Plotinus - An Introduction to the Enneads

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Plotinus - An Introduction to the Enneads

    O'Meara, Dominic J. Professeur Ordinaire, Chaire de Métaphysique et de Philosophie Antique, University of Fribourg


    An Introduction to the Enneads

    Print ISBN 0198751478, 1995


     Introduction: Plotinus' Life and Works 1

    1. Soul and Body 12

    2. The Relation between Sensible and Intelligible Reality 22

    3. Soul, Intellect, and the Forms 33

    4. Intellect and the One 44

    5. Speaking of the One 54

    The Derivation of All Things from the One (I) 60 6.

    The Derivation of All Things from the One (II) 70 7.

    8. Evil 79

    9. Beauty 88

    10. The Return of Soul: Philosophy and Mysticism 100

     Epilogue: Plotinus in Western Thought 111

     Guide to Further Reading 120

     Bibliography 127

     Index of Plotinian Texts 137

     Index of Terms and Themes 140

    end p.xi


    This book is intended to be of service to the reader who, if not unfamiliar with ancient Greek philosophy, does not know Plotinus at first hand and would like to read his work. Today many paths lead back to Plotinus. Our increasing interest in late antiquity, a period of history of great importance for Western culture, brings us to the philosophers who made a major creative contribution to the period, Plotinus and his successors (they are labelled today collectively as 'Neoplatonists'). The historian of philosophy is more aware than ever before that the Neoplatonists shaped ancient philosophy as it was transmitted to (and established) philosophy in the Islamic and Byzantine worlds and in the West of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. The history of theology, literature, and art in the same periods and 1 places is also marked by Plotinus' ideas. 1 For more details see below, Epilogue.

    Finally modern philosophers' interests have changed to the point where they no longer hesitate to look beyond the traditional sources of inspiration in antiquity that are Plato and Aristotle. Our improved understanding of Plotinus shows him to be a far more challenging philosopher than would have been suspected a few generations ago.

    The most important event in the progress of modern work on Plotinus was the publication of the first scientific edition of his works by Paul Henry and Hans-Rudolph Schwyzer in 1951-73. Essential research was also done during this time (mostly in France and Germany) on Plotinus' philosophical background. In the English-speaking world serious work on Plotinus was pioneered by A. Hilary Armstrong, whose translation (1966-88), accompanied by the HenrySchwyzer edition (slightly revised),

    has at last made available a complete, reliable, and clear English version of Plotinus. Excellent

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    systematic accounts and analytical discussions of Plotinus are also available now in 2 English. 2 See 'Guide to Further Reading', preliminary section.

    However the reader, despite this major progress, may still find Plotinus' writings difficult of access. In this book I try to make the first approach to the texts less daunting.

    For reasons given below in the Introduction I have taken in the following chapters a number of philosophical questions (often traditional in Greek philosophy) and attempt to show how Plotinus, in selected treatises, discusses these questions in relation to the views of his predecessors and argues for his own position. My hope is that this approach will bring the reader nearer to the actual text of Plotinus' treatises while giving some idea of the thinking that led Plotinus to elaborate his philosophy. I have arranged the chapters in such a way that the later chapters presuppose ideas first introduced in the earlier chapters. Thus the sequence of chapters is conceived more as a way of preparing the approach of the reader to Plotinus than as representing some order in Plotinus' works or world. Wherever possible I quote passages from Plotinus, in my translation, inserting in square brackets information needed for a better understanding of these passages. By using terminology close to that adopted by Armstrong, I hope to facilitate the use of this book in conjunction with his translation.

    My colleagues in the field may find that some matters are oversimplified here or even omitted; in my defence I can only remind them of the purpose of the book, which is not intended as a contribution to specialized research. However I have tried sometimes to convey an impression of the problems that arise when one looks at 3 Plotinus more closely. 3 In general I have avoided the use of scholarly annotation. The reader will find in the 'Guide to Further

    Reading' (below) additional references to Plotinian texts and indications concerning modern discussion of the texts.

    If anything the uninitiated reader might sometimes feel that parts of the book are rather complicated and abstract. It is difficult to see how this can be entirely avoided without giving a misleading idea of the philosopher.

    A sabbatical grant from the University of Fribourg made completion of this book possible. For very helpful, detailed, and often stimulating comments I am greatly indebted to A. H.

    end p.viii

    Armstrong, E. Emilsson, J. O'Meara, and Oxford University Press's reader. D.J.O'M.

