Deconstructing the Great Chain of Being

Jonathan Lee
Colorado College

For Huston Smith

    Let me begin with a fact that has continued to surprise me for nearly twenty years. Many of the world’s great mystics, regardless of their cultural and intellectual traditions, have advocated versions of the Great Chain of Being. There are notable and important differences in the particular theories introduced, but the fact remains that the Great Chain provides the ontological foundation (or superstructure) for the great majority of mystics. Similarly, many theorists of the Great Chain of Being (if not all) explicitly articulate a commitment to the experiential reality and ontological significance of mystical experience. The connection between the Great Chain of Being and mysticism is indeed so pervasive and runs so deep that Huston Smith has suggested that these two positions are fundamentally identical.[1]

  1. I find this fact surprising because it seems to me that there is (and ought to be) a profound tension between any Great Chain metaphysics and any claim to mystical experience. This tension grows between the commitment of a Great Chain theory to a more-or-less elaborate hierarchical conception of reality and the commitment of mysticism to the significance of an experience (whether of “union” or of “emptiness” does not seem to matter) in which the hierarchies of ontology no longer seem necessary or important.

  2. I know of no better illustration of this philosophical tension than that found throughout the Enneads of Plotinus. For example, in his important and rather early treatise, “On the Good or the One” (Ennead VI.9 [9]), we see this tension reflected in the deeply paradoxical status of “centering.” On the one hand, it is clear here and throughout Plotinus’ work that the moral impetus of his thought is towards a centering of the soul on the fundamental realities--ultimately the One itself--which already exist within it. Thus, in chapter 8 of VI.9, Plotinus compares the One to a center, around which souls and gods circle, and he then describes the goal of the individual soul as follows: “...we lift ourselves up by the part which is not submerged in the body and by this join ourselves at our own centers to something like the center of all things, just as the centers of the greatest circles join the center of the encompassing sphere, and we are at rest” (lines 18-22).[2]

  3. On the other hand, it is also clear that this very movement of centering the soul ultimately entails an at least temporary loss of self, a loss of the capacities that appear to make us what we are, and ultimately a loss of distinction from the One. In the previous chapter of the same treatise, for example, Plotinus insists that the soul must make itself “formless” (aneideon) to get in touch with the equally formless One (VI.9.7.8-16) and goes on to argue that this involves the soul’s ultimately “ignoring” all outward things, including itself (lines 16-23). In the final, and most extraordinary, chapter of this remarkable treatise, Plotinus goes even further, describing the seer in mystical experience by way of an apophatic rejection of each of the three parts of the soul familiar from Plato’s Republic:

  4. He was one himself, with no distinction in himself either in relation to himself or to other things--for there was no movement in him and he had no emotion (thumos), no desire (epithumia) for anything else when he had made the ascent--but there was not even any reason (logos) or thought (noesis), and he himself (autos) was not there, if we must even say this; but he was as if carried away or possessed by a god, in a quiet solitude and a state of calm, not turning away anywhere in his being and not busy about himself, altogether at rest and having become a kind of rest. (VI.9.11.8-16)
    The import of this passage is that the movement of centering the soul apparently leads to the soul’s very removal from the scene.

  5. The tension to which I am trying to call attention might be described in a number of other ways. It is, for example, surely identical to that familiar tension between kataphatic and apophatic theology, where the often baroque hierarchies of kataphasis seem to be cut adrift by the much more arid negations of apophasis. In a contemporary context, the tension between the Great Chain of Being and mysticism, between ontological and experiential approaches to the claims of the spiritual traditions is (paradoxically enough) perhaps most clearly felt in the contrast between Steven Katz’s constructivist approach to mysticism and what I would call the “pre-constructivist” approach advocated (if not elaborated) by Donald Rothberg.[3] For the constructivists, any claim about spiritual reality or about mystical experience is necessarily constructed in and out of a cultural context, which context profoundly shapes and determines the character of that tradition’s spiritual life. I suggest that the constructivist shares with the theorist of the Great Chain of Being a commitment to the “non-negotiable” centrality of metaphysical descriptions of reality and metaphysically grounded analyses of individuals’ experiences of that reality. This is surely the ultimate import of the constructivists’ insistence on “mediation.” In contrast, pre-constructivist thinkers like Robert Forman and Daniel Brown--whom Rothberg has rather misleadingly described as “deconstructionists”[4]--call attention to the centrality within the great mystical traditions of a commitment to the importance of “cutting away” or “forgetting” the categories and structures by means of which reality has so regularly been characterized. This is surely the ultimate basis for the interest in the last decade in the problem of “pure consciousness.”

  6. In recent commentary on Plotinus this tension between metaphysical theory and experiential mysticism has been handled in different ways. Thus, Pierre Hadot tends to treat the tension as an ineluctable dimension of the paradoxical, existential condition of the human self. Hadot writes: “We only are that of which we are aware, and yet we are aware of having been more fully ourselves precisely in those moments when, raising ourselves to a higher level of inner simplicity, we lose our self-awareness.”[5] In contrast, Michael Sells treats this tension as a condition and as a product of the peculiar “mode of discourse” characteristic of Plotinus.[6] Sells describes his approach to Plotinus’ text in the following terms: “A more apophatic reading of the Enneads will focus upon those moments in which such fixed hierarchies and directionalities are displaced or transformed. Reference to the one... devolves into an infinite regress in which every referent recedes beyond the name that would designate it. Language becomes indefinite and open-ended. No closure is reached. Each saying demands a further unsaying.”[7]

  7. I would argue that both Hadot and Sells effectively capture central dimensions of Plotinus’ philosophical worldview and methodology. However, neither the existential nor the grammatical-rhetorical approach to the Enneads successfully illuminates what might be called the “experience of self-deconstruction” illustrated in the final chapter of Ennead VI.9.[8] This experience partakes of both the existential and the grammatical--such is, in fact, part of the character of every human experience--but it also appears to transcend both the passive acceptance of paradox and the unending back-and-forth of saying and unsaying. Indeed, Plotinus’ language here powerfully describes an experience of a certain sort of satisfaction, a certain kind of intellectual and experiential peace: “...but he was as if carried away or possessed by a god, in a quiet solitude and a state of calm, not turning away anywhere in his being and not busy about himself, altogether at rest and having become a kind of rest” (VI.9.11.12-16).

  8. What, then, can we say about the experience of self-deconstruction in general and, in particular, about the significance of this kind of experience for theorists of the Great Chain of Being?

  9. The first thing that seems clear is that the process of self-deconstruction is itself thoroughly mediated by the cultural context of the tradition within which the deconstruction is carried out. What this means is that the very process of self-deconstruction is inconceivable apart from a particular delineation and articulation of the nature of reality. If the individual soul is, for example, to cut away all movement, emotion, desire, reason, thought, and self, in order to make its ascent to the One or the Good, it is equally important that the individual soul have an adequate background in the (roughly) Platonic psychology and ontology that ground Plotinus’ disciplinary imperatives. In other words, a very specific articulation of the Great Chain of Being is itself inscribed in the procedures by means of which the individual might attain to the mystical experience from which the Great Chain may no longer seem an essential or even true description of reality. From this perspective, then, it seems that the self-deconstruction characteristic of mysticism is perfectly compatible with a constructivist approach[9] and that mysticism and the Great Chain do make a natural and even essentially related couple.  

  10. This suggests that the Great Chain’s ultimate experiential validation comes precisely in the experience of the Chain’s falling to pieces around the link of the individual soul. An important corollary of this is that the Great Chain of Being--or at least some well-developed and articulated ontology--is ineliminable from any account of the process of mysticism. In other words, a psychologistic interpretation of the mystical path simply cannot do justice to the metaphysical implications of the process of self-deconstruction.

  11. If the process of self-deconstruction is clearly enough inseparable from a particular tradition’s psychology and ontology, what--if anything--can be said about the nature of the individual’s experience of self-deconstruction (i.e., the experience attending the completion of the process considered above)? Daniel Brown argues that there is at least a “basic moment of enlightenment” which escapes any influence of the tradition within which that moment of enlightenment has been realized and which he characterizes as an “awareness” which is in some sense “freed from psychological structure.”[10] Such a state of awareness is presumably that described by Toshihiko Izutsu as “non-intentional consciousness,” a kind of consciousness so radically nondual that “...exactly the same propositional content may be expressed interchangeably by four linguistically different sentences: (1) ‘I see the mountain’, (2) ‘The mountain sees me’, (3) ‘The mountain sees the mountain’, (4) ‘I see myself’.”[11] In a similar key, Plotinus argues in a densely textured passage: “But perhaps one should not say ‘will see’, but ‘was seen’, if one must speak of these as two, the seer and the seen, and not both as one--a bold statement.... For this reason the vision is hard to put into words. For how could one announce that as another when he did not see, there when he had the vision, another, but one with himself” (VI.9.10.11-21)?

