Episode 111: ‘The Philosopher of our Time’: Introducing Plotinus
[Corrigendum: In the episode we describe A.H. Armstrong as the first translator of all of Plotinus into English. This distinction of course belongs to the great Stephen MacKenna. Armstrong, however, had the benefit of Henry and Schwyzer’s edited text, and his translation is thus on a much firmer textual foundation and more useful to scholars.]
In this episode we are delighted to be introducing one of the greatest thinkers in the history of western esotericism. The thought of Plotinus was in certain respects the greatest synthesis of Plato’s thought read as a metaphysical system, while also setting a new set of agenda for the future of Platonist thought, and perhaps of ontological realist thought in the west more generally. While we find the idea that Plotinus was the ‘founder of Neoplatonism’ unhelpful and anachronistic, no one will argue against the statement that his thought set important events in motion which would echo throughout the western thought-worlds until our time.
In this episode we introduce some basics of his thought, discuss why these basics are inadequate, and give an outline of Plotinus’ life and writings.
Citations for this Episode:
All primary references are to Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus (often abbreviated to Porph. Plot. in scholarship) by chapter number unless otherwise stated.
Plotinus’ birthplace: Eunapius (p. 6 Boissonade) says Lykô; David, in his preface to his commentary on Porphyry’s Eisagôgê, names Lykopolis. Porphyry never tells us his opinion. Dodds argues (The Parmenides of Plato and the Neoplatonic One. CQ, 22:129–142, 1928, p. 129-30, n. 2) that Plotty may not have been Egyptian at all, since Porphyry never explicitly says he is, and Eunapius, a kind of pagan hagiographer, might have simply inserted Egypt as ‘the home of all wisdom’.
- Plotinus’ reputation in his own day and later antiquity: Clearest expounder of Platonic and Pythagorean doctrines: Longinus ap. Porph. Plot. 20. Augustine considers Plotinus to be like ‘Plato reborn’: Contra Ac. 3.41 ad fin..
- Stoic, Aristotelean, and other doctrines ‘hiding’ in Plotinus’ thought: 14, 4-7: ̓Εμμέμικται δ ́ ἐν τοῖς συγγράμμασι καὶ τὰ Στωικὰ λανθάνοντα δόγματα καὶ τὰ Περιπατητικὰ· καταπεπύκνωται δὲ καὶ ἡ Μετὰ τὰ φυσικὰ τοῦ ̓Αριστοτέλους πραγματεία. His ‘peculiar doctrines’ and originality: 14. Plotinus accused of plagiarising Numenius: 17, cf. 21.
- Ammonius Saccas: ‘This is the man I was seeking!’: 3.
- The Oath of Secrecy incident: 3.
- The Journey to the East with Gordian: 3.
- Plotinus’ seminar: Open to all: 1. Women: 9.
- Plotinus as ‘godfather to the elites’: 9.
- Amelius knows Numenius almost by heart: 3.
- The Enneads divided into six ‘nines’ by Porphyry on the grounds that ‘six is a perfect number’: 24.
- William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. Longmans, Green, And Co, New York, NY, London, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, 1917. We cite page 380.
The Stanford online encyclopedia of philosophy is always a good place to get started with some basics on an author like Plotinus. Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy podcast will give some helpful orientation as well.
On Citing Plotinus:
Most modern scholarly citations of Plotinus go by either the editio maior (1951-73) or editio minor (1964-83) of Henry and Schwyzer, who took Porphyry’s original division of 6 Enneads with 9 treatises each, attempted to rectify the manuscript readings, and supplied us with Chapter numbers and Line numbers within the chapters. Each treatise also has a title, most likely from Porphyry, which may or may not be cited, and can potentially be cited by its chronological numbering, since we know from Porphyry the order in which Plotinus wrote his works. Thus some scholars (especially French scholars) might say ‘Treatise 33’; by this they will mean the same thing as another scholar who cites ‘Against the Gnostics’ (Πρὸς τοὺς Γνωστικούς), which is Porphyry’s title for this little gem of a polemical text, and another scholar who says Ennead II.9. A really thorough scholar would say ‘Ennead II.9’, and if she were citing a specific passage, she might add chapter and line numbers, giving us, for example ‘Enn. II.96.6-8.
