Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.05.02

Alexandrine Schniewind, L'éthique du sage chez Plotin.   Paris:  Librarie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2003.  Pp. 238.  ISBN 2-7116-1616-9.  €32.00.  



Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College, Dublin (dillonj@tcd.ie)
Word count: 927 words

This monograph, a revision of the author's doctoral thesis, sets out to examine the ethical position of Plotinus from the perspective of his doctrine of the sage, the 'spoudaios anêr', and in particular through an exegesis of his tractate 'On Well-Being', Enn. I 4 [46]. The doctrine of the 'spoudaios' in indeed an excellent perspective from which to evaluate the nature of Plotinus' ethics, and S[chniewind] does a fine job of setting out the chief issues. Plotinus' position is notable, even within the Platonic tradition. He sees the 'true man' (with which only the spoudaios is properly in touch) as that 'undescended' part of the soul which remains in a state of unification with Intellect. Anyone who is activated at this level has attained a state of inner, god-like calm and should no longer be affected by either passions or the accidents of external existence. It is in such a state that true eudaimonia lies. The issue arising from this, which is one on which S. finds herself somewhat at odds with this reviewer, among others, is how far such a sage can have any real relation, affective or pedagogic, with his fellow-men -- and thus engage in any form of ethical praxis.

That is indeed a nice point, and I shall have a little more to say on it presently. But first a survey of the contents of the work. In an introductory chapter, S. sets out her stall, and provides also a useful overview of previous scholarship on the topic of Plotinus' ethics. Then, in Ch. I, she surveys the uses of the term spoudaios and the various concepts of the spoudaios, or 'sage', first in Plato, but then more particularly, in Aristotle and the Stoics. Here she identifies the main -- and contrasting -- features of the 'wise man' in, especially, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and in the reports of Stoic doctrine taken from Stobaeus and from Diogenes Laertius (this latter culminating in an impressive 'table of the qualities of the sage', pp. 40-2). Plotinus, of course, is indebted to both schools for his concept of the sage, though more to the latter. For the likeness of the sage to god, certainly, and the concept of the sage as a kanôn and a metron (p. 37), he borrows from Book X of Aristotle's EN. Nonetheless, it is the apatheia of the Stoic sage that most attracts him -- though with the significant qualification that that aspect of the sage which is free from passions and affections is not the unitary soul of the Stoics but rather the 'undescended', higher soul of his own system.

The core of the monograph is in fact a fairly close exegesis of Enn. I. 4 [46]: On Well-Being (peri eudaimonias), and in Ch. II S. provides some remarks preliminary to that. Here S. makes one very sound observation, and one that is not so sound. It is helpful, I think, to note (p. 55) that I 4 [46] can be viewed together with III 2-3 [47-8]: On Providence, and indeed V 3 [49]: On the Knowing Hypostases and What is Beyond, as constituting a late conspectus of salient issues in Plotinus' ethics and his physics; not so fortunate, it seems to me, is her suggestion (pp. 66-7) that the treatise is pitched at three pedagogic levels: chs. 1-4, which are primarily doxographic, at an outer circle of auditors, 5-11 at more advanced disciples, and 12-16 at an inner circle of 'assistants', such as Amelius and Porphyry. I think it highly unlikely that Plotinus was intending any such distinction, though he does only gradually reveal the full complexity of his position.

At any rate, the next four chapters (III: La définition du bonheur du traité I 4; IV: La nature double de l'homme; V: L'homme heureux dans la traité I 4; VI: Le spoudaios dans la traité I 4) in effect take us through the tractate, focussing primarily on the uses of the terms eudaimôn and spoudaios, as well as (most interestingly) on the use of the term allos anthrôpos, 'other man' to denote the 'inner man', or higher consciousness of the sage. It is a useful exercise, and very lucidly performed. Just one detail I would draw attention to here: in a section on the 'joy and tranquillity' of the sage, where she notes that P. uses the adjective hileôs at 12. 8, she might have recognized that P. is probably borrowing the term from Plato, Laws VII 792CD -- a most interesting passage.

A further chapter surveys other uses of the term spoudaios throughout the Enneads, notably certain passages in III 4, III 2, IV 3, III 1, IV 4, III 8, II 9, and I 2, all of which serve to fill out in various ways our view of the spoudaios. At various places she is concerned to emphasise the concern shown by the sage, as Plotinus portrays him, for the welfare of others, and that is something I would not deny; but it remains nonetheless crucial, I think, that no concern for the misfortunes of others can be allowed to interfere with the sage's inner calm (cf. I 4, 32ff.). Plotinus' benevolence resembles, it seems to me, that of the One itself, not that of Mother Teresa.

Finally, in a brief Conclusion, she summarizes her findings, and appends a comprehensive bibliography and useful indices of passages quoted and of the chief concepts discussed. I find the work a most useful addition to scholarship on Plotinus' ethics, even if I remain in disagreement with some of its conclusions.

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