Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice

Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice

by Stephen R. L. Clark


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Plotinus, the Roman philosopher (c. 204-270 CE) who is widely regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism, was also the creator of numerous myths, images, and metaphors. They have influenced both secular philosophers and Christian and Muslim theologians, but have frequently been dismissed by modern scholars as merely ornamental. In this book, distinguished philosopher Stephen R. L. Clark shows that they form a vital set of spiritual exercises by which individuals can achieve one of Plotinus’s most important goals: self-transformation through contemplation.
Clark examines a variety of Plotinus’s myths and metaphors within the cultural and philosophical context of his time, asking probing questions about their contemplative effects. What is it, for example, to “think away the spatiality” of material things? What state of mind is Plotinus recommending when he speaks of love, or drunkenness, or nakedness? What star-like consciousness is intended when he declares that we were once stars or are stars eternally? What does it mean to say that the soul goes around God? And how are we supposed to “bring the god in us back to the god in all”? Through these rich images and structures, Clark casts Plotinus as a philosopher deeply concerned with philosophy as a way of life. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226565057
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/09/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 772,171
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

 Stephen R. L. Clark is professor emeritus at the University of Liverpool and has also taught at the University of Oxford and the University of Glasgow. He is the author of many books, most recently Understanding Faith, Philosophical Futures, and Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy.

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Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice

By Stephen R. L. Clark

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-33970-2


Why Read Plotinus?

Plotinus was born in Egypt, possibly in Lycopolis (whether Asyut in the Thebaid in Upper Egypt or its colony in the Delta is uncertain), in about AD 204, studied under the philosopher Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria, joined the young emperor Gordian's ill-fated expedition against the Persians (being eager — it was said — to learn about the Persian and Indian philosophical traditions), escaped to Antioch when Gordian was assassinated (AD 244), migrated to Rome, and spent the rest of his life leading philosophical discussions in the Platonic tradition. This brief account from Porphyry may conceal more than it reveals. Why, after all, did Plotinus go to Rome? The likelier thought is that he went back with the army led by Philip the Arab (who had arranged the coup) to claim authority in Rome (and perhaps Plotinus was more closely involved in this struggle than Porphyry ever knew). Coups and countercoups followed rapidly, part of the Senate's struggle with the legions over the power to appoint new emperors. Philip was followed by Decius, Gallus, Aemilian, and at last by Valerian, who hung on long enough to make war on Persia and be humiliatingly captured and enslaved by Shapur I. Valerian's son Gallienus favored Plotinus but was judged to have fallen, after a good beginning, "into every vice, losing his hold on the state through unforgivable apathy and despair." In Gallienus's time the Gallic provinces seceded (and were reconquered), and the brief empire of Palmyra served first as a buffer against the Parthians and then as a force judged hostile to Rome's interests. Gallienus was murdered by his legionaries in another coup and was succeeded by Claudius, "a thrifty man, modest, tenacious in pursuit of justice ... who nonetheless succumbed to illness" in the same year, AD 270, as Plotinus (and, possibly, Shapur). Porphyry was away from Rome in Sicily at the time and had been invited to join his former master Longinus back in Syria (under Palmyrene rule), where Amelius — Plotinus's other editor — was already resident (in Apamea). What happened when Aurelian (Claudius's successor) conquered Palmyra (and incidentally executed Longinus, who had been Zenobia's adviser) we don't know in detail. Porphyry at least survived.

We know nothing about Plotinus's ancestry or early childhood. He does refer to native Egyptian practices and theories, but probably no more knowledgeably than should be expected of a resident of Egypt educated in the Hellenic tradition. It has been suggested that some of his linguistic peculiarities are a sign of a Coptic upbringing, and that he might have been affected — if only to disagreement — by contact with Sethian Gnostics and other esoteric speculators. Though Porphyry says that Plotinus planned to visit India, having heard rumors about Indian philosophy (at that time, both Hindu and Buddhist), he did not arrive there, and it seems in any case an odd and inefficient stratagem. There was probably some intellectual contact between the different traditions: the Mauryan emperor Asoka had sent out Buddhist missionaries some centuries earlier, and Clement of Alexandria's teacher Pantaenus (c. 182–c. 212), a convert to Christianity from Stoicism, had visited India and found a Christian community already there. But there is no solid reason to suppose that Plotinian philosophy was strongly influenced by such rumors as reached Rome or Egypt: his inspiration was drawn from the Platonic texts and from the long tradition of Hellenic speculation, including the Peripatetic, Skeptical, and Stoic schools. Discussions in Plotinus's seminars in Rome often began from readings of Plato, Aristotle, Numenius of Apamea, Alexander of Aphrodisias, and other Aristotelian commentators, and rambled thereafter.

