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Ancient Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the 'We' by Pauliina Remes (Cambridge University Press)
Reviewed by James Wilberding for Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews

One's 'self,' like one's 'true love,' might seem prima facie to be the kind of term whose very meaning demands its own uniqueness. Of course we can speak of someone having 'another (and another) true love,' but we can't do so without diminishing the sense of the phrase. Used often enough one might suspect that it refers to nothing more than someone whom one really likes or desires. So what are we to make of someone like Plotinus who suggests that each one of us has two selves -- an embodied self and an immaterial self? This is the question that Remes sets out to tackle in her recent book, in which she aims to demonstrate that Plotinus does have a coherent and unified conception of the self that has an important role to play in his metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. This is a rich book that discusses far more than could be covered in a single review, and in what follows I shall focus on what I take to be some of its central theses on the unity of selfhood.

In fact, although Remes is for the most part content to follow Plotinus' practice of engaging in a 'two-dimensional discussion of selfhood' (10), she distinguishes as many as five senses of 'self' in the Enneads (240) -- (i) the embodied self, (ii) selfhood as a process in time, (iii) discursive reason, (iv) pure intellect, and (v) 'that capable of identifying itself with any of these senses' -- and ultimately does a very impressive job of constructing a unified theory that displays the connections between all of them. (i) The embodied self is not merely the body but the composite including the vegetative, sensitive and even the rational power of soul. The first chapter of the book, which appeared previously in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, is devoted to forming an account of the diachronic identity and unity of this embodied self. Remes argues that the embodied self is a self in time. Since this composite self involves a body, it is in flux and a mere 'quasi-substance' (34), yet it nevertheless remains the same self on account of the soul that belongs to it (39). Drawing an expression from 3.7.11, Remes characterizes the embodied self as being 'one in continuity,' which is to say that it is a unity that consists of parts. More specifically, she argues that this embodied self is best understood as a kind of four-dimensional whole consisting of temporal parts. Describing a 3rd century philosopher as a four-dimensionalist is bound to strike some as irredeemably anachronistic, but, as Remes shows, Plotinus' views on the relationship obtaining between the sensible and intelligible worlds provide good reasons for understanding the unity of composite living things in this manner. After all, Plotinus repeatedly says that the composite sensible world contains everything that is in the intelligible world, but this only makes sense if we understand the sensible world to be a four-dimensional whole, since there is no one time at which it contains the entire contents of the intelligible world. This interpretation of the identity of sensible particulars allows Remes to conclude that (i) the embodied self is in fact (ii) 'a process in time,' and that this is the self that allows us to speak of self-improvement. This ethical upshot shows that the changes attached to the embodied self involve much more than just material flux and include personal histories, aspirations and thoughts:

[T]he embodied self is deeply personal. For this self, the contingently and personally constructed past is a real aspect of selfhood … Similarly the future developments of the embodied self belong to the whole process of its lifetime, of its selfhood in time. (56)

There are, however, problems with this embodied self. Above all else it lacks completion. This follows firstly from the above: since it is a 'process' self, there is no time at which it is wholly present, and of course it ultimately perishes. But it also follows from Remes' conclusions regarding the relationship that holds between particular human beings and their intelligible paradigms. Forms, she argues, 'consist of something like logical parts' (71). The Form of Human Being, for example, contains (non-spatial) parts that together account for all the 'possibilities within the form of human being' (81). That is to say, the Form contains potentially within itself all the form-principles or logoi that account for the way human beings are, including 'rationality, life and eyes' (71) but also much less generic logoi -- not just of nose but of snub-nose and aquiline nose (79). In this way Remes provides a very reasonable solution to the much-debated issue in Plotinian scholarship concerning the Forms of Individuals. There is no need to posit Forms of Individuals in order to account for the intelligibility of an individual such as Socrates: Socrates' embodied individuality is due to a certain bundle of logoi -- a 'rational pattern' (81) that represents one possible instantiation of the Form of Human Being. Thus the embodied self -- even over a lifetime -- can only instantiate a fraction of what is contained in the Form. As such it is essentially incomplete (90).

