89 - On the Horizon: Plotinus on Soul

Posted on 15 July 2012

For Plotinus, Soul is on the border between the physical and intelligible realms. Can he convince us to identify ourselves with its highest part?

70723 views
Further Reading

• H. Blumenthal, Plotinus’ Psychology (The Hague: 1971).

• R. Chiaradonna (ed.), Studi sull’anima in Plotino (Naples: 2005).

• E.K. Emilsson, “Plotinus on Soul-Body Dualism,” in S. Everson (ed), Psychology: Companions to Ancient Thought (Cambridge: 1991).

• P. Kalligas, “Forms of Individuals in Plotinus: a Re-Examination,” Phronesis 42 (1997), 206-27.

• P. Remes, Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the “We” (Cambridge: 2007).

• S.K. Strange, “Plotinus on the Nature of Eternity and Time,” in Aristotle in Late Antiquity (Washington: 1994), 21-53.

Comments

Felix 18 July 2012

Peter,

can you give us a frank analysis of whether this nonsense is, well, nonsense?
Is seems to me to be worthless drivel.

If neo-platonism was the dominant school from the 3rd to the 15th centuries how many episodes of this are you going to have to wade through?

Do those centuries contain thoughts other than theology and mysticism? When can we look forward to hearing them?

sceptically yours,
Felix

Peter Adamson 18 July 2012

In reply to by Felix

Hi Felix,

Ouch! Well, my main area of interest is Neoplatonism (Greek, Arabic, sometimes Latin medieval) so you can infer from that that I don't think it's nonsense and drivel. But actually I have to admit that what drew me to it at first, and still attracts me to it, is that the conclusions seem so surprising and for us nowadays remote from the realm of serious possibility. So the question is how they get there, and perhaps at what stage we would want to stop agreeing with the train of argument that takes them there.

Here I think it's important that we are indeed dealing with arguments, which proceed (as I've been stressing in these episodes on Plotinus) from premises or starting intuitions that are quite plausible -- e.g. his point that something has more being if it has more unity. This is what makes it philosophy, as opposed to, say, poetically rapturous religious literature (which has its own value, no doubt, but is not something I'd include in the podcast). As I say in episode 88 I actually think the mystical element in Plotinus tends to get exaggerated in discussions of him.

Perhaps what is bothering you is not the arguments but where they wind up; so, if you are a hard-nosed materialist or empiricist obviously you will find Neoplatonism ridiculous in the end. Still, thinking carefully about it may help you see where the fundamental differences lie, and to me history of philosophy is often at its most interesting when we're trying sympathetically to follow a thinker of the past who is reaching a conclusion we don't find congenial. After all, anyone can convince you of something you already believe; the challenge comes from trying to understand a very different worldview "from the inside," which is what I hope these episodes manage to convey (or at least begin to convey, to really get into it you of course have to read the texts).

One last thought, re. the coming centuries: of course pretty much all philosophy starting here and going until, say, Hume, is found within pretty strongly religious contexts. But that doesn't prevent it from being rigorous in its argumentation. This is something I'm planning to address squarely in episode 101 which will begin to discuss Christianity in late antiquity. Equally, Neoplatonists, and philosophers in the revealed religions, have lots to say about topics other than God -- everything from logic, to the nature of the mind, to ethics, to aesthetics, to political theory. God often comes into it but we're still going to see many points and arguments that could be adapted to fit very different philosophical worldviews.

Hope that helps?

Peter

I sympathise with the view that Plotinus has, from certain modern viewpoints, the appearance of drivel, but even if that were true, it would still be very important drivel.

First of all it seems to me to be a wonderful example of how an intelligent person can approach a serious question without the benefit of empirical knowledge.

Second, his metaphysics seem to me to be what makes the religious thought of the Middle Ages and later possible. Since religion and politics were closely related, Plotinus's effect on the history of Europe at least seems very large. And if, as a hard-nosed materialist, I want to argue against intelligent religious belief, then an understanding of its roots is necessary.

Ollie K

Peter Adamson 22 July 2012

In reply to by Ollie Killingback

Hi Ollie,

The last point you make about his influence is definitely right (so there is a "know your enemy" possibility for materialists, as you suggest). Actually I don't think Plotinus is as uninterested in empirical data as you suggest, though. As we'll see in a future episode, an interview with James Wilberding, Plotinus was very keen to square his philosophical ideas with the conceptions of the physical universe that were then current in what we'd think of as "ancient science" -- and that applies to everything from cosmology to embryology, something his student Porphyry wrote about. 

