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The Dialectic of One and Many in the Development of Neoplatonic Metaphysics

Sara Ahbel-Rappe

Plotinus locates the difficulty over the derivation of all things from the One as the central problem in metaphysics:

"But [soul] desires [a solution] to the problem which is so often discussed, even by the ancient sages, as to how from the One, being such as we say the One is, anything can be constituted, either a multiplicity, a dyad, or a number; [why] it did not stay by itself, but so great a multiplicity flowed out as is seen in the real beings and which we think correct to refer back to the One." (V.1.6.38).

If the One, which by definitionlacks multiplicity, differentiation, qualities, attributes, and even being, is thehighest and most complete identity, then how do the Neoplatonists account for the proliferation of various kinds of being, the very fact that there is life, mind, intelligence in all of their diversity? If we say that all of these beings are "from" the One, then what causes their departure from this ultimate identity? If the One is the cause of all beings, and this causality is conceived as a participation of all things in the One, then the transcendence of the One is compromised at the outset. And yet if the One remains isolated in its transcendence, this raises the question of how it communicates reality to any of the other aspects of being.

Neoplatonic metaphysics faces a dilemma: either all that is must ultimately reside within the One or else the One produces whatever else arises as outside of itself. To choose the first option allows a solution that implies that there is something in the One that is not the One. The second option places emphasis on the causal powers of the One. The problem with the first option is that whatever is in the One is simply One; how can there be distinctions in the primordial unity? The problem with the second option is that it entails the diminishment of effect with respect to its cause (otherwise, lesser realities would be equivalent to the One) and we will have no way to account for the origin of this unlikeness: how can absolute unity give rise to multiplicity in the first place?

In what follows, I attempt to survey a variety of answers to this dilemma, tracing a dialectical path through the history of Neoplatonic metaphysics. Plotinus inaugurates a tradition of responses to this dilemma in the terms of his most fundamental intuition, that the One's productivity is contemplative by its very nature. His metaphysics of light emphasizes the place of self-knowledge, self-revelation, and theophany in understanding the relationship between world and principle. By contrast, Proclus' metaphysics of eternal being emphasizes the structures and hierarchies of the intelligible order, unfolding along the lines of a causality or of a transfer of power (dunamis, the capacity to effectuate reality). Power (as we find it in Proclus' system) represents both a departure from a greater reality and the production of a lesser reality. Thus to bring about the effect is to reveal a possibility that was latent within the higher order; it is to diminish that same order as well as to augment it. Given these fundamental tensions operating in the Proclean metaphysics of being, later Neoplatonists went on to treat them through a perspective that skirted the problem of being altogether. Damascius rather institutes a metaphysics of non-being, in his insistence on a radical return to the origin, conceived, not as One or Good, but as the Ineffable, as the unconditioned ground of reality, the first principle that does not just underwrite the metaphysical enterprise as such, but simultaneously seeks to tame the arrogance, so to say, of that very enterprise. These three kinds of discourse, of light, of being, and of emptiness or of not being, then, reveal the creative directions or orientations that together comprise some of the wealth of Neoplatonic metaphysics.

Session/Panel Title

What is Neoplatonism? Purpose and Structure of a Philosophical Movement to New Directions in Neoplatonism

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