Primary Editions of Plotinus:
The key editions are those of Henry and Schwyzer, a.k.a. H.-S: for earlier editions, such as those by Ficino and others, H.-S.’ preface contains a thorough and entertaining summary. For the story of the creation of the modern editions of Plotinus as told by the scholars who created them, see now: Suzanne Stern-Gillet, Kevin Corrigan, and José C. Baracat Jr., editors. A Text Worthy
of Plotinus: The Lives and Correspondence of P. Henry S.J., H.-R. Schwyzer, A.H. Armstrong, J. Trouillard and J. Igal S.J. Leuven University Press, Leuven, 2021.
- P. Henry and H.-R. Schwyzer, editors. Plotini opera. Desclée de Brouwer/L’Edition Universelle, Paris/Brussels, 1951-1973. 3 vols.
- Idem. Plotini opera. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1964-1983. 3 vols [The Oxford Classical Texts edition reflects the continued work put in by these two great scholars, even after their editio maior was almost complete, and in particular benefited from the ridiculously sharp Spanish scholar J. Igal, who suggested many valuable variant readings and possible corrections based on the first edition].
- You will also want J. H. Sleeman and Gilbert Pollet. Lexicon Plotinianum. Brill/Leuven University Press, Leiden/Leuven, 1980. This is a list of every word used by Plotinus and where it appears, based on the H.-S. text, allowing for all manner of useful comparisons and research-pathways.
- Harder’s translation (see Important Translations below) is actually accompanied by an independent edition of the Greek. We thus have two distinct key editions, containing different readings. Serious students working with H.-S. may wish to check with Harder on difficult points, or vice-versa.
In English (chronological):
- Thomas Taylor. Collected Writings of Plotinus. Prometheus Trust, Chippenham, 2000 [The translations of the English Platonist Thomas Taylor cannot be recommended highly enough, and this volume from the Prometheus Trust gathers his Plotinian renderings in one place. Tragically, however, Taylor translated only some of the Enneads. Like MacKenna, he worked from a faulty text. MacKenna found his translations abysmal, but we like them].
- MacKenna, S. Plotinus. The Enneads. English Translation Revised by B.S. Page. London, 1962 [first published in five magnificent volumes 1917-1930. MacKenna’s translation is a masterpiece, highly recommended for those seeking to quaff the draught of Plotinus’ vision without worrying too much about the technical details. Based on uncritical early editions, so less reliable than Armstrong, if more truly Plotinian in spirit].
- MacKenna, S. Plotinus. The Enneads. Selected Treatises Revised with Notes by John M. Dillon. London: Penguin, 1991 [This is a greatest-hits selection of MacKenna’s Enneads, chosen by John Dillon, a good one-volume Plotinus to carry with you on holiday].
- Armstrong, A.H. Plotinus: Enneads. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003. Greek text based on Henry & Schwyzer (1951-73), with translation and introduction by A.H. Armstrong. 7 vols [still the standard in English, although translations of individual treatises to be found in the Parmenides Press series (see below) often improve on Armstrong].
- Lloyd P. Gerson, editor. Plotinus: The Enneads. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018 [this is a one-volume mega-translation, the work of six top translators whose translations were then standardised by Gerson to match a one-size-fits-all glossary of terms-of-translation, given at the end of the book; i.e. the term νοῦς is always translated as ‘Intellect’. An interesting approach, which has benefits as well as drawbacks; to take one example of the latter, λόγος is always translated as ‘expressed principle’, a term which carries with it assumptions that Gerson’s take on the Plotinian logos is the right take, and that Plotinus always means the same thing when he says λόγος, which one may doubt].
In other tongues:
- Bréhier, E. Plotin Ennéades. (7 vols.) Greek Text and French Translation with Introductions and Notes. Paris, 1924–38.
- V. Cilento. Plotino: Enneadi. Laterza, Bari, 1947-9.
- Harder, R., Beutler, R., and Theiler, W. Plotin. (12 vols.) Greek Text with German Translation and Commentary. Hamburg 1956–71.
- J. Igal. Plotino Enéadas, volume 3 vols. Gredos, Madrid, 1982-1998.
A number of excellent series of translations-with-commentary of the Enneads are out there. The French have led the way, firstly with the du Cerf series (the Red Plotties) edited by the late Pierre Hadot, and more recently with the Flammarion series (the white Plotties) edited by Bresson and Pradeau. But the Anglophone world is catching up with them through the Parmenides Press series, edited by John Dillon and Andrew Smith.