Episode 119: Jean-Marc Narbonne on Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics
Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus 16 gives us a useful piece of information regarding some suspect texts circulating among Plotinus’ students at Rome:
There were many of the Christians and others in his time [or ‘present with him’, i.e. coming to his lectures], deviating from the ancient philosophy (αἱρετικοὶ δὲ ἐκ τῆς παλαῖας φιλοσοφίας), supporting Adelphios and Akylinos, in possession of a great many writings of Alexander the Libyan and Philokomos and Demostratos and Lydos, and proffering apocalypses of Zoroaster, Zostrianos, Nikotheos, Allogenes, Messos, and many others of this sort. [They were] deluded and deluding others, [alleging] that Plato, even, had not penetrated to the depths of the noetic essence. He made many refutations of them in his seminars, and and wrote the treatise which we have entitled ‘Against the Gnostics’ ….
Porphyry mentions two texts by name here which we now know from Nag Hammadi (Allogenes, ‘Foreigner’, NHC XI 3, and Zostrianos, NHC VIII 1) – both of them central texts for the Sethian current of thought reconstructed by many scholars – which has enabled us to gain a better insight into what kinds of thought Plotinus is inveighing against. Still, the identity of his ‘Gnostic’ opponents remains frustratingly difficult to pin down (which does not surprise us, since the texts labelled ‘Gnostic’ are so frustratingly diverse.
Everyone knows that Ennead II.9, helpfully entitled Against the Gnostics (by Porphyry – and note that the term ‘Gnostics’ never occurs in Plotinus’ work) is, well, against the Gnostics. But a number of scholars have in recent years cast an eye at the Sethian tractates from Nag Hammadi – which, as we saw in the last episode, walk a baffling path between Late Platonist metaphysics and Jewish-style visionary narratives and mythic salvation-history – and other sources, notably Valentinian writings, and found further engagements with the thought of the Gnostics within the Enneads. It may be that Plotinus was far more engaged with – and troubled by – the type of thought, and even the metaphysical details of the thought, contained in these Sethian tractates than has often been thought.
We discuss the matter with Jean-Marc Narbonne, a leading scholar of Plotinus’ engagement with Gnostic thought. In addition to Treatise 33 and the three preceding treatises (all four of which Harder identified as a single, long treatise known in scholarly parlance as ‘the Grossschrift’, all of which is widely acknowledged to have at least some concern with refuting Gnostic positions), we discuss a number of texts and arguments which fall less often under the lens of those seeking traces of ‘intimate, hidden, but very intense’ dialogue with Gnosticism in Plotinus, notably:
- the early Treatise 6 (Enn. IV.8.8.1-6), where Narbonne sees Plotinus’ celebrated statement that his theory of the undescended self is ‘contrary to the opinion of others’ as a response to the kind of elect-non-elect dichotomies found in some Gnostic thought, and
- the even earlier Treatise 2, where the curious term homoousios occurs, a term with a rich Christian/Gnostic resonance, but no presence in traditional Platonist philosophy at the time.
Narbonne sees a strong link, rather than an opposition, between Plotinus’ ‘mysticism’ – his descriptions in first-person, narrative terms of an ineffable process of elevation to higher realities – and the ascent-accounts found in certain Sethian texts. One might agree that there is really nothing like this outside of these two sources in our period.
Narbonne argues that Plotinus’ doctrine of evil shows a strong evolution over time, from the ‘fall of the soul through tolma’ idea of early treatises to the ‘matter is the source of evil’ doctrine of later writings (see Episode 113 for another take on these ideas in Plotinus). This he interprets as a response to Gnostics who make the soul in part responsible for evil; by positing a strongly negative view of matter, Plotinus can save the soul from any taint of itself being evil (which would imply some rupture in the emanation from the Good, which is precisely the point that Gnostic myths of the ‘fall’ do support). [Thinking about this, I find it a very convincing argument; the ‘matter as source of evil’ argument never seemed to me to sit well within Plotinus’ philosophy as a whole].
Jean-Marc Narbonne is Professeur titulaire in Philosophy at the Université Laval, a hotbed for cutting-edge research into the interrelations between Plotinus and the Platonists and the Gnostics. He has published widely on ancient philosophy and Gnosticism.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- O’Brien 1991 (see below).
- Dylan Burns. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2014.
- Kevin Corrigan and John D. Turner, editors. Plotinus Ennead VI.8: On the Voluntary and on the Free Will of the One. Parmenides Press, Las Vegas/Zurich/Athens, 2017.
- R. Harder. Ein neue Schrift Plotins. Hermes, 71:1–10, 1936.
- Alexander J. Mazur. The Platonizing Sethian Background of Plotinus’s Mysticism. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2021.
- Idem. Introduction and Commentary to Plotinus’ Treatise 33 (II.9) Against the Gnostics and Related Studies. Zêtêsis. Presses de l’Université Laval, Canada, 2019.
- Jean-Marc Narbonne. Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics. Number 11 in Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition. Brill, Leiden, 2011.
- Denis O’Brien. Plotinus on the Origin of Matter: An Exercise in the Interpretation of the Enneads. Bibliopolis, Napoli, 1991.
- J.D. Turner. Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition. Presses Université Laval/Éditions Peeters, Montreal/Louvain-Paris, 2001.