Jacques Maritain Center : Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value



THE experimental knowledge of God by means of special divine illumination must, according to the view we are advocating, be considered to be the prerogative of Christianity. For since the fulness of divine knowledge, so far as it is attainable by human beings in this life, is to be found in the Christian religion alone, it is evidently inconceivable that such knowledge should either fail to be found there in its highest form, which is mysticism, or that it should exist elsewhere in equal perfection. This view is, for the most part, fully borne out by a comparison of Christian mysticism with such few instances of non-Christian religious experience as may by any straining of the epithet be called mystical. So also the mystical pretensions of persons outside the pale of the Catholic Church, and those which, though made on the behalf of Catholics, the Church holds to be spurious, are manifestly untenable on the principles laid down by Catholic authority as to the necessary character and results of true mysticism.

There is, however, one case which it is difficult not to regard as an exception to this rule -- that of Plotinus. This remarkable figure stands out as the sole instance in which all the conditions of true mysticism (with the necessary exception of faith) seem to have been fulfilled by one who was neither a Catholic nor a Christian, but the father of Neoplatonism, in its later and fully-developed form. Plotinus was born about the year 204, and studied at Alexandria under Ammonius Saccas, but at the age of forty went to Rome, where he taught until the last year of his life, the Emperor Gallienus being one of his disciples, and died in Campania in the year 269. He was much sought after in Rome as a kind of spiritual director; his habits of life were ascetic, as indeed would naturally be the case with one who so despised material things as to be "like one who was ashamed of being in the body, and therefore could not bear to speak of his birth, or parents or country."{1}

His philosophy insists strongly on the transcendence of God, the supreme unity and absolute Good, which is above all being and all thought. Beneath the One are intelligence (nous), with which the Platonic ideas are identified, and the soul (psuche), which is the product of intelligence, and in its turn produces corporeal things by impressing form upon indeterminate, unqualified matter. Thus the body is in the soul, rather than the soul in the body; all things are held together by the One, which continually draws the manifold to itself. Man's part is to rise up from the diversity and degradation of matter, through thought, into union with the one and absolute Good. We are not, however, now concerned with Plotinus's philosophy, but with its practical consequence. It is in the final stage of the soul's upward course, its union with God and rest in Him, that the system of Plotinus becomes purely mystical.

The nature of this union is described in the sixth Ennead. Like Dionysius after him Plotinus does not bring out very clearly the notion of special supernatural assistance, or grace, as a necessary condition of mystical vision. But, also like Dionysius, he insists strongly on the distinction between mystics and the uninitiated (mê memuêmenoi, compare Dion., Myst. Theol., 1); and he speaks, as Dionysius does not, of the "call" and "drawing" of the supreme Good, whereby the soul is brought into union with it.{2} This union with God, or vision of Him, takes place in the "substance of the soul"; it is rather contact than mere knowledge, though knowledge is a necessary preliminary to it. It is ecstasy, unity, the projection of the soul out of itself,{3} in virtue of the affinity which the soul has to the One by its own unity, as a self-centred monad (to psuchês oion kentron). Like Dionysius again, Plotinus enlarges on the abstraction from all that is manifold which is needful before union with the One can be attained. The soul in that union despises even thought, which previously had been its delight (diakeitai tote hôs kai ton noein kataphronein, ho ton allon chronon êspazeto) much more all material things: for there is movement, or unrest even in thought, whereas the one is unmoved, so that the soul that abides in the one finds absolute rest, and abandons all things. It is as if one entered a splendid mansion and admired the beauty of its adornment; but when the master of the house appears, one cannot but forget all those objects of admiration in the joy of seeing Him, who comes under no similitude of Himself, but as the object of true vision. For this Master of the house is no man, but God; and makes Himself known not by means of common sight, but as filling the soul which beholds Him. Again, it is not beautiful things that the soul beholds in this vision, nor beauty itself, nor the whole band (choron) of virtues; as if one entered the vestibule of a temple, and saw there the statues and similitudes of the God, but afterwards going within the sanctuary, saw no more any statue or picture, but the divine being Himself. This union between the soul and God resembles in its clearness the union of earthly lovers (erastai kai erômenoi sugkrinai Thelontes); the soul will have no other thing, good or bad; but itself alone will enjoy Him alone (hina dexêtai mone monon).

