Skip to main content Accessibility help

How to Become Unconscious

  • Stephen R. L. Clark (a1)


Consistent materialists are almost bound to suggest that ‘conscious experience’, if it exists at all, is no more than epiphenomenal. A correct understanding of the real requires that everything we do and say is no more than a product of whatever processes are best described by physics, without any privileged place, person, time or scale of action. Consciousness is a myth, or at least a figment. Plotinus was no materialist: for him, it is Soul and Intellect that are more real than the phenomena we misdescribe as material. Nor does he suppose that consciousness depends on language (as Stoics and modern materialists have sometimes said): wordless experience is actually superior. And much of what counts towards our present consciousness is to be discarded. It is better not to remember most of what now seems more significant to us; better to discard images; better that the intellect be ‘drunk’ than ‘sober’, losing any sense of separation between subject and object. The goal of the Plotinian intellectual is to join ‘the dance of immortal love’, but it is a mark of the good dancer that she is not conscious of what she does. There is therefore a strange confluence between Plotinus and modern materialists: our experience at least is transitory, deceitful, epiphenomenal, and ‘reality’ is to be encountered when we have shed our illusions.



Hide All

1 An ‘emergent’ property of a whole differs from a ‘resultant’ in that whereas the latter has an intelligible, mathematical relationship with the properties of the parts, the former does not. There are no really convincing instances of such ‘emergence’ that are not simply versions of the very puzzle, the so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness, that we face: a problem created, as I suppose, by first imagining a merely material world and then being surprised that once purged of any so-called ‘secondary’ qualities it has no intelligible connection with those same ‘secondary’ (but for us immediate) properties themselves.

2 See my ‘Plotinus: Body and Mind’ in Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, edited by Lloyd Gerson (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1996), 275–91; and ‘A Plotinian Account of Intellect’, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 71 (1997), 421–32.

3 See Remes, Pauliina, Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the ‘We’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

4 Plotinus, Ennead IV.9 [8].2,14–9. All translations, unless otherwise identified, are from A. H. Armstrong's edition for the Loeb Classical Library: Plotinus: the Enneads (London: Heinemann, 1966–88).

5 Cf. Smith, Andrew, ‘Unconsciousness and Quasi-consciousness in Plotinus’, Phronesis 23 (1978), 292301.

6 Ennead IV.3 [27].27, after Homer, Odyssey 11.601ff. See also IV.3 [27].32, 24f.

7 Ennead IV.4 [28].8, 41ff.

8 Purgatory §33, 91–9; 127–9: Dante at the top of Purgatory peak drinks first of Lethe, banishing all memory of sin, and then of Eunoë, restoring an objective, guiltless knowledge of what has been.

9 Ennead III.6.5, 23ff.

10 See my ‘Going Naked into the Shrine: Herbert, Plotinus and the Constructive Metaphor’ in Hedley, D. and Hutton, S. (eds), Platonism at the Origins of Modernity (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008), 4561.

11 See Detienne, Marcel, The Masters of Truth, translated by Lloyd, Janet (New York: Urzone, Inc., 1996), 181n107, citing IV.3.32, IV.4.1 after Schaerer, René, Le Héros, sage et l'événement (Paris: Aubier, 1965), 193–4 and Warren, Edward, ‘Memory in Plotinus’, Classical Quarterly 15 (1965), 252–60.

12 Plotinus, Ennead III.8 [30].8,32–36. Armstrong interprets the ‘heaviness’ as that of drunken sleep (as is possible), but there may be reason to suspect instead that it is the ‘heaviness’ of pregnancy, as Stephen Mackenna preferred in his translation of the Enneads (The Enneads edited by J. Dillon (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991); an abridged edition of the original Faber 1956 edition); see also Ennead VI.7 [38].15.

13 Ennead IV.4 [28].3: ‘memory’, in this context, indicates that our soul is now conscious of something that is not present to it in the way that reality is present to an eternal view (on which, more below).

14 See Aquila, Richard E., ‘On Plotinus and the “Togetherness” of Consciousness’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 30 (1992), 732.

15 Some of the material in this section was presented under the title ‘Plotinus and the Sounds of Silence’ at a conference on Naturalism at Bristol University, May 2002.

16 ‘Talking’, they suppose (?), is simply voicing strings of symbols, rather than any strongly intentional act: once our computers can simulate a conversation ‘well enough’ they will be held to be ‘conscious’ in the only way that anything can ‘really’ be. Cf. Hannay, Alastair, ‘Comments on Honderich, Sprigge, Dreyfus and Rubin, and Elster’ in Synthese 98 (1994), 95112: ‘If I should ever deny the existence of consciousness or begin to agree that the presently extant theories, including all extant versions of functionalism, provide adequate accounts of all we ever need to know or imply by saying we are conscious, I trust there will be some independent evidence that I have lost my mind’ (99).

