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In my recent article on Plotinian henadology, I quote and discuss a passage from Ennead V.8.9 which displays key traits of the polycentric manifold of divine henads as present in later Platonists such as Proclus. Earlier in the same text, there is another moment at which Plotinus attempts to articulate polycentricity, this time with respect to Soul and the manifold of souls, and which it is useful to examine and compare with the passage about the divine manifold.

Plotinus’ concern here is the cosmos as such, upon which he wants us to carry out a sort of structured meditation:

Let us then apprehend in our thought this cosmos, with each of its parts remaining what it is without confusion, gathering all of them together into one as far as we can, so that when any one part appears first, for instance the outside heavenly sphere, the imagination of the sun and, with it, the other heavenly bodies follows immediately, and the earth and sea and all the living creatures are seen, as they could in fact be seen inside a transparent sphere. (V.8.9.1-8)


By stressing this cosmos, Plotinus wants us to understand that he means the visible cosmos all around us. We want to arrive at a conception of the cosmos as one thing, while at the same time ensuring that each of its parts remain what they are without confusion [μη συγχεομενου]. This is an ancient principle in Hellenic thought, as we can see from Orphic frag. 165 (Kern), in which Zeus inquires of Night, How shall by me all things be one as well as each distinct? Proclus expresses in almost the same terms as Plotinus this epistemic goal with respect to the manifold of the divine henads in his commentary on the Parmenides:
And yet, in spite of this degree of unity in that realm, how marvelous and unmixed is their purity, and the individuality of each of them [the henads or Gods] is a much more perfect thing than the difference of the forms, preserving as it does unconfused [ἀσυγχυτα] all the divine entities and their proper powers distinct, (In Parm. 1048.16-20).


Nihilistic appropriations of this principle during the era of monotheist hegemony have so distorted its significance that not only does the recognition of oneness alone remain as a goal, but the active repression of distinction and uniqueness is seen as a means to its realization. Returning, then, to this principle with eyes cleared, how, then, do we conceive the unity of the cosmos without ‘confusing’ or ‘mingling’ the units which compose it? Plotinus explains that we do so by making sure that when we think of one of these units ‘first’, we bring all the others in along with it. Here again, we see the fundamental structural characteristic of a polycentric manifold: all of its elements are present in each. This alone permits each element to be a perfect individual, as opposed to being mingled, confused, blurred into one thing. Plotinus is concerned here, not to extinguish the uniqueness and individuality of things, to drown them in an oceanic feeling of unity, but to unfold these unique beings all around us, to unpack the relations implicit in each one and bring them forth in our minds.

But such a manifold, in which instead of all in one, all are in each, presents certain challenges to mundane, discursive thought. Here is where Plotinus stretches his descriptive powers to the limits in interesting and difficult ways, in his image of a transparent sphere. Now, we might at first be tempted to simply identify this sphere with the ‘heavenly sphere’ he has mentioned just above. But there is not just one such sphere, or a single hierarchy of spheres, as we are familiar with in astrological discussions of the planetary spheres. Rather, when any one part appears first, we are to imagine it as such a transparent sphere, into which we may gaze and see all of the others, whether the part we take first is the outermost sphere of the fixed stars, or any of the living creatures within the cosmos. It is this characteristic of Being, indeed, that enables Parmenides to say It is all one to me where I am to begin; for I shall return there again, (frag. 5).

Indeed, we can see that the spherical nature Parmenides attributes to that-which-is as such (frag. 8.43ff) is effortlessly applied by Plotinus here to any being to which we might turn our attention. Peering into a being, so to speak, with the mind’s eye, we are to discern in it, as though it were a transparent sphere, all other things. We obviously have here an image closely comparable to that of Indra’s Net, which I discussed in a recent essay. The reflectivity which permits each jewel in Indra’s Net to reflect all the others is replaced here by the transparency which allows all the other cosmic beings to be discerned in each one. The fact that each being is a sphere also suggests the image of the sphere whose center is everywhere and its circumference nowhere, known from a medieval Hermetic apocryphon. Each being is the center of all things for itself, equal to itself from every direction, (Parmenides, frag. 8.49). Where a being appears to be off-center in one respect, for example being dependent upon principles prior to it, the ‘sphericity’ of its being allows us to expect that this will be compensated in some other respect.

