Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.06

Pauliina Remes, Neoplatonism. Ancient Philosophies.   Stocksfield:  Acumen, 2008.  Pp. xii, 244.  ISBN 9781844651252.  £14.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jeremy M. Schott, University of North Carolina at Charlotte (
Word count: 1884 words

The Platonists of late antiquity introduced students to their tradition through a curriculum that began with basic ethics and Aristotelean logic and concluded with metaphysics and theology. The "bottom-upism" of the classic Neoplatonic curriculum stands in contrast to what Pauliina Remes describes as the "top-downism" characteristic of Neoplatonic philosophy. This new introduction to the Neoplatonic tradition thus inverts the ancient curriculum: a detailed and thoughtful explication of metaphysics and first principles lays the groundwork for introductions to physics, psychology, ethics, and politics. At the same time, however, Remes is keen to stress the often-neglected concern of Neoplatonism with sensible reality. The result is an introductory text that offers a detailed, balanced portrait of Neoplatonism as a tradition concerned both with "otherwordly" transcendence and fundamental questions of lived human experience. I will begin with a summary and evaluation of the contents of each chapter and, since this volume is intended as an introductory text for students, will conclude with a broad assessment of the value of the book for undergraduate and graduate curricula.

Remes begins with an "Introduction" that situates Neoplatonism within the history of ancient philosophy. She briefly traces Neoplatonism's background in Middle Platonism, and offers an outline of five characteristics that differentiate Neoplatonism as a distinct tradition: (i) commitment to a first principle that is the ultimate source of all that is; (ii) "a proliferation of metaphysical layers and entities"; (iii) "a hierarchy that reaches from what is absolutely one to the varied manifold of the perceptible universe"; (iv) "the central layers of reality. . .are simultaneously metaphysically real and essentially connected to. . .the human soul"; (v) "non-intellectual life and striving is understood as the desire for wholeness, perfection or completeness, and continuation" (7-8). Finally, she offers brief but detailed biographical sketches of key figures from Plotinus to John Philoponus.

Chapter 2 considers metaphysics. Neoplatonic metaphysics, she argues, can seem less strange when understood as a response to two enduring questions in ancient philosophy: first, the existence and origin of unity and diversity and second, the problem of change. Rather than presenting a bare schematic of metaphysical hierarchies (though she does provide helpful charts of the Plotinian and Proclean systems towards the end of the chapter), Remes shows how the proliferation of ontological levels beyond the basic Platonic distinction between being and becoming stemmed from the need to answer problems inherent in the Platonic corpus or prompted by later interpretations or critiques of Plato by Aristotle and the Stoics. The chapter is structured diachronically, tracing the development of metaphysical speculation from Plotinus through Proclus. Remes follows this chronological pattern in subsequent chapters as well, helping to situate the Neoplatonists not only in relation to other philosophies but also traces points of debate internal to the tradition itself.

Chapter 3 considers "Nature and the Sensible Universe" and situates Neoplatonic physics as a negotiation of points of conflict and complementarity between the Platonic and Peripatetic traditions. Neoplatonic discussion of the hypostasis Soul and the World Soul or Soul of the All, for example, "amalgamates" (80) the Aristotelean notion of soul as an internal principle of life and the Timaeus' account of the fashioning of the "Soul of the Cosmos." Remes similarly traces Aristotelean and Platonic tensions within Neoplatonic reflection on matter, time, and evil. Remes' discussion of Neoplatonic commentary on Aristotle's concept of substance in the Categories shows students how what was once considered merely as Neoplatonic "eclecticism" has come to be recognized in current scholarship as a fruitful and productive site of engagement with the Peripatetic tradition.

In Chapter 4, Remes explores "Human Being and the Self." Neoplatonism posits a microcosmic hierarchy that is "an internalization of the Platonic metaphysical," or macrocosmic, "hierarchy" (101). Remes presents Neoplatonic anthropology as an effort to explain how the different ontological levels of human being function while at the same time constituting a unified human person. In a subsection titled "Soul and Body," she explains the complexities of this in some detail; this is an area where the author has made some recent original contributions in her own work (Pauliina Remes, Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the "We" [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007]). Here she offers a succinct but nuanced introduction to the problems of ensoulment and individuation in Plotinus and Proclus. She also explores some of the soteriological and epistemological consequences of the Plotinian and Proclean doctrines.

Chapter 5, "Epistemology and Philosophical Psychology," begins by tracing Neoplatonic doctrines of perception and imagination in Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus. The discussion of the interrelationship and functioning of the faculties of perception, judgment, and phantasia, and their role in thought and memory is particularly lucid. A later subsection explores the distinction between discursive thought (dianoia) and pure intellection (noêsis). Remes notes that some recent scholarship tends to posit an almost absolute difference between these modes of cognition. She stresses, however, the central connection of epistemology and ontology in Neoplatonism. The individual intellect, like the hypostasis Intellect in which it participates, is ontologically one-many. Intellect thinks all objects of knowledge (with which it is metaphysically identical) simultaneously, and is thus one. Yet the objects thought are many. It is to Intellect as this multiplicity that discursive thought must relate as its ontologically lower image or imitation (150-151). This is but one example of many places in the text where Remes offers an entrée into some of the more lively points of debate in modern Neoplatonic studies. The chapter concludes with a consideration of contemplative and theurgical practices. Remes explains the Plotinian meditative pursuit of homoiosis theoû, or "likeness to god," in terms of Neoplatonic anthropology--the microcosm of human being makes possible an "inward turn" (166) that is also a metaphysical ascent. Remes links theurgical practice with later Neoplatonic rejections of the Plotinian unfallen soul. If human being does not extend to the highest metaphysical levels, some sort of divine aid is required to assist the soul's ascent. Remes concludes with a brief summary of the Porphyrian-Iamblichean debate over theurgy.

