The Four Principles and Neo-Platonic Philosophy

The hierarchy and interconnection of the Principles are partly elucidated through the correspondences which Yeats discerned with Plotinus’s concept of the Authentic Existents, taken from MacKenna’s translation of the Enneads. The first proper study of this relationship was put forward by Rosemary Puglia Ritvo in “A Vision B: The Plotinian Metaphysical Basis”, and a shorter piece on “Plotinus’s Third Ennead and Yeats’s A Vision (1925)”.

Plotinus proposes three Hypostases of God, each progressively ‘inferior’ but still fully divine:

  • the One or Absolute,
  • the Divine-Mind or Intellectual-Principle and
  • the All-Soul or Universal Soul,
    • The One is both the source and the goal of existence, but ‘transcends all the knowable. . . . even the quality of Being’.
    • The Intellectual-Principle (nous) is the mediating, highest knowable reality, which acts and which MacKenna sometimes finds it more appropriate to denominate by ‘the term spirit’. (Conversely, when Yeats asked his Instructors, concerning the Principle of Spirit, ‘would mind do instead of "spirit"’, he was told that a better alternative would be ‘The greek Nous — mind is wrong’ [YVP 2 289].)
    • The All-Soul, the principle of Life, has two aspects, the first of which contemplates the higher Hypostases as ‘the Celestial Soul’ and the second of which, ‘the Nature-Looking and Generative Soul’, works ‘to generate or fashion the lower, the material Universe upon the model of the Divine-Thoughts, the ‘Ideas’ laid up in the Divine-Mind: this lower principle of the Soul is sometimes called the Logos of the Universe, or the ‘Reason-Principle’ of the Universe’.

MacKenna summarises Plotinus’s system as a ‘system of necessary Emanation, Procession, or Irradiation accompanied by necessary Aspiration or Reversion-to-Source: all the forms and phases of Existence flow from the Divinity and all strive to return thither and to remain there’. This process of successive stages of outpouring and return would certainly have been familiar to Yeats from Cabbalistic doctrine concerning the Sephirothic emanations of God, though in both systems the goal toward self-extinguishing reunion with the One would have been less than attractive to Yeats’s personal bias.

In A Vision A Yeats takes a rather Procrustean approach to Plotinus’s ideas in order to produce a fourth term, Nature, and, though he dispenses with this in A Vision B, there he gives no explanation of what the ‘Authentic Existants’ (sic) are, so that his comments do not necessarily help the reader as much as they could. The wording in AV A is probably clearer, though couched in qualification: ‘I am inclined to discover in the Celestial Body, the Spirit, the Passionate Body, and the Husk, emanations from or reflections from his One, his Intellectual Principle, his Soul of the World, and his Nature respectively’ (AV A 176), but in AV B the situation is considerably more complex, and shows significant rethinking. Yeats continues to identify Plotinus’s First Authentic Existent (the One) with his Celestial Body and the Second Authentic Existent (the Intellectual-Principle) with his Spirit, however the Third Authentic Existent (the All-Soul) is now identified with ‘the discarnate Daimons, or Ghostly Selves’, and this presumably corresponds to the All-Soul’s higher aspect of the Celestial Soul, contemplating the two other hypostases. In the All-Soul’s ‘Nature-Looking’ aspect Yeats discerns three separate elements: ‘Plotinus has a fourth condition which is the Third Authentic Existant reflected first as sensation and its object (our Husk and Passionate Body), then as discursive reason (almost our Faculties)’ (AV B 194). The formulation ‘first . . . then . . .’ implies that Yeats chooses to view the Husk and Passionate Body as cognate with the Generative Soul, fashioning the incarnate man, and to separate this aspect from that of the Logos or discursive reason of the Faculties. However, in Plotinus they are the same active principle seen differently, and this may also be true of Yeats’s conception, since the Faculties are most directly moulded through the Husk, though each is informed by its corresponding Principle.

