Category Archives: Great Thinkers




Edmund Burke


De Maistre on Human Nature

Frithjof Schuon on Christianity and the Bible


Taken from The Fullness of God Chapter 9 – Keys to the Bible.

In order to understand the nature of the Bible and its meaning, it is essential to have recourse to the ideas of both symbolism and revelation; without an exact and, in the measure necessary, sufficiently profound understanding of these key ideas, the approach to the Bible remains hazardous and risks engendering grave doctrinal, psychological, and historical errors. Here it is above all the idea of revelation that is indispensable, for the literal meaning of the Bible, particularly in the Psalms and in the words of Jesus, affords sufficient food for piety apart from any question of symbolism; but this nourishment would lose all its vitality and all its liberating power without an adequate idea of revelation or of suprahuman origin.

Other passages, particularly in Genesis, though also in texts such as the Song of Songs, remain an enigma in the absence of traditional commentaries. When approaching Scripture, one should always pay the greatest attention to rabbinical and cabalistic commentaries and—in Christianity—to the patristic and mystical commentaries; then will it be seen how the word-for-word meaning practically never suffices by itself and how apparent naïveties, inconsistencies, and contradictions resolve themselves in a dimension of profundity for which one must possess the key. The literal meaning is frequently a cryptic language that more often veils than reveals and that is only meant to furnish clues to truths of a cosmological, metaphysical, and mystical order; the Oriental traditions are unanimous concerning this complex and multidimensional interpretation of sacred texts. According to Meister Eckhart, the Holy Spirit teaches all truth; admittedly, there is a literal meaning that the author had in mind, but as God is the author of Holy Scripture, every true meaning is at the same time a literal meaning; for all that is true comes from the Truth itself, is contained in it, springs from it, and is willed by it. And so with Dante in his Convivio: “The Scriptures can be understood, and ought to be explained, principally in four senses. One is called literal. . . . The second is called allegorical. . . . The third sense is called moral. . . . The fourth sense is called anagogical, that is, beyond sense (sovrasenso); and this is when a Scripture is spiritually expounded, which, while true in its literal sense, refers beyond it to the higher things of the eternal Glory, as we may see in that Psalm of the Prophet, where he says that when Israel went out of Egypt Judea became holy and free. Which, although manifestly true according to the letter, is nonetheless true in its spiritual meaning, namely, that the soul, in forsaking its sins, is made holy and free in its powers” (Trattato Secondo, I).

As regards Biblical style—setting aside certain variations that are of no importance here—it is important to understand that the sacred or suprahuman character of the text could never be manifested in an absolute way through language, which perforce is human; the divine quality referred to appears rather through the wealth of superposed meanings and in the theurgic power of the text when it is thought and pronounced and written.

Equally important is the fact that the Scriptures are sacred, not because of their subject matter and the way in which it is dealt with, but because of their degree of inspiration, or what amounts to the same, their divine origin; it is this that determines the contents of the book, and not the reverse. The Bible can speak of a multitude of things other than God without being the less sacred for it, whereas other books can deal with God and exalted matters and still not be the divine Word. The apparent incoherence in certain sacred texts results ultimately from the disproportion between divine Truth and human language: it is as if this language, under the pressure of the Infinite, were shattered into a thousand disparate pieces or as if God had at His disposal no more than a few words to express a thousand truths, thus obliging Him to use all sorts of ellipses and paraphrases. According to the Rabbis, “God speaks succinctly”; this also explains the syntheses in sacred language that are incomprehensible a priori, as well as the superposition of meanings already mentioned. The role of the orthodox and inspired commentators is to intercalate in sentences, when too elliptic, the implied and unexpressed clauses, or to indicate in what way or in what sense a certain statement should be taken, besides explaining the different symbolisms, and so forth. It is the orthodox commentary and not the word-for-word meaning of the Torah that acts as law. The Torah is said to be “closed”, and the sages “open” it; and it is precisely this “closed” nature of the Torah that renders necessary from the start the Mishnah or commentary that was given in the tabernacle when Joshua transmitted it to the Sanhedrin. It is also said that God gave the Torah during the day and the Mishnah during the night and that the Torah is infinite in itself, whereas the Mishnah is inexhaustible as it flows forth in duration. It should also be noted that there are two principal degrees of inspiration, or even three if the orthodox commentaries are included; Judaism expresses the difference between the first two degrees by comparing the inspiration of Moses to a bright mirror and that of the other prophets to a dark mirror.

The two keys to the Bible are, as already stated, the ideas of symbolism and revelation. Too often revelation has been approached in a psychological, hence purely naturalistic and relativistic, sense. In reality revelation is the fulgurant irruption of a knowledge that comes, not from an individual or collective subconscious, but on the contrary from a supraconsciousness, which though latent in all beings nonetheless immensely surpasses its individual and psychological crystallizations. In saying that “the kingdom of God is within you”, Jesus Christ means not that Heaven—or God—is of a psychological order, but simply that access to spiritual and divine realities is to be found at the center of our being, and it is from this center precisely that revelation springs forth when the human ambience offers a sufficient reason for it to do so and when therefore a predestined human vehicle presents itself, namely, one capable of conveying this outflow.

But clearly the most important basis for what we have just spoken of is the admission that a world of intelligible light exists, both underlying and transcending our consciousness; the knowledge of this world, or this sphere, entails as a consequence the negation of all psychologism and likewise all evolutionism. In other words, psychologism and evolutionism are nothing but makeshift hypotheses to compensate for the absence of this knowledge.

To affirm then that the Bible is both symbolistic and revealed means, on the one hand, that it expresses complex truths in a language that is indirect and full of imagery and, on the other, that its source is neither the sensorial world nor the psychological or rational plane, but rather a sphere of reality that transcends these planes and immensely envelops them, while yet in principle being accessible to man through the intellective and mystical center of his being, or through the “heart”, if one prefers, or pure “Intellect”. It is the Intellect which comprises in its very substance the evidence for the sphere of reality that we are speaking of and which thus contains the proof of it, if this word can have a meaning in the domain of direct and participative perception. Indeed the classical prejudice of scientism, or the fault in its method if one wishes, is to deny any mode of knowledge that is suprasensorial and suprarational, and in consequence to deny the planes of reality to which these modes refer and which constitute, precisely, the sources both of revelation and of intellection. Intellection—in principle—is for man what revelation is for the collectivity; in principle, we say, for in fact man cannot have access to direct intellection—or gnosis—except by virtue of a pre-existing scriptural revelation. What the Bible describes as the fall of man or the loss of Paradise coincides with our separation from total intelligence; this is why it is said that “the kingdom of God is within you”, and again: “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” The Bible itself is the multiple and mysterious objectification of this universal Intellect or Logos: it is thus the projection, by way of images and enigmas, of what we carry in a quasiinaccessible depth at the bottom of our heart; and the facts of sacred History—where nothing is left to chance—are themselves cosmic projections of the unfathomable divine Truth.

