A History of Western Philosophy


And so, we reach an interesting problem. 

There is the One and there are the many. There is Unity and there is difference. There is the Universal and there is the particular. And within this there are the principles of plenitude and continuity, and the hierarchy or inequality of the Great Chain of Being. But if the many are part of the One, then the One is divided into parts and is not a unity. If the One becomes the many then the One is changeable, and that is not allowed in the logic of the truth of the in-itself, or the logic of the identity that is mastery. How, then, are the One and the many related in such a way that the One is their creator, source, and master, yet also separate from and unchanged by any relation to the created or creatures?

In one sense Christianity attempts to be the answer to this question, for Christ is claimed as both man and God. But in this lecture we are going to look at a Neoplatonic solution to this question, one that preserved the Great Chain of Being and kept its inequality intact in the whole cosmos, and one that was accepted in all three world monotheistic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The solution to the problem of how the One can be One and still be the source of everything in the cosmos was emanation

If you think of emanation as an overflowing, that should help in what follows. 


Think of a cup eternally overflowing. The cup is never emptied; there is no privation or lack; it is never less than itself (and therefore still a masterful, unchangeable, and independent identity). But at the same time, it is able to give of itself, to be the source of water everywhere else. If instead of the glass you now think of the Good, or God, or the One, and instead of water you think of the life-force, or love, then the One overflows, and the life-force takes form beyond (in?) the One in the many. Change without change, we might say?

For an introduction to emanation, we return to Plotinus (204-270) working in Alexandria and later in Rome. In his Enneads he sets out the following account of the nature of the cosmos. It is complex, but I’ll try to offer a simplified summary. 

The One is beyond everything, absolutely transcendent. It is not the sum of all things, because things require a source and the One does not. Logically, it is before all things because it is their source. It is beyond being (and therefore not the One of Parmenides which was an existing One) and beyond all experience. Here is a Great Chain of Being. Human experience is lower in the hierarchy than the true unknowable One. Truth here has become unknowable to us who are just part of the many. Because God is unknowable, we cannot say what it is, we cannot describe it, we cannot attribute to it any characteristics. It is not an anthropomorphic God, no bearded man in the sky. It is beyond all predicates (i.e., God is x). It is not thought or will or activity, because each of these involves a distinction between the doer and the object.

Interestingly, this God cannot divide itself, and thus cannot know itself as an object of its own thought. It is not self-conscious and cannot be said to ‘know thyself’. 

Now remember that Plato said that the One, or the Good, creates everything that it is possible to create―plenitude―because not to do so would be to act from jealousy or some other resentful emotion. All that can be, must be, or else something is denied its existence. So how can the One be the source of the many without being changed in any way by this? He cannot be a creator, for that would require an act of creation, and an act of creation requires a will and a decision, and a decision would change the One from one state of mind to another. For Plotinus, it is impossible that the One be changed by being the source of the many. To resolve this conundrum, he turned to the idea of emanation. And emanation contains the principles of plenitude and continuity―and therefore also inequality―that we have seen in the Great Chain of Being. Copleston says that Plotinus believed ‘the world issues from God or proceeds from God by necessity, there being a principle of necessity that the less perfect should issue from the more perfect. It is a principle that every nature should make that which is immediately subordinate to it, unfolding itself, as a seed unfolds itself’ (Copleston, 1962, 210). Perhaps think of this as the sun that illuminates everything without it being changed or diminished, or a mirror that duplicates with no loss to itself.

Emanation has a series of stages.  The first emanation from the One is Thought or Mind―Nous―or the Demiurge. It is immediate intuition of the One and of itself. From Nous emanates soul or world soul, which looks upwards to Nous but also downwards to the world of nature. There are two souls, one nearer to Nous, the other is the soul of nature, or physis, which is a conduit for ideas to participate in the material world; a logos

From the world soul come individual human souls divided into a higher element, nus, and a lower element, body. Its contact with the body is seen as a fall. In transmigration the body dies but the soul survives.

Below the soul is the material world. It is the lowest stage of the process of emanation. If emanation is like the light of the sun then it grows darker and weaker the further away from the source it is. Matter, that which constitutes the material world, is deemed evil. But the cosmos is not an evil creation. Plotinus does not condemn the world; he praises it as the harmony of the eternal One.

