Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.21

Anne-Lise Darras-Worms, Plotin. Traité 31: sur la beauté intelligible.   Paris:  Vrin, 2018.  Pp. 303.  ISBN 978278628230.  €25,00.  


Reviewed by Christian Tornau, Universität Würzburg (christian.tornau@uni-wuerzburg.de)

This book is a new member of the series Les écrits de Plotin that was inaugurated in 1988 by Pierre Hadot with his commentary on Ennead VI.7 and by now covers about 20 out of the 54 treatises of Plotinus (with some long and important texts, e.g. Enneads IV.3-5 and VI.1-3, still missing). Anne-Lise Darras-Worms’ commentary on Ennead V.8 (31 in the chronological order) is the first volume in the series that deals with Plotinus’ great anti-Gnostic treatise that Porphyry for the edition of the Enneads, divided into four shorter texts (III.8 [30], V.8 [31], V.5 [32] and II.9 [33]). Like its predecessors, it offers an introduction, an annotated French translation and a full philosophical commentary. There is no Greek text, but textual and grammatical problems are discussed in the footnotes to the translation.

The main subject of Ennead V.8 is Intellect, whose self-identity and self-knowledge causes its absolute beauty (in the sense of both perfection and attractiveness) and makes it the eternal paradigm of the world of becoming. Plotinus begins by discussing beauty in art, nature and soul (chs. 1-3) and then turns to the beauty and wisdom (σοφία) of Intellect itself, i.e. its non-discursive and non-propositional knowledge that rests on the identity of the knower and the known (chs. 4-6). Intellect produces the visible world through spontaneous, natural production; it does not plan or create like a human craftsman, as Plotinus insists against the anthropomorphism of the Gnostics (chs. 7-8). Humans, or more precisely human souls, can ascend to Intellect and become one with it if they “de-spatialize” themselves and return to their true, intellectual self (chs. 9-11). Plotinus concludes with an allegorical exegesis of the myth of Ouranos, Kronos and Zeus (chs. 12-13).

In her introduction, after discussing the date of Ennead V.8 and its place in Plotinus’ work, and giving a detailed analysis of its content and structure, Darras-Worms rehearses the major themes of the treatise: the exegesis of Platonic texts (in particular, the myth of the soul from the Phaedrus and the creation story of the Timaeus), the notion of intelligible beauty in Ennead V.8 and in other Plotinian treatises, especially I.6 [1], “On the Beautiful”; the polemical argument against the Gnostic denigration of the visible world; and Plotinus’ defense of the visual arts in V.8.1.32-40 and its reception from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance down to Ernst Panofsky. Except for this last issue, all are taken up and deepened in the commentary.

The translation is meticulous and careful to capture even the nuances of the Greek. At times, this slightly impairs its readability. Here is the translation of V.8.3.1-3:

“Il existe donc dans la nature aussi un principe rationnel, archétype de la beauté qui est dans le corps, et, par rapport à celui qui est dans la nature, celui qui est dans l’âme, et dont provient précisément celui qui est dans la nature, est plus beau.”

The words “par rapport . . . beau” render τοῦ δ’ ἐν τῇ φύσει ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ καλλίων [sc. ἐστί], παρ’ οὗ καὶ ἐν τῇ φύσει [sc. ἐστί]. The translation is certainly exact, but it is more complicated than Plotinus’ Greek which at this point is, for once, quite plain. On the whole, Darras-Worms’ translation will be more helpful to users who read it along with the original than to beginners or Greekless readers.

Conforming to the policy of the series, the commentary is a sustained interpretation of the text primarily designed to elucidate Plotinus’ train of thought. References to other Plotinian treatises and to earlier Greek philosophers (Plato aside) are given sparingly, though there are useful cross-references within the treatise itself and to Enneads III.8, V.5 and II.9 that help to understand the coherence of V.8 and its place in the overall argument of the “Great Treatise” and (in the case of II.9) to identify polemical allusions to Gnostic tenets. Taking her cue from the opening lines, which posit “contemplation of the beauty of Intellect and the intelligible world” (V.8.1.5-6) as the goal of the treatise, Darras-Worms interprets the text as a spiritual exercise (“exercice spirituel”) in the sense given to the term by Pierre Hadot, i.e. as a practical guide for the soul’s ascent to Intellect and its final unification with it. This means that the commentary focuses on the practical, didactic or pedagogic aspects of Plotinus’ philosophy rather than on the logical analysis of his arguments or the justification of his propositions. Perhaps some readers will regret this. However, a careful reading of the text shows that in this particular treatise Plotinus is more interested in devising a vivid and attractive, even seductive image of the inner life of Intellect (cf. p. 165: “rendre séduisant le monde intelligible”), in which all Platonic Forms (or true beings, or gods) are fully transparent to one another and to the whole (cf. esp. V.8.3-4), than in compiling arguments for the priority of the immaterial over the material or for the compatibility of unity and plurality in immaterial, intelligible reality. Arguments of this kind are prominent in other Plotinian writings (e.g. Enneads VI.4-5 [22-3] “On the omnipresence of true Being”), but they seem largely presupposed in Ennead V.8. In chapters 9 and 11, Plotinus actually gives instructions for the spiritual exercise of abstraction (ἀφαίρεσις) or, as Darras-Worms puts it, “dé-spatialisation” (p. 91) that leads towards Intellect and to our own true self; one might say that especially in these chapters, but also in the treatise in general, the spiritual exercise of ascending towards the contemplation of Intellect is both described and enacted (cf. pp. 17, 231). The commentary succeeds well in making this clear, not least thanks to several good remarks on Plotinus’ rhetoric and style and its pedagogic function.

