Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.07

Luc Brisson, Jean-François Pradeau (ed.), Plotin. Traités 51-54; Porphyre. Vie de Plotin. GF 1444.   Paris:  Éditions Flammarion, 2010.  Pp. 384.  ISBN 9782081231368.  €14.80 (pb).  

Reviewed by Carlos Steel, University of Leuven (

With this volume the new French translation of the complete work of Plotinus under the direction of Luc Brisson and J.-F. Pradeau has come to completion. To have accomplished such a complex and extensive project in such a short time (2002-2010) is quite an achievement, a wonder of organisation and collaboration with a team of talented researchers. It is not evident to look for scholarly work of this scale and complexity in a pocket series (GF Flammarion) where one expects to find books for a larger audience, for students with low budgets, with not too many annotations and philological technicalities. But Plotinus is a notoriously difficult author and cannot be translated without annotations. This was the challenge of this new project, to produce an affordable and readable Plotinus, attractive not only for specialists but for philosophers in general, and yet to do it on an advanced academic level without coming down to second order vulgarisation. The nine volumes correspond to this expectation. Though, as is often the case with such a comprehensive project within short deadlines, not all translations are of equal quality, the Flammarion series constitutes a major contribution to Plotinus scholarship also outside the francophone milieu and it deserves a place not only in students’ pockets but also in academic libraries. Surprisingly the translations are not mentioned in the bibliography on Plotinus in the recent Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity (2010, p. 1051-1052).

Following the example set by Harder and Theiler and the other French translation project launched by Pierre Hadot and published by Les Editions du Cerf, Plotinus’ treatises are published in the chronological order of their composition, and not it the systematic order organized by his editor Porphyry in a series of six Enneads. Fortunately, Porphyry informed us about the chronological order in which the treatises were composed. This ninth volume contains exactly the last delivery of texts which Plotinus, who was already ill, sent to Porphyry, who was at that time living in Sicily. “Shortly before his death, he sent these: ‘On the nature of Evils’, ‘Whether the stars are causes’ ‘What is the living being’ and ‘on Well-being’”. They are the work of an old man written a short time before his death, “when his power was already failing” Porphyry says, “and this is most apparent in the last four”. A surprising judgement if one is acquainted with these last treatises: the discussion on the nature and origin of evil (51), the refutation of astrological fatalism (52), the subtle analysis of what is a living being, which clearly establishes the transcendent character of our true intellectual self (53), and finally the reflections on the primal good, which addresses in the very last paragraph the question whether death is an evil (54). If Porphyry had something to complain about the writings of an older man facing death, it may have been the state of his writing and composition, which caused the editor many problems. The Flammarion edition suitably concludes this last ‘delivery’of Plotinian writings with the “Life of Plotinus”, which Porphyry conceived as introduction to his edition. Luc Brisson’s translation of this vita is a a revision of the version which was published in the CNRS collective volume of 1992.

Even after Porphyry’s editing Plotinus remains a difficult author, not just because of the subtlety of his thought, but also because of his condense writing. Every translation offers another interpretation. Therefore, Plotinus specialists feel the need to read and consult what his or her predecessors starting from Ficino have made of the text: in Latin, Italian, Spanish, German, English and French. This is in the academic world an exceptional case where multilingual scholarship is still honoured. To have of the same treatise two different translations in the same language is a luxury, certainly, but not an overlap or unnecessary duplication of efforts as long as both translations start from an intensive engagement with the Greek text itself. For a reviewer it is not possible to discuss in detail all translations in this volume. I limit myself to some comments on Laurent Lavaud’s version of 51 (I,8) which can be compared with Dominic O’Meara’s acclaimed translation published in “Les Écrits de Plotin” (1999). The Flammarion pocket edition with short introduction and annotations does not have the pretention to compete with the Cerf translation which is accompanied with an extensive commentary. Lavaud is of course influenced by O’Meara’s analysis and often refers to it, but on many points he offers in his translation and annotation different interpretations of text and argument. His short introduction presents the main articulations of the argument and confronts the reader with the philosophically most provocative thesis of the treatise, the identification of absolute evil with matter, which thus obtains a quasi-reality. Though coming very close to a metaphysical dualism Plotinus liberates himself from its fatal fascination by making evil a derivative principle “kept within the golden chains” of the Good. On the whole, a comparison of both translations offers a high level of academic discussion on how interpreting obscure passages in Plotinus. Though I am not a native francophone, I got the impression that Lavaud’s translation has greater stylistic merits and reads as more ‘entertaining’ than the more learned version of O’Meara. Where the divergence is not purely stylistic, the informed reader will have to make his choice. On some points I may follow Lavaud, for instance in n. 75 or 169 or 188; or in rejecting O’Meara’s transposition in 8,16-18. On other points I will stay with O’Meara, for instance in the long note 163 on “vice total”. Here Lavaud could not convince me that the phrase παντελὴς κακία designates matter. In this context, but also in chapter13, the meaning can only be “absolute vice”, i.e., such a vice where nothing determinate or specific remains, as is the case with the many particular vices, which can be understood as privations of particular goods. When the soul is in such a state of absolute vice, which is no longer mixed with elements of the good and thus of its own good nature, it is no longer a human soul, but has become a different nature, having identified itself with absolute evil which is matter (13,18ff). It is true that in that state of absolute vice the soul becomes as it were matter, but that does not suffice to make “absolute vice” a designation of matter itself. Proclus in his commentary on The Republic (2, 276,28-277,3) denies that there can be absolute vice in the soul (probably reacting against Plotinus).

6,41 τὰ ἄλλα] delev. Dodds H-S³ O’Meara. Lavaud translates the text as in H-S² without explanation. Dodds had noticed that τὰ ἄλλα is ungrammatical here (in fact one expects a dative form) and that it anticipates τὰ ἄλλα in the next line. I believe that H-S³ and O’Meara are right in following his advice.

6 53-54 ἐναντίον καὶ ἐνταῦθα, οὐσία οὐσίᾳ ἐναντίον H-S] [ἐναντίον καὶ ἐνταῦθα], οὐσία οὐσίᾳ ἐναντίον <καὶ ἐνταῦθα> Igal H-S³ Kalligas O'Meara. Lavaud may be right to reject this transposition (see n. 124), but I do not believe that καὶ ἐνταῦθα could mean here “in this sensible world”.

9,4 κακίαν] delev. Kirchhoff H-S² and O’Meara. Lavaud defends it . He may be right but then one should translate as Armstrong “so we know that what does not fit with virtue is vice” (n. 161)

10,15 μή<ν> H-S1 Schröder Lavaud (n. 183)] μή H-S² O’Meara. Both readings could be defended, hence no reason to correct.

15,8 αὐτή Dodds H-S² Lavaud] αὕτη H-S1 Kalligas O’Meara. Lavaud (n. 241) may be right to follow Dodds, but he is wrong when he understands the manuscript reading αὕτη as “une crase pour hê autê, ce qui signifierait “le même”; αὔτη here is the feminine demonstrative, cf. O’Meara “celle-ci” (orexis in l. 3 is an error for noêsis).

15,26 ἵνα οὖσα H-S1] ἵνα οὕτω H-S² Schröder ἵν’ ἄκουσι Theiler ἵν’ ἄμουσα Dodds H-S³ and Kalligas. Not translated by Lavaud. The transition from the neuter (τὸ καλόν) to the feminine form needs explanation. Hence the conjectures of Schröder and Theiler. But maybe it is better to leave it as a case of inattention of Plotinus (shift from evil to matter, though this shift is not really expected at the end as the discussion is about evil and how it can appear, not about matter). And why οὖσα ? Dodd’s proposal is beautiful but highly implausible, yet H-S3 were attracted by it (I cannot explain why this form entered with circumflex [ἀμοῦσα] appears as an hapax in the TLG !) O’Meara proposes the conjecture ἵνα <παρ>οῦσα. He is right that Plotinus talks often about the “presence” of evil, but could we not read here οῦσα with the same sense? I would leave the text as it is with its incongruity and translate as Armstrong “so that though it exists it may not been seen”

One may expect from new translations of Plotinus that they offer some help in the emendation of difficult passages, as is notoriously the case with the Spanish translations of Igal. O’Meara introduced three new conjectures (5,12; 8,16-18; 15,26), but in my view none is needed. Could Lavaud do better? He proposes the following new corrections, none of which I could accept

8,2-10 change in punctuation; delete the two dashes. “Je ponctue différemment des autres traductions. À mon sens, καὶ οὕτος (l. 10) débute une nouvelle phrase, qui est le début de la réponse à l’objection” (n. 143). I agree that with οὕτος (which refers to the τις in l.1 who formulates an objection) starts the reply to the objection, and I have no problem in indicating this in the translation by leaving a space (as did already O’Meara !). But this is not a reason to make the sentence starting with οὕτος syntactically independent from what precedes. It is in fact the apodosis of a long conditional sentence starting at l. 1 with εἰ δέ τις. Because there is a long parenthesis wherein the objection is formulated, the editors rightly put dashes at l. 2 and 10.

Lavaud makes a similar intervention in the punctuation at 14,7 where he proposes to add an interrogation mark after φθοράν as if the εἰ δέ τις introduced a question. Here again we have the protasis of a conditional clause and the editors rightly used dashes to set the parenthesis apart (Lavaud should have deleted these dashes too!).

10,15 Lavaud proposes to read (second person singular conjunctive form of εἰμί) instead of ῆν (ind. imperfectum), a needless correction of a classicist. There are other examples where Plotinus uses the past tenses of the indicative after ἵνα. See Lexicon Plotinianum, 512.

13,1 κακόν, H-S] κακὸν εἴη Lavaud (n. 185). Correction not needed. I believe with O’Meara that the subject is vice, not evil.

The harvest of textual emendations from the two translations is meagre, but this should not worry us. It is difficult to go beyond the transmitted text of Plotinus, which from the beginning was obscure. What we expect from translations is that they help us to make the argument intelligible and explicit where it is too condensed or abrupt, and this is done not only in Lavaud’s translation but also in the other contributions in this volume which fall outside the limitations of this review. To have contributed to this philosophical reappraisal of Plotinus beyond the strict academic milieu and yet on an academic level is a great achievement. Therefore this last Plotinus pocket volume deserves all praise.

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