Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.07.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.07.14

Andrew Smith, Plotinus, Ennead I.6: On Beauty. Translation with an Introduction and Commentary. The Enneads of Plotinus with philosophical commentaries.   Las Vegas; Zurich; Athens:  Parmenides Publishing, 2016.  Pp. 146.  ISBN 9781930972933.  $37.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Sui Han, Beijing (

Ennead I.6, entitled On Beauty, is relatively important among Plotinus’ treatises: what he sets out here is, in fact, the main concern of his philosophy. Here Plotinus presents the theme of ascent from sensible beauty to its archetype in the intelligible world, an ascent made possible by the existence of a hierarchy of forms (a doctrine which draws on Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus). At the same time, Beauty is equated with purity (7.1-12), while ugliness is equated with matter and mingling with matter (5.48-50). The quest for Beauty is then not simply a matter of aesthetics, but of ethics and metaphysics as well, and it involves purification, i.e. the separation of the soul from the body through the elimination of its inclinations towards what is bodily (something that Plato discusses in the Phaedo). The relationship of these two aspects constitutes a major problematic within the Platonic tradition in understanding the relation between the sensible world and the intelligible world: should one seek ascent to the intelligible through the affirmation of the sensible, or does one need to devalue the sensible for the sake of true beauty and purity?

Andrew Smith now provides the readers with a fine translation of this treatise, with a thorough commentary and introduction which cover every important issue in it. The author’s own interpretations are not only detailed and useful, but often also ingenious.

Smith develops his own account of the aforementioned issues, i.e. the question of whether we should reject or affirm the sensible world, and the question of where “real” Beauty resides. In dealing with the first problem, Smith takes the position that Plotinus affirms the sensible world. It is true that one more often encounters in I.6 negative terms associated with the sensible world: e.g. 4.3-4, καταλιπόντας τὴν αἴσθησιν κάτω περιμένειν; 5.52, ἀφέλοι; 6.8, φεύγειν; 6.12, ἐν ἀποστροφῇ τῶν κάτω; 7.5, ἀποδυομένοις; 7.7, ἀποθέσεις; 7.8, παρελθών; 7.38, καταλιπών; 8.8, φεύγειν; 8.16, φεύγωμεν; 8.22, φυγή, 8.24-5; ταῦτα πάντα ἀφεῖναι δεῖ καὶ μὴ βλέπειν; 9.9, ἀφαιρεῖ; 9.11, ἀφαίρει. Nevertheless, Smith wonders whether physical beauty really has no intrinsic value. The case for an attitude of affirmation rests on two arguments. On the one hand, Smith examines other textual evidence which directly supports such a reading (pp. 26-31); on the other hand, he offers a re-interpretation of passages which, at a first sight, seem to show a negative attitude towards the physical (pp. 90-4). Texts which directly supports his reading can be summarized as follows: (1) the love of physical beauty is said to be morally sound (III.5.1); (2) the sensible world is endowed with life coming from the soul which testifies to and ensures the trace of Good in this universe (VI.7.22); (3) the immanent form which makes a physical object beautiful can serve as a starting-point for realising the inner beauty of the soul, because there is continuity between the two (V.8.2); (4) in the chain of reincarnation, embodied lives never lose their links with the physical environment (III.2.15). As to the re- interpretation of some passages in I.6 which seem to suggest a negative attitude towards the world, Smith makes an important distinction between (a) the simple fact of the embodiment of the soul and (b) excessive concern of a soul for the body. What Plotinus enjoins us to reject is, according to Smith’s re-interpretation, only (b) and not (a).

The issue of Plotinus’ attitude to the world in I.6 is related to the question of whether he has any sympathy here for the world-rejecting Gnostics, or whether he opposes them, as he does later on in II.9.1 There is no room to dilate on this complicated question in the commentary, but since Smith’s position is that Plotinus affirms the world, it has to be considered as an anti-Gnostic reading. On p. 31, Smith mentions the correlation between I.6 (‘On Beauty’) and V.8 [31], ‘On Intelligible Beauty’, and points out that V.8 [31] and II.9 [33], ‘Against the Gnostics’ originally belonged to a single large treatise. Thus, one might expect that I.6 would be anti-Gnostic, more or less. However, in commenting on 8.18-20 (p. 115), Smith also refers, like Kalligas,2 to the gnostic text NHC II 6, 136.27-35: this predates Plotinus’ treatise, and shows the possibility of Gnostic influence on Plotinus.

