Iridescent Infinity: Participatory Theory and Archetypal Cosmology

This essay, originally written in April 2012, has now been published in Issue 5 of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology, edited by Grant Maxwell and myself.

“A kind of fluid interpenetration belongs to the very nature of all archetypes.  They can only be roughly circumscribed at best.  Their living meaning comes out more from their presentation as a whole than from a single formulation.  Every attempt to focus them more sharply is immediately punished by the intangible core of meaning losing its luminosity.  No archetype can be reduced to a simple formula.  It is a vessel which we can never empty, and never fill.  It has a potential existence only, and when it takes shape in matter it is no longer what it was.  It persists throughout the ages and requires interpreting ever anew.  The archetypes are the imperishable elements of the unconscious, but they change their shape continually.”

– C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

The creative magnificence of the universe is so irreducibly complex that no human framework will ever capture the full extent of its dynamic and indefinable nature. Yet human beings need an orientation in the cosmos to allow the meanings of existence to unfold. The spiritual and intellectual quest of humanity has impelled generation after generation to engage with the divine mystery out of which everything arises, in part to come to a fuller understanding of what our role is within the majesty of the cosmos. This quest has produced a plurality of religious and spiritual traditions that diversely engage and enact spiritual truths through their practices, texts, rituals, celebrations, experiments, and customs.

The rest of this article can be read in Issue 5, Saturn and the Theoretical Foundations of an Emerging Discipline, available in paperback and as a Kindle ebook.

Archai Journal Issue 5

The Harmonic Nonbeing of Evil: Plotinus’s Neoplatonic Mysticism

If a candle burns alone in the darkness, and the flame and its emanating light are all that exist, whence comes the darkness? If everything that exists is One, and the One is Good, whence comes evil? The paradox of Plotinus’s Neoplatonism is before us, the paradox of how all of existence emanates from the One and yet evil still operates in the world. For Plotinus, is evil real or an illusion? If all is One, is anything real, or is all an illusion? Finally, what is the role of the human being, the human soul—in relation, participation, unity, or differentiation—with the One? And with evil?

Candle Flame

Neoplatonism was born in Rome through the writings and teachings of the Platonic philosopher Plotinus in the year 265 ce. Carrying forward Plato’s philosophy while drawing on 600 years of philosophical, religious, and cultural development in the Mediterranean, Plotinus conceived of a “suprarational mysticism”[1] of the divine, the One without a second, in which the universe is a living continuum, from the inanimate matter of minerals to the luminosity of the gods.[2] The One is all things, yet also it is no thing; in order for the One to generate being, it in itself is not being.[3] The One exists, but it exists outside of being and time.[4] “The One,” writes Richard Tarnas, “also called the Good, in an overflow of sheer perfection produces the ‘other’—the created cosmos in all its variety—in a hierarchical series of gradations moving away from this ontological center to the extreme limits of the possible.”[5] The One is like the flame of a candle and the emanating light is the “other,” the overflowing of utmost perfection. A flame cannot help but emit light, and light cannot emanate without a source. They are inseparable, and yet distinct nonetheless. Jacob Sherman describes the emanation of the many from the One thus: “The doctrine of emanation of Plotinus. . . pictures the many as epiphenomena that proceed from the One but do not remain within the One. . . Plotinus’s One remains unmoved within itself, and the many are distinct from this One.”[6] Although the One radiates all things into being, the One itself cannot be interacted with. The candle flame will burn us, while the light will not: the flame and light are distinguishable, and it is clear that while the flame creates the light, the light does not cause the flame.

As existence emanates from the One it radiates out in hierarchical gradations like the fading brightness of a candle’s light. The brightest, closest to the One, is the Intellect, which then radiates out to Soul. Tarnas writes, “The three ‘hypostases’—One, Intellect, and Soul—are not literal entities but rather spiritual dispositions.”[7] Individual human souls, as well as the World Soul, derive from this hypostasis Soul.[8] Again, there is no ultimate difference between these aspects of the One, but rather a more subtle distinction: the light further from the candle flame is distinctly less bright than the closer but it is the same light.

