On the Concept of the One: an Analysis of Plotinus and Giordano Bruno by Caroline Stark



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On the Concept of the One: an Analysis of Plotinus and Giordano Bruno

by Caroline Stark

In trying to grasp the concept of God and the universe, philosophers have explored the concept of the one, all in all and all in every part. Bruno explores this concept of the One in his De la Causa, Principio, e Uno, where he expands on the ideas of Plotinus in the Ennead VI.4 and VI.5 as well as those of other philosophers. Bruno differs from Plotinus on a few major points: his conclusion that soul is form, his conception of matter, and his definition of the infinite.

Plotinus, in trying to grasp the concept of God and the universe, begins by separating the universe into the Intelligible and the Sensible universes. The Intelligible universe consists of the Intellect-Being or Soul, which is the True All, and the Sensible universe is the natural image of the intelligible or the representation of the All (visible universe). According to Plotinus, there is nothing before the All, and naturally that which comes after the All must exist in the All, not as a part of the All but as participating in the All:

It is certainly not possible for the All, being All, to fall short of itself, but it exists as self-fulfilled and as a being equal to itself; and where the all is, there is itself: for it is itself the All. And altogether, if anything which is other than that All is set firm in the All, it participates in it and coincides with it and draws its strength from it, not dividing it into parts but finding it in itself as it itself approaches it without that All going outside itself; for it is not possible for being to be in not-being but, if at all, not-being in being (Plotinus, 279).

The True All is not a matter of material bulk because it is impossible to measure or to take away from the All. Therefore the participation of the sensible in the intelligible does not involve a division of the intelligible, but rather it is present to All as a whole. Since body is subject to divisibility, then the indivisible is that which is not body. Soul is not divided into parts and is therefore incorporeal and without size. The sensible participates in the intelligible by the power of the whole according to the capacity of the participant, but the intelligible remains the same and is not affected or divided into parts.

After separating body and soul Plotinus must then explain how body comes to participate in soul. Since there is but one soul and that soul is indivisible, body must come to soul. Plotinus explains this by using the metaphor of the “other man” who came and attached himself to our true original self, which is in the intelligible:

Even before this coming to be came to be we were there, men who were different, and some of us even gods, pure souls and intellect united with the whole of reality; we were parts of the intelligible, not marked off or cut off but belonging to the whole; and we are not cut off even now. But now another man, wishing to exist, approached that man; and when he found us—for we were not outside the All—he wound himself round us and attached himself to that man who was then each one of us (as if there was one voice and one word and one here and another there turned their ears to it and heard and received it, and there came to be a hearing made actual, having that which acted on it present): and we have come to be a pair of them, not the one which we were before—and sometimes just the other one which we added on afterwards, when that prior one is inactive and in another way not present (Plotinus, 317).

This “other man” who had a share in soul must have come from that which is non-being because it is impossible to add to the being. Plotinus separates soul and body in this way, being and non-being. He explains that the soul is all-present in this union, but there exists a limitation of presence due to the capacity of the participant. Therefore, while there is only one soul, it is present to all living things through their limited capacity:

But what comes to exist in such a way as not to receive all soul, though all is present, but not to it, like the other animals and the plants receives as much as it can take: as when a voice says a word, and some partake of the word along with the noise of the voice, some only of the voice and its impact (Plotinus, 317).

There exists in this pair a type of duality, a good self and an evil other. From this, Plotinus asserts that the “descent” of the soul is that of self-limitation and particularization. We must reject all else and return to the one, which is the true Good. We must strive to become the All by liberation from the apparent unreal addition of particularity. God is within us, and therefore the good comes from within and not from outside. Plotinus uses the metaphor of lovers to explain how all things desire unity and the good:

This is “Love camping on the doorstep”, even coming from outside into the presence of beauty and longing for it, and satisfied if in this way he can have a part in it; since the lover here below also has beauty in this way, not by receiving it [into himself] but by lying with it. But that [one beauty] remains by itself, and the many lovers of the one love the whole and have the whole like this, when they have it: for it was the whole that they loved (Plotinus, 349-51).

In this way, Plotinus’ message is one which later inspires Bruno who strives to understand and achieve unity in this one, although Bruno takes Plotinus’ theories to another level.

In De La Causa, Principio, e Uno, Bruno articulates his philosophy on the nature of the one, expanding and criticizing certain ideas of Plotinus. According to Bruno, God is beyond our concept of understanding , and therefore, he will refrain from speaking of matters pertaining to God. However, Bruno then proceeds to analyze Nature in such a way that he will come to an understanding of God. By doing this, Bruno first determines that everything must have a first principle and a first cause, except of course, the First principle and the First cause. Our first step to understanding the First principle and the First cause, God, is understanding principle and cause in Nature. The principle is “that which intrinsically contributes to the constitution of things, and remains in the effect; as is said of matter and form which remain in their composite; or again, the elements of which the thing has been composed, and into which it is resolved” (Bruno, 111). Cause is “that which contributes to the production of things from without, and which has its being outside of the composition, as is the case with the efficient cause, and the end to which the thing produced is ordained” (Bruno, 111). By setting these definitions, Bruno then concludes that God is both the First principle and the First Cause. God is the First Principle because all things come after him in order, nature, duration, and worthiness and the First Cause because he is the efficient cause, the producer; as two aspects of one being. Bruno then asserts God’s relation to the universe by being the universal efficient cause: “The universal physical efficient cause is the universal intellect, which is the first and principal faculty of the world soul, which [the soul] is the universal form of that [the world]” (Bruno, 111). God is the intermediary between extrinsic and intrinsic causes. God as extrinsic cause “does not form a part of the things composed and the things produced,” and God as intrinsic cause “does not operate around and outside of matter” (Bruno, 113). God before producing something, must have in this supreme intellect, an idea of that he wishes to create, and thus, must possess all forms before creation:

And therefore, this intellect, which has the power to produce all species, and to send them forth with such beautiful construction from the potentiality of matter into actuality, must possess all of them in advance, after the manner of forms, without which forms the agent could not proceed to their production, just as it is impossible for the sculptor to execute diverse statues without first having inwardly imagined the diverse forms (Bruno, 113-114).

In this way, Bruno separates himself from Plotinus, who while conceding that Form is in some way present in everything, insisted on separating form from idea and matter. Bruno places all forms in matter and at different times, manifesting different forms in succession. Thus, God seeks perfection of the universe by the existence of all forms in diverse parts of matter. Bruno does not believe that form comes from the outside as does Plotinus, in whose philosophy the Form of a man came to a particular man and became a particular man, but instead believes that forms are various dispositions of matter:

Where there is a form, there is in a certain way everything; and where there is soul, spirit, life, there is everything; for the intellect is the shaper of the ideal species, and if it does not bring the forms forth from matter, it none the less does not go begging for them outside of matter, because this spirit fills the whole (Bruno, 122).

Bruno in his last dialogue criticizes Aristotle for his contradictory stance on this point. Aristotle states that matter does not possess in itself some form or act but receives them from the outside, yet, says at the same time that forms proceed and come out of the interior of matter. Thus, Bruno clarifies this incongruity in Aristotle and also this question in Plotinus.

Bruno further separates himself from Plotinus by stating that the Universal soul is the Universal form. There are two kinds of form: cause and principle. Cause is that through which the efficient cause works, and the Principle is that which is called forth from matter by the efficient cause. Likewise, the soul has two aspects: “Just so the soul of the universe, in so far as it animates and informs, is an intrinsic and formal part of that [universe]; but in so far as it directs and governs, it is not a part: it has no the role of a principle, but of a cause” (Bruno, 114). Bruno continues by stating that the soul is not passive, does not receive any imperfection from the body, and is eternally joined to the same subject. He makes the assertion that all forms are souls and that everything has a soul which is not necessarily animated. In this way, Bruno continues along the same lines as Plotinus by inferring that soul is all present but is limited by the capacity of the participant. However, he differs from Plotinus by equating form and soul and by saying that everything has a soul. Bruno goes further to say that form changes place and condition but is never destroyed because form is not things but of things:

Thus, while this form changes place and condition, it is impossible that it be annulled; because the spiritual substance is not less subsistent than the material. Then only external forms change themselves and are even annulled because they are not things, but of things; they are not substances, but of substances—accidents and circumstances of substances (Bruno, 119).

Bruno makes a distinction in form between the material which is the primal form and must have matter and the formal principle which consists of the vegetative and sensitive soul and the soul or intellective soul. Bruno clarifies that form is invariable in itself but is variable through its various subjects and dispositions of matter:

And such form, although in the subject it makes the part differ from the whole, (yet itself) does not differ in the part and in the whole; although one reason suits it as subsistent in and by itself, and another in so far as it is the activity and perfection of some subject, and still another in regard to a subject with dispositions of some kind, and another with those of another…This form is not to be understood as accidental, nor as similar to the accidental, nor as mixed with matter, nor as inherent in that, but rather existing in, associated, and assistant (Bruno, 121-122).