Hence, for example, Aristotle speaks of things which are not prior in a hierarchical ontological sense as being nevertheless prior for us, in the order of knowing:

Instruction is acquired by all in this manner: through the less known by nature to the more known by nature … the purpose is to start from what is more known to the individual and proceed to make known to the individual what is known by nature. Now what is known and first to each individual is often known slightly and has little or no being. Nevertheless, from what is poorly knowable but knowable to oneself one must make an effort to know what is generally knowable, proceeding, as we stated, from what is knowable to oneself. (Metaphysics 1029b, trans. Apostle)


Plotinus’ image, however, places this core Aristotelian doctrine in a wider context, because there is not merely the single center toward which Aristotle has beings, recognizing themselves as lying on the periphery, making a pilgrimage. (‘Theory’, theôria, we should recall, comes from a word that referred originally to making a pilgrimage to see a God at their temple or participate in their festival.) There is also the recognition that the starting-points of these pilgrimages are centers in their own right, just as starting-points. (The term archê, which we translate as ‘(causal) principle’ literally means a starting-point.) This is itself the pilgrimage from epistemology to ontology, from the theory of knowledge to the theory of being. Beings, in taking up for themselves the presuppositions of their being, redeem this centrality by affirming themselves as the presuppositions for Being to be known.

(It is in this light, as well, that we must understand a remark of Plotinus’, reported by Porphyry, and often mistaken as a manifestation of irreverence toward the Gods: Amelius was scrupulous in observing the day of the New Moon and other festivals, and once asked Plotinus to come along, but Plotinus refused, saying ‘It is for Those to come to me, not for me to go to them’. What he meant by this exalted utterance we could not understand and did not dare to ask, (Porphyry, Vita Plotini 10.34-8).)

To continue with Plotinus’ meditation:

Let there be, then, in the soul a shining imagination of a sphere, having everything within it, either moving or standing still, or some things moving and others standing still. Keep this, and apprehend in your mind another, taking away the mass: take away also the places, and the mental picture of matter in yourself, and do not try to apprehend another sphere smaller in mass than the original one, but calling on the God who made that of which you have the mental picture, pray him to come. And may he come, bringing his own universe with him, and all the Gods within him, he who is one and all, and each God is all the Gods coming together into one […] (V.8.9.8-17)


Plotinus’ description gets fairly hard to follow here, but the way I read it is that he is trying to convey the idea of multiple spheres with different centers occupying the same space. This is why he stresses not imagining another sphere smaller in mass than the original one, and indeed instructs us to take away the mass [ὄγκον] altogether. It is at this point, notably, that Plotinus begins the transition to the following section, about the polycentric manifold of the Gods, as opposed to that of the cosmos, by urging one to call on the God whose causality is embodied in the polycentric sphere one is trying to envision. It is not a question here of some singular God who stands in opposition to the multiplicity of the cosmos, but rather of a polycentric manifold of Gods—each God is all the Gods coming together into one—which grounds the polycentric manifold of cosmic beings.

Why does Plotinus just at this point, where the picture of the polycentric cosmos becomes especially difficult, urge us to call upon the God—any God, really? It is because the consciousness of things is essentially differential or diacritical. ‘Things’ qua things or in their bare ‘thingness’ just are the negative space carved out by difference or negation. A thing in this sense is just the negation of everything else. This is the negativity to which polycentric holism brings us in epistemology, as reflected in the doctrine attributed to Speusippus, Plato’s first successor as head of the Academy, for which, as Aristotle recounts, to know any one thing is

to know all the things that are. And yet some say that it is impossible to know the differences between something and each other thing while one does not know each other thing, and without the differences one cannot know each thing, for a thing is the same as that from which it does not differ, and it is other than that from which it differs. (Posterior Analytics 97a)


But then is the Academy under its first appointed head committed to skepticism? If not, it must be because there is some class of beings for which this circle of knowing a thing through all the other things is not vicious, but virtuous. And what else could this be, given the importance of dialogue in the Platonic enterprise, than the community of intelligences, or better yet, the community of living beings capable of recognizing one another and bearing ethical responsibility toward one another? For each member of a society presupposes the totality, a totality, however, which is nothing other than its members. This is not the totality of citizens occupying their differential functions, their classes or roles, but the totality of reciprocally recognizing ethical subjects, of partners in dialogue or simply in the enjoyment of one another’s presence, as at the divine symposium of the Olympians of which Socrates tells us in the Phaedrus.

Such is the sole kind of manifold which can support polycentricity without the paradoxes that afflict a polycentric manifold of mere things. For as I discussed above, with things qua things the hierarchy of being looms too large. Parts presuppose the whole, and it seems an extravagance to see the part at the center and the whole at its periphery, unless we have already anticipated Plotinus’ move, and supplied ourselves with the understanding that the parts in question are sentient, they are viewpoints for themselves. As viewpoints, the parts constitute the whole for themselves, and hence make the transition, at least nascently, from cosmic to divine multiplicity, that divine multiplicity that requires no unity other than the unity its members are capable in this fashion of constituting and experiencing within themselves and among one another—for the One neither is, nor is one, (Plato, Parmenides 141e).

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