Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.57 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.57

Raoul Mortley, Plotinus, Self and the World.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. vii, 153.  ISBN 9781107040243.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Lloyd Gerson, University of Toronto (


I am myself. You are yourself. If these are not formal identity statements, what could they possibly mean? A contemporary philosopher will supply some sort of meaning with a solution to the so-called problem of personal identity. The problem in some form is familiar to Plotinus who asks, at the end of a long discussion of how ‘we’ are related to our souls and bodies and intellects (I 1 [53], 13), who (or what) is it that has undertaken the present investigation. Are we just souls or do we use our souls? His answer to this question is characteristically nuanced: we have undertaken the investigation ‘insofar as’ we are souls. This, of course, implies that identification with our souls is only one way that we can refer to ourselves. The single word hēi (‘insofar as’) suggests a multitude of possibilities. The difficulties in sorting out the many senses of ‘we’ in Plotinus’ Enneads are the starting-point for Raoul Mortley’s fine monograph. Appropriately, Mortley in his title juxtaposes ‘self’ and ‘world’, indicating more than that the ‘search’ for the self is for a self situated within the world. For Plotinus, the first principle of all, answering to names that are not really names at all, —One, Good, God— is uniquely self-identical or, if we insist on a strictly logical approach, uniquely formally identical. That means that absolutely everything else has a composite identity of some sort. Things with bodies, like ourselves, are even further removed from absolute self-identity than are things like separate intellects or Forms. But to compound the metaphysical problem of the identity of things that are not unqualifiedly self-identical, we are also subjects, for example, subjects investigating the self. How is this subjectivity supposed to intersect with a composite soul-body identity? Plotinus’ multifarious account of the self is scattered over many of the treatises, especially in the first four but also in surprising places such as VI 8, a treatise on the free will of the One. Mortley’s subtle strategy for treating this complex array of material is to focus on a number of extended discussions in the Enneads of memory, ignorance, love, knowledge, art, and beauty, aiming to see as Plotinus sees the conflicted and dispersed embodied self.

Plotinus’ long treatise on memory (IV 3 [27] 25 - IV 4 [28] 12) is the subject of Mortley’s first two chapters. This treatise is a stellar example of Plotinus not merely situating a psychological question within ametaphysical framework, but of him actively adducing metaphysical principles in the construction of answers to the questions raised. Here, the primary question is what memory has to do with our identity. It is a question lingering from the famous remark in the earlier treatise (V 1 [10]) that the source of human unhappiness and self-alienation is the forgetting that accompanies embodiment. So, on the one hand, we need to rediscover who we are by remembering where we came from. On the other hand, the memory made possible by embodiment should not be supposed to have anything positive to contribute to our ultimate disembodied destiny. So, we are endowed with two types of memory, one at least potentially good and one at least potentially bad and an obvious aporia about the self that is achieved via memory. As Mortley points out, in a way the abandonment of ‘bad’ memory and the recovery of the ‘good’ serves to achieve a self radically reconceived. If we are better off forgetting the things that embodiment has enabled us to remember, who or what exactly is the ‘we’ that is so improved? Mortley enriches this discussion by introducing the concept of consciousness and its intersection with the two sorts of memory and forgetting. Plotinus argues (V 3 [49] 13, 12-14) that consciousness (sunaisthēsis is essentially self-consciousness. The characteristic activity of self-consciousness is thinking (to noein), something that is peculiarly human. Thinking is a universal or, better, universalizing activity. So, the chain of reasoning, subtly reconstructed by Mortley, is from the elimination of idiosyncratic embodied memories to the acquisition and the practice of thinking—increasingly purified of the particular—to the recovery of a self transformed, a disembodied self the content of whose thinking is the entirety of intelligible reality. If that sort of self disappoints and has little appeal as an ideal, Plotinus’ tart response is that alienation from the agent of embodied activities and the practice of philosophy are two sides of the same coin, the process of maturation. Mortley does not, I think, sufficiently stress Plotinus’ argument—which is epistemological and not psychological—that the disembodied ideal is not merely notional. Rather, as he says, our ideal selves are ‘undescended’. The question is not whether or not we should strive to create it, but rather whether or not we are going to achieve it. For those who fail to embrace a self which is at once trans- personal and as personal as maximal self-consciousness can be, Plotinus rather offhandedly suggests reincarnation as the inevitable ‘punishment’.