    Fribourg, Switzerland

    October 1991

    end p.ix

    Introduction Plotinus' Life and Works

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    Dominic J. O'Meara

    We depend for practically all of what we know about Plotinus' life and works on the labours of one of his pupils, Porphyry. Porphyry's Life of Plotinus (or Vita Plotini), one

    of the most interesting of ancient biographies to survive, is the principal source of information about Plotinus' life. Porphyry placed it at the beginning of his edition of Plotinus' works and it is this edition (the Enneads) which prevailed in antiquity and

    which we have inherited. Porphyry published the Life and Enneads at the beginning

    of the fourth century AD , some thirty years after Plotinus' death. He was already 30 years of age and highly educated in literature and philosophy when he became a member of Plotinus' circle in Rome in 263. His devotion to Plotinus, then and after, did not exclude his having his own interests. These interests shape his biography and edition of Plotinus, defining how we should read the life and writings of his master. We would do well then to take account of the point of view of our guide as he gives us access to the exceptional person and philosopher whom he felt so privileged to know.

    1. Plotinus' Life

    One of Porphyry's aims in writing the Life of Plotinus is to show that he had been

    entrusted by the master with the task of editing his works (Life, chs. 7, 24). Other

    pupils had prepared editions of various sorts, Amelius (100 volumes of notes!) and Eustochius. But Porphyry wishes to impose his edition as the 'authorized' version. He also sees himself as the focus around which revolved the actual

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    writing of the works. The twenty-one treatises Plotinus composed between 254 and 263 (i.e. before Porphyry's arrival) are, Porphyry suggests, immature, whereas those written after Porphyry's departure from Rome in 269 show decline (Life, 6. 28-37).

    While this piece of self-glorification on Porphyry's part is absurdPlotinus was not an

    immature youth but in his fifties in 254-63 and the works he composed after Porphyry's departure are far from showing declineit does seem likely that Porphyry,

    being more of a literary man than Plotinus, encouraged his master to write more. And indeed the treatises written in and after 263 (e.g. Ennead VI. 4-5) show great

    freedom and depth as compared with the rather stiff and didactic pieces that Plotinus had written before.

    Porphyry has another purpose in the Life: to prepare the reader for approaching

    Plotinus' treatises. He does this, not only by providing useful background information about Plotinus and his works, but also by portraying Plotinus as the ideal philosopher. This portrait is intended to inspire and guide us as we begin our reading of the Enneads, as we take, that is, our first steps toward wisdom. The ideal is Porphyry's, not Plotinus'. This creates a revealing tension between the facts about Plotinus reported by Porphyry and the ideal that Porphyry wants these facts to exemplify. We might consider the following cases.

    The Life begins as follows: 'Plotinus, the philosopher who was our contemporary, seemed to be ashamed that he was in the body. It is because of this attitude that he could not bear to speak about his race, his parents, and his native land.' To grasp what is at stake here we should notice that, according to ancient literary theory, Porphyry ought to have begun the description of his hero by dealing with the hero's race, parents, and native land. Porphyry knew this, but his ambitions as biographer were frustrated by Plotinus' silence. Already at the start the biographer's intentions are at odds with his subject's attitudes. How account for Plotinus' silence? Porphyry finds a philosophical explanation: it was because Plotinus seemed to be ashamed that he was in the body. However, shame is not an attitude to the body characteristic of Plotinus (see below Ch. 8 s. 4, Ch. 9).

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    The tension between the biographer and his subject can also be felt when Porphyry seeks to invest his ideal philosopher with divine powers, divine inspiration, and a quasi-religious, magical aura. He reports that a certain Olympius of Alexandria in Egypt, having attempted to use magic against Plotinus, asserted that the power of Plotinus' soul was so great that the attack was repelled. When an Egyptian priest

    evoked Plotinus' guardian spirit in the temple of Isis in Rome, it turned out to be no mere spirit but a god (ch. 10)! This image of Plotinus is given divine confirmation by the oracle of Apollo obtained after Plotinus' death by Amelius (ch. 22). What are we to make of all this? Who are Porphyry's sources for the story about Olympius and for the episode in the temple of Isis? What could Plotinus do about an oracle conferred on him after he was dead? Both Amelius and Porphyry were very much taken with religious movements, ritual, and oracles of all sorts. Plotinus did not share these interests:

