Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.41

Erik Eliasson, The Notion of That Which Depends on Us in Plotinus and Its Background. Philosophia Antiqua, v. 113.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2008.  Pp. xii, 253.  ISBN 9789004166141.  $148.00.  

Reviewed by Richard Dufour, Bibliothèque de l'Université Laval (
Word count: 1534 words

This book is based on a doctoral dissertation presented in 2005 at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. The main purpose is to discuss Plotinus' doctrine of "that which depends on us," both in light of the previous scholarship and of the philosophical tradition preceding Plotinus. The study divides itself into three major sections: the previous scholarship on this topic in Plotinus (chap. 2), the ancient tradition (from Aristotle to the Middle Platonists) (chap. 3-5), and the reconsideration of Plotinus' doctrine (chap. 6). The end result is not altogether satisfying. We get the impression that the subject under examination, as far as Plotinus is concerned, cannot sustain a whole doctoral thesis and that the examination of the tradition has been grafted on to obtain a more substantial work. The section on the Middle Platonists occupies nearly as much space with its 50 pages as does the section on Plotinus (76 pages). The dissatisfaction grows as we virtually race through the various figures of the tradition: Aristotle, Aspasius, an Anonymous, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Philo of Alexandria, Plutarch, Alcinous, Ps.-Plutarch, Nemesius, Calcidius, Apuleius and Maximus of Tyre. This survey is conducted at too fast a pace to be really useful and it is rarely mentioned or used in the final chapter on the reassessment of Plotinus' doctrine.

The investigation starts on a good basis. Eliasson (E. hereafter) considers that the first philosophical use of the notion of what depends on us appears in Aristotle. This usage is unsystematic and closer to common usage. Chrysippus will make a more technical use of the notion and it becomes in itself a point of debate and a subject of study. Subsequently the notion mingles more and more with associated topics such as destiny, providence and free will. This fact still has repercussions today. As E. explains, the modern interpretations fail to distinguish these notions and often take them as synonymous. The literature on that which depends on us is thus to be found in studies devoted to free will, providence and so on.

In an attempt at systematization, E. tries to group the modern scholarship on these themes into five categories: the freedom interpretation, the free choice interpretation, the free will interpretation, the free action interpretation and the self-determination interpretation. It is useful to map the various solutions adopted by modern commentators, but we must be cautious, since a single scholar can be put in several categories.1 It remains to be decided if these categorizations do justice to the scholars thus classified. E. draws two conclusions from this preliminary study. First, Plotinus extends the notion of what depends on us by applying it to the Intellect and to the One. But, secondly, he also narrows it. Where the Aristotelian notion was inclusive--the action depends on us if it originates from the agent, no matter how it originates--Plotinus, according to E., restricts its applicability to the knowledgeable actions of virtuous agents.

We then begin our journey through three traditions: Aristotelian, Stoic and Middle Platonic. In his analysis, E. is keen on imposing a distinction of his own making: the inclusive versus the exclusive notion of what depends on us. The inclusive notion applies when the agent performs an action, even though this action is not prompted by a rational agency. The exclusive notion applies when the agent acts according to a rational agency. This distinction does not fit every philosopher. Aristotle, for example, can be said to use both notions (p. 60). Each philosopher under examination is more or less fitted into one of these categories: Aspasius (inclusive), Alexander (exclusive), Chrysippus (exclusive), and so on. The survey, as we said before, is fast-paced, dry and superficial at times. A scholar already familiar with this topic will not gain much. We may also question the necessity of discussing Musonius, who makes a single reference to what depends on us, or Marcus Aurelius, who devotes a single page to the notion and whose interpretation can be summed up as "much like Epictetus", or Philo, who uses the expression three times but proposes no theory on the subject. In some of these cases, E. seems to extract much from a text that says very little.

