collected by D.H.Frew
This the record of an exchange between myself and Ken Wilber on
the Alexandria Listserve. Alexandria is devoted to the discussion of
Western Esotericism, from classical Antiquity through the Renaissance to
modern era. It seemed a natural venue for a discussion of Wilber s use of
classical philosopher Plotinus. Little did I know what I was getting
This is what I posted to the Alexandria Listserve:
The Whole & The Parts:
Ken Wilber's Treatment of Plotinus in _Sex, Ecology, Spirituality_
by D. H. Frew (May 1, 1995)
This is really more of a book pre-view rather than a book re-view,
the simple reason that I have not read more than 20 or so pages of this
Why bother to read any further, then? Because the unusual demands that
Wilber places upon would-be readers call for an unusual response.
Ken Wilber's _Sex, Ecology, Spirituality_ (Shambhala Publications,
Boston, 1995) is the first volume of a projected three-volume set
Wilber s "grand synthesis", explaining the single underlying pattern or
in the evolution of matter, life, and mind. The main text of _Sex,
Spirituality_ is 524 pages long, followed by an additional 239 pages of
In the Introduction, Wilber suggests to his readers that to get the most
out of the
book they should "skip the endnotes on the first reading, and save them
if) a second look." He also warns readers to "read the book one sentence
time. People who try to skip around get completely lost." So in order to
author justice, a reader would have to read the text without endnotes,
it again with them -- a total of 1287 pages! I don t know about you, but
read some 1300 pages of anyone, I want to know that it will be worth my
In the case of _Sex, Ecology, Spirituality_, I did what I often do
evaluate a book: see what the author has to say about a subject with which
am conversant. In the case of _Sex, Ecology, Spirituality_, that subject
life and work of Plotinus. I read the twenty some pages of text and notes
Plotinus and quickly found a number of startling errors of fact. A few
will give the general idea.
First, on page 332, Wilber comments on a quote from Porphyry s
_Vita Plotini_, saying that...
... [Plotinus] won all hearts by his gentle and affectionate nature [this
apparently no exaggeration, for during his entire time in Rome, he made no
known enemies, an almost impossible feat], and his sympathy with all that
good and beautiful in the world. ...
Actually, what Porphyry said (in the _Vita Plotini_, chapter 9)
... [Plotinus] was gentle, and always at the call of those having the
slightest acquaintance with him. After spending twenty six years in Rome,
as arbiter in many differences, he had never made an enemy of any citizen.
The omission of the word "citizen" in Wilber is significant, as
goes on (in chapter 10) to discuss an Alexandrian sorcerer who was an
of Plotinus and worked magic against him.
Second, on page 333, Wilber again comments on a quote from
Porphyry, relating Plotinus' last words on his deathbed...
..."I was waiting for you, before the Divine-in-us departs to the
would never say "the Divine-in-me")...
Actually, what Porphyry reported (in the _Vita Plotini_, chapter
that Plotinus said...
... "I have been a long time waiting for you; I am striving to give back
the Divine in
myself to the Divine in the All."...
Where does Wilber get the idea that Plotinus "would never say 'the
Divine-in-me'", when that is just what he did say? Also, note that
has changed the emphasis, from Plotinus trying to give up the Divine to
itself departing of its own volition. This is a significant difference,
as we shall see.
Third, on page 332, Wilber states that...
... Plotinus, by his own account, had numerous profound experiences of the
"all-transcending, all-pervading Godhead"... [and here we are directed to
15, on page 631] Porphyry reports that he, Porphyry, had four major
breakthroughs or "satoris", if we may call them that; Plotinus tells us
he had the realization "often", as in "often the case" or "typical". ...
I'm unable to find any reference to an "all-transcending,
Godhead" in Plotinus, Porphyry, or even Inge (Wilber's main source), nor
find any reference to Plotinus experiencing such a union "often". In the
of a citation, I have to assume that Wilber is refering to the famous
discussed by O'Meara....
... Many times, awakened to myself away from the body, becoming outside of
all else and within myself, seeing a wonderful and great beauty, believing
then especially to be part of the higher realm, in act as the best life,
become one with the divine and based in it advancing to that activity,
establishing myself above all other intelligible beings, then going down
from this position in the divine, from intellect down to discusive
reasoning, I am puzzled how I could ever,
and now, descend, and how my soul has come to be in the body. ...
Of which O'Meara observes...
... Many readers (ancient and modern) have taken this text to refer to an
experience of union with the One that Plotinus would have experienced a
of times. However, the expression "many times" at the beginning of the
passage relates, not to the number of experiences of union, but to a
number of states of perplexity ("Many times ... I am puzzled...").
Furthermore, the actual experience described in this passage is that of
union with intellect. It is the force of habit
that brings us to assume that all experience of union in Plotinus is
union with the One and thus to read this passage as if it exemplified the
latter. (translation and commentary, O'Meara, 1993, pp. 104-105)
And what of Porphyry s four "satoris"? Actually, what Porphyry
(in the _Vita Plotini_, chapter 23) was that...
... 'There was shown to Plotinus the Term ever near': for the Term, the
of his life was to become Uniate, to approach the God over all: and four
during the period I passed with him, he achieved this Term, by no mere
fitness but by the ineffable Act.
To this God, I also declare, I Porphyry, that in my sixty-eighth year I
too was once admitted and entered into Union. ...
That is, Porphyry had the experience once; Plotinus had the
four times (at least, as far as Porphyry knew).
How could Wilber get so many simple and obvious facts wrong? Didn
he even read the texts in question? The indicators are that he didn t.