Contemplating the spiritual distinctions of the One brings into question the reality of the world, and particularly the reality of the individual human soul as individual. According to Plotinus, the human soul contains all the hierarchical stratifications of the One; part of the human soul never left the One, never left the core of the candle flame.[9] Yet Plotinus also speaks of the soul’s descent away from the One, into incarnation, saying, “Those souls which descend deepest show their light furthest down.”[10] What is being illuminated by their light? Once again, whence comes the darkness? Sherman writes,

Plotinus’s emanation cosmology sees the contraction of form as an isolated mass surrounded on both sides by two infinities; form floats upon the surface of the chaotic illimitation of nonbeing, and gazes heavenward to the infinite pleromatic vaults of the One’s ineffable simplicity.[11]

This image portrays a dynamic tension between the One, which is outside of being, and the ‘chaotic illimitation of nonbeing’: what emerges between these two different yet parallel infinities is form, existence. A contradiction seems to exist in Plotinus’s thought, for although the One may not have a second, something else seems to exist in relationship to the One by its very nonexistence. All that emanates from the One Plotinus deems to be Good; thus the evil experienced within the world must either not emanate from the One—and therefore not exist—or, if evil is real, then it must be part of the One. Finally, in paradoxical contrast to these first two possibilities, perhaps evil does exist in such utter contrast to the One it can only be named nonbeing, which is what Sherman’s image seems to present. This third possibility appears to place, in a non-spatial sense, both the nonbeing of evil and the One that generates all things, outside of being itself.

Plotinus seems to hold contradictory views on the subject of evil throughout his writings. At times evil appears to be a presence on the edge of being, at the point when the emanation of the One ceases. At others evil seems to be a tangible part of the One expressed by the material realm. Finally, evil also appears to arise only in relationship: the relationship between soul and body, between spirit and matter, and in the interactions between incarnated individuals. Evil shifts from a noun to a verb; it is not a being but rather an action; there are no evil people, only evil deeds.

The individual soul moves away from the divine Intellect and descends into material reality by turning away from the totality of the One and instead focusing inward upon itself. The soul becomes “a deserter from the totality; its differentiation has severed it; its vision is no longer set in the Intellectual; it is a partial thing, isolated, weak, full of care, intent upon the fragment; severed from the whole; it nestles in one form of being.”[12] By focusing on its own particularity the soul becomes particular, and thus an individual. Plotinus presents this movement of the soul as a fall, but he also affirms it as part of a larger movement “determined by the eternal law of nature.”[13] He goes on to say that “there is no inconsistency or untruth in saying the Soul is sent down by God.”[14] Yet once embodied the soul that exists on the periphery of the One’s emanation can potentially forget its origin, depending how far the soul descends. Plotinus writes, “As long as they have not touched the lowest region of process (the point at which non-being begins) there is nothing to prevent them rising once more.”[15] This image gives the sense that non-being, which has a “point” at which it “begins,” is an actual entity, the infinite chaos beyond the One’s power.

Encountering the knowledge of evil and gaining an understanding of sin will not in itself harm the human soul—if that soul returns quickly to its source.[16] According to some interpretations of Plotinus that evil exists outside the One as nonbeing, while according to others evil is present at the periphery of the One’s emanation in the material world. Tarnas writes,

The material world, existing in time and space and perceptible to the senses, is the level of reality furthest from unitary divinity. As the final limit of creation, it is characterized in negative terms as the realm of multiplicity, restriction, and darkness, as lowest in ontological stature—holding the least degree of real being—and as constituting the principle of evil.[17]

It seems clear from this excerpt that matter, and the principle of evil, are on the periphery of the One’s emanation: they have the ‘least degree of real being’ rather than complete nonbeing. Yet, just as it is difficult to differentiate the exact location at which a candle’s light has completely faded and utter darkness begins, the distinction between the end of being and the beginning of nonbeing may be equally blurred.

Plotinus emphasizes that to be in a body is to be “apt to body-punishment,”[18] and even goes so far as to say, “The soul is evil when it is thoroughly mixed with the body and shares its experiences and has all the same opinions.”[19] To live a divine life as an embodied soul one must have “detachment from all things here below, scorn all earthly pleasures.”[20] Lloyd Gerson elaborates on the point of the evil of matter:

As Plotinus reasons, if anything besides the One is going to exist, then there must be a conclusion of the process of production from the One. The beginning of evil is the act of separation from the One by Intellect, an act which the One itself ultimately causes. The end of the process of production from the One defines a limit, like the end of a river going out from its sources. Beyond the limit is matter or evil. (Emphasis added.)[21]

In Gerson’s interpretation of Plotinus, matter, and therefore evil, are caused by an act of the One. However, Plotinus also indicates in the Enneads that matter is still able to participate in the Good of the One, in seeming contradiction with himself. He writes,

No principle can prevent anything from partaking, to the extent of it own individual receptivity, in the nature of Good. If, therefore, Matter has always existed, that existence is enough to ensure its participation in the being which, according to each receptivity, communicates the supreme Good universally. (Emphasis added.)[22]

I emphasize Plotinus’s repeated point about matter’s individual receptivity because this indicates the limited participation matter is able to have with the Good. In turn, this excerpt of Plotinus can be contrasted with Tarnas’s interpretation of Plotinus’s Neoplatonism, which “portrayed nature as permeated by divinity, a noble expression of the World Soul. Stars and planets, light, plants, even stones possessed a numinous dimension.”[23] This image of numinous nature appears to indicate an intimate participation of matter in the Good, implying that matter itself is not evil.