Russell Kirk’s 10 Conservative Principles


Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata. So far as it is possible to determine what conservatives believe, the first principles of the conservative persuasion are derived from what leading conservative writers and public men have professed during the past two centuries. After some introductory remarks on this general theme, I will proceed to list ten such conservative principles.

Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word “conservative” as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.

The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.

In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy “change is the means of our preservation.”) A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers. But of course there is more to the conservative persuasion than this general attitude.

It is not possible to draw up a neat catalogue of conservatives’ convictions; nevertheless, I offer you, summarily, ten general principles; it seems safe to say that most conservatives would subscribe to most of these maxims. In various editions of my book The Conservative Mind I have listed certain canons of conservative thought—the list differing somewhat from edition to edition; in my anthology The Portable Conservative Reader I offer variations upon this theme. Now I present to you a summary of conservative assumptions differing somewhat from my canons in those two books of mine. In fine, the diversity of ways in which conservative views may find expression is itself proof that conservatism is no fixed ideology. What particular principles conservatives emphasize during any given time will vary with the circumstances and necessities of that era. The following ten articles of belief reflect the emphases of conservatives in America nowadays.

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand. The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics.

Our twentieth-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order.

It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.

Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention—a word much abused in our time—that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.

Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the life-blood, of a society must not be interrupted. Burke’s reminder of the necessity for prudent change is in the mind of the conservative. But necessary change, conservatives argue, ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once.

Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often. Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste. It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. The individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.

Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.

Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.

Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.

Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic levelling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress. Getting and spending are not the chief aims of human existence; but a sound economic basis for the person, the family, and the commonwealth is much to be desired.

Sir Henry Maine, in his Village Communities, puts strongly the case for private property, as distinguished from communal property: “Nobody is at liberty to attack several property and to say at the same time that he values civilization. The history of the two cannot be disentangled.” For the institution of several property—that is, private property—has been a powerful instrument for teaching men and women responsibility, for providing motives to integrity, for supporting general culture, for raising mankind above the level of mere drudgery, for affording leisure to think and freedom to act. To be able to retain the fruits of one’s labor; to be able to see one’s work made permanent; to be able to bequeath one’s property to one’s posterity; to be able to rise from the natural condition of grinding poverty to the security of enduring accomplishment; to have something that is really one’s own—these are advantages difficult to deny. The conservative acknowledges that the possession of property fixes certain duties upon the possessor; he accepts those moral and legal obligations cheerfully.

Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger. Whatever is beneficent and prudent in modern democracy is made possible through cooperative volition. If, then, in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process hostile to freedom and human dignity.

For a nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed. A central administration, or a corps of select managers and civil servants, however well intentioned and well trained, cannot confer justice and prosperity and tranquility upon a mass of men and women deprived of their old responsibilities. That experiment has been made before; and it has been disastrous. It is the performance of our duties in community that teaches us prudence and efficiency and charity.

Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. Politically speaking, power is the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the wills of one’s fellows. A state in which an individual or a small group are able to dominate the wills of their fellows without check is a despotism, whether it is called monarchical or aristocratic or democratic. When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy. Anarchy never lasts long, being intolerable for everyone, and contrary to the ineluctable fact that some persons are more strong and more clever than their neighbors. To anarchy there succeeds tyranny or oligarchy, in which power is monopolized by a very few.

The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands. In the name of liberty, the French and Russian revolutionaries abolished the old restraints upon power; but power cannot be abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands. That power which the revolutionaries had thought oppressive in the hands of the old regime became many times as tyrannical in the hands of the radical new masters of the state.

Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order. A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty.

Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

Therefore the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.

Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.

Such, then, are ten principles that have loomed large during the two centuries of modern conservative thought. Other principles of equal importance might have been discussed here: the conservative understanding of justice, for one, or the conservative view of education. But such subjects, time running on, I must leave to your private investigation.

The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.

Nagarjuna’s 70 Stanzas on Emptiness

1] “Arising,” “enduring,” and “disintegrating;” “existing” and “non-existing;” “inferior,” “middling,” and “superior” do not have true existence. These terms are used by the Buddha in accordance with worldy conventions.

[2] All phenomena must have either self-existence or non-self-existence. There is no phenomenon which is other than these two, nor are there any expressions which do not come under these two catagories. All phenomena which are the subject of this treatise are similar to nirvana because all phenomena are devoid of inherent existence.

[3] What is the reason for this? It is because the inherent existence of all phenomena is not to be found in causes, conditions, aggregations or individualities. Thus all phenomena are devoid of inherent existence and are empty.

[4] Some assert that a result already exists inherently in the nature of its cause; but then it cannot arise because it already exists. Others assert that a result exists inherently but not in the nature of its cause; so it cannot arise becuse it is not in the nature of its cause. Yet others assert that a result both does and does not exist inherently in its cause; but then they are asserting contradictory views about an object because an object cannot simultaneously both exist and not exist. Because phenomena do not arise inherently so also they do not endure or cease inherently.

[5] Whatsoever has already arisen will not be able to arise. Whatsoever has not arisen will not arise. Either a phenomenon has already arisen or else it will arise; there is no other possibility beyond these two. Whatever is in the process of arising should have already arisen or else it will arise in the future.

[6] The cause of a result which already exists is similar to that which is not a cause. Also in the case where a result does not already exist, then its cause will be similar to that which is not a cause. A phenomenon should be either existent or non-existent but cannot be both non-existent and not-non-existent because these two are contradictory. Therefore it is not suitable to assert that there is either an inherently existing cause or an inherently existing result in the three times.

[7] Without one there cannot be many and without many it is not possible to refer to one. Therefore one and many arise dependently and such phenomena do not have the sign of inherent existence.

[8] The twelve limbs of dependent origination result in suffering: since the twelve limbs and suffering do not arise independently of each other, they don’t exist inherently. Furthermore, it is not acceptable to assert that the twelve limbs are based on a single moment of a mind nor on successive moments of mind, as such moments arise dependently and do not exist inherently.

[9] Because contaminated things arise in dependence on one another they do not exist inherently as permanent phenomena nor do they exist inherently as impermanent phenomena; neither as phenomena with self-nature nor without self-nature; neither as pure or impure; neither as blissful nor as suffering. It is thus that the four distortions do not exist as qualities which inhere in phenomena, but rather are imputed to phenomena.

