BMCR 2002.01.17

Plotins Schrift “Über den Geist, die Ideen und das Seiende”. Enneade V 9 [5]. Text, Übersetzung, Kommentar

, Plotins Schrift "Über den Geist, die Ideen und das Seiende" : Enneade V 9 (5) : Text, Übersetzung, Kommentar. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 145. München/Leipzig: Saur, 2001. 206 pages : portrait ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3598776942 DM 156.00.

Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, is notorious for his extreme density of thought and stylistic brevity. Hence the best way of interpreting his metaphysics is to read his philosophical writings as closely as possible, which is most conveniently done by means of commentaries on individual treatises. Since W. Beierwaltes’ study on Ennead III 7 (1967) the number of Plotinian commentaries has increased considerably;1 most of them are a happy synthesis of philological analysis of text and philosophical interpretation. Matthias Vorwerk’s (V.) book, a revised Münster doctoral dissertation, is a new example. It is an edition and commentary of one of Plotinus’ earliest treatises, Ennead V 9 (no. 5 of the chronological order) “On Intellect, the Forms and Being”, where the principle that the intelligible forms are not outside the intellect is argued at length for the first time. After stating his methodical principles in the introduction and giving a brief overview of the treatise’s contents (pp. 13-22), V. provides a Greek Lesetext (based on the standard edition of Henry-Schwyzer)2 faced by an exact and readable German translation (pp. 25-53) and accompanied by a full but nevertheless concise commentary (pp. 55-183), a select bibliography (pp. 185-198) and an index of Greek words (pp. 201-206). The commentary is meant to be read along with the Greek text of Ennead V 9 (p. 17). V., a classicist, takes much interest in questions of text, language and sources, but is also quite helpful for following Plotinus’ often complicated train of thought and for understanding it within the general framework of Plotinian metaphysics.

As Plotinus clearly states himself (V 9, ch. 1-2), his aim is to help his readers to reach the intelligible world of Platonic forms through an inner ascent. This is done by means of a lengthy inquiry into the nature and contents of the Divine Mind or Intellect ( νοῦς), which forms the main part of the treatise. Having argued for two of his most important doctrines, viz. that Intellect is prior to Soul and that it is identical with Being or the world of Platonic forms (ch. 3-8), Plotinus deals with the traditional problem of what empirical things have forms in Intellect (ch. 9-13). The treatise ends with some scattered remarks on remaining problems, especially how the One can be the cause of the multiplicity of Being/Intellect (ch. 14).

V.s commentary on each major section as well as on each chapter consists of a comprehensive analysis of contents followed by lemmatic notes on problems of detail, so that we may both understand the exact meaning of the text and grasp the philosophical problems Plotinus is concerned with. Thus in dealing with the section on the nature of Intellect, V. shows how Plotinus, attempting to demonstrate against the Stoics that Intellect is not a kind of emergent property of soul but prior to it, avails himself of the Aristotelian doctrine that the actual is always prior to the potential. From V.s analysis of Plotinus’ arguments for the identity of Intellect and Being we learn that this distinctly Plotinian doctrine was developed precisely because it was crucial to Plotinus to preserve Platonic realism, i.e. the principle that only something that is can be an object of cognition.3 Finally, in his commentary on the third major section, V. demonstrates that Plotinus is reluctant to assume Platonic forms of immanent intelligibles, such as individual human souls, because he wants to secure the continuity between the intelligible and sensible worlds and to avoid a complete χωρισμός. In his detailed notes, V. elucidates the text further by means of parallels, mostly from Plotinus himself, which are quoted at length. V. has usually chosen very helpful texts, firmly resisting the temptation to explain obscurum per obscurius and even managing to make Plotinus his own commentator; but from the point of view of readers who are not very familiar with Plotinus it is regrettable that he did not add a translation to longer quotations. The interest V. takes in the Platonic background of Plotinus’ reasoning sometimes yields remarkable results. Thus according to his commentary on V 9.10.5, the idea that, if a body is to be beautiful, form must be in complete control over matter may well go back to Plato (Tim. 47e-48a) instead of being taken from Aristotle, as Harder thought (p. 139sq.; we might however ask ourselves to what extent Plotinus read Plato with Aristotle’s eyes).4 There is a good summary of the debate on whether Plotinus believed in forms of individuals, which was opened in the 1960s and continues today (p. 159-161).

As for the details of V.s approach, his commentary on V 9.2 is quite characteristic (pp. 77-87). In this chapter, Plotinus sets out to lead his readers upwards to the realm of real being, which is precisely Intellect (as will emerge from the rest of the treatise). This is done by means of a reasoning ( λόγος) inspired by Plato’s Symposium: while trying to determine the cause of each form of beauty that may occur, Plotinus ascends from visible, bodily beauty via psychic and intellectual beauty to Beauty itself, i.e. the One or the Good which is the ultimate principle of all beauty. V. meticulously distinguishes five steps in this reasoning, each of which is briefly discussed and aptly illustrated with parallels from Plotinus’ fuller treatments of beauty, Enneads I 6 [1] and V 8 [31]. In his notes, he refers to Aristotle, De anima 3.5, for the distinction between intellect in power and intellect in act, used by Plotinus as an argument that intellectual beauty is different from and prior to the beauty of the soul (V 9.2.20-23). But in spite of this well-known Aristotelian background, the words Plotinus actually uses for the intellect in act, νοῦς ἀληθινὸς, come from Plato (Phlb. 22c), as V. shows. Against Henry-Schwyzer, V. returns to Kirchhoff’s punctuation of ll. 23-27, which gives a balance of question and answer exactly parallel to the preceding lines; and he convincingly argues against P.A. Meijer for the presence of the transcendent One in V 9.5 However, it is somewhat regrettable that V., presumably for the sake of brevity, has refrained from discussing some intriguing philosophical questions connected with this chapter. As V. himself notes (p. 82), the Aristotelian terminology of δύναμις and ἐνέργεια pervades the whole treatise. So what exactly does this mean to Plotinus? Is it merely a traditional way of expressing oneself, as may be found in Middle Platonic writers such as Alcinous, or should it perhaps be connected with one of Plotinus’ most important means of understanding the hierarchical ordering of reality, the “double energeia theory”?6 Furthermore, V. does not make sufficiently clear whether in his view Plotinus says in V 9.2.26 that the plurality of the forms immanent in Intellect to some extent “mirrors” the One and whether this is consistent with the One’s absolute simplicity (though there is more discussion in his commentary on V 9.14.1-6, pp. 172-175). Similarly, in his note on λόγος in V 9.3.31 (p. 93), V. restricts himself to bibliographical references. Certainly, it is not always necessary to repeat things that have often been said, but on the other hand a commentary offers the opportunity to check the results of scholarship against concrete texts.

V.s German translation is a considerable improvement on Harder, Beutler & Theiler,7 whose mistakes are avoided, as is their often unnecessarily pathetic tone. The aim stated in the introduction (p. 17sq.)—to be as literal as possible without becoming unintelligible, a problem readers of Armstrong’s English translation8 are familiar with—has been fully achieved. But I am not altogether happy with the rendering of ἐνεργείᾳ as “wirklich” (V 9.5.4 etc.), which makes it indistinguishible from ὄντως (also “wirklich” in V 9.3.2, but “seinshaft” in V 9.5.13). “Rationale Form” is the traditional German translation of λόγος, but V. should have explained why he sticks to it. Since technical terms should be recognizable in a translation, I would have preferred “(geistig) erkennen” instead of “denken” for νοεῖν. “Denken” means everyday discursive thinking (in Plotinus’ terminology: διανοεῖσθαι or λογίζεσθαι) rather than the supra-rational, non-discursive kind of thinking associated with Plotinian Intellect. As for misprints and errors of reference, I have spotted only one: On p. 68, read (Alexander of Aphrodisias)”de an. mant.” instead of “In Arist. de an.”

Despite these minor points of criticism, V. has produced a rich and reliable commentary that will be of great use both to those who begin to read Plotinus and to specialists; it should become the starting-point of all further scholarship on Ennead V 9.


1. W. Beierwaltes, Plotin ber Ewigkeit und Zeit (Enneade III 7), Frankfurt/Main 1967. P. Hadot, s.v. “Plotinos”, in Der Neue Pauly 9, 2000, pp. 1146-1155, gives a list of commentaries on Plotinus (p. 1154), to which add: W. Helleman-Elgersma, Soul-Sisters. A Commentary on Enneads IV 3 [27],1-8 of Plotinus, Amsterdam 1980; J. Bussanich, The One and its Relation to Intellect in Plotinus. A commentary on selected texts, Leiden 1988; P.A. Meijer, Plotinus on the Good or the One (Ennead VI, 9). An analytical commentary, Amsterdam 1992; M. Isnardi Parente, Plotino, Enneadi VI 1-3. Introduzione, testo greco, traduzione, commento, Napoli 1994; C. Tornau, Plotin, Enneaden VI 4-5 [22-23]. Ein Kommentar, Stuttgart/Leipzig 1998; B. Ham, Plotin: Traité 49 (V 3), Paris 2000.

2. P. Henry & H.R. Schwyzer, Plotini Opera, vol. 3, Oxford 1964-1982.

3. Ennead V 9 may have played a role in the contemporary philosophical discussion of the doctrine “That the intelligibles are not outside Intellect”, if we assume that the treatise “On ideas” referred to by Longinus ap. Porph. Vita Plot. 20,89 is not V 5 [32] or VI 7 [38] but V 9, as V. convincingly maintains (p. 58). However, the similarity of Plotinus’ doctrine with the Middle Platonic designation of the forms as “thoughts of God” should not be overrated (p. 86) because the latter tended to compromise Platonic realism. See V 9.7.14 with V.s commentary (p. 122sq).

4. As he did according to e.g. L.P. Gerson, Plotinus, London 1994.

5. Meijer (see note 1), p. 31. Meijer thinks that the concept of a “Superone” first emerges in Ennead VI 9 [9].

6. See esp. Bussanich (as in note 1).

7. R. Harder, R. Beutler & W. Theiler, Plotins Schriften. Griechischer Text, deutsche Übersetzung, Anmerkungen, vol. 6, Hamburg 1956-1971.

8. A.H. Armstrong, Plotinus. Text with an English translation, vol. 7, Cambridge (Mass.) 1966-1988 (Loeb Classical Library).