Kenotic Causality

Kenotic Causality

In this post I want to look at a text I came across recently in Ennead 5.1. I was struck by Plotinus’ use of the word διδόναι (to give) when explaining his principle of double activity. He writes:

καὶ πάντα τὰ ὄντα, ἕως μένει, ἐκ τῆς αὑτῶν οὐσίας ἀναγκαίαν τὴν περὶ αὑτὰ πρὸς τὸ ἔξω αὑτῶν ἐκ τῆς παρούσης δυνάμεως δίδωσιν αὑτῶν ἐξηρτημένην ὑπόστασιν, εἰκόνα οὖσαν οἷον ἀρχετύπων ὧν ἐξέφυ.

All things which exist, as long as they remain in being, necessarily give from their own substances, in dependence on their present power, a surrounding reality directed to what is outside them, a kind of image of the archetypes from which it was produced.

What’s remarkable here is Plotinus’ seeming equation of giving and causality. One reality ‘causes’ another to come into being, with its own distinct, though dependent reality. Causality is thus not a mechanistic event of billiard balls colliding with one another, pace Hume. Rather it is a kenotic activity, whereby one reality gives of itself, and, in doing so, leads another reality into being through an abundance of goodness.

The superior being, in giving of itself, remains superior and independent from its inferior effect, yet it nonetheless takes responsibility for it (a cause, αἰτία, is αἰτίος or responsible for its effect’s coming into appearance.) Moreover, the superior cause defines the inferior simply by being and by being superior. Its goodness and definiteness anchors the inferior, gives it limits, πείρατα, which are necessary for its intelligibility and intelligible movement. In other words, causal hierarchy, gradation, and kenotic self-gift are the necessary preconditions for the subsequent ‘motion from’ (so called efficient causality), ‘motion toward’ (final cause), and motion in se.

Plotinus gives three examples to clarify his point. He says:

πῦρ μὲν τὴν παρ᾿ αὑτοῦ θερμότητα· καὶ χιὼν οὐκ εἴσω μόνον τὸ ψυχρὸν κατέχει· μάλιστα δὲ ὅσα εὐώδη μαρτυρεῖ τοῦτο· ἕως γάρ ἐστι, πρόεισί τι ἐξ αὐτῶν περὶ αὐτά, ὧν ἀπολαύει ὑποστάντων ὁ πλησίον.

Fire produces the heat which comes from it; snow does not only keep its cold inside itself. Perfumed things show this particularly clearly. As long as they exist, something is diffused from themselves around them, and what is near them enjoys their existence.

While words like emanation or procession may seem ‘spooky’ or ‘metaphysically loaded’ to a modern or overly empiricist palate, Plotinus’ examples are quite banal here. Nonetheless, the conclusions he draws from his analysis of these activities is striking. For, according to Plotinus, fire causes heat simply, but necessarily, by being itself. He distinguishes the being of the fire from the being of the heat in the room. The what-it-is-to-be-fire is simply not identical to the what-it-is-to-be-heat. Yet the first, fire, necessarily produces the second from out of itself. To fail to connect to connect the first to the second is simply to misunderstand the what-it-is-to-be-fire. If one, like Hume, says he has an impression of fire which is just always constantly conjoined to an impression of heat, though only through habit, is to misidentify that whole, that intelligible being that we call fire. There is simply no account of fire wherein heat is not included. Nor is there an account of snow that does not include ‘cold’ or of perfume absent ‘smells.’

To be sure, any dispute between Plotinus and Hume on causality would surely need to deal with first principles: mind’s relation to being, the relation of wholes to parts, the character of the intellect, etc. Still, it seems to me that Plotinus’ characterization of causality as a kind of giving from out of oneself and out of abundance lays the groundwork for dealing with Hume’s pesky skepticism. Since fire gives of itself and leads ‘heat’ into being, one cannot have a solitary impression of fire without including ‘that which is in itself hot and which overflows into external heat.’ A single impression of fire sans heat is simply incoherent, like saying ‘that rapid process of oxidation that does not emit energy.’ Because the being of the effect is literaly ‘contained’ in the cause, the latter cannot be seperated from the former, from the new reality that is simultaneously distinct and dependent on its parent cause.

Conor Stark
Conor Stark

Conor is a PhD student at the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC, US).


Plotinus Causality Kenosis

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