For completion we must turn from the embodied self to the immaterial self, which Remes refers to by a number of expressions: the 'rational' or 'reflective' self (11), 'pure rational soul' (157) or the 'pure rational subject' (111) etc., and all of these refer to the undescended soul, which is (iv) one's pure intellect. This might confuse some who are accustomed to thinking of reason in Plotinus solely as (iii) discursive reason. For Remes argues that we should think of rationality as being 'divided into two parts: into the perfect paradigm and thereby the truest self, nous, as well as into its temporal and erring counterpart, discursive reasoning, dianoia, residing in the composite' (157). The argument basically amounts to showing that intellect and discursive reasoning are not engaged in radically different activities, rather there are important similarities in function and content. Both are essentially engaged in the activities of collection and division -- establishing and organizing the similarities and differences of the objects they encounter. Likewise, although the intellect is dealing with Forms and the discursive reason with logoi, the latter obviously derive from the former. And since discursive reason is the definitive power of the embodied self, it follows that the two selves -- the embodied self and the true intellectual self -- far from being utterly distinct are in fact related to each other in important ways, as the former is derived from and explained by the latter. Moreover, both are capable of self-awareness (sunaisthêsis), which in each case amounts to a unifying awareness of a multiplicity that one identifies oneself with, and this is ultimately what makes them into selves, since self just is a 'unitary centre of awareness' (126). And this leads us once again to the conclusion that the embodied self is essentially deficient, since it involves a kind of manifold that can never be truly unified. It cannot collect all of its spatial and temporal parts into a single awareness, and so falls short of achieving true selfhood. In addition, the awareness that the embodied self does have of itself lacks certainty since, as Plotinus famously argues against the skeptics, the conditio sine qua non for certainty is the identity of subject and object -- a condition that only obtains in the case of the intellect. Thus, for the intellect alone is this awareness an 'epistemically indubitable activity' (110), and this again would seem to compromise the embodied self's claim to selfhood, since the self would seem to be the one thing that has the strongest claim to being a secure object of knowledge.

If this demonstration of the similarities and relations between the embodied rational self and intellect does much to stitch together Plotinus' two notions of self, a final rupture is threatened by his own exhortation that we separate ourselves from our embodied existence. It has been suggested that this notorious insistence on separation drives a wedge between Plotinian ethics and what most would agree to be a central ethical issue, namely being genuinely concerned for the well-being of others. After all, why direct my attention to others' embodied selves if I'm supposed to distance myself from my own? Here, then, we have the familiar problem of the tension between the contemplative and practical lives, and in the final chapters of her book, which include material from a previous article that appeared in the Journal of the History of Philosophy, Remes adds her voice to a growing number of scholars (Schniewind, O'Meara) who argue that the Plotinian sage does not ultimately amount to anything like a detached, weltfremd philosopher who has no concern for the goings-on in the cave, though interestingly Remes concedes that this might be the case for some Plotinian sages (226).

All in all, Plotinus on Self offers a very comprehensive and thoughtful exploration of Plotinus' entire philosophy. It is a very welcome addition to Plotinus scholarship.

PLOTINUS or the Simplicity of Vision by Pierre Hadot, Michael Chase (Translator), ($13.00, paperback, 152 pages , University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 0226311945)

The Roman philosopher Plotinus (c. 205-70) is perhaps best known today for his doctrine of self-transformation through contemplation: "Never stop sculpting your own statue, until the godlike splendor of virtue shines forth to you." Since its publication in France in 1963 and through subsequent editions both there and abroad, Pierre Hadot's lively philosophical portrait of Plotinus has established itself as the preeminent introduction to the man and his thought. Michael Chase's lucid translation complete with a useful chronology and analytical bibliography-at last makes this book available to the English-speaking world.

Hadot carefully examines Plotinus' views on the self, existence, love, virtue, gentleness, and solitude. He shows that Plotinus, like other philosophers of his day, believed that Plato and Aristotle had already articulated the essential truths; for him, the purpose of practicing philosophy was not to profess new truths but to engage in spiritual exercises so as to live philosophically. Seen in this light, Plotinus' counsel against fixation on the body and all earthly matters stemmed not from disgust or fear, but rather from his awareness of the negative effect that bodily preoccupation and material concern could have on spiritual exercises.

