Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.28

David J. Yount, Plato and Plotinus on Mysticism, Epistemology, and Ethics. Bloomsbury studies in ancient philosophy, 7.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.  Pp. viii, 311.  ISBN 9781474298421.  $114.00.  

Reviewed by Tim Flanagan, Murdoch University (


In concluding his Plotin Lecteur du Platon, Jean-Michel Charrue reprises Theiler’s earlier assessment to ask whether, in the end, Plotinus’ thought yields a “Platonisme intégral ou Plato dimidiatus?”1 For his part Charrue opts for the stronger affinity, explaining that Plotinus “was Platonic by all the fibres of his body”.2

A rather more prosaic conclusion is provided in David Yount’s recent Plato and Plotinus on Mysticism, Epistemology, and Ethics, which proposes a comparatively more cautious, if not altogether legalistic, position. Guided by what he describes as a ‘Compatibility Principle’, Yount contends “that Plato and Plotinus do not essentially differ on mysticism, epistemology, and ethics” (6) and argues in summary “that Plotinus followed Plato’s philosophy closely, not essentially differing on eighty-seven major (and some minor) philosophical claims related to mysticism, epistemology, and ethics” (201).

In this way, Yount’s study does a great deal to flesh out the many sinews necessary for readings, such as Charrue’s, which would seek to stress the Platonic imprint in Plotinus. And yet, for all its analysis, the actual arguments put forward in support of this position tend to subsist throughout the study (often within the fifty-eight pages of endnotes) rather than to sustain it. For no matter the ultimate truth of the relation between the two ancients, and whatever the manner of proof this might involve, Yount’s own conclusion “that Plotinus is an exemplary Platonist, if not the Platonist” (201) stands in an asymptotic relation to the premises it relies upon.

Although Yount considers “eighty-seven major (and some minor) philosophical claims”, the study’s eventual Conclusion occupies a mere half page and relies heavily on reference to Yount’s earlier Plotinus the Platonist: a Comparative Account of Plato and Plotinus' Metaphysics (Bloomsbury, 2014) – a reference though, it should be said, which does not correspond to the endnote given for it (261). (Similarly frustrating is the phrasing on the blurb, which announces “[t]his book argues againstthe common view that there are no essential differences…” (emphasis added): this seems to contradict the view set out in the text itself.)

Nonetheless, the book is highly accomplished in its scholarship and clear both in its structure and its style. Its three main chapters move through each of the topics signalled in the study’s title and are supplemented throughout with extensive references, both to ancient authors and to ongoing positions in contemporary scholarship, which are detailed in the endnotes. The vast and almost exclusively Anglophone bibliography (“I aim to address and counter virtually every commentator whom I have read in English”, 6) situates the study’s place in the broader historic reckoning of Plato and Plotinus, though references passim to ‘Bréhier (1958)’ receive no further details there. The general index and especially the index locorum testify to the sheer weight of evidence employed in the book, whose sustained emphasis on the of themes of mysticism, epistemology, and ethics, so integral to the Platonic tradition, make it an authoritative guide both to identifying and critically evaluating certain otherwise elusive constellations in the nebula Plato-Plotinus.

Given the absence of a more extensive Conclusion, and given that the study proceeds via so very many and very lengthy quoted passages (a feature which may well attract the criticism of having allowed piecemeal analyses to do the more essential work of synthesis),3 it is not clear what is to be gained from the Introduction’s densely filigreed engagement with E. N. Tigerstedt’s already rather nuanced account of the Neoplatonic interpretation of Plato. Whatever the value of these sophisticated hermeneutic considerations at the outset of the study, there is little return on the investment in Yount’s survey since no further reference to Tigerstedt is given beyond the Introduction (exeunt, 6) – and even there Tigerstedt’s influence is ultimately devalued and placed to one side: “not assumed in this work because doing so is not necessary to make my argument” (6). Having glimpsed the wealth of questions to do with the question of the systematicity of Platonic thought and its subsequent exegesis (though without reference to Catana’s recent examination of the same), 4 the reader cannot help feeling somewhat short-changed.