As I mentioned, another problem Smith discusses is the location of Beauty. Since in I.6 the division between the One and Intellect is sometimes not clear,3 the question is raised “whether Intellect or the One is to be identified with beauty itself” (p. 75). In Chapter 6, τἀγαθόν is identified with καλλονή (6.26) and νοῦς with τὸ καλόν (6.26-7). But in 7.1-3, τὸ ἀγαθόν is said to be καλόν. In 9.40-2 τὸ νοητόν and τὸ ἀγαθόν are both said to be νοητά – the difference is that the former is καλόν, whilst the latter is “source and origin” of beauty. Smith is fully aware of the fact that the standard understanding of the metaphysical hierarchy should identify the One as the “cause of Beauty”, and Intellect as Beauty itself (p. 18). But he also examines some further textual evidence that the One is to be identified with Beauty (pp. 123-4). Smith situates this problem against the larger background of Plotinus’ difficulty with a positive description of the One.

Three main characteristics of the commentary are especially impressive. The first is the intertextual references which help the readers to grasp the structure of the treatise and Plotinus’ thoughts. On p. 64, for example, Smith indicates how the questions raised at the beginning of I.6 are treated in later chapters of the treatise. On p. 70, he calls attention to the relation between 2.2-4 and Chapter 3. Thus the picture of the lower faculty of the soul (immediate perception) is connected with the picture of the higher level of the soul which consists in making judgments. On p. 77, in presenting the outline of Chapter 3 Smith points to its relation with Chapter 1.

Secondly, again when commenting on some specific issues, wider background is provided so that the readers can better comprehend the points being made in the context of Neoplatonism and other ancient philosophers. References to Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Augustine, for example (pp. 19-20), establish a rich background for the definition of beauty as symmetry.4 Thus, readers can see precisely how to situate Plotinus’ criticism of this definition within the history of ancient philosophy. Similarly, Plotinus’ view on art as imitation of the ideal form is also well contextualized, with rich references to other ancient sources (pp. 32-3). Further examples include a sketch of the Neoplatonic identification of degrees of unity with degrees of reality (pp. 75-6), discussion of Plotinus’ attitude towards religious ritual (again, as situated in the larger context of Neoplatonism: pp. 106-8), and a brief account of Neoplatonic solutions to the question of the relation between the One and the Intellect (p. 122).

Thirdly, some of the commentary is original as well as incisive. 1.33-4, Καὶ νυκτὸς ἀστραπὴ ἄστρα ὁρᾶσθαι τῷ καλά; for example, is a difficult phrase.5 Müller deleted ἄστρα. But Smith makes an innovative suggestion relating the stars here to the planet Venus in 4.11-2. Again, in commenting on 2.15, Smith calls attention to the subtle distinction between μορφή, εἶδος and λόγος (pp. 74-5).

There are not many philological difficulties to deal with in the treatise. As to Smith’s translation: this is of very good quality. The only oversight I could find is that 9.16-7, οὐδὲν ἔχων ἐμπόδιον πρὸς τὸ εἷς οὕτω γενέσθαι, is not translated.


1.   Richard Harder, Rudolf Beutler, Willy Theiler, Plotins Schriften, Band I, b) Anmerkungen (Hamburg, Felix Meiner, 1956), 365: “Schließlich scheint diese Schrift stärker als die anderen gnostisch beeinflußt zu sein”; 366: “es kündet sich, trotz einzelner gnostischer Motive, der antignostische Plotin an.”
2.   Paul Kalligas, The Enneads of Plotinus. A Commentary, Volume I. Translated by E. K. Fowden and N. Pilavachi (Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014), 214.
3.   Christian Tornau, Plotin. Ausgewählte Schriften (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 2001), 333.
4.   Cf. Anne Sheppard, Aesthetics. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), Chap. 5.
5.   Richard Harder, Rudolf Beutler, Willy Theiler, Plotins Schriften, Band I, b) Anmerkungen (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1956), 369.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010