Thanks!

Peter

I look forward to being educated further. :) And I hope your move to Germany goes without incident and that the podcasts resume on schedule.

Fly on the wall 16 October 2015

In reply to by Felix

Those are some pretty harsh and I think unfair words on Plotinus and the Neoplatonic endeavour. Let's not forget that even those ancient philosophical schools which emphasized natural philosophy or ethics in the end also enveloped their more down-to-earth doctrines within some grand theological scheme. Of course, what distinguished the Neoplatonists was their utter devotion to otherworldly matters but their influence did trickle down to earthly matters as well in very important ways, which would make them relevant irrespective of their theology. As in fact later episodes in this series show, the Neoplatonic emphasis on mathematics as the language of nature made a huge impression on the likes of Galileo and Kepler, and certain later Neoplatonic critiques of Aristotelian physics paved the way for new non-Aristotelian interpretations of physics. In that sense, the Neoplatonists, mystics as they were, played an important role in the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century.

As for their otherworldly matters, Neoplatonic negative theology constituted a powerful tool for describing things which are beyond direct sense-experience and it wouldn't surprise me if one could trace some Neoplatonic influence in later developments of theories of mind and consciousness. Ultimately, the reason for which one can deride the Neoplatonists - their dabbling in metaphysics - is also the reason for which Neoplatonism will never really go out of fashion. Neoplatonists grappled with some really difficult and fundamental existential issues for which we are unlikely ever to find entirely satisfactory answers, yet at the same time we are compelled by our nature to continue grappling with these issues and, as long as we do, the Neoplatonists will be right there with us in the back of our minds.

roman prychidko 20 July 2012

Hi Peter
It appears to me that the comments made are a case of sense perception over whelming reason which is unable to grasp what is in front of it. Perhaps the concept of matter as mindless may appeal.
May you continue your studious thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of ideas through time. Its wonderful.

Natalia Doran 21 April 2013

Dear Peter,

thank you for your stunningly skilful presentation of the material.
Can you please tell me exactly in which treatise Plotinus addresses the problem of whether, and which, individuals exist at the level of Nous.

Many thanks,
Natalia.

Dear Natalia,

There's a short treatise in the Enneads specifically on this topic (it's even the title), namely Enn. V.7. That's number 18 in the chronological list provided by Porphyry.

Cheerio,

Peter

Got it, thank you, "ideal archetype of particular beings" in my translation, should have known.

The answer seems to be pretty definitely "yes". What am I missing? By the way, are the Reason-Principles the logoi?
Many thanks,
Natalia.

Peter Adamson 21 April 2013

In reply to by Natalia Doran

Hi Natalia,

Sounds like you probably have MacKenna's translation; I'd rather recommend the Loeb one by Armstrong if you can get hold of it (a lot more expensive though, if you buy all 7 Loeb volumes). Anyway yes, reason-principle is presumably logos.

There are several reasons to think that this treatise doesn't just settle the matter as a clear yes. For one thing this little treatise, if you look at it closely, might seem to be rather open-ended and dialectical (as is Plotinus' wont). For another thing there's the problem of squaring it with other passages beyond V.7. My feeling is that Plotinus probably thought that individuals are somehow present in nous but perhaps not _as_ individuals, that is, they may be potentially contained within Forms. But that may come pretty close to saying that they aren't in nous really. Another thought here though (can't remember if I mentioned this in the episode) is that there seem to be individual intellects, like our undescended souls; and these presumably are at the level of nous. But that sounds rather different from Forms of particulars. So anyway, there are reasons why there is a fair bit of secondary literature on this.

Thanks,

Peter

Natalia Doran 21 April 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thank you for such prompt and helpful replies. I will try your patience a bit further, making full use of the anonymity that the Internet allows, to ask you whether, since V.7 is the main text on the subject, it does not make sense to interpret other passages in its light, rather than the other way round.

And the line he takes in V.7 seems to be: yes, and why not.

Generally, would you not say that everything that exists has the Nous, or, more properly, the One, as its source? Being undifferentiated is not a problem, everything is undifferentiated until a certain level of multiplicity is reached. And we have to say that individuals exist, because they fix their existence by the process of return – if they did not have the existence in potentiality, from higher above on the ladder, they would be the source of their own existence, which is not allowed by the rules of the game.

As you can see, I am in need of some secondary literature on the subject. Any suggestions, please? Preferably something that focuses on the ideas, rather than splits textual hairs.