However, Bruno makes a clear distinction between his concept of form and matter as being different from the philosophical tradition in the Epicureans, Cynics, Stoics, and others who argue that matter alone is the substance of things and that forms are nothing else but certain accidental dispositions of matter. Bruno claims that in nature there are two kinds of substance: form and matter. The former has the substantial act in which exists the active potency or the power to make, and the latter has both potency and substratum in which exists the passive potency or the power to be made (Bruno, 128). Bruno agrees that Nature must have for its operations a substratum, and he uses the analogy of Art to illustrate this point:

Therefore, nature, to which art is similar, needs to have for its operations a matter; because it is not possible that there be an agent which, when it wishes to make something, does not have that out of which it can make it; or likewise, if it wishes to work, does not have that on which to work. There is then a kind of substratum from which, with which, and in which, nature effects its operations and its work; and which is by nature endowed with so many forms that it presents for our consideration such a variety of species...the subjects of art are manifold, but the subject of nature is one; because the former being diversely formed by nature, are different and variegated; the latter, being formless, is entirely indifferent, since all difference and diversity stem from the form (Bruno, 129-130).

He disagrees with Plotinus by making this substratum of nature matter rather than soul. However, in form there exist two types: one which changes and the other of which is constant. The former is the accidental form, and the latter is the substantial form. The substantial form in nature (soul) is like matter in that it cannot be destroyed. From this, Bruno sets his body of nature as consisting of the following: one intellect that gives being to everything, the giver of forms; one soul and formal principle that becomes and informs everything, the fountain of forms; and one matter from out of which everything is produced and formed, the receptacle of forms (Bruno, 134). He does this in order to distinguish himself from the other philosophers who do not separate the activity from the concept of matter but consider the matter as something divine:

Nothing works absolutely on itself; for there is always some distinction between that which is the agent, and that which is produced, or concerning which the action and the operation takes place; for that reason it is good to distinguish in the body of nature, the matter from the soul, and in this to distinguish the general from the specific kinds. Therefore, we say, that there are three things in this body: first, the universal intellect inherent in things; second, the vivifying soul of all; third, the substratum (Bruno, 135).

From this, Bruno further concludes that the two potencies, both active and passive potency, cannot exist without each other. Therefore, there is not a thing which can be said to be which cannot be said to have the capacity to be (Bruno, 138). Bruno continues by saying that the act and the capacity to be must coexist simultaneously. If this is true, then in the highest principle, that which is all that it can be, act and potency must be the same thing :

Because the absolute possibility through which the things which are in act can be is not before that actuality, nor after that; moreover, the capacity to be is together with the being in act, and does not precede that; because if that which can be could make itself, it would be before it was made. Now contemplate the highest and best principle, which is all that it can be; it itself would not be all if it could not be all; in it, therefore, the act and the potency is the same thing (Bruno, 139).

As a result, God is the first act and the first potency because no other thing is all that it can be, for in nature the potency is not equal to the act:

That which is all that it can be is one, which comprehends and contains in its being all being. It is all that is and can be whatever other things that is and can be. Every other thing is not so; for here potency is not equal to the act because the act is not absolute but limited; moreover, the potency is always limited to one act because it never has more than one specific and particular being; and when it nevertheless refers itself to every form and act, it does so through certain dispositions and through a certain order of succession of one being after another (Bruno, 139).

The universe is also all that it can be, being inclusive of all matter, to which nothing is added or subtracted. However, the universe is only a shadow of the first act and first potency because no one of its parts is all that it can be, and thus, in it potency and act are not absolutely the same (Bruno, 139).

Seeing that there is a certain distinction between those principles pertaining to the One and those pertaining to nature, Bruno separates things into the eternal and the variable. In eternal things matter is always under one act, has all that it can have, and is all that it can be, at once, always and together. In variable things, it always contains one act at different times in an order of succession (Bruno, 151). Bruno then separates substances into corporeal and incorporeal substances. Corporeal substance is that which can be made or can be, or is made, in virtue of the dimensions and extension of the subject; has existence in quantity; and presupposes corporeal matter. Incorporeal substance is that which is made, has its being newly without dimensions, extension, and qualities; and presupposes the said matter (Bruno, 150-1). Bruno concludes that just as there are two differences of substance, corporeal and incorporeal, there are also forms of two classes. One is transcendent which pertains to the one, and the other is of a certain kind that is like substantiality and accidentality (Bruno, 148). However, Bruno believes that there must be a certain participation:

Besides, if all that which is, beginning from the highest and most supreme being, has a certain order and constitutes a subordination, a scale in which one rises from composed things to the simple, from these to the most simple and absolute, through corresponding means that combine and participate in the nature of the one and the other extreme, and are in their proper essence neutral, there is no order in which there is not a certain participation; there is no participation where there is not found a certain combination; there is no combination without a certain participation. It is necessary, therefore, that there be a principle of subsistent existence, of all [subsistent] existent things…it is necessary, then, that there be something that corresponds to the common concept of one and the other substratum, because every essence is necessarily founded on some existence, except that first essence that is identical with its existence, because its potency is the same as its act, and it is everything that it can be (Bruno, 148).

