Dear Phil Letter #3

by Frank Bertrand
(Read Frank’s First “Dear Phil Letter“)

Dear Phil,

This is getting curioser and curioser, Phil. In your interview with me
you mention no less than 12 different philosophers by name, Spinoza three
times in fact. But it is only of Plotinus that you say, “…the last
influenced me greatly.”
What is it about him and his philosophy that influenced
you greatly? And
how does this influence manifest itself in your stories and novels?

I mean, he’s certainly nowhere near as well known as, say, Hume, Plato or
Pythagoras. It wouldn’t surprise me if a majority of your fans
tentatively identified him as a character from one of Shakespeare’s
plays. Yet, Plotinus is regarded by many modern scholars as the founder
of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy. That’s the one that flourished
starting with the work of Plotinus and ended when the Emperor Justinian
closed the Platonic Academy in 529 CE. It’s salient tenet was a type of
idealistic monism in which the ultimate reality of the universe is held to
be an infinite, unknowable, perfect One. The eminent historian of
philosophy, Frederick Copleston, once described Neoplatonism as “the
intellectual reply to the…yearning for personal salvation”.
What’s also relevant here is that the things you say read like a
reflective snynopsis, a 20-20 hindsight overview of the kind of evolving
process you went through to reach your current philosophical outlook. And
it seems to me it could even be considered part of your ongoing
project – your quest to use diverse intellectual tools to explore and
explicate what happened to you starting on 2/3-74.
Such a contextual perspective makes far more sense than a lot of the
convoluted creations various academic critics have fabricated to
pigeon-hole you as unequivocably a postmodernist, gnostic and/or new-age
mystic. Their brand of pedanticism reminds me of something Plotinus wrote
in one of the six Enneads (sets of nine), the arrangement of his works
that Porphyro, his pupil, did.

“We are indeed able to say something of It, but
we cannot describe It. Nor have we any knowledge
or intellectual perception of It. For we can say
what It is not, but we cannot say what It is. We
are not, however, prevented from possessing It,
though we cannot say what It is.”

I very much prefer, Phil, what Plato wrote in his

“Acquaintance with it must come rather after a
long period of attendance on instruction in the
subject itself and of close companionship,
when suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a
leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and
at one becomes self-sustaining.”

Nevertheless, I can certainly see why you say, in retrospect, Plotinus
influenced you greatly; it’s his concept of the One, or Good. As he
writes of it, this One is the only sufficient description of the
“manifestation” of a supreme principle that is above all predication and
discursive understanding. That is, this Good transcends the realm of
being and the world of becoming. It is “all things and no one of them.
The source of all things is not all things, and yet it is all things in a
transcendental sense – all things, so to speak, having run back to it, or
more correctly, as not all are yet within It they will be.” Also, this
One is the highest of three “hypostases”, the other two being Intelligence
(Nous) and the Soul. It’s from the productive unity of all three that all
existence emanates, i.e., the universe and matter. This is reminiscent, it
seems, of the Mahayana teaching of the mutual interpenetration of all

And it certainly juxtaposes significantly with your assertion, in
retrospect, of being an acosmic pantheist, one who believes the world and
the absolute are one; the change and variety of the world are apparent
only, not actual. As one of your favorite reference works, Phil, the
Encyclopedia Britannica, states it: “The absolute God makes up the total
reality. The world is an appearance and ultimately unreal.” It also
mentions a “neoplatonic or emanationistic pantheism,” citing Plotinus,
where “the theme of immanence is sustained by positing the existence of a
World-Soul that both contains and makes the world.”
Now, there are those who vehemently argue that your
so-called Valis
trilogy is a prima facie example of your being, indeed, a gnostic or
acosmic pantheist; that you are fictionally depicting, in effect,
Plotinus’ concept of the One (Good). I would counter that Valis is much
more an exploration of knowledge, in particular the epistemological nature
of various kinds of information transfer, and the effects of this on
culture and human individuals. We are, after all, in the Information
Overload Age. And how is one to discriminate among, let alone evaluate
the efficacy of, all these bytes of information, be they from a “pink
beam”, radio, music, or movie?

What I find even more significant, though, is what the
Britannica states
about Plotinus:

“Some members of his circle of friends were
Gnostics (heretical Christian dualists who
emphasized esoteric salvatory knowledge),
and they provoked him not only to write a
vigorous attack on their beliefs but to
organize a polemic campaign against them
through the activities of Porphyry and
Amelius….Gnosticism appeared to him
to be a barbarous, melodramatic, irrational,
immoral, un-Greek, and insanely arrogant

Quite a stinging rebuke, I’d say. And the idea that everything that
exists constitutes a unity (One), and that this all-inclusive unity is
divine, is a notion with internal conceptual difficulties. I mean, what
could be unitary in such an ostensible collection? What sorts of
apprehension and modes of knowing in it are empirically verifiable? And
isn’t the contigent aspect of nature entirely omitted?
It’s not at all clear to me, Phil, how Plotinus, Neo-Platonism and/or
acosmic pantheism account for the fact of existence being irreducibly
contingent, meaning the truth (or not) cannot be included in the
description and stands in no internal conceptual relationship to the
description. There is, in effect, no distinction being made between
contingent casual connections and necessary logical connections. And I
know you’re well aware of what Hume did to causal and logical
But my perception(s) of the paradoxes and enigmas in this could be
mistaken, which I’m sure you’ll let me know, with plenty of supporting

Yours in Kipple,

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