Plotinus: Ennead IV.3 – 4.29: Problems Concerning the Soul. Translation, Introduction & Commentary by John M. Dillon and H. J. Blumenthal.
Las Vegas, Athens, Parmenides Publishing, 2015, $47.00.
The new translation of the Enneads, edited by John Dillon and Andrew Smith, continues apace. Blumenthal, an expert in Plotinus’ psychology, had done a translation with partial notes by the time of his untimely death in April 1998. Dillon took over and has brought the work to a masterful conclusion.
The soul is the key doctrine in Plotinus, both as a topic and as justification for his methodology. For humans to turn to address the soul is for them to obey the Socratic injunction to ‘know thyself’. It is the point of entry into a study that will open to all of reality, insofar as it can be known. As bequeathed from his predecessors Plato and Aristotle, the soul has two functions, to be the principle of life and unity for a body, but also to be a pivot of vision or realization that may turn either up or down. By turning up, it allows humans to study the Intelligible world of the Forms, amongst which a part of itself that is ‘unfallen’ resides, which makes possible this upward attention and ascent. Because in knowledge mind becomes one with its object, as we turn our gaze upward and attend to the higher reality, we simultaneously hoist ourselves back up whence we have fallen, reverse by ourselves our ‘fall’, complete the cosmic motion of ‘return’ after the initial ‘exitus’, and may even go past our original starting point to attain fusion with the principle of unity, which can only be described negatively as ‘the One’, and that is the mysterious source of all cosmic activity. The soul has various levels corresponding to its various duties; only the highest level is immortal, indeed as said, a part of it is already ‘saved’. This gives Plotinus the confidence to speak not only as though the process of return he describes may be successful, but in a sense as though it is already accomplished. It is all a question of returning to our ‘true self’. Plotinus gives philosophers a sense of their superiority, but also a grounding for their belief that moral striving is worth the effort.
The ambiguity between the One’s changelessness and self-regard, versus its (unconscious) production of and ordering of the rest of the world is repeated at every level in the Plotinian hierarchy. In Platonic philosophy, which Plotinus saw himself expounding and clarifying, the higher never inclines or ‘stoops’ to aid the lower; it is rather for the lower to ‘convert’ and rise to re-join the higher, who must remain as indifferent to the return as it was to the production. This principle accounts for the strange language in Plotinus, notably that body is said to be ‘in soul’, rather than soul ‘in a body’. The latter would imply that body is somehow higher, more real or powerful than soul; the former is simply a way of expressing that the reverse is the case. The principle that ‘love must be proportional to its object’, and that the One is thus appropriately fixated in narcissistic self-enthrallment, and indifferent to the rest of the world, has always been controversial; in particular, the explanation of the production of the lower stages as an unintended side-effect of this self-contemplation seems arbitrary, fanciful, of the ‘hand-waving’ variety - almost mythological. Better perhaps to turn to Plato’s other depiction of the first principle as ‘the Good’, and suggest that at the supreme source, the One’s love of itself is so intense that this leads it to want to produce ‘another’ with whom to share itself. Such an explanation seems less jury-rigged, more precise and satisfying. It would also explain Plotinus’s comportment of not only remaining detached in contemplation, but expending himself tirelessly not only for his students such as Porphyry, but also for the orphans and wards committed to his care. He saw himself as doing what the highest principle was doing. As Porphyry said, ‘he was present to himself and others at the same time.’