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Dequantitation in Plotinus's Cosmology

Author(s): F. R. Jevons
Source: Phronesis, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1964), pp. 64-71
Published by: BRILL
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in Plotinus'scosmology
I. Dequantitation
F. R. JEVONS

It

is hardly surprising that the views Plotinus expressedon problems

of cosmology and physics have attracted relatively little attention.


Modern commentators have naturally concentrated on other
aspects of a philosophy which so disparaged the material world.'
This article and a succeeding one2 set out to trace some general trends
underlying Plotinus's treatment of the world of the senses. Some
important aspects of his way of thought find their direct opposites in
the approach which has dominated science since the seventeenth
century. Perhaps this in itself makes them worth examining for the
illuminating contrast they provide.
A remarkable feature of Plotinus's thought is the attempt to strip
the elements of measure and number from space and time. This goes
hand in hand with, and indeed seems to depend on, a trend towards
extreme subjectivity. Plotinus's inward-directed, anthropocentric
mental habit deprived space and time both of their essential quantitativeness aild of their rigid objectivity. The pertinacity and ingenuity
with which he pushed these tendencies towards their ultimate limits,
beyond what might at first sight seem possible, are indeed extraordinary. Ostensibly, he set out to be nothing more than expositor and
interpreter of Plato3 (though he was also affected by other sources,
notably Aristotle and the Stoics). In the event, his cosmology turned
out to be a subtly demathematized and subjectivized version of
Plato's; he followed the account in the Timaeus closely up to, but not
including, the elements of quantity, measurement and number, which
he firmly deleted. This is shown in detail below, dealing first with the
1

W. R. Inge treated I'Plotinus's views on the world of the senses at some lengtl
(The Philosophy of Plotinus, 3rd edition, Longmans, London, 1929, pp. 122-199),
and E. Br6hier devoted to them ani appendix added to the 2nd edition of La
Philosophie de Plotin (Boivin, Paris, 1948, pp. 189-206). A. H. Armstrong
commented briefly (The Architecture of the Intelligible Universe in the Philosophy
of Plotinus, Cambridge University Press, 1940, p. 98).
2 Jevons,
F. R. in Archiv fur Geschich/e der Philosophie, to appear in 1965.
3 Schwyzer,
H. R., in Pauly's Real-Encyclopddie der Classischen A ltertumswissenschalt, Druckenmuller, Stuttgart, 1951, vol XXI.1, cols. 550 and 572.

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way Plotinus developed a concept of "matter" corresponding to


Plato's concept of space.4
Matter
The very idea of magnitude seemed "grievous" to Plotinus, since it
implied to him a loss of or falling away from unity. Once a thing has
magnitude, it is virtually broken into independent parts and thereby
less the unity that is its real self. "A thing becomes a manifold when,
unable to remain self-centred, it flows outward and by that dissipation
takes extension".5
But even magnitude was denied to matter by Plotinus. Body, it
is true, has fixed place and defined extension that can be measured.6
Body, however, is not mere matter, but matter that has been formed;
matter alone is sizeless. It is "a certain base, a recipient of FormIdeas".7 The basic constituents of things are two, Matter and FormIdea; things cannot consist of either alone. "Form-Idea, pure and
simple, they cannot be: for without Matter, how could things stand
in their mass and magnitude? Neither can they be that Primal Matter,
for they are not indestructible".8 But this must not be taken to mean
that mass and magnitude are conferred by the matter. "Clearly, since
it is without quality it is incorporeal; bodiliness would be quality...
The Matter must be... ready to become anything, ready therefore to
any bulk; besides, if it possessed magnitude it would necessarily
possess shape also... No: all that ever appears on it is brought in by
the Idea: the Idea alone possesses: to it belongs the magnitude and
all else that goes with the Reason-Principle or follows upon it. Quantity
is given with the Ideal-Form in all the particular species".9
The passage in the Timacus from which this treatment derived was
4 Aristotle said that, in so far as place is the extension of a thing, it seems to be
matter, so that Plato identified space with matter in the Timaeus (Physica IV,
2, 209b6; commentary by Ross, W. D., Aristotle's Physics, Clarendon Press,
Oxford, 1936). This interpretation has been widely accepted ever since. See
Cornford, F. M., Plato's Cosmology, Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner, London,
1937, p. 187; Winden, J. C. M. van, Calcidius on Matter, Brill, Leiden, 1959,
pp. 31, 39 and 46.
5 Enneads VI.6.1. Translation by MacKenna, S., 2nd edition revised by Page,
B. S., Faber and Faber, London, 1956.
6 Ibid, V. 1.2, VI.5.9. and VI.S.11.
7 Ibid, II.4.1.
8 Ibid, II.4.6.
9 Ibid, II.4.8.

