Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.25

Jean-Marc Narbonne, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition 11.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2011.  Pp. 152.  ISBN 9789004203266.  

Reviewed by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan (

In Vita Plotini (VP) 16 Porphyry attests that Plotinus often refuted "Gnostics" in his lectures and wrote a treatise against them; he had his disciple Amelius write forty books against Zostrianus and his other disciple Porphyry compose many refutations of the book of Zoroaster. Jean-Marc Narbonne's thesis is that Plotinus' anti- Gnostic campaign was not confined to treatises 30-33 (the so-called anti-Gnostic Großschrift), but was the main challenge of his career, and a virtually life-long one at that. Like Origen's, I add; for Origen engaged in anti- "Gnostic" polemics for the whole of his life and even elaborated some of his main doctrines in an anti-"Gnostic" spirit. In Treatise 9 Plotinus was likely thinking of former disciples of his who were won over by some "Gnostics" when he lamented that some people were taught that they were children of God while the others, whom they used to admire (sc. Plotinus and the Neoplatonists), were not. Plotinus in Treatise 33 protested that every soul is a child of God.1 It is understandable that, when Origen won a former Valentinian, Ambrose, over to his own anti- Gnostic ideas, this was perceived by him as an enormous success. All the more so in that many of the most intellectually demanding among the Christians (and perhaps not only among the Christians?) were easily attracted by "Gnosticism." And Christians were certainly among Plotinus' disciples, just as “pagans" were among Origen’s.

Narbonne, who identifies the Alexandrian teachers who disappointed Plotinus (VP 3) with some “Gnostics,” draws on a suggestion by Puech and hypothesizes an anti-Gnostic Großzyklus embracing many treatises (27-29, 31-34, 38, 47-48, 51) that span at least from 263 CE to 268. He rightly remarks that the "Gnostics," especially Sethians, were always in competition with Plotinus, were interpreting the same Platonic texts, and were also spreading a doctrine of salvation. This is why Plotinus protested that they "falsified" Plato. Narbonne points out how on a number of issues Plotinus was in fact confronting the "Gnostics." He does not take this into account, at least directly, but when speaking of "Gnostics" it would be good to remember the complexity of this category, whose legitimacy has been challenged recently.2

Treatises 33 and 51 apparently are inconsistent on the issue of matter, but they become coherent if one takes into account the "Gnostic" factor. In Treatise 51 Plotinus states that matter is evil and the cause of the soul's vice, against some "Gnostics" who had evil depend on the soul; he cannot present matter as generated by the soul (a thesis with which no ancient commentator credits Plotinus: the first seems to have been Marsilio Ficino). This is clear from Treatise 33: evil cannot come from the soul or it would depend on the first principles. Evil is exterior to the soul (Gregory Of Nyssa, I observe, who knew Plotinus, will say that it is a kind of excrescence of the soul). The sentence at the end of Treatise 51, "the soul itself would have generated matter," according to Narbonne, reports the "Gnostics'" position, which is quite possible, both grammatically and historically. Matter for Plotinus is not produced by the soul, but is already there to lead the soul astray. It is self-derived by a falling away (ἐκπίπτειν, ἔκπτωσις, ἀπόστασις) from the intelligible realm. It is worth mentioning, in this connection, the thesis by John Phillips, according to whom what soul generates for Plotinus is, not matter, but the "trace-soul," which needs to combine with matter to generate a qualified body.3 Already in his 1988 Sorbonne doctoral dissertation, Narbonne questioned the attribution of the thesis of the generation of matter by the soul to Plotinus. He also excludes that for Plotinus matter is not generated or is a product of multiple generations. Narbonne highlights that for Plotinus matter-evil "is limited by the bonds of the Good that encircle it from the outside." I note that for Gregory of Nyssa as well evil is limited by the Good, who is God and is infinite (this is also why an infinite progression in evil is impossible to Gregory’s mind). Narbonne rightly observes that Plotinus disagreed with the "Gnostics" on the goodness of all the divine and of the world. I add that Origen disagreed with them and agreed with Plotinus on these very same points.