Darras-Worms is particularly successful when she discusses Plotinus as a reader and exegete of Plato. It has long been recognized that the Phaedrus is the most important Platonic background text for Ennead V.8. To some extent, the entire treatise is an exegesis of Plato’s “supra-celestial place” (Phdr. 247c), but the relation to the Phaedrus myth is especially close in chapters 4 on the “life of the gods” and 10 on the divine and human souls’ contemplation of intellectual beauty. Darras-Worms clarifies how Plotinus modifies and develops Plato’s thought by “making explicit what is implicit in them” (cf. V.1.10), i.e. by freely combining various Platonic proof texts and adapting them to new contexts. Thus in chs. 3 and 4 Plotinus transfers Plato’s statements about the soul’s beatific vision of the Forms to the “happy life of the gods”, the mutual “vision” (i.e. transparency and transcendent unity) of the Forms themselves (see esp. p. 157); and towards the end of ch. 4 he takes Plato’s “knowledge as such” (V.8.4.40: αὐτοεπιστήμη, a technical variation of Phdr. 247e, τὴν . . . ὄντως ἐπιστήμην) which “does not differ from subject to subject” (ibid.) as the starting point of his own analysis of noetic intellection as self-intellection (pp. 176-80). When in ch. 10 Plotinus returns to that passage and makes the souls re-enter the picture, the difference in exegesis is an indication of how, in the course of Plotinus’ argument, the perspective has shifted from intellectual wisdom and beauty in itself to our relation to, or rather primordial unity with it that may be recovered by means of the spiritual exercises described in chs. 9 and 11 (pp. 231-2).

Some critical remarks remain to be made. Darras-Worms has the habit of quoting her translation extensively both in the introduction and in the commentary and sometimes even substitutes quotation for explanation. For example, V.8.9.22-4 in Darras-Worms’ translation reads:

“chacun ne possède pas non plus des parties différentes par rapport aux autres ou à lui-même, et chaque [partie] n’est pas non plus comme une puissance divisée, dont la grandeur est proportionnelle à la mesure des parties.”

This is a difficult sentence. It may be debated whether “par rapport à” is an adequate translation of the dative ἄλλοις αὑτῷ (it rather seems to suggest a comparative genitive, cf. V.8.3.1-3, quoted above); and the sense of the comparison of the “parts” (i.e. Forms) contained in Intellect with powers that quantitatively correspond with (corporeal?) parts is far from clear. Yet in the commentary ad loc. we only get a quotation of the text without further comment (p. 219).

In her analysis of the structure of the treatise Darras-Worms divides V.8 into seven “parts”, each of which is subdivided into two or three “sections”, which in turn are divided into two to four paragraphs of an average length of about ten lines. These small units with their numbered headings appear not only in the “plan du traité” (pp. 59-61) and the table of contents but are also integrated in the translation. Especially to a reader who does not have the Greek text at his or her disposal this will give the impression that Plotinus’ argument proceeds neatly by clear-cut and self-contained steps. This is seriously misleading in itself and inconsistent with Darras-Worms’ own commentary, which rightly emphasizes the continuous flow of Plotinus’ exposition. At one point it even leads to a downright contradiction: although Darras-Worms agrees with those editors who, against the traditional chapter division, understand V.8.3.30-4.6 as a long continuous sentence, she nevertheless begins a new section at V.8.4.1 – with the curious result that a heading interrupts the text in the middle of a sentence (p. 77).

These points aside, Darras-Worms has provided an interesting reading of Ennead V.8 and a welcome tool for Plotinian scholarship. It may be hoped that the series Les écrits de Plotin will be continued and that Darras-Worms’ book will soon be complemented by commentaries on the three remaining parts of Plotinus’ “Great Treatise”.

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