Likewise, Bruno asserts that there is a participation between corporeal substances and divine substances, and so that in the end, inferior things conform to the superior. Bruno agrees with Plotinus that that which is common has the function of matter, and that which is proper and makes for distinction, the function of form (Bruno, 149). However, Bruno continues by saying that matter is where all forms are united. Therefore, there is only one matter, and one potency through which everything that is, is in act (Bruno, 149-50). He carries this further to belonging both to incorporeal and corporeal substances, “since the former no less have their existence through the capacity to be than the latter have their being through the power to exist” (Bruno, 150). Bruno distinguishes the difference between matter in both substances by saying that matter in incorporeal things coincides with act as the capacity to be coincides with being (Bruno, 151). He considers matter in absolute potency and absolute act , in which case, matter is not different from form because matter is absolutely all:

That matter, through being actually all that it can be, has all the measurements, has all the species of figures and dimensions, and because it has all, has none of them; because for that which is so many different things it is necessary that it be no one of those particular things. It is proper for that which is all to exclude all particular being (Bruno, 151).

Bruno concludes therefore that as the formal concept ascends, so does the material concept.

Then Bruno discusses Plotinus’ discussion of the differences between the matter of superior and inferior things. Plotinus makes this distinction between superior and inferior matter by separating superior matter into that which is everything at the same time and does not change; and inferior matter into that which becomes everything at different times and is always under diversity, alteration, and movement:

Therefore, the former matter (superior) is never formless, as the latter (inferior) is not also, although each in a different manner; the former, in the instant of eternity; the latter, in the instants of time; the former, at the same time; the latter, successively; the former, as unfolding; the latter, as enfolding; the former, as many; the latter, as one; the former, through each and every thing; the latter, as all and everything (Bruno,153).

However, Bruno believes that there exists the possibility in inferior things a coincidence of act and potency. As stated above, Bruno also differs from Plotinus in his belief that forms proceed and come out of the interior of matter, and therefore, the efficient cause, nature, does not come from without but from within, and is an internal principle and not an external one. He proves this through his ongoing analogy of Art and Nature:

And I say that being expressed, sensible, and unfolded, is not the principal concept of actuality, but is a consequent and effect of that…I prescind from this that it is according to a higher reason that natural things are made from natural matter, than artificial things are made from artificial matter: because art produces the forms from matter, either by subtraction (as when it makes a statue out of stone) of by addition (as when, joining stone upon stone, earth, and wood, it constructs a house); but nature makes everything out of its matter by way of separation, birth, and effluxion…It is more appropriate to say, then, that matter contains forms and implies them, than to think that it is empty of them and excludes them (Bruno, 155-156).

In Bruno’s last dialogue, he brings all of his statements from the previous dialogues together into his conclusion of the One. In this dialogue, Bruno agrees with Plotinus on many points concerning the nature of the One, however, there are a few major differences. The most important is that Bruno believes that everything comes together in the One and that there is no order of superior and inferior things. Plotinus separates the soul and body, the good and the evil, respectively. Bruno dismisses these distinctions, because in the infinite, these things are indifferent. Bruno begins the dialogue by joining matter, body, and soul with the usual disclaimer that our capacity to understand the One is limited:

The universe is, then, one, infinite, immobile. One, I say, is the absolute possibility, one the act, one the form or soul, one the matter or body, one the thing, one the being, one the greatest and the best—which must not be capable of being comprehended and, therefore, is without end and without limit—and in so far infinite and indeterminate—and consequently immobile (Bruno, 160).

Despite our limited capacity to understand the One, Bruno continues to draw conclusions about the nature of the One and the infinite. The One does not move, does not generate itself, is incorruptible, is infinite and thus nothing can be added or subtracted, is equal to itself, does not have parts because it is all, and in short, is one (Bruno, 160). In the infinite there is no greater or lesser part because a greater part does not conform more to the proportion of the infinite than any other smaller part (Bruno, 161). The universe is all that it can be, and therefore, the act is not different from the potency. Bruno illustrates this by concluding that in it, the point, the line, the surfaces, and the body are not different, with the following example:

If the potency is not different from the act, it is necessary that in it the point, the line, the surfaces, and the body are not different; for then, that line is surface, as the line, moving itself, can become surface; then, that surface is moved and becomes a body, since the surface can be moved, and with its movement can become a body. It is necessary, then, that in the infinite, the point does not differ from the body because the point, running away from being a point, becomes a line; running away from being a line, it becomes a surface; running away from being a surface, it becomes a body; the point then, since it is in potentiality a body, does not differ from being a body, where the potency and the act are one and the same thing (Bruno, 161-2).

