Phenomenology of Astrology

This phenomenological exploration, originally written in December 2013, was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Immanence: The Journal of Applied Mythology, Legend, and Folktale.

Prologue: Cosmos in Ellipsis

As I climb higher up the gray switchback staircase of rickety wooden boards my body tenses with the increasing height, even as my mind knows I am safe, that the stairs beneath my feet will support me. Already present is that indescribable bodily sense, that physical intuition that seems only able to be captured wordlessly, by something as unarticulated as an ellipsis . . . I step out onto the gravel of the roof to be met by the sight of the flaming orb of the setting Sun. This closest of stars burns the clarity from the landscape, blurring the features of the horizon line being pulled toward it: hill, forest, and stretch of ocean I can only perceive in memory as the deepening gold of sunset shatters my sight into uncountable, undifferentiable monads of color.

Sitting on the wide ledge of the roof my body settles into an accustomed level of comfort at this new height. But if I lean closer to the edge, to glance below at the street, then this indescribable bodily sense flares up once again, a seeming leap of my heart into my throat that signifies danger or delight I cannot tell. Why is it that looking down four stories at unforgiving concrete gives the same bodily sensation as looking deeply into the eyes of one I love? Wherein lies the truth of this . . .

Looking away from the Sun I turn to my left to see the Moon seated aloft in a soft indigo sky. The reverberating green echo of the Sun’s shape slowly fades from my vision as the Moon’s gentler light fills my gaze instead. The relationship of these two celestial bodies feels familiar . . . and my body knows it before I do . . . Ah yes, I stood upon a mountain exactly a month ago today, positioned as a third body between these two heavenly beings, seeing them in this same triangular relationship once again. I feel this, sense this, intuit this, I . . . this, my body . . . this: this relationship, this interaction.

Whenever I behold a celestial body ablaze in the night sky it stops me in my tracks, without fail. My body is commanded to stop, to wonder, to worship these orbs. My breath catches. It feels not unlike falling in love . . . over and over and over, with each wandering star I witness. The same as looking down from some great height, but rather it is looking up . . . No it is looking out, a looking out into the depths of space. To behold the Sun, the Moon, a thousand stars is to look up, to look out, and to look down into the greatest depths all at once. No wonder we lose our balance, no wonder our bodies react, they catch us and remind us that gravity is real.

I have seen countless sunsets but no one is the same, no one is ever worth looking away from before it has made its perfected exit. I never say to myself, “Not this time, I have seen this before.” It now becomes impossible to look away as the ocean swallows the flaming disc of molten gold. In these final moments of a day I will never see again I feel my heart pulled, as though by an emotion-laden gravitational force, toward the Sun. My heart strains within my chest to follow the Sun beyond the crashing purple waves.

Wash over me, oh descending night . . . let me drown once more in your celestial waters.

Introduction: An Experiential Astrology

“The stars are like letters which inscribe themselves at every moment in the sky . . . . Everything in the world is full of signs. . . . All events are coordinated. . . . All things depend on each other; as has been said, ‘Everything breathes together.’” – Plotinus

Go outside on a clear night. Gaze up into the sky, let the points of light that have been traveling for minutes or millennia enter into you through your eyes. I ask not what do you see, but rather, what does it feel like? Your eyes are drawn to one particular body blazing like a white flame in the western sky. A wandering planet, visible at a different height above the horizon with each passing night—only to disappear into the overwhelming light of the Sun for an extended period of time, to once again be found shining in the indigo skies preceding dawn. Your body quivers in response to this gem-like orb, truly like a bright diamond set among a net of precious stones. Beauty. How can this not be an experience of Beauty, an archetypal vision burning forth in the physical realm? You watch Venus slowly sink beyond the blackened waves of the Earth’s greatest sea, a trail of Venus-shine tracing a path directly from the planet to where your feet stand on a grassy cliff’s edge. A geometrical relationship exists between your body and the body of Venus, but you also feel a psychic connection as well: beauty shines forth from this planet, a beauty which you cannot help but feel resonating internally as well. Distill all of this moment to its essence, to Beauty.

In the ancient world astronomy and astrology were a single science, to be practiced as a unified discipline of contemplating what Plato called the “moving image of eternity”[1] that is the night sky. With the rise of modernity, astronomy and astrology diverged, astronomy to become a science solely of mathematical physics and celestial mechanics, while astrology was relegated to the realm of superstition and pseudoscience. Contemporary research on astrology, however, has come to affirm “a highly significant––indeed a pervasive––correspondence between planetary movements and human affairs.”[2] This correspondence is perceptible in the position of the planets at the time of one’s birth, as well as in the transiting movement of the planets in relation to the birth chart throughout one’s life, and the continuously changing dynamics of the planets’ relational positions to each other. The correlated expression is of an archetypal nature: the character or energy of the planets is expressed in a multivalence of ways both by human individuals and in collective cultural and natural events.