17 So also in the Hermetic Corpus 9.1–2: ‘there is no evidence of understanding without reasoned speech. … and without understanding it is impossible to have sensation’ (translated by Copenhaver, Brian P., Hermetica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 27).

18 Carruthers, Peter, Language, Thought and Consciousness: an Essay in Philosophical Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 158. Carruthers goes on to suggest that conscious awareness of its own states could only evolve and persist in conjunction with a capacity to distinguish appearance and reality. So an omniscient being, presumably, for which there is no such distinction, must be unconscious.

19 Cf. Sprigge, T. L. S., ‘Final Causes’, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 45 (1971), 149–70, introducing the notion ‘what it is like to be something’. See also Washburn, A. L., The Animal Mind, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1917), 3ff., on what it is like to be a wasp.

20 Pinker, Steven, The Language Instinct: the New Science of Language and the Mind (London: Allen Lane, 1994), 58.

21 Ennead V.3 [49].5, 44. All Neo-Platonists distinguish the One and the Intellect: the latter is essentially complex in that thinking and the objects thought are distinct, and the objects of thought, the whole interconnected system of intelligible reality, are many. They are unified through the presence of ‘the One’, which lies beyond both intellect and being (as Plato said: Republic 6.509b).

22 Ennead VI.7 [38].34.

23 Ennead IV.8 [6].1.

24 Actually, Plotinus takes considerable pains to be clear, and criticises those who don't: see especially II.1 [40].1, II.9 [33].15, and Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 13, on his response to Thaumasius' wish for general statements. But his readers don't always do him justice.

25 Ennead IV.8 [6].4.

26 Sorabji, Richard, ‘Myths about non-propositional Thought’ in Language and Logos. Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy, presented to G. E. L. Owen, edited by Nussbaum, M. and Schofield, M. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 295314: 310.

27 Few of us can see many more than seven or eight such sheep as a Gestalt: angels, presumably, see any number of things like that.

28 Ennead V.3 [49].5, 44. This is the real Plotinian Trinity: see also Enneads VI.8 [39].15, where lover, beloved and love are also unified.

29 Ennead V.8 [31].5f, citing Plato, Symposium 215b; see also Ennead IV.3 [27].11. It is commonly suggested that Plotinus is here mistaking the nature of hieroglyphs, but there is good reason, despite later oversimplifications or inventions (on which see Hornung, Erik, The Secret Lore of Egypt: its Impact on the West, translated by Lorton, David (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001)), to think that he got it right. ‘The Egyptians do not hesitate to call hieroglyphs “gods”, and even to equate individual signs in the script with particular gods; it is quite in keeping with their views to see images of the gods as signs in a metalanguage. As is true of every Egyptian hieroglyph, they are more than just ciphers or lifeless symbols; the god can inhabit them, his cult image will normally be in the same form, and his priests may assume his role by wearing animal masks’ (Hornung, Erik, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: the One and the Many, translated by Baines, John (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 124).

30 Ennead III.7 [45].4. See also Ennead V.5 [32].1: ‘They [sc. truth and the intelligible] are certainly not “premises” or “axioms” or “expressions”; for then they would only say something about other things and would not be the things themselves, as when [one says] “Justice is beautiful”, though justice and beauty are different [from the words used].’

31 Ennead 4.3 [27].30, 12–6.

32 Ennead I.3 [20].5.

33 Ennead I.6 [1].4, McKenna's translation.

34 Ennead I.3 [20].4, citing Plato, Phaedrus 248b6.

35 See Ennead I.3 [20].1f.

36 Ennead IV.4 [28].7; see Edward W. Warren, ‘Consciousness in Plotinus’, Phronesis 9 (1964), 83–97: even here-now we are only conscious that we were reading when we are no longer absorbed in the content of what we were reading.

37 Ennead V.3 [49].17.

38 Ennead III.8. [30].6, 14 & 27–9.

39 Ennead IV.3 [27].18; see also V.8 [31].4, and II.3 [52].7. The phrase is also used by Kadowaki, J. K., Zen and the Bible, translated by Rieck, J. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), 33: working on Zen koans has the object of extending enlightenment from the mind's eye through the whole body, so that ‘the whole body is an eye’. Kadowacki (Ibid., 13, 49) also emphasises the body language that precedes ‘oral speech’.

40 Ennead VI.4 [22].2; see also IV.8.9.

41 Peter Carruthers, Language, Thought and Consciousness: an Essay in Philosophical Psychology, op. cit., 59; see also 138f.