This ‘fourth condition’ may, however, derive from Plotinus’s reflections on the nature of man and indicate either an element of conscious conflation or of confusion on Yeats’s part. The Plotinian term, ‘discursive reason’ (AV B 194), which Yeats uses for the reflection of the All-Soul and which almost corresponds to his Faculties, is used in MacKenna’s translation to refer to the activity of the second human soul. For Plotinus, man’s soul is a part of the All-Soul, but a limited, circumscribed part, and itself seen in three phases or modes: the quasi-divine Intellective-Soul, the humane Reasoning-Soul and the animal Unreasoning-Soul. (Yeats appears to have relied quite heavily on MacKenna’s summary, in Plotinus Vol. 1, 122 ff., from which the following quotations are taken.)

  • The Intellective-Soul is entirely separate from the body and ‘not perceived by the Man except when, by a life of philosophical morality (Sanctity or Sagehood), he has identified his entire being with this his highest principle’ and becomes god-like.
  • In general humanity the Reasoning-Soul dominates: it ‘is separable from the body but not separated. Its Act is "Discursive-Reasoning"; it knows, not in the instantaneous, unmediated, entirely adequate True-Knowing of the First soul but step by step, arriving by the way of doubt and of logic at a knowledge which is even at best imperfect’ and implicitly it is in this Act that Yeats discerns the Faculties. One of the inferior results of this discursive reasoning, ‘doxa’, is translated by MacKenna sometimes as ‘Sense-Knowing or Sense-Knowledge’, which finds echoes in Yeats’s formulation of the Husk and Passionate Body. The Reasoning-Soul ‘also possesses the three faculties known as Will, Intellectual-Imagination, and Intellectual-Memory’, and the latter two ‘deal with the intellectual element of sensation, presenting sensations, as it were, to the higher faculty for judgement and for the uses of the semi-divine life of the philosophic Man’, raising the possibility that Yeats might have seen his own Faculties in these aspects of the Reasoning-Soul and, further, his Principles in Plotinus’s Intellective-Soul, since these sift the sensual intelligence provided by the Faculties.
  • The Unreasoning-Soul is conjoined with the body and is expressed through ‘the Sensible (or sense-grasping) imagination and sensible Memory, the appetites rooted in the flesh, passivity or the faculty of sensation, and the vegetative, nutritive, and generative faculties’.

If the Unreasoning-Soul has any correspondence with Yeats’s thinking, it is closest to the Husk and Passionate Body or to the Husk alone. This raises the further possibility that the Intellective-Soul might be seen as Spirit or Spirit joined to Celestial Body, the Reasoning-Soul as Passionate Body or Passionate Body joined to Spirit. Such speculation on categorisations may be fruitless, in so far as Yeats himself does not use these analogies, but they show the terms which he was reading and it is clear from marginalia, diaries and letters that in all of his reading he was in part searching for clarification of his own construct, and to see how other systems conformed with his own anatomy of the human condition: ‘but then there are many symbolisms and none exactly resembles mine’ (PEP 33).

Even if Plotinian correspondences are discarded as unhelpful and confusing, or of marginal interest, the implicit connections, which they helped Yeats to construct, between his Four Principles are important, particularly in the expression given by the following diagram:

The Plotinian Existents and the Principles, AV B 194AV B 194, adapted, with circle at base of second triangle, after McDowell
The Plotinian Existents and the Principles AV B 194, and adapted form, after McDowell

In the diagram it seems that Passionate Body takes the place of ‘the discarnate Daimons, or Ghostly Selves’ as the element which corresponds to Plotinus’s Celestial Soul, while the Husk takes on the aspect of the Generative Soul, so that McDowell is justified in taking the view that ‘the upper triangle represents the spiritual, while the lower triangle represents the material’, with the ‘Husk encompassing the Four Faculties’, which is also consistent with the Plotinian formulation that the Logos is the Generative Soul in a different guise. Since the Faculties face each other across the circle of the tinctures, in a different plane to the Principles, McDowell is also certainly right to posit that the base of the material triangle makes it a cone (see ‘To "Beat Upon the Wall"’ YA 4 225). As for the upper triangle, the triangle, with or without rays coming from it, is an established symbol of the Christian Trinity, and Yeats does allow for Christian identifications, through the character of Owen Aherne in A Vision A (AV A 236), and himself mentions ‘the Holy Ghost of Christianity’ as an alternative for Plotinus’s Third Authentic Existent in A Vision B (AV B 194). This is very much a personal form of the Trinity, humanised as it were, and like deity also has the perfect unitary form of the sphere: ‘the Principles . . . are, when invoked from the point of view of the Faculties, a sphere’ (AV B 89).