    Amelius became keen on sacrificial rites and went out doing the rounds of the temples at the New Moon and the religious feasts. He once wanted to take Plotinus with him, but Plotinus said, 'they [the gods] should come to me, not I to them'. We were not able to understand what he might have meant with such grand words and we did not dare to ask him. (Life, 10. 33-8)

    Although Amelius and Porphyry were among Plotinus' most dedicated and closest pupils, we should not assume that they always represented the views of their teacher. In the present instance it is clear that neither Amelius nor Porphyry understood Plotinus' attitude to religion and its rites. We must bear this in mind as we read what Porphyry tells us in the Life.

    Let us turn to some of the biographical facts given by the Life. Porphyry tells us that

    Plotinus died at the age of 66 in 270, which gives an approximate birth date of 204. He reports that Plotinus took up the study of philosophy at the age of 28 in Alexandria in Egypt. He was inspired by one teacher in particular, Ammonius Sakkas (about whom we know very little), and stayed with him for eleven years (ch. 3). He then joined the military expedition under the Emperor Gordian III against the Persians (242). (Porphyry says that

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    he wanted to become acquainted with Persian and Indian wisdom, but this is a standard motif in ancient biographies of sages.) In the course of the expedition the emperor was murdered by his own soldiers (244). Plotinus escaped to Antioch and went on to Rome where he settled.

    These facts can be fleshed out in various ways. It is not unlikely that Plotinus was an Egyptian of strong Hellenic culture. As a young man in Alexandria and later throughout his life in Rome Plotinus found himself in a world that went from one profound crisis to another. The great age of the Roman Empire, an age of political stability, military security, and economic and social development, had ended with the Severan dynasty (193-235). Plotinus witnessed a succession of emperors whose reigns, usually a matter of months, routinely ended in assassination: the murder of Gordian III is one in a long series. Continuing civil war accompanied unrelenting and frequently catastrophic invasions of the empire from Persia and Northern Europe. This brought serious damage to agriculture, food shortages, frequent epidemics, depopulation, interruption of trade, serious inflation, heavy taxation, increasing militarization of the administration. Such was the psychological stress that all of this brought that we can speak with E. R. Dodds of this period as an 'age of anxiety'. Plotinus' participation in the expedition against the Persians is very curious. What were his functions? He was hardly a soldier or a gentleman volunteer such as another philosopher, Descartes, would later be. Perhaps Plotinus acted as a court philosopher of the sort Roman emperors sometimes liked to have in their entourage. This suggests that the contacts Plotinus would later have in Rome with members of the ruling class go back to his earlier years in Egypt.

    Returning to Porphyry's Life, we find Plotinus beginning to teach in Rome to a circle of friends and pupils. (He occupied no formal teaching post.) He lived in the house of Gemina, presumably a rich patroness. His circle included senators and other politicians, doctors, literary men, a number of women, all coming from different backgrounds, Egyptian, Syrian, Arabian, as well as Italian and Roman. An inner circle of pupils collaborated closely in the work of the group. It included Amelius and Porphyry. Plotinus' links with

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    Roman power developed into a friendship with the Emperor Gallienus (253-68) and his wife. Plotinus tried to use this occasion to found a city in Campania, to be called Platonopolis and to be governed, it seems, according to Plato's political ideas. However the project met opposition in Court and was not realized. Plotinus seems to have had good practical sense: he was sought after as a guardian for the children of deceased friends and was a successful arbitrator of disputes (ch. 9). The main activity of Plotinus' circle was philosophical discussion. (What Plotinus himself hoped to achieve with this is described below in Chapter 10.) The sessions

    were open to all. Amelius gave Porphyry an account of the earlier years of teaching in Rome: 'The sessions, Amelius told me, were confused and much nonsense was spoken since he [Plotinus] stimulated enquiry among the participants' (Life, ch. 3).