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that where Plato had found himself forced to introduce a "receptacle


of becoming".10 Having distinguished between the intelligible, unchanging model for the creation of the world, and the changing copy
of it which is wlhat presents itself to our senses, Plato had said that
the copy needs a medium to support it. This medium has no qualities
of its own, but is that in which the thing becomes; it is space, "which
is everlasting, not admitting destruction; providing a situation for all
things that come into being, but itself apprehended without the senses
by a sort of bastard reasoning, and hardly an object of belief. This,
indeed, is that which we look upon as in a dream, and say that anything that is must needs be in some place and occupy some room, and
that what is not somewhere in earth or heaven is nothing".
Plotinus, therefore, was following Plato as far as providing for a
receptacle which was indestructible and devoid of any qualities which
would make it perceptible to the senses; but he was going beyond his
master in stripping it of magnitude. Doubtless his own concept owed
something to the "ultimate matter" of Aristotle who, while emphasizing
that incorporeal, sizeless matter has no independent, actual existence,
found it possible in thought to abstract from it magnitude as well as
qualities11. But Plotinus's whole approach was vastly different from
Aristotle's,12 and on the point in question his attitude was diametrically
opposed to that of the Stoics, wiho all but denied realitv to the incorporeal, and for whom matter, though devoid of qualities, possessed
extension.
In any case, Plotinus seems to have felt that he was here on freshl
ground, for he proceeded to justify his position and its consequences
at some length.'3 "The imaging of Quantity upon matter by an outside
power is not more surprising than the imaging of Quality; Quality is
no doubt a Reason-Principle, but Quantity also - being measure,
by Cornford, op. cit.
48E to 52C. Translation and commentary
1, 5, 320a31-320b25.
Commentary by Joachim,
Clarendon Press, Oxford,
H. H., Aristotle on Coming-to-be and Passing-Away,
1922, pp. 113 to 120; cf. also pp. 92-94 and 198-200.
12 What Aristotle
seems to have had in mind was "that the indefinite extension
which is the matter or potentiality of a definite magnitude is limited by a form
and the definite magnitude is thus produced" (Ross, op. cit., p. 565). Plotinus
denied to matter not merely a definite magnitude, but magnitude and extension
altogether. Br6hier (op. cit., p. 200) points out how deceptive is Plotinus's use
of Aristotle's language about matter and its relation to form, for the earlier
author usually refers to proximate or secondary matter.
3Enneads 11.4.8 to 11.4.10.
10

Timaeus

11 De Generatione et Corruptione

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number - is equally so". How can we conceive matter to exist if it has


no magnitude? This is not difficult, since Ideas exist without any
dependence on quantity; the principle of quantitativeness itself is
devoid of quantity. How is it possible to form a conception of the
sizelessness of matter? "The secret is Indetermination...
The act
which aims at being intellectual is, here, not intellection but rather its
failure". The mind is aware of matter rather as "the eye is aware of
darkness as a base capable of receiving any colour not yet seen against
it". "There is vision, then, in this approach of the Mind towards
Matter? Some vision, yes; of shapelessness, of colourlessness, of the
unlit, and therefore of the sizeless". For Plato, the mind's apprehension
of space had been, similarly, a "bastard" or spurious reasoning; but
Plato had made no attempt to rob space of its magnitude. Plato's
space had been "hard", it had mathematical extension; Plotinus's
matter was "soft", unextended and stripped of magnitude. "Extension
is not an imperative condition of being a recipient... Matter does
actually contain in spatial extension what it takes in; but this is
because itself is a potential recipient of spatial extension... No doubt
in the case of things as we know them there is a certain mass lying
ready beforehand to the shaping power: but that is no reason for
expecting bulk in Matter strictly so called... The Absolute Matter
must take its magnitude, as every other property, from outside itself".14
The contrast between the views of Plato and Plotinus is further
underlined by the latter's supposition of two kinds of matter, not only
that of the sensible world but also another kind to act as permanent
substratum for accepting the shapes or Ideas of the intelligible world.
"Admitting that there is an Intelligible Realm beyond, of which this
world is an image, then, since this world-compound is based on Matter,
there must be Matter there also".15 In Plato's cosmology, only the
world of the senses, the copy, had needed a "receptacle".
Time
The common-sense view is that the existence of both space and time
is inevitable. Cornford16 has pointed out that, for Plato, only space
had such a status, time being something created, a feature of the order
imposed by the divine intelligence rather than part of the prescribed
Ibid II.4.11.
Ibid 11.4.4.
"I Comnford,op. cit., pp. 102 and 193.

