Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.03

Euree Song, Aufstieg und Abstieg der Seele: Diesseitigkeit und Jenseitigkeit in Plotins Ethik der Sorge. Hypomnemata Bd. 180.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009.  Pp. 184.  ISBN 9783525252901.  €42.90.  

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College, Dublin (

The present volume is a revised version of the author's doctoral dissertation completed under the supervision of Prof. Dorothea Frede at the University of Hamburg. It addresses what has in recent times become rather a hot issue in Plotinian studies, pursued e.g. by Andrew Smith in a most useful article, 'The Significance of Practical Ethics for Plotinus' (in John J. Cleary (ed.), Traditions of Platonism, Aldershot 1999), and Alexandrine Schniewind, in L'éthique du sage chez Plotin (Paris 2003), both provoked to some extent by an earlier essay of mine. 'An Ethic for the Late Antique Sage', in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus (ed. Lloyd P. Gerson, 1996), namely, whether, in face of the firmly, not to say grimly, otherworldly emphasis of Plotinus' overall ethical stance, any place can be found in his thought for care for others, or concern for things of this world.

This question Song addresses in the present monograph in a systematic and comprehensive way. After an introductory chapter (pp. 11-35), setting out the issues, the book falls into two broad sections. The first (pp. 37-93) addresses the Aufstieg, or 'ascent', of the soul, the development of its affinity with the intelligible world and the suppression of all impulses tying it to this one. The second (and more significant, from Song's point of view) deals with its Abstieg, or 'descent', the degree of its concern (Sorge) with the circumstances of its life here (pp. 95-162). In this latter part, it must be said, she is not concerned, as was Andrew Smith, with Plotinus' stance on 'practical ethics', so much as with his view of the sage's place in the physical world, and the providential ordering of that world, and I commend her for that.

The first part is the less original of the two, in that the conclusions that she comes to would be universally acknowledged, but nonetheless it is good to have the key passages clearly set out, and provided with a sound exegesis. It consists of three chapters. In ch. 2, 'Die Sorge um sich selbst', Song addresses the central topic of 'care for oneself', 'self-perfection' ('Selbstvervollkommnung'), and the ascent to one's true self (in the form of the undescended soul), with the help of texts from such tractates as V 1, I 4, and I 1. I find nothing to complain of here. She sets out the doctrine very well, showing how basic for Plotinus is this theme of spiritual withdrawal. This general topic is continued in the next two chapters, 'Das vollkommene Leben', and 'Das selbstgenügsame Leben', buttressed by further extensive use of I 4. Most useful, in ch., 4, is her treatment of various aspects of the sage's self-sufficiency ('Autarkie'), under the headings of 'Der Ringkampf mit dem Schicksal: Was wir eigentlich wollen'; 'Das Laternenlicht im Sturm: Was wir eigentlich sind'; and 'Das schlaflose Weisheit: Was wir eigentlich können'.

Somewhat more problematical is the second part, comprising chs. 5-7, where Song wants to develop the theme of the sage's involvement with the world, his 'Abstieg'. Here she certainly demonstrates Plotinus' positive attitude to the world, in distinction from, and opposition to, that of the Gnostics, but that is a different matter from establishing anything like an ethical stance of involvement in the concerns of others for their own sakes. The world, after all, for Plotinus, is a necessary and thus essentially good emanation from the One, by reason of its superabundance of energy and consequent 'overflowing', and this is something that the Sage fully comprehends and accepts. That means that he/she takes a benign interest in the good ordering of society, and in maximizing the eudaimonia of as many individuals as possible; but the Sage does this without ever relaxing his/her concentration on the intelligible realm, or developing any emotional involvement with any aspect of the physical world, even with friends or family.

This is in fact what Song succeeds in demonstrating. In Ch. 5, 'Die Sorge zum andere', she takes her start from Plotinus' major essay on Providence, Enn. III 2-3. This (and the subsequent chapters) become something of an extended exegesis of that tractate, though in this chapter much attention is paid also to IV 8, 'On the Descent of Soul into Body', which is a good statement of Plotinus' positive attitude to the physical cosmos. Song devotes a section to Plotinus' concept of the 'Law of Nature', which arises from his position that the soul's concern for the physical world is actually constrained by the necessary structure of the universe. To that extent, then, the Sage must 'go with the flow', and is perfectly content to do that.

In ch. 6, 'Das gerechte Leben', she turns more closely to consider the implications of divine providence, adducing, as well as III 2-3, passages such as IV 4, 39, a fine statement of Plotinus' conception of how even the works of virtue, 'which owns no master', are woven into the fabric of providence. She includes in the chapter a discussion of the role of evil in the providential plan, with special reference to I 8, and ends with some reflections on providence as a harmonious 'work of art' ('Die Kunst der Vorsehung').

Ch. 7, 'Das freie Leben', turns to the question of the role remaining to human freedom in this whole scheme, a most knotty question for Plotinus - or perhaps rather for Plotinian scholars. Plotinus has in fact little quarrel with Stoic 'determinism', except that he criticises the Stoics for not recognising the existence of a higher soul, which can rise above the realm of fate, and actually cooperate in administering divine providence. Song sets out his position very well, in this case with special reference to the early part of VI 8 (1-6), as well as III 1 and II 3. True freedom for Plotinus does not consist in the ability to indulge in arbitrary changes of mind, but rather in an unswerving will towards the Good, such as the gods are endowed with.

In this monograph, then, Song has set out very well the parameters for the intelligent and virtuous life of the Sage, both in respect of his/her withdrawal from and his/her continuing concern for the physical world, but she has still not managed, in my view, to endow Plotinus with any measure of Christian-style altruism or concern for his fellow-man, if that was any part of her purpose. I rather hope it wasn't. There is a useful bibliography and index.

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