A Human, All-Too-Human Eternity

8 November 2010


Plotinus according to the early modern imagination, from the Nuremburg Chronicle.

Plotinus is remembered as among the most otherworldly of philosophers, far more concerned with the eternal than the temporal. His biographer, Porphyry, famously said that he seemed embarrassed to have a body, and that, “So deeply rooted was this feeling that he could never be induced to tell of his ancestry, his parentage, or his birthplace.” But Porphyry also relates an interesting story about Plotinus’ early years:

“Despite his general reluctance to talk of his own life, some few details he did often relate to us in the course of conversation. Thus he told how, at the age of eight, when he was already going to school, he still clung about his nurse and loved to bare her breasts and take suck: one day he was told he was a ‘perverted imp’, and so was shamed out of the trick.”

Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 3

So at the age of eight, Plotinus was still being breast fed. This is an odd detail to be preserved from a man who, “could never be induced to tell of his ancestry, his parentage, or his birthplace,” but perhaps a telling detail.

Freud opened his famous essay Civilization and its Discontents with a discussion of his correspondence with Romain Rolland about what Rolland thought that Freud had missed in his The Future of an Illusion. Rolland agreed with Freud on religion, but he still thinks that Freud has missed the point. For Rolland, the point that Freud missed is a feeling that Rolland has that he called the oceanic feeling, which Rolland identified as the “true source” of religion. Freud responded to this: “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings.” (I discussed this previously in Algorithms of Ecstasy.)

Romain Rolland thought that Freud's The Future of an Illusion had missed the point, and that religion has its origins in an "experience of eternity" that he called the "oceanic experience".

Though Freud could not discover the oceanic feeling in himself, he made a brave effort at a psychoanalytical explanation of what Rolland described to him:

“An infant at the breast does not at yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him. He gradually learns to do so, in response to various promptings. He must be very strongly impressed by the fact that some sources of excitation, which he will later recognize as his own bodily organs, can provide him with sensations at any moment, whereas other sources evade him from time to time — among them what he desires most of all, his mother’s breast — and only reappear as a result of his screaming for help. In this way there is for the first time set over against the ego an ‘object,’ in the form of something which exists ‘outside’ and which is only forced to appear by a special action. A further incentive to a disengagement of the ego from the general mass of sensations — that is, to the recognition of an ‘outside,’ an external world — is provided by the frequent, manifold and unavoidable sensations of pain and unpleasure the removal and avoidance of which is enjoined by the pleasure principle, in the exercise of its unrestricted domination.”

Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, pp. 13-14

Freud goes on like this for a page and a half — it is well worth it to consult the original text and read it all for yourself, but I didn’t feel like typing it all out right now — and comes to this speculative conclusion:

“Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive — indeed, an all-embracing — feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it… the ideational contents appropriate to it would be precisely those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe — the same ideas with which my friend elucidated the ‘oceanic’ feeling.”

Ibid., p. 15

Thus Freud makes a connection between an infantile experience of absolute union with the world and a vaguely religious feeling of union with the world. I am not endorsing this view of Freud, which I think continues to miss the point which Rolland was trying to make to Freud, but this was Freud’s typical manner of proceeding: psychodynamic, reductionist, and positivistic. I wouldn’t have expected anything more or anything less from Freud.

But even if I don’t find Freud’s explanation of the oceanic feeling (which I, like Freud, cannot find in myself) to be adequate, it certainly is compelling, and it becomes even more compelling when placed in the context of Plotinus’ rather late weaning. If Plotinus did in fact continue to suckle for a rather longer period of life than most infants, well beyond infancy into childhood, one might speculate either that he felt this bond with limitlessness in suckling and was attracted if not fascinated by the feeling, or that his being accustomed to this pleasure with its component of being intimately connected to the nurturing body of the world, and its continuation into later childhood and its subsequent deprivation within a time continuous with memory into adulthood, may have prompted Plotinus to seek an alternative source of the same feeling.

There is no question that, as a philosopher, Plotinus was preoccupied with eternity, and Freud relates that Rolland also called the oceanic feeling “a sensation of ‘eternity’.” Plotinus’ Enneads are filled with reflections upon and even exhortations upon eternity and the eternal. Whatever the etiology of Plotinus’ sensation of eternity, it seems clear that it was vividly felt, and an important component of his experience that he felt called for philosophical explication.

The Third Ennead, Seventh Tractate, is devoted to the question of time and eternity. Plotinus defines eternity thus:

“That which neither has been nor will be, but simply possesses being; that which enjoys stable existence as neither in process of change nor having ever changed — that is Eternity. Thus we come to the definition: the Life — instantaneously entire, complete, at no point broken into period or part — which belongs to the Authentic Existent by its very existence, this is the thing we were probing for — this is Eternity.”

Plotinus, Enneads, 3.7.3

This definition of eternity is deeply embedded in Plotinian metaphysics, and no small gloss would be needed to adequately explicate its elements. But immediately before this definition, in the same section, we find this somewhat less metaphysically embedded passage on eternity:

“We know it as a Life changelessly motionless and ever holding the Universal content (time, space, and phenomena) in actual presence; not this now and now that other, but always all; not existing now in one mode and now in another, but a consummation without part or interval. All its content is in immediate concentration as at one point; nothing in it ever knows development: all remains identical within itself, knowing nothing of change, for ever in a Now since nothing of it has passed away or will come into being, but what it is now, that it is ever.


This passage has some affinities to Freud’s psychodynamic interpretation: clearly it evokes the limitlessness, that lack of barriers between self and world, that Plotinus, Rolland, and Freud alike sought to explain, after a fashion — consummation without part or interval. We may wonder if this “consummation,” which suggests other consummations of unions that are to become important later in life, but which Freud himself sought even in the earliest period of infancy, is the masculine counterpart of the penetrative mysticism that we find in Teresa of Avila.

Saint Teresa of Avila elaborated a uniquely penetrative mysticism.

A Freudian interpretation of Plotinus could be called a human, all-too-human form of eternity, except that I suspect that the experience that Freud describes is common to most large-brained mammals — in other words, this is something more than and beyond the human, all-too-human. It is animal, all-too-animal. That the human experience of eternity should be an expression of our animal nature coincides with the point that I attempted to argue in Nietzsche on Sexuality, that there is a unity of that which we have believed to be most bestial in our character and that which we have heretofore believed to be ideal and edifying, this tells us something about what we are. We are not divided between a bestial element and a celestial element; we are one and whole.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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