[10] There are no four distortions which exist inherently and thus there can be no ignorance arising from them. Because that ignorance does not exist inherently it cannot give birth to karmic formations, which means karmic formations will not arise and so also the remaining limbs too.

[11] Ignorance cannot originate as a cause except in dependence on the karmic formations. Also, the karmic formations cannot originate except in dependence on their cause, which is ignorance. Because ignorance and karmic formations are interrelated as cause and effect so these two are known by a valid cognizer not to exist inherently.

[12] By itself none of the twelve limbs can originate inherently, but must depend on the remaining limbs. How then can one limb produce another limb? Moreover, because one limb has originated as a cause in dependence on the other limbs, so how can it act as a condition for the origination of results such as the other limbs?

[13] The father is not the son and the son is not the father. These two are mutually not non-existent and the two of them cannot arise simultaneously. It is likewise with the twelve dependent limbs.

[14] Just as in a dream, happiness and suffering depend on dream objects and upon awakening these objects are known not to actually exist, likewise any phenomenon which arises in dependence on another dependent phenomenon should be known not to exist in the manner of its appearance.

[15] Vaibhisika: If you assert that phenomena don’t exist inherently then you are asserting that they don’t exist at all. So how can you make distinctions like inferior, middling, and superior or that there are different beings in the six realms of existence? How then can you assert the manifestation of a result which arises from causes?

[16] Response: When you assert that phenomena exist inherently you are asserting that they do not originate in dependence on causes and conditions and thus that phenomena actually do not exist. For if phenomena do not depend on causes and conditions, then they should have independent existence throughout the three times. Therefore there cannot be inherent existence for functional phenomena which arise from causes and conditions or non-functional phenomena which do not arise from causes and conditions, and there cannot be any third mode of existence for phonemena.

[17] Opponent: If phenomena do not exist inherently, how can you use terms to refer to their own characteristics or their characteristics in relation to other phenomena or non-functional phenomena?
Response: Although phenomena lack inherent existence, still we can use terms like own-characteristics, other-characteristics and non-functional phenomena for although these are unfindable upon analysis, still, like objects of a dream they appear to have existence to ordinary perception. So the way they exist and they way they appear are different and these conventional existences are called distortions or false.

[18] Opponent: If phenomena are devoid of inherent existence then they will be completely non-existent like the horns of a rabbit, and so there can be no occurrence of their arising or their cessation. As Buddha has spoken about arising and cessation, they must exist, so how can things be devoid of inherent existence?

[19] Response: An object cannot simultaneously arise as a functional phenomenon and cease as a non-functional phenomenon. If a non-functional phenomenon does not exist then a functional phenomenon cannot exist because an object cannot arise and endure as a functional phenomenon without depending on its cessation as a non-functional phenomenon, or else it would exist at all times. If a non-functional phenomenon which is different from a functional phenomenon does not exist then it is impossible for a functional phenomenon to exist.

[20] If there is no arising and enduring, which are functional phenomena, then there can be no disintegration or cessation, which are non-functional phenomena; so the latter would be completely non-existent. If a phenomenon were to exist inherently it must have arisen from its own nature or from some other nature, but it cannot arise from its own nature and because a phenomenon cannot have a different nature than its cause, so it cannot arise from some other nature which has inherent existence. Because of that, a functional phenomenon cannot exist inherently and because a functional phenomenon cannot exist inherently, so a non-functional phenomenon cannot exist inherently.

[21] If a phenomenon were to exist inherently it should be permanent. If a phenomemon were to disintegrate completely then you must accept the annihilationist view. If a phenomenon were to exist inherently it would either exist permanently or else undergo complete disintegration: it cannot occur in a way which is different than these two. Therefore one should not assert that a phenomenon has inherent existence.

[22] Opponent: Because of continuity there is no danger of the two extreme views. Acting as a cause of another causal phenomenon the original causal phenomenon ceases to exist.
Reply: As explained before, the cause and the result, like a functional phenomenon and a non-functional phenomenon, cannot arise with inherent existence either simultaneously or sequentially. In your view their lack of inherent existence makes them completely non-existent, in which case you cannot assert their continuity or that of the moments between them. Therefore the faults of the two extremes remain in your view.

[23] Opponent: When Buddha explained the path to liberation he spoke about arising and disintegration, so they must have true existence.
Response: It is true that Buddha spoke about arising and disintegration, but they are devoid of inherent existence. For that reason the way they appear and the way they exist are dissimilar, and they appear in a deceptive way to the world.

[24] Opponent: If arising and disintegration do not exist then suffering can not exist, so what cessation will bring forth nirvana? But because nirvana can be attained that means there is suffering which has inherent existence and therefore there is arising with inherent existence and disintegration with inherent existence.
Response: Nirvana refers to that state where suffering does not arise with inherent existence and does not cease with inherent existence. Don’t we call that state the naturally abiding nirvana? therefore arising and disintegration do not exist inherently.

[25] You have accepted that the extinction of the continuation of suffering is nirvana, in which case you have held an annihilationist view. And if you modify your position and assert that nirvana is a state where suffering has inherent existence and has not been extinguished, then you accept permanent suffering which even includes the state of nirvana, which is an eternalist view. Therefore you cannot assert that nirvana refers to a state where suffering is a non-functional phenomenon which has been extinguished nor can you assert that nirvana refers to a state where suffering is a functional phenomenon which has not been extinguished. These two assertions about nirvana are not appropriate. Therefore nirvana refers to that state where suffering does not arise with inherent existence and does not cease with inherent existence.

[26] If you assert a cessation that is different than a functional phenomenon then you are asserting a cessation which does not depend on a functional phenomenon and which exists inherently and permanently. Because we have refuted the inherent existence of a functional phenomenon and also the inherent existence of a non-functional phenomenon which depends on a functional phenomenon, so here a cessation cannot have independent existence and so it cannot exist inherently or permanently.

[27] Without depending on the defined one cannot establish a definition and without considering the definition one cannot establish the defined. As they depend on each other, they have not arisen by themselves, so therefore the defined and the definition are devoid of inherent existence and also they do not exist inherently in a mutually dependent way, so none of them can be used to establish the inherent existence of another one.

[28] Following the logic of this explanation of mutually dependent origination one cannot use the cause of a result to prove that the result has inherent existence. The same applies to all the pairs of such as feeling and the one who feels or seeing and the seer, and so forth. Taking these as examples one should understand how all the pairs are explained as being devoid of inherent existence because they originate in mutual dependence.