Although the upper triangle implies some equality between the Second and Third Authentic Existents, and between the Spirit and the Passionate Body, neither Plotinus’s hierarchy nor Yeats’s own formulations fully justify such a conclusion, since the All-Soul by definition contemplates the higher Intellectual-Principle from below, and the Passionate Body should be shed between incarnate lives whereas the Spirit passes from one to the next. However, since these are the informing principles of the two tinctures, there is a sense in which they are, at least from this perspective, equal. In this formulation, therefore, the Passionate Body is seen as being more fully part of the total spiritual being and is permanent in potential, even if temporary in manifestation and specific to a single Phase of incarnation. Husk is the more closely identified with it, as proceeding directly from it, though in a different kind of manifestation, and it also appears to synthesise the tinctures, which are the reflected influences of Passionate Body and Spirit. Though Husk, at the apex of the triangle or cone of the tinctures, therefore defines the tinctures as the goals of the senses, the antinomy itself is formed through the double reflection of the Intellectual-Principle or Spirit on the one hand and the All-Soul or Passionate Body on the other. The Spirit’s nature is to seek unity in the Celestial Body, the Absolute or One, while the Passionate Body’s nature is to seek novelty and individuation in experience, to ‘save the Celestial Body from solitude’ (AV B 189; cf. AV A 176), and the tinctures therefore reflect these antagonistic impulses in their interplay. In effect, therefore, Plotinus’s thought helped Yeats to create a construct in which the Passionate Body, though ‘inferior’ to the Spirit because of its transience, is equally spiritual and equal in its reflection into one of the tinctures. Since Passionate Body is vitally important to the creative artist, as Spirit is to the intellectual philosopher (viz L 714), this rearrangement was personally important to Yeats, not just as an esoteric sleight of hand but a genuine evaluation of the Principles’ relations to one another.

Linear hierarchy, though an important element, is not the whole, since ‘a system symbolising the phenomenal world as irrational because a series of unresolved antinomies, must find its representation in a perpetual return to the starting-point. The resolved antinomy appears not in a lofty source but in the whirlpool’s motionless centre, or beyond its edge’ (AV B 195). Plotinus’s hierarchy can also be expressed as concentric circles, the Intellectual-Principle holding the point of the One within ‘its moveless circle’ and the All-Soul holding the Intellectual-Principle within ‘its moving circle’ (AV B 194), and the Cabbalists’ Tree of Life can be portrayed as a linear descent or an expanding ripple to illustrate differing aspects of its nature, so also Yeats’s Principles and Faculties can be regarded in terms of cascading waterfalls or gyring whirlpools, since the ‘whirlpool is an antithetical symbol, the descending water a primary’ (AV B 195). If the ultimate reality of the System is in most senses primary, since Spirit is the determining Principle, and is therefore hierarchical, the antithetical aspect is still essential to human experience, where the irrational vortex dominates. Since all of the Principles are Solar/primary in relation to the Faculties, it is as if the Principles cascade downwards, into a pool at the bottom, where they create a whirlpool, the Faculties’ vortex. Yet such an image is also simplistic, since the Principles themselves are to some extent bound up with the gyres.

See Charles Armstrong's article "Ancient Frames" in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012).
This title is available for free download here or here from Clemson University Press (click here if seems the link may have changed). It is also accessible online via Liverpool Scholarhip Online and University Press Scholarship Online (simplest to search on "Yeats" and "Vision"; direct link functional April 2016), though this is by subscription or through a library.



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Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.