'Plotinus for a friend'Writing in 1926 Yeats counted Plotinus as part of the philosophical background in A Vision A, noting that 'it is mainly Plotinus & the preSocratics that separate me from Spengler & so far as I am separate' (30 July 1926, CL InteLex 4904). Yet, he also told Thomas Sturge Moore that he had only really started reading philosophy after A Vision was completed: 'When it was written (though the proofs had yet to come) I started to read. I read for months every day Plato & Plotinus' (14 March , CL InteLex 4850). He repeated this claim in A Packet for Ezra Pound in 1929 (PEP 26–27; AVB 19–20, CW14 15–16). Searching to see if George Yeats's automatic script might have been inspired by her reading, he first set out to explore these writers:
I read all MacKenna's incomparable translation of Plotinus, some of it several times, and went from Plotinus to his predecessors and successor whether upon her list or not. And for four years now have read nothing else except every now and then some story of theft and murder to clear my head at night. Although the more I read the better did I understand what I had been taught, I found neither the geometrical symbolism nor anything that could have inspired it except the vortex of Empedocles. (PEP 26–27; AVB 20, CW14 15–16)
|Plotinus, the isolated figure in ruddy brown, in Raphael's The School of Athens|
Apparently further study of Plotinus made him realize that the philosophy was not so abstract. Some two years later, Yeats wrote a note on this poetic complaint:It seems that I must bid the Muse go pack,
Choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend
Until imagination, ear and eye,
Can be content with argument and deal
In abstract things.... (VP 409)
When I wrote the lines about Plato and Plotinus I forgot that it is something in our own eyes that makes us see them as all transcendence. Has not Plotinus written: 'Let every soul recall, then, at the outset the truth that soul is the author of all living things, that it has breathed the life into them all, whatever is nourished by earth and sea, all the creatures of the air, the divine stars in the sky; it is the maker of the sun; itself formed and ordered this vast heaven and conducts all that rhythmic motion—and it is a principle distinct from all these to which it gives law and movement and life, and it must of necessity be more honourable than they, for they gather or dissolve as soul brings them life or abandons them, but soul, since it never can abandon itself, is of eternal being'?—1928. (VP 826, citing Ennead V.1.2, MacKenna, vol. 4, p. 2)This passage comes from the opening tractate of the Fifth Ennead, which Yeats had probably not read when he wrote 'The Tower'. As MacKenna himself reported, Yeats had announced that he intended to spend the winter of 1926–27 studying Plotinus seriously (see Part I) and the volume that had just come out was devoted to the Fifth Ennead, dealing particularly with the Divine Mind or Intellectual-Principle.
The first tractate that Yeats quotes emphasizes the human starting point of enquiry: 'the seeker is soul and it must start from a true notion of the nature and quality by which soul may undertake the search'. However, it is dedicated to the 'The Three Initial Hypostases', the loftiest elements of Plotinus's system. From the human soul, Plotinus proceeds to Soul, but 'Soul, for all the worth we have shown to belong to it, is yet a secondary, and image of the Intellectual-Principle' and then in turn 'The Intellectual-Principle stands as the image of The One' (V.1.1, 3, & 7).
Plotinus's Three Hypostases were indeed one of the elements in his reading that helped Yeats better 'understand what [he] had been taught', and he used them to reframe how he saw the Principles and their relation to the Daimon and the Thirteenth Cone.
|Stephen MacKenna's translation of Plotinus's Fifth Ennead (London & Boston: The Medici Society, 1926).|
The Three HypostasesA 'hypostasis' is an 'underlying substance' or 'ultimate reality', and MacKenna gives summaries of Plotinus's conception of the Three Hypostases in volume 1. The One 'transcends even the quality of Being' but is the cause of existence, for 'without its Supra-Existence nothing could be' (vol. 1, 118-19). Existence is manifested in the Nous, Intellectual-Principle, or Divine Mind, which
contains, or rather is, ta Noeta—the Intellectual-Universe or Intelligible Universe.... the Totality of the Divine-Thoughts, generally known, in the phrase familiar in Platonism, as The Ideas' or Forms. (vol. 1, p. 119)Within this Second Hypostasis, Plotinus differentiates a contemplative state of Being and a state of Act: Nous looks upwards in contemplation of the One, its act generates the All-Soul towards which it looks downwards at the moving image in time of its own unmoving eternity. The Third Hypostasis, the All-Soul, 'is the eternal cause of the existence, eternal existence, of the Kosmos, or "World," or material, or sense-grasped Universe, which is the Soul's Act and emanation, image and "shadow"' (vol. 1, p. 120).
MacKenna translates 'what is usually conveyed by the English philosophical term Real-Being' (vol. 1, 124) as 'Authentic-Existent', 'Authentic-Existents' or 'Authentic-Existence', applicable to the Intellectual-Principle itself and to the Divine Thoughts or Ideas. In a misreading of MacKenna, Yeats appears to take this term 'Authentic Existent', which properly applies to the Nous and its Divine Ideas, and use it to mean 'Hypostasis', applying it to all three hypostases (while also spelling it 'Existant', a mis-spelling that has persisted through all editions).