14
15

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framework within which it had by necessity to operate. Plotinus


reduced space, too, to such a lower level of inevitability; quantity of
"matter" being regarded as a principle of reason, it became something
not "given" before the start but something produced, and thereby less
immutable and rigidly fixed. The case of time is rather different, since
this had been, even for Plato, not a pre-existing condition but something generated. Plato, however, explicitly built into his notion of the
mode of generation of time an element of quantity and measure.
This element was deliberately rejected by Plotinus.
In the Timaeus," time was treated as an image of eternity, quantitative or numerical in character. "Now the nature of that Living Being
[the pattern or model for the creation of the universe] was eternal, and
this character it was impossible to confer in full completeness on the
generated thing. But he [the Demiurge] took thought to make, as it
were, a moving likeness of eternity; and at the same time that he
ordered the Heaven, he made, of eternity that abides in unity, an
that to which we
everlasting likeness moving according to number
have given the name Time". Time moves according to number since
it is measured by a plurality of parts such as days and months;
without such units of measurement it could not be conceived to exist.
These units are generated by the movements of the celestial clock.
"In order that Time might be brought into being, Sun and Moon and
five other stars - "wanderers", as they are called - were made to define
and preserve the numbers of Time".
Aristotle, too, had made of time something quantitative, and he
elaborated at some length on its essentially numerical nature. Time is
not movement, but something that belongs to movement; it is only
movement in so far as it admits of enumeration. "Time then is a kind
of number"; it is "number of movement in respect of the before and
after".'8 Aristotle did give time a subjective basis; asking himself,
as an afterthought to his main treatment, whether there would be
time without soul, he reflected that, since only soul can count, there
could not without soul be number, but only motion, the substratum
of number.'9 This line of thought only emphasizes all the more, however, how very intimately he connected an element of quantity with
the essence of time. Stoic doctrine agreed with both Plato and Aristotle
17

Timaeus 37C to 38C.

18 Physica IV, 11, 219a


19 Ibid, IV, 14, 223a21.

to 220a.

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in connecting time with movement; it was defined as "the extension


of movement".20
Plotinus, however, elaborately deleted from the essence of time
any connection with measurement or with movement in the sensible
world. Time is not movement; rather, movement takes place in time.
"We have Quantity of Movement - in the form of number, dyad,
triad, decade, or in the form of extent apprehended in what we may
call the amount of the Movement: but, the idea of Time we have not...
The extended movement and its extent are not Time; they are in
Time". This type of attempted explanation seemed so utterly inadequate to Plotinus that he could barely conceal his scorn. "We ask,
'What is Time?' and we are answered, 'Time is the extension of
Movement in Time' !"21 Neither is time a number belonging to or
measuring movement.22
To develop his own concept of time, Plotinus went back to the state
he had affirmed of Eternity, "at rest in unity and intent upon it.
Time was not yet: or at least it did not exist for the Eternal Beings.
It is we that must create Time out of the concept and nature of
progressive derivation, which remained latent in the Divine Beings...
Time at first... lay, self-concentrated, at rest within the Authentic
Existent; it was not yet Time; it was merged in the Authentic and
motionless with it. But there was an active principle there, one set
on governing itself and realizing itself (= the All-Soul), and it chose to
aim at something more than its present: it stirred from its rest, and
Time stirred with it. And we (i.e. human souls as summed in the
principle of developing Life, the All-Soul) we, stirring to a ceaseless
succession, to a next, to the discrimination of identity and the establishment of ever new difference, traversed a portion of the outgoing path
and produced an image of Eternity, produced Time... Time, then, is
contained in differentiation of Life; the ceaseless forward movement
of Life brings with it unending Time; and Life as it achieves its stages
constitutes past Time. Would it, then, be sound to define Time as
the Life of the Soul in movement as it passes from one stage of act or
experience to another? Yes... .
This view of time as the life of the soul in movement, it is worth
Pohlenz, M., Die Stoa, 2nd edition, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Gottingen,
1959, pp. 46 and 65.
21 Enneads 111.7.8.
22 Ibid III.7.9.
23 Ibid III.7.11.

