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Cosmic Consciousness, by Richard Maurice Bucke, [1901], at



Plotinus was born A. D. 204 and died 274.

Plotinus held that in order to perfect knowledge the subject and object must be united—that the intelligent agent and the thing understood . . . must not be in separation* [55: 716].

He held that in order to perfect knowledge the subject and object must be united [85: 716].

Here follows a letter:

Plotinus to Flaccus [188: 78–81].

I applaud your devotion to philosophy: I rejoice to hear that your soul has set sail, like the returning Ulysses, for its native land—that glorious, that only real country—the world of unseen truth. To follow philosophy the senator Rogatianus, one of the noblest of my disciples, gave up the other day all but the whole of his patrimony, set free his slaves and surrendered all the honors of his station.

Tidings have reached us that Valerian has been defeated, and is now in the hands of Sapor. The threats of Franks and Allemanni, of Goths and Persians, are alike terrible by turns to our degenerate Rome. In days like these, crowded with incessant calamities, the inducements to a life of contemplation are more than ever strong. Even my quiet existence seems now to grow somewhat sensible of the advance of years. Age alone I am unable to debar from my retirement. I am weary already of this prison-house, the body, and calmly await the day when the divine nature within me shall be set free from matter.*

The Egyptian priests used to tell us that a single touch with the wing of their holy bird could charm the crocodile into torpor; it is not thus speedily,

* "When to a man who understands, the Self has become all things" [150: 312].

t "Objects gross and the unseen soul are one" [193: 173]. "The perception seems to be one in which all the senses unite into one sense. In which you become the object" [63].

* The sense of continued life. ''And as for you, death, and you bitter lung of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me" [193: 77].

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my dear friend, that the pinions of your soul will have power to still the untamed body. The creature will yield only to watchful, strenuous constancy of habit. Purify your soul from all undue hope and fear about earthly things, mortify the body, deny self—affections as well as appetites—and the inner eye will begin to exercise its clear and solemn vision.

You ask me to tell you how we know, and what is our criterion of certainty. To write is always irksome to me. But for the continual solicitations of Porphyry I should not have left a line to survive me. For your own sake and for your father's my reluctance shall be overcome.

External objects present us only with appearances. Concerning them, therefore, we may be said to possess opinion rather than knowledge. The distinctions in the actual world of appearance are of import only to ordinary and practical men. Our question lies with the ideal reality that exists behind appearance. How does the mind perceive these ideas? Are they without us, and is the reason, like sensation, occupied with objects external to itself? What certainty would we then have—what assurance that our perception was infallible? The object perceived would be a something different from the mind perceiving it. We should have then an image instead of reality. It would be monstrous to believe for a moment that the mind was unable to perceive ideal truth exactly as it is, and that we had not certainty and real knowledge concerning the world of intelligence. It follows, therefore, that this region of truth is not to be investigated as a thing external to us, and so only imperfectly known. It is within us. Here the objects we contemplate and that which contemplates are identical—both are thought. The subject cannot surely know an object different from itself. The world of ideas lies within our intelligence. Truth, therefore, is not the agreement of our apprehension of an external object with the object itself. It is the agreement of the mind with itself. Consciousness, therefore, is the sole basis of certainty: The mind is its own witness. Reason sees in itself that which is above itself as its source; and again, that which is below itself as still itself once more.

Knowledge has three degrees—opinion, science, illumination.* The means or instrument of the first is sense; of the second dialectic; of the third intuition. To the last I subordinate reason. It is absolute knowledge founded on the identity of the mind knowing with the object known."

There is a raying out of all orders of existence, an external emanation from the ineffable One. There is again a returning impulse, drawing all upwards and inwards towards the centre from whence all came. Love, as Plato in the "Banquet" beautifully says, is child of poverty and plenty. In the amorous quest of the soul after the good lies the painful sense of fall and deprivation.

*The world of ideas divides itself into three spheres—that of instinct; that of abstractions; that of specialism" [5: 141]. Compare Bacon: "The first creature of God in the work of the days was the light of the sense, the last the light of reason, and His Sabbath work ever since is the illumination of His Spirit" [35:82]. Plotinus, Bacon and Balzac all teach (and every one who has had experience will agree with them) that there is as great an interval between Cosmic Consciousness and Self Consciousness as exists between the latter and Simple Consciousness.

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But that love is blessing, is salvation, is our guardian genius; without it the centrifugal law would overpower us, and sweep our souls out far from their source toward the cold extremities of the material and the manifold. The wise man recognizes the idea of the good within him. This he develops by withdrawal into the holy place of his own soul. He who does not understand how the soul contains the beautiful within itself, seeks to realize beauty without by laborious production. His aim should rather be to concentrate and simplify, and so to expand his being; instead of going out into the manifold, to forsake it for the One, and so to float upwards towards the divine fount of being whose stream flows within him.