  12. What exactly are we to make of this experience of nonduality? At one level, it is surely clear that descriptions of this experience remain intimately tied to the cultural (psychological and ontological) traditions within which the descriptions have developed. Thus, Plotinus’ tortuous language remains redolent both of the mystery cults and of that utterly Platonic vocabulary which he simultaneously deconstructs and enshrines. Similarly, Izutsu’s fourfold unfolding of ‘I see the mountain’ evokes and reinterprets the fourfold schema of negation by means of which Nagarjuna subjects to radical deconstruction the entire conceptual apparatus of Mahayana Buddhism. In general, it would seem that descriptions of the process and results of self-deconstruction will always betray their cultural and philosophical roots.

  13. Does this mean, then, that apophasis is doomed to reinscribe within itself precisely the kataphasis that it aims to undermine? Does this in turn entail that the apophatic impulse of mysticism is ultimately self-negating? In his characteristically rigorous and subtle essay, “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” Jacques Derrida examines in Pseudo-Dionysius and Meister Eckhart a tension that runs parallel to the tension I have been examining here. Commenting on the ways in which metaphysical theory reappears within the very heart of negative theology, Derrida notes that “The theologian must practice not a double language, but the double inscription of his knowledge: mystical and demonstrative.”[12] However, he goes on to insist that “Even if one speaks and says nothing, even if an apophatic discourse deprives itself of meaning or of an object, it takes place.”[13] The “place” or topos in which apophasis takes place is, according to Derrida, the speech act of prayer. Of crucial importance to Derrida’s argument is the fact--noted by Aristotle in De Interpretatione 17a4-5--that prayer is neither true nor false, although it is meaningful. Because of this, the metaphysical or psychological claims made in the course of prayer are effectively indeterminate in their truth-value, although such claims are perfectly meaningful. Derrida devotes much of his essay to showing how the strongly apophatic passages of Dionysius and Eckhart are actually inscribed within more global discourses of prayer, thus relativizing the negations of apophatic theology to the truth-limbo of prayer.[14] Rarely one to make grand assertions himself, Derrida ends “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” with a series of questions: “If there were a purely pure experience of prayer, would one need religion and affirmative or negative theologies? Would one need a supplement of prayer? But if there were no supplement, if quotation did not bend prayer, if prayer did not bend, if it did not submit to writing, would a theiology be possible? Would a theology be possible?”[15]

  14. If we bring Derrida’s provocative analysis to bear on Plotinus’ description of the experience of self-deconstruction, I suggest that we understand his sometimes tortured, sometimes ecstatic Greek neither as symptomatic of existential resignation (as Hadot might see it) nor as symptomatic of a drive towards unending dialectic (as Sells might see it). Rather, Plotinus’ texts read as complex discourses of prayer addressed to his disciples and readers, but even more clearly addressed to that divine Other he generally describes as “the One.” It is in continual relation to this Other that Plotinus’ metaphysical theorizing and his spiritual practice find their meaning and their promise of peace. Thus, Plotinus concludes “On the Good or the One” with a statement characterizing the life of the philosophical sage, and yet this all-too-famous statement really articulates that for which the sage hopes, that the promise of which has been held out to him/her, that for which s/he prays:  

  15. And when one falls from the vision, he wakes again the virtue in himself, and considering himself set in order and beautiful by these virtues he will again be lightened and come through virtue to Intellect and wisdom and through wisdom to that Good. This is the life of gods and of godlike and blessed men, deliverance from the things of this world, a life which takes no delight in the things of this world, escape in solitude to the solitary. (VI.9.11.45-51)
  16. I believe it would be a mistake to read “the life of gods and of godlike and blessed men” as a simple, factual description of the sage’s life, as an account of what it is like to be enlightened. This is rather a promise of a kind of experience--the experience of self-deconstruction--for which it is incumbent upon the philosopher to pray. The calm tone of Plotinus’ closing suggests as well that coming to see the work of philosophy as prayer is itself the sign of enlightenment.