Plotinus, Inception and the levels of the self
I’ve been reading Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus. It’s marvellous - only 100 pages long, yet so much wisdom and poetry in it. My favourite passage in it is when Hadot talks about the ‘levels of the self’.
Plotinus believed in what Hadot calls ‘the hierarchy of realities’: at the top of the hierarchy is the One, God, the source of everything. Then comes the ‘Nous’, the intellect or Mind which rules all things. Then comes the psyche, or soul, which connects the intelligence to the world of matter, and then finally matter. Plotinus believed that the lower stages of the hierarchy flow down or ‘emanate’ from the upper stages, becoming progressively less simple, perfect and real. They owe their existence and their reality to the One, while the One is itself simple, perfect and self-sufficient. He was the opposite of a materialist, then - he thought matter owes its existence to Mind.
I don’t completely understand this either, to be honest. But let’s press on.
Hadot tells us that these ‘levels of reality’ also refer to ‘levels of the self’. The construction of the self mirrors the construction of cosmic reality. Our selves have multiple levels - matter, the psyche (which connects body and mind), the Nous or discriminating intelligence, and finally the One, the spark of God within us. Our consciousness usually exists only at the lower end of this hierarchy - in the realm of matter, and of material desires. But nonetheless, the upper levels of our self are still there, connected to God, even if we're not conscious of it.
It's an amazing thought - right now, a level of my self is in heaven. But I only become conscious of this divine level in my self in very rare moments of ecstasy. In such moments we don't actually reach anywhere 'new' - our consciousness simply steps out onto the glorious penthouse of our self, as it were. We realize 'oh, I'm home!' The upper level is blissfully familiar to us, because we all came from the One, but forgot and got caught up in the lower levels.
Plotinus writes: ‘Not everything in the soul is immediately perceptile, rather it comes through to ‘us’ when it reaches percetion. Yet as long as a part of our soul is active but does not communicate [this fact] to the perceptual apparatus then the activity does not reach the entire soul.’
Hadot explains this passage thus:
Consciousness is a point of view, a centre of perspective. For us, our ‘self’ coincides with that point from which a perspective is opened up for us, be it into the world or onto our souls. In other words, in order for a psychic activity to be ‘ours’, it must be conscious. Consciousness then - and along with it our ‘self’ - is situated, like a median or an intermediate centre, between two zones of darkness, stretching anove and below it: on the one hand, the silent and unconscious life of our ‘self’ in God; on the other, the silent and unconscious life of the body. By means of our reason, we can discover the existence of these upper and lower levels.
This reminds one very much of Ken Wilber and his integral philosophy. Wilber also speaks of a hierarchy of realities, or ‘great chain of being’, which exists both in cosmic reality and in the self (pictured on the left). Wilber’s philosophy is, in fact, quite influenced by Plotinus. However, there’s a big difference between the two. With Plotinus, the ascent of the soul from the lower realms to the higher realms comes by trying to ‘forget’ the lower levels - forget the body, forget the emotions, forget sex, forget memories or the unconscious, forget the things of this world, forget everything except God. Wilber’s integral philosophy instead tries to include and integrate the lower levels in the ascent to the One - include the body, include the emotions, include sex, include the unconscious. Because if you try to forget this stuff or deny it, it will come back and haunt you, and block your ascent.
So the modern neoplatonism of Wilber and others is much more Jungian, one could say. It tries to integrate the lower and the higher levels of the self, including the unconscious.
I thought of Plotinus, Wilber and Jung when I was at a conference on psychedelics earlier this month, and a philosopher called Dave King talked about the spectrum of consciousness. He used this diagram to illustrate his point:
Most of these ‘levels of the self’ happen beyond our conscious awareness, although they’re always ‘running’. Sometimes, our consciousness moves down the spectrum and we can access these lower levels - when we fall asleep and start dreaming, for example, and we are able to access unconscious desires, habits and memories.
King suggests that spiritual techniques like psychedelic drugs or meditation can help us to move the 'threshold of consciousness' down, to unlock lower levels of the self, and to intervene. We can learn to consciously access and alter levels that are usually autonomic and unconscious, for healing purposes.
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example, we learn how to consciously access and alter automatic belief patterns. But we may be able to go deeper than that through more contemplative or ecstatic practices - unlocking and altering deep repressed memories, or autonomic processes like our immune system. King gave various examples of people who had managed to change auto-immune illnesses like allergies or even multiple sclerosis using psychedelics. Perhaps we can even go down and alter our processes at the cellular level - becoming conscious of our DNA or the chemical constituents of plants.
Now in Plotinus’ model of the ascent of the soul, we forget the lower levels. They exist only to be disciplined, silenced and ultimately expunged as the soul flies up the One. But compare this to Plotinus’ most famous student, St Augustine. In his Confessions, Augustine plumbs the depths of his memories, his desires, his body, in order to remember who he is, in order to rediscover the deepest level of his self, which is God.
Where Plotinus flies up and tries to forget the lower levels, Augustine goes down, and tries to remember. That is a much more modern approach - the way up is the way down. Take the elevator down, all the way down, even into the limbo level, to try and remind oneself, that this is all a dream, that there is a divine reality which we have forgotten and left behind.
This was meant to be a blog about how these ideas play out in the film Inception, which seems influenced by some of these neoplatonic ideas. In Inception, Cobb rides the elevator of consciousness all the way down, through memories to the unconscious, in order to try and wake up.
The film is about one of the great risks of the Platonic mystical journey - how do you know, in your attempt to leave this world and ‘wake up’ to a higher spiritual reality, that you are not in fact merely leaving one dream for another? How do you know you have actually woken up?