The works by Plotinus (203/4?-270), known in the English language translations by Stephen MacKenna and A.H. Armstrong (Loeb Classical Library) as well as in a French translation by Émile Bréhier (Budé), are now available in a new French translation by a team of eminent French scholars.
The volumes already published include the first 26 treatises of 54 in the ‘chronological order’. The edition is conveniently supplied with a general introduction as well as short notices and comments on each treatise. Although the latter become traditional to all editions of the Enneads, one can note, that Brisson, Pradeau and their collaborators have supplied the treatises with longer and more detailed preliminary introductions and summaries than those in the edition by Armstrong, which is certainly very convenient for the reader. Line numbering in the text of the treatises is also very useful. Translators’ commentaries, often quite extensive and elaborate, are organized as endnotes to individual treatises. Each volume is enhanced by indices, bibliographical and chronological tables, and, generally speaking, is very well structured and produced.
Although the translation is based upon the so-called Editio Minor: Plotini Opera, ed. by P. Henry and H.R. Schwyzer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964-1982, in three volumes), the Editio Major by the same editors (Paris and Bruxelles, 1951-1973) has also been taken into consideration. A few variant readings are mentioned at the beginning of each volume (cf. for instance, vol. 1, pp. 51-52). Philological remarks and terminological observations of the translator can normally be found in the endnotes ad loc.
A general introduction at the beginning of the first volume outlines the life and works of Plotinus as well as the basic features of his philosophy. Given that the ‘Vita Plotini’ by Porphyry is practically the only source of our knowledge about Plotinus’ life and works, one would expect to find a translation of it here. Unfortunately, unlike Armstrong in LCL, the editors have chosen to omit the text of the Vita, partly justified by the fact that the work by Plotinus’ pupil has recently been edited and translated by J. Pepin and al. (Paris: Vrin, 1982-1992, in two vols.). A short outline of Plotinus’ doctrine by the editors (vol. 1, pp. 21-43) is very clear and lucid. For the specific views expressed here, especially concerning Plotinus’ predecessors, his relation to Stoicism and the elements of his doctrine, the reader can now refer, among others, to the recent monograph by one of the editors: Pradeau, Jean-François, L’imitation du principe. Plotin et la participation. Histoire des doctrines de l’antiquité classique, XXX. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2003 (reviewed at BMCR 2004.04.22).
Generally speaking, the translation is very precise, though not literal. The editors have managed to gather together the work of many contributors and, although certain individual peculiarities remain, the work as a whole possesses very satisfying terminological and stylistic uniformity.
Let us now consider the translation. The Enneads (or, better, the Treatises by Plotinus, since their division into the Enneads, proposed by Porphyry, is abandoned in the present edition) open with a treatise, entitled ‘On Beauty’ (Enn. I 6). The passage 1 [I 6] 1, 2-3
Then, quite unexpectedly, in the chapter 5, line 48 of the same treatise, we have the phrase,
The translation of the second treