Plotinus traveled to ancient Persia in order to understand more of Persian and Indian Philosophy. His philosophy very much resembles the Indian Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Let me interpret, using Advaitic texts, his use of the word ‘contemplation’ as used in the Enneads; specifically the Third Ennead: Eighth and Ninth Tractates (3.8 and 3.9). I will first make reference to some of the instances of Plotinus’s use of the word contemplation and then give a little background on the Advaita philosophy in order to explain Plotinus’ meaning of the word.
In 3.8.1, Plotinus says
…all things are striving after Contemplation, looking to Vision as their one end- and this, not merely beings endowed with reason but even the unreasoning animals,…
Well- in the play of this moment am I engaged in the act of Contemplation? Yes; I and all that enter this play are in Contemplation; our play aims at Vision; and there is every reason to believe that child or man, in sport or in earnest, is playing or working only towards Vision,…
The case of man will be treated later on,…first of the earth and of the trees and vegetation in general, asking ourselves what is the nature of Contemplation in them,…how Nature, held to be devoid of reason and even of conscious representation, can either harbor Contemplation or produce by means of Contemplation which it does not possess.
In 3.9.1 Plotinus goes further to define what is meant by the Intellectual-Principle (Divine Mind), the Intellectual Object, and who the contemplator is. By his argumentation, the contemplator is the Intellectual Object and
The Intellectual Object is the Intellectual-Principle itself in repose, unity, immobility: the Intellectual Principle, contemplator of that object- of the Intellectual-Principle thus in repose is an active manifestation of the same Being, an Act which contemplates its unmoved phase and, as thus contemplating, stands as Intellectual-Principle to that of which it has the intellection: it is Intellectual-Principle in virtue of having that intellection, and at the same time is Intellectual Object, by assimilation.
In the Advaita Vedanta, which was already a fully developed philosophy at the time of Plotinus, all is One, all is Brahman (the word Brahman does not refer to a particular ‘being’, it refers simply to something very large). But there are two aspects to the One. There is Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman; the first be the inactive principle – Brahman without attributes, the second the active principle- Brahman with attributes. But they are one and the same. The great Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p 343) said
The snake is a snake whether coiled up motionless or wiggles along.
Nirguna and Suguna Brahman are the same, they are just perceived in different aspects, the inactive and the active. Swami Vivekananda (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 2 p 192) says
…is the theory of Maya which says that It [Brahman] really has not become manifold, that It really has not lost any of Its real nature. Manifoldness is only apparent. Man is only apparently a person, but in reality he is the Impersonal Being [Plotinus’ Intellectual Object]. God is a person [Plotinus’ Intellectual-Principle- ‘Divine Mind’] only apparently, but really He is the Impersonal Being.
What is the ‘Vision’ that Plotinus says we and all living beings, even the unreasoning animals, etc. are striving for as the means to contemplation? And why “I and all that enter this play are in Contemplation; our play aims at Vision; and there is every reason to believe that child or man, in sport or in earnest, is playing or working only towards Vision”
First notice that Plotinus refers to this world as play, the Advaita often refers to this universe as the playground of God, it is merely His sport. There is no ‘why’ to the universe, it is all His sport. According to the Advaita, all beings will sooner or later become one with the Godhead, will attain oneness with Brahman; thus the theory of transmigration of souls (rebirth). All are rushing towards that goal whether they realize it or not. How is this achieved? It is achieved by the literal realization of our oneness with the Godhead, by literally seeing, realizing [Plotinus’ ‘Vision’] God. When one attains to the Godhead, one’s individual consciousness merges into the Godhead, one becomes One with God (Brahman, the impersonal principle). An Individual soul does this through thousands of lifetimes, and it is an unfolding of consciousness as a soul goes from plant to Godhead.
How can Nature, “harbor Contemplation etc.” Everything is Brahman. Brahman is Pure Consciousness. Everything is made up and from Brahman, therefore everything ‘harbors’ Contemplation. Brahman is both the material and efficient cause of the universe. Krishna says in the Gita (VII. 12.):
And whatever things there be—of the nature of sattva, rajas, and tamas*—know they are all from Me [Brahman] alone. I am not, however, in them; they are in Me.
*These are the three cosmic forces of the universe. They correspond to Logistikon, Thumos, and Epithumia in Plato’s Republic.
and in Gita (IX. 4-6.):
By Me [Brahman] in My Unmanifested form [Nirguna Brahman], are all things in this universe pervaded. All beings exist in Me, but I do not exist in them, And yet the beings do not dwell in Me—behold, that is my divine mystery. My Spirit, which is the support of all beings and the source of all things, does not dwell in them. As the mighty wind blowing everywhere ever rests in the akasa [space], know that in the same manner all beings rest in Me.
What then is Plotinus’ contemplation? Brahman, the Impersonal Principle (Plotinus’ Intellectual Object), is beyond time, space, and causation. There are no words to describe Brahman as all words are within time, space, and causation. The nearest description is Sat-Chid-Ananda, which literally means Absolute Existence - Absolute Knowledge – Absolute Bliss. Brahman is Pure Consciousness; but Brahman does not think, what will It think about, what is unknown to It? When we say that Brahman is Absolute Knowledge what is trying to be described is - Awareness. Plotinus in using the word Contemplation is trying to describe Pure Consciousness, Pure Awareness; consciousness and awareness of being without thought. All of nature is filled with Blissful Awareness. Since it is a timeless unwavering Awareness, it is described as Contemplation. Swami Vivekananda has described the word contemplation to mean “Continual attention to one object is contemplation.” When you see an image of Shiva/Shakti together (representing the Nirguna and Saguna aspects of Brahman) their eyes are oftentimes locked onto each other - representing the “Continual attention to one object” or Divine “Contemplation”.
Plotinus' Contemplation is the Divine Awareness of Itself.