Plotinus and C.S. Lewis on “Looking Along”

C.S. Lewis explained the anthropomorphism of the ancients in terms of psychology. How did they think about reality? He concludes that they did not think in terms of “literal” versus “metaphorical” but they thought of things in pictures. “Deep” meant “death,” “spirit” and “life” were synonymous, so “sex” and “love”, etc. Modern man categorizes all things in a bifurcated manner. We seek to either “look at” the object or “look along.” For example, Lewis recounts his experience of seeing a sunbeam through a hole in the roof of a toolshed. If he stood beside the sunbeam and examined it he thought of it in terms of its hugh, brightness, and so on. But if he stepped within the sunbeam he actually began to experience the effects which cannot be perfectly quantified. The problem with many modern scientists, says Lewis, is that they believe that “looking at” the sunbeam is sufficient for gaining a complete knowledge of that subject without actually experiencing or “looking along.”


As I was reading through Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus I found very interesting similarities between Lewis’s thought on beauty, myth, and metaphor and Plotinus’s beliefs concerning the Forms, Nature, and Life.  For Plotinus the Forms of things are like Hieroglyphs, which are little pictures of incarnate knowledge. He explains:

In the case of those things which they, in their wisdom, wanted to designate, the Egyptian sages did not use written characters, literally representing arguments and premises and imitating meaningful sounds and utterances of axioms. Rather, they wrote in pictures, and engraved on their temples one picture corresponding to each reality …. Thus, each picture is a knowledge, wisdom … perceived all at once, and not discursive thought nor deliberation.” (Ennead, V 8, 6, 1-9, as cited in Hadot, p. 40.)

For Plotinus, like many others, these Forms are the life principle behind things which come to be when the Intellect contemplates itself. Man cannot know these forms as a scientist or metaphysician seeks to know the cause of a particular anomaly or thing. Rather, man must put aside the natural desire to know the cause, because there is no separate cause to be found. Contemplation must take the place of reflection.

hieroglyphsThe Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts. For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

The Intellect is beautiful; indeed it is the most beautiful of all things. Situated in pure light and pure radiance, it includes within itself the nature of all beings. This beautiful world of ours is but a shadow and an image of its beauty …. It lives a blessed life, and whoever were to see it, and – as is fitting – submerge himself within it, and become One with it, would be seized by awe. (Enneads, III 8, 11, 26-33, in Hadot, p. 43.)

It is no wonder that Augustine liked Plotinus, who became for him a praeparatio evangelicae. All of this has a bit to do with the relationship between nature and the supernatural. Even nature points beyond herself, being infused with a copy of God’s own beauty that calls us to look beyond to that Beauty that is desired for its own sake. Nature is inherently mythical. When we attempt to “look at” apart from experiences our gaze into the mirror will produce a mere reflection of ourselves.


A Freudian Critique of Freud

[*I wrote this a few months back somewhere else]

Freud’s problem is that he did not understand the distinction between idol and icon which is detrimental to the validity of the Christian creed of belief in God.  According to Jean-Luc Marion the idol is an invisible mirror reflecting the visible whereas an icon is a visible mirror reflecting the invisible. On this distinction Marion clarifies, “Whereas the idol results from the gaze that aims at it, the icon summons sight in letting the visible…be saturated little by little with the invisible.” Further, “the gaze can never rest or settle if it looks at an icon; it always must rebound upon the visible, in order to go back in it up the infinite stream of the invisible.” [1] 

Christianity to Freud is the organized practice of wish fulfillment. He admits, “What is characteristic of illusions [belief in God] is that they are derived from human wishes.” [2] He elaborates, “When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father.” [3] Freud has here described Christian belief as idolatry. Marion states:

The idol always marks a true and genuine experience of the divine, but for this very reason announces its limit: as an experience of the divine, starting in this way with the one who aims at it, in view of the reflex in which, through the idolatrous figure, this aim masks and marks its defection with regard to the invisible. The idol always must be read on the basis of the one whose experience of the divine takes shape there.[4] 

Contrary to this is the Christian belief that God is only knowable through creation and through Christ. Calvin explains, “His essence, indeed is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse.” [5] Christians also know that knowledge of God comes through the incarnate Son since it is he in whom “all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form.” (Colossians 2:9)

One word that Freud did not understand is “transcendence”, and the word that was the aim of his idol is “reason.” The icon demands an infinite gaze, since transcendence is not a quality of man. The idol is the projection of an aim.  Freud himself speaks, “There is no appeal to a court above that of reason.” [6]  Marion explains this phenomenon among atheists:

When a philosophical thought expresses a concept of what it then names “God”, this concept functions exactly as an idol. It gives itself to be seen, but thus all the better conceals itself as the mirror where thought, invisibly, has its forward point fixed, so that the invisible finds itself, with an aim suspended by the fixed concept, disqualified and abandoned; thought freezes, and the idolatrous concept of “God” appears, where, more than God, thought judges itself.[7] 

In other words the “God” and the “idol” become one and the same, hence Freud’s misunderstanding. Also, by Freud’s sovereignty of reason his true aim is seen, that of a carved effigy in his own image given the title “reason”.

Based on this, we must be cautious of any principle taking its queue from Freudian thought, which, at the level of presuppositions, undermines the universality of principle itself and erects an idol named “reason” by which the infinite is presumably known. Finally, (alas…the point) if one were to be sly he/she would use a Freudian critique to accuse Freud of projecting his own feelings and view of reality (idolatry) upon Christianity. In viewing the world based on his own rational idolatry (he was a materialist) Freud assumed the same for Christianity, an assumption easily disproven.


[1] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, p. 18.  [2] Sigmund Freud, The Future Of An Illusion, p. 39.  [3] Freud, p. 30. [4] Marion, pp. 27, 28.  [5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.v.1.  [6] Freud, p. 35.  [7] Marion, p. 16.

Marion on God’s Love

Love loves without condition, simply because it loves; he thus loves without limit or restriction.  No refusal rebuffs or limits that which, in order to give itself, does not await the least welcome or require the least consideration.  Which means, moreover, that as interlocutor of love, man does not first have to pretend to arrange a ‘divine abode’ for it – supposing that this very pretension may be sustained – but purely and simply to accept it; to accept it or, more modestly, not to steal away from it. (Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, 47).