Aristotle's Poetics on Plotinus' Terms

Svetla Slaveva-Griffin

Florida State University

In Ennead VI.6 [34] Plotinus addresses a question which he leaves out from the Großschrift but which is, according to him, at the core of the architecture of the intelligible realm, i.e. what is number and what is its relation with multiplicity and infinity. The importance of this question is emphasized by the concluding argument of the treatise—that Number exists in the intelligible realm. Number supersedes the hypostases of Soul and Intellect and is "substance and actual activity of Being" as "this Being came into existence directly from the One" (Enn. VI.6.9.27-32). The ontologically defining role of Number in the intelligible realm is imitated in the sensible realm by the quantitatively limiting role of number, expressed in Multiplicity. As a matter of fact, Plotinus begins his exegesis of the concept of Number with a discussion of what Multiplicity is. The Pythagorean view of the evil of Multiplicity is the orthodox maxim against which, I will argue, Plotinus construes a new positive, and more Aristotelian, view of Multiplicity as a subject of Number and Beauty.

At Poetics 1450b Aristotle defines that "tragedy is mimesis of an action that is complete, whole, and of magnitude." A beautiful object, he continues, "whether an animal or anything else with a structure of parts, should have not only its parts ordered but also an appropriate magnitude: beauty consists in magnitude and order." In this paper I will examine the relationship between magnitude, order (cosmos), and beauty in Aristotle's definition of tragedy and Plotinus' view that "the universe is large and beautiful" as a result of the orderly magnitude of the universe (Enn. VI.6.1). The conceptual relation between the two passages, I argue, reveals that both Aristotle and Plotinus support the same teleological understanding of the completeness of a thing, regardless whether it is a tragedy or the universe. This completeness is achieved, however, by a reversed causation. While Aristotle considers that beauty requires magnitude which allows a coherent perception of the tragic plot (Poet. 1451a), Plotinus ascertains that "the universe needed beauty because it became large" (Enn. VI.6.1). For Aristotle, beauty consists of magnitude and order because a body can not be so small as it is impossible to discern its parts or so gigantic as it is impossible to contemplate its unity. For Plotinus, the beauty of the universe is found in the imposition of Number onto Multiplicity and Magnitude.

"But what is there dreadful about the magnitude" (Enn. VI.6.1), Plotinus asks. If a student of philosophy traces inwardly the origin of multiplicity to the One, he will perceive that there is nothing dreadful about the magnitude because "it has not been left to escape in infinity, but has been circumscribed by one." Magnitude, Plotinus concludes, "is the matter of beauty, because what needed ordered beauty was many" (Enn. VI.1.26). This ordered beauty, he proceeds to explain, is number which provides limit to multiplicity. Therefore Multiplicity, like the magnitude in Aristotle's definition of tragedy, is not evil because it, like a tragedy's plot, is unified and not allowed to be altogether multiplicity (Poet. 1451a and Enn. VI.6.2). As the beauty of the perfect tragedy is perceived only by the one who is enlightened by Aristotle's Poetics, so can only the mind's eye, Plotinus summarizes, comprehend the mighty beauty of this universe transcending from its intelligible source.

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