If matter itself is not evil, but a human soul becomes evil by being in a material body, how can this contradiction be reconciled? Returning to Plotinus’s statement about the soul in the body we can reinterpret his words slightly: ‘The soul is evil when it is thoroughly mixed with the body and shares its experiences and has all the same opinions.’ The body, and matter in general, is only evil when it becomes an object of desire that impedes a soul from returning to its divine source. Matter can only be the goal of desire for beings who are self-conscious and able to choose material desire, specifically human beings. “This is not because body itself is evil,” Gerson writes.

The evil in bodies is the element in them that is not dominated by form. One may be desirous of that form, but in that case what one truly desires is that form’s ultimate intelligible source in Intellect. More typically, attachment to the body represents a desire not for form but a corrupt desire for the non-intelligible or limitless.[24]

Evil then can be interpreted not as an entity—it remains nonbeing—but as existing as an action. Acts of evil, or acts of any kind, take place within the unity of the One because the One is simultaneously a multiplicity. Plotinus writes, “In virtue of the unity the individual is preserved by the All; in virtue of the multiplicity of things having various contacts, difference often brings about mutual hurt; one thing, seeking its own need, is detrimental to another.”[25] He goes on to speak of the action of the entire Cosmos coordinating the beings within it:

The beings thus co-ordinated are not the causes; the cause is the co-ordinating All; at the same time it is not to be thought of as acting upon a material distinct from itself, for there is nothing external to it since it is the cause by actually being all.[26]

From this perspective, any punishments for wrongdoings, for temporary acts of evil, can be seen as medicine for the whole although they are experienced as suffering by the individual part.[27] Furthermore, unmerited suffering, for example from disease or poverty, Plotinus considers accidental consequences of the greater actions of the All, and not as individual punishments.[28]

As the One radiates out from itself, through Intellect, Soul, and on to incarnated materiality, the One’s emanations do not actually come into being until they look back at their source: their moment of contemplation is their moment of becoming. This brings up the question of what might happen if part of the emanation never looked back—would it never come into being? Might this be how evil can be present in the One’s creation? If something never looked back it would not come into being, making it nonbeing, meanwhile it is not a form of nonbeing that enters the One from outside. The monism is kept intact while the action of evil—of not looking back or literally re-specting the One—is accounted for within creation.

The soul’s encounter with evil is a necessity for the soul to be able to contemplate and respect the One. Plotinus writes, “Where the faculty is incapable of knowing without contact, the experience of evil brings the clearer perception of Good.”[29] Matter is only considered evil when it impedes the human soul from returning to the One, yet paradoxically evil also seems to be necessary for the soul to know how to turn back toward the One, toward the Good. Gerson writes, “To deny the necessity of evil is to deny the necessity of the Good.”[30] Evil’s role within the One is to produce a harmony that weaves through the notes of the melody of the Good. It is the self-consciously acting human soul that allows, through its actions, the necessity of evil to play its role in creation. The “negative reality” of evil, writes Tarnas, “plays a necessary role in a larger design, and ultimately affects neither the perfection of the One nor the well-being of the philosopher’s highest self”[31]—the highest aspect of the human soul that always remains with the One. The very perfection of the One seems only to be completed by the dynamic harmony evil provides. The candle flame is brightest, and therefore contingent upon, the very darkness that lets it shines forth.


Works Cited

Gerson, Lloyd. “Plotinus.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed March 13, 2013. <;.

Givens, Terryl L. When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.

O’Brien, Elmer, ed., The Essential Plotinus. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981.

Plotinus. Enneads. V.2.1. Translated by A.H. Armstrong. 7 volumes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966-88.

Plotinus. The Heart of Plotinus: The Essential Enneads. Edited by Algis Uzdavinys. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Inc., 2009.

Sherman, Jacob H. “A Genealogy of Participation.” In The Participatory Turn, edited by Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman, 81-112. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1991.


[1]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, (New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1991), 84.

[2] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus: The Essential Enneads, ed. Algis Uzdavinys (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Inc., 2009), 136-7.

[3] Plotinus, Enneads, V.2.1, trans. A.H. Armstrong, 7 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966-88), 5:59.

[4] Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 76.

[5] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[6] Jacob H. Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, ed. Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 96.

[7] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[8] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 136.

[9] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 137.

[10] Ibid, 139.

[11] Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” 89.

[12] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 163-4.

[13] Ibid, 165.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 146.

[16] Ibid, 165.

[17] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[18] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 140.

[19] Plotinus, Enneads, I.2.3.

[20] Elmer O’Brien, ed., The Essential Plotinus (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981), 88 (Enneads VI, 9:9, 11).

[21] Lloyd Gerson, “Plotinus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, accessed March 13, 2013, <;, section 2, para. 15.

[22] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 166.

[23] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 213.

[24] Gerson, “Plotinus,” section 2, para. 17.

[25] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 151.

[26] Ibid, 152.

[27] Ibid, 157.

[28] Plotinus, Enneads, IV.3.16-17.

[29] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 167.

[30] Gerson, “Plotinus,” section 2, para. 17.

[31] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

Full of Gods: Divine Participation for an Ecological Era

Understanding the relationship between the natural world, the human, and the Divine has been a driving inquiry of both Western philosophy and religion from the ancient Hellenic and Hebrew eras to the present. Such fundamental questions seem to pervade human thought, as each new generation grows up with a desire to discern their purpose for living, the nature of the world, and how both came to be. At our current crucial moment in history, in which much of humanity’s devastation of Earth has led the planet to the brink of irreversible crisis, such questions of the historical understanding of the relationship of the Divine to the world could be essential to moving forward in a sustainable manner.

In the opening chapter of The Participatory Turn, Jacob Sherman lays out three major shifts in the philosophy of divine participation with humanity and the world. Each of these participatory turns, which occurred during the course of the last two millennia, were informed by the previous understanding of participation and seeded the development of the subsequent concepts. The three turns are the formal participation of Plato, the existential participation of Thomas Aquinas, and the creative participation of Friedrich Schelling. Threads of each philosophy have been carried forward to the present moment, and can provide a basis for understanding the relationship between the Divine and the natural world in light of the ecological crisis.

The concept of participation in philosophy began with Plato, who used the term methexis to describe the relationship between the realm of eternal Forms, or Ideas, and the realm of incarnate things. Neither of these realms exist independently from the other, nor are they identical. Rather, the realm of divine Ideas informs each incarnated thing, and each of those things partakes in the Forms that give them being. According to Plato, the incarnated beings are able to participate in the Forms because they are recalled, by means of anamnesis or recollection, from prenatal experience. For example, an oak tree incarnates as an acorn, and as it matures it recalls the Form of Oak Tree, in which it participates, from its prenatal experience of the realm of Forms.

In Plato’s conception of participation the world is infused with gods, the Divine saturating the world of becoming. The realm that knits the Forms and the manifest world together into reality is the realm of metaxy, in which daemons carry prayers and blessings between mortals and gods. One such daimon is Eros: love, therefore, is one of the beings that weaves divinity into the material world. Plato aims “to secure the value of the world of becoming by exposing it to the contagion of the Good.”[1] As pertains to much of contemporary humanity’s current relationship with nature, such an understanding of the divine presence informing the world provides an ancient argument for reverence towards the Earth.

The existential participatory turn was put forward by Thomas Aquinas from more of a religious stance than a philosophical one. While Plato addressed the question of what a being is, Thomas takes up the inquiry of why that being exists. Thomas recognized creation as a gift bestowed by God, which also holds implications for a historical study of reverence for the Earth. If the natural world is mistreated or destroyed it is a form of irreverence for the generosity of God. For Thomas, “Creation does not describe a transformation as if from one state to another, but rather a radical relationality, a state of dependence upon the divine.”[2] He calls this relationship causal participation, for the Divine is causing a being to exist. This existence does not belong to the created being, but rather is the imparted gift received from the Divine and is ultimately within the keeping of the Divine. “As the principle of all participated beings, God overflows, even exteriorizes Godself in the generous diffusion that makes creation possible.”[3] Existence is the limited potency of an Infinite Act of God.

One can see the shift in perception of the nature of the Divine from the Platonic to the Medieval Christian era. For Plato the idea of infinity indicated chaos. Therefore, to be perfect, the Divine must be bounded and limited. As Hellenic thought was exposed to Hebraic consciousness and the mystery religions in Alexandria, Neoplatonism developed and with it a new conception of the Divine as infinite. This co-mingling of ideas was carried through Christianity to the time of Thomas Aquinas; it informed his understanding of existence as the infinity of God gifted as a limited potential in mortal beings. As regards the current environmental movement, such a vision of divine existence within a limited creation indicates the sacrality of the natural world, as well as a realization that this world is finite. It calls for respect and preservation, to revere the Divine and conserve its material presence.