An astrological chart is a two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional solar system, shown from a geocentric perspective but using heliocentric calculations to predict the specific locations of the planets (Figure 1). Sometimes in the practice of astrology it can be easy to become absorbed in the planetary archetypes as symbols, as they are manifested in the human psyche. Just as astronomy has forgotten it was once completed by astrology, perhaps sometimes astrology too can forget to look back out into the starry sky to gain greater understanding, and not just to the multidimensional manifestations of the archetypes in human events. If phenomenology is meant to bring us, as Husserl said, “back to the things themselves,” perhaps a phenomenological approach to astrology may be in order, to experience at all levels the archetypal energies pulsating through all dimensions of the cosmos.

The Sun

Why is it we are so compelled to watch the sunset? On clear days the Sun is visible all through the daylight hours, yet it is usually only when the Sun is near the horizon at dusk and dawn that the desire to suspend whatever we might be doing simply to watch overcomes us. The Sun is most accessible to the naked eye at this time. The explosion of color—of rose, vermillion, gold, magenta, orange, crimson, indigo—as the sunlight passes through the greatest density of Earth’s atmosphere is like watching a cosmic painter improvise with an infinite watercolor set on living canvas. How could we look away?

The Sun in the birth chart represents the conscious self, what one identifies as, what we name ourselves, how we shine in the world, the will to be, to exist. The Sun illuminates, focuses, radiates, integrates. It is the autonomous self, the ego, the part of ourselves that says “I am.” When I gaze at the horizon illuminated by the setting Sun, the “I” that I call myself—the “I” whose personality is reflected in the position of the Sun in my birth chart, the location at which the actual Sun appeared to be from my situated position on a moving Earth—is gazing out at the Sun that contains all “I”s. Every birth chart contains a Sun, every person has a self whose personality is reflected in the planetary and zodiacal relationships to that Sun. Yet it is all the same Sun. Each one of us has a personal relationship to this celestial body that gives life to the Earth, gives movement to the solar system. When we look at the Sun, not only do we see our self reflected, we see all selves reflected back to us. No wonder it is so hard to look away.

Yet when the Sun sets the starry sky can begin to shine forth. When the self steps aside, all the other persons of our being are able to come forth and shine with their own archetypal colors.

The Moon

A few nights ago I was walking down a busy city street at night, cars passing back and forth, people hurrying in every direction, home from work, onto buses, into subway stations. Stepping around the corner of a tall building and looking up through the maze of power lines blocking a dark, almost star-less sky, I was struck by the sight of the Moon, barely a crescent of light showing on its face, yet in its darkness still visible all the way around. The dark orb appeared to be hanging so close to the Earth, a haunting reminder that not all the world is contained in the narrow field of our bustling urban lives. Yet I was amazed to see no one else stopped to stare at this fantastic apparition far more beautiful than any of the hurried activity occurring down at the street level.

The Moon astrologically represents our relational self, the emotions, feelings, the body. It is the mother-child relationship, that which cares and nurtures, and that which desires to be cared for and nurtured. The Moon is the matrix of being, the family, the home, the past, our most intimate selves. It is what our conscious self is unconscious of, sometimes invisible in its intimacy. We can become so accustomed to seeing the Moon night after night, or as a pale sphere in the daytime sky, that we forget its presence if we are too wrapped up in the overly focused narrowness of our ego-driven lives. It does not demand attention. Yet the Moon is always present, the closest celestial body to Earth, affecting the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, mirroring the ebb and flow of our changing emotions and bodily sensations.

From Earth we always see the same face of the Moon; the Moon’s rotation on its axis and its orbit about the Earth take the same amount of time. This physical characteristic gives the impression that the Moon does not rotate at all, which contributed to the long-held belief that the Earth was the stationary center of the cosmos. The maternal nature of the Lunar archetype seems to be symbolically expressed in this physical positioning; the Moon cradling the young human species in an Earth-centered universe for far longer than if the Moon had rotated on its axis.

Sun Trine Moon

I am standing on the precipice of a mountain gazing westward, into the molten fire of the setting Sun. One hundred and twenty degrees to my left, an angle my body can hold within itself as I gaze in both directions, the waxing Moon rises over the further arches of a vermillion and rose stained ridge. I can feel the relationship of Sun and Moon within my body, somehow feeling my heart as the third point in this harmonious triangle. “We grasp external space through our bodily situation,”[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes. Standing between rising Moon and setting Sun I know their relationship because my body is in relationship to each of them. “We also find” Merleau-Ponty continues, “that spatial forms or distances are not so much relations between different points in objective space as they are relations between these points and a central perspective—our body.”[4]

I am a full participant in this moment. My body is in relationship with these two powerful celestial bodies that light up our world, that pull all of the existence I know forward along its spiraling path. “For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions,” the phenomenologist says.[5] This seems to hold true not only for my own body, but each body I am able to witness: the flaming Sun, the pregnant Moon, blazing Venus as it becomes visible in the cooling hues of the sky, the point of light that is Saturn that appears not long after Venus makes her debut, and the solidity of the Earth beneath my feet. Each are bodies giving visible form to their intentions.

