BMCR 1995.11.03

1995.11.03, Bolton, Person, Soul and Identity

, Person, soul, and identity : a neoplatonic account of the principle of personality. Montreux: Minerva Press, 1994. 279 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9781858631011.

The term “Neoplatonism” was invented in the 18th century by a German historian to indicate a putative development within Greek philosophy. The founder of Neoplatonism is supposed to be Plotinus, although the obvious fact that the roots of Plotinus’ philosophy go back to Plato has led one distinguished scholar to speak only half-jokingly of Plato’s Neoplatonism. Between Plotinus and the official closing of Plato’s Academy in Athens by the Emperor Justinian in 529 pagan Greek philosophers produced an enormously rich and complex body of technical literature on a wide range of problems. These philosophers basically thought of themselves as followers of Plato and not innovators. And it was from among the versions of Platonism that flourished then that Christianity drew to provide the philosophical basis for the new, non-Hellenic religion. Owing to its complexity, obscurity, its association with Christianity, and perhaps the faintly pejorative connotation of the label “Neo,” Neoplatonism is not in good repute among philosophers today. Many of those who have devoted their entire professional lives to the study of ancient Greek philosophy—and not only in the capacity of scholars and exegetes—evince either outright contempt or total lack of interest in what was in fact the dominant school of philosophy for about 400 years. In the area of classical scholarship, things are changing rapidly. Work on Neoplatonic texts is burgeoning and almost nowhere in need of self-justification. But in philosophy matters are somewhat different. It is still the case that any contemporary philosopher who actually takes seriously Neoplatonic ideas is liable to be sentenced to the Island of Eccentricity or worse, the Asylum for the Theologically Gullible.

Robert Bolton’s book is among the small number of works that actually takes seriously Neoplatonic ideas regarding the nature of human persons as a contribution to contemporary debates. The first two chapters of the book sketch Platonic and Plotinian ideas on soul/body dualism, how the person is to be (qualifiedly) identical with the soul, and the connection between self-knowledge and knowledge of a substantial self. The third through fifth chapters follows these ideas as they are developed in St. Augustine, Leibniz, and John Locke. The last three chapters touch on a number of related issues including embodiment, consciousness, immortality, and mystical experience. As the author states his main thesis, “the concept of personal identity which is developed here is that of a unitary causal principle, of which the empirical person is the manifestation (xxx).” What this means is that the self is a spiritual or immaterial substance and the embodied person comprises a family of successive representations of the ideal. Thus, the crude parodies of soul/body dualism miss the mark. Both Plotinus and Plato wished instead to develop a dualism of ideal discarnate self and empirical incarnate self, a dualism which can accommodate the obvious organic unity of human persons without thereby leaving inexplicable personal identity. According to Neoplatonism, personal development is a process of accommodating oneself to one’s own true nature.

The historical side of the book is disappointing on Plato and Plotinus and rather more interesting on Augustine and Leibniz. In all fairness, the issues with which Bolton is concerned are inextricably bound up with Plato’s and Plotinus’ entire philosophies and no short chapters could do justice to them. Nevertheless, the conventions of critical scholarship are not observed. Greek words are printed without accents or breathings. A blanket reference to Iamblichus’On the Mysteries without precise chapter or line numbers in support of a claim about Neoplatonism is just not acceptable. In the chapter on Plotinus there are many, many relevant texts that are simply ignored. There is also a crucial mistranslation of Plato’s Phaedo 79d1 on page 110 (oddly enough, corrected without comment on page 135) that makes Plato say what only the later tradition says explicitly, namely, that the soul can reflect on itself. And so on. There is, however, a good discussion of the Augustinian source of Descartes’cogito argument and a stimulating treatment of the Neoplatonic basis for Leibnizian monads in spiritual selves.

The philosophical or systematic side of the book is, unfortunately, quite unsatisfactory. There is a persistent and distressing lack of analytic precision in the expression of claims and an all too cavalier attitude toward argument. Many striking and even insightful statements are made by the author without the slightest attempt to give non question-begging reasons why anyone should believe them. The lack of philosophical sophistication shown here is, alas, just the sort of thing that leads even fair minded philosophers to throw up their hands in despair when they are asked to consider what Neoplatonically-inspired authors are saying. The principal error, one to which those with considerable imaginative power are especially susceptible, is to confuse the possible with the actual. What critical readers want to see is argument that would support the claim that the views about the human person expressed here are in fact true and not merely fanciful.

Having made these highly critical remarks, I feel compelled to add that this is in some ways an engaging and even admirable book. The author clearly possesses a lively and independent mind. He is refreshingly ingenuous. I can easily imagine that this book will inspire some readers to go back to the Neoplatonic authors themselves or to reexamine their own uncritical beliefs about the nature of the human person. It is not, however, a book that is likely to carry much weight either with scholars or with English-speaking philosophers.