Being, Unity, and The Good in Platonic vs and Parmenidean Contemplative Practice

I wish to demonstrate a fundamental contrast between the Platonic and
the Parmenidean view of the notions, Being, Unity, and the Good and the roles
these notions play in motivating two contrasting contemplative attitudes.
First, Platonism, as exemplified in Plotinus. The Plotinian One is that
principle which, in lending unity to all entities that possess self-identity,
accompanies and is manifest in whatever is; whatever is participates the One in
so far as it achieves its own “good,” its own self-identity or nature. “Being” is
therefore something of lower rank than the One, since each thing that has Being
must participate the One, and Being itself participates the One. The Good and the
One are the Same since that in general which each being seeks is its own Good;
that  is, to be itself entire, to be one with itself. Contemplation aims not for Being
but for the One. The intellect (nous), whose function it is to know Being in the
sense of recognizing beings as what they are in their identities, must raise itself to
that point in itself where it recognizes Unity—the One—as its own principle and
prior; it must seek to unify itself with that One which, because it is beyond the
objects that the intellect knows, can neither be said to be nor not to be.
Being on this account is equivalent to identity, so whatever is—is as one.
Whatever is multiple has fallen from its unity, its identity. And since Being itself
is a universal in which all beings participate and at the same time the concrete
sum of all such participating beings, Being itself is multiple, i.e., has already
fallen away from its own unity and thus, again, is less than the One.
A pre-requisite for contemplation is unification or self-unification, since
without this, the ascent to the One itself is unmotivated and has, as it were, no
launching pad.

Again: I discover myself to be myself by virtue of my participation in
unity. I must then seek to overcome my own diversity from unity itself. The
value of all lower things is measured by their exhibition of unity.
Now, this theme of the participation of the being with its identity in the
One redounds throughout the Western traditions: in Christianity, the notion that
the individual soul is a simple substance; in Coleridge the Ensemplastic force; the
principle of gestalt in modern psychology; aesthetic theories of unity; dreams of
political totality or social harmony or psychological integration or physical
holism; rational systems bent on self-consistency and the law of non-
contradiction (whether directly dependent on the Plotinian concept or on the
Platonic thought that preceded him, the Christian thought that succeeded him, or
the scientistic and rational thought that sought to replace Christianity without
criticizing its drive toward unity). Each of these doctrines valorizes the principle
of unity.  Oneness is the supreme achievement. It is consummation and
perfection. We are less than ourselves when we fail to integrate the multiplicity
of our tendencies, thoughts, attitudes into a psyche whole; our conflicts do not
only tend to our destruction and cause us wretchedness and pain, they involve
us in non-being; our heterodoxies are blemishes, partialities, deficiencies,
perversities; our enigmas and paradoxes are failures to resolve our thoughts into
unity; our stylistic pluralities betoken lack of resolve or failure to realize an
identity or failure to integrate the elements of our work. In all these attitudes, a
common theme is that Being is linked to identity/unity. Being is preeminently
predicative: the unified ensemble of characteristics that define a thing as the
specific thing it is, the form in which it participates, the criterion it satisfies, the measure to
which it conforms.

In contrast: Parmenideanism. For Parmenides, all these unities, these
harmonies, these coherent multiplicities, though still involving unity  as a
principle of identity, represent a thoroughly different relation to Being itself.
First, the self-identical entity is not a being except figuratively and in a
very special sense: it is a seeming-to-be. It involves Being not because it
exemplifies an ensemble of characteristics unified in its definition or because it
realizes an atemporal form, but because as an apparency it involves Being in its
structure. Everything that seems must seem to Be.

Second, even if, in appearing as a fully formed apparition that does
indeed show forth its definitionally unified ensemble of characteristics and thus
indeed exhibits unity through its identity—still this being-as, this predicative sort
of being, this identity only  one-sidedly reports of Being itself; for Being, not as
identity, but as concrete existence is ALSO apparent in the incomplete phases of
the formation of a thing as well as in multiplicities that do not show formal
unities; it dwells in heterogeneous aggregates, in randomly kinetic ensembles, in
incoherent or unresolved paradoxes or enigmas, in divided personalities or
psychic conditions with contradictory attitudes, contrasting feelings, or processes
of intellect or sensibility that, engendered under various conditions and suited to
the pursuit of various ends, (or the pursuit of no ends, or contradictory or
absurd, humorous, or simply heterogeneous ends), entertain heterogeneous
ensembles of ideations, truths, or feelings. Being qua existence is a factor in
apparencies that exhibit chaos, conflict, lack of formal distinctness, emptiness,
ugliness, peremptoriness, rebeliousness, obstreporousness, or pluck.

This does not mean that we need to valorize these states of multiplicity in
general, any more than we need to condemn them in general; that is to say, it
does not suggest that we ought to prefer them. But it may mean that where we do
have reason to prefer them, choose them, affirm them, dwell within them,
discover their possibilities, their virtues, their uses, their qualities, their
pleasures, we may do so without fear of falling away from our very Being for
entertaining or attending to or practicing states of appearing-to-be that do not
dogmatically push towards the One.

That we may and often do prefer the unified states to these others goes
without saying. But we do so because of our evaluation of their actual apparency, not because
of an imperative inherent in Being to glorify the unified and the self-identical, whether their
concretely appearing characters satisfy our concrete exigencies or no.

Returning now to Plotinus and his hierarchy that requires the One to rest at a higher station
than Being: We say that we need to invert the First and Second Hypostases (the One and
Nous/Being). The One is not the supreme condition, but a characteristic of a certain phase of
apparency. It presides over precisely those seemings-to-be that exhibit determinate identity.
But Being surpasses Unity because multiplicitous and indeterminate conditions and states
also appear for sentient beings and therefore share in seeming-to-be and therefore in Being
and therefore have equal rights with identities.

The contemplative states commended by Plotinus that involve the isolation of that facet of
the intellectual principle, the nous, which gazes beyond itself to the One and seeks to unify
itself with the One as to its own innermost prior and Good—these contemplations need to be
reconceived as pertaining to Being itself. For these states are not at all beyond “being
and non-being." It is not the case that we fail to be certain  whether or not  they actually exist.
In fact, thestate of the self-contemplation of Being is the only state of whose Being we cannot
entertain doubt. However, it cannot be said of such contemplation that it is either One or
Many. Rather, the sentient being, in recovering its own principle of sentience, its
pure-awareness, and discovering in awareness the principle of apparency, must seek that
wherein Being announces itself in each instant, whether an occasion of unified identity or a
passing moment of indeterminate sensa, or any degree of mixture of the two. Rather than
isolating itself from the apparencies of ordinary existence, contemplation finds itself at the
heart all that seems to be.

Feb.23, 1995

Comments are closed.