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Plotinus

Frank Visser in Transition

By Adi Da Samraj, Integralism, Ken Wilber, Plotinus, Stanislav Grof, Theosophy
Frank Visser
The Dutch writer Frank Visser  once figured as the major partisan exegete of Ken Wilber. His book Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (2003) was published by the State University of New York Press. Visser was here described as “an internet specialist who studied the psychology of religion at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands.”
The publisher classified Visser’s book in terms of: “the definitive guide to the life and work of Ken Wilber, widely regarded as the most comprehensive and passionate philosopher of our times.”
Visser’s contribution was strongly in support of Wilber. At the end of nearly 300 pages, Visser offers a chapter entitled “Ken Wilber in Perspective.” This covers science, psychology, and religion. Visser states that “Wilber counts as the leading theorist” in transpersonal psychology (page 267). This version of psychology “first emerged as an academic discipline at the end of the sixties” (ibid). Wilber himself was not an academic.
Visser here dwells on the differences between Wilber and C. G. Jung. “Wilber is of the opinion that Jung has prompted an extremely regressive movement in psychology” (page 265). A basic contention here is that the Jungian stress upon the “collective” is a mistaken denominator for too many contrasting ingredients, including the spiritual, the prerational, and the regressive. One aspect of this drawback is seen by Visser in “writers inspired by Jung who interpret the wild or primitive aspect of our nature as spirituality” (page 265).
A well known opponent of Wilber was Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist who innovated the term transpersonal, being influential in the movement associated with that word. Grof gained a repute for therapy practices and the use of mind-altering drugs, including LSD. His perinatal theory has met with denial in some directions. Grof believed that his theory was based on clinical evidence, which he thought to be lacking in Wilber. “In many respects Wilber and Grof stand at opposite ends of the spectrum” (page 270). There are strong opponents of both Wilber and Grof (Ken Wilber and integralism). 
Ken Wilber
Visser expressed enthusiasm for the “perennial philosophy” aspect of Wilber’s conceptualism. The Dutch commentator tended to define this factor in terms of: “Each world religion has its own esoteric or mystical core, and, in addition to this, there are also schools of thought developed by individual philosophers who have attempted to formulate this esoteric core in a way that makes it more comprehensible” (page 276). According to Visser, “the esoteric aspects of Wilber’s model are based largely on the philosophy of Shri Aurobindo,” while “Wilber has also borrowed ideas from contemporary mystics, such as Adi Da Samraj” (page 276).
Some of the critics felt that this borrowing was getting into dangerous territory. The American guru Adi Da Samraj (d.2008) gained the reputation of an antinomian who was acutely unreliable in his behaviour.
Moving into less controversial topics, Visser stated that the “perennialists or traditionalists” included Ananda Coomaraswamy, Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, and Huston Smith. The first three names are landmarks in the traditional version of perennialism. Smith was a strong influence on Wilber. Visser informed: “Wilber has explored contemporary philosophy to a far greater extent than most of the traditionalists, who often abhor modern society” (page 276).
The commentator went on to compare the Theosophical tradition with Wilber themes. “Theosophy might be described as an early nineteenth century, Western attempt to reformulate the perennial philosophy in more contemporary language” (page 277). Visser here finds an affinity “with the Western neoplatonic tradition partly expounded by Plotinus  who is highly admired by Wilber” (ibid).
Views about Theosophy can  differ markedly.  Wilber’s version of Plotinus has met with disagreement. Visser moves on to discuss a Western Vedanta, here employing a phrase used by Wilber (who is also strongly associated with Mahayana Buddhism). Visser refers to the Dutch “philosopher and theosophist” Johannes J. Poortman (d.1970), a former professor of metaphysics at Leiden University, who “often described his system as a Western form of Vedanta” (page 282).
The information is supplied that Poortman, similar to Wilber, “was extremely sceptical about the kind of holism that is based on quantum physics, which seeks to suggest that modern physics had stumbled across the deepest Mystery” (page 283).
Visser asserted: “Plotinus, Poortman, and Wilber are all mystical philosophers who have a great deal of faith in the capacity of the intellect and who therefore attach a great deal of value to any form of scientific research. For this reason they oppose any movements which denounce rationalism under the guise of spirituality and seek salvation in the romanticism of holism” (page 284).
This perspective was later seen to have complications. Visser subsequently became a critic of Wilber, abandoning his partisan stance. The element of scientific research in Wilber’s output here became minimal. Although Ken Wilber did advocate a rational stance (and denied materialism), Frank Visser arrived at the conclusion that this form of rationalism was limited. The question now also arises: what exactly is a mystical philosopher?
Visser’s tangent from Wilber emerged soon after the publication of his book (translated from Dutch). Rarely does any author transit so strongly and speedily from formerly held assessments. Visser became well known for his new attitude that Wilber’s version of “integralism” was a minefield rather than a solution to all problems (Reaching Out to the World).
A major drawback is that Ken Wilber tended to present his theories as all-embracing and comprehensive. He referred to his doctrines as AQAL, an abbreviation for “all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all states, all types” (ibid:xiii, foreword by Wilber). Quadrant theory could easily be accused of assuming a stance of quasi-omniscience.
The dissenting Frank Visser has maintained a website featuring criticism of Ken Wilber. This site is called Integral World. Visser has remained an integralist, but not a copyist of Wilber. There are different forms of integralism, including authors other than Visser and Wilber. A complexity is that certain authors do not call themselves integralists. Which is the most accurate and comprehensive form of “integralism”? This could easily become a major issue.
Observers noticed a commotion in the integralist camp, occurring at blog level. In 2006, Wilber attacked Visser and other critics in a blog featuring aspersive language deemed vulgar by some assessors. Wilber here also referred to himself in terms of the lawman resisting outlaws (Visser, The Wild West Wilber Report).
A decisive schism was in process. The dissenters and critics would not accept the blog bludgeoning and caricature expressed by Wilber. Visser hosted other critical writers (e.g., Jeff Meyerhoff) at his website. To be more precise, the growing number of contributors at Integral World included Wilber critics, Wilber supporters, and yet other categories.
Perhaps in response to some of the criticism, Wilber wrote a new book called Integral Spirituality (2006). Visser described this as “disappointing, both in style and content.” However, he did concede that Wilber had changed format. See the Visser review. The American writer claimed a relevant  assessment of modernity and postmodernity, also an ongoing knowledge of religious traditions. This new AQAL presentation amounted to “integral post-metaphysics.”
The founding of the Integral Institute, by Ken Wilber, was a focus for critical attention from Visser and others. The partisan description of a “visionary think-tank” was countered by allegations such as workshop entrepreneurialism, plus the drawback of allegiance with controversial figures like the neo-Advaita guru Andrew Cohen.
Visser composed numerous web articles demonstrating his critical attitude to the man he had formerly promoted. It is difficult to find any trace of his former “theosophical” inclination. “I consider Ken Wilber’s view of evolutionary theory to be deeply flawed and disconnected from the scientific literature” (Spirit of Evolution Reconsidered). Visser here stresses: “A detailed engagement with Darwinism is virtually absent from his [Wilber’s] writings.”
Visser mentions the second Integral Theory Conference of 2010 in San Francisco, an  event which attempted to modify the Wilber-centric approach. He also refers to the third Integral Theory Conference of 2013 at San Francisco, featuring a confrontation of the Wilber model “with two other luminaries in the wider integral field: philosopher Roy Bhaskar and sociologist-philosopher Edgar Morin.” These entities are described as professional philosophers who share the “same multidisciplinary spirit.” See Integral Theory.
The crux for integralism would appear to be a multidisciplinary orientation, something which is not fundamental to professional philosophy and nor restricted to contemporary paradigms of spirituality.
See further Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003); Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality (Boston: Integral Books, 2007); Jeff Meyerhoff, Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber’s Theory of Everything (Inside the Curtain Press, 2010); Stanislav Grof, Psychology of the Future (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000); Shepherd, Pointed Observations (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 55