I turn to my companions standing next to me and say, “This is a transit. Can you feel it?


A couple years ago I was out walking through Golden Gate Park in the later evening. In the darkness of the park I saw through a gap in the trees the shining, soft orange light of Jupiter. It was the only light in the sky, dazzling between dappled purple clouds. I left the path to stand in the darkness of the trees, to focus all my attention upon this planetary body, this planetary being.

As I gazed with openness and curiosity upon Jupiter it appeared to grow brighter, and I almost felt as though a communion was arising between us. As dark clouds passed over the planet it still managed to shine through radiantly. I was suddenly reminded of the moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King when Sam looks up at the smog covering the desolation of Mordor:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach[6]

It suddenly dawned on me that part of the archetypal nature of Jupiter is Hope. I had the sense I was looking directly at the Divine and feeling Hope, an uplifting and elevation of spirit, a buoyancy and joy I could not explain. The Shadow of our times, the great devastation of our Earth, will also pass in the end. There is always Hope.

Encountering The Archetypes

Sometimes the planets want to speak to us. This is the only way I can describe what such a connection feels like. Once, in a meditative state, I closed my eyes and gazed upward towards the heavens and could feel that all the planets were so excited I finally was listening that they each were telling me who they are all at once. It was an overwhelming deluge of colors, emotions, images, sensations, processes; it was far too much to take in. I begged them, please come one at a time.

One by one, beginning with the Sun, each planet introduced itself, revealing how their multidimensional and multivalent appearances in the incarnated realm were really all unified into single archetypes in the transcendent realm. With each planet I encountered qualities I had learned of before, and yet other qualities which were new to me. The Sun, radiant presence, gold, singularity of vision, shone through me, through everything; nothing else existed in that light. The Moon, cradling and being cradled, softness, a silver sheen of lavender comfort, holding in warmth, fullness and settled contentment. Mercury, a quickening pace as my thoughts raced to catch up, a rapid quill spelling, articulating, word, glance, taste, touch, sound, senses singing. Venus, a verdant green of flowering beauty, vines growing in curls that turn into exquisite art, the silver sparkling of dew under leaves, mirroring a reciprocity of love and heart-warming presence, the shiver of pleasure and desire. Mars, a flaming red heat burning through me with energy, action, anger, force, violence, blood, rushing in a hiss of fiery passion. Jupiter, uplifting to a panoramic sweep of glory and triumph, images of great civilizations flourishing in their crowning moments, a spiraling climb to the grand arches of the Kingdom of Heaven, laughing, just laughing, releasing into giggles, soft joy, lips kissed by a smile.

The smile faded into a serious fixed gaze as Saturn entered my field, making me sit straighter, feeling the structural strength of my bones, my skeleton, holding me erect and steady, the stability of age-old institutions weathering through time, weathered away by time—Time who eats his children—feeling my body slowly decay in death, yet somehow feeling reassured by this, again and again in repetition, that all things must come to an end, and with that final acceptance at last can come wisdom.

Lightning quick Uranus burst through, not settling into a single color or image, always overturning, breaking out, breaking through, a pace impossible to follow as sparks of genius flew off of every new idea to explode in firecrackers opening up ever unexplored future horizons.

All dissolved, and no sense of myself remained as the oceanic azure oneness of Neptune washed over all that had come before, containing everything in its synchronous holism, a peaceful oblivion of floating in a flowing celestial realm of watery image, ethereal spirit, imaginal soul, transcending all boundaries.

And with a rendering tear the ocean ripped apart as a volcanic chasm, Pluto, gaped open swallowing all in titanic destruction, a violence so deep it was beyond fear, rather a pulsing of life impulse to survive or perish, pushed and pressured by the unbounded force of desire, teeth, torn flesh, corpses, pushing through the excrement, massive desolation laying waste, decomposing, turning over, evolving through pain, passing through the white hot burning fire and from the dead ashes reborn . . .

Then white light. All the colors melted together, every image unified. Only light.

Such an encounter with the archetypes I felt at every level of my being. It is like hearing the story of the entire world all at once. It is a distillation of everything into the passing of but a few breaths, a bracketing of everything, to be able to fully experience everything. An archetype is a phenomenological reduction of experience, a reduction that distills being down to its essence. Return to the things themselves. Look to the night sky, the planets want to tell you who they are—who you are.

When the starry night passes, so comes the dawn. The self is reborn from the multitudinous matrix of being. Yet as day shines forth, one can still feel the stars radiating behind the blue sky.

Works Cited

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Plato. Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.

Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY:             Viking Penguin, 2006.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.

[1] Plato, Timaeus, trans. Donald J. Zeyl, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 1241, 37d.

[2] Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006), 68-69.

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 5.

[4] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954), 901.

Setting Sun

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.