    Porphyry tells us what he found when he joined the group in 263. The sessions of the group might begin with a pupil reading from a fairly recent work (it might be a commentary on Plato or on Aristotle) by a Platonist such as Numenius or Atticus or by an Aristotelian philosopher such as Alexander of Aphrodisias. Plotinus would then comment, not following the text word by word, but taking an individual and different line, using the approach of his teacher Ammonius (ch. 14). This seems to have involved the selective interpretation of a passage, particularly in Plato, and discussion of the philosophical problem it raised. Much time was spent in debates (hardly more disciplined than those earlier sessions of which Amelius complained) in which Plotinus made no attempt to impose his views: 'His teaching seemed like a conversation and he did not reveal immediately to anyone the logical necessities contained in what he said' (ch. 18). Porphyry then gives an example of an occasion when it took some time for him to grasp and accept Plotinus' position. Another debate is described in ch. 13:

    For three days I, Porphyry, asked him how soul is with the body and he persisted in his explanation. A certain Thaumasius came in and said that he wanted to hear an overall treatment to be put in books and that he could not bear Porphyry's answers and questions. But Plotinus said, 'But if we do not

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    solve the difficulties raised by Porphyry's questions, we will not be able to say anything to be put in a book.'

    In this chapter Porphyry brings us very near to seeing Plotinus the man: 'When he spoke his intellect illuminated even his face. Of pleasing aspect, he was then even more beautiful to see. Sweating slightly, his gentleness showed as did his kindness while being questioned and his rigour.'

    From Porphyry's invaluable descriptions of such sessions, it emerges that they concerned sometimes the correct interpretation of a passage in Plato, sometimes the resolution of a philosophical problem such as that of the relation between soul and body. In fact these two aspects are closely related. Plotinus saw in Plato the philosopher who had come nearest to the truth. Interpreting Plato correctly would involve finding the right solution to the problem at issue (the passage in Plato might for instance have to do with soul and body). As Plato's dialogues allow for many

    different interpretations, Plotinus would take account of these interpretations as representing possible philosophical answers, to be accepted or rejected. And as other philosophers such as Aristotle and the Presocratics had insight, they too would sometimes require interpretation. The modern historian would object to Plotinus' approach: the method for reaching a correct (historical) interpretation of a text in Plato is quite different from the analysis of a philosophical problem; what is a true reading of what Plato says, for example, about the universe is not necessarily true of the universe itself. However, Plotinus was a philosopher, not an historian or literary exegete.

    In the Life (ch. 14) Porphyry gives us a list of the commentators on Plato and on Aristotle read in Plotinus' school: Severus, Cronius, Numenius, Gaius, Atticus (the Platonists), Aspasius, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Adrastus (the Aristotelians), and others. We know very little about some of these philosophers and for the rest we are obliged to find out what we can from the fragments or (at best) portions of their work that have survived. Dating from the first two centuries AD they were teachers who,

    like Plotinus, found in Plato or Aristotle an ancient repository of truth the interpretation of which would give philosophical answers. The Platonists (called 'Middle Platonists' by

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    modern historians, to distinguish them from the members of Plato's own school and from the 'Neoplatonists', Plotinus and his successors) attempted to elaborate systems of Platonic philosophy on the basis of interpretation of Plato's dialogues read sometimes in the light of Aristotelian or Stoic ideas. The results they reached differed enough to give Plotinus a wide range of options. In the following chapters I shall refer to the views of the Platonists best known to us, Numenius and Atticus, as well as to 1 the work of a Platonist not named by Porphyry, the Didaskalikos of Alcinous, 1 Modern scholars have until recently been in the habit of referring to this author (incorrectly) as Albinus.

    since it is one of the rate texts of Platonic philosophy to survive from the second century. The Aristotelians Aspasius and Alexander saw in Aristotle what the Platonists saw in Plato: they too worked towards elaborating a systematic philosophy on the basis of interpreting Aristotle. Fortunately large portions of Alexander's work survive. As his ideas had a considerable impact on Plotinus, I shall introduce them also in the following chapters.

    Porphyry indicates that Plotinus' interpretation of Plato was hardly orthodox. It was not accepted by Porphyry's former teacher in Athens, Longinus, and was attacked by some unnamed critics in Greece who accused Plotinus of plagiarizing Numenius (ch. 17). Plotinus set his closest pupils to respond to these criticisms. A more serious threat was the influence exerted on some members of his circle by a religious movement known as 'Gnosticism' in modern scholarship. It will be necessary later in the book to say more about this movement, which might be sketched briefly as follows.