We don't know much about Plotinus's beginnings, because he wouldn't tell. Porphyry ascribed Plotinus's unwillingness to give details of his ancestry and early life to his "being ashamed of being in a body," and this judgment — along with familiar aphorisms describing philosophy as "the flight of the alone to the Alone" — suggests to some that he was a solitary depressive or (worse still) a mystic. Thus, Louth, speaking for many, contrasts the Plotinian goal with Augustine's conviction "that it is with others, in some kind of societas, that we are to seek God." But is that not what Plotinus himself did, living among friends in Rome and drawing on their philosophical insights? It is likely that Porphyry was depressive: he records that Plotinus spotted his condition and ordered him away from Rome to Sicily to recover. Plotinus himself was more robust. If he avoided the public baths or public rituals, this need not be because he was either shy or arrogant. Maybe he was following Seneca's advice!

I have lodgings [wrote Seneca] right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roysterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, — for purposes of advertisement, — continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cakeseller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation. ... You may be sure that you are at peace with yourself, when no noise readies you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be of flattery or of threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning din. "What then?" you say, "is it not sometimes a simpler matter just to avoid the uproar?" I admit this. Accordingly, I shall change from my present quarters. I merely wished to test myself and to give myself practice. Why need I be tormented any longer, when Ulysses found so simple a cure for his comrades even against the songs of the Sirens?

Plotinus also preferred not to join a religious friend (Amelius) in visits to "the temples at the New Moon and the feasts of the gods," saying that "they ought to come to me, not I to them." The response has been interpreted as a rejection of those gods, but it is more likely that he meant that they could not be commanded, that it was for them to descend (see V.5 [32].8, 3). One of his complaints against "the Gnostics," after all, was — exactly — that they thought themselves superior to the gods (II.9 [33].9, 53–64). So also Plato distinguished magic and true religion "in that magic makes every effort to persuade the gods, whereas the truly religious behavior is to leave the gods a free choice, for they know better than we do what is good for us." Porphyry tells us, concerning Plotinus, that "it seems that the gods often set him straight when he was going on a crooked course 'sending down a solid shaft of light,' which means that he wrote what he wrote under their inspection and supervision." We should not chase after that light, however, "but wait quietly till it appears, preparing oneself to contemplate it, as the eye awaits the rising of the sun" (V.5 [32].8). Consider also the advice of Zosimus of Panopolis, the alchemist:

Do not roam about searching for God; but sit calmly at home, and God, who is everywhere, and not confined in the smallest place like the daemons, will come to you. And being calm in body, also calm your passions, desire and pleasure and anger and grief and the twelve portions of death. In this way, taking control of yourself, you will summon the divine [to come] to you, and truly it will come, that which is everywhere and nowhere.

This is what Plotinus probably intended.

Plotinus was trusted to manage the persons and estates of orphans left in his charge, "so his house [actually, the house of an aristocratic Roman widow] was full of young lads and maidens." He kept his head in the jealous atmosphere of Rome's intellectual cliques and military feuds. He drew lessons — as did Marcus Aurelius, but to a different end — from sculpture, dances, and athletic competitions, as well as from rumors about Egyptian priests and, maybe, Indian gymnosophists and from the works of Plato and Aristotle. "In answering questions he made clear both his benevolence to the questioner and his intellectual vigour." When he began to suffer from the disease that killed him, his friends avoided him, because he was still inclined to greet everyone with a kiss (a standard greeting for family and friends). In character, in brief, he was more sanguine than melancholic, and readier than most philosophers to listen and to learn.

That this brief summary of Plotinus's life and character is now needed is odd. Most philosophers — and in later years most Christian theologians — were members of an educated elite who were expected to take on social duties, as well as to be able to control their moods and tempers, and to use their wealth — such as it was — with proper generosity. The Enneads were for centuries the channel through which the Platonic tradition was passed to Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and early-modern philosophers, and they had enormous influence also outside the philosophical academies, in art, poetry, and the nonacademic esoteric tradition. Twentieth-century commentators were inclined to place him in the supposed decay of rational, Hellenic thought, though they gave him a little credit for avoiding the excesses, as they thought, of Iamblichus and the Hermetic Corpus. The truth is otherwise. Art, science, and philosophy owe Platonists, and "Neoplatonists," a lot, and may yet owe more.