You ask, how can we know the Infinite? I answer, not by reason. It is the office of reason to distinguish and define. The Infinite, therefore, cannot be ranked among its objects. You can only apprehend the Infinite by a faculty superior to reason, by entering into a state in which you are your finite self no longer—in which the divine essence is communicated to you. This is ecstasy [Cosmic Consciousness]. It is the liberation of your mind from its finite consciousness. Like only can apprehend like; when you thus cease to be finite, you become one with the Infinite. In the reduction of your soul to its simplest self, its divine essence, you realize this union—this identity.

But this sublime condition is not of permanent duration. It is only now and then that we can enjoy this elevation (mercifully made possible for us) above the limits of the body and the world. I myself have realized it but three times as yet,* and Porphyry hitherto not once. All that tends to purify and elevate the mind will assist you in this attainment, and facilitate the approach and the recurrence of these happy intervals. There are, then, different roads by which this end may be reached. The love of beauty which exalts the poet; that devotion to the One and that ascent of science which makes the ambition of the philosopher, and that love and those prayers by which some devout and ardent soul tends in its moral purity towards perfection. These are the great highways conducting to that height above the actual and the particular, where we stand in the immediate presence of the Infinite, who shines out as from the deeps of the soul.

* Plotinus (as he tells us) had had three periods of illumination at the time of writing this letter to Flaccus—that is, by the time he was fifty-six years old. We are told by Porphyry that between the age of fifty-nine and sixty-four (that is, during the six years of their intercourse) that he had four periods, making at least seven altogether. It will be noticed that what Plotinus says as to what aids in the passage to Cosmic Consciousness is precisely what is taught by all those who have attained—by Gautama, Jesus, Paul and the rest.

The following passage [83: 336] may be taken as a fair summing up of Plotinus’ philosophy as this was understood by the Neoplatonists:

The human souls which have descended into corporeality are those which have allowed themselves to be ensnared by sensuality and overpowered by lust.

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They now seek to cut themselves loose from their true being; and, striving after independence, they assume a false existence. They must turn back from this; and, since they have not lost their freedom, a conversion is still possible.

Here, then, we enter upon the practical philosophy. Along the same road by which it descended, the soul must retrace its steps back to the supreme Good. It must first of all return to itself. This is accomplished by the practice of virtue, which aims at likeness to God, and leads up to God. In the ethics of Plotinus all the older schemes of virtue are taken over, and arranged in a graduated series. The lowest stage is that of the civil virtues, then follow the purifying, and last of all the divine virtues. The civil virtues merely adorn the life, without elevating the soul. That is the office of the purifying virtues, by which the soul is freed from sensuality, and led back to itself, and thence to the nous. By means of ascetic observances the man becomes once more a spiritual and enduring being, free from all sin. But there is still a higher attainment; it is not enough to be sinless, one must become "God." This is reached through contemplation of the primeval Being, the One; or, in other words, through an ecstatic approach to it. Thought cannot attain to this, for thought reaches only to the nous, and is itself a kind of motion. Thought is a mere preliminary to communion with God. It is only in a state of perfect passivity and repose that the soul can recognize and touch the primeval Being. Hence in order to this highest attainment the soul must pass through a spiritual curriculum. Beginning with the contemplation of corporeal things in their multiplicity and harmony, it then retires upon itself and withdraws into the depths of its own being, rising thence to the nous, the world of ideas. But even there it does not find the Highest, the One; it still hears a voice saying, "Not we have made ourselves." The last stage is reached when, in the highest tension and concentration, beholding in silence and utter forgetfulness of all things, it is able as it were to lose itself. Then it may see God, the fountain of life, the source of being, the origin of all good, the root of the soul. In that moment it enjoys the highest indescribable bliss; it is as it were swallowed up of divinity, bathed in the light of eternity.


The writer has been able to learn but little of the outer life of Plotinus. Details of his illumination beyond what he tells us in the letter above quoted are equally wanting. But his own mention of the three "happy intervals," what he says of "this sublime condition" and the character of his philosophy makes it certain that he was a genuine case of Cosmic Consciousness. Unfortunately his age at the time of first illumination is unknown. Plotinus, however, having been born 204, having commenced the study of philosophy in the year 232, at the age of twenty-eight,

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and having written the above letter in 260, when fifty-six years of age (it was in that year that Valerian was taken prisoner by Sapor), would probably have been between thirty and forty at the time of his first illumination.

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