From The Review of Metaphysics. Used with permission.
PLOTINUS. Ennead V.1: On the Three Primary Levels of Reality.
Translated by Eric D. Perl.
Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing, 2015. 224 pp. Paper, $42.00
Plotinus is one of the most recognizable philosophers of late antiquity (perhaps ranking only behind Augustine in name recognition). Yet in spite of this, his work receives substantially less attention than Plato or Aristotle. In terms of influence, he is unquestionably notable in the history of philosophy, as some of his own treatises (in paraphrased form) were confused for Aristotle’s work in the so-called Theology of Aristotle. In addition, he greatly influenced Augustine, Proclus, and Pseudo-Dionysus, three figures whose work features prominently in the medieval era.
Despite the relative tardiness with which scholars have recognized the extent of Plotinus’s influence, the gaps from Aristotle to Augustine, and from Augustine to Aquinas, have steady become more informed— Plotinus’s work is certainly crucial for understanding these periods. There are a few translations of the Enneads already available in English, chief among them the Loeb edition by Armstrong. The present volume is part of a recent project to translate most of the Enneads into English along with commentaries.
Eric Perl has presented us with a fine translation of Ennead V.1, which is, chronologically speaking, the tenth treatise Plotinus wrote in the corpus. The author has chosen to substitute the title given by Porphyry (Plotinus, we are told in his biography, did not title his works). Thus, rather than “On the Three Principal Hypostases,” we have “On the Three Primary Levels of Reality.” While this reader is not sure such a move was necessary, Perl justifies it with two reasons. His first reason is that this treatise is principally concerned with the self. However true this statement may be, Perl’s substitution does not appear to follow to his own justification, as the new title does not explicitly reference “the self.” The second is that (apart from Plotinus never using the term “hypostasis” himself) each level of reality is not as separate from the others as the original title would otherwise suggest.
The translation itself is valuable. Consistently in the commentary, Perl notes where his translation is significantly at odds with Armstrong’s and provides justification to warrant his alterations. An example of this occurs at 4.34–35. Where Armstrong translates, “These then are primary, Intellect, Being, Otherness, Sameness,” Perl translates, “Thus intellect becomes these first: being, difference, sameness.” Perl explains this move by pointing out that Plotinus is probably not adding a sixth genus to the megista gene of the Sophist but is rather articulating what the Intellect itself becomes. If Plotinus does not consider himself an innovator of Plato’s philosophy, the latter translation seems preferable.
One glaring difference between the two translations is that kakon, usually translated as “evil,” is here translated as “badness.” Perl justifies his choice by citing the narrowed definition which “evil” has taken on in the English language. Kakon, however, can refer to any bad or evil thing. For instance, a teacher who is kakon more likely fails to impart knowledge to his students or instructs them with falsity; it is less likely that he destroys the lives of his students. While any (or at least most) classicist or scholar of ancient philosophy would immediately recognize this, someone new to Plotinus might not know kakon’s broad scope—hence, Perl’s substitution is fully warranted to prevent confusion among those who are new to Plotinus’s philosophy or ancient Greek philosophy in general. Moreover, this is an important point in the history of philosophy, for the way in which Arendt speaks of evil is not the same concept as her predecessors. And so, from a comparative standpoint, before evaluating the veracity of her system against Plotinus (or any classical author), one should ask whether Arendt is warranted in narrowing the definition.
Such important remarks consistently occur in the commentary, and I do not wish to raise each instance in such a short space. Before moving on, I should like to add one more; Perl also notes that “necessity” is misunderstood in Plotinus. He carefully points out that it does not mean for Plotinus what it usually means for us. Since perhaps Augustine onward (at least in the West), it has generally been recognized that something cannot act both freely and necessarily with respect to the same action. Clearly, though, Plotinus denies this. In fact, Plotinus seems to suggest that something which is free would necessarily act according to its own nature; it is not a freedom to determine an end, but rather to reach an end. Such a point is important to remember when evaluating Plotinus’s thought, as we should not expect him to say what we want him to say.
The treatise itself can serve as a broad overview of Plotinian (and Neoplatonic) metaphysics for students in survey courses of ancient philosophy. Ennead V.1 is an exposition of the different levels of reality and their relation to one another, and so, while it does not provide the level of detail that his other treatises may have on the fall of the soul, evil, and providence (all important themes in Plotinus), it does provide an adequate picture for new student of Plotinus. Aside from this, the commentary should prove helpful for any reader wishing to begin studying Plotinian philosophy, as the textual commentary illuminates difficult passages and provides references to Plato and Neoplatonic authors where appropriate. It thus affords the reader both the aide of seeing how Plotinus understands Plato and where some Neoplatonic innovations were made in later authors.
Plotinus is a masterful figure: besides synthesizing Plato’s thought, he incorporates concepts from other Hellenistic philosophies and perhaps even from Indian sources as well. His work has long been recognized as a landmark in ancient thought after Aristotle, and no serious scholar of the history of philosophy should be without some knowledge of his work, for he influences Patristic authors, Renaissance authors, and even German Idealists. He thus indirectly—if not directly—affects most of the history of philosophy. Ennead V.1 ranks among the more significant treatises in Plotinus’s corpus, as it is an overview of his thought. Perl has provided us with a fine translation with which to engage it.
—Christopher Backes, The Catholic University of America