Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.06


Dominic J. O'Meara, Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. Pp. ix + 142. $39.95. ISBN 0-19-875121-4.


Reviewed by John Peter Kenney, Reed College.

As its title suggests, this work is intended as a short and accessible introduction to the Enneads of Plotinus (205-270 A.D.). It is directed to those readers and they are legion who are not unfamiliar with ancient Greek philosophy (vii) but who are nonetheless innocent of Plotinus. This is a worthy task in which this slim volume succeeds admirably.

It is an apposite moment for the volume to appear. As O'Meara notes in his Preface, there is renewed interest in late antiquity across a wide spectrum of disciplines; any serious effort at understanding that distant civilization requires attention to the philosophers, whose creative presence was vital. Contemporary philosophers no longer hesitate, as O'Meara judiciously puts it (vii), to look beyond Plato and Aristotle to the Neoplatonists. Having done so, some Anglo-American philosophers have even retained their reputations. Beyond this shift in intellectual fashion, there is the deeper imperative of classical scholarship. Plotinus, whose importance to medieval and renaissance thought is undeniable, has only recently been critically edited. The Henry-Schwyzer edition was completed in 1973. Various modern language translations have surrounded this project. A. H. Armstrong's Loeb edition, finished in 1988, provides a reliable and clear English version, supplanting the delightfully eccentric, literary, indeed Yeatsian translation of Stephen MacKenna. Perhaps there is a promising post-modern future for the reading of Plotinus.

But as those who have attempted the task are aware, the Enneads are no light read. It was so even in antiquity. When supplied with final copies of the treatises by Porphyry, Longinus, the Athenian Platonist, returned them and requested that they be corrected. Plotinus's Greek is dense and grammatically uncertain at times. The treatises often begin in the middle of some dispute and presuppose at least the outline of Plotinus's views on transcendental matters. Who is emanating what or transcending whom is sometimes in doubt. Porphyry's remark in the Vita Plotini that one finds Aristotle's Metaphysics in the Enneads is true in several senses.

Hence the need for a good introduction. To date, the English reader has had limited options, none entirely satisfactory. A. H. Armstrong's excellent essay on Plotinus and his school in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967) is the best: comprehensive and judicious. But it is comparatively inaccessible, especially for classroom use, embedded as it is in this large and expensive reference volume. J. M. Rists' Plotinus: The Road to Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967) is really an interpretive study, not an introduction, one both controversial in its analysis and increasingly outdated. What O'Meara has now provided is an informed and carefully nuanced replacement for these late-60s titles. Although at $39.95 it may not achieve a classroom niche (except for specialized seminars), it should be widely purchased by research and undergraduate libraries, thus making the study of Plotinus in classical and medieval philosophy courses much easier. We might even hope for a paperbound edition.

The volume itself is nicely organized. There is a short Introduction on Plotinus' life and works, followed by 10 brief chapters on such topics as Soul and Body (11 pp.), Intellect and the One (9 1/2 pp.), The Return of Soul: Philosophy and Mysticism (11 1/2 pp.). These are followed by an epilogue, providing a summary of Plotinian influence in Western thought. In lieu of scholarly annotation, O'Meara provides a Guide to Further Reading (through 1990). There is also a selected bibliography, as well as in dices of Plotinian texts and of major terms and themes.

It is always possible, of course, for specialists to take issue with matters of interpretation or detail. Each chapter covers material to which monographs have been devoted. Nor are Plotinian studies a tranquil backwater any longer; there are sharp disagreements on such fundamental questions as the character of discursive reasoning, the scope of human individuality, the nature of contemplative union with the Good, and the inner life of the One. O'Meara tends to register these problems, rather than either resolving them by taking a firm interpretive line, or presenting fully the options in debate. But this is a reasonable strategy for a basic introduction, given the ample listing of current scholarship included here. Students will thus be able to find their way into the literature and more deeply into the issues. Perhaps the 'power of anonymity' that Plotinus has long enjoyed, as his ideas have lived on for centuries disguised in the theories of others, will soon be superseded by a new authorial presence. If so, O'Meara's useful introduction will have played an important role.