As it turns out, ignorance of intelligible reality is really a sort of self-ignorance. The source of this ignorance, as Mortley shows, is embodied desire (orexis). Such desire is, by definition, of the particular. The degree to which one is or is not alienated from this desire is a criterion of moral behavior. In fact, the search for the true self is Plotinus’ way of concretizing the Platonic imperative of ‘assimilation to the divine’ (homoiōsis theōi, an emblem for all Platonists of Plato’s moral philosophy. I disagree with Mortley’s contention that the otherworldliness implicit in the renunciation of embodied desire sets Plotinus apart from Plato. Surely, Phaedo provides strong evidence not only of Plato’s disenchantment with embodiment, but also of his connecting desire and the forgetting of intelligible reality. Mortley’s evidence for Plotinus’ divergence from Plato is that whereas the Demiurge of Timaeus (37C) is delighted with his product, the image of the eternal paradigm, Plotinus interprets this to mean that he is delighted with the paradigm itself, not the sensible world. But the passage that he adduces (V 8 [31] 8) seems rather to suggest that what is delightful in the image is precisely its being a reflection of the paradigm. Understood thus, Plotinus is deviating hardly at all from what one might say is the whole point of the ‘higher mysteries’ of Symposium.

It is to this dialogue that Mortley turns next, rightly connecting the topic of erōs with that of self-discovery. The chapter contains a complex and subtle discussion of how Plotinus’ account of love differs from Plato’s. I cannot do full justice to it here. But Mortley returns to the theme of Plotinus’ divergence from Plato, claiming, among other things, that Plotinus’ systematization of Platonism gets in the way of his understanding of the dialogues. He argues that Plotinus’ metaphysics actually prevents him from embracing the Platonism found in Symposium. It is a sort of disguise for a ‘major innovation’. But the evidence of divergence is, once again, slight. What Plotinus labels as ‘an absence of procreation’ in Plotinus is taken as significantly different from the ‘birth in the presence of the beautiful’ in Symposium. This supposed difference does not acknowledge the Platonic provenance of the principle that all Platonists unswervingly embrace, namely, bonum est diffusivum sui. The fruitful issue of Symposium is a result of the desire for the Good just as it is for the Demiurge, who produces precisely because he is good, which just means that he eternally achieves the object of his desire.

The next three chapters, constituting almost a third of the entire work, are focused more narrowly on questions concerning the self and its relations to its ‘possessions’. The starting-point is, appropriately, Plato’s First Alcibiades, a dialogue of considerable importance for all later Platonists. The dialogue seems to argue that the person or self is that which possesses, among other things, a body. It would seem, then, to be a soul. But as Mortley rightly argues, Plotinus understands this as an oversimplification. We cannot simply be souls possessing bodies since we are also separated intellects. Moreover, in the former role, our discursive intellects are, as Plato’s partitioning of the soul indicates, related to our bodies other than the way that the subject of emotions and appetites is related to it. Mortley’s claim is that Plotinus effaces the simple distinction between self qua soul and body qua possession, expanding the ‘we’ to include everything from the disembodied intellect to the animate body. As he elegantly interprets Plotinus, who maintains that intellect is our ‘king’, we too are kings insofar as we identify with intellect. Once again, it turns out that we ascend to kingship when we eschew the idiosyncratic. The object of our desire is not really a possession but a self transformation in the light of the Good. If the true Socrates is an intellect eternally contemplating all that is intelligible, still there is a direct and unique link between this paradigm and the embodied particular man, making his ascent to kingship different from that of anyone else.

The status of the unique particular embodied individual is the underlying subject of the remainder of the book, which is devoted to beauty and imagery. Mortley reflections here are full of insights into Plotinus’ ideas about beauty and his metaphysical claims about the line of descent and ascent between the intellect (and ultimately, the Good) and the particular embodied self. The experience of all beauty, but especially the beauty of the form of another, is in principle an access point for ascent. On this basis, it seems reasonable enough —though Mortley does not go this far— that even apparent beauty, which Plato says most people are satisfied with, can serve as well as the real thing. Plotinus recognizes a hierarchy of beauty, wherein the human is superior to the non-human and the living is superior to the artificial. Although everything in the sensible world is an image of the intelligible, we who are really intellects can grasp the Good more surely via the beauty of images of intellect than by any other.

There are many sharp insights in this book that I have no space to mention, including some very brief remarks on the influence of Plotinus’ metaphysics of beauty and the iconography of the Orthodox Churches. This is not a book for those who are new to Plotinus, I think. Too much background is assumed for that. Works of O’Daly and Remes would be better starting-points for the investigation of Plotinus on the self. Nevertheless, it is a book to be recommended warmly.

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