The second stage – the Cataphatic – has purgative effects, but is more positive as one separates from reasoning itself. This can be compared to the more familiar experience of being so absorbed in reading or watching a movie that one is unaware one is reading a book or viewing a film. This stage breaks the barrier between self as knower and the object of knowing, by situating oneself at the interior of the object. At this point there is no reasoning, evaluating, or judging; only an absorbed state called pathema 5 The first and second stages lead “toward” but not “to” The One. The highest achievement in the second stage is still only envelopment in the Intellectual Principle.6 .
The third stage – Ekstasis – entails the intellect-free desire for or love of The One. By a path of introspection, our wish becomes “father to the thought,” that is a “sentiment overlaid with speculation.”7 Our soul as the source of desire, deploys the intellect and progressive eliminations so that we reach the point where there remains nothing but the assimilative capacity of intellect and where the soul becomes wholly unfettered and caught out of itself. At last the ego is penetrated by the One and fixed on the plentitude in which it shares.8 Plotinus tells us that, phenomenologically, this state is more a presence felt than a thing known – a union of the soul and the One, unconsciousness without vacuity – a stable perfect unitive.9 Other features or descriptions include self-surrender, simplicity, touching, “flight from the alone to the alone.”10 Plotinus tells us the ultimate experience of happiness for us is in this contemplation and union.
In his own words, Plotinus describes the experience and suggests its availability:
“Many times it has happened: Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentred; beholding a marvelous 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 in the Intellectual is less than the Supreme; yet, there comes the moment of descent from intellection to reasoning, and after that descending, 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.” (Enneads IV, 8, 1)11
The mystical description of ultimate reality and the path to union presented by Plotinus may appear utterly speculative and subjective to those of us more anchored to physical reality, science, and logic. The reader may wonder if I have entered this transcendental realm, and to answer candidly, I have not. Like you perhaps, I wonder if this is nothing more than ancient superstition. Nonetheless I believe the practical philosopher should entertain such seemingly far-flung practice, if only to be as sure as possible not miss out on what Plotinus would likely argue is the greatest meaning possible in human life. The reader will simply have to decide for himself or herself.
5O’Brien, Elmer, The Essential Plotinus.The New American Library, New York, N.Y., 1964, page 30
6Ibid., page 22.
7Ibid., page 31.
8Ibid., page 21.
9Ibid., page 31.
10Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 6, page 355.
18Ibid., page 26.
11Ayer, A.J. and O’Grady, Jane (editors), A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations. Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1994. ISBN 0-631-19478-9, page 355.