The text we know as the Enneads would nowadays be called The Collected Works of Plotinus of Alexandria, Edited by Porphyry of Tyre. Plotinus wrote at speed, without troubling to reread or correct his work (his eyesight being too weak), and the resulting treatises varied considerably in length. Thirty years after Plotinus's death, Porphyry produced what became the standard edition by reordering the treatises into six volumes, each of nine separate treatises, in obedience to some numerological (Pythagorean) fancy. Sometimes he broke up one long piece into several or included some scrappy notes as a single treatise. The whole provides a reasonable order in which to tackle the texts, but modern readers may prefer to concentrate on single treatises or at any rate to begin — for example — with the very first that Plotinus wrote, "On Beauty" (I.6 [1]).

Plotinus's world, the social and imaginative world of third-century Rome, is certainly not ours. Sadly, we have no reliable narrative about the place and period and must piece our picture together from passing references in later writings, which usually have an agenda. Briefly, it was a time of recurrent plagues, earthquakes, mutinies, slave revolts, and invasions (though none, as yet, that reached down into Italy). It was "a time of the most calamitous instability," "one of the darkest periods of Roman history." There was a newly revived Persian Empire to the east, beyond the former frontiers of the Roman Empire, and brief Gallic and Palmyrene Empires to the north and east, even within those older boundaries. Emperors, usually brought to power by their armies and sluggishly endorsed by the Senate, did not have long reigns. Christians were sometimes persecuted, at the whim of local magistrates or occasional imperial dictat, but were also often ignored. Theorists, artists, and engineers of one school or another came from all around the Mediterranean basin, and beyond, but there seem to have been few inventions or innovations in medicine or engineering. What educated people mostly believed was that the earth was spherical (but that the Antipodes were beyond our reach), that the fixed and wandering ("planetary") stars revolved around the earth, that there were demons loose among us, and that there was an intelligible order to the cosmos (i.e., that there was indeed a cosmos rather than a jumble of disconnected bits).

Plotinus could suppose that each of us, upon our first entry to the natural universe, was and is incarnate as a star (IV.4 [28].5), and that such troubles as we suffer here and now are often, though not always, retribution for the crimes we committed in past lives. "There is no accident in a man's becoming a slave, nor is he taken prisoner in war by chance, nor is outrage done on his body without due cause, but he was once the doer of that which he now suffers; and a man who made away with his mother will be made away with by a son when he has become a woman, and one who has raped a woman will be a woman in order to be raped" (III.2 [47].13, 11–3). There are still people, even philosophers, prepared to believe in karmic reincarnation, but I know none who seriously think that their own higher selves are still embodied in the stars of heaven, which we now conceive as very distant and indifferent suns, not as the innumerable eyes of night. Most educated Westerners doubt the existence of daimones or the power of magic (but accept the existence of intangible forces which we can often put to work for us, and increasingly rely on gadgets controlled by verbal commands and ciphers). We Westerners know, or at least must strongly believe, much more about the biochemistry of love than ever Plotinus knew, and we much more easily believe that such love is an obsessive madness, functioning only to bind us, briefly, as breeders. We know, or at least we think we know, that there need never be a single goal, a good that serves all natures and desires. We know, or think we know, that human intelligence has emerged from common animal intelligence, by neo-Darwinian accident, and isn't an angelic visitor to the world of nature. And unlike most Hellenic thinkers, we think pity is a virtue, and for grown men to love boys a vice. What has Plotinus, or the Platonic tradition, to do with us and our necessities? "It was all so unimaginably different, and all so long ago."

