Sparks from the Western Mystical Tradition

by Staff

Plitinous“If he remembers who he became when he merged with the One, he will bear its image in himself. He was himself one, with no diversity in himself or his outward relations; for no movement was in him, no passion, no desire for another, once the ascent was accomplished. Nor indeed was there any reason or though, nor, if we dare say it, any trace of himself.”
—Plotinus

Historically, the decades just before and after the advent of Christ created remarkable surges of insight and mysticism. Over four decades before the beginning of Christianity, there was a small island (Samothrace) in the Aegean Sea where many renowned mystics resided. The mysteries of the human spirit, its relation to the body, philosophy, and ethical doctrines were all explored in great depth. And then it suddenly changed; these spiritual teachings were undermined and the adepts of these “Mystery Schools,” as they were known, gradually shifted their location.

While the Church of Rome held up the Jewish Bible as the sole authority upon every subject, the Gnostic Schools of Alexandria and Ephesus turned out thousands of students who saw things differently. The scattered communities of orthodox Christendom, echoing the church in Rome, taught that the Jewish Scriptures were the only revelation of God, and therefore not to be compared with the Scriptures of other traditions. However, three prominent Jewish scholars had already proved the similarity between the Laws of Moses and the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. Students of comparative religion recognized the similar understanding of great spiritual teachers who had preceded Jesus.

A new school of thought arose with Ammonius Saccas in 193 A.D. Ammonius Saccas was a mysterious and very influential teacher who pointed out the dangers of drawing too rigid a division between the pagans and the emerging Christians. Ammonius was born in Alexandria about the middle of the second century. His parents were very poor and he worked to support his family as a porter on the docks. There, Ammonius encountered ships from far-off lands, heard foreign dialects, and met many strange people. Perhaps he gained his first acquaintance with the philosophies of the East from a visiting Hindu sailor.

Since Ammonius’ parents were devout Christians, he was sent to the local Christian school. He might have heard that Krishna, too, had been immaculately conceived, was persecuted by a wicked King, and had finally died at the hands of his detractors. Not blindly accepting Christian doctrine, he questioned, “Why were the stories of the two Christs so similar? Could it be possible that both were legends? If that was the case, there must be other legends of Christs from other lands.” The school priest proclaimed that there was only one Christ and that all the others were impostors. The priest told him to simply believe, but he wanted to know. So he left the Christian school and started upon a journey of honest investigation.

When Ammonius grew older, he eventually became acquainted with the basic ideas underlying all the great philosophies. Pondering the profound statements that he heard, staying up far into the night, their meanings were often revealed to him in dreams and visions. In the course of time people began to speak of him as theodidaktos, the “god-taught.” But Ammonius was modest and called himself merely a Philalethian, or “lover of truth.” He started the Neoplatonic School in Alexandria in the year 193 A.D., which was to form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood without distinctions of any kind. Ammonius knew that Brotherhood meant unity on every plane, and saw that without unity the entire manifested universe would be an expression of chaos.

The second century of the Christian era was marked by tolerance, but not by unity. The only true basis of unity, now forgotten, Ammonius began proposing the existence of the ancient Wisdom-Religion, and showed how all religions sprang from that, as the branches of a tree from a common trunk.

Using the “One Source” as a basis of comparison, Ammonius helped reveal the essential identity of all religions and acquainted his students with many different systems of thought. In his School, the Vedantic, Zoroastrian, and Buddhist systems were studied side-by-side with the philosophies of Greece. The doctrines of Plato and Pythagoras were compared with the philosophies of the ancient East; the teachings of the Jewish Kabbalah with those of the ancient Egyptians. This comparative study of religions and philosophies of all nations, accomplished the second of Ammonius’ objects, and he gave his School the name of Eclectic.

The third object of Ammonius was to make the study of philosophy a living power in the lives of his students. In order to accomplish this he consistently demonstrated to his students that the myths and legends found in the different systems were but symbolical representations of the experiences through which every soul must pass.

The central idea of the “Eclectic Theosophy” was that of a single Supreme Essence, Unknown, and Unknowable. The aim and purpose of Ammonius was to reconcile all sects, peoples, and nations under one common faith—a belief in one Supreme Eternal Unknown and Unnamed Power which governs the universe by immutable and eternal laws. His chief object was to extract from the various religious teachings, as from a many-stringed instrument, one full and harmonious chord that would find response in every truth-loving heart.