[29] Time does not exist inherently because the three periods of time do not maintain continuity by themselves, but are dependent on each other. If the three times were to have inherent existence in a mutually dependent way, then we could not make distinctions between, but because we can make distinctions so time itself cannot be established as having inherent existence. Because time does not have inherent existence, the functional basis on which the three times is imputed cannot have inherent existence, so therefore the three times do not have inherent existence and are merely imputed by concepts.

[30] Following the reasoning just given, the three characteristics of a composite phenomenon which are arising, enduring and ceasing are unfindable upon ultimate analysis even for you, so then a functional phenomenon which is characterized by these three attributes is also unfindable, in which case the functional basis of a composite phenomenon becomes unfindable. So when a composite phenomenon cannot exist inherently, how can a non-composite phenomenon which depends on a composite phenomenon have inherent existence in the least.

[31] At the point of its complete disintegration does a phenomenon disintegrate which has already disintegrated or at that point does a phenomenon disintegrate which has not yet disintegrated? In the first case the process of disintegration is complete, so this cannot be accepted. In the second case it is free from the function of disintegration, so this cannot be accepted. The same applies to enduring and arising. If a phenomenon were to endure at that point when it has alrady endured then the process of enduring is complete and we cannot say that it is enduring at that point. And a phenomenon which has not endured cannot be accepted as enduring at that point because it is free from the function of enduring. If a phenomenon were to arise at the point of arising which has already arisen then the process of arising is already complete, so this cannot be accepted. and if a phenomenon were to arise at that point which has not arisen then that case is not accpetable, because it is non-existent.

[32] If we examine composite phenomena and non-composite phenomena then we cannot find them as one, because then we cannot differentiate between these two types of phenomena, and we cannot find them as many, because then these two would be completely unrelated. If a composite phenomenon is asserted to exist, then it cannot arise because it is already existent and if it is asserted not to exist, then it cannot arise because it is non-existent. If it is asserted to be both existent and non-existent, this is not possible because such a state is contradictory. Every different type of phenomenon is included within this criterion of non-inherent existence.

[33] Opponent: The Peerless Subduer has taught that there is continuity in the flow of actions. Likewise, he has taught about the nature of actions and their results. He has also taught that the results of actions performed by an individual sentient being must be experienced by him and that whatever actions are performed are certain to bear fruit. For these four reasons actions have inherent existence.

[34] Reply: Buddha taught that actions do not exist inherently and so they cannot arise inherently. Although actions do not exist inherently, they will not be wasted but it is certain that they will bear fruit. From these actions arise consciousness, name and form, and the rest of the limbs of dependent origination. Conception of self is generated through focusing on the person who is merely imputed upon these dependent limbs. Also, it arises from the preconception which takes imporper objects and overestimates them.

[35] If actions were to have inherent existence then they would not be impermenent but would have the nature of permanance, and then the body which results from those actions would also be permanent. If actions were to be permanent then they could not give rise to suffering, which is the ripening of actions. If actions were non-changing then they would have the nature of permance and then they would have self-existence. But then Buddha would not have taught about the lack of self-nature.

[36] If actions were to exist at the time of conditions, those actions could not arise from those conditions. And if conditions do not have the potential to give rise to actions, then actions cannot arise from conditions because those conditions are similar to non-conditions. Because actions cannot arise even slightly from non-conditions, so therefore all composite phenomena are like an illusion, and a gandharva town and a mirage, and therefore they lack inherent existence.

[37] Actions are caused by delusions. Our body arises from the nature of delusions and actions. Because the cause of the body is actions, and actions arise from delusions, so therefore these three are devoid if inherent existence.

[38] When actions do not have inherent existence there will be no person to perform actions. Because both of them do not exist, results do not exist. When there are no results there will be no person to experience those results physically and mentally. Because of that reason that actions do not exist inherently, so all phenomena are devoid of inherent existence.

[39] If one understands how actions are devoid of inherent existence, then he sees the suchness of actions. When he has seen suchness he will have eliminated ignorance and when there is no ignorance then the actions which are caused by ignorance cannot arise in him, and so the results of actions such as consciousness and so forth up to aging and death will not be experienced by him. When consciousness ceases to exist the dependent limb of aging and death cannot occur; thus he will attain the state of liberation free from aging and death.

[40] Through his miraculous powers, Tathagata the Subduer emitted an emanation and that emanation emitted another emanation. As the emanation emitted by the Tathagata is devoid of inherent existence, it is hardly necessary to say that the emanation emitted by the emanation is also devoid of inherent existence.

[41] When we say that these two emanations do not exist inherently, that does not mean that they are completely non-existent but rather that both of them, just like actions and the one who performs actions, merely exist through terms because they are separated from the nature of inherent existence. They do not exist, but merely through imputation by thought in a deceptive way.

[42] The person who performs actions is said to be similar to the emanation emitted by the Tathagata because he is led by ignorance. And so his actions are said to be similar to the emanation emitted by the emanation. All of these are devoid of inherent existence, though they do have a slight existence as mere imputation supported by terms and concepts.

[43] If actions were to have the nature of inherent existence, then they would be permanent. But if actions were permanent then they would not depend on a person, and if there were no person to perform actions, then actions would not exist. In that case, nirvana, which is the state of cessation of delusions and actions, could not be attained. If actions did not exist through mere terms and concepts then their ripening results such as happiness and suffering could not arise.

[44] Whatever is said by the Buddha has the two truths as its chief underlying thought; it is hard to understand and must be interpreted in this light. When the Buddha says “existence” his chief underlying thought is conventional existence; when he says “non-existence” his chief underlying thought is non-inherent existence; when he says “existence-and-non-existence” his chief underlying thought is conventional-existence-and-non-inherent-existence as a mere object of examination.

[45] Neither does inherently existent form, having the nature of elements, arise from elements nor from itself and not even from others. Therefore, it does not exist, does it?

[46] A form cannot have the fourfold nature of the elements because if the form has four elements then it will be fourfold and the four elements cannot have a singular form or else they will become one like form, so how can form arise from the four great elements as its cause?

[47] Form is not apprehended as inherently existing, so therefore the form does not exist inherently. If it is said that the inherent existence of form is understood by the mind which apprehends it, then such a mind does not exist inherently because it has arisen from causes and conditions to it cannot be used as a reason for proving the inherent existence of a form.

[48] If a mind apprehends a form with inherent existence then the mind will apprehend its own nature. Such a mind has arisen from causes and conditions, so it is a dependent arising which lacks inherent existence. In the same way, form does not exist truly, so how can that mind apprehend a form with true existence?