Copyright © 2013 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Plotinus

By Against the Gnostics, Enneads, Neoplatonism, Plotinus

Representation of Plotinus

Plotinus (circa 204-70) is conventionally described as a Neoplatonist. However, his teaching exhibits differences to later exponents of “Neoplatonism.” There is no theurgy in his Enneads. This factor alone comprises a gulf between Plotinus and Proclus, a well endowed exponent of the Athenian school.

A biography of Plotinus was composed by his disciple Porphyry many years after his death. The famous Vita Plotini (Life of Plotinus) is regarded as a basically reliable report; some hagiology may have infiltrated. Porphyry was also the redactor of the Enneads, representing the formerly secretive writings of Plotinus.

His date of birth is uncertain, and likewise his racial origin. Plotinus would not refer to his early years, nor allow his birthday to be celebrated. As a consequence, the date and place of his birth passed into obscurity. His world-renouncing outlook was basically a mystery to commentators like Bertrand Russell. The “moderate ascetic” orientation of Plotinus decodes to a gulf between him and most modern commentators, including even Pierre Hadot.

An early hagiographer, Eunapius of Sardis, informs that the birthplace was Lyco(polis) in Upper Egypt. Plotinus might easily have been a Hellenised Egyptian; the scholarly opinions have differed. His social class may or may not have been elevated.
As a young man, Plotinus searched for a teacher amongst the Greek-educated philosophers of Alexandria. These tutors gave formal lectures, and were divided into different schools. Plotinus was disappointed with the example and teaching of these more or less official pedagogues. He eventually became a disciple of Ammonius, an obscure Platonist who was apparently self-taught and relatively distanced from the conventional professorial scene. Later authors applied the nickname of Saccas to Ammonius; the meaning is uncertain.