Many many thanks,
Natalia.

Peter Adamson 22 April 2013

In reply to by Natalia Doran

Hi again,

Well, there are some classic discussions of the problem by Rist and Blumenthal:

J.M. RIST, “Forms of Individuals in Plotinus”, CQ 13, 1963, p. 223-297.
H.J. BLUMENTHAL, “Did Plotinus believe in Ideas of Individuals?”, Phoenix 11, 1966, p. 61-81.
J.M. RIST, “Ideas and Individuals in Plotinus. A Reply to Dr Blumenthal”, RIPh 92, 1970, p. 298-303.

And from around the same time:

P.S. MAMO, “Forms of Individuals in the Enneads”, Phronesis 14, 1969, p. 77-96.

More recently this is quite a good piece if you read French (and it would have more secondary literature in the notes in any case):

G. AUBRY, "Individualisation, particularisation et détermination selon Plotin," Phronesis 53, 2008, p. 271-289.

I would say that of course in some sense you are right: individuals have to come from somewhere and nous is the only game in town. However Plotinus is famously obscure on the question of which aspects of the sensible world do not exist at the level of nous, especially in the context of explaining negativity or badness (to kakon). Since multiplicity and division, hence particularity, is for him a way or being worse, one might argue that the distinction between particulars should occur only at a lower level. Of course in the case of humans there is going to be individuality at the level of soul, before we get to the level of bodies, so perhaps we are really wondering whether the difference between souls is somehow already present at the noetic level.

Peter

 

Natalia Doran 22 April 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Many many thanks, I will get on with some reading. Not, unfortunately, in French.

Freeman Presson 30 April 2014

I'm having a lot of fun with this series. It's a tremendous help in sorting out which topics to delve into more (too many, as usual).

One of my influences is the 13 years I endured in a Zen school (actually two of them, as I followed my teacher when he formed his own school). One very common praxis in modern Zen is a form of self-interrogation very much like what you describe starting at 9:37 in this episode: one responds to seeing with "Who sees?" to thinking with "Who thinks?" etc., until one is either enlightened or too insane to keep it up.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that Plato and some of his successors were initiates of the Mysteries; I can smell it here and there in Timaeus. Whether that actually helps a blockhead like me is another question.

Prof. Richard … 22 January 2016

Just a comment on "worthless drivel."

 We so-called moderns have become disconnected from the animated and feeling part of the life of the mind, leaving us cold in the winter of our discontent. To put it another way, this individual life, aside from our connection to other lives, is either about the journey of the soul or about nothing at all.

Thanks for this insightful and useful lecture.

 

Jacques LaFave 14 June 2016

Great series, Thank you for the podcasts.  I've been a student of philosophy for 36 years.  Like you, I enjoy studying the neoplatonists.   I've recently been studying their theory of Soul.  Can you list other Philosophers in your series or outside reading that wrote as extensively on Soul as Plotinus?  Thank you.

Well, pretty much all the Neoplatonists talk about soul at some length, it is a standard issue. You could check out the relevant sections of Proclus' Elements of Theology for instance; Iamblichus commented on Aristotle's De Anima, also. Avicenna is also super interesting on this by the way, check out episode 141.

Jacques LaFave 15 June 2016

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thank you Peter.  Your kindness is only exceeded by your generosity of sharing your knowledge with us.

Also, I'm not sure if there is a way to search all of your podcasts by key word or phrases?  If not, perhaps a good

project for one of your grad students to undertake.  Best Regards.

Well, as someone once said to me, the internet is blind and deaf - it can't search images or sound file. I do of course have the scripts which then come out as books. Once they appear as books I guess it would be possible to search the e-book. And I can search my own scripts, which I actually do a lot to track down information!

Thank you Peter.  That used to be the case, with regards to the internet being blind and deaf; but that's long past history now.

Streaming audio podcasts are searchable using metadata tags implanted in them.  This is the simpliest and fastest process,

And does require a key word or phrase search engine be included on your website to find the metadata tags. 

Your computer dept folks will understand all of this, but if you wiki the word metadata, there is a good general guide to what I'm describing, and its what you described with an ebook search.

All amazingly productive.  The amount of philosophy reading and listening I've been able to do in the past 3 years via the internet is equivalent to all of my prior 33years combined using just book libraries.   And for that, I am eternally grateful to Professors like yourself for taking the time to bring philosophy to the masses so to speak.   

Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, the .mp3 files are tagged with descriptions and other metadata. I thought you meant searching the entire script for keywords.

Eduardo 28 February 2020

I am not gonna lie, what drove me here was the hope of being rewarded with a transcript for this episode which I failed to find (claimed?) mainly because this is a damn fine, well-written podcast. Congratulations. I've been listening for months between time-lapses when the power-tools allow (I hate my spasmodic compressor). Normally I re-listen at home with a paper and pen writing down vocabulary since english is not my first language, which is what I'll be doing now I guess. Saludos desde México, ¡Sigale echando ganas!

Disclaimer: I am not in the belief that I might be holy in any way, neither claim that any carpenter ever was,  however, there might have been a couple of zombie/golem carpenters/handymen out there though, MAYBE.

 

There is no transcript but there are published books which are pretty close to the podcasts. They are published by Oxford University Press; see also the FAQ link at the bottom of this page which explains the transcript issue. Thanks for listening!

Ariel Gonçalves 22 June 2020

Its just that. No question. No counter argument. I just find it awesome to see how you've been at this for nearly ten years, and are still releasing new stuff. I mean, it's one thing to propose to do the WHOLE history of philosophy without any gaps. But to follow with it for ten years, knowing that there is still a hella lot to cover. I mean, its 2020 and as far as i can tell the newest ones are on Machiavelli. I've been listening to the podcasts intermittently for some two years now, and this episode here is how far I've gone (did go through indian philosophy too tho).

Thank you for keeping this project going. The history of philosophy has been a friend of mine through highs and lows. A intelectual companion I could reach out at very diverse times. I've listened to it on a comfortable couch back home in Brazil while sipping tea and I've listened to it while taking care of chickens in a cold ass farm in the Chilean Patagonia. And it never failed to lift my eyes to the realm of philosophy, and to connect me with this nearly palpable stream of thoughts that connects what goes through my mind, a Brazilian psychology student in 2020 with what went through Thales' mind 2500 + years ago in Ionia, and all those in the between.

I really appreciate the time and effort you've put into this. Hope to catch up with the new episodes soon.

Thank you again.

Wow, thanks so much! Feedback like this always inspires me to keep going. Hope you will keep enjoying the series!

JD wegner 22 October 2020

Thanks for these awesome videos Peter Adamson. 

I was wondering a bit about the nous. So the Nous is bipartite because it thinks about itself (such self-reflexivity implies duality) AND it is potentially infinite multiplicity because there are a potentially infinite number of Forms it contemplates; so I'm confused, is the nous duality or multiplicity? If both, as it seems, is the Nous' duality ontologically prior to its multiplicity (which makes a kind of sense to me)? If so, does this make the Nous, qua-duality, equivalent to the Dyad, but as a unified substance as the Monad (i.e, as a self-thinking entity)?  And I've heard recently  about the notion of Intelligible Matter in relation to Plotinus (and Aristotle), is this the idea that the Forms are limited to being distinct from other Forms by an intelligible substratum---by intelligiability, that is, by the Nous itself, as a principle of limitation the way physical matter limits Form in concrete particulars?

I guess what I'm asking, if you'd be so kind Peter Adamson, is if you could explain the various aspects of the Nous: it is one thing (a self-thinking thing), yet dual, yet potentially infinite in multiplicity; how does all this fit together? And how do the notions of the Monad, Dyad, and Intelligible Matter fit into all this? Also, does the thinking Nous conceptually think or define in a bipartite fashion in the way humans do by identifying a Form's genus and specific difference---eg., "Man is a rational (principle 1) animal (principle 2)", contains 2 elements: genus and specific difference. 

I ask because I am genuinely attracted to Middle- and Neo-platonism as philosophical systems and as someone who will be tasked with teaching on Platonism as a biblical scholar in the making, I want to be able to teach it in the most lucid and compelling way possible.

PS--your comments made it sound like the Nous only has concepts that have actually been concretized in the material world, does the Nous not contemplate coherent concepts (like unicorns) that are in fact intelligible yet not materially instantiated? If so, why?

Thanks again for this awesome series!!

Peter Adamson 23 October 2020

In reply to by JD wegner

Good questions! So what I would say is this: Nous is fundamentally dual, as subject and object of thought. However within the "object" side, you have the multiplicity of Forms (and on the "subject" side, the multiple acts of grasping those Forms). So you could think about it as dual in a first step and then infinitely multiple in a second step, the first step explaining its functional structure, the second step explaining the "content" of what it is doing. However we need to remember that the Forms are not just all separate and distinct from one another: while we can distinguish them in some sense, they form parts of a single whole so there is still only one Nous engaging in one, complex, act of thinking.