Ammonius Saccas, like many other great teachers, never committed anything to writing. Following the ancient custom, he transmitted his teachings orally, and bound his pupils by an oath not to divulge his most profound doctrines except to those who could be trusted not to disclose or misuse them. After the death of Ammonius, the work of recording the Neoplatonic teachings was taken up by his pupil, Plotinus, and it is to him that we owe most of our knowledge of that system.

Plotinus was born at Lycopolis, in Upper Egypt in A.D. 204. Nothing is known of his early years. When Plotinus was twenty-eight he devoted himself to “inner study,” and sought out various schools for a profound philosophy that could provide him with illumination. Finally, he met a friend who advised him to visit the school of Ammonius Saccas. As soon as Plotinus heard Ammonius speak he cried: “This is the man I have been seeking!” And from that day on he attended Ammonius’ classes, remaining with him for eleven years.

At the end of that time, Plotinus determined to visit Persia and India so that he could study Eastern philosophy firsthand. At the age of thirty-nine, he joined the army of the Emperor Gordian and went with him to the Far East. After Gordian’s army was destroyed, Plotinus returned to Antioch and finally went to Rome during the reign of the Emperor Philip (A.D. 244-249).

In Rome, Plotinus founded a school of philosophy, which soon attracted the most brilliant minds of the day. He began to write when he was fifty years old, and during the following ten years he wrote twenty-one books, which were circulated among his friends and pupils. At the age of fifty-nine, Plotinus met Porphyry, who was then a young man of thirty. Before his death at the age of sixty-six, Plotinus had completed fifty-four books dealing with physics, ethics, psychology, and philosophy.

After the death of Plotinus, his pupil Porphyry, took the fifty-four books that he had written and divided them into the six Enneads, the present form of his works. Excerpts from the Enneads were translated from Greek by Thomas Taylor and published in London in 1794 and 1817 under the title the Works of Plotinus.

The following selection is a discussion with Porphyry, who met Plotinus for the first time through his friend, Amelius. Porphyry is eager to begin his conversation with Plotinus. He knows that Plotinus is a Neoplatonist, and therefore realizes that he must start his inquiries with universal concepts. He seats himself before Plotinus.

PORPHYRY: Amelius has told me, Plotinus, that I must gain my knowledge of philosophy through the understanding of universal principles. Therefore, I ask: What is it that lies behind all manifested conditioned existence? What is its nature? How can it be described?

PLOTINUS: Above all things there must be something which is simple. For if, it be not completely simple, and be not really ONE, it cannot be Principle. The Principle of everything must therefore be the One and only.

PORPHYRY: But the manifested universe is multiple and complex! Does it mean to tell me that the complex springs from the simple?

PLOTINUS: It is not possible for the Many to exist unless the One exists from which, or in which, they subsist; or, in short, unless there is a One which is prior to all things. The One is the First Principle of things.

PORPHYRY: How, great Teacher, can the One be described? It seems to me that the One must transcend the power of human conception and could only be dwarfed by human expression or similitude!

PLOTINUS: How, indeed, can we speak of IT? We are indeed able to say something of It, but we cannot describe It. Nor have we any knowledge or intellectual perception of It. For we can say what It is not, but we cannot say what It is. We are not, however, prevented from possessing It, though we cannot say what It is.

PORPHYRY: Could we speak of the One as Being?

PLOTINUS: The One is not Being, but Being is the progeny of It, and, as it were, the first-born. For It is prior to any particular thing. Hence, It is really ineffable. Properly speaking, there is no name for It, because nothing can be asserted of It.

PORPHYRY: Ah, I see! It is rather Be-ness than Be-ing. Has It then no relation to manifested, finite Being? Another thought occurs to me, great Teacher. The universe manifests intelligence. Can that which you describe as the One be Intelligence itself? In other words, does the One think?

PLOTINUS: The One does not think, because it comprises both the thinker and the thought. The One is not Intelligence, but is superior to Intelligence. As it is primordial to Intelligence, that which emanates must of necessity be intelligence.