Plotinus' theory of the partly undescended soul is plausibly seen by Narbonne as a reaction to the "Gnostic" idea that some souls (those of the pneumatics) are consubstantial with the divine. For Plotinus, on the contrary, the "pneumatics" were incredibly arrogant; rather, each and every soul in its highest part never loses its contact with the divine and can return to it, since the soul is never "dragged down" entirely (this, he says, contradicts "the opinion of others," namely Gnostics). This, I note, is what Origen also maintained in his doctrine of apokatastasis, which, as I have argued,4 was directly based on his polemic against the "Gnostic" predestinationism of the three classes of humans: pneumatics or spiritual people destined to salvation, hylics or material people to perdition, and psychics or animal people to a conditional salvation. Clement of Alexandria in Excerpta ex Theodoto 54 attests to the Valentinian tripartition of humans who are in the image of God, others who are in the likeness of God, and yet others who are gods. I remark that Origen rather saw these as subsequent stages of spiritual development for *all* rational creatures: from image to likeness to θέωσις. Like Plotinus, I note, Origen was aware of the Gnostic use of ὁμοούσιος. 5 Every soul, for Plotinus, can return to its ἀρχαία φύσις. It is remarkable that this is not only Origen's concept, but even his very expression for the ἀποκατάστασις εἰς τὸ ἀρχαῖον of our φύσις, which will be taken over by Gregory of Nyssa.6 In Treatises 6 and 8 Plotinus (as Narbonne points out) reacts to the Gnostics by maintaining that all souls have one and the same οὐσία. I note that Origen maintained exactly the same, and precisely against the Gnostics: all souls share in the same οὐσία, while each soul has a ὑπόστασις of its own.7

Plotinus' early position on the soul's fall from the intelligible in Treatise 6 (which in Narbonne's view got transformed in Treatise 51 with the ascription of all evil to matter) seems to me remarkably similar to Origen's notion of the fall of the νόες, with the only difference that for Origen the fallen noes acquire a heavier body and not a body tout court as in Plotinus. In Treatise 9, the solitary ascent of the soul μόνου πρὸς μόνον (an expression that is plausibly traced back to Numenius), so that the soul "becomes a god" or rather "is a god," seems to be moderated in Treatise 38, where the soul is no longer alone, but it is accompanied by the Intellect. This subtle shift, according to Narbonne, is due to the fact that Plotinus realized that his former position was dangerously close to the "Gnostic" one. Narbonne also shows how Plotinus disagreed with "Gnostic" cosmogony as a series of accidental episodes, which he deemed a misinterpretation of Plato's Timaeus, while he upheld a contemplative-productive role of nature and regarded the world as good and not as the byproduct of a mistake or even of an evil demiurge. On this last point, once again, Plotinus agreed with Origen in his anti-Gnostic polemic.

