Parmenides Publishing




Plotinus Ennead IV.8. Translation, Introduction, Commentary. By Barrie Fleet.
Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing, 2012. Pp. 209. $32.00 (paperback).

Gary M. Gurtler, S.J.

This is one of the first in a series of translations and commentaries of Plotinus’ treatises in the Enneads. The series will be invaluable to scholars and students who want accuracy in translation, an explanation of Plotinus’ argument, and his relation to his sources, especially Plato, Aristotle, and a host of other figures in the Greek and Hellenistic tradition. The Introduction presents a concise orientation for reading the treatise ‘On the Descent of the Soul into Bodies’ by indicating the problems that exercised Plotinus in writing about the soul, especially in the complex way soul relates to different kinds of bodies in the sensible world. Fleet skips over Plotinus’ comments on Heraclitus and Empedocles (treating them more extensively in the commentary) and moves directly to the Platonic background. This highlights both Plotinus’ commitment to following Plato and his willingness to admit the lack of clarity, especially the inconsistencies about the nature of the soul that haunt the Platonic text. Fleet alerts the reader that some of these problems are not necessarily ours, involving not just the human soul but the cosmic soul and stellar souls as well. Other problems, however, do catch our attention more directly, such as the conflict between pessimistic and optimistic views of the sensible world and between freedom and necessity in the human soul. These conflicts, in turn, depend on the descent of the soul and its consequent need to ascend, an essentially Platonic trope that Plotinus attempts to clarify or reinterpret.

The Introduction (and later the Commentary) tracks Plotinus’ grappling with his Platonic sources on three issues. First, Fleet presents the nature of the soul as cosmic and individual, based on the Timaeus, with each individual or human soul as tripartite, based on the Republic and the Phaedrus. Plotinus’ innovation is the hypostasis Soul, which remains firmly within the intelligible, while all other souls, cosmic, stellar, and human, descend in varying degrees into the sensible world. Second, Fleet examines the ascent of the soul in its major Platonic texts, Republic, Phaedrus, Symposium, Letter 7, Phaedo, Timaeus, and Theaetetus. The allegorical character of the first three dialogues is a rich source for Plotinus’ understanding of tensions involved in accounts of the descent of the soul and of the details and goal of the ascent; the last four texts offer insights into personal dimensions of the ascent that Plotinus finds more congenial than the political context more prominent in Plato. Fleet ends this section with references to Aristotle and Middle Platonism, showing those points of convergence that allow Plotinus to synthesize what he considered best in the classical Greek tradition. Third, Fleet mentions briefly what the soul achieves in the ascent, the assimilation to the divine at the core of his experience and his philosophical account of it, moving us from the sources to the specific accounts Plotinus gives of the soul’s identification first with Intellect and then with the One.

The translation is clear and unadorned. This may detract from a certain mystique surrounding Plotinus as an esoteric and otherworldly figure, but has the advantage of showing that his philosophical insight is deeply rooted in, and is designed to explain, the presence of the soul in the body, a central element in this brief treatise that begins with one of his few articulations of his own experience of the soul’s assimilation to the divine, as Fleet phrases it. In translating iv 8.4,10 and 16, it would be slightly clearer if the noun going with ‘universal’ were included: universal ‘soul’. The commentary on these lines (134) does not make clear whether this universal soul is the hypostasis Soul or the cosmic soul. It would be helpful to have some clarification of which is meant, or what divergent meanings emerge reading it one way rather than the other, both to understand this treatise but also perhaps to indicate issues that Plotinus unravels more precisely in later works. In iv 8.5,26, ‘self-willed inclination’ seems slightly overstating the matter, especially when coupled with the commentary, which states that Plotinus uses the term to indicate freedom of the will (156). The soul has a sort of autonomous inclination, but Plotinus is keen to preserve the impassibility of the soul, so that it cannot have the kind of freedom that would make it a cause of evil, his major critique of Gnostic speculations.