[49] The kind of form, which has arisen but not ceased to exist, that I have explained is not apprehended by each moment of the mind in the present. Therefore, how can such a mind apprehend forms of the past and also of the future?

[50] In all times color and shape do not exist as two different things. If they were to exist as two different things then a mind could apprehend shape without considering color or color without considering shape. Because these two do not exist as two different things, so therefore there is not a mind which apprehends shape without taking color into consideration nor color without taking shape into consideration. In the world, a form is known to be singular; if its shape and color were to exist as two different things then the form would appear to the world as two instead of one.

[51] The eye has no consciousness because the eye is a form but eye consciousness is formless and that which is formless cannot adhere to form. In the same way the form which is observed has no eye consciousness, nor is it between eye and form. Because eye consciousness is generated in dependence on eye and form, if it is apprehended as having inherent existence, that is a mistaken concept.

[52] When the eye does not see itself, how can it see forms? Therefore the eye and the forms do not have self-existence and the remaining entrances should be understood in the same way.

[53] The eye is devoid of its own self-existent nature. It is also devoid of the self-existent nature of another. In the same way, form is devoid of its own self-existent nature as well as that of another. And it is the same with the rest of the entrances.

[54] When any of the six internal entrances arises simultaneously with contact, at that time the rest of the entrances will be devoid of the nature of contact. The rest of the entrances which are devoid of the nature of contact do not depend on the nature of contact. That which is not devoid of the nature of contact will not depend on that which is devoid of the nature of contact.

[55] The eye, eye consciousness and its object arise and immediately disintegrate, so they cannot exist as abiding in their natures and so those three cannot assemble. When these three cannot assemble, contact cannot exist and if contact cannot exist, so there cannot be feeling.

[56] Consciousness arises in dependence on internal and external entrances. Because consciousness arises in dependence on the entrances, so it is like a mirage and an illusion which are devoid of inherent existence.

[57] Consciousness cannot arise without taking its object, so it depends on the object of knowledge. The object of knowledge cannot arise without depending on the consciousness which apprehends it, and therefore because they exist in a mutually dependent way both of them lack inherent existence. The object of know ledge and the apprehension of the object do not exist inherently, therefore the person who knows the object does not exist inherently.

[58] Buddha has seen no essence in composite phenomena with inherent existence so he said that all composite phenomena are impermanent, so therefore they are devoid of inherent existence, or because he said that all composite phenomena are impermanent, so how could they exist inherently in the nature of permanent phenomena? If phenomena were to have inherent existence they should either be permanent or impermanent; but how can there be phenomena which are both permanent and impermanent at the same time?

[59] Through superimposition one develops the three distorted preconceptions toward pleasing, repulsive and neutral objects, which respectively cause attachment, hatred and closed-mindedness. Because they arise in dependence on these conditions, the essential nature of attachment, hatred and closed-mindedness is without inherent existence.

[60] A pleasing object does not exist inherently because some persons develop attachment towards it, others develop hatred towards it, and still others develop close-mindedness towards it. Therefore such qualities of the object are merely created by preconceptions, and these preconceptions also do not exist inherently because they develop from superimposition.

[61] Whatever may be an object of examination does not exist inherently. As the object of examination does not exist inherently, how can the thought-consciousness of that non-inherently existing object exist inherently? Therefore, because the object of examination and the thought-consciousness arise from causes and conditions, they are empty of inherent existence.

[62] The mind which directly understands emptiness is an unmistaken mind which eliminates the ignorance that arises from the four evil preconceptions. Without that ignorance the karmic formations will not arise, and so neither will the remaining limbs.

[63] Anything which arises in dependence on any causes will not arise without those causes. Hence, functional things in the form of produced phenomena and non-functional things as unproduced phenomena would be empty of inherent existence which is the natural state of nirvana.

[64] The Teacher, Buddha, said that the conception of true existence of functional things which arise from causes and conditions is ignorance. From this ignorance arise the twelve dependent limbs.

[65] Understanding the non-inherent existence of things means seeing the reality [i.e., emptiness] which eliminates ignorance about the reality of things. This brings about the cessation of ignorantly grasping at an apparently true existence. From that the twelve limbs of dependent origination cease.

[66] Produced phenomena are similar to a village of gandharvas, an illusion, a hair net in the eyes, foam, a bubble, an emanation, a dream, and a circle of light produced by a whirling firebrand.

[67] There is nothing which exists inherently. In that fashion even non-functional things do not exist. Therefore, functional things which arise from causes and conditions as well as non-functional things are empty of inherent existence.

[68] Because all things are empty of inherent existence the Peerless Tathagata has shown the emptiness of inherent existence of dependent arising as the reality of all things.

[69] Ultimate reality is contained within the limit of the non-inherent existence of a thing. For that reason, the Accomplished Buddha, the Subduer, has imputed various terms in the manner of the world through comparison.

[70] What is shown conventionally to the world appears to be without disintegration, but the Buddha has never actually shown anything with true existence. Those who do not understand what is explained by the Tathagata to be conventionally existent and empty of the sign of true existence are frightened by this teaching.

[71] It is known in the way of the world that “this arises in dependence on that.” Such statements are not refuted. But whatsoever arises dependently does not exist inherently, and how can that non-inherent existence itself have inherent existence? In fact, that non-inherent existence must definitely not exist inherently!

[72] Those who have faith in the teaching of emptiness will strive for it through a number of different kinds of reasoning. Whatever they have understood about it in terms of non-inherent existence, they clarify this for others, which helps others to attain nirvana by abandoning grasping at the apparently true existence of cyclic existence and non-cyclic existence.

[73] By seeing these internal and external phenomena arising from causes and conditions they will eliminate the whole network of wrong views. With the elimination of wrong views they will have abandoned attachment, closed-mindedness and hatred and thereby attain nirvana unstained by wrong views.

Alfred North Whitehead and Process Philosophy


It is rather unfortunate that 20th century philosophy is remembered chiefly for two main schools of thought. One was the analytic turn towards logic and eventually the study of language, pioneered by thinkers such as Bertrand Russell. The other was a move towards existentialism and postmodernism in the continental school. Each was motivated by a rejection of even the possibility of ever answering great questions on God, morality and metaphysics, and instead took a subjective turn. This was spurred on by Marxist theory on the continent, for the analytical school it was guided by a general distrust of metaphysics and philosophising of the kind done by Hegel, a disdain for the elaborate metaphysicsal systems seen to greatest effect in the school of German idealism and Neo Hegelians.