"Intelligible matter" is a controversial issue among scholars but the basic idea would be that this is what initially emanates from the One: potentiality for thought or for reversion upon the One. It becomes actual Nous when this matter is actualized as thought, in the way just described. Again, caveat: that is only priority in a conceptual or causal sense, the whole process is eternally going on so it is not like there was ever only just matter, which then had to become Nous at a further stage that had not yet been realized.

Finally, on your PS: no, no unicorns in Nous. It has the full range of Being, i.e. all Forms within it, and all Forms are expressed in reality. Something like a unicorn would thus just be the product of our imagination. Why exactly there is no such thing as a unicorn is a more difficult question though.

Thanks for your response Peter,

Your comment was helpful, but I am still somewhat confused, as is normal when trying to understand the inner-workings of Plotinus' thought (!).

1) What differentiates one Form (triangularity) from another within Nous (squareness)? Doesn't difference imply some kind of particularizing/limiting principle, that is, something akin to matter (which as I understand it, the Indefinite Dyad is meant to signify)? 

2) Are Forms ontologically dual in that they consist of metaphysical parts, namely (1) a genus and (2) specific-difference ( 'specific difference' being what differentiates one species from others in the same genus, e.g., 'Man is a rational animal'), or, is the Nous' act of grasping actually what is responsible for the duality of Form in that when Nous grasps a Form it breaks it into (1) genus and (2) species, when in itself, as it were, a Form is a singular/non-composite entity?

3) Does Plotinus, or any middle or Neoplatonist to your knowledge, think that the mere existence of intelligiables (things only graspable by a mind) necessarily entails the existence of a Divine Mind? If so, how do they make the argument? I've been wondering if such an argument for a Divine Mind has been proposed in the history of philosophy and would expect a middle/neoplatonist to have likely made one on the basis of the existence of intelligables.

Thanks again for your generosity!

Peter Adamson 24 October 2020

In reply to by JD wegner

Yes, that's right that the distinctness of, say, square and triangle is what moves Plotinus to ascribe the second type of multiplicity to Intellect. But since these are not "outside" Intellect and Intellect grasps all its content at once, these multiple objects of thought are all grasped within one single act of knowledge. As for how this might be possible, that sort of takes us to your second question: Plotinus does talk about genus/species relations among the intelligibles but also has other ways of trying to capture the one-in-many relation involved, e.g. part/whole, and mathematical series like the numbers proceeding from unity. So what we are always after here is ways of thinking about this that affirm both the multiplicity of objects and the unity into which they are subsumed. If you push too hard on unity you compromise the distinct reality of the objects, if you push too hard on the objects' difference from one another you compromise the unity of Nous, so he will always qualify one with the other and try to hold both in balance.

As for the third question, the issue here is why the Forms need to be understood as ideas in a mind, as opposed to abstract paradigms. To some extent Plotinus deals with this with the aforementioned point (for which he argues, e.g. with skeptical worries) that the objects of thought cannot be outside the mind - that there is a mind grasping them at all just follows from the fact that otherwise they would be unknown, I guess. Also we know from personal experience that intellection is possible. So the question of whether there is a mind at all is not really pressing, the question is how our individual minds relate to perfect mind (which for Plotinus is only one) and how the mind relates to its objects, i.e. by having them within, not as external models to behold, as some Platonists claimed.

 

JD wegner 27 October 2020

Hello Peter,

Thanks yet again for another helpful response. 

Does Plotinus intergrate Neopythagorean numerology or the concept of the Monad-Dyad pair into his metaphysics? 

I now also have some questions about the World Soul. Your comments in the video unpacked the meaning of the World Soul by comparing it to a particular person's soul; how does an individual's soul relate to the World Soul? For example, just because the discursive thought of humans is temporal, why must we extrapolate from this that temporal thought is also a property of the World Soul? Also, does it get things wrong too, like the thought of the human soul?

Also, your discussion of a particular soul centered on a human soul. You mention that, unlike Nous, the World Soul and a particular human soul, are defined by discursive thought which shows the temporal nature of both Soul/soul and that, in virtue of being the site of the intellect, that Soul/soul, while temporal, are also  immaterial. All this seems to imply that Plotinus doesn't think of animals or plants as having (non-rational) souls, is this an area of disagreement with someone like Aristotle (who thinks the soul is materially reliant)? Also, do inanimate material objects, like water, somehow relate to the World Soul? 