Thus we find in Plotinus the most advanced conceptions of the great Christian mystics. There is no vision or locution; all is abstract or purely spiritual. But Plotinus tells us almost in identical phraseology of the Mansions of St Teresa,{4} of the prayer of quiet, of St John's dark night of faith, and of the spiritual marriage; the "ground" (kentron) of the soul is with him as familiar and as necessary an idea as it is with the German mystics.

Quotations might be multiplied and coincidences noted to almost any extent. But what has been said will be enough to show the character of Plotinus's mysticism and its marvellous agreement with the true supernatural type. The question therefore arises whether we are to consider Plotinus a genuine supernatural mystic or not; and if he must be held to be so, we are immediately confronted with the further question of his true relation to Christian mysticism. For unless all supernatural mystics, Christian and Neoplatonist alike, are subject to a common delusion, it would seem difficult to assign the same origin to the mystical experience depicted by Plotinus as to the "mystical theology" of Dionysius, or of St Teresa and St John of the Cross.

It must be remembered that Plotinus was, during the most important part of his career, in close contact with Christianity, and that not in any outlying region of the faith, where distinctions of creed might be obscured in the minds of an unlettered people, but in Rome itself. Moreover, during his residence at Rome he must have witnessed the proscription and persecution of Christians under Decius, and the admission of Christianity to the privileges of a religio licita by his pupil Gallienus. He can, therefore, have been ignorant neither of the exclusiveness of the Christian religion, nor of the influence it was able to exert over both those within and those without its pale. He seems, in point of fact, to have disregarded Christianity altogether; he was neither a convert, like Victorinus a century after him, nor an opponent, like his disciple Porphyry. Yet he must have in some fashion deliberately rejected Christianity; it cannot have escaped his notice. But the reason why such an anima naturaliter Christiana should have resisted the attraction of a faith which had so much in common with his own system cannot even be conjectured.

We can only choose between two theories of the cause of his affinity to the mystical theologians of the Church. The first would represent him as affected by the deliberate approximation to Christianity which the later Neoplatonism undoubtedly exhibited, and which we can hardly be mistaken in regarding as a desperate effort on the part of Paganism to fight the growing power of the Church on its own ground with its own weapons. To this cause are attributed the quasi-Trinitarian doctrine of Neoplatonism, the revival of Mithraism, and the life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus.{5} It may well have been the case that it seemed advisable to meet the widespread mysticism of the early Church -- naive and simple-minded as it often was, as, for example, in the visions of Hermas -- with a theory not less mystical but founded on what professed to be a higher Gnosis. Plotinus, indeed, has none of the characteristics of a merely speculative theorist; his work bears all the signs of personal experience, and Porphyry tells us that four times during his six years' association with Plotinus his master attained to the state of mystical union.

It is scarcely possible to attribute conscious insincerity to a character so striking and majestic as that of Plotinus: the spirit of his writings is of itself almost sufficient to clear him of any suspicion of mere vulgar charlatanism. But it is not actually impossible that his mystical experience may have been of the natural order, and due not to any supernatural illumination, but by way of automatic suggestion, to the direct tendency of the philosophical system in which he was absorbed. It may have been no more than a strong emotional realisation of intellectual principles obtained by remarkable philosophical acumen. Certainly one may notice -- apart from the quietism suggested by some passages -- an element of mere negative abstraction in his system, which is indeed necessitated by the highly abstract and practically impersonal nature which he attributes to the One, but which makes a very marked contrast with the warmth of personal relationship -- the familiaris amicitia Jesu which one finds in Christian mysticism.{6}

As has been already remarked, the theory now popular of automatism furnishes a much needed explanation of the close resemblance borne to supernatural mysticism by the various kinds of mysticism which, on Christian principles, cannot be accepted as supernatural in any other sense than that of a possible connection with diabolical agency.

