations of philosophic thought, we find this same enterprise at work within the school of Neoplatonism. In this paper, we will explore the contestations of Proclus against Iamblicus, in his thoughts and interpretations of Plotinus in regards the Descended vs Undescended soul, free will, the nature and connection of the soul with an understanding of The One, and it’s relations with the allegory of The Charioteer.
To understand the framework of the discussion, it is necessary to understand Plotinus’ understanding of the “Undescended Soul.” Within the Neo-Platonist philosophic tradition, the Soul has its beginning, or Hypostasis, in the Intellect, which in turn comes from The One. The Intellect is the causual effect of the self-awareness of The One within the expression of the Soul. The Undescended Soul is the essence or part of the One that has not been fully removed or abrogated in the subsequent, concurrent phase changes referred to as the Hypostases that The One has progressed through – from it’s highest expression/state, to the lowest. The stages of Hypostasis are The One (the highest), The Intellect, The World (Universal Soul), The Soul of the Universe, Individual Souls, Nature, and then Matter it’s self.
Within the discussion, there are three objections that are given in response to Iamblicus. They are the issue of Free Will, The question of why are people not always happy, and the illustration of the Charioteer.
In regards to the question of the Free Will, in relation to his discussion of Iamblicus, Proclus affirms that The One does in fact have Will and that it cannot error, and that the intellect (supposedly) cannot error because it does not come down; but he affirms that it does in fact do this, thus exposing a flaw in the cogency of the argument. Proclus argues that what is passed down through the subsequent stages of Hypostases it is the manifestation of the previous Hypostasis and not a direct connection back to The One. The Passions, the descended part of the soul, are what are “roused” and perpetrate a state of error; but because the soul is a reflection of The One and not a direct component or identical material substance, it has intrinsic capacity to fail. Proclius refers to the error of those who “follow impressions without reflections” – alluding to those who understand a direct connection back to The One and disavow the Intellect to potentially pervert itself as a result. The potential for a Free Will essentially comes from this fact: we are satisfactorily removed from the One, yet connected through subsequent reflections, back it. There is a component that is undescended but the essence and nature of that connection is of a reflective nature and not an actual consistency of essence. A comparison between this and a modern philosophical application, within the Christian theological sphere – for example, is the idea of Christians being supposedly being unable to sin because of the presence of the Divine nature in their lives. If one were to argue that sin couldn’t be present in the posted substrate of the soul, because it is also elementally composited as being, in part, intrinsically divine in it’s literal substance and essence, a comparison in the two presuppositional thought structures could be aptly made. The Judeo-Christian Orthodox view, however, is that we are made in the image of God – but not the substance; we are like Him (Christ), but we are not as He is. This critical difference of image/reflection vs. connection/identical substance allows for the potential for error, thus Free Will. Contentions for this reality in light of counter assertions have been historically occurent in both respective philosophical/theological traditions.
In regards to the question of ‘why are people not always happy;’ it coincides with an understanding of the essence of our relation to the Divine or the One. If we were in substance divinity or The One, we would, in concept, continually personify the characteristics thereof. But being that our connection back to the Divine or the One is of a reflective essence, it is possible, arguably, to, for example, “turn off the lights” and end the reflective relationship/communion. With no lights, as it were, the communicative relationship breaks down. The essence of our connectedness has intrinsic contingencies; the potential abruption of which necessitates a contingent, therefore potentially transient state. This is a concept that is a part of Platonic philosophy itself; that we are not inherently connected, nor can we potentially always be immovably fixed upon the Divine or the best of intentions, as it were; however these are described: as the Divine, as The One, or The Forms, as they are in Aristotle also. We strive for that state and may achieve it – momentarily, by some sense of accumulated, purposeful momentum – but as a relation and/or position, it is not sustainable. The understanding/argument that the state of the connection to the One is one of reflection, and not same state essence, is tied into this understanding.
The last contention is that of the Charioteer, which is taken from Phaedrus. In this allegory, the Intellect is represented by a charioteer attempting to command two horses. One horse is the
rational and noble (The White); our reflection of the Undescended reflection of The One – and the other, the embodiment of the irrational and inferior (the Black); the descended parts of our soul, or the Passions. As the charioteer commands the carriage, one horse is pulled towards enlightenment, the other horse, towards things of a base nature: potential error and irrationality. Try as the Charioteer may, sometimes he is pulled towards heaven, the other times downward. Because there is an ongoing contention, the chariot may reach desired heights, but it cannot perpetually remain there. It cannot always be above- because the other renegade horse precludes a sense of stability. In light of this allegory, Plotinus’ conception of the Undescended Soul and his assertion that the highest part of the soul (intellect) does not descend, is shown as flawed and inadequate.