Arnold Davidson's useful introduction sets this book against the background of current Plotinus scholarship, discusses Plotinus' understanding of mystical experience and the self, and emphasizes Plotinus' continuing philosophical significance.

Pierre Hadot's PLOTINUS or the Simplicity of Vision is a masterpiece of philosophical interpretation. Its mastery is exhibited not only in its interpretation of Plotinus, but also in its presentation of a vision of philosophy exemplified in, but certainly not exhausted by, the teachings of Plotinus. Originally published in French in 1963, its translation into English coincides with the appearance of the first volumes of Hadot's new translation of and commentary on Plotinus' Enneads. The thirty intervening years have seen the publication of many of Hadot's fundamental essays on Plotinus. But the best introduction to Hadot's reading of Plotinus remains this short book, for it allows us to see the experience of philosophy as manifested in the writings of a thinker too often consigned to the footnotes of philosophy. From Introduction

Pierre Hadot is one of the most influential and wide-ranging historians of ancient philosophy writing today. His work exhibits that rare combination of prodigious historical scholarship and rigorous philosophical argumentation that upsets any preconceived distinction between the history of philosophy and philosophy proper.

PHILOSOPHY AS A WAY OF LIFE: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault by Pierre Hadot, Arnold I. Davidson (Editor) ($29.95, paperback, Blackwell Publishers; ISBN: 0631180338)

This book presents a history of spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault, an account of the centrality, decline, and re-emergence of spiritual exercises in the history of philosophy, and a discussion of the different conceptions of philosophy that have accompanied the trajectory and fate of the theory and practice of spiritual exercises. By focusing our attention on philosophy as a way of life, Hadot provokes us to ask the question of what it means to philosophize today. Hadot addresses the need for philosophy to return to the philosophy of the ancient writers (he places special emphasis on Socrates, Marcus Arelius, Epicurus and Epictetus). The book is well organized and clear to understand. Hadot does a good job with his citation of lots of ancient material, which allows the readers to read more of the original works that he cites. With a thorough bibliography and excellent endnotes, this book is a must-have for all philosophers interested in postmodern philosophy and ancient philosophy scholars. There is a special focus in the contemplative aspects of philosophy not as a collection of ideas about life but as an contemplative mode of living.

He is Professor Emeritus of the History of Hellenistic and Roman Thought at the College de France. He is the author of numerous landmark books and essays on the major figures and themes of ancient philosophy, as well as on medieval Philosophy, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.

The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus
Lloyd P. Gerson, editor
Cambridge University Press
$59.95, cloth, 462 pages; bibliography, indexes
ISBN 0-521-47093-5

paper edition:

An Introduction to the Enneads
by Dominic J. O'Meara
Oxford University Press
$15.95, paper; 142 pages
ISBN 0-19-875147-8
cloth edition:

Currently there is no better introductory philosophical text about Plotinus than O'Meara's. He cleverly places Plotinus' arguments into their classic context showing how the tradition and his immediate predecessors' presuppositions about what Plato meant informed Plotinus' own strong moral purpose.

Each volume of this series of Cambridge Companions to major philosophers contains especially commissioned essays by an international team of scholars, together with a substantial bibliography, and will serve as a reference work for students and nonspecialists. One aim of the series is to dispel the intimidation such readers often feel when faced with the work of a difficult and challenging thinker.

Plotinus is the greatest philosopher in the 700-year period between Aristotle and Augustine. He thought of himself as a disciple of Plato, but in his efforts to defend Platonism against Aristotelians, Stoics, and others, he actually produced a reinvigorated version of Platonism that later came to be known as "Neoplatonism."

In this volume, sixteen leading scholars introduce and explain the many facets of Plotinus's complex system. They place Plotinus in the history of ancient philosophy while showing how he was a founder of medieval philosophy. New readers and nonspecialists will find this the most convenient and accessible guide to Plotinus currently available. Advanced students and specialists will find a conspectus of recent developments in the interpretation of Plotinus.
This volume, like the others in the series, is intended to serve as an aid to the reading of a major Western philosopher. One service that the editor and contributors would be glad to perform is to change the mind of those who cavil at the use of the term "major" or even "philosopher" in reference to Plotinus. Read them and him for yourself and decide. Do not be put off by ignorant detractors or uncritical enthusiasts or by the essentially empty label "Neoplatonist," which in some circles has become nothing more than a term of abuse.

How best to assist someone who wants to read Plotinus, whose works, regardless of their quality, are intensely difficult, is not easy to determine. First of all, his thought is not simply divisible into the traditional categories of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and so on. And so it would be positively unhelpful to suggest otherwise by offering a tidy package of essays each of which "does" a given subject.

Second, Plotinus's writings can hardly be characterized as systematic, although there is a Plotinian system in the sense that there are basic entities, principles of operation, and an effort at a unified explanation of the world. The system, however, does not for the most part cut up nicely into the written works, such that an introductory exposition of a work would provide one of that system's building blocks.

Third, Plotinus is a philosopher deeply and self-consciously rooted in a long and complex tradition. To try to represent his views without some appreciation of this context could only result in grotesque distortions and it would make this book at best a treacherous "companion."

The expedient employed here is something of a compromise, in attempting to combine elements of different possible approaches. The first essay should give one an overview of the philosophical context of Plotinus's writings. The next three together provide an outline of the three "hypostases" or basic entities of Plotinus's system and their operations.

Essays five through nine discuss specific philosophical problems that Plotinus deals with on the basis of his fundamental principles. Essays ten through thirteen concern Plotinus's treatment of issues that cut across what today would be said to belong to philosophy of mind, ethics, and philosophy of religion. Essay fourteen concerns Plotinus's remarkable use of the Greek language in his sometimes tortured efforts to convey his philosophical vision. Essays fifteen and sixteen provide the reader with some signposts leading from Plotinus to the increasingly complex history of later Neoplatonism and its encounter with Christianity. Some important topics are only touched on - aesthetics and mysticism, for instance.

The airing of controversies regarding interpretation of texts has been largely suppressed, not by editorial fiat, but by the far more effective expedient of space limitations. I am reasonably confident that in generally having ignored deeply contentious issues of interpretation we have not done a disservice to the neophyte. More experienced readers of Plotinian scholarship will after all have some idea of what the issues are and what is the range of scholarly opinion, and they can evaluate what is said here accordingly.
Adapted from the Introduction by Lloyd P. Gerson.

Plotinus: The Enneads, the best current translation in English is in the Loeb Classical Library by A.H. Armstrong.

Plotinus Enneads (Loeb Classical Library, 440) Volume 1; 2nd Rev Edition Plotinus, Paul Henry (Editor), Harvard University Press, $18.95, Hardcover; 0-674-99484-1

Plotinus Ennead III by Plotinus, (Loeb Classical Library, No 442) Volume 3 translated by A.H. Armstrong, Harvard University Press, $18.95, Hardcover; 0-674-99487-6

Plotinus Ennead IV by Plotinus, (Loeb Classical Library, No 443) Volume 4 translated by A.H. Armstrong, Harvard University Press, $18.95, Hardcover; 0-674-99488-4

Plotinus Ennead V by Plotinus, (Loeb Classical Library, No 444) Volume 5 translated by A.H. Armstrong, Harvard University Press, $18.95, Hardcover; 0-674-99489-2

Plotinus Ennead VI by Plotinus, (Loeb Classical Library, No 445) Books 1-5,Volume 6 translated by A.H. Armstrong, Harvard University Press, $18.95, Hardcover; 0-674-99490-6

Plotinus Ennead VI by Plotinus, (Loeb Classical Library, No 446) Books 6-9,Volume 7 translated by A.H. Armstrong, Harvard University Press, $18.95, Hardcover; 0-674-99515-5


Ennead III.6 on the Impassivity of the Bodiless
by Plotinus

translated by Barrie Fleet with commentary

Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press

$75.00, Hardcover,


Not reviewed.

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