Poetry after Plotinus: aesthetics and mysticism



Part I (Ancient Times)

I’ve often wondered about beauty and how, for me, it seems to be a form of hope. Or if not hope, perhaps a way of being reconciled to the difficult dream of being. My thoughts have led me to the philosopher Plotinus. His influence in culture has spread far and wide, with both solid and diffuse consequences. Surely, it has made its way into poetry.

*     *     *

The classical world of philosophy, with its emphasis on a rational approach to truth, eventually withered. In its place, the new cultural air was filled with a sense of otherworldliness. Mystery cults appeared. Into this atmosphere of alterity came Plotinus. His Neoplatonism was an eccentric slant on earlier forms of thought.

Plotinus was a third-century-CE philosopher. Born in Egypt, he traveled to Persia, and ended up in Rome. His thoughts are found in his Enneads. Expressed there is a visionary monism. The source of Being is not any existent, not a sentient personality; rather it is an eternal abyss overflowing with light and pure essence. The One is synonymous with the Good and the Beautiful.

Only by a leap can we reach this One which is to be pure of all else, halting sharp in fear of slipping ever so little aside and impinging on the dual; for the One does not bear to be numbered with anything else; It is measure and not the measured. The First cannot be thought of as having definition and limit. It can be described only as transcending all things produced, transcending Being. To seek to throw a line about that illimitable Nature would be folly, and anyone thinking to do so cuts himself off from the most momentary approach to Its least vestige.

We ought not to question whence It comes; there is no whence, no coming or going in place; It either appears (to us) or does not appear. We must not run after It, but we must fit ourselves for the vision and then wait tranquilly for it as the eye waits on the rising of the sun which in its own time appears above the horizon and gives itself to our sight….i

From that mysterious abyss has emanated all phenomena. In contrast to the Gnostics, who despised the world as an evil emanation along a distorting spectrum from ideality, Plotinus saw the world as good. Everything that is partakes of the infinite light and all-beingness. As an innovation in spiritual deportment, Plotinus introduced the possibility of an ecstatic or mystical state, in which the soul experiences the full light of transcendent wonder. Apparently, he achieved such a state on a few occasions. Preparing oneself for mystical experience involves the contemplation of nature:

Beauty in any form, Plotinus thought, is a road to the divine. A sense of beauty lifts us gradually from the enjoyment of beautiful objects to an appreciation of the in-dwelling form that is the source of the physical object’s beauty, and finally, to that which is the source of the form itself.ii

I wonder if Plotinus ever thought about a theory of language. Maybe such a thing was implicit in his spiritual view of Intellect – nous. Whether he pondered language or not, his written ideas about the interfusion of Being with beings and his use of language to point toward transcendence and ineffability suggests a poetic, figurative quality to language as such. It’s a bridge of sorts standing in the mists of meaning, between liquid thought and clouds of unknowing.

Before Plotinus, other pagans’ wonder was reflected in poetry. A panoply of gods was mirrored in a plethora of words. Those long-winded ancients wrote epic poems. From The Iliad to The Odyssey, from The Aeneid to Metamorphoses, from The Mahabharata to Gilgamesh, the spiritual forms of pluralism and its prolix expressions were apposite. A litany of deeds – extended action poetry – complemented the whirl and dynamics of pathological nature. The gods were rather crazy, and it pleased those old poets to record the dramatics.


Ares — god of war


As cultures were going about the activity of getting themselves civilized and formalized, the luxury for poetic introspection would have to wait a while. Life was symphonic and grandiose, not yet a chamber setting for the harmonics of doubt and hope.  Hesiod’s Theogony, in epic dialect,  is a genealogy of the gods.  The tragic dramas of Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Euripides were mythic, heroic, and fatalistic; they were concerned with mimesis and catharsis, rather than the riddling depths of Being. The lyric poetry of Sappho (love poems) and Pindar (paeans, elegies, victory odes) was centuries away from the influence of Plotinus. In philosophy, Plato’s theory of forms and his science of knowing were too clinical, too abstract to be the basis of poem making. The ancient Greek imagination was not yet disturbed and inspired by a no-thingness beyond the gods or Plato’s Ideal.

The Bible – the history of ancient Hebrews – was a different mode of divinity and poetry. Monotheism’s radical departure from pluralism had the effect of compressing poetry into more succinct volumes of writing: psalm, lamentation, ecstatic prophecy. The fantastical epic gave way to a haunted realism. Beauty, melancholy, and apotheosis appeared as new situational registers, intensive nuances. The individual self found an analogical Self in desert visions and a Mythos of Promise. And what is a promise if not a method of hope? That Hebraic opening toward a sentient One expanded poetic inspiration, altered diction:

Psalms Chapter 19 – תְּהִלִּים

א  לַמְנַצֵּחַ, מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the Leader. A Psalm of David.

ב  הַשָּׁמַיִם, מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹדאֵל;    וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדָיו, מַגִּיד הָרָקִיעַ.

2 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork;

ג  יוֹם לְיוֹם, יַבִּיעַ אֹמֶר;    וְלַיְלָה לְּלַיְלָה, יְחַוֶּהדָּעַת.

3 Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night revealeth knowledge;

ד  אֵיןאֹמֶר, וְאֵין דְּבָרִים:    בְּלִי, נִשְׁמָע קוֹלָם.

4 There is no speech, there are no words, neither is their voice heard.

ה  בְּכָלהָאָרֶץ, יָצָא קַוָּם,    וּבִקְצֵה תֵבֵל, מִלֵּיהֶם;
לַשֶּׁמֶשׁ,    שָׂםאֹהֶל בָּהֶם.