    Of bewildering diversity and complexity, Gnosticism was a religious movement which usually took the form of a Christian heresy. Spreading throughout the Roman Empire in the first centuries AD , it promised salvation to the privileged few who were in

    possession of a special revelation or knowledge (gnosis). This knowledge declared

    the world in which we live to be the handiwork of evil and ignorant forces, a world in which fragments of a higher world, a world of good divinities, are imprisoned. As these divine elements plunged in the body we await liberation from our body and the powers of evil. Very many variations and complications of this

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    general scheme can be found in Gnosticism, as is made clear by the hostile reports of Church writers and by the few authentic Gnostic documents that have come down to us. The latter include notably a collection of Gnostic books dating from the fourth century discovered in the 1940s near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. This collection contains versions of texts actually named by Porphyry in the Life (ch. 16) and thus

    allows us to read some of the kind of writing whose influence Plotinus felt to be so pernicious.

    Whereas the Christian enemies of Gnosticism considered it to be a heresy generated in part by the corrupting power of Greek philosophy, Plotinus thought of it as an arrogant and perverse reading of Plato. Its influence was serious enough to require Plotinus' direct attention in a number of his treatises. He also got his pupils to write critiques of Gnosticism (Life, ch. 16). It is possible (but not certain) that he criticized Christianity, with which he could hardly have had much sympathy. Certainly Porphyry published at some point in his life a very important attack on the Christian religion. The Emperor Gallienus was murdered in 268 and the general anarchy (which had not abated in his reign) continued. In the last two years of his life Plotinus wrote more about moral issues: evil, providence, happiness. In 269, suffering from a serious depression, Porphyry left Rome on his master's advice, going to Sicily. Plotinus fell ill and his circle appears to have started to disperse. Dying of a disease that we cannot now identify with accuracy (possibly tuberculosis or a form of leprosy) Plotinus retired to the country house of a deceased friend and pupil near Minturno in Campania. Attended by another pupil, the doctor Eustochius, he died in 270. Eustochius reported to the absent Porphyry that Plotinus' last words were: 'Try to lead the god in you up to the divine in the universe' (Life, 2. 26-7).

    2. Plotinus' Works

    Inspired by the portrait of Plotinus as the ideal sage, the reader of the Life is intended

    to move on to what follows, to begin reading

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    Plotinus' works as edited by Porphyry, the Enneads. Here also Porphyry guides us,

    by means of the way in which he organized the edition. Fortunately he explains his editorial procedures in the Life. He first cut up some of Plotinus' treatises so as to

    increase their number to fifty-four. The purpose of this was to have a number that is the product of the perfect number 6 (6 is both 1 + 2 + 3 and 1 × 2 × 3) and of the number 9, symbol of totality as the last of first numbers (from 1 to 10). This cutting-up of treatises is not on the whole too misleading, as the various parts of the divided treatises usually follow each other in the edition (VI. 1, VI. 2, and VI. 3, for example). However, one major treatise suffered badly from this treatment, as we will see shortly. Porphyry's next operation was to arrange the fifty-four treatises into six sets of nine treatises, 'nines' (enneades in Greek), assigning the treatises to various sets

    depending on what he considered their main theme to be. The thematic grouping was intended to lay out a path for the ascent of the soul of the reader, going from the first steps to the ultimate goal of Plotinian philosophy. Thus the first set of nine treatises (Enn. I. 1-9) concerns moral questions, the second and third sets (Enn. II. 1-

    9 and III. 1-9) discuss the natural world, the fourth (Enn. IV. 1-9) deals with soul, the

    fifth (Enn. V. 1-9) with intellect, and the sixth (Enn. VI. 1-9) with the One.

    This arrangement brings serious disadvantages with it. First, Plotinus writes more like Plato than like Aristotle in the sense that he does not confine himself in one work to covering a particular subject or field. His treatises often deal with many different matters and thus do not lend themselves easily to a thematic grouping. Second, one of the major treatises, that directed against Gnosticism, was divided by Porphyry into

    four pieces, the pieces being assigned to different sets. They are III. 8, V. 8, V. 5, II. 9. What makes it possible to see that these severed members, scattered throughout the compartments of Porphyry's edition, originally belonged together is the fact that Porphyry also tells us in what chronological order the treatises were composed. According to this chronological order (Life, chs. 4-6), the texts in question are

    numbers 30 to 33.

    Porphyry's final editorial intervention was to insert titles (some of his own making, some current in the school) for the treatises, as

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    Plotinus showed no interest in this (or in any other) convention in publishing (Life, 4.