20

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noting, is not merely one devoid of any essential quantitativeness, but


is also essentially personal, subjective and anthropocentric: "it is
we that must create Time". Plotinus in general followed the Socratic
tradition of regarding souls as the seats of human personalities. It is
true, of course, that he thought less of individual souls pertaining to
particular bodies than of a soul manifesting itself both as a supreme,
undivided soul and as soul divided among living bodies24; the two are
far from sharply separated in a philosophy in which "all things are
for ever linked".25 In the context of the discussion of time, however,
our attention is firmly directed upon soul not in its unity as the AllSoul of the whole world, but in its descent into the multiplicity of
souls in bodies. Time, we are told, must be created out of the concept
of progressive derivation, from the discrimination of separate identities
and the establishment of new differences. The soul-movements of
which time consists are on (or rather towards) the level of individuals,
rather than of the whole world. Time is a produict of activity, of the
differentiation and forward movement of life. For Plato, too, time
had been a product of activity, but this activity was an astronomical
one external to our personalities and belonging in common to the
whole world - the revolutions of the lheavenly bodies. For Plotinus,
the time-creating movements were on the plane of multiplicity rather
than of the All. The point is further developed by the way he contrasted
eternity with time, its image on this lower plane. "Over against that
Identity, Unchangeableness and Stability there must be that whicl
is not constant in the one hold but puts forth multitudinous acts;
over against that Oneness without extent or interval there must be an
image of oneness, a unity of link and succession".23
As regards quantitativeness, Plotinus wrote of time as essentially
unextended and incapable of subdivision into parts.26 He admitted
that "in a certain sense, the Movement, the orbit of the universe, may
legitimately be said to measure Time - in so far as that is possible at
all"27; but time "should have been described as something measured
by Movement and then defined in its essential nature; it is an error
to define it by a mere accidental concomitant".26 The strength of his
conviction led him into a misrepresentation when he maintained that
"Plato does not make the essence of Time consist in its being either a
24
25
26
27

Ibid
Ibid
Ibid
Ibid

1.1.8.
IV.8.6.
III.7.13.
III.7.12.

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measure or a thing measured by something else"26; when he contended


that only the image of eternity in motion is essential to Plato's definition, he was conveniently forgetting that the motion was immediately
specified to be "according to number".'7
Further light is thrown on Plotinus's attitude to time by the way
he denied that happiness is increased with the time during which it
has been experienced.28 The only happiness that counted for Plotinus
was that which exists at present; memory cannot preserve past time,
not even memory of beauty; "any time over and apart from the present
is non-existent". This emphasizes again the subjective and nonquantitative character of Plotinus's view of time, and its self-centred
basis inside the personality.
A subjective bias in the approach to the physical world, although
it does not inevitably entail dequantitation, seems to be prerequisite
for it and, when marked, to favour it. For instance, Plotinus's treatment of time has been compared29 with Bergson's, where insistence
on its subjective basis is again coupled with emphasis on the shortcomings of numerical or clock time. Another comparable case is
provided by J. B. Van Helmont who, although "compelled to recognize in time some universality," put more stress on the "singularity
belonging to individual things".30 Duration, indeed, was for him
"primordially and essentially inherent to the seeds themselves", "so
inseparable from the objects that it never leaves them" and "more
intrinsic in things than things are in themselves".3' Although his
own view of time differed appreciably from that of Plotinus, he used
virtually identical phrases to reject mathematical treatment of it.
"I do not beg time from the circular movement of heaven... Motion is
not time, although it takes place in it. Nor can time be generated by
motion".32 "Time is ... neither long nor short, neither before nor after,
neither measure nor measurable".33
University of Manchester.
Ibid. I.5.3. to 1.5.9.
Inge, op. cit., p. 173.
30 De Tempore, chap. 46. Partial translation and commentary by
Pagel, W.,
Osiris 8 (1948) 346. Pagel also discusses some modern attempts to formulate
concepts of "biological time", a time associated with the subjects which describes
certain aspects of phenomena better than astronomical or clock time.
28

29

31 Ibid, chaps 19 and 29.


32
33

Ibid, chap 4; cf. also chap. 31.


Ibid, chap 15; cf. also chap. 33.

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