Plotinus' doctrine of what depends on us comes back again in chapter 6. Attention is focused on this notion outside Enneads VI, 8 (39), namely in: III, 1 (3); I, 4 (46) and III, 2 (47). It is not clear that these passages say enough about what is up to us to warrant such extensive examination. E.'s verdict on III, 1 (3) is that the doctrine is unclear. In I, 4 (46), Plotinus explains that if someone is not happy being a war-slave, it is up to him to depart, i.e. commit suicide. E. once again goes beyond the text. This casual use of what depends on us, in my opinion, does not deserve the complicated analysis that E. provides: "The point then, seems to be that in this setting, non-wise agents come as close as they can towards acting in the way the wise man acts" (p. 181). The single occurrence in I, 4 (46) is not that informative. E. likewise overanalyses the single occurrence found in III, 2 (47). He admits that the doctrine here is "not made explicit" (p. 183) and he uses expressions which show a high degree of conjecture, such as "if we extract a condition". He goes well beyond caution when he concludes that it "seems safe to say" that all these treatises could have contained in their title the expression "on that which depends on us". These treatises, with their one and only occurrence of the expression, could have been ignored, in the same way that E. ignored the only occurrence found in On numbers, VI, 6 (34). When concluding chapter 6, E. cannot go beyond saying that these treatises "tend to" promote an exclusive use of the notion, since all occurrences do not concur to an exclusive notion (p. 186). Thus, the question is problematic (p. 186-187). Even if E., in his concluding chapter, gets more confident in his accomplishment: "His [i.e. Plotinus] notion of ἐφ' ἡμῖν outside Ennead VI.8 clearly tends towards an exclusive notion" (p. 219), we believe that there is just not enough evidence in Plotinus to warrant such a conclusion.

When we read about Plotinus' doctrine on what depends on us, the main focus is always on treatise 39, On the free will of the One. This treatise is the only one which contains a detailed analysis of the notion. E. is then bound to emphasize the doctrine presented in VI, 8 (39).2 The introduction notice and several notes of this French translation are devoted to what depends on us in Plotinus. E. roughly follows the progression of Plotinus' doctrine in each chapter of VI, 8 (39). The notion of what depends on us is successively applied to the individual soul, the Intellect and the One. According to E., Plotinus dismisses the inclusive notion when he refutes Aristotle. The Plotinian doctrine is even more exclusive than tradition would grant: not only is rationality required for an activity to depend on us, but we must also have a normative knowledge of what we should or should not do (p. 195). What depends on us belongs to wish (βούλησις), when this wish is placed in right reason and rational knowledge. This is, in the human soul, the self-determined principle derived from Intellect. Plotinus "gives a condition demanding that the agent (i) is virtuous, (ii) thus thinks and contemplates, regarding e.g. what one ought to do, and (iii) when acting, is not concerned with the outer consequences of the actions, but with the inner perfection of the soul" (p. 206). As for the Intellect, it is by its own wishes and for its own good that it is turned toward itself. Its activity and its aim are the same and it depends on no other. Finally, it is almost impossible to apply the notion of what depends on us to the One. This is the general theme of the impossibility of describing the One by means of language. But on a more positive note, Plotinus recognizes that the One is master of itself, since its own being depends on itself.

The overall conclusion of the investigation is that Plotinus holds an extremely exclusive notion of what depends on us. He goes far beyond what is traditionally conceived as an exclusive notion, i.e. linked to rationality. Plotinus' innovation would be the self-directedness of the activity when something depends on us. This is true at the level of the individual soul, the Intellect and the One. No similar doctrine can be found in the tradition.

The book closes with an extensive bibliography and an index locorum. The bibliography is alphabetical and presents no subdivision between editions of Plotinus' treatises, translations and studies on specific themes. An index of modern authors would have been welcome.

As alluring as they sounded, the premises of this book did not hold their promises. Even though the erudition is undeniable, the author seemed trapped in a subject that could have sustained a long and rich article but not a whole book.


1.   This is clearly the case of G. Leroux, who can be found in many of these categories: Leroux, G. Plotin. Traité sur la liberté et la volonté de l'Un [Ennéade VI, 9 (39)]. Introduction, texte grec, traduction et commentaire. Paris: Vrin, 1990.
2.   The major modern translation of and commentary on this treatise is the one published in 1990 by G. Leroux. His manuscript probably being already with the publisher, E. could not benefit from the most recent annotated translation on VI, 8 (39) by L. Lavaud in the Garnier Flammarion series In Plotin. Traités 38-41, traductions sous la direction de L. Brisson et J.-F. Pradeau. Paris: Flammarion, 2007.

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