PORPHYRY: This Principle which underlies your philosophy is indeed profound. I clearly see that the One transcends the power of human conception. Will you not bring it down into regions which can be comprehended by my finite mind? What follows this condition of potentiality? How does the manifested universe come into existence?

PLOTINUS: Everything that exists after the One, is derived from the One. But this second stage is no longer the ONE, but the multiple One. We see that all things that reach perfection cannot remain in an unmanifest condition, but must produce themselves in manifestation. This is seen throughout the whole of nature. Not only do beings capable of choice, but even those lacking in soul perception have a tendency to impart to other beings what is in them. As, for instance, fire emits heat; snow emits cold. Therefore, all things in nature seek to reach immortality by the manifestation of their qualities. The One manifests Itself. That which is manifested also manifests itself in its own way.

PORPHYRY: I see, Plotinus. The theory is that Spirit, or Consciousness, and Matter are not to be regarded as independent realities, but as the many facets, or aspects, of the One, which constitute the basis of conditioned being, whether subjective or objective. But what about man? Is there something in man that corresponds to the One?

PLOTINUS: There must be another nature, different from the body, which possesses existence from itself. It is necessary that there should be a certain nature primarily vital, which is also necessarily indestructible and immortal, as being the Principle of Life to other things. It is necessary that there should be something which is the supplier of life, the supplier being external to, and beyond corporeal nature.

PORPHYRY: Ah, Plotinus, it seems that you teach of a power outside of man! The Law of which thou speaks, where is it? From whom is it derived?

PLOTINUS: Each one bears within himself this common Law, a Law which does not derive its power from outside, but which depends upon the nature of those who are subject to it, because it is innate in them.

PORPHYRY: What purpose, then, has the soul in incarnating?

PLOTINUS: The soul descends for the purpose of developing her own powers, and to adorn what is below her. Souls alternately changing their bodies and pass to other forms, just as in the scenes of a play, where one of the actors apparently dies, but shortly after changes his dress, and, assuming the appearance of another person, returns to the scene.

PORPHYRY: What then, Plotinus, is death?

PLOTINUS: To die is only to change body, not otherwise than shifting a garment. Nevertheless, he who departs will hereafter return to the play.

PORPHYRY: Give me another illustration of death, Plotinus! It is a subject that long has puzzled me!

PLOTINUS: Life is a partnership of soul and body; death, its dissolution. In either life or death, the soul will feel herself at “home.”

In later years, Porphyry, his devoted pupil, summed up Plotinus’ life in these words:

“He left the orb of light solely for the benefit of mankind. He came as a guide to the few who are born with a divine destiny and struggle to gain the lost region of light, but know not how to break the fetters by which they are detained; who are impatient to leave the obscure cavern of sense, where all is delusion and shadow, and to ascend to the realms of intellect, where all is substance and reality.”

Selections from the Enneads

The One, perfect in seeking nothing, possessing nothing and needing nothing, overflows and creates a new reality by its superabundance. [5.2.1.]

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It has not deserted its creation for a place apart; it is always present to those with strength to touch it. [6.9.7.]

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Every participant partakes of the power of Being in its entirety, while Being is unchanged and undivided. [4.4.8.]

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Soul in its unity is not extended by fragmentation into bodies, but is entirely present where it is present, and omnipresent and undivided throughout the universe. [6.4.12.]

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This universe is a single living being embracing all living beings within it, and possessing a single Soul that permeates all its parts to the degree of their participation in it. Every part of this sensible universe is fully participant in its material aspect, and in respect of soul, in the degree to which it shares in the World Soul. [4.4.32.]

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The source is not fragmented into the universe, for its fragmentation would destroy the whole, which would no longer come to be if it did not remain by itself, distinct from it, its source. [3.8.10.]

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The One is all things and yet no one of them. It is the source of all things, not itself all things, but their transcendent Principle. . . So that Being may exist, the One is not Being, but the begetter of Being.

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Intellect can veil itself from the world and concentrate its gaze within, and though it sees nothing, it will behold a light—not an external light in some perceived object, but a solitary light, pure and self-contained, suddenly revealed within itself . . . We must not inquire whence it comes, for there is no “whence”. . . He does not come as one expected, and his coming knows no arrival; he is beheld not as one who enters, but who is eternally present. [5.7-8.]