The Soul’s Own Place – Held by Virtue – ©Josie Gregory PhD
My intention in this essay is to gain some understanding of the dynamic, creative force that is virtue as understood in Plotinus’ work. Personally, I have explored and tried to practice living a virtuous life from my first adult decision to entre Religious Life. While the Religious Life only lasted 5 years, the yearning for Union with Divine Source has remained with me since. This is my biased perspective. Taking the proposition from Plotinus that, “there is a part of ourselves which is always up above, and if, sometimes, we are fortunate enough to be raised up to this higher level, it is then that we live the best of our lives, … we then rest in the Divine” i this essay will attempt to illustrate in what way Virtue as a dynamic force helps raise us up to this higher level, that the Soul can then rest in the Divine. For the soul to be able to rest in the Divine means that the soul is Divine.
Soul’s place and purpose “is in attaining Likeness to God”… and this is explained as becoming just and holy, living by wisdom’, the entire nature grounded in Virtue”. ii In both this and the above quote, Plotinus makes a definite connection between the part of ourselves which is always above –resting in the Divine, (And I am making the assumption that the part of ourselves is the higher’ part of the Soul) and the nature of this Likeness to God grounded in Virtue.
Virtue What is virtue that it is a Unitive force? It is Singular, yet can be known by its parts. In the hierarchy of beings there is Being, which begets Truth, which emanates the Good from which and to which, virtue springs iii . In the ancient world the word virtue meant creative power, or power of being, and has to do with the creative abilities of a well-ordered human being. This ‘well orderedness’ is in fact the kinship of all the parts of the soul with every other part, ruled by the Intelligence. The word virtue stems from vir – creative power as in virile’. Seen this way virtue gives force to the soul, it is its power of being – it’s creative order. Pieper iv states that virtue is a “perfected ability” of man as a spiritual being, and the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justices, fortitude and temperance, as “abilities” of the whole man, achieve their perfection only when they are founded on prudence, that is to say, upon the perfected ability to make right decisions. These right decisions are directed towards Likeness to God as the final destination of the soul.
Virtue is how to look towards God. What shows God to us is virtue, as it comes to be in the soul, accompanied
by wisdom. Without this genuine virtue God is only a word. v
Virtue is how – how to be so passionate about spiritual union that all else is a distraction, as nothing and a waste of time and energy. In modern times, virtues are mainly talked about as social and moral obligations with little acknowledgment and understanding of their relation to Soul and Spirit. For Plotinus virtues are living forces and must be engaged with from passion which is Love. Plato in the Symposium, 211c: “This is the way, the only way; the candidate must approach… the sanctuary of Love. Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung.”
Individual beauties I understand to be the excellence of the human soul in its own kind, achieved by continuous contemplation of the Divine Source or the One. This term excellence means virtuous, an essence that is fully who it is. Stepping from one rung to another’ is the work that is required to be fully human, God-like and living in the summit of one’s being;
“For the soul to live above in divine union a continuous state of contemplation must occur. For this to happen a lot of work is required: interior purification, simplification and unification. This is the task of virtue born from this union, transforms one’s entire being and becomes substantial wisdom.” vi
Virtue is born from this union, which means it is given in the higher place and this is attested to by the saying; “You would not seek me if you had not already found me.” Virtue, which leads us to God, can only be born in the soul as a result of an initial union with God. …..”for once the soul has been filled by God, she is pregnant with these things.”vii Virtue cannot be born until the soul has glimpsed the Beauty of the Intellect, and has tasted, even if only for an instant, the joy of divine union. This can only be possible if we are tethered to the Divine in that higher place where we have our being through grace. Soul must know that part of her is in that higher place and she must have a taste of it to long for re-union.
Plotinus, following Plato, recognised two main modes of virtue: Two different Likenesses. One mode is a turn to look at man’s being and behaviour in the material realm and these are called the civic virtues, the other mode looks upward, disengaging self as radically as possible from material reality and turns her attention towards God. This turn to God requires the purificatory virtues.
The four cardinal virtues are central to both turns, one turn to the social order, where prudence (belonging to the reasoning faculty), fortitude, temperance and justice moderate the passions of our physical nature and regulate relationships with other human beings and other sentient beings. Their power is to lift a man up from his lower bodily passions so that he has the will and right reason to look upward to his creator. Both movements or turns are essential and form two different levels of reality. The purificatory virtues assist the person to turn his eyes upwards thereby giving little attention to the needs of the lower levels such as his body; its passions, pains and pleasures. Their purpose and force transforms the spiritual energies of the individual to the summit of himself, that is, his higher emotional and mental levels of consciousness viii .
Any participation in Ideal-Form produces some corresponding degree of Likeness to the formless Being There. And participation goes by nearness: the Soul nearer than the body, therefore closer akin, participates more fully and shows godlike presence, almost cheating us into the delusion that in the Soul we see God entire. This is the way in which men of the Civic Virtues attain likeness. For Plato, the civic virtue does not suffice for Likeness.
