Rothbard vs. Plotinus

Plotinus by Raphael

Plotinus by Raphael

Rothbard was a smart guy, but man, he really didn’t know anything about Plotinus.

Now it’s no crime to be ignorant of Plotinus – but as Rothbard himself says, it’s a bad idea to have a “loud and vociferous opinion” on things one is ignorant of. And unfortunately, Rothbard – evidently through reliance on Thomas Molnar and Leszek Kolakowski, neither of whom apparently knew a damn thing about Plotinus either – has uncritically picked up some loud and vociferous opinions on Plotinus.

Plotinus says that God, or the One, is “self-sufficing” and “utterly perfect above all,” and that it creates out of a kind of overflowing fullness, because it does not “grudge … to give of itself.”

But according to Rothbard, Plotinus’s view is that God is imperfect and “creates the universe out of loneliness, dissatisfaction, or …. felt need.”

Moreover, Rothbard tells us that according to Plotinus, “creation, instead of being wondrous and good, is essentially and metaphysically evil,” and that redemption will not come until the “painful state of creation is … over.”

By contrast, here’s what Plotinus actually says about the goodness of creation:

To those who assert that creation is the work of the Soul after the failing of its wings, we answer that no such disgrace could overtake the Soul of the All. … We assert its creative act to be a proof not of decline but rather of its steadfast hold. … And when will it destroy the work? If it repents of its work, what is it waiting for? If it has not yet repented, then it will never repent: it must be already accustomed to the world, must be growing more tender towards it with the passing of time. … What reflection of that [intelligible] world could be conceived more beautiful than this [material world] of ours? What fire could be a nobler reflection of the fire there than the fire we know here? Or what other earth than this could have been modelled after that earth? And what globe more minutely perfect than this, or more admirably ordered in its course could have been conceived in the image of the self-centred circling of the World of Intelligibles? And for a sun figuring the Divine sphere, if it is to be more splendid than the sun visible to us, what a sun it must be.

So is Plotinus a “reabsorption theologian”? Sure, in some sense. But Plotinus is constantly trying to reconcile the sense in which creation needs to be transcended with the sense in which it needs to be embraced – just as, y’know, orthodox Christianity does too. (And although the Gnostics are interestingly different from Plotinus, what Rothbard says doesn’t apply to them either – mainly because for them, while the material universe is indeed evil (by contrast with Plotinus), God does not create the material universe, and so a fortiori does not create it out of a lack of self-sufficiency – and the immaterial universe that God does create is not evil.) Reabsorption theology is a lot more subtle and nuanced than the cartoon version you’re going to get if you’re relying on a Catholic apologist who wants to use it as a cudgel to beat the Gnostics with and a postmodernist who wants to use it as a cudgel to beat the Marxists with.

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39 Responses to Rothbard vs. Plotinus

  1. MBH October 26, 2009 at 5:31 pm #

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    Pardon the scattershot.

    Didn’t you write somewhere about the limited sense in which Cartesianism is correct?

    Was Rothbard a functionalist?

    What is “reabsorption thoelogy?”

    • Roderick October 27, 2009 at 4:04 pm #

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      Didn’t you write somewhere about the limited sense in which Cartesianism is correct?

      Cartesianism about what?

      Was Rothbard a functionalist?

      You mean about mind and body? I don’t know that he held any position that specific about mind and body, though he did seem to prefer avoiding either extreme materialism or extreme dualism. I would suspect that functionalism would be a touch too materialist for him, but David might be able to tell us more.

      What is “reabsorption thoelogy?”

      It’s Rothbard’s term for a certain tendency in theology that he interprets differently from the way I do, so I’m not sure there’s any non-tendentious definition.

      • MBH October 27, 2009 at 6:00 pm #

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        Cartesianism about what?

        I think it was mind and body.

        [Rothbard] did seem to prefer avoiding either extreme materialism or extreme dualism.

        This may seem random, but I’ve been curious about your take on David Bohm (Thought as a System and Wholeness and the Implicit Order in particular). Do you think more attention is due reconciliations between relativity and quantum theory? Do you think those efforts are worthwhile?

