The Philosopher's Plant 3.0: Plotinus’ Anonymous ‘Great Plant’
Plotinus did not just philosophize; he led a philosophical life. If we are to trust his most illustrious student, Porphyry, his existence was scrupulously self-effacing.
Plotinus did not celebrate his own birthday but offered sacrifices on the birthdays of the long-dead Socrates and Plato. He did not wish his portrait to be painted, as he reckoned the body to be a worthless image of the soul, and its artistically produced likeness — an image of an image. And, to top things off, he seemed to be ashamed of being in the body, praising instead the virtues of the soul.
A thinker of the unity of the One, Plotinus succeeded like no other philosopher to combine the teaching of the pre-Socratic Parmenides with Platonism and Aristotelianism in the six books of his magnum opus, the Enneads, edited and compiled by the same faithful disciple, Porphyry.
There is no better point of entry into Plotinian philosophy than the allegory of the world — permeated by what he calls “the Soul of All” — as a single plant, one gigantic tree, on which we alongside all other living beings (and even inorganic entities, such as stones) are offshoots, branches, twigs, and leaves.
The idea of an overarching soul was certainly not new at that point: Plato’s Timaeus, for one, presented the universe as an enormous animal. What was groundbreaking was imagining the universal soul as a plant.
“Why does Plotinus descend from an animal to a tree image?” you will ask. Is it because in the plant the One and its fragmentation into the many coexist without leading to a blatant contradiction? Is it because this fantasy frees Plotinus to think of the One outside the organismic model and the typically animal ways of moving and living?
Subscribe to Project Syndicate
Enjoy unlimited access to the ideas and opinions of the world's leading thinkers, including weekly long reads, book reviews, topical collections, and interviews; The Year Ahead annual print magazine; the complete PS archive; and more. All for less than $5 a month.
Although the portrait of the world as plant is painted most vividly in Book IV of the Enneads, its details are scattered through the rest of the treatise and shore up the most basic points of Plotinus’ philosophical argument. Significantly, the world-plant does not belong to any recognizable genus or species. It is one of a kind, precisely, because it is a depiction of the One. Its anonymity coincides with its uniqueness, the uniqueness of the non-classifiable origin and unity of a system of classification prior to its branching out.
If there were a genus “world-plant,” it would contain but a single example, which would overlap with the general category that lends it a name. (Of course, this observation is true unless we subscribe to the string theory of contemporary physics, with its hypothesis of multiple parallel universes. Assuming an infinite number of possible worlds, the genus “world-plant” would come to accommodate innumerable examples of vegetable totalities.)
In and of itself, the world-plant is a useful theoretical fiction. In it, “the Soul of the All,” as Plotinus imagines it:
(that is, its lowest part) would be like the soul of a great growing plant, which directs the plant without effort or noise; our lower part would be as if there were maggots in a rotten part of the plant — for that is what the ensouled body is like in the All. The rest of our soul, which is of the same nature as the higher parts of the universal soul, would be like a gardener concerned about the maggots in the plant and anxiously caring for it (Plotinus, Ennead IV.3.4, 25-35).
The Soul of All may envelop everything that exists, but it is not undifferentiated in itself. Plotinus translates the Platonic division between “the highest” and the “lowest” into a separation between “the great growing plant,” which is the ensouled body of the entire world, and a gardener who cares for it and who represents the soul in its pure state, unmixed with the corrupting bodily dimension.
Now, if a living body corresponds to the rotten part of the plant, we can begin to understand the reasons behind Plotinus’ shame in the face of his own embodiment: seeing death as a moment of liberation, he craved a return to the blessed condition of the gardener, his soul cleansed of its material incarnation. While many Christian authors, including St. Augustine, took this as a reference to the congenital sinfulness of corporeality, or the inevitable fallenness of the soul trapped in a body, Friedrich Nietzsche will have brushed away the Plotinian metaphysical daydream as nihilistic.
The tremendous implication of Plotinus’ vegetal portrait of the world is that there is nothing outside the soul, which always and necessarily cares for itself. There is, on the contrary, something of the plant in the gardener and something of the gardener in the plant.
The Socratic dictum that “all soul cares for the soulless” no longer applies there where a pure, because “unmixed,” soul nurtures its impure counterpart trapped in the dark cavern of the body. Even such inanimate things as rocks are not formless, as they exhibit crude material forms that are the pale reflections of the soul’s own formative capacity.
And so it is with the gardener, who does not shape raw matter but cares for the pre-formed plant, the spontaneous, effortless, and noiseless growth of which should be, as much as possible, protected and redirected away from the deadly activity of the maggots, symbolizing the self-forgetting of the soul in the body. As far as Plotinus is concerned, then, all pure soul cares for the embodied soul, so as to reduce the dependence of the latter on corporeality and hence to defend the soul from evil, symbolized by its “fall” into matter.
From the image of the world as a plant we learn about the nature of the One. Plotinus likens the One to:&
the life of a huge plant, which goes through the whole of it while its origin remains and is not dispersed over the whole, since it is, as it were, firmly settled in the root. So this origin gives to the plant its whole life in its multiplicity, but remains itself not multiple but the origin of multiple life” (Plotinus, Ennead III.8.10, 5-15.)
Life, to be sure, is multiplicity and dispersion; it is lived, always and everywhere, in the plural as lives. Yet, Plotinus implies, when we concentrate on living creatures, we are only seeing the upper segments of the world-plant with its intricate branching out at the tips. We literally miss the forest for the trees.
A more radical vision, on the other hand, aims at the radicle, the source, or the root of life that is always one and the same, unaffected by the dispersion of the living. As a vegetal elaboration on the Aristotelian “unmoved mover,” the ever-living root of the One, which is not split into the many, animates all finite lives without being in the least affected by their changeability or, indeed, finitude. It is an exceptional root that does not grow and that, remaining self-identical, upholds the origin’s unviolability.
The root of the world-plant becomes, in Plotinus’ philosophy, the yardstick for measuring the worth of multiplicities comprising this world. As a rule of thumb, the closer a branch is to the root, the firmer its grasp on being, which it vicariously imbibes from this principle of growth. As for the tips of the branches, the leaves, and even the fruit, many of these are so distant from the root that they neglect their provenance from the One.
That is how the possibility of contention and conflict arises where unity and peace should, in principle, prevail. The One starts to wage a war against itself the moment its most distal parts grow oblivious to their common emanation from the same root and, in an illusion of independence, assert themselves at the expense of other tree limbs, branches, and twigs. The closer these parts identify with matter, which is thoroughly divisible, the more they violate the absolute wholeness of the One.
Breaking out into finite lives ruled by the merciless cycles of growth and decay, the One is no longer (simply) one, even if its static root is appointed to serve as the guardian of unity. That is why Plotinus abandons the animal metaphor and resorts to the plant, where the One and the not-One meet without negating one another.