There is a good description of the two turns or identifications within the person, the higher wanting union with the Good or First Principle and the lower concerned with its physicality. For the virtuous person the pains and passions of the body are known but not engaged with as these never reach the higher levels of the self. That said, by metabolizing or transmuting pains and passions, the soul can grow into its higher levels of consciousness. The purpose for being on this planet only makes sense if we use all events as food for the soul. This is part of the purification process.
On loftier virtues: Likeness here means Likeness to God. It is from the Supreme that we derive Ideal-Forms – which are virtues in that sphere, the source of what in the Soul becomes virtue. Soul’s purpose and its true Good is in devotion to the Intellectual-Principle, its kin. Soul’s purpose is to devote itself to its own Act: the act of purification. This purification enables it, the Soul, to see, to accept the imprint, graven upon it and working within it, of the virtue it has come to. Virtue is a property of the Soul – it does not belong to the Intellectual-Principle or to the Transcendence but a seeing and devotion to It. The souls’ own Act is also the state of Intellection and Wisdom. In the Soul, the direction of vision towards the Intellectual-Principle is Wisdom and Prudence – phronesis (practical wisdom).
Prudence is used to have right reason, right decisions in tempering the other cardinal virtues to work at their highest level. Temperance is needed to control bodily needs in a form that is higher than that required for the social virtues.
And if the term of purification is the production of a pure being, then the purification of the Soul must produce all the virtues; if any are lacking, then not one of them is perfect. The highest of the loftier virtues is Love. Jacob Boehme ix recounts in one of his dialogues in the following way:
Disciple: Pray what is the Virtue, Power, the Height and the Greatness of Love?
Master: The Virtue of Love is NOTHING and ALL, or that Nothing visible out of which All Things proceed; Its Power is through All Things; Its Height is as high as God; Its Greatness is as great as God. Its Virtue is the Principle of all Principles; Its Power supports the Heavens and upholds the Earth; Its Height is higher than the highest Heavens; and Its Greatness is even greater than the very Manifestation of the Godhead in the glorious Light of the Divine Essence, as being infinitely capable of greater and greater Manifestations in all Eternity. Love being the highest Principle, is the Virtue of all Virtues; from whence they all flow forth. Love being the greatest Majesty, is the Power of all Powers, from whence they severally operate; and It is the Holy Magical Root, or Ghostly Power from whence all the Wonders of God have been wrought by the Hands of his elect Servants, in all their Generations successively. Whosoever finds It, finds Nothing and All Things.
In this work and others, Boehme speaks from the same tradition as Plotinus, and like Plotinus indicates that in every sphere from the higher to the lower, virtue is the life force of Being of that sphere and holds a quality or an image of Being in that sphere. For the Supreme, the IdealForms are its Virtues in that sphere. And from the source emanating from the Ideal-Forms in the soul becomes its virtues. The Supreme does not possess virtue yet emanates virtue that ensouls what is below it. The hierarchy is preserved in that the Divine has no state (of consciousness), it is beyond state and state is encased in Oneness. The soul has a state and the act of intellection in the soul is not the same as in the Divine and there is no Intellection in the Absolute One. The dynamic energy as Form is different in different spheres or hierarchies, but the lower images the higher, with those nearer being a better Likeness.
The act of contemplation draws on loftier virtues and the first is Love which directs all other virtues. “That the good must be loved and made reality” is the message given us by natural conscience.x Prudence, perfected practical reason recognises the good and seeks the good in all things and all ways.
Phronesis offers man the ability to reason in favour of soul’s yearning for Divine Union. As human nature gives us free will to turn in two directions;downward’ towards our earthly wants and passions and `upward’ to where part of our soul is at rest in the Divine. Or as Plotinus says, we have a two-fold nature, one that is turned towards God and the other turned towards lower powers, it is the nature and strength of purificatory virtues that decided where Soul’s place will be.
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come?”
©Josie Gregory – January 2014 -updated 2020
i Hadot, P. (1993) Plotinus: Or the Simplicity of Vision. The University of Chicago Press Ltd. London.
ii Plotinus: The Enneads. Translated: MacKenna, S. (1991: 15) Penguin Classics – Penguin Books, London
iii Pieper, J. (1964:4) The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance. Harcourt, Brace &
iv op, cit,. p6
v Hadot, P. (1993: 66) Plotinus: Or the Simplicity of Vision. The University of Chicago Press Ltd. London –citing
Porphyry, Vita Plotini (11.9, 15, 28-40)
vi Hadot, P. (1993) Plotinus: Or the Simplicity of Vision. The University of Chicago Press Ltd. London.
vii op, cit. 68
viii Ouspensky, P.D. (1974). The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution. Random House. New York.
ix Boehme, J. ( ) Super Sensual Life or the Life Which is Above Sense.
x Pieper, J. (1964:11) The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance. Harcourt, Brace &
The Soul’s Own Place – Held by Virtue – ©Josie Gregory PhD