There is nothing to prevent us from holding this theory about the mysticism of Plotinus; but it must be admitted that the direct evidence for it is of the scantiest possible description.

The alternative is to accept the experience of Plotinus as one of those manifestations of divine grace outside its regular channels, the occurrence of which has from time to time been quite unmistakable. The number of instances has never been large enough to entitle them to be considered anything but exceptions to the prevailing rule; and the Church has never felt it her business to pronounce judgment upon the spiritual state of individuals outside her boundaries, strictly as she is compelled to reject as false all doctrines contrary to her own. But the principle that "he that is not against us is for us" may perhaps be applied here; and if so, we may consider Plotinus as an involuntary witness to the truth of the Christian view of mysticism, and the reality of the experience of Christian mystics. Why, if this is the case, Plotinus (and possibly Porphyry as well) should have been favoured with special divine illumination it is, of course, impossible to say. We have no data that could be of any service to us in an attempt to assign a reason for such an exceptional dispensation of divine Providence. But it must be remembered that mystical experience is not of itself an evidence of sanctity, still less of final perseverance. It is possible to suppose that an individual may have been favoured with the grace of mystical knowledge for the purpose of his conversion, and may have failed to correspond with the divine intention; as the Magi might, if they had chosen, have failed to follow the guidance of the star.{7}

Whatever explanation we adopt, the fact is that the system of Plotinus, on its mystical side, is practically identical with that of Dionysius and of all Christian mystics, though it has nothing whatever of all that gives Christianity its power to attract or influence or console.{8}

{1} Porphyry, Life of Plotinus.

{2} ekeino dê ho psuchê diôkei kai ho phôs nô parechei kai empeson autou ichnos kinei, outoi dei thaumazein ei toiautên dunamin echei elkon pros auto kai anakaloumenon ek pasês planês, hina pros auto anapausaito. -- Enn. vi. 7.

{3} ou theama alla allos tropos tou idein, ekstasis kai haplôsis kai epidosis autou kai ephesis pros haphên . . . mêde kat epistêmên hê sunesis ekeinou &mcirc;de kata noêsis, hôsper ta alla noêta, alla kata parousian epistêmes kreittona. -- Ib. 9.

{4} "Ne croirait-on pas entendre encore Plotin, quand la sainte fille (St Teresa) nous recommande 'de porter les yeux vers le centre qui est le palais où habite ce grand roi?'" -- St Hilaire, L'Ecole d'Alexandrie.

{5} See Bigg, Christian Platonists of Alexandria, Lect. VII.

{6} The distinction made by St Hilaire (op. cit.) is only verbal, and might with equal truth be reversed. "Les mystiques chrétiens diffèrent de Plotin en ce que soutenus par la foi, pour la plupart du moins, us n'ont trouve dans l'extase que l'union mentale et spirituale avec Dieu, tandis que Plotin y a trouvé Dieu même. L'âme de sainte Therese se marie a Dieu, comme celle de saint François de Sales de Gerson et des autres; l'âme de Plotin se transforme en Dieu, on plutôt elle est Dieu."

{7} This seems to have been St Augustine's view of Neoplatonism, and especially of Plotinus, whom he calls "magnus ille Platonicus." "Si Platonici, vel quicunque alii ista senserunt, cognoscentes Deum, sicut Deum glorificarent, et gratias agerent, nec evanescerent in cogitationibus suis, nec populorum erroribus partim auctores fierent, partim resistere non auderent, profecto confiterentur et illis immortalibus ac beatis, et nobis mortalibus ac miseris, ut immortales ac beati esse possimus, unum Deum deorum colendum, qui et noster est et illorum." -- Civ. Dei. x. 3.

{8} Quod enim ante omnia tempora, et super omnia tempora incommunicabiliter manet unigenitus Filius tuus coaeternus tibi, et quia de plenitudine ejus accipiunt animae ut beatae sint, et quia participatione manentis in se renovantur ut sapientes sint; est ibi; quod autem secundum tempus pro impiis mortuus est -- non est ibi. St Aug., Conf. vii. ix.

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