The commentary will prove the most valuable aspect of this series, since it offers an examination of a single treatise from two complementary perspectives, indicating Plotinus’ sources in the Greek tradition and presenting his own central ideas in their proper context. We find, for example, the principle of two acts explored in the commentaries on iv 8.1-4. Fleet introduces it briefly in commenting on iv 8.1,3, where he sees this theory as a Plotinian refinement of Aristotle’s theory of act and potency, with the example of fire’s internal activity of heat producing the external heat that actively warms objects, alluding to v 1.3,9-11, including the parallel of Intellect’s production of soul (75). In commenting on iv 8.2,32, Fleet uses the two acts to explain the relation between logos as the conception within the soul and as its verbal expression, again with a parallel to the relation of the cosmic soul (and other souls) to the hypostasis Soul as the source (107), considered further in the comments on iv 8.3,6, with reference to the subsequent treatise, v 4[7].2, where the first activity refers to a being’s essence with the second activity as external to its essence (117). Finally, commenting on iv 8.4,2, Fleet completes this survey by drawing out the parallel between these two activities and Republic 507b-509c, the Platonic inspiration for the principle of double activity and the particular causality operative through it (131-132). The reader thus has a quick guide to the origins of this idea and its use in diverse contexts, the ontological relation of higher to lower levels of reality or the epistemological relation of discursive thought to spoken language.

One other topic worth mentioning is the discussion of evil and matter in iv 8.5- 6. Fleet, in commenting on iv 8.5,28, indicates how evil can be part of the experience of the soul in its descent (157), and relates it to the nature of matter, which is in turn discussed in his commentary on iv 8.6,18-28 (167-172). Fleet presents these topics in contexts that are not the most helpful for understanding Plotinus’ position and his reasons for it. He relates the experience of evil, for example, directly to the One as the sole ultimate cause of all things, including evil. This resort to a supposed monism is misleading and hides the fundamental issue about the soul’s experience of evil, its complete impassibility, featured in iii 6[26]. The experience of evil, restricted to human beings, comes from the association with bodies, but is not directly due to those bodies as themselves evil or cause of evil, nor can it be due to the soul as it can neither be the cause of nor be affected by any kind of evil. Moral evil depends instead on the double nature of the human self, with the higher self immune to such evil, but with the lower self susceptible to such evil in its disorientation, when it is turned to the sensible and its reasoning relies on premises derived from its sense experience.

The discussion of matter begins well in tracing the traditional identification of the receptacle of the Timaeus with the matter or substrate of the Physics, but then Fleet focuses on some tensions. First, there is a tension between matter as always existing or as coming to be from prior causes (167); then, matter appears in a pure sense or as the material substrate (168); next, matter is identified with nonbeing, or the otherness of the Sophist (169); finally, there is the question of whether Aristotle has a notion of prime matter at all (170). While these issues are central, it is not clear whether Fleet thinks Plotinus’ usage can be made consistent or remains ambiguously flawed.

These tensions, however, can profit from Plotinus’ discussion of matter in ii 4[12] and iii 6[26], where he gives complementary but rather consistent analyses of Aristotle’s and Plato’s understanding of matter, or at least what Plotinus thinks they need to say in order to be internally coherent and consistent with one another, as the tradition had assumed. Matter, on the one hand, must be completely impassible, but, on the other hand, remains the substrate for corporeal things, including the four elements. It functions thus as the condition of possibility, much like Kant’s a priori intuitions, but in Plotinus’ case matter is the condition of possibility for corporeal things, without itself being corporeal or having the qualities of the corporeal, such as size and extension. Matter, then, has all the ambiguities associated with every level in Plotinus’ hierarchy, but with the further one of not actually being something in its own right. Thus, it always exists (as non-being!), but as the product of prior causes as always causing it. The evil of matter is thus its very nature as formless (iii 6.11,28-29), but despite its evil nature matter continues to desire the good present in the forms (11,32), providing them a place in which to appear. This is the paradox that Plotinus strains to express, pointing out also the limitations of language in talking about something absolutely without form that still shares somehow in the otherness of being. Paradox, however, is not ambiguity or confusion or inconsistency, but the attempt to explain the necessity of an impassible and incorporeal matter, given the existence of corporeal things capable of receiving and losing forms.

Department of Philosophy
Boston College
Chestnut Hill MA 02467

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