It is not a surprise, then, that human life should be seen as needing a return to the source of the Good as far as is possible. We are required to make an ethical ascent back to the source in our lives. This involves purification from any mastery by the desires of the body, through virtue, a Platonic-type education in intellect or philosophy, and a journey to eventual mystical union with the One in an ecstasy that is without duality. Here is an astonishing description of that union from Plotinus in the Enneads (IV.8.1).

Many times it has happened: lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentred; beholding a marvellous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine; stationing within It by having attained that activity; poised above whatsoever within the Intellectual is less than the Supreme: yet, there comes the moment of descent from intellection to reasoning, and after that sojourn in the divine, I ask myself how it happens that I can now be descending, and how did the Soul ever enter into my body, the Soul which, even within the body, is the high thing it has shown itself to be. (Plotinus, 1930, 357)

From Plotinus we now turn to the three religion and to how emanation was the link between God and nature, including human beings. 

The concept of emanation belonging to the Islamist philosopher Al-Farabi (d. 950) is summarized in the following way by David Gillis.

To combine the Neoplatonic system with the Aristotelian model of the universe, he divides the phase of Intellect into ten intellects. From the First Cause (which corresponds to the Neoplatonists’ One or Good) proceeds a first intellect. This intellect has two thoughts: a thought of its own essence, from which proceed the soul and the body of the first sphere; and a thought of the First Cause, from which emanates a second intellect. This second intellect in turn produces the body the soul of them second sphere from its thought of itself and emanates a third intellect from its thought of the First Cause. The process continues until there are nine intellects and nine corresponding spheres with their souls.

The tenth phase is a little different … By the time the tenth phase is reached, there is not enough power to emanate another sphere or a subsequent intellect. All the agent intellect can accomplish is something analogous to the activity of the higher intellects: instead od emanating another intellect, it gives human intellects a thought of itself (what we call simply thoughts), and instead of emanating a sphere, it gives for to matter. (Gillis, 2015, 395)

Avicenna (ibn Sina) (980-1093) had a similar model (from Netton, 1994, 163-5).

It is Ibn Sina’s emanationist chain of being that makes all things possible and allows the production of the many from the One without infringing in any way the unity of that One … From The One or Necessary Being emanates a being who bears such titles as the First Intellect (al-‘Aql al­Awwal) and the First Caused (al-Ma’lul al-Awwal) as well as ranking as Supreme Cherub or Archangel with the personal name of Wajh al-Quds.This first product of the Necessary Being is pure immaterial intellect (‘aql mahd liannahu sura la fi madda), one or undivided like the Necessary Being, and results from the latter’s contemplation of His own essence. It is thus the fruit of pure divine intellection and this self­contemplation by the divinity becomes the prime motor of creation. But the plurality or multiplicity apparent in the universe derives from the First Intellect, not from God. God is not contingent and cannot therefore produce multiplicity: the First Intellect is and therefore can. And the fruit of this First Intellect is triadic in structure.

As a result of the First Intellect’s contemplation both of itself and its divine Author, there result: (l) a Second Intellect or Archangel; (2) the soul or angel of the First Sphere or Heaven; and (3) the body of that Sphere. The process happens, to be precise, like this: the First Intellect is aware of, or obliged to acknowledge, three things: (1) that God’s existence is necessary; (2) that its own existence is necessitated because of another being; and (3) that its own existence can, in essence, only be defined as possible. These three aspects of knowledge possessed by the First Intellect are, at the same time, aspects that have creative force: the awareness of God’s necessary existence produces another intellect; the conception of the First Intellect of itself as necessitated produces a soul (or angel) for a sphere; and the knowledge of itself as only a possible existent produces the body for that sphere. The whole process is continued through a succession of emanations that culminate in the Tenth Intellect or Archangel. The act of intellection of this last, which now lacks enough energy to produce yet another triad of intellect, soul, and heaven, ‘splinters into a multitude of souls, our human souls, at the same time giving origin to elementary matter.’