Bruno explains why matter changes itself into other forms because no mutation seeks another being, but rather another mode of being (Bruno, 162). He also clarifies the distinction between the universe and things of the universe because the universe is all being and all modes of being, but the things of the universe have all being but not all modes of being (Bruno, 162). He defends this description of the infinite by its absolute nature:

Therefore, it is not an error to call entity, substance, and essence, one being, which as infinite and undetermined, as much according to substance, as to duration, as to greatness, as to power, has not the function of principle, nor of the originated because, everything concurring in unity and identity—I say the same being—comes to have an absolute essence and not a relative one (Bruno, 162-3).

Therefore, as stated earlier, God seeks the perfection of the universe by the existence of all forms in diverse parts of matter. Since the universe is infinite, all in every part, and everywhere itself, Bruno concludes: “that which is in the universe is through all relation to the universe, or in relation to the other particular bodies, according to the mode of its capacity” (Bruno, 164). Bruno explains his conception of God by saying that there exists one divine and immortal being which is the original and universal substance of the whole:

Therefore, all that which makes for diversity of genus, species, difference, properties—all that which consists in generation, corruption, alteration, and change—is not being or existence, but a condition and circumstance of being and existence, which is one, infinite, immobile, subject, matter, life, soul, true, and good (Bruno, 165).

Then, Bruno proceeds to outline the four basic concepts on which he bases most of his philosophy and pinpoints the differences between his philosophy and others: 1) there is one and the same scale, through which nature descends to the production of things, and the intellect ascends to the cognition of them; 2) the intellect uses mathematical and imaginable figures to understand the being and substance of things; 3) measure and number are not substance, but about substance, not being, but things of being, are not a particular substance, but substance in the particular and the differences; and 4) through signs and verifications, contraries coincide in one. Bruno states in the first point that there is one and the same scale, which he proves earlier in his definition of the infinite. In this conclusion, he develops further the concept of the infinite and thereby eliminates the inferior and superior order of Plotinus. Bruno asserts in his second point that the intellect is capable of understanding God by using mathematical and imaginable figures. Perhaps for this reason Bruno sees Copernicus’ theory of the sun as the center of the solar system as a divine revelation and believes in his mnemonic devices to comprehend and contemplate the One. In his last point, Bruno finds reconciliation in opposites through various diagrams and mathematical figures. He states that one must contemplate the extremities in nature, the contraries and opposites, in order to understand the one and its all-embracing nature: “In conclusion, he who wishes to know the greatest secrets of nature should regard and contemplate the minimum and maximum of contraries and opposites” (Bruno, 172). Therefore Bruno comes to his idea of God, the highest good, the highest perfect which consists in the unity that embraces all (Bruno, 173).

In De la Causa, Principio, e Uno, Bruno espouses his philosophy on the nature of the One. In doing so, he sets a framework for others to follow, explaining his own philosophy and how it differs from his predecessors, especially in the case of Plotinus. He also seems to suggest a method in which man may obtain an understanding of God and the infinite, and to take this further, become like this divine intellect. His motive is not unlike that of Plotinus, although Plotinus would never suggest that man is capable of becoming a god, but rather that man strives towards the knowledge of God and the good. It is not difficult to see how all the rest of Bruno’s philosophy stems from this dialogue. This dialogue, especially its last four points, seem to bring all of his works together. Bruno espouses his philosophy for those who are capable of seeing his truth through the eyes of reason. To those who are not willing (as at Oxford), Bruno’s response would be that of Theophilus: “My most illustrious gentleman, or your sacred majesty, since some things cannot become evident except through the hands and the sense of touch, and others with the ears, and still others only with the tongue, and others with the eyes—so this matter of natural things cannot become evident except through the intellect” (Bruno, 132).

Bibliography

Bruno, Giordano. Dialoghi Italiani. Sansoni: Firenze, 1958.



Goold, G.P. ed. Plotinus, Enneads VI 1-5. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1988.

Greenberg, S.T. The Infinite in Giordano Bruno. With a Translation of his Dialogue Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One. London-New York, 1950.

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