Narbonne pays special attention to Plotinus' doctrine of the demons in Treatise 50, chs. 6-7, as endowed with an intelligible matter forming their bodies. He notices that it is "difficult to explain in detail due to a lack of other clear evidence in Plotinus" (46), but he suspects it is linked to the theory of the αὐγοειδές ὄχημα, “luminous vehicle," taken by souls in their descent in Treatises 14, 26 and 27. I would point out a stunning parallel with Origen here: he considered all νόες to be endowed with a subtle body, which may or may not become a heavy and mortal body on account of the νόες' demerits. Origen very probably wrote a Neoplatonic treatise on demons that reflected the teaching of his teacher Ammonius, who also taught Plotinus.8 Moreover, the subtle and spiritual body of the νόες was precisely described by Origen as αὐγοειδές and ὄχημα (ap. Procop. Comm. in Gen. PG 87.1.221A). This is a stimulating collection of six essays (the fourth and sixth previously unpublished), which for the most part challenges widespread assumptions. It comes in a relatively recent series that has contributed important insights to the study of Platonism, and it is to be hoped, and indeed it is probable, that it will continue to do so. There are a few typos and translation mistakes, which will hopefully be corrected in a second edition. E.g. "breviloquenz" for "Breviloquenz" (25); "we can see on how uncertain a basis is rests the thesis concerning to the generation of matter..." for "we can see on how uncertain a basis the thesis concerning the generation of matter... rests" (29); "maetria" for "materia" (42); αὐρῷ for αὐτῷ (51); "be this at may" for "be this as it may" (56); ὁμοούσια for ὁμοουσία thrice (57); ὅμοια ἑαυτῷ καὶ ὁμοούσια in brackets after "incorruptible and good" instead of after "similar to itself and of the same essence" (60); τᾦ for τῷ (69); "tripe" for "triple" (73); "Plotinus write" for “Plotinus writes" (85); οὺ for οὐ (97); "by an no less than the Intellect itself" probably for "by no less than the Intellect itself" (100); "Celsius" for "Celsus" (109, but in a quotation from Tardieu); λογισμὸς for λογισμός (127), etc. The scholarly community should be grateful to the author for this thought-provoking reading. Not only those who study Plotinus and the "Gnostics," but also hose who study anti-Gnostic Christian Platonists such as Clement and Origen, and even Bardaisan of Edessa, will profit from Narbonne’s work.


1.   N. Spanu, Plotinus Ennead II 9 [33], Leuven: Peeters, 2011, deems Tractate 33 an internal dialogue between Plotinus and his disciples.
2.   The complexity of the “Gnosticism” category is underlined by M. Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996; Karen King, What Is Gnosticism?, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003, with my review in InvLuc 25 (2003) 331-334; Ilaria Ramelli, "Gnosticismo," in Angelo Di Berardino (ed.), Nuovo Dizionario Patristico e di Antichità Cristiane, Genoa-Milan: Marietti, 2007, 2.2364-2380, new English edition forthcoming in Chicago: InterVarsity; Zlatko Pleše, "Gnostic Literature,” in Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, Herwig Görgemanns et al. (eds.), Religiöse Philosophie und philosophische Religion, Tübingen: Mohr, 2009, 163-198, who objects to a total deconstruction of the "Gnosticism" category. My review is forthcoming in Anzeiger für die Altertumswissenschaft. H.F. Weiß, Frühes Christentum und Gnosis, Tübingen: Mohr, 2010, studies the reception of the New Testament in "Gnosticism" and accepts this category. Ismo Dundenberg, Beyond Gnosticism, New York: Columbia University, 2008, builds upon Williams' and King's arguments and regards "Gnostic" as misleading in particular for Valentinianism, on which he focuses.
3.   “Plotinus on the Generation of Matter," IJPT 3 (2009) 103-137. Narbonne himself discussed the problem of evil in Tractate 51 and its connection to Plutarch and "Gnosticism" in his edited volume Gnose et Philosophie, Paris: Vrin, 2009; see also Denis O’Brien, "Plotinus on Evil," in Le Néoplatonisme, Paris: CNRS, 1971, 113-146.
4.   "La coerenza della soteriologia origeniana," in Pagani e cristiani alla ricerca della salvezza, Rome: Augustinianum, 2006, 661-688. Further arguments in "Origen, Bardaisan, and the Origin of Universal Salvation," HTR 102,2 (2009) 135-168.
5.   Demonstration in my "Origen’s Anti-Subordinationism and its Heritage in the Nicene and Cappaocian Line," VigChr 65 (2011) 21-49.
6.   See my "Christian Soteriology and Christian Platonism," VigChr 61,3 (2007) 313-356.
7.   Cf. Ramelli, "Origen’s Anti-Subordinationism."
8.   See my "Origen, Patristic Philosophy, and Christian Platonism,” VigChr 63 (2009) 217-263; further arguments in "Origen the Christian Middle/Neoplatonist," forthcoming in APB.

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