One answer might simply be that we Westerners might, after all, be wrong. To modify a remark of Chesterton's, it is the main purpose of historical or comparative philosophy to show that humanity can be great and even glorious under conditions, and with beliefs, quite different from our own. When modernists deny even the possibility of metempsychosis or of nonrational intelligence or of the thought that we are indeed asleep and dreaming, they restrict our options — and create great difficulties for their own, unreflective theories. If it is truly impossible, for example, that S has been a woman, or G a man, it is also absurd to ask us to imagine what we would feel if we variously were, and so absurd to demand of us the moral imagination that is the root of justice. If it were impossible to conceive that we're asleep and dreaming, it would also be impossible to conceive that there is a real world independent of our feelings and experience. If the only intelligence were strictly rational (i.e., founded only in self-evident truth and purely logical inference), none of us would ever know a thing. If human intelligence is only a modified "animal intelligence" (and animals are, like us, seed-scattering robots controlled by "selfish genes"), then we have no reason to expect our reasonings to have the power and range we think they do. The commoner opinions of humankind (which may be closer to Plotinus's than to those of the modern intelligentsia) might be correct, even when they contradict our fashionable theories.

We might be wrong, and Plotinus, even if occasionally in error, might be mostly right. Oddly, modern scientists and mathematicians, including Gödel and Bohr, have been more sympathetic to Platonic ideas than the philosophers who rejected them, supposedly in the name of science. But even if he were totally wrong, it would still be worth considering what he has to say. How else shall we understand our own ideas if we have no notion of the possibilities we are denying? And even if we could, somehow, understand ourselves, how shall we understand any others? Plotinus is especially important for us to understand, since his influence, and the influence of Platonists and "Neoplatonists," have been so significant for centuries, in Western and Eastern Christendom, in Muslim thought, and Jewish. The medieval and early-modern philosophers most often studied in philosophy departments themselves knew what they owed to Platonists. Students of modern philosophy who have forgotten this (or never been informed) will often misread the very authors they prefer: Leibniz, Spinoza, Berkeley, Kant, and Hegel rephrase Plotinian ideas; even the founders of twentieth-century analytical philosophy, such as Moore and Frege, repeat Plotinian and Platonic arguments, not always with acknowledgment. Nor is it only "Western" philosophy that is illuminated by an understanding of ancient Western history. It isn't necessary to think that Plotinus was influenced by Indian or any other Eastern philosophers, as some twentieth-century commentators thought: everything he wrote can be understood within the tradition of Hellenic philosophy (which was itself open to other influences). But many commentators have testified that there are at least some similarities with Indian or Chinese thought, and that those traditions, therefore, are not wholly alien to "Western" sensibilities. To read and even partly understand Plotinus, therefore, is to have a key to much of the human philosophical tradition. My hope is that anyone sufficiently exasperated or intrigued by the following monograph will at least be inspired to read some few of the Enneads: they will then discover that for all his subtlety and high ideals Plotinus was also calmly commonsensical — and often very funny.


Excerpted from Plotinus by Stephen R. L. Clark. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Part I: Prolegomena

1.         Why Read Plotinus?
2.         How to Read Plotinus
3.         Theories about Metaphor
4.         Dialectic

Part II: Metaphorically Speaking

5.         Naked and Alone
6.         On Becoming Love
7.         Shadow Plays and Mirrors
8.         Reason Drunk and Sober
9.         Dancing
10.       Remembering and Forgetting
11.       Standing Up to the Blows of Fortune

Part III: The Plotinian Imaginary

12.       Platonic and Classical Myths
13.       Spheres and Circles
14.       Charms and Countercharms
15.       Invoking Demons
16.       Images Within and Without
17.       Fixed Stars and Planets
18.       Waking Up

Part IV: Understanding the Hypostases

19.       Matter
20.       Nature
21.       Soul
22.       Nous
23.       The One

Part V: The Plotinian Way

Index of Passages from the Enneads
Index of Names and Subjects

What People are Saying About This

Douglas Hedley

“Clark engages with Plotinus as an imaginative and creative philosopher and a trenchant religious thinker. The psychological and spiritual power of Plotinus is uniquely illuminated by Clark’s outstanding monograph: we have a first-rate contemporary philosopher reflecting upon one of the seminal minds of the occidental tradition.”

John Dillon

“This is a remarkable book. Clark is a distinguished philosopher who has been engaged for some time in putting Greek philosophy in its wider Mediterranean setting, and this work continues that project with the rich works of Plotinus. Clark takes various aspects of Plotinus’s philosophical oeuvre and sets them against their larger backdrop, not only philosophical but also literary and sociological, in order to bring out the full implications of Plotinus’s positions. In this way, he convincingly shows the philosophical and religious importance of Plotinus’s extraordinary use of metaphor, which so many other scholars have overlooked as merely literary. The result is wide ranging, sound, and highly original scholarship.”

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