5 Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath He set a tent for the sun,

ו  וְהוּאכְּחָתָן, יֹצֵא מֵחֻפָּתוֹ;    יָשִׂישׂ כְּגִבּוֹר, לָרוּץ אֹרַח.

6 Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.

ז  מִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, מוֹצָאוֹוּתְקוּפָתוֹ עַלקְצוֹתָם;    וְאֵין נִסְתָּר, מֵחַמָּתוֹ.

7 His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it; and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.

ח  תּוֹרַת יְהוָה תְּמִימָה, מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁ;    עֵדוּת יְהוָה נֶאֱמָנָה, מַחְכִּימַת פֶּתִי.

8 The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.

ט  פִּקּוּדֵי יְהוָה יְשָׁרִים, מְשַׂמְּחֵילֵב;    מִצְוַת יְהוָה בָּרָה, מְאִירַת עֵינָיִם.

9 The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.

י  יִרְאַת יְהוָה, טְהוֹרָהעוֹמֶדֶת לָעַד:    מִשְׁפְּטֵייְהוָה אֱמֶת; צָדְקוּ יַחְדָּו.

10 The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the LORD are true, they are righteous altogether;

יא  הַנֶּחֱמָדִיםמִזָּהָב, וּמִפַּז רָב;    וּמְתוּקִים מִדְּבַשׁ, וְנֹפֶת צוּפִים.

11 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

יב  גַּםעַבְדְּךָ, נִזְהָר בָּהֶם;    בְּשָׁמְרָם, עֵקֶב רָב.

12 Moreover by them is Thy servant warned; in keeping of them there is great reward.

יג  שְׁגִיאוֹת מִייָבִין;    מִנִּסְתָּרוֹת נַקֵּנִי.

13 Who can discern his errors? Clear Thou me from hidden faults.

יד  גַּם מִזֵּדִים, חֲשֹׂךְ עַבְדֶּךָ—    אַליִמְשְׁלוּבִי אָז אֵיתָם;
וְנִקֵּיתִי,    מִפֶּשַׁע רָב.

14 Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins, that they may not have dominion over me; then shall I be faultless, and I shall be clear from great transgression.

טו  יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרֵיפִי, וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי    לְפָנֶיךָ:
יְהוָה,    צוּרִי וְגֹאֲלִי.

15 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before Thee, O LORD, my Rock, and my Redeemer.


Is it my imagination, or does Hebrew script have a graphic presence of vertical aspiring, augmented with instances of effulgent enclosure? In contrast, Old Roman Cursive and other Latinate scripts seem boneless and neurotic, sagging and affected. Judaism is a contractual ethos, Christianity a pathos of estrangement.

Behind the gods of India lurked a strange oneness – Brahman. That great significance of void influenced Buddhism, which made its way into China. Under its sway, Chinese poetry changed from rustic and urban themes of being to a more meditative and metaphorical emphasis. The Six Dynasties poetry, beginning around 220 CE, spoke of moons and bamboo groves, of jade pools and an orchid’s longing. Is it mere coincidence that China’s moment of poetic transition was contemporary with Plotinus? I suspect that Plotinus’s thought was affected by drifting cultural weathers radiating from the Brahman simpliciter. I prefer osmosis and echo over a preposterous synchronicity. Later, the principle of dynamic void made its way to Japan, where poetry eventually entered new phases of compression and austere beauty – tanka and haiku.

Plum blossoms at their best – if only the wind blew empty-handed! – Bashō (1667)iv


Regardless of who influenced whom and whether or not the aesthetics of non-epic poetry can be traced back to a definitive inspiration, Plotinus’s Enneads represents an unusual eruption, a discrete intuition that affected much in later Western perspectives. His ideas spread, over centuries, to the Rhineland and through Slavic lands, to wine land and through the Netherlands.


To be continued: Part II (Medieval Times) and Part III (Modern Times).


i   Enneads, trans. G.H. Turnbull, in The Essence of Plotinus (Oxford, New York, 1934)

ii   W.T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, Vol. II, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, New York, 1969) 17

iii  A Hebrew – English Bible According to the Masoretic Text, from Mechon Mamre

  Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson, ed. and trans., From the Country of Eight Islands (Anchor Books, Garden City, New York, 1981) 278


Posted by Tim Buck


3 thoughts on “Poetry after Plotinus: aesthetics and mysticism

  1. “The gods were rather crazy, and it pleased those old poets to record the dramatics.” I enjoyed reading this essay a great deal. I’ll let Yeats speak on my behalf, in a salute to Plotinus:

    The Delphic Oracle Upon Plotinus

    Behold that great Plotinus swim,
    Buffeted by such seas;
    Bland Rhadamanthus beckons him,
    But the Golden Race looks dim,
    Salt blood blocks his eyes.
    Scattered on the level grass
    Or winding through the grove
    Plato there and Minos pass,
    There stately Pythagoras
    And all the choir of Love.

    News For The Delphic Oracle

    There all the golden codgers lay,
    There the silver dew,
    And the great water sighed for love,
    And the wind sighed too.
    Man-picker Niamh leant and sighed
    By Oisin on the grass;
    There sighed amid his choir of love
    Tall Pythagoras.
    Plotinus came and looked about,
    The salt-flakes on his breast,
    And having stretched and yawned awhile
    Lay sighing like the rest.
    Straddling each a dolphin’s back
    And steadied by a fin,
    Those Innocents re-live their death,
    Their wounds open again.
    The ecstatic waters laugh because
    Their cries are sweet and strange,
    Through their ancestral patterns dance,
    And the brute dolphins plunge
    Until, in some cliff-sheltered bay
    Where wades the choir of love
    Proffering its sacred laurel crowns,
    They pitch their burdens off.

    –William Butler Yeats


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