When Ammonius died circa 242 CE, Plotinus had been his pupil for a decade. The latter departed from Alexandria in 243, joining an ill-fated expedition (possibly as a court philosopher) of the Roman emperor Gordian III against the Persians. Gordian was murdered in Mesopotamia by rebellious soldiers; this situation was part of the political problem afflicting Rome. Plotinus fled to Antioch, subsequently moving on to Rome by 245.  There he settled, gaining followers in senatorial ranks. Plotinus eventually became well known. He maintained a cautious tactic of guarding his unpublished manuscripts, which were available only to committed students like Amelius and Porphyry. His circle were cosmopolitan, including Syrians, Alexandrians, and at least one Arab.  Also, three women are fleetingly mentioned, two of them apparently Romans.

Plotinus disliked the rhetoric favoured by orators. He also detoured the set speeches maintained by Platonist convention, preferring an informal procedure involving the discussion of texts. He did not claim originality in his version of Plato. However, the Enneads are clearly innovative in a number of respects.

He endorsed study of the sciences, in a Platonist manner. He was evidently familiar with geometry, mechanics, optics, and music (then regarded as a science). Plotinus would not himself practise those pursuits, which he viewed as a secondary support for training the mind. In the Neoplatonist view, too much attention given to scientific activity is a distraction from the philosophical quest. There are differences with Aristotle, an authority whom Plotinus frequently contested. Some elements of convergence are also evident. In another direction, “the writings of Plotinus apparently contain strong repudiation of Stoic doctrines, as well as tacit acceptance of some of them” (Graeser 1972:xiii).

He is noted for opposing astrology, regarding horoscopy as deceptive. Plotinus taught freewill as distinct from determinism. His objective was to live in accordance with the standards of “virtue,” a complex theme associated with his elevation of the “Divine Mind” or Intellect. The strongly mystical element in his teaching emphasised a purification and illumination far removed from the convenient routines of orators and pedants. Plotinus contested the persuasions of Diophanes, an orator in Rome who favoured pederasty.

“We must break away towards the High,” was a Plotinian theme. Then as now, such emphases were unwelcome in many directions. A wealthy Roman pupil of Plotinus was Rogatianus, who declined the office of praetor pressed upon him by the Senate. The pupil renounced all his property and set free all his slaves. Under the influence of Plotinus, Rogatianus chose a simple lifestyle forsaking all social status and elitism.

Plotinus was opposed to the excessive wealth and slavery in the Roman environment, trappings which accompanied military prowess. One may conclude that he scored over Aristotle, who had endorsed slavery in a  conciliatory gesture to the ruling class. Science might do little to remove social problems, whereas diligent mysticism may move a lot further.

Plotinus gained a reputation for austerity. Amongst his admirers were the Roman Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina. Gallienus was an intellectual type, with a taste for Greek culture; he was not popular with military commanders, despite his victories in battle. Plotinus advised that Gallienus should rebuild a ruined city in Campania, one that should be renamed Platonopolis, and accordingly governed according to the laws of Plato. This proposal was opposed at court, probably by the military. The details are vestigial.

The treatise entitled Against the Gnostics (Ennead II.9) is a well known feature of the Enneads. The protest was made on grounds of Platonist tradition, reason, and morality. The Gnostics were present in Rome; there are implications of flawed doctrines and behaviour. Gnostics were claiming a secret knowledge facilitating a short and easy path to the Divine. Plotinus contrasted this with the long, difficult, and necessary route involved in the Platonist practice of virtue and the due exercise of philosophic intelligence. He repudiated a resort to magic and ritual in the popular Gnostic sector, usages amounting to theurgy (theourgia).

Gnosticism, like Platonism, was a variegated phenomenon, one causing extensive confusions in the modern day. Popular Gnosticism rivalled both Platonism and orthodox Christianity. Gnostic adherents were spread throughout different countries, with diverse figureheads in the vista of “ascetics and libertines” discussed by scholars. Plotinus himself has some similarities to the ascetic wing; he claimed a “mystical union” in his version of philosophic rationalism. These subtleties are difficult to convey in the current climate of misconception caused by “new age” thinking, which includes the disputed integralism.

At the end of his life, Plotinus suffered a severe illness in the onset of an epidemic created by war and social unrest. The distinctive Emperor Gallienus was assassinated by military schemers. A mood of anarchy was prevalent, Rome was beset by troubles. Plotinus retired from Rome to the countryside, possibly afflicted with leprosy, stoically awaiting his end. The man who had rejected his birthday could also transcend death.

Bibliography

Armstrong, A. H. ed. and trans., Plotinus (7 vols, Harvard University Press, 1966-88).

——–“Plotinus” (195-268), in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1967).

Gerson, Lloyd P., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus (Cambridge University Press, 1996). 

Graeser, Andreas, Plotinus and the Stoics: A Preliminary Study (Leiden: Brill, 1972).

Hadot, Pierre, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision, trans. M. Chase (University of Chicago Press, 1993). 

MacKenna, Stephen, trans., The Enneads, ed. John Dillon (London: Penguin, 1991).

Narbonne, Jean-Marc, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

Rist, J. M., Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1967).

 

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

ENTRY no. 42

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.