The Neoplatonic Methodology and the Aim of Return

In order to best arrive at an understanding of what I mean by 'Neoplatonic Methodology,'

I offer the following initial considerations:

1. Return. I will use the term 'Return' quite broadly, and will not worry here about whether the intention is a 'mystical' union with the Godhead, or a subtler notion of self-perfection resulting in purified capacity for reflection, or prophecy or some other purified state of the human soul. Speaking quite generally, I will use the notion to refer to a 'perfected state,' a state the attaining of which every Neoplatonist (though of course, not the Neoplatonist exclusively) strives.

2. Self as Effect. Going further, we might note that for thinkers interested in Return, the first step to effecting that Return is a personal recognition of being an 'effect,' and, as such, standing in some sort of dependence relation to a higher cause. It is this recognition of 'self as effect' that is required for Return, for, without the sense that there is a higher cause, there is, it seems, no sense to be made of even the notion of reverting: Underlying the hope for Return, there must be some higher cause to—or, at least toward—which the philosopher hopes to revert. This, then, essentially amounts to recognition of 'self as effect.'

3. Neoplatonic Methodology. Given their pressing interest in Return, then, we might note that in addition to addressing the schema of Return in their writings, there is, additionally, an attempt to (a) use the very engagement in even those sciences which are not overtly about Return, and even to (b) use the very act of reading their writings which address those more general sciences (where we will be interested in the sciences of cosmology and ontology—but the point could just as easily be extended to the sciences of music geometry, astronomy, etc.) as means to effecting Return. As such, we find two cases. In the first case, we find such thinkers as Plotinus, Plato and Proclus suggesting ways in which we might use our engagement in astronomy and arithmetic as means of effecting Return. In the second case, we might point to even a sensitivity to choosing with care the very words—and subsequent images—employed in writing in general, if the reading and study of that writing is to itself help effect Return in the reader's soul. We maintain that the criterion for a bit of language's being effective in the requisite way is that it specifically succeed in imprinting upon the reader's soul the awareness of 'self as effect' (as per above). As such, ontologies and cosmologies which involve the reader in contemplating 'causal hierarchies' are especially effective in this regard, since a greater and greater awareness of and sensitivity to 'self as effect' emerges in the reader from a reflection upon a series of higher and higher causes—an increasing number of causes, the reflection upon which brings a greater and greater sense on the reader's part of the distance between himself as effect and the ultimate source (i.e., God or the One). As we will argue, both the Proclean tripartite schemas as well as Avicenna's own employment of 'essence+esse'—when taken in this Proclean way—are best seen as in this way enacting the Neoplatonic Methodology and its sensitivity to the importance of the language used—and images evoked—in writing about anything (in this case, ontology and cosmology).

Turning first to the Neoplatonic Methodology which sees in the very engagement in a science the possibility for effecting Return, consider Plotinus. In his account of the aims and goals of dialectic, he makes clear that—in addition to merely telling us something about a given analysandum—the very act of dialectic itself can re-orient the practitioner's soul; this is evidenced, e.g., in Plotinus' choosing to begin his discussion of dialectic with the cry, "What art is there, what method or practice, which will take us up there where we must go?" (Plotinus, Enneads 1.3.1; 153 Armstrong).

Other cases in point of the Neoplatonic Methodology at work in this way—where the very act of analysis is itself integral to effecting key changes in the practitioner's state— can be found in Plato's Timaeus and in Proclus' commentary on Euclid's Elements.

In this regard, consider the suggestion in the Timaeus that it is by engaging in astronomy—by charting the motions of the heavens, and most of all, of the Sun—that we help return our souls to their most perfectly ordered states.9 In effect, according to the Timaeus, the Demiurge ensures that the Sun is the brightest light in the sky so as to orient all living things to the principle of Sameness (as opposed to Difference), which is manifest most clearly in its daily motions. While in the immediate context of the notion of Time in the cosmos, the Demiurge's purpose in so appointing the Sun is to help mankind learn to count and engage in mathematics,10 the ultimate aim of such numerical reflection is clearly, in the context of the Timaeus' overall discussion of Sameness and Difference, itself to strengthen—and re-orient—the soul.