    16-18, 8. 1-7). Apart from the possible addition of a few explanatory phrases, Porphyry did not seriously interfere, it appears, with the actual text of Plotinus' treatises and for this we must be grateful. Plotinus' style is so individual and free that modern scholars have had to learn to resist the temptation to standardize or 'correct' his writing.

    The conclusion one may draw so far is that Porphyry's arrangement of Plotinus' works is wholly artificial and sometimes misleading. It has nothing to recommend it, 2 apart from offering us a rather esoteric way of referring to Plotinus' treatises. 2 The standard way of referring to Plotinus' works is to give the number in Porphyry's edition (e.g. set number III, treatise number 8 = Ennead III. 8) followed by the number according to the chronological

    order given in square brackets (thus: III. 8 [30]) and the chapter and line numbers (thus: Ennead III. 8

    [30]. 1. 1-2). The division into chapters was introduced by Marsilio Ficino in his Latin translation of Plotinus (Florence, 1492). Materials missing from Ficino's version of Ennead IV. 7, ch. 8, were 15subsequently numbered as chapters 8-8.

    If we do not follow Porphyry's editorial guidance, how then should we approach Plotinus? Two questions need to be considered: how individual treatises might be approached, and in what order the treatises should be read.

    Porphyry indicates twice (Life, chs. 4, 5) that treatises originated in discussions that took place in Plotinus' school. The incident with Thaumasius mentioned above shows that Plotinus would not write down his thoughts until problems had been thoroughly debated in the school. The various opinions of the philosophers (Plato, of course, but also Aristotle and the Stoics) and the positions of the more recent commentators on Plato and Aristotle would be considered. Plotinus would also take account of the various views of his pupils before formulating his position. In view of this it seems to be preferable to read the treatises as relating to debates involving the exegesis of a text in Plato or the solution of a problem, debates which evolved in the context 3 provided by the opinions of Plotinus' immediate philosophical predecessors. 3 For Plotinus' statement of his method see Enn. III. 7 [45]. 1. 7-17. Plotinus did not write the treatises

    simply in order to record such debates. His usual purpose in writing (as in teaching) was to lead us through philosophy to the Good (see below, Ch. 10).

    I shall adopt this approach

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    in the following chapters, taking as starting-points various philosophical problems (and the relevant texts in Plato), showing how, in certain treatises, Plotinus formulates his views in the light of a critique of the options found in the work of his predecessors. It is my purpose by this means to bring the reader closer to the actual workings of the treatises and to convey some idea of how Plotinus' philosophy evolved.

    As regards the order in which to read the treatises, if one intends to read them all, it would be preferable to follow the chronological order of composition (see above). This allows one to read the divided treatises as wholes and to see how Plotinus takes

    up and develops points touched on in earlier treatises. Some modern scholars believe they have detected in the treatises, arranged in chronological order, an intellectual development. It is true that we can notice different emphases at different times in Plotinus' life: for example, the confrontation with Gnosticism seems to have come to a head in the 260s and the last treatises show greater concentration on moral themes. Evolution in some areas of his philosophy might well have occurred. We should remember however that Plotinus started writing in his fifties, when his ideas can be expected to have reached some maturity. If his first compositions seem somewhat stiff and terse as compared to the freedom and depth of thought of the later works, this may have to do, not so much with intellectual development, as with growing confidence and ease with writing.

    Short of reading everything, we can of course read a selection of treatises. In the following chapters I propose one such selection of treatises, some of them taken from Plotinus' earlier writing, some from his more complex work.

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    1 Soul and Body

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    Dominic J. O'Meara

    1. The Doctrine of Two Worlds

    To those who approach Plato's philosophy for the first time, the most striking aspect of it perhaps is its distinctive way of seeing reality. Plato's dialogues, in particular the Phaedo, Phaedrus, Republic, and Timaeus, encourage us to visualize reality as if it

    were divided into two worlds, the material world that we perceive around us with our senses (the 'sensible' world) and an immaterial world to which we have access only by thought or intellect (the 'intelligible' world). The material world is subject to never-ending change. Everything in it is in continuous process: bodies are unceasingly formed and dissolved and are incapable of maintaining a stable identity. Material things are too evanescent and ambiguous for anything true to be said or known about them. The immaterial world, by contrast, is all stability, permanence, eternity. It is populated, not by bodies in flux, but by 'Forms' (or 'Ideas'). These are immaterial beings possessing clear-cut and unchanging identities: the Form of beauty, for example, is beauty itself, beauty eternal, as compared with the fugitive suggestions of beauty in material things. The relation between the two worlds is such, it appears, that the material world is a shadowing forth, an imaging of the world of Forms. The material world exists only to the extent that it shares in the eternal being of the Forms, just as a shadow exists only as the shadow of something. To comprehend the world that we see, the theatre of shadows in which we live, we must discover in thought the eternal models which it reflects, the world of Forms.