The sixth chapter focuses on "Ethics and Politics," two areas that have until recently received short shrift in the study of Neoplatonism. Like other ancient philosophies, Neoplatonism claimed to offer a way of life productive of eudaimonia: genuine, virtuous well-being. The "inward-turn" explored in the previous chapter, Remes explains, also entails an ethical imperative. Achieving "likeness to god" requires the cultivation of the virtues--the first level of virtue, the political, brings passions under control, and must be practiced in the context of human relational action. But, Remes acknowledges, the "inwardness" of Neoplatonism seems to problematize any ethics that takes account of "other-regard" (186-187). Although Neoplatonic ethics does not resemble anything familiar to an ethics informed by, say, the Christian tradition, the striving for union with the One presents a genuine challenge to egoism and may, Remes suggests, serve as a basis for the recognition of the essential similarity of all humans--Neoplatonic anthropology, as Remes discusses in Chapter 4, is speculation about "us," after all (99).

Finally, Remes briefly considers Neoplatonic political philosophy. The traces of later Platonic political philosophy are to be found in exegeses of the philosopher-king of the Republic and his fashioning of the paradigmatic polis, a social order that is understood to facilitate the cultivation of the political virtues. Remes stresses the lack of treatises on practical ethics in the Neoplatonic tradition, and points out that later Neoplatonists filled this gap by adding Epictetus' Stoic Handbook to their curriculum. But the Neoplatonic corpus is no as sparse in this area as Remes suggests. While the tradition did not produce systematic treatises on ethics or political philosophy there was a commentary tradition on, for example, the Republic and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Remes may have wished to steer clear of the commentators in deference to Miira Tuominen's The Ancient Commentators on Plato and Aristotle in the same series. But Remes also neglects Porphyry's very practical treatise On Abstinence from Animal Food. Much on ethics and politics can also be found in the rich tradition of Neoplatonic bios literature: texts such as Porphyry's Life of Plotinus, Marinus' Life of Proclus, and Damascius' Life of Isidore offer "living" vignettes of eudaimonia and the political virtues.

A final chapter presents a brief survey of "The Neoplatonic Legacy." Remes gives a brief "who's who" of Neoplatonic influence: the Cappadocians, Augustine, pseudo-Dionysius, Avicenna, al-Ghazali, Psellus, Plethon, Ficino, and others all receive mention. She also includes one or two paragraphs each sketching Neoplatonic contributions to later philosophy of God, nature, psychology, epistemology, self-hood, and aesthetics. The chapter is not intended as an in-depth exploration of Neoplatonism's nachleben; rather, it suggests to students some ideas for further reading.

The remainder of the book includes several features especially useful in an introductory text. A glossary offers succinct explanations/definitions of key Neoplatonic vocabulary and will be of help to students approaching this material for the first time. Remes also provides a well-conceived "Guide to further reading" before the formal bibliography. Here, Remes lists major editions and translations (mostly English) for the major figures considered in the text, followed by a lists of suggested reading to accompany each chapter and subsection. Her lists include both classic monographs and the most recent research in each field. This section will be of great help to graduate students looking to create a good reading list on Neoplatonism.

As the chapter synopsis above suggests, Remes conceives the book not as an outline of Neoplatonic doctrine but rather as an exploration of real historical philosophical speculation and debate. Her portrait is of a vibrant, engaging tradition focused on meaningful intellectual work. This is a nice corrective to older surveys of late ancient philosophy, which tend to present Neoplatonism as decadent, "spiritualized," and concerned more with theurgic magic than philosophy. Many introductions to Neoplatonism also tend to focus somewhat myopically on the complexities of the metaphysical hierarchy. Remes does a fine job introducing metaphysics, but her focus in the book's middle chapters on anthropology, psychology, and ethics really set this book apart. It is these areas that are receiving attention in recent research (including Remes' own work), and this book situates students within the most current and promising trends in the field. This innovative approach and attention to the most current research does not come at the expense of a solid introduction to the basics of the tradition. Remes is careful throughout the text to present the "Principles" of Neoplatonism; she does this after the fashion of Proclus' Elements of Theology, offering a one-sentence principle (e.g. "Principle I. 'All that exists is caused by a single first cause') followed by an explanation. Throughout, Remes demonstrates the integral connections between Neoplatonic metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, and anthropology--each aspect of the tradition is explored and explained in terms of the whole. What seems odd when examined in isolation--the apparent lack of Neoplatonic interest in ethics and politics, for instance--becomes clear when understood in terms of the broader philosophical system.

This book excels as an introductory text. It would work well as a graduate or advanced undergraduate course text if paired with a good reader; Dillon and Gerson's Neoplatonic Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004) or Sorabji's three-volume Philosophy of the Commentators (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), for instance. Remes' well-conceived book offers students an introduction to the field of Neoplatonic studies as well as the details of the Neoplatonic tradition.

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