While these two trends dominated the century, there were nevertheless some great thinkers who fall outside of these two poles, chief among them being Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead is best remembered for working with a young Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica. After his early focus on mathematics, he turned to the study of the philosophy of science, his contributions to this field are also notable, as he  would publish a unique and working theory of relativity. In the final period of his career, Whitehead was offered the chance to become head of the department of philosophy at Harvard, which he duly accepted. Whitehead turned his great mind to the field of speculative philosophy, and over the next eight years he would create his unique philosophical school of thought, culminating in the publication of Process and Reality. Whitehead created what he called the Philosophy of Organism, but which has since been more popularly called Process Philosophy.

Process philosophy breaks with the Western tradition instituted by Aristotle and discards the notions of enduring substance and matter, instead taking process itself as being ultimately fundamental to the nature of reality. Whitehead terms it “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” to wrongly take some part of reality as ultimately fundamental. This fallacy is committed when someone sees reality as being made up of tiny bits of matter, beyond which there is nothing more fundamental. In breaking from the long tradition of substance metaphysics, which takes parts of the world as separate and imagines them to exist independently, Whitehead also breaks from traditional philosophical language, which is “thing” oriented in nature, and introduces a variety of new terms to help understand his process oriented Metaphysics.

Whitehead claims reality is fundamentally made of Actual Entities, in his own words “they are the final real things of which the world is made…. God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space.” Whitehead’s Actual Entities are similar to Leibniz’s monads, but, while the monads of Leibniz are “windowless”, Whitehead’s Entities could be said to be all window, they are temporal events which flow into one another, and prehend one another. The many become one, and are added to by one. Whitehead’s vision of reality is thus holographic in nature, every entity mirrors every other, including those of the past which have gone through Concrescences with other Actual Entities to create the current ones, thus gaining Objective Immortality, as they live on in all future Actual Entities.

The theory of organism provides a solution to the problem of the relation between mind and matter. We are wont to think that mind and matter are two distinct facts of experience influencing each other in some way. But how can any mutual interference be possible if they are separated from each other? The problem can be solved only if mind and matter interact by a relation of process. Nature flows into the mind and flows out transformed by it into the objects of perception. Here, neither of the two is more real than the other. The perceiver and the perceived form one continuous process. There are no subjects and objects differentiated from one another. The perceived universe is a view of itself from the standpoint of its parts that are modified by the activity of its whole being. There is a continuity of process between mind and matter. Thus, Whitehead is commonly labelled a panpsychist, though modern process philosophers use the term Panexperientialism to clarify his thought, as Whitehead himself says experience is prior to consciousness, and not vice versa. This means, in a very real way that the whole universe is in a state of conscious interaction with itself, an object is nothing but a continuous process of actual occasions as we experience them in their externalised condition. There is no fixed object anywhere. An event is a series of actual occasions revealed in perception as demonstrated in a molecule for a few moments. Objects are more complex formulations of such events, they are the coming together of Actual Entities into societies.

Whitehead speaks of an Ingressive evolution of the actual occasions from possible forms of experience which are known as Eternal Objects. The eternal objects Ingress into the formation of actual occasions. These eternal objects are not concrete existences but abstract possibilities of the evolution of the actual occasions. They are Whitehead’s more abstract version of Plato’s forms, non actualised possibilities which make reality as we experience it possible. The number 3 is an eternal object, as is a possible musical pattern. These Eternal Objects exist in God’s Primordial Nature.

What spurs on this endless process of creation, this evolution of Actual Entities into more complex stages of becoming. Whitehead uses the term enjoyment to describe the motivation of the process. Actual Entities interact and form concrescences for the enjoyment of the act of creation, as they evolve into more complex societies and achieve objective immortality within the greater process. Fundamental to reality is Creativity. This concept of creativity takes on a similar role to the Will in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, it is all that is fundamental to reality and pervades the cosmos in it’s influence, it is the driving force behind the process. Even God, generally seen as the ultimate metaphysical existent, is for Whitehead a mere non temporal accident of the ultimate of Creativity. As Whitehead explains, “In all philosophic theory there is an ultimate which is actual in virtue of its accidents. It is only then capable of characterization through its accidental embodiments, and apart from these accidents is devoid of actuality. In the philosophy of organism this ultimate is termed ‘creativity’; and God is its primordial, non-temporal accident”

This neatly introduces the concept of Whitehead’s God, and God in process philosophy generally. Whitehead’s brief descriptions of God’s role has since inspired the rise of it’s own school of process theology. Whitehead turns the concept of God on it’s head by introducing a temporal God to his system, who is not all powerful, but instead co operate with and coaxes along Actual Entities in a certain direction. Whitehead’s God is panentheistic, or Dipolar, in that it contains two natures.

The first aspect of God is the Consequent Nature of God, which is the God in the world aspect we most immediately experience, this is God entering into the world through the prehensions of actual occasions. This is akin to the classical God of theism, which acts on the world, but his power is limited in that each Actual Entity retains freedom in it’s activity. God is more like a loving mother, encouraging and supporting each entity along it’s journey than it is like the authoritarian father figure of the Abrahamic religions. Whitehead is not specific on how significant the effect of God is on the world, but he does give to each Actual Entity Subjective Aim which is their fundamental motivation in moving forward. For Schopenhauer, the Subjective Aim is the same in all, the kernel of the Will to Live. We can rather suppose the idea found in much religion and mysticism, that the subjective aim is the aspiration of the universe to realise it’s perfection in union with the Absolute or Godhead.

The other, more theoretical nature of God is his Primordial Nature. As it is more fundamental to the metaphysics of Whitehead, this aspect is discussed more in Process and Reality. As mentioned, the primordial nature of God contains the Eternal Objects which, so to speak, provide the being for the becoming of existence. This is the impersonal, trans-temporal aspect of God which is the ground of being.

It is easy to see why theologians have been drawn to the model offered by Whitehead as a way of understanding God. Within a framework of process philosophy, many of the age old theological problems are better understood. For Whitehead, God cannot be held responsible for the problem of evil, this is true because God is not the creator but the principle of limitation, who provides the conditions necessary for the manifestation of the universe. The process of reality is like a jazz session, multiple musicians play their instruments off each other, originally there is chaos, and there is often bad music created by the individual musicians often conflicting aims, but great music is created when the musicians work in tandem to express their creativity. We are once again reminded of the fundamental reason for this whole process to Whitehead, which is one of enjoyment. Whitehead frees us from the nihlistic, fatalistic obfuscations of modern philosophy and gives us a way of seeing the world which keeps a special place for reverence to creativity, novelty, beauty and freedom


One of my favourite modern Whiteheadians, who also writes excellently on Nietszche and Schopenhauer, is Peter Sjöstedt-H. You can follow him on Facebook at

The Metaphysics of Plotinus


I have long felt Plotinus to be one of the most underrated and oft forgotten great philosophers of all time. Expanding on the philosophy of the great Plato, he sets out a system of thought which comes into concurrence with the great philosophies of the East. I will now set out a summary of the philosophy of the great thinker.