Similarly, turning to Proclus' own account of arithmetic, we find the suggestion that it is in reflecting upon the nature of numbers that we can best re-orient our souls, best preparing ourselves ultimately for acquaintance with Unity itself. In discussing 'The Utility of Mathematics,' Proclus tells us, among other things, that

.mathematics makes ready our understanding and our mental vision for turning towards that upper world,"11

and, referring us to Socrates' remarks in Plato's Republic, (i.e., Republic527e ff.), that:

.when 'the eye of the soul' is blinded and corrupted by other concerns, mathematics alone can revive and awaken the soul again to the vision of being, can turn her from images to realities and from darkness to the light of intellect, can (in short) release her from the cave, where she is held prisoner by matter and by the concerns incident to generation, so that she may aspire to bodiless and partless being.12

Turning then to what we might call the 'more extreme' sense of Neoplatonic Methodology—the suggestion that it is even the very words (and consequent images)

employed in a science which can effect a Return—we arrive at our treatment of Avicenna's 'essence+esse' ontology, and its effectiveness in this regard (recalling our earlier remarks about the effectiveness of images of 'causal hierarchies')—an effectiveness which is especially clear when taken on analogy with Proclus' own cosmological/ ontological schema.

Before we suggest how we might use Proclus' tripartite analyses to best reveal Avicenna's ontology in this light, we must first consider independent evidence in Avicenna for his interest in the Neoplatonic Methodology in this 'more extreme' sense.

That Avicenna is sensitive to the importance of words (and their consequent images) may be seen by looking even briefly at (a) his ideas on language (especially, on poetics and metaphor), (b) his account of prophecy and (c) his 'visionary recitals.' In his writings on imaginative, emotive language, Avicenna—drawing on al-Farabi's discussion of the importance of symbolic and metaphorical representations in "imaginative syllogism"— states in his Danesh Nameh that:

These are premises that stimulate the soul to a lively desire or loathing of some thing. One might be well aware that these premises are false, but if someone says, "What you are eating puts the bile in motion," even when it is honey and you know perfectly well that it is false, it is only natural to be disgusted and want no more. Thus both true and seemingly true opinions can form the givens of imagination. (Avicenna, Danesh Nameh, 1.116; as cited in Goodman 1992, 221)

In light of this, and drawing additionally on further remarks in Avicenna's Poetics regarding the immediate grasp one's soul has of imagery, Goodman states that,

The logic of metaphor, in other words, speaks directly to the heart—or, as Ibn Sina put it, it works directly on the imagination. (Goodman 1992, 222)

Turning to Avicenna's theory of prophecy, we additionally find the importance of images and soul's imaginative capacity. For, unlike the philosopher who enjoys only intellectual rewards, the prophet is characterized not only as enjoying connection (ittisal) with the Active Intellect, but as experiencing an overflow of information from the Active Intellect into his conjoined soul's properly developed imaginative faculty—a faculty, which in its well-honed state, is able to receive that information in the form of those images and words—or the 'sensible and audible speech'—best suited to encapsulating and representing that received influx of information.13 In effect, it is this added imaginative capacity which allows the prophet to outrank the philosopher for Avicenna.

In addition to the role of images and imagination in prophecy in general, Avicenna also demarcates a special variety of prophecy which is unique to the imaginative faculty alone—a variety of prophecy which sidesteps any involvement of the rational faculty, and which—consisting in both visions of the future, as well as in figurative representations of intelligible truths—is traced not to the Active Intellect, but to the souls of the spheres.14 Similarly, turning to Avicenna's 'visionary recitals,' it is the souls of the spheres—the Angel-Souls of the Separate Intellects or Archangels—constituting, as they do, a realm of pure Imagination, which emerge as the "place," as it were, of the recitals themselves; for, it is only by entering this Imaginative realm—i.e., by reciting narratives whose symbolic language fills us with the most effective images—that the individual's soul is able to effect Return (or, the Ta'wil) (Corbin 1954/1960, 35). In his analysis of the visionary recitals, Corbin is hence led to the dual conclusion that (1) the symbolic text of the recital is that imagistic representation of the soul's own experience of truths during its wiladat-eruchani (spiritual birth), and that, simultaneously, (2) the process of reciting this symbolic text, and of working to understand its imagery is itself to enact a 'return' of the text's symbols to what they signify (Corbin 1954/1960, 32). In this regard, we might add that—as in the cases of engaging in astronomy and arithmetic in the cases of Plato and Proclus earlier—it is ultimately the Return of the practitioner's own soul which is the goal of thus engaging in the recital.

This evidence in Avicenna for the importance of Imagination in Return, taken together with our earlier evidence regarding the appropriateness of imagery—and the figurative language used to evoke it—for speaking, as it were, directly to the soul, lead to the conclusion that figurative language—and its consequent images—are key to effecting Return in Avicenna's world-view. It is in this light, then—within the context of effecting Return by evoking effective images—that we suggest we take Avicenna's use of the language of 'essence+esse.' For, as we now turn to illustrating, this ontological analysis indeed—on analogy with Proclus' own tripartite schema of analysis—evokes a hierarchical imagery effective in imprinting upon the practitioner's soul the 'self as effect' theme, whose importance in Return we have already seen.

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