The first chapter stresses the uniquely experiential nature of mysticism in Plotinus and Platonism and in so doing collapses any (and all-too-modern) distinction between the rational and the emotional by which we might seek to understand the very object of philosophy. Yount examines in particular the ineffable character of contemplation that distinguishes philosophical inquiry by charting its difficulty and rarity as well as the sense in which, for both ancients, such an experience is ever-lasting and self-sustaining. Throughout the chapter, Yount’s positions are cogent, well-attested by clear evidence from the across the Enneads and the Platonic dialogues themselves, and are defended against readings by scholars such as Gerson, Cairns, and the early Armstrong, who seek to downplay the significance of mysticism for Platonic philosophy. At times the summaries of the scholarship may seem to aspire to a definitive challenge to this tendency (cf. “a sizeable minority (eighteen) argues that Plato is not a mystic . . . no English-language commentator explicitly argues that Plotinus is not a mystic” [47]), but the command of the literature is largely beyond reproach, and Yount’s own position is clear (cf. “the ultimate experience is not necessarily an eternal contemplative activity of one’s own intellect, as that activity is in the Intellect or Nous. One should not conflate these two activities”, 52).

The second chapter proceeds through sections on, respectively, wisdom, knowledge, dialectic, recollection, prayer, and opinion, to establish the primacy of a form of “super knowledge” or “rationalism” (107, 108) in Plotinus and Plato. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Yount’s command of both the ancient sources and their modern commentaries is exhaustive and, even if it is at times schematic, enables him to cover a great deal of original and interpretive ground so as to establish a comprehensive conceptual survey of the positions involved. Curiously however, given the previous chapter’s consideration of ineffability, the analysis in this chapter of knowledge as something non-discursive or intuitive fails to mention the exchange between Sorabji and Lloyd (with contributions from Alfino) or indeed Sorabji at all.5 In summing up the literature on this topic, Yount admits here to having “opened another can of worms” (70); but it does not follow from our acquaintance with worms that the contents of all cans can be known; as Svetla Slaveva-Griffin has shown, the problem for Plotinus of formally containing discursive excess is one drawn from Plato’s Timaeus.6

The study’s final chapter proceeds through sections on, respectively, happiness, love, purification and reverence, music and musicians, arts and artisans, desire for the Good, and pleasure and pain, as well as two sections on the possibility of error. Much like the earlier chapters, discussion here involves a rich array of citations in support of a great many claims for affinity between Plotinus and Plato. However, the rhetorical economy by which these affinities are set out is one that all too often remains characterised by both superfluous production and unmet need. Whereas no fewer than five citations are given in support of the relatively unremarkable claim “that Socrates is neither afraid of nor resentful of death” (118: Yount cites Apology 28e-9a, 29c-d, 32a-d, and 40b-1a, and Crito 43b-c), the reader is offered only a single passage from Plato and Plotinus (Statesman 285a4-b6; Enneads I.3.4.1-23) in support of the rather more complex claim that “a philosopher practices the Method of Division” (143). Moreover, in this case, the conclusion is drawn rather summarily despite each of the premises beginning with an admission (“Admittedly…”) that such a view cannot in fact be straightforwardly attributed to the thinker under consideration.

In this way, then, at times the abrupt (if not turgid) manner of Yount’s study reads less like a sustained discussion of a central position than a series of interrelated yet gnomic statements in the vein of Spinoza’s Ethics or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This is not at all to say that individual claims or indeed the overall thesis of Yount’s study is unclear or unsupported by the literature since its grasp of the detail and its critical comparison are formidable.

Nonetheless, if in the end a number of essential things remain unsaid, or at least the reasons for them remain only ever implicit, then criticism for such a predicament applies just as much to Yount as to Plotinus who, with regard to Plato’s influence on his own work, acknowledged that “these statements of ours are not new; they do not belong to the present time, but were made long ago, not explicitly, and what we have said in this discussion has been an interpretation of them” (V.1.8 [10]).7


1.   J-M. Charrue, Plotin Lecteur de Platon (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1993), 260.
2.   Ib., 266, my translation.
3.   Cf. the instruction that “the essence of [Plotinus’] system is contained in its comprehensive meaning, and cannot be reduced to a mosaic; his true originality stands in its overarching design, not in the parts out of which it is made” by M. L. Gatti, “Plotinus: The Platonic tradition and the foundation of Neoplatonism”, in L. P. Gerson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 14.
4.   S. Slaveva-Griffin, Plotinus on Number (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 28-31.
5.   R. Sorabji, “Myths About Non-Propositional Thought”, in Time, Creation, and the Continuum (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1983), 137-56; A. C. Lloyd, “Non-Propositional Thought in Plotinus”, Phronesis 31 (1986), 258-65; M. Alfino, ‘Plotinus on the Possibility of Non-Propositional Thought’, Ancient Philosophy 8 (1990), 273-84.
6.   L. Catana, “Changing Interpretations of Plotinus: The 18th-Century Introduction of the Concept of a ‘System of Philosophy’”, The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 7 (2013) 50-98.
7.   Translated by A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus, vol. V. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 41.

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