There are three basic elements to Plotinian metaphysics:

1) The One – The self-caused, absolutely simple first principle. It is the cause of all other beings in the universe. The complex must be traced back to the simple, and that which can be explained in light of something must be traced back to that which requires or admits of no explanation. It must be noted, however, that the One is not absolutely simple in Plotinian thought.

This “One” is the same as the “Good” of Plato’s Republic. More specifically, it is the “Idea of the Good.” The Good and the One, for Plotinus, are identical. Rather than being actually simple, the One is the cause of everything precisely because it is virtually everything. “This means that is it stands to everything else as, for example, white light stands to the colors of the rainbow, or the way in which a properly functioning calculator may be said to contain all the answers to the questions that can be legitimately put to it”(Gerson, 2014).

All things are seen in terms of emanation from the One. This refers, not to a temporal process of generation, however, but to a relationship of atemporal, ontological dependence.

2) Intellect – This is the first derivation from the One. It is what contains the Platonic forms. Entities have properties which exist in these Forms. In this, Plotinus saw himself as following Plato in the Timaeus. This intellect is called the Demiurge.

The Intellect is the ground of the diversity and distinctness of the Forms of the One. As noted before, the Forms are thought by the Intellect of the One

3) Soul – The highest form of functioning for life. It is associated with desire and it is satisfied in the life of the Intellect, where the “desire is eternally satisfied by contemplation of the One through the entire array of Forms that are internal to it”(Gerson, 2014). Indeed, soul is itself the principle of desire, which can be found in both plants and animals. Desire seeks that which it is external to it and which it lacks. Desire, there, is signifies a kind of lack.

For Plotinus, as noted before, the One shared virtual identity with the Forms. To understand what this means, consider the arithmetic equation 1 + 2 = 3. On the one hand, it is an identity. But on the other hand, 1, 2 and 3 all have distinct identity. These Forms are united in the Intellect, which is itself subsumed under the One. Plotinus’ reason for positing an Intellect to house the Forms is, the Forms would be in disarray apart from something to unify them.

The role of Intellect is to account for the real distinctness of the plethora of Forms, virtually united in the One. Thus, in the above mathematical example, the fact that numbers are virtually united does not gainsay the fact that each has an identity. The way that identity is maintained is by each and every Form being thought by an eternal Intellect. And in this thinking, Intellect ‘attains’ the One in the only way it possibly can. It attains all that can be thought; hence, all that can be thought ‘about’ the One.

The One is the ground of being in general. The Intellect, housing the Forms, is the ground of particular beings. The Forms determine what kinds of things individual things are. The One is the first principle, which requires the Intellect in order for there to be particular beings, and the Intellect needs the One because that which is complex must ultimately be explained by the simple.

The soul is related to the Intellect in a manner similar to the way the Intellect is related to the One.

For Plotinus, matter is evil. The One, though identical with Plato’s “the Good,” is the cause of evil insofar as all separation from it is evil, and it is the cause of the Intellect’s separation from it. At the end of the production process is the “limit,” and beyond this limit is matter, which is evil.

In addition to being metaphysically evil, matter is evil to the extent that it causes humans to be impeded in our return to the One. It is evil when it is an end in itself. This is because humans are primarily a soul which employs a body foreign to it, so that attachment to physical, material pleasures, contradicts its nature. Humans are internally conflicted and divided, Plotinus thinks, because their physical bodies draw him away from contemplation of the one.

The flashes of insight in Plotinus are superb: “There everything is transparent, nothing dark, nothing resistant; every being is lucid to every other, in breadth and depth; light runs through light. And each of them contains all within itself, and at the same time sees all in every other, so that everywhere there is all, all is all, and each all, and infinite the glory. Each of them is great; the small is great: the sun, there, is all the stars, and every star again is all the stars and sun. While some one manner of being is dominant in each, all are mirrored in every other.”

“In this Intelligible World, every thing is transparent. No shadow limits vision. All the essences see each other and interpenetrate each other in the most intimate depth of their nature. Light everywhere meets light. Every being contains within itself the entire Intelligible World, and also beholds it entire in every particular being… There abides pure movement; for He who produces movement, not being foreign to it, does not disturb it in its production. Rest is perfect, because it is not mingled with any principle of disturbance. The Beautiful is completely beautiful there, because it does not dwell in that which is not beautiful.”

“To have seen that vision is reason no longer. It is more than reason, before reason, and after reason, as also is the vision which is seen. And perhaps we should not here speak of sight; for that which is seen if we must needs speak of seer and seen as two and not one is not discerned by the seer, nor perceived by him as a second thing. Therefore this vision is hard to tell of; for how can a man describe as other than himself that which, when he discerned it, seemed not other, but one with himself indeed?” (Enneads, V. 8; VI. 9, 10).

Having read such passages, how could one not place Plotinus among the greatest teachers to have graced the world? Plotinus’ legacy is being the one who took Plato’s great body of suggestion and formed it into a coherent and complete system of thought. His name deserves to stand with the handful of great philosophers who have used philosophy to give us a glimpse of greater, deeper truths which perhaps few intellects can even comprehend. Plotinus was one such intellect.

The 5 Greatest Minds of Philosophy

Philosophy has gifted the human race with the wisdom of some of the greatest minds we have seen. From the time of Thales, humanities best and brightest have been attracted by the lure of philosophy, and an insight into their unique way of thinking has helped illuminate the shades of ignorance we would otherwise have been left wallowing in. Now, we rank the 5 greatest minds in philosophy.


#5 – Arthur Schopenhauer


Though often underrated, Schopenhauer was the great genius of the 19th century. Schopenhauer published his doctoral thesis, “On The Fourfold Root Of The Principle Of Sufficient Reason” when he was 25, by the age of 29 he had published his magnum opus, the world as will and idea. By then he was fluent in 7 languages, and had produced a work of philosophy that built on the work of Kant to create a holistic explanation of reality which unified Eastern and Western thought. Tolstoy said Schopenhauer took philosophy “as far as it could go”. Schopenhauer himself would not be surprised that to this day his genius is underrated, as he said himself, “Talent hits a target no one can reach, genius hits a target no one can see.”


