Culture Corner

Comparing Ancient and Contemporary Ideas of Time: The Writings of Plotinus and Carlo Rovelli

Bernie Langs

Plotinus, The Enneads, Penguin Classics; (November 5, 1991), 688 pages, paperback
Rovelli, Carlo, The Order of Time, Riverhead Books; (May 8, 2018), 256 pages, hardcover

Plotinus (A.D. 204-270) founded the school of Neoplatonism and selections of his work, The Enneads, reveal his ideas which blend the thoughts of Aristotle, Plato, and other schools of ancient Greek philosophy. If one has read some of the works of Plato, Aristotle, and great thinkers of the Pre-Socratic school, The Enneads is highly approachable and understandable. The powerful and enlightening insights delivered by The Enneads complete an ancient system of thought as well and serve as a new beginning of spiritual mysticism. The book contains hints of the Christian philosophy that would soon flourish after the passing of Plotinus. Plotinus may have been exposed to many other religions and mystic ideas during his time in Rome.

Plotinus centers his philosophy on three levels. The first level or the One, also known as The Good, The Transcendent, or The Absolute, is indescribable, much like the name of God in the Pentateuch or Old Testament. Nothing can be said about it and it has no body, history, shape, or presence in our world, yet is the source of all. The second level is The Intellectual-Principle or Intelligence and Divine-Thought, acting as a go-between between The One and the third level, The All-Soul. The latter is where our physical universe and the life-forms on Earth exist. The beings at the lowest level are created by the second as a mirror image, a stamped second-tier impression of the pure Essence originating from the first. The first level is well-known in philosophy as the Platonic Forms, and it renders all we know and see in our own world as imperfect reflections. I’ve always had a problem accepting the unquestioned reality of ideal Forms, and Plotinus’ work revolves heavily around a more detailed and philosophically agreeable use of the concept.

The editors of the Penguin edition of The Enneads introduce the book’s Seventh Tractate by stating that it is of importance as the only extended discussion in ancient philosophy of the theory of Time, apart from that of Aristotle in Physics. Early in 2019, I read a fantastic book, The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli, on the current state of the study of time in physics, related to his own research conducted as the director of the quantum gravity group at the Centrede Physique Théorique at the Aix-Marseille University. He is considered to be one of the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory. Rovelli embellishes his highly readable journey on the history of the study of time by peppering the short work with quotes and summaries not only by those studying physics and other relevant scientific fields, but poets, writers, religious leaders, and modern and ancient philosophers. Noticeably absent, however, is a mention of Plotinus and his important tractate on the subject.

On a mission to see where Rovelli bridges mathematical  theories with those of humanistic and philosophical Time, I reread the chapter on Time by Plotinus and much of the book by Rovelli. As I read Plotinus, I understood that one has to allow for a high level of speculative thinking in approaching his concepts. The basis of ancient Greek scientific thought presented, for example, by Aristotle or in older works describing a world resting on an invisible atomic substructure, was often created from the sheer intuitive process of these thinkers of the time. Rovelli gives many nods to this idea, writing, “The ability to understand something before it’s observed is at the heart of scientific thinking,” and gives examples of this by citing the works of Anaximander, Copernicus, and Einstein. Yet, Rovelli argues many times in his book that we can’t trust these instincts. For example, he writes the following about Einstein’s realization that time was slowed down by speed: “The consequence of this discovery for our basic intuitive perception of time is the most devastating of all.” In addition, there are many intuitive ideas that a modern scientist deems worthy of detailed exploration as compared to those that are often regarded as spiritual or philosophical in nature, dismissed from the start for initiating any objective and rational follow-up and pursuit.

Rovelli is on an exciting mission to spread the newly discovered truths about time and use the study of physics to educate and end the common and popular misconception that time is linear. Time does not move, using my own analogy here, like film flowing through an old projector system, passing through the light of the camera’s lens for one immeasurable moment of the now, and with no possibility of return or vision of what will be shown in future frames. Instead, Rovelli makes the case for the nonlinearity of time. He quotes the poet René Rilke on this subject, “The eternal current/Draws all the ages along with it…” and describes how we grab on to the idea of persistent time, its slippage and “anxiety about the future.” But the reality is in the elementary laws that describe the mechanisms of the world, where there is no such difference between past and future or cause and effect. The Order of Time is at its best when it lays out for the non-specialist reader the history of time in physics, from the disconnect between Aristotle’s and Newton’s theories to the groundbreaking discoveries of Einstein and discussions on subjects and areas of study such as entropy, gravity, the second principle of thermodynamics, and many others.

Rovelli’s area of study is loop gravity, and it works without a variable of time in its equations. His research focuses on the fields that form matter, photons, electrons, subatomic particles, and gravitational fields: “all on the same level and seeking only a coherent description of the world as we understand it so far.” In this world, time and space are no longer containers or general forms of the world and act as approximations of quantum dynamics which itself knows neither space nor time. He states it is representative of a world of “only events and relations. It is a world without time of elementary physics.”

The Order of Time describes how Plato had the “excellent” idea to translate mathematics and physics using atomists’ (i.e. Democritus) insights. Rovelli notes, “But he [Plato] goes about it the wrong way: he tries to write the mathematics of the shape of atoms, rather than the mathematics of their movements.” He also states that “For a long time, we have tried to understand the world in terms of some primary substance. Perhaps physics, more than any other discipline, has pursued this primary substance. But the more we have studied it, the less the world seems comprehensible in terms of something that is. It seems to be a lot more intelligible in terms of relations between events.”