On this last question, I think I vaguely remember learning that Plotinus thinks of the World Soul as teleology, and your last remarks in the video seem to make this point. Would Plotinus locate teleology within or perhaps even as the World Soul, as a function of it being the bridge between the material world and the noetic world? How does Plotinus account for the goal-directedness of the world? What explains, to give different kinds of examples, the fact that humans tend toward acquiring and using language, that dogs tend to sniff around a lot, that plants tend to sink their roots deep into the earth, and that water tends to freeze at a low temprature? What is "moving" or "pulling", or dare I say, "besouling"  these various things towards their respective ends, ends which, I suspect from your video comments, are to be identified as their respective eternal Forms (Forms which in turn take them back to the One)?

Thanks again!! This is a great program!

Peter Adamson 27 October 2020

In reply to by JD wegner

Ok, more good questions!

1. Yes, he does integrate Pythagoreanism though not as centrally as the Middle Platonists. Basically you can think of the potentiality that becomes Nous as the indefinite Dyad and the One of course is the Monad (or perhaps the unity and determination it imposes on Nous). Later in Neoplatonism there is also the idea of the Limit and Unlimited which has a similar function.

2. Human and World Soul: that's complicated, but actually the first point to make here is that we need to distinguish World Soul (which is just an individual soul like yours, but for the whole cosmos) from Soul as such, the "hypostasis." It seems that individual souls are somehow parts of the hypostasis soul, which is one reason our own experiences give us insight into its nature, mode of thought, etc. But like I say this is a thorny area of his philosophy and scholars dispute about exactly how this individual-hypostasis relation is supposed to work.

3. Teleology: this is simpler, I'd say. The Forms are the realm of Being but also participate in the Good (= the One) so everything, insofar as it partakes of a Form, will be good insofar as it does that, and will also strive towards being a better instance of the Form it instantiates. So the upshot of this is very much like Aristotelian teleology, e.g. animals have claws to defend themselves, long necks to reach leaves, etc but this will now all be explained in terms of participation in Forms (unlike in Aristotle obviously). There is not much if any room for "material necessity" in Plotinus, even something like the freezing of ice would be "normative" or "teleological" insofar as it has to do with participation in the Form of Water, I guess.

Jd Wegner 28 October 2020

Thanks again,

I have a final set of questions (for a while at any rate!)


Is the hypostasis of Soul personal and living in a way analogous to the Nous?

Can the hypostasis Soul error in its discursive temporal thinking, like humans can?

And is it fair to say that the WORLD Soul is the principle of teleology in the cosmos, and that it is somehow a special emanation the hypostasis Soul?

Thanks again for addressing my questions

Scott 28 December 2022

First - I love this podcast.  It accompanies my evening walks.  In fact, I usually listen to each episode twice to better absorb the content (4 miles, plenty of time to do so).  Maybe I should just buy the books.  Or start watching Buster Keaton films.

Second - I am musician. Definitely NOT a philosopher! 

It struck me that early European polyphony might (inadvertently?) reflect the Neo-Platonic hierarchy.  Late Medieval organum of the Notre Dame school (12th-13th c.) presents a greatly elongated plainchant in the tenor voice while (much) faster melodies dance above. The tenor notes are held so long that they seem to exist outside of time, while the faster moving discant suggests a more human timescale.  That superpositioning vastly different temporal scales is practically the first kind of polyphony is remarkable in itself.  It also strikes me as a metaphor for the Neo-Platonic Intellect and the Soul.  Better yet, insofar as music can present these elements simultaneously (over time, I know...), the music grasps all there is all at once, as if standing outside of time. 

Even a chorale prelude by Bach has a similar temporal stratification.  In all the cases the texts of the elongated music are subjects of contemplation.

This temporal experience is realized through different means in the Gospel vamps of the Black church.  Ecstatic repetition takes us outside of time.  Like James Brown.  Huh. 

OK, I am probably blowing smoke, but contemplating such ideas sets my mind on fire.

Thanks again for a wonderful series!

Thanks, glad you find the podcast rewarding! I think your idea is absolutely correct especially as applied to medieval music. Bear in mind that their theoretical sources on music, e.g. Boethius, are indebted to Platonist mathematical works, so this is not just a kind of vague resonance (pun intended) but a direct source for their thinking about music. If you want to read about this check out the work of Andrew Hicks from Cornell University.

Add new comment