42 Ennead VI.7 [38].41.

43 Ennead IV.3 [27] .30,15. See E. Aquila, Richard, ‘On Plotinus and the Togetherness of Consciousness’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 30 (1992), 732.

44 Ennead I.4 [46].10: a reader is not conscious of the act of reading.

45 Ennead IV.4 [28].33; see also VI.9 [9].38.

46 In Hilary Armstrong's words: ‘Plotinus' divine mind is not just a mind knowing a lot of eternal objects. It is an organic living community of interpenetrating beings which are at once Forms and intelligences, all “awake and alive”, in which every part thinks and therefore is the whole; so that all are one mind and yet each retains its distinct individuality without which the whole would be impoverished. And this mind-world is the region where our own mind, illumined by the divine intellect finds its true self and lives its own life, its proper home and the penultimate stage on its journey, from which it is taken up to union with the Good’ (Armstrong, A. H. and Markus, R. A., Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1960), 27).

47 See Ennead I.6 [1].8.

48 Ennead I.4 [46].10.

49 Hadot, Pierre, Plotinus, or The Simplicity of Vision, translated by Chase, Michael (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993), 32. Amusingly, the notion that consciousness is a report of what has happened also turns up in Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained as a modern insight.

50 Ennead I.8.15; cf. Ennead I.6.9, on the golden screen or advance guard that is placed between us and the Good.

51 Ennead V.1.2, after Iliad 20.65.

52 Muir, Edwin, ‘The Animals’ in Collected Poems (London: Faber, 1960), 208.

53 James, William, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Macmillan, 1890), Vol.1, 288f.

54 Verhoeven, Cornelis, ‘Wordless’, translated by Verhoeven, Jo in Wordlessness, edited by Verschaffel, Bart and Verminck, Mark (Antwerp: Lilliput Press, 1993), 3642. My thanks to Panayiota Vassilopoulou for this reference.

55 Some of the material in this section was presented at an ISNS conference at the University of Liverpool in the summer of 2004. See also ‘Conclusion’ in Vassilopoulou, Panayiota and Clark, Stephen R. L. (eds), Late Antique Epistemology: Other Ways to Truth (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 289301.

56 Ennead VI.7 [38].35. This is closer to the thesis of The Cloud of Unknowing than to that of Ps-Dionysius. ‘For Denys the divine darkness lies beyond the farthest effort of the mind, and it is the mind (the nous) that enters it: for the author of the Cloud, we enter the cloud of unknowing when we renounce the activity of the mind and rely solely on “the loving power” of the soul’: Louth, Andrew, Denys the Areopagite (London: Continuum, 1989), 125.

57 Ennead III.5 [50].7: wine had not been invented at the birthday celebrations for Aphrodite, at which Poros got drunk and was seduced by Penia (after Plato's weird story in The Symposium: that is, this allegorical event ‘precedes’ material reality).

58 Philo, De Ebrietate 41, citing Genesis 19.33.

59 Ennead V.3.3, 46ff.

60 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 7.65.

61 Klibansky, R., Panofsky, E., Saxl, F., Saturn and Melancholy (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1964).

62 Aristotle, Problemata 30. He adds that wine is also aphrodisiac, and can sometimes improve a poet (unless the remark is ironical): ‘Maracus the Syracusan was a better poet when he was out of his mind’.

63 Philo, Legum Allegoriarum 3.228f. in Philo of Alexandria: the Contemplative Life, The Giants, and Selections, translated by D. Winston (London: SPCK, 1981), 151.

64 Philo, De Ebrietate, 48.

65 See also the Hermetic Corpus 1.27 (Hermetica, translated by Brian P. Copenhaver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 6): ‘People, earthborn men, you who have surrendered yourself to drunkenness and sleep and ignorance of god, make yourselves sober and end your drunken sickness, for you are bewitched in unreasoning sleep’ (see also 7.1, Ibid., 24).

66 Harris, Marvin, Cows, Wars, Pigs and Witches (New York: Vintage Books, 1989; 1st published 1974), 266.

67 Lewy, Hans, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy (Le Caire: L'Institut Français d'archéologic orientale, 1956), 420. See also Psellus Comm., 1137A (Kroll 48): Lewy, 198n: ‘having nothing mortal she is utterly drunk’.

68 Philo, De Opificio Mundi, 70 in D. Winston (tr.), Philo of Alexandria: the Contemplative Life, The Giants, and Selections, op. cit., 173. See further Lewy, Hans, Sobria Ebrietas (Giessen: A. Töppelmann, 1929).