Neither the account of participation in Plato nor in Thomas accounts for the creative agency of the human being. This conception of creativity did not exist in the ancient world, as the ability to create was considered the property of the Divine alone. However, as this concept of creativity progressed through history, it instigated the third participatory turn. Human creativity is a form of participation in God’s creativity, but while humans are finitely creative, the Divine remains infinitely creative.

As an understanding of human creativity developed with modernity, the clear distinction between the Divine and the created world began to blur. Benedict de Spinoza developed a pantheistic description of the world which obliterates any boundary between the divine and mortal realms. According to Spinoza, God and nature are one and the same. This expressivist philosophy is no longer participatory, as there can be no relationality between realms. It does, however, plant the seeds for the third participatory turn. “Spinoza, therefore, finds creativity everywhere; every creature participates in creativity and has the power of expression because every creature is God expressing Godself.”[4]

Not only does pantheism do away with participation, it also negates any reason for moral responsibility. If every act is a creative expression of God, then acts of harm or evil can no longer be distinguished from acts of goodness. In regards to acts of environmental devastation, there is no difference between clear-cutting an old-growth forest and protecting endangered species. Both are acts of God, and therefore neither one morally outweighs the other.

The third participatory turn, the creative turn of Schelling, emerges from the lineage of Plato and Thomas Aquinas, and is partially in response to Spinoza’s pantheism. Schelling’s panentheistic view is related to Thomas’ vision of existence as a gift from the Divine, which is an externalizing of God from Godself. Panentheism, instead of equating God with nature, sees God both within nature and transcending nature. Schelling also accounts for the creativity of humans, taking humanity from the level of puppets animated by divine existence to that of creative agents expressing God’s infinite creativity. “Schelling sees everything, humans and nature alike, as alive and creative through their relationship to a living, creative divinity.”[5]

According to Schelling, there is a complexity within God that allows God not only to exist as a transcendent power but also to exceed that transcendence and spill over into immanent form. “Schelling transforms the notion of subjectivity into a dynamic concept of the self as excessive, the subject as that which does not simply coincide with itself and therefore goes beyond itself.”[6] God is composed of three powers: one centripetal, one centrifugal, and a third which binds the first two together in a creative tension. It is this creative tension that allows for the emergence of the world and the individual creative agencies within that world. Therefore, Schelling not only accounts for the essence of Plato and the existence of Aquinas, but also the freedom, imagination, and creative will experienced by the modern human as expressed over the course of a lifetime. “We participate in the Absolute’s own creativity and so, through genuine artwork, reveal the infinite within finite forms.”[7]

Schelling’s panentheism provides an argument for cultivating a reverence for the Divine within the natural world, and also a sense of creative responsibility in our actions towards the Earth. Schelling describes the third power in his concept of God as a universal soul linking nature to spirit, yet all ultimately are the Divine. For Schelling, we live in an ensouled cosmos with which humans have a relationship. This provides a moral reason to care for the Earth and to protect it from wanton destruction.

All three participatory turns indicate a continuous thread running throughout history of a suffusion of the natural world, and the human, with the sacredness of the Divine. Yet today, as the industrial capitalist system consumes Earth’s finite bounty, little trace of this perception of the Divine in the world seems to remain within Western consciousness. For many, the dominant world view has departed even from the mechanized pantheism of Spinoza to an anthropotheism, with the human as God, which has completely disenchanted the world outside the human. The divine subjectivity of God lives in the human alone, if even there. In just over two millennia, nature has gone from being wholly informed by the Good, to a store of untapped resources made good only by human creative ingenuity.

To bring a halt to the rampant destruction of our home planet, humanity needs to recover the ability to perceive and commune with the divinity saturating the cosmos. Participation is a mode of reconnection that can allow one to see humanity’s embeddedness in, and partnership to, the world that we are. The participatory philosophies of Plato, Thomas, and Schelling each offer a crucial step in understanding one’s relationship with the Divine. While no one of these philosophies alone will serve to bring humanity forward into a harmonious ecological era, they provide the essential seeds for the future garden of that relationship to grow. Perhaps the Earth community stands on the threshold of a fourth participatory turn. If engaged fully, that vision may mature into a Form beyond what has yet been imagined by the human mind, a Form currently resting in the imagination of the Divine.

Work Cited

Sherman, Jacob H. “A Genealogy of Participation.” In The Participatory Turn, edited by Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman, 81-112. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.

[1] Jacob H. Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, ed. Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 84.

[2] Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” 87.

[3] Ibid, 91.

[4] Ibid, 97.

[5] Ibid, 100.

[6] Ibid, 100.

[7] Ibid, 102.