The discussion of Free Will in connection to the nature of our compositional state and the essence of it’s assumed connection back to The One – or the Divine (to invoke a Christian theological context) – extends well beyond just the Platonic/Neoplatonic traditions. Both the Stoics and The Epicureans also express philosophic beliefs as proposed answers to these fundamental and often fervently contested questions of Free Will and relation to the Divine/The One.
In the study group that was convened in the interest of working on this exam paper collectively, one of the member of the group was complemented on his ability to remember and understand some of the concepts that others, such as myself, were at the time struggling with. His understanding, combined with a capacity for cogent explication earned him several gracious complements from several people in the group for his contributions and patience with the rest of us. The conjecture was made, in context to the position held by the Epicureans, in reference and in complement to him; “you must have good atoms.” This was a reference to the belief that an Epicurean viewpoint would preclude any allegory of horses or connections back to a “One” or even the Divine; rather the context of such would be prefaced upon the understanding that the soul of a person was composed of ‘Atoms’ being of either good quality or bad quality. In regards to the Will, there are no dynamics beyond the inherent capabilities/propensities of the atoms involved in the composition of the individual/thing in question. In regards to the questions of a permanence or transience of any assumed state of happiness on the part of the proposed individual, the Epicureans would related this to the adherence or disavowal of a life lived under the guidelines of established ethics. Epicureans will essentially argue, that this is “your shot” and there is no “descended” vs “undescended” or, for that matter, any substantial meaning to anything – beyond that qualities of atoms and their continual movement. It is all about Atoms and Pleasure, neither are there any assumed moral or divine behavioral/relational contingencies/connections or reflections. There is essentially no Teleology. It is “all about” doing the best you can, with what you have, and feeling the best you can in the ways you have opportunity. Ethics themselves are not assumed as being static but are themselves dynamic and relative to the nature/propensity of the atoms in question. Being happy is not really a conducive ideal either – rather achieving happiness is a result of an understanding of having achieved authentic pleasure, by express virtue of a correctly appropriated understanding of the surrounding atomistic propensities, relative to the given interplay of the person, the time, and the situation.
A second school – which presents an alternate viewpoint to the preceedingly discussed schools/notions of Compositional natures in regards to our connection back to the Divine/The One, the permanence/transience of our happiness, and the dynamics of The Will – is the Stoics.
In relation to the Charioteer allegory, Stoics rather preferred Zeno’s “Dog and Cart” analogy. It is put forth that there is a cart which represents the Cosmos, and it is being pulled by a horse which is Fate. We are dogs, and we can either get in the car and ride in it, or we can stop and be eventually be dragged by it. We essentially have the choice to either resist or accept our fate, and it is this dichotomy which essentially governs our lives; which comes from a rational, immortal God – but the idioms and outworking of which we are powerless to change and effect. The highest virtue is an acceptance embracement and quality of our relations to this dichotomy, basically, fully following the expectations and capabilities of nature – to pursue this is to essentially strive to achieve the highest good. So – to return to the chariot example – whether you are going up or down, sorta to speak, is not based on the inherent natures of a analogically posited horse, but the nature of the course of the fate as it is provided by God. Happiness is finding and flowing that trajectory and not making assumptions of the good or the bad, descended vd undescended, or even happiness or despair inherent to an such predisposed flight pattern. Happiness, “the good,” and the undescended, are revealed to be going with the flow of wherever that horse; in this case fate; pulls you, and being content and stratified where ever that might be. Where the charioteer might strive to make the good horse the dominant, the Stoics would see disallowing the good or the bad to go farther into either direction; which is referred to as The Lazy Argument; or that is is bad to try hard at either direction, but the best approach to anything is moderation.
Future generations of writers, dreamers, philosophers and followers of various and diverse forms of religions, traditions and/or philosophical thoughts/schools will no doubt eternally posit, affirm, contextualize and even reimagine the preceding generations conceptualizations of their relation to either the essence of things as they are, ‘The wholly Other’ – be that a higher form or virtue, The One, or the Divine; and the context and our action and the essence of our choices – be they predetermined or of volitional capacity in relation to all the assumptions of the preceding. This story, past present, and future – is the story of Humanity’s ongoing and contiguous struggle to understand both itself and the forces/realities around it and how they interact. There is no doubt that regardless of where one chooses to place oneself; this story – either on the personal level or the macro socio-historical level – is neither complete, nor is it anywhere near being exhausted. Time and ongoing revelation; should this very element be born out to be a participating dynamic – will continue to deepen, simplify and expand the understanding of not just ourselves – but our world. The irony of which; the driving force behind such ongoing endeavors may, in the end and in essence, be found to be brought about by the Will of not just of ourselves, but of all of Humanity.