69 Philo, Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit, 68f in D. Winston (tr.), op. cit., 169.

70 See Nelson, John E., Healing the Split (New York: SUNY Press, 1994), 147–52 for a balanced and well-informed discussion of the issues.

71 Ibid., 358–9.

72 Douglas, Mary, ‘A distinctive anthropological perspective’ in Douglas, Mary (ed.), Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 315:4.

73 Ennead VI.7[38].34, 14. See Rist, John, Eros and Psyche: Studies in Plato, Plotinus and Origen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), 77–9: 99. See also Zeke Mazur, ‘Having Sex with the One: Erotic Mysticism in Plotinus and the Problem of Metaphor’ in P. Vassilopoulou and S. R. L. Clark (eds), Late Antique Epistemology, op. cit., 67–83.

74 Ennead VI.7 [38].26, 21f.

75 I should add – merely to avoid misunderstanding - that Plotinus reckons that ‘if [lovers] remain chaste there is no error in their intimacy with the beauty here below, but it is error to fall away into sexual intercourse’: Ennead III.5 [50].1, 36f.

76 Ennead V.8 [31].10, after Plato, Phaedrus 246eff.

77 Ennead VI.9 [9].11.

78 Ennead IV.4 [28].7.

79 Actually, as he points out, non-rational creatures manage very well: Ennead I.4 [46].2.31–43.

80 Ennead V.3 [49].3, 46ff.

81 Weil, Simone, Notebooks, translated by Wills, A. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956), Vol.2, 423. This thought is not to be taken lightly: it is difficult not to see in it one aspect of Weil's fatal anorexia, but her insights should not be ignored merely because, as it so often does, ‘the disease’ (that is, the demon) took advantage of them. When she wrote that ‘I cannot conceive of the necessity for God to love me, when I feel so clearly that even with human beings affection for me can only be a mistake. But I can easily imagine that he loves that perspective of creation which can only be seen from the point where I am… I must withdraw so that he can see it. I must withdraw so that God may make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves’ (Weil, Simone, Gravity and Grace (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1952), 88), the disease was speaking. How could it be that God loved everything but Weil? See also Lippitt, John, ‘True self-love and true self-sacrifice’, International Journal of Philosophy of Religion 645 (2009).

82 The punning relationship of aletheia, truth, and lethe, forgetfulness, is founded on a false etymology, but still has some force: see my God's World and the Great Awakening (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 48–54.

83 Ennead III.8 [30].4. 5–6.

84 Ennead V.3 [49].13. That the One is not a thing is a doctrine ably discussed by Perl, Eric D. in Theophany: the Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite (New York: SUNY Press, 2007). On the apophatic tradition, see Sells, Michael Anthony, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

85 Ennead VI.9 [9].4, quoting Plato, Letter VII.241c5.

86 Ennead V.3 [49].10; see also VI.7 [38].35.

87 Ennead VI.7 [38].41; see also Ennead V.1 [10].4, 38: ‘if you take away otherness, it will become one and remain silent’.

88 Tao Te Ching, ch.1.

89 Hume, David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), pt.4: Hume on Religion, edited by Wollheim, R. (London: Fontana, 1963), 131.

90 Ennead V.2 [11].2: plants embody the most audacious and stupid part or sort of soul!

91 Compare Enneads I.6 [1].9, 39 and I.8 [51].15, 25.

92 See also Ps-Dionysius, , The Complete Works, translated by Luibheid, Colm (London: SPCK, 1987), 73: The Divine Names 697A: ‘Its nature, unconfined by form, is the creator of all form. In it is nonbeing really an excess of being. It is not a life, but is, rather, superabundant Life. It is not a mind, but is superabundant Wisdom.… And one might even say that nonbeing itself longs for the Good which is above all being.’

93 E. Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt, op. cit., 253.

94 This collapse of boundaries, ‘the death of the “I” as knower, chooser, and doer’, is the sinister image of the Plotinian ascent: see John E. Nelson, Healing the Split, op. cit., 43. In a way the psychotic is correct: reality is larger than we know, and full of demons. But if Plotinus is correct, so also was Housman, in his more optimistic mode: ‘The world is round, so travellers tell,/ And straight though reach the track,/ Trudge on, trudge on, ‘twill all be well,/ The way will guide one back’ (Housman, A. E., ‘A Shropshire Lad’ 36 in Collected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956; 1st published 1939), 65).

95 Ennead VI.7 [38].36.

Stephen R. L. Clark was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Liverpool. His books include The Nature of the Beast (1982), Animals and their Moral Standing (1997), Biology and Christian Ethics (2006), G. K. Chesterton: Thinking Backwards, Looking Forwards (2006) and Understanding Faith: Religious Belief and Its Place in Society (2009).


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed