Plotinus: Enneads 1:1 Does the Soul Sense?
“Pleasure and distress, fear and courage, desire and aversion, where have these affections and experiences their seat?” In other words, are they rooted in the Soul, the Body, or some combination of the two?
This is a common question in early philosophy. The answer often removes the Soul from these experiences- attributing them instead to the Body- and thus keeps philosophy itself separate from, and sort of an antidote to, fear and desire. *
“Whatever possesses Existence is supremely free, dwelling, unchangeable, within its own peculiar nature… Thus, assuredly, Sense-Perception, Discursive Reasoning, and all of our ordinary mentation are foreign to the Soul.”
Plotinus is first talking about sensation here. We sense the world through the body, which is changing, unfree, affected by the external- and so cannot be the Soul. The ability to clearly distinguish the sensations of the body from intellection, is seemingly unique to human beings. Animals live embodied lives in which very little of their thought is not directed towards the experiences of their bodies. Man is able to isolate, even alienate, his thoughts from his body. Too little such separation and he can be boorish, even dangerously impulsive; too much and he can become neurotic. Nevertheless the neurotic is impressively imaginative- the creative, even artistic, triumph of a neurosis over physical reality is rarely acknowledged.
“Once again, where is Sense Perception seated?”
Even if they are separate spheres, sensations must go from Body to Soul- seeing my grandmother at her funeral affected my Soul, although the image came by the Body. Plotinus thinks there must be some place in us where the two combine.
But how so? Are the Soul and Body interwoven? Is Aristotle right that the Soul is the imminent form of the Body, like an axe head can be the form of iron?
This is where Plotinus gets a bit difficult. He posits that fear and desire reside in the body, while our sense perception resides in what he calls the Couplement, and the Soul can perceive the impressions made on this Couplement.
“The Soul then will stand apart from all the evils man can cause or suffers… Thus, in spite of all, the Soul is at peace as to and within itself; all the changes and all the turmoil we experience… are the states and experiences of this elusive Couplement.”
Plotinus compares the effect of the Soul upon the Couplement to light being irradiated downwards from the highest, intellective principle of man. We understand, from Socrates, that the Ideal Forms are considered in the Soul, which is where the Divine reaches man. And we understand that this intellection is separate from the body. But then how can the Soul be punished for sin- here by reincarnation into a lower form- after death?
Plotinus answers this by means of Homer’s passage in the Odyssey which suggests a twofold nature for Hercules after death: he was in Olympus and his “shade” was in Hades. There’s a sort of ladder of the Soul (although he doesn’t use that image): it descends to some sort of compound that sins in a lower phase characterized by action; it ascends to a higher phase of pure Soul via contemplation. Contemplation connects us to the divine because the Intellectual Principle can act upon the Soul: “for this Intellectual Principle is part of us no less than the Soul, and towards it we are ever rising.” The impressions of the body, then, pull us downwards like the string on a balloon.
It is an uncanny experience of life that we can be in our bodies and lose awareness of them by being enraptured in pure thought. An hour ago, I was walking to the library on one of the hottest days of the year, supremely aware of my body, the sweat running down my spine, the dampness of my socks squishily embracing my feet, the way tanned skin starts to tighten; now I am in the top floor of the library, appropriately enough, checking out for long periods of time and checking back into my body to type these paragraphs. So much of philosophy seems aimed at explaining this strangeness, the secret conversation we have with ourselves throughout our embodied life. By some coincidence (or not), I’m also reading Pamela Des Barres’s memoir I’m With the Band now, a book very much about sex, which she describes as “losing my mind to my body”. Philosophy, or mysticism, seems to be about the reverse: losing the body to the Intellect and then losing that to the One.
Note: Plotinus (204-270 AD) is considered the founder of Neoplatonism and an influence on later Christian and Islamic theologians. This is only the very beginning of a study of his Enneads, which will likely be ongoing, along with everything else.* Jason recently said the same of Libertarianism- it should serve as an antidote to fear. My question about how this could amount to a political “win” was meant to suggest this: I think he’s motioning towards a way of doing philosophy instead of a way of doing politics. I’m all for that.