Thinking your way up: Zeke Mazur’s radical new take on Plotinus’s mysticism

Last October, Brill had the distinct pleasure of publishing The Platonizing Sethian Background of Plotinus’s Mysticism by Dr Alexander ‘Zeke’ Mazur. Sadly, Dr Mazur passed away unexpectedly in 2016. His ambitious and ground-breaking doctoral research was made ready for publication by a group of Dr Mazur’s friends and fellow scholars: Dylan Burns, series editor for Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies, John Turner, Kevin Corrigan, Tuomas Rasimus, and Ivan Miroshnikov.

In this interview, Dylan Burns tells us more about this very special publication – and how complex scholarly monographs can contain deep and remarkable treasures of thought…

In his book, Dr Mazur delves into the thought of the late antique philosopher Plotinus, and his relationship to Gnosticism, focusing especially on the crucial concept of ‘mystical union’. Could you tell us a bit more about this concept of mystical union, and about the book’s central thesis?

Plotinus regarded Plato’s writings as authoritative and systematic. For Plotinus, Plato’s world of ideas is ultimate reality, and its root or source is the single first cause, “the One.” Through studying philosophy and the world of ideas, one can assimilate oneself to that heavenly world. However, the One is, by virtue of its absolute singularity, transcendent and impossible to conceive of in itself, since discursive thought presupposes subject-object distinctions (duality, the opposite of unity). Nonetheless, Plotinus maintained that it is possible for a soul to attain a sort of union with the One, and his disciple and biographer, Porphyry of Tyre, tells us that Plotinus did in fact enjoy this experience of union twice in his life.
Mazur gives a remarkable presentation of everything Plotinus wrote that has to do with the attaining union with the One. Moreover, he argues that Plotinus’s notions about this union with the One were developed in conversation with ancient Christian philosophers who called themselves ‘Gnostics’ (Grk. Gnōstikoi, “knowers”). Porphyry tells us that Plotinus’s seminar read and critiqued some Gnostic texts. Porphyry relates the titles of these texts, and we have discovered Gnostic treatises with conspicuous Neoplatonic features preserved in ancient Coptic (Egyptian) manuscripts—particularly the Nag Hammadi Codices, found in 1945. Some of these Platonizing, Coptic texts have titles closely recalling those mentioned by Porphyry. Naturally enough, then, Mazur uses the Nag Hammadi and related literature to re-interpret what Plotinus says about mystical union, and to give a better idea of where Plotinus was coming from (figuratively and literally!) when he wrote about mystical union with the One.

Why is this work so innovative? How do you think it might impact the future study of ancient philosophy and religion in a broader sense?

While Gnostic literature—and early Christian literature more widely—makes wide use of Greek philosophy, many historians of philosophy have been relatively uncurious about how Christian and Gnostic interpreters of the Greek philosophical tradition may have affected and transformed that tradition. Only very recently have respected historians of philosophy begun including early Christian thinkers as full participants and innovators in the history of ancient philosophy. We know that some of the earliest and most advanced Christian philosophers were Gnostics. So the Gnostics and the Coptic evidence we have for their thought are absolutely central to the project of investigating the contributions of early Christians to later Greek philosophy. Plotinus’s relationship with the Gnostics is ‘ground zero’ for such investigation.

What insights can study of the Nag Hammadi texts, and this book’s contribution to it in particular, offer us on religious practice – then and now?

The Nag Hammadi texts yield many insights about a diverse array of religious practices. A big one that Mazur’s book highlights is the seamless integration of ritual activity and philosophical reflection, often structured on mythologies. It’s not enough to think it; one has to do it. That thinking and doing needs a structure, and a very effective structure is that given by myth or narrative. Mazur explored Pierre Hadot’s influential notion of philosophy as 'spiritual exercises’ by examining how rituals from Gnostic, magical, and theurgic texts may help us understand Plotinus’s ideas about union with the One as not just speculative talk, but something one could perform.

What you say about thinking and doing, and myth providing the structure for ‘practised’ or ‘performed thought’ is thought-provoking. Can you give us an example of such a myth or narrative?