        [Reabsorption theology is] Rothbard’s term for a certain tendency in theology that he interprets differently from the way I do, so I’m not sure there’s any non-tendentious definition.

        Sounds like Rothbard would argue that Revelations could never have been intended as a metaphor for the end of a certain kind of history.

      • MBH October 30, 2009 at 8:33 am #

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        Let me ask it this way:

        I took an online critical thinking class months ago. The text book framed the mind/body distinction this way:

        “Mind is to brain as oxygen is to the lungs.”

        Would you agree with that?

        • Gene Callahan November 2, 2009 at 10:47 am #

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          Sound the mind is some substance in the atmosphere that the brain sucks in and converts to something else?!

        • MBH November 2, 2009 at 6:10 pm #

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          Like processing information into actionable intelligence?

        • smally November 2, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

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          MBH, have you by any chance read Roderick’s exchange with Kevin Vallier on mind-brain stuff?

          I hesitate to answer, since I’m not really on top of this philosophy stuff, but I doubt Roderick would agree with the analogy you quote. It sounds like it’s describing substance dualism, whereas in the exchange I linked above Roderick writes that the mind is the form of the brain.

        • MBH November 2, 2009 at 11:06 pm #

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          Thank you.

  2. P.M.Lawrence October 27, 2009 at 12:36 am #

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    Rothbard also seems to have thought Michelangelo had descendants, and he’s a millennium out with Erigena’s dates (see the previous post for a dunce’s cap).

    • Roderick October 27, 2009 at 8:40 am #

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      Re Michelangelo — well, he had collateral descendants. So if collateral descendants are a kind of descendant, he had descendants (though, contra Rothbard, not direct descendants AFAIK). I’m betting that some reference to a collateral descendant just said “descendant” and Rothbard mistook it to mean direct.

      As for the Erigena thing, that’s pretty clearly a typo. At least he didn’t confuse him with the (topically appropriate) Duns.

      • P.M.Lawrence October 27, 2009 at 7:32 pm #

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        “At least he didn’t confuse him with the (topically appropriate) Duns”.

        Nor did I. I was very careful only to allude to Duns, because I was reminded of him, and not to identify the two.

        • Roderick October 28, 2009 at 11:10 am #

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          I wasn’t implying that you had confused them.

  3. dennis October 27, 2009 at 9:40 am #

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    He’s guilty of the same thing the Spencer bashers are.

  4. David Gordon October 27, 2009 at 2:03 pm #

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    I think this is an uncharitable reading of Rothbard. The assertions quoted about creation refer to the Christian “heresy”, rather to the specific doctrines of Plotinus, who cannot be a heretic since he of course was not a Christian at all.
    Too much weight is being put on the statement that reabsorption theology “begins” with Plotinus.

    • Roderick October 27, 2009 at 3:55 pm #

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      Well, I believe I recall his saying similar things about Plotinus in the History of Economic Thought too. In any case, if Rothbard doesn’t mean these things to be true of Plotinus, who are they supposed to be true of? He mentions Eckhart, Böhme, Scotus Erigena, Winstanley, Hegel, Gnosticism, and even process theology (which to me means Whitehead and Hartshorne) — but apart from the Gnostics (who thought material creation was inherently evil, but didn’t identify God as its creator), none of these thinkers claimed material creation was inherently evil (many of them thought it was tainted by original sin, but there’s nothing heretical about that, from the standpoint of mainstream Christianity) — and most of them thought that God created the universe out of overflowing love (which seems perfectly orthodox, and doesn’t imply anything about “felt dissatisfaction”).

      • Roderick October 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm #

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        Maybe what Rothbard has in mind is the dispute over whether creation was a necessary or a free act on God’s part, with orthodox Christians ordinarily holding that it was free — and maybe Rothbard thinks that if it was necessary, then God was driven to it by some sort of felt lack. But first, not all the people Rothbard talks about think it was necessary (Meister Eckhart didn’t, for example) — and for those who did, it was, again, more a matter of overflowing fullness than of lack. (Which all goes back to Plato.)