In so far as the 'Three Initial Hypostases' are the true origins of all that exists, this misprision of a term that is largely confined to MacKenna's translation is not particularly problematic. And in using the word 'misprision', I am thinking in terms of Harold Bloom's seminal idea of the 'anxiety of influence' and his concept of a 'strong misreading': there is a sense in which Yeats is asserting his reading Plotinus through his own system and his own thought. He evidently prefers the more immediate impact of 'authentic existent'—evoking both authenticity and being—over the more remote and technical term 'hypostasis', while 'emanation' might evoke a complementary status to a mind steeped in Blake, who uses the term for female counterparts of his living beings. If this is the case, however, Yeats's choice of usage still raises some questions about how he understood statements such as those that the Intellectual-Principle 'is the seat of authentic Existents' (V.5.3, vol. 5, p. 50), or that 'the Intellectual-Principle is the authentic existences and contains them all—not as a place but as possessing itself and being one thing with this its content' (V.9.6., vol. 4, p. 95).
Rescuing YeatsA number of writers have tried to explain that Yeats's use of 'Authentic Existant' is more subtle than simply misapplying the term to the Three Hypostases.
The first major treatment of Yeats's use of Plotinus was Rosemary Puglia Ritvo's 1975 examination 'A Vision B: The Plotinian Metaphysical Basis'. A key part of the argument relates to analysis that will come in Part III of this blog-essay, but Ritvo argues that Yeats's usage of 'Authentic Existant' is confined to the realms of the Intellectual-Principle and the All-Soul, because 'MacKenna's term "authentic existence"... is predicated of the Second and Third Hypostases but not of the First, he clearly excludes the Absolute', i.e., The One (38).
The difficulty here lies in understanding Yeats's distinctions into First, Second, and Third Authentic Existants, which are his own invention. He tells us that we should identify his Third Authentic Existant with Plotinus' Third Hypostasis, the All-Soul. How are we to understand the relationship between Yeats's first two Authentic Existants and Plotinus' metaphysics? Since Plotinus' First Hypostasis is excluded from Yeats's discussion, Yeats's First and Second Authentic Existants clearly are not to be identified with Plotinus' First and Second Hypostases.This leads to a ingenious and completely plausible explanation, though it is one that has no foundation in anything that Yeats writes:
I propose that Yeats's first two Authentic Existants correlate to the two aspects of Plotinus' Second Hypostasis: the First Authentic Existant, Celestial Body, is Plotinus' Second Hypostasis considered as Being; the Second Authentic Existant, Spirit, is the Second Hypostasis considered as act, or using MacKenna's term, the Intellectual-Principle. (38)This dual understanding of the Nous is entirely consistent with Plotinus's conception of the Second and Third Hypostases looking upward and downward.
Ritvo's reading has been persuasive, and Brian Arkins follows Ritvo in Builders of My Soul (1990), and a similar scheme is proposed by Matthew Gibson in 'Classical Philosophy' (W. B. Yeats in Context, 2010). Gibson's outline of 'the Intellectual Realm or nous' notes that 'Here reside the Authentic Existents: what Plato had called the Ideal Forms' (281). He then states that:
Yeats appears to have matched the two parts of the Second Hypostasis—Being and Act—with the Celestial Body and Spirit respectively, calling them erroneously the First and Second 'Authentic Existants': effectively dividing the dyadic Intellectual Realm into two hypostases with the contemplation of the Spirit (mind) constituting that 'which holds the First in it s moveless circle' (AV 194), and confusing the term 'Authentic Existant' with Hypostasis itself. (281)After considering other aspects as well, Gibson goes on to comment that 'Not only does Yeats appear to read erroneously, but he also appears to collapse macrocosm into microcosm', though adding that 'Yeats's misreading stems from very intelligent observations' about Plotinus's system (282).
To someone as versed as Yeats in Cabala and Hermetism, collapsing microcosm and macrocosm is all but inevitable, as they are seen as reflections of each other, and desirable too. The Emerald or Smaragdine Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus contains the dictum 'as above, so below; as below, so above', or as Yeats phrases it: 'For things below are copies, the Great Smaragdine Tablet said' ('Ribh Denounces Patrick', VP 556, CW1 290). As such the human microcosm will be a miniature of the macrocosm. In many respects this coincides with the concept that the physical world is a copy of the Ideal Forms within Nous.
Yeats's intentions and reading are made a little clearer in the drafts for A Vision B (though elements of discarded thinking add a layer of complexity too)*:
I identify the moment where the antinomy is resolved with Plotinus first Authentic Existant or the One, the Celestial Body in Spirit with the Second Authentic Existant & the Spirit in Celestial Body with the third Authentic Existant or Soul of the World. (NLI 36,272/15)In other words, by the term 'First Authentic Existant' Yeats did mean the One, by 'Second Authentic Existant', the Intellectual-Principle, and by 'third Authentic Existant', the All-Soul. This is not to say that Yeats misunderstood Plotinus to any significant degree, even if he was mixed up over one of MacKenna's terms, but it does mean that he was not really distinguishing between the Intellectual-Principle's Being and Act.
|NLI 36,272/15, transcribed above.|
*The categories of Celestial Body in Spirit and Spirit in Celestial Body are connected with the Beatitude and the Beatific Vision, and are examined at some length in 'The Thirteenth Cone' in W. B. Yeats's A Vision: Explications and Contexts, available here, especially pages 175–79.