The Neoplatonic Methodology Remaining and the Ontology of Pre Existence

In what may be roughly called Neoplatonic cosmology, we find three hypostases—the Plotinian hypostases, One, Intellect and Soul, and we find—especially in later Neoplatonism—the tripartite causal theory of Remaining, Procession and Reversion as describing the relationships between these hypostases (and between other hypostases which later Neoplatonists add to the Plotinian schema).

However, in addition to describing the relationship of the cosmological hypostases, the Neoplatonic tripartite cyclic theory of causation (viz., the doctrine of Remaining, Procession and Reversion), may, much more broadly, be seen as a metaphysical approach to analyzing any thing, let us say 'Socrates.'15 It is precisely in viewing Neoplatonic causal theory not simply as revealing a cosmological concern with the three (or more) hypostases, but as revealing a more general metaphysical apparatus for analyzing any analysandum that will be effective in explaining Avicenna's own decision to talk of existence as something 'added' to 'pre-existent' essences.

The more general metaphysical apparatus—an ontological methodology, if you will— revealed by the Neoplatonic tripartite analysis may be seen in Proclus, where it is manifest in his three-part analysis of a thing—let us say the man, Socrates—according to cause, subsistence and participation.16 Leaving aside a full explication of this metaphysical apparatus, let it suffice for the present purposes to suggest that what we have here is essentially a method for ontological analysis in which every existent is analyzed first and foremost as an 'effect.' This is achieved by making manifest in the case of every analysandum the cosmological relation between God (or, the One) and the cosmos: Since God as cause bestows existence on the cosmos (the 'effect'), we therefore analyze each existent first in way of revealing this; as such, we analyze it first and foremost as Remaining in—or, having its ultimate subsistence in—its vertically proximate cause which itself has its subsistence in an even higher vertical cause, and so on, until we arrive at Gold Himself. In the recourse to 'vertical causes' in this ontological method of analysis, we find that the cosmological imagery—of 'vertically' intermediary cosmic causes between God and sublunar existents—becomes part of the ontological analysis of Socrates himself as cosmic effect—and ultimately as an effect of God. As such, we find, with respect to the Neoplatonic Methodology, that the greater the number of vertically intermediate causes placed between God and Socrates, the greater the impact of 'self as effect' on the philosopher engaging in this ontological analysis. Through its employment of the cosmology of 'hierarchical causal intermediaries,' the ontological analysis of Socrates 'remaining' in his vertically proximate cause—and of that cause's (and hence, of Socrates himself) 'remaining' in an even higher vertical cause, and so on—is uniquely able to imprint the reality of 'self as effect' upon the soul of the analyst himself. For, in enlisting this 'cosmic imagery' in our ontological analysis, we begin every analysis of every analysandum (except for God) with a focus on its essential status as 'effect,' thus engaging ourselves—as analysts—in an exercise which—by impressing us with the requisite awareness of 'our own cosmic contingency'—is preparatory for our own Return. The ontology is in this way the groundwork for enabling Return.

With respect to 'essence+esse' in particular, it is this very exercise which is at play. For, within the context of Neoplatonic tripartite theory, we have found that it is the stage of Remaining—picked out by Proclus' analysis of a thing 'according to [its] cause'— which demarcates the analysandum in its essential contingency—in its essential nature as 'effect.' To emphasize this result, we may simply speak of this first moment of the ontological analysis revealing the analysandum as 'essence' (which is to say, in terms of its essential origin in its cause). Let us turn, then, to an employment of each of Proclus' three stages of analysis to better see Avicenna's 'essence+esse' ontology in its capacity to enliven within our souls the experience of 'self as effect' by invoking the hierarchical cosmic imagery of Remaining, Procession and Reversion:

1. The analysis of Socrates as 'Remaining,' is the analysis of him 'according to cause.' At this stage, the analysis reveals Socrates in his essential relation to a hierarchy of causes in the cosmos. As such, he emerges as an 'essence,' and as such, we might view him as if he were primarily a transcendent form, 'Man,' which, existing only within the cosmic causes, still lacks any 'existence' of its own to speak of. As it relates to our understanding of Avicennian pre-existence, this moment in the analysis of our analysandum, Socrates, reveals him in a 'pre-existent' mode, revealed, at this moment in the ontological analysis, to exist only 'in his cause.'17 Turning to Avicenna, we may identify this 'transcendent' moment of Socrates as 'essence' with his 'existence in the Active Intellect' (the proximate portion of the cosmos which is, in his system the causal origin of sublunar existents), and hence, we might speak of the existence of Socrates 'in' his cause in terms of the essential existence of Socrates (viz., as Man) in the Active Intellect.18 Revealed upon analysis in his essential existence, then, Socrates is said to 'pre-exist' not in a crude sense, but (as we have already rehearsed above), in the sense that he ultimately—and first-most—exists as 'effect,' having his grounding ultimately in the Cause of all causes, God. It is to focus on this aspect of any analysandum that we treat it—or, speak ofit—as an essence. Seen in this way as essence, Socrates is understood in his most general sense as Man, since, with respect to his relationship to the cosmos (and ultimately to the Godhead), Socrates is identical to all other humans; all humans in their essential rootedness as cosmic (and ultimately, divine) products, share an identical causal story: All are first and foremost, effects—or essences.