        • Roderick October 27, 2009 at 4:21 pm #

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          I looked up what Rothbard says about Plotinus in the History; here are some excerpts:

          the dialectic of ‘reabsorption into God’ derived from the third century Platonist philosopher, Plotinus. Plotinus had had his own three stages: the original unity with God, the human-history stage of degradation and separation or alienation from God, and the final ‘return’ or ‘reabsorption’ as all human beings are submerged into the One and history is finished. (v. 1, p. 161)

          For Plotinus, for example, the Good is unity, or The One, whereas Evil is identified as any sort of diversity or multiplicity. (v. 2, p. 350)

          These are definitely claims about Plotinus himself, not about Christian heretics influenced by him. And they’re just completely wrong. Plotinus is describing an eternal relationship, not an historical process. There is no future stage, no End of History, where we all get reabsorbed into the One. (It’s Christians — non-heretical ones to boot — who believe in an end of history.) And Plotinus devotes an entire treatise (Ennead II.9) to an explicit attack on those who regarded the world of matter and multiplicity as evil.

        • Brandon October 27, 2009 at 7:46 pm #

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          The Rothbard piece you’re critiquing — at least critiquing that small part of it — is tremendously good, and I’m glad I read it. I’d like to point out that the first reference Rothbard makes of Plotinus is this:

          “As Leszek Kolakowski points out in his monumental work on Marxism, reabsorption theology begins with the 3rd-century Greek philosopher Plotinus…”

          Sounds like Rothbard may have been heavily influenced in his thinking on this subject by Kolakowski’s book Main Currents of Marxism. Not having read it, I don’t know if Rothbard inherited his “reabsorption theology” ideas from it.

        • MBH October 27, 2009 at 9:28 pm #

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          Brandon, I’m concerned this is more than a small part of Rothbard’s piece and ideology. He seems to use reabsorption theology — at least his (or Kolakowski’s) understanding of it — as a straw man on which to root all of Statism. He identifies Hegel as the resurrection of reabsorption theology and that resurrection as the cause of communism.

          That’s wrong to begin with, but Rothbard goes on to demonize communism (see here). He speaks of communism like Rand spoke of compromise — why mix poison into your batter?

          So in Rothbard’s system of ethics, viewing-the-world-as-evil = evil. But wouldn’t Rothbard view a communist world as evil?

        • Brandon October 27, 2009 at 10:41 pm #

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          “a straw man on which to root all of Statism.”

          That’s not what the piece is about. It is specifically about communism, which should be exposed for what it is, and you can call that “demonized” if you want. Rothbard offers numerous examples in the piece of communist regimes which turned their territories into concentration camps.
          The full version of the quote Roderick used above is “In the reabsorptionist view, creation, instead of being wondrous and good, is essentially and metaphysically evil. For it generates diversity, individuality, and separateness, and thereby cuts off man from his beloved cosmic union with God. Man is now permanently “alienated” from God, the fundamental alienation; and also from other men, and from nature.”

          So the alienation is defeated by the commies when they impose their collectivist state on the rest of us, thereby ending the “alienation” and returning, or reabsorbing humanity into some kind of harmonious godlike condition. I guess that’s where Roderick disagrees, but who cares. The value of the piece is that it’s actually a long history of commie governments and how they worked out. It was better to be killed outright than last any length of time under such a system. But why take my word for it? Read the post yourself.
          BTW, don’t forget to use a forward slash in your closing HTML tags.

        • MBH October 27, 2009 at 10:58 pm #

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          I guess that’s where Roderick disagrees, but who cares.

          I care because the (anarcho) communist intention is correct–reabsorption is just another way of saying finding-an-internal-locus-of-control, connecting to love, or whatever. State centralized communism is a mis-application of what reabsorption is really all about. That’s what’s important. If we demonize the word ‘communism’ then we have trouble finding the original intention behind it. And the intention behind it — reabsorption without rejection of the world — is the same intention behind all libertarianism.

        • Brandon October 27, 2009 at 11:05 pm #

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          Do tell.