Searching for the version of the Enneads from which Wilber was
I checked the Bibliography. There is no entry for Plotinus or the Enneads
I scoured the endnotes and found note 13 (page 631)...
... All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from Inge, _The Philosophy
Plotinus_, vols. 1 & 2, indicated as I and II. ...
This would be like saying "As Homer said in The Iliad..." and
citation "Robert Graves, _The Greek Myths_, p. 54" rather than "_The
trans. by Smith, Book 3, verse 5" or whatever. It is customary, wherever
possible, to cite the original source. The problems with not doing so are
home on page 342, where Wilber introduces a passage from Plotinus...
... [the Gnostics] taught that the world is evil, the body is a tomb, the
to be despised. This apparently infuriated the usually even-tempered
and he eloquently responded in a passage that justly became world-famous:
Wilber goes on to present a three-paragraph quote from Plotinus,
of the longest quotes in _Sex, Ecology, Spirituality_. The problem is,
Wilber wrote this book, this "passage" did not exist! The first paragraph
Ennead II, Tractate 9: "Against the Gnostics", as Wilber suggests in
stage. But the following two paragraphs are from Ennead V, Tractate 1:
Three Initial Hypostases", and have nothing to do with Plotinus' writings
against Gnosticism! In fact, II/9 was the thirty-third Tractate written
by Plotinus, while
V/1 was the tenth, written years earlier and well before Plotinus' concern
the advances made by the Gnostics.
Wilber must have been aware that he was creating a new "passage",
giving the second and third paragraphs a context they were never meant to
since the endnote for the quote is "I.198,205". In other words, Wilber
quotes from two different pages in Inge. Turning to the pages in Inge,
that the two quotes are not just on two different pages, they are in two
different Lectures, given on two different dates and addressing two
Inge clearly cites the correct Tractates for both quotes; the error is not
Other problems with this "passage", however, *are* Inge s. _The
Philosophy of Plotinus_, the only source cited by Wilber, is a collection
Lectures on Plotinus given at St. Andrews College by William Ralph Inge in
1917 - 1918. The Lectures were collected into two volumes in 1929. In
Preface to the 3rd (1948) edition, Inge explained his purpose in
lectures for the public...
... I know of no more powerful defence of the religious view of life,
which bids us
pass through things temporal 'in the spirit of the worshipper,' to use a
Bishop Gore's. Plotinus sets himself to prove dialectically ... the
the upward track which he is treading in his inward experience. He names
rungs on Jacob's Ladder ... His profound indifference to wordly affairs
problems of civilisation puts the modern spirit out of sympathy with him;
not this indifference also characteristic of the Gospels? ... Plotinus
will teach us
that there can be no evolution except in relation to a timeless background
does not itself evolve. This is, of course, the Christian view, and I
believe it will
vindicate itself against the rival view of a Deity who is vitally involved
fortunes of His creatures. ...
In other words, Inge's goal was to use Plotinus to support his own
particular transcendentalist view of Christianity. Such an approach to
Neoplatonists was discarded long ago as inaccurate Christian revisionism.
Perhaps this explains why Inge is not recommended by most of today's
leading explicators of Plotinus, such as Wallis or O'Meara.
Inge's Christian bias might also explain why his translations of
and Porphyry, included in the texts of his Lectures, are not included in
MacKenna's history of Plotinus translations in the introductory material
edition of the Enneads. Inge's translations are abysmal, and this is not
matter of differing interpretations! In the paragraphs quoted by Wilber,
third of the phrases and sentences in the original have been omitted from
Inge translation, just dropped from the text entirely! It can be no
the deleted sections refer to the gods and to the sacred earth, concepts
would not be in accord with the spin that Inge wanted to put on the texts.
So... on page 342, Wilber presents a "quote" constructed by him
two different sections of an expurgated translation by a Christian
and calls it a "passage" from Plotinus. The result may support Wilber's
argument, but it is intellectually dishonest and it is not scholarship.
If a book is the sum of its parts, and Wilber's treatment of
is indicative of the reliability of the rest of his material, then _Sex,
Spirituality_ is probably not worth the read. Certainly I decided that I
willing to put the necessary time into constantly checking Wilber's
and citations, which would be the only way to trust him. But I am the
admit that a book can be more than the sum of its parts. For example, I
that Robert Anton Wilson's _The New Inquisition_ is one of the best books
ever read. I think that Wilson's conclusions are brilliant, while
the examples from physics and biology that he uses to illustrate those
conslusions are almost entirely inaccurate. The same might well be true
Wilber. _Sex, Ecology, Spirituality_ might be filled with brilliance as
Wilson only asked that I read 240 pages, not 1287!
1) All quotes from Porphyry and Plotinus presented in counterpoint to
unless otherwise indicated, are from the MacKenna translation, _Plotinus:
Enneads_ (trans. MacKenna, Stephen, Larson Publications, Burdett NY,
Inge, William Ralph, _The Philosophy of Plotinus_ (in two volumes),
Green and Co., London, 3rd edition, 1948
MacKenna, Stephen, trans, _Plotinus: the Enneads_, Larson Publications,
Burdett NY, 1992
O'Meara, Dominic J., _Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads_, Oxford
University Press, Oxford, 1993
Wallis, R.T., _Neoplatonism_, Charles Scribner s Sons, New York, 1972
Wilber, Ken, _Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution_,
Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1995
Wilson, Robert Anton, _The New Inquisition_, Falcon Press, Phoenix AZ,