The Degrees of Virtue

∼ The Seven Degrees of Excellence ∼

The traditional Platonist, when comparing the majesty of the universe to the state of human life, sees a disjunction. The universe is orderly and natural, and the human being is full of contradictions and suffering, yet is endowed with the potential for greatness and serenity. The Philosopher attributes this to a fallen state of the soul, that is, that the soul has somehow lost her proper place in the divine scheme of things. What is needed therefore is for the soul to return to her natural station, and this returning is accomplished through the art of spiritual Philosophy.

According to the later Neoplatonists of antiquity (cf. Damaskios, Commentary on Plato's Phaedo), as the soul progresses toward her proper state, she passes through seven basic phases, each with its own defining characteristics. These phases are described as levels or degrees of virtue, virtue meaning the excellence of the soul, the wholeness of her being. As she refines herself, her new found excellence allows her to pass on to the next levels, to pass eventually pass from being simply human towards being divine.

These seven levels of Virtue are delineated by Damaskios:

  1. Physical (Natural) Excellence
  2. Ethical (Moral) Excellence
  3. Political (Civic) Excellence
  4. Cathartic (Purificatory) Excellence
  5. Theoretic (Contemplative) Excellence
  6. Paradigmic (Formal) Excellence
  7. Hieratic (Priestly) Excellence

(1) Natural Excellence

During the first stage on her return home, she must acquire enough of the physical virtues to allow her to organise the body, vivify it and operate it. However, as the body develops it offers her a presence in the material world of sensations. The skills needed to be developed at this point are those related to physical integrity, health and sensual acuity. These are, of course, adequate exercise and rest, a good diet, and proper hygiene.

(2) Moral Excellence

During the second stage of her growth, the soul begins to utilise the faculty of imagination, image-thinking. This generates for her both useful and dysfunctional fantasies and opinion about the world around her. She must acquire the moral virtues which allow her to function in that world by working within a family, combining the skills needed to integrate within the group and to maintain her rank.

(3) Civic Excellence

During the third stage, the soul must begin to utilise the faculty of reason to challenge useless and obstructive opinions and to produce good methods of functioning well in the world of the city (the polis).

(4) Purificatory Excellence

During the fourth stage, the soul functions well in the manifest world, but begins to realise there are better ways to live than what has been taught her. She begins to utilise her faculties of reason not just to sort through her opinions but to seek new and truthful ways of understanding the world. In short, she begins to question.

At this stage, she needs to develop the skills of logic and dialectics and the means to purify herself of false attachments and beliefs.

During this stage and the following, it is often very difficult for the soul to operate well in the world. Her attention is elsewhere now.

(5) Contemplative Excellence

During the fifth stage, the soul has purified herself a great deal. She begins to utilise her faculty of intuition or intellect. She begins to contemplate the realities of things.

During contemplation, the soul may experience unions with the higher divine realities. These are magnificent, but they are not the final union, and the seeker must not stop in her divine study.

(6) Formal Excellence

During the fifth stage, the soul has learned to contemplate, even concerning the One. But what is next? She discovers that she is more than a soul, she is also an intellect. She needs theurgy ("divine work") to join with the Divine more fully, to work with the Sacred to enlighten her being and fulfil her purpose in incarnating.

Theurgy is different from religion. Religion is the motions, and is practised by people at all stages of the path. Theurgy is the operation of the soul in harmony with the operation of the body.

(7) Priestly Excellence

At the seventh stage, she has participated with the Divine. She actualised the One of her soul, and she can now unite fully with the Sacred, becoming one with it through her essence. She has now attained complete integration with the Real.

This is different from the first unions. Here there is true integration.

It was the contemplative intellect after her work of theurgy that integrated all the parts of the soul under the Divine, that finally allowed the One of the soul to shine. It is through theurgy that the soul can finally fulfil her purpose, which was to bring the divine attributes into the creation of the Demiurge. Saintly, she becomes the divine shining in the world. She becomes the sacred presence for those who are yet to travel the Path themselves.

The Seeker is now not happy, she is happiness.

When the soul reaches this apex, she discovers the truth of things. And what she learns is that the truth, like the One itself, it is bathed in holy silence.