Archive | October 26, 2009

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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