From the medieval Jewish perspective, we can look to Maimonides (1138-1204), the Jewish scholar. Louis Jacobs says here,

Maimonides devotes the opening sections of his great Code to a description of he universe in his conviction that man’s contemplation of the vastness and the marvels of God’s creation would evoke his sense of awe and lead eventually to the love and far of God. For Maimonides there are three types of being in the universe: (1) beings having both for and matter but who suffer decay, such as humans, animals, plants and minerals; (2) beings having form and matter but which do not suffer decay, such as the spheres and the heavenly bodies attached to them; (3) beings that are non-corporeal, having only pure form, such as the angels. There are in all nine spheres. The nearest of these is the sphere to which the moon is attached. In ascending order there are then the spheres of Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above these is the eighth sphere to which all the other stars are attached and above all these is the great ninth sphere which revolves each day from east to west and through its revolutions the other spheres revolve. The spheres are translucent so that when seen from the earth all the stars appear to be attached to a single sphere. But each of the eight lower spheres is subdivided into many other spheres ‘like the layers of an onion’ (the comparison is made by Maimonides), some of these revolving from east to west, others from west to east. (Jacobs, 1975, 77).

Maimonides concludes

When man reflects on these topics and comes to recognise all creatures, from the angels and the spheres to human beings like himself, and when he observes the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, as manifested in all things and in all creatures, his love for God grows, his soul thirsts and his flesh longs to love God, blessed be. Such a man is filled with awe and dread at the thought of his own lowliness, poverty and insignificance when compared with one of the great and holy bodies to say nothing of one of the pure, disembodied spirits, so that he becomes aware of himself as a vessel full of shame and confusion, empty and lacking. (Jacobs, 1975, 78)

From the Christian perspective, we can turn to Dante’s cosmos and the way in which he turned the cosmos into an hierarchical educational journey in Liberal Arts. In Book 1 of his Convivio (1304-7) he says,

the seven heavens nearest to us are those of the Sun, Moon, and planets; next come the two moving heavens beyond them, and the one beyond them all which is unmoving. To the first seven the seven sciences of the Trivium and Quadrivium correspond, namely: Grammar, Dialectics, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry and Astrology. Natural science, which is called Physics, and the supreme science, called Metaphysics, correspond to the eighth Sphere, the Starry Heaven; Moral Science to the ninth sphere; and the Divine Science, Theology, to the unmoving heaven.[2]

Added to this, you can see the hierarchy of the angelic order (intellectual substances) (from Davidson, 1892, 247). 

We could end here with the comment that all of this is redundant, out of date, and wholly dependent upon the Ptolemaic natural science that has long since been replaced. But before we go, let’s just summarize from what C.S. Lewis makes of this loss, from different parts of his book The Discarded Image, (1964).

‘At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organiser … a builder of systems. He wanted a place for everything and everything in the right place … [His picture of the cosmos made] the whole organisation of their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental model of the universe’ (1964, 10-11). 

Perhaps we could see this against the goal of modern science, the GUT, the grand unified theory of everything?

Note too, Lewis does not see this as a human centred universe. As Dante saw it, the hierarchy of space is the opposite of the hierarchy of the spiritual order. From earth the spheres move out from the centre. But spiritually the planets descend away from God to the furthest distance – Earth. The earth is the rim, the outside edge where being fades away on the border of nonentity.

And summing all this up, C S Lewis notes 

‘Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky he certainly feels that he is looking out―like one looking out from the saloon entrance onto the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors. But if you accepted the medieval model you would feel life looking in. The earth is outside the city wall’ (1964, 119). 

And, finally, 

‘to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest – trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony. That is the sense in which our universe is romantic, and theirs classical’ (1964, 99).


Copleston, F. (1962) A History of Philosophy vol 1 Part II, New York Image Books.

Davidson, T. (1892) Aristotle and Ancient Ideals, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Gillis, D. (2015) Reading Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Oregon, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

Jacobs, L. (1975) ‘Jewish Cosmology’ in Ancient Cosmologies, Ed. Carmen Blacker & Michael Loewe, London, Allen & Unwin.

Lewis, C.S. (1964) The Discarded Image, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Netton, I.R. (1994) Allah Transcendent, Richmond, Curzon Press.

Plotinus, (1930) The Enneads, translated by Stephen MacKenna, 2nd edition, London, Faber and Faber. 

[1] From https://subtleyoga.com/you-have-something-really-really-important-to-share/cup-overflowing/

[2] From Dante Alighieri, (2008) Convivio (The Banquet), chapters XIII & XIV, trans AS Kline, found at: http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Italian/ConvivioII.htm

Also In this Lecture Series

A History of Western Philosophy: Prejudice and Inequality

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