        • MBH October 27, 2009 at 11:41 pm #

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          Libertarianism is a form. The content within it is a yearning-for-freedom. But freedom from what?

          Part of the human condition is the sense of alienation. It lurches throughout our experience of the world.

          The problem occurs when we conflate the sense of alienation with the sense of the world. That would naturally encourage a desire to end the world.

          But, as humans, we possess the capacity to distinguish between these two senses. ‘Reabsorption’ — mis-understood as the End of History (or of work) — is actually just identical with death. ‘Reabsorption’ — correctly understood as the End of Alienation — is identical with love, life, light, etc.

          The negative side of libertarianism is the desire to be free from alienation. That includes all the forms alienation takes: class systems, communication division, etc.

          The positive side of libertarianism is the desire to extend oneself into something greater than oneself. To connect with God or what-have-you. (As a Jew, I was always taught that man seeks God, but God also seeks man.)

          That process — man reaching for something greater and something greater, simultaneously, reaching for man — is reabsorption. That does not, by any means, entail a rejection of the world or a judgment that the world is metaphysically evil. I don’t see why reabsorption would necessarily include metaphysics at all.

          Hegel mis-identifies reabsorption as a process between man and the State. But that should not count against reabsorption. That should count against Hegel.

          On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that reabsorption is a process of man without the State. It just means that it’s a process of man irrespective of the State.

        • Brandon October 28, 2009 at 1:33 pm #

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          Rothbard’s definition of “alienation” at least in this context is “diversity, individuality, and separateness”. I don’t want to be “free” of these things, but since you didn’t define alienation as you mean it, perhaps your definition is different.
          I can clearly answer your first question — “But freedom from what?”
          Coercion.

        • MBH October 29, 2009 at 2:39 am #

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          Rothbard’s definition of “alienation” at least in this context is “diversity, individuality, and separateness”.

          That’s strange. I’ve never heard ‘alienation’ used with a positive connotation. Isn’t it awkward to say, “I want to be alienated.”?

          I would say that alienation means “an unwelcome separateness.”

          I can clearly answer your first question — “But freedom from what?” Coercion.

          That’s fair. But isn’t there a causal relation between the sense of alienation and the use of coercion? If no one felt “an unwelcome separateness” where would anyone get the idea to objectify people?

        • Sergio Méndez October 29, 2009 at 1:36 pm #

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          Brandon:

          “So the alienation is defeated by the commies when they impose their collectivist state on the rest of us, thereby ending the “alienation” and returning, or reabsorbing humanity into some kind of harmonious godlike condition.”

          When you say that, I wonder if you actually understand the concept of alienation in marxist thought. Alienation is basically a condition tied to how work is percieved in the industrial capitalist system, where the worker is nothing else than an apendix of the machines he operates. In other words, alienation is the way work is converted into a mechanical non joyable, not reflexive process. Overcoming alienation has nothing to do with achiving a “godlike” condition, but rather transformationg social relations so people can work in things they actually feel identified with. You may want to debate or attack that position (and for me it makes a lot of sense, even from a libertarian POV), but you don´t have the right to deform it to such length.

        • Brandon October 29, 2009 at 4:54 pm #

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          Sergio, yes, I’ve heard that before. I was trying to explain what’s in the article Rothbard wrote, and he does address the differences between the two concepts of alienation that you talk about in that piece.

        • MBH October 29, 2009 at 8:40 pm #

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          …the problem of “alienation,” is an atheistic version of the selfsame religion’s metaphysical grievance at the entire created universe.

          Man is now permanently “alienated” from God, the fundamental alienation; and also from other men, and from nature.

          It is this cosmic metaphysical separateness that lies at the heart of the Marxian concept of “alienation,” and not, as we might now think, personal griping about not controlling the operation of one’s factory, or about lack of access to wealth or political power. Alienation is a cosmic condition and not a psychological complaint. For the reabsorptionists, the crucial problems of the world come not from moral failure but from the essential nature of creation itself.

          I don’t see where he explicitly distinguishes two senses of alienation. These three quotes reference the same sense.

          I do though see a hint of another sense in his explanation of “the way out offered by the reabsorptionists.”

          …all this “perfecting” and “reuniting” obviously takes place only on a species-collectivist level. The individual man is nothing, a mere cell in the great, collective-organism man…

          So, implicitly, he’s saying that alienation is (1) a metaphysical separation and (2) a species separation.

          But why would anyone want either one? Sure you could try to identify species unification with evil collectivism. But how the hell is that right?

          Doesn’t the objectification-of-people derive from (2)? I mean, historically speaking, haven’t the “lesser” people been ones who end up enslaved?

        • Brandon October 29, 2009 at 9:06 pm #

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          “It is this cosmic metaphysical separateness that lies at the heart of the Marxian concept of “alienation,” and not, as we might now think, personal griping about not controlling the operation of one’s factory, or about lack of access to wealth or political power. Alienation is a cosmic condition and not a psychological complaint.”

          Isn’t that dealing with the difference?

        • MBH October 29, 2009 at 9:22 pm #

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          If it is (and I do agree with you), then Rothbard is identifying three senses of alienation.

          (1) Metaphysical separation
          (2) Power separation
          (3) Species separation

          I think he conflates (1) and (3).

  5. Sashka-anarchistka October 28, 2009 at 3:39 am #

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    Excellent post Roderick!
    In his mostly wonderful book the part about religious ( or rather heretical, wrong-kind of religion) roots of Marxism is the weakest and even disappointing. There are other lapses like that but I’m not an expert in theology to point them out.
    Sometimes it sounds like NOT Rothbard’s style at all.

    • Roderick October 28, 2009 at 11:28 am #

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      Rothbard’s attitude toward Marxism was less hostile during the 60s, when he saw Marx as representing the “left-wing, relatively libertarian strand” of socialism. Certainly Proudhon, Marx, and Bakunin all developed Hegelian ideas in a more antistatist direction than Hegel himself did.

      • MBH October 29, 2009 at 12:13 pm #

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        For libertarians face not only a problem of education but also a problem of power, and it is a law of history that a ruling caste has never voluntarily given up its power.

        He does not say that the ruling caste will never voluntarily give up its power. Were they to be, as it were, possessed by the Spirit of youth (in Randolph Bourne’s sense), they would not necessarily give up their power, but instead re-cognize the nature of power.

  6. Brother Mark October 28, 2009 at 11:19 am #

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    Gnostics do believe God creates the Universe. The Demiurge is God, via the original virgin birth, through Sophia’s (Wisdom) forgetfull private idiocy simulation of limitation and ultimate rejoining with her consort Christ (Redemption) in anamnesis gnosis. By this cosmic simulation drama the Unlimited Oneness experiences limitation, thus a glitch in the matrix, so to speak, is resolved, as an unlimited God does have a limitation as it lacks limitation. And everything is then hunky dory, because God has wisdom and is forgiving after all.

    • Roderick October 28, 2009 at 11:30 am #

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      Well, there are Gnostics and Gnostics. But the mainstream Gnostic view was that the material universe was created by the Demiurge, and that the Demiurge was evil.

      • Brother Mark October 29, 2009 at 12:52 am #

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        The Demiurge is an emanation of the one true God, what modern man would call an emergent property. Just as protons are not a creation of the singularity but an expression of it’s fullness, God is everything even though any one thing is not God. There is no conflict with the view of the Universe being both good and evil. As the gnostic Jesus said, “these things are useful things but also evil things.”

    • Brandon October 28, 2009 at 1:29 pm #

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      Thank you, Brother Mark, for clearing that up. Thanks to your use of clear, precise language and well-formed ideas, I can now retire from all future learning on any and all subjects.

      I should allow spam into this thread. Scripted one-sentence attaboys would be extremely helpful at this point.

      • Brother Mark October 29, 2009 at 12:54 am #

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        Yes, bless you too Brandon. I hope you enjoy your life experience in this Universe of Shit as much as I do.

        • MBH October 30, 2009 at 11:19 am #

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          Brother, there is a way out.

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