#4 – Plato

plaWhitehead said all of Western philosophy was a series of footnotes to Plato. His impact can’t be understated. Plato’s genius lay in his ability to combine theories from his predecessors and contemporaries and add his own unique insights, insights which to this day seem as relevant as ever. Another aspect of Plato’s genius was the way he could implant deep wisdom into simple dialogues, and, while never pointing to exactly what he believed to be true, the power of his work comes from his constant suggestion. He doesn’t hold up a correct answer, he leaves suggestions to point future generations in the right direction. His work tackles everything from cosmology to politics, love and ethics. His theory of the forms remains relevant today, especially in the field of mathematics and quantum theory, reminding us yet again just how insightful his philosophy was.


#3 – Aristotle

aristotlePlato’s greatest student, Aristotle may well be the first great polymath, writing authoritatively on ethics, metaphysics, physics, logic, art, poetry, drama, politics and zoology. A great systematiser, Aristotle’s form of logic would dominate for over two thousand years. His greatest contribution in the area of metaphysics was postulating the necessity of an “unmoved mover”. Aquinas would later revive his thought in Europe and present it as a way to rationally ground faith. He laid the groundwork for the scientific method by looking to the world for evidence for his theories, while his virtue ethics has seen a revival of interest in recent years as an alternative to deontology and utilitarianism.



#2 – Alfred North Whitehead

anwWhitehead may be remembered as the genius we missed. Though geniuses such as Plato and Aristotle are still widely read and influential, Whitehead’s philosophical work went mostly under the radar, seen as too difficult and obscure, and as a defender of speculative metaphysics in the era of positivism and the language turn, he was perhaps the right man at the wrong time. The genius of Whitehad is truly incredible. In 1910 he published the Principia Mathematica with his colleague Bertrand Russell, the volume made impotant contributions to math, logic and science. Whitehead would then shift his focus onto the area of science, and was the only one apart from Einstein to publish a working theory of relativity. He turned his focus to philosophy late in his career, when, in his 60’s he was invited to teach it at Harvard. Eight years later he published his Magnum Opus, Process and Reality. Considered one of the most difficult philosophical texts ever, Whitehead created a highly unique and original system which offered a comprehensive system of metaphysics, and gave birth to thWhitee school known as Process Philosophy. Whitehead also wrote on the history of ideas, symbolism, language and aesthetics.


#1 – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

gwl Whitehead himself said there was a book to be written titled “The Mind Of Leibniz”, and, while his philosophy is not generally considered as great as others, no one doubts his immense genius. Another great polymath, Leibniz made important contributions to metaphysics, logic, epistemology, philosophy of religion, mathematics, jurisprudence, history and even geology. He is perhaps best known for discovering calculus independently of, and at the same time as, Isaac Newton as well as the binary system. Though Newton is considered one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, and his contributions were more influential, most who know Leibniz consider him to have had a greater mind. One of the last “men who knew everything”, Leibniz’ unmatched ability to excel in diverse and complex topics, while still making creative contributions of his own is an incredible testament to the capabilities of the human mind .

Re-evaluating Descartes

Modern philosophy begins with Descartes. His original approach to philosophy overturned centuries of scholastic thought based on the authority of the bible, Aristotle and his populariser Thomas Aquinas. Descartes’ project was to rebuild the discipline of philosophy from the ground up, building it on rational and scientific foundations; as such, his starting point was to build his whole system on self evident axioms.

The first of these axioms was the much quoted “Cogito, ergo sum”. I think, therefore I am. Descartes concludes that although his senses may be deceiving him, and he may well be in a dream like state, or being deceived about the nature of reality in a situation akin to the situation Neo finds himself in the Matrix, the one thing he cannot doubt is that he is thinking. As such, he exists. I believe in the starting point of his project he violated the guiding principle. If Descartes is to doubt everything, he must also doubt the existence of the “I” that is doing the thinking. If Descartes is to be a skeptic, he cannot know there is a self doing the thinking, though it may not be true, it is at least logically conceivable that his self is an illusion and all thinking is being done by one mind. As such, all Descartes can really conclude is “something thinks, something is”.

The next phase of his great work “Meditations” is an argument for the existence of God. Descartes uses a version of the ontological argument popularised by St. Anselm. The idea of God is present in the mind a priori. The concept of God is an infinitely perfect being. Existence is a perfection, therefore for God to be truly perfect he must exist in reality rather than as a concept alone. Here, the problems inherent in Descartes’ approach is highlighted. This version of the ontological argument was poor, as Kant demonstrates, existence isn’t a predicate, while the concept of an infinitely perfect being is difficult to conceive, unless perfection is framed in relation to the human idea of morality; as such, this isn’t an argument that would hold good prior to any experience, for before experience a mind could not form the concept of perfection, God, or existence outside the mind. Descartes was first and foremost a Christian, as such his skeptical project is biased from the beginning towards certain conclusions, and his arguments for the Christian God fall down. His project is framed as being purely a priori, but as we have seen, many of the concepts he discusses are formulated through human experience. Pure rationalism is untennable.

Perhaps Descsartes’ greatest contribution to modern philosophy is being the first thinker to formulate the mind body problem. Descartes posits two independently existent substances. Mind, which he knows to exist through the Cogito, and matter, which he knows to exist through sense perception, pointing out that even in dreams and fantasies, the same concepts of space, time, extension and colour are necessary. Mind is an immaterial substance, and as such neither of these two substances are reducible to the other. If the substances are totally different in nature, how can they interact? Descartes’ answer is an odd one – the apparent interaction is an illusion, rather, mind and matter are set in motion parallel to one another, like two clocks synchronised. Surely this is not the best explanation to this difficult problem. Again, Descartes has violated the aims of his original project. As Berkeley would demonstrate, no a priori reason exists to believe in the independent existence of matter. Though space, time and extentsion may be common to all experience, real or imagined, this is not to say they are not merely contingent phenomena, which may not exist independently of the mind that perceives them. Had Descartes followed this path, he would have maintained his demand for certainty and come to a conclusion of idealism, or at least have refused to commit to the problematic dualism which has been such a source of confusion and misunderstanding in the centuries which followed.

This is indicative of the fundamental problem of Descartes, he commits to certainty, but he makes great leaps without sufficient certainty. He commits to objectivity, yet he searches for reasons to defend his personal beliefs. He promises simplicity, yet he invents elaborate explanations to defend his conclusions. Perhaps though, all this criticism misses the point. It is not for the truth of his teachings that Descartes is remembered as one of the greatest philosophers, rather, it is for his faith in the attitude of doubt and the power of human reason, an attitude which would usher in a new age of independent thinking and scientific advances, free from the shackles of the dogma which still held a light grasp over the thought of the great Descartes.