Mazur argues that there is a structural similarity between how both Plotinus and the Gnostics describe the divine as emerging in a kind of procession and self-reversion that culminates in a vision of itself, with the object of this vision being also an image or imprint of the divine. Human beings, so Mazur, possess some faint trace of this image or imprint, which permits a person to, on some level, experience and become identical with this reversion of the divine procession back to its primordial self. Plotinus explains the principles along the road to this experience in terms more amenable to the Greek philosophical tradition, while the Gnostic texts describe them in more concretely narrativized terms, often more with reference to biblical Scripture (the names of the ‘aeons’). Either way, one is ‘thinking one’s way up’ to the outer limits of thought, by backtracking along the path of the story of the emergence of thought itself.

So, how did Plotinus think his way up? How do the Gnostic texts help us to catch a glimpse of Plotinus’ own experience of mystical union with the One?

In a famous passage of the Enneads, Plotinus describes a sort of visualization exercise. The contemplator, he suggests, should close his or her eyes and visualize a giant, luminous sphere, and fill it with everything in the world he or she can think of. Then, one should begin to strip away mass from the contents of the sphere, one by one, eventually proceeding to empty the sphere of mass or matter itself. This gives one a sense of what the intelligible world - the world of Forms, of the mind - is like, and how one might 'see' it, with the 'eye' of the mind.
The importance of such an exercise for someone seeking to experience MUO (mystical union with the One, red.) is obvious. Mazur identifies a number of practices in Gnostic and magical texts from Plotinus's day that describe visualization exercises and practices involving light and vision. Plotinus, he argues, may have written about his own visualization practice in a philosophical context and so described it in largely theoretical terms, but there is a rich body of visionary, ritual literature regarding such techniques that, Mazur avers, were foundational to Plotinus's own practice.

When you read this work for the first time, ten years ago now, what struck you most about it?

When I first read Mazur’s Chicago dissertation, I was blown away by his deep knowledge of Plotinus and the entire Plotinian corpus, and the extremely nuanced way in which he had examined even minor turns of phrase and metaphors used by Plotinus in light of comparable data from the (Coptic) Gnostic corpus. He had managed to go through a huge amount of very obscure material and pick out just the right parts to make his case in a clear way.
Also, I was—and remain—impressed by how clear and comprehensive the dissertation was. In revising it for publication with Brill, the editorial team didn’t need to change any of the structure or arguments. It was already fully-developed.

How would you characterize Dr Mazur as a scholar?
Dr Mazur was committed to pioneering. He was always pushing and transgressing boundaries between disciplines and trajectories of investigation, especially those separating the study of ancient philosophy from that of ancient religion. His integrative approach to these subjects allowed him to really get at this material ‘from the inside’ in a way that is very rare. He was also a perfectionist.

In your preface to the book, you describe the book as a ‘Silenos’. Why did you use this metaphor?
In Plato’s Symposium - a dialogue that Plotinus and Mazur both loved — the character of Alcibiades describes Socrates as a ‘Silenos,’ a little statue of a satyr that has a treasure inside. Alcibiades’s point is that Socrates is not physically good-looking, but he is full of treasures, particularly his virtuous way of life. This book is a scholarly monograph: it has lots of technical language and footnotes. Yet despite its scholarly character, it is also full of treasures and insights from an author who lived what he wrote about.

Can you tell us something on how the publication of this book finally came about, and your personal involvement in this project?
Dr Mazur’s unexpected passage from this life was a shock to all who knew him. Those of us who were his colleagues as well as his friends always wanted to see his dissertation reach a wider scholarly audience in a proper, edited format. (Dr Mazur’s longtime mentor) Professor John Turner and I agreed in 2017 that Dr Mazur would have wanted his dissertation to be published as a book, given proper editorial care. So we gathered a wonderful team—the ‘friends of Zeke,’ also including Professor Kevin Corrigan, Dr Tuomas Rasimus, and Dr Ivan Miroshnikov—and set about giving it the polish that a publication needs. It was a labor of love.

Zeke Mazur's The Platonizing Sethian Background of Plotinus’s Mysticism was published by Brill in October 2020 in the series Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies.