BMCR 2004.04.22

L’imitation du principe. Plotin et la participation. Histoire des doctrines de l’antiquité classique, XXX

, L'imitation du principe : Plotin et la participation. Histoire des doctrines de l'Antiquité classique, 30. Paris: Vrin, 2003. 188 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 2711616150 €25.00 (pb).

In his exceptionally learned monograph Jean-François Pradeau — a well-known French researcher and translator of the Enneads of Plotinus — addresses an interesting question, somewhat underrepresented in the Plotinian scholarship — what the concept of participation ( methexis) means exactly.

The basic hypothesis of the study is formulated in the introduction, entitled “La participation comme imitation” (pp. 9-17). It is said here that the present study examines the aspects, features and concrete instances of the Neoplatonic reception of the works of Plato in order to demonstrate the extent to which the motif of imitation ( mimesis) plays the determinative role in the formation of the concept of participation.

The subject matter is organized into four chapters, dedicated, respectively, to the predecessors of Plotinus and a short summary of his concepts (pp. 19-56), “The images of the principle” (pp. 57-80), the concepts of Return and Assimilation (pp. 81-104), and, finally, Contemplation and Resemblance (pp. 105-148).

Of the middle-Platonic predecessors of Plotinus special attention is given to Alcinous (an otherwise unknown author of the Handbook of Platonism)1 and Numenius of Apamea.2 While the Handbook is an example of ‘standard’ school Platonism, Numenius with his neo-Pythagorean affinity allows us to perceive another side of the Platonic tradition. The Middle Platonists had formulated a number of questions, concerning the status of Demiurge, creation, time, matter etc., and answered them in the ways significant for understanding the development of Platonic doctrine in the philosophy of Plotinus and later Neoplatonism. Pradeau’s discussion of Numenius is especially interesting in the context of the present study. The remaining sections of the first chapter outline the fundamentals of Plotinian thought: his interpretation of the ‘Parmenides’, the first principles, the unity of reality, and finally the concepts of imitation as participation.

The second chapter (‘Les images du principe’) is divided into three sections. The first section is entitled ‘Les figures de la procession’ (pp. 58f.). In the treatise 11 (V 2) “The origin and the order of the beings following on the first” (1, 1-3) Plotinus posits a paradoxical hypothesis, which controls the rest of his ontological constructs: “The One is all things and no one of them; in effect, the source of all things is not all things; and yet it is all things in a transcendental sense — all things, so to speak, having run back to it: or, more correctly, not all as yet are within it, they will be.”3

‘From such a unity as we have declared the One to be, how does anything at all come into substantial existence, any multiplicity, dyad, or number?’ — asks Plotinus. The process of generating successive hypostases is illustrated on the basis of a long passage from 10 [V 1] 6, 6-53 (pp. 60f.). The passage is remarkable, since the process of generation is presented here by means of eight different metaphors — production, generation, imitation, illumination, rational information, movement, activity, and love for the better (élan erotique). Analyzing these problems, Pradeau then proceeds with “Les apories de la génération et de l’illumination” (pp. 65f.), while the third section of the chapter is devoted to the Soul and entitled: “De l’image à l’imitation: l’âme et la participation” (pp. 69f.).

The following chapters discuss the issue from the ontological, epistemological and ethical points of view. Chapter 3, concerned with the concepts of Return and Assimilation is also subdivided into three sections, entitled, respectively, “The reflection of the principle” (pp. 82f.), “Participer, dans la measure du possible” (pp. 89f.), and “La simulation du principe” (p. 97). The fourth chapter, “Contempler et se rendre semblable” (pp. 105f.) separately treats the following topics: “Le trace du principe” (pp. 110f.), “Purification, assimilation et contemplation” (pp. 114f.), “L’imitation et les songes” (pp. 123f.), and “L’apologie de l’indétermination” (pp. 128f.). As everywhere in the work the main concern of Pradeau here is to isolate the exact terminological formulations in Plotinus and to trace them back to his predecessors.

In his final section, ‘Reflection and Projection’ (pp. 150-154), Pradeau draws some conclusions and also approaches briefly the problem of two matters in Plotinus (Traité 12 (II 4)).

The book ends with Appendices (namely, the titles of Plotinian traits and their order), a selected bibliography and indices of passages quoted, names and Greek terms. A table of corresponding numeration of the traits of the Enneads (in the chronological order, on the one hand, and according to Porphyrian arrangement, on the other) is useful, but rather badly formatted.

I believe that the book is a serious advance in study of one of the most difficult problem of Plotinian scholarship, is very well written and produced, and can certainly be recommended to everyone interested in Plotinus and classical philosophy in general.


1. The choice of the authors is quite natural, since very little has survived intact from this period. I should probably remind the readers that the work called ‘Didaskalikos’ and usually dated to the middle of the second century A.D. is a handbook or a summary of Platonism, written (or, rather, compiled) by a philosopher whose name (judging solely from the manuscripts) was Alcinous. The nineteenth century German scholar J. Freudenthal suggested that instead of ‘Alcinous’ we should read ‘Albinus’. As a result for almost a century the Handbook has been considered a work of Albinus, the philosopher of the second century and teacher of Galen. This identification is now generally abandoned thanks to the important studies and critical edition of the work by John Whittaker (1990), who has proven that Freudenthal’s rejection of the manuscript authority was unfounded. There is an English translation of the Handbook by John Dillon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

2. A collection of fragments of this mysterious Neo-Pythagorean philosopher from Apamea can be found in É. des Places’ Budé edition (1973); while for an excellent survey of his life and work cf. John Dillons’ ‘The Middle Platonists’ (Cornell UP, 1996, second revised edition), pp. 361-379, 448-49 (Afterword); and Michael Frede’s article in ANRW II 36:2 (1034-75).

3. I use MacKenna-Page translation. J.-F. Pradeau has been working, in collaboration with Luc Brisson, on a new translation of the Enneads, organized in chronological order (two volumes, containing treatises 1 to 23 published to date). The new edition will certainly be a remarkable achievement. Extensive quotations throughout the book are given in the author’s own translation. I might also add that the book will probably be of special interest to philologists rather then philosophers.