    In presenting the Platonic doctrine of two worlds, it is difficult to avoid suggesting what the sense of the doctrine might be. A literal

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    reading of Plato's visual language might take it that Plato does in fact see above or beyond this physical universe another universe, a sort of philosopher's Eden of light, perfection, and immortality to which our souls long to escape. Another interpretation of the doctrine, warning us against taking Plato's visual descriptions too literally, might claim that the doctrine boils down to a distinction between conceptual categories (the Forms) and the data of sense-perception. But what did Plato himself really mean to say? What is the precise sense of the distinction he makes between Forms and physical objects, between immaterial and material reality? These

    questions remain open even today. Many different answers have been proposed. There seem to be many ways of making philosophical sense (or nonsense) of Plato's distinction.

    The Middle Platonists do not on the whole show much originality in their approach to the subject. Alcinous presupposes a simple schoolroom distinction between two worlds, between sensible and intelligible reality, as a basic and unquestioned dogma of Platonism (see, for example, Didaskalikos, ch. 4; also Atticus, fragment 8, and

    Apuleius, De Platone et eius dogmate, ch. 6). Numenius discusses the subject more

    fully in his dialogue On the Good (fragments 3-8), but he merely embroiders on what

    can be found in some passages in Plato. Emphasizing the evanescence of corporeal things and the immutability of the immaterial, he insists that only the latter can be regarded as what exists in the fullest and truest sense, since it remains what it is and is not subject to dissipation as are bodies. Plotinus, however, breaks away from such platitudes in various ways. He tends to approach Plato's distinction in the context of a distinction between soul and body. The need to avoid confusing soul with body and the discovery of intellect as the origin of soul bring us to a new way of understanding the difference between immaterial and material reality. And the problem of the relation between these two kinds of reality arises in connection with the difficult problems posed by the link between soul and body. In this chapter Plotinus' interpretation of the doctrine of two worlds will be discussed in terms of the distinction between soul and body. The topic will be examined further in the following two chapters as regards the link

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    between soul and body (Ch. 2) and the relation between soul and intellect (Ch. 3). For almost 2,000 years many philosophers took for granted the Platonic belief that the visible world is the shadow of a higher, more substantial, immaterial world. Even Aristotelians, inasmuch as they believed in the existence of a superior, immaterial divine substance, came near to this view, although they did not follow the Platonists in condemning the material world to a sort of semi-existence. A decisive change and a new beginning came only in the seventeenth century, with René Descartes. In his effort to break away from ancient and medieval philosophy and found a new, resolutely modern philosophy Descartes took as the fundamental metaphysical distinction that between mind and body. The question whether 'mind' (however defined) is 'different' (and in what sense) from body (whatever that may be) remains unresolved and crucial in modern philosophy. To what extent did Plotinus, in interpreting the two-world doctrine as a distinction between soul (or intellect) and body, anticipate Descartes's new beginning? Some suggestions concerning this will be made in the conclusion to this chapter.

    2. The Immortality of Soul (Ennead IV. 7[2])

    One of Plotinus' first writings, Ennead IV. 7 [2], is devoted to showing that the soul is

    immortal. Plato had argued for this in the Phaedo and in the Phaedrus (245ce).

    Plato's claim that soul is an incorporeal, non-composite reality not subject to destruction is rejected by Aristotle. For Aristotle, soul, as the structure (or 'form') responsible for the various functions of a living body, cannot escape death. Yet one living function, intellect, seems to be an exception: in Aristotle's view thinking is not the function of a particular bodily organ. Intellect thus seems to have a claim to bimmortality (De anima, 2. 2. 413 24-7; 3. 4-5). However, Aristotle is at his most

    obscure here and in any case the question of immortality lies far from his primarily biological interests in the De anima. The Stoics on the whole admit only a limited and

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