Plotinus is in agreement with Rovelli that the world of substance is not to be trusted as a source of anything absolute in terms of knowledge or fact. He would never pursue a study of a “primary substance,” as Rovelli says physics has mistakenly done in the past, since he believes it to exist only in the unreachable realm of Forms and that’s all that we as humans comprehend of it. Plotinus also notes that the study of movement has nothing to do with Time, and that the observer of movement has nothing to do without Time outside of being a convenient tool of measure.

Another concordance between Plotinus and Rovelli is that language in itself will always be an imperfect conduit in describing ultimate theories, whether it be The One or a “theory of everything,” a belief in a single quantum equation that ties all fields in a neat packaging. Plotinus writes, “Let them [beings] have it [Time], present to them and running side by side with them, and they are by that very fact incomplete; completeness is attributed to them only by an accident of language” and “[Eternity] can have no contact with anything quantitative since its Life cannot be made a thing of fragments…it must be without parts in the Life as in the essence.”

Rovelli and Plotinus are both in agreement that there is no difference in past, present and future, with the latter saying in terms of physics, “Being can have no this and that; it cannot be treated in terms of intervals, unfoldings, progression, extension; there is no grasping any first or last in it” and “The Primals, on the contrary, in their state of blessedness have no such aspiration towards anything to come: they are whole, now…therefore, seek nothing, since there is no future to them, nothing eternal to them in which futurity could find lodgement.”

The Enneads strays farthest from any semblance of what would be thought of today as recognizable scientific study in its systematic and unwavering belief of how and why this world exists. Plotinus writes, “Time, as noted by Plato, sprang into Being simultaneously with the Heavenly system, a reproduction of Eternity, its image in motion, Time necessarily unresting as the Life with which it must keep pace: and ‘coeval with the Heavens because it is this same Life (of the Divine Soul) which brings the Heavens into being; Time and the Heavens are the work of the one Life.” Science, with good cause, prefers the mathematic study of “infinity” over speculative notions of an “Eternal”. Plotinus writes that we, as human souls, must attempt to rediscover our vision of and relationship with the realm of Forms, a perfect Good, a beacon appearing only in our Intellect through study and Buddhist-like meditational transcendence. For Plotinus, concepts such as the Eternal don’t offer much towards revelation—they are ideas to ponder while trying to reach that higher plane of pure unwavering perfection, which knows no Eternity.

Rovelli writes how he agrees with the late philosopher of science, Hans Reichenbach, that, “in order to escape from the anxiety time causes us…we have imagined the existence of ‘eternity,’ a strange world outside of time that would like to be inhabited by gods, by a God, or by immortal souls….The opposite emotional attitude, the veneration of time – Heraclitus, or Bergson – has given rise to just as many philosophies, without getting us any nearer to understanding what time is. Physics helps us to penetrate the layers of that mystery…the hope of being able to study the nature of time free from the fog caused by our emotions.”

That said, all of Rovelli’s philosophical quotes and anecdotes are truly poetically placed in his book so the reader knows he’s not just a physicist in an ivory tower with knowledge of what only concerns his area of study. He’s a man of the wider world and has read a vast number of books in the humanities. I came to believe during my second reading of The Order of Time that he may actually believe that many of these works offer little in terms of the hard science of physics on time outside of their importance in the historical narrative of misconceptions on the subject.

Towards the end of the book Rovelli notes, “The vision of reality and the collective delirium that we have organized has evolved and has turned out to have worked reasonably well in getting us to this point,” and in closing his work says, “And it seems to me that life, this brief life, is nothing other than this: the incessant cry of these emotions that drive us, that we sometimes attempt to channel in the name of a god, a political faith, in a ritual that reassures us that, fundamentally, everything is in order, in a great boundless love – and the cry is beautiful.” I would beg to differ. Our “collective delirium” has been the source of the deaths of tens of millions of people (see the wars of the 20th century alone) and that our emotional “beautiful cry” is far too often more one of pain than glory. It is unrealistic to believe that science will ever cast a wider net when choosing which of the intuitions of philosophy it deems worthy of research, especially given philosophy’s close relationship to the fool’s gold so often offered up by the schools of theology. After all, Plotinus himself admits that we can say nothing more about The One outside of that it exists and should be strived for internally through Intellect. There’s nothing there to study at length, and no purpose would be served in “locating” the primary level since it’s more of an invisible axiom than a tangible theorem in space or time. Yet it has purpose as a vital pursuit, one that could well serve as a motivator in the back of the mind of any individual seeking a wider understanding and awareness of the world.

Plotinus may have introduced in his Tractate on Time an early inkling of the concept of the multiverse, and it is a hopeful one at that. He writes, “Thus when the universe has reached its term, there will be a fresh beginning, since the entire Quantity which the Cosmos is to exhibit, every item that is to emerge in its course, all is laid up from the first in the Being that contains the Reason-Principles…There is nothing alarming about such limitlessness in generative forces and in Reason-Principles, when Soul is there to sustain all. As in Soul (principle of Life) so in Divine Mind (principle of Idea) there is this infinitude of recurring generative powers; the Beings there are unfailing.”