2. The analysis of Socrates as 'Proceeding' is the analysis of him 'according to subsistence.' At this stage in the analysis, Socrates may be said to 'be' not qua his essential subsistence (i.e., his subsistence 'as essence') in the cosmos (or, in the Active Intellect and ultimately in God) which he shares with all humans, (viz., 'subsistence as effect'), but rather, Socrates is here focused on in a way designed to manifest Socrates' essence as it exists in its own right; viz., this mode of analysis focuses on Socrates' substantial existence. This may be seen as an analysis of Socrates 'according to subsistence' inasmuch as this moment in our analysis heralds the first moment of Socrates' existence qua a particular man (as opposed to as 'man in general'). However, since the overall goal is to enforce the 'contingent' nature of our analysandum as effect (or, essence), we speak even at this second stage of our analysis in a way best reflective of that goal; as such, we speak of the analysandum's existence as 'added to' his 'essence'—hearkening back, even at this second stage, to the first stage of the analysis.

While, together with the above first stage, this second stage of analysis is really enough to make the point about Avicenna's 'essence+esse' ontology, I will suggest a few further points which might help us see in Avicenna's analysis even a sensitivity to the existing substance's Reversion as well. As such, consider this second stage of the analysis as revealing Socrates' substantial existence as a state in which his soul is most perfectly actualized. As such, we turn finally to:

3. The analysis of Socrates as 'Reverting,' is the analysis of him 'according to participation.' At this stage, the analysis of Socrates reveals him in a way which most closely corresponds to the embodied Socrates, as we experience him via the senses. Socrates, as such, may be said to 'be' in the sense of 'be Man in a way which falls short of fully actualized Man.' We might correlate this with 'reversion,' in that it is in this view of Socrates 'as effect' that we enforce the realization that, as 'effects,' existents—and certainly corporeal existents, including of course, the analyst himself— relinquish any claims on unmitigated 'perfection.' As such, even more so than merely reflecting (as was done in the first stage of the analysis) on the analysandum as effect (itself preparatory of the soul for Return), we here further focus on the 'participatory' status of effects, enforcing, as it were, the chasm between all effects and their causes.19 And, as we have already discussed in our analysis of 'self as effect,' it is this very presence of imperfection which entails the need for Reversion, or Return.

As such, we might suggest that while Remaining and Procession respectively turn our attention to a 'pre-existence' and 'existence' on the part of the analysandum, this last moment of the analysis, Reversion, highlights the nature of that analysandum as a diminished existent—though, in light of the first two moments of the analysis—an existent who is ultimately linked to—and hence, may Return to—a more exalted


In the above, then, we have offered a treatment of Proclean tripartite causal analysis of even ordinary, every-day analysanda which, in accordance with the Neoplatonic Methodology, uses the very terms of the analysis to evoke those images—in this case, the imagery of cosmological hierarchies of causes—to best re-orient the analyst's own soul by awakening an awareness of 'self as effect.' It is in this way that self emerges as a contingent, diminished existent in need of striving towards a higher perfection—a higher perfection contained precisely in its higher causes (in the case of Avicenna, the Active Intellect and, ultimately, God). Furthermore, we have suggested that Avicenna's own ontology of 'essence +esse' be taken in precisely this same regard.

In conclusion, then, while we may well take Avicenna's substantive ontological view as inherently Aristotelian—as Rahman's defense of Avicenna reveals—we have here shown how, far from merely avoiding philosophical error, Avicenna, in his recourse to the language of 'essence+ esse' is able to use the terms of the analysis itself to enliven the Imagination, itself in the service of effecting a Return. Far from revealing a crudity in his thought, the presentation of ontology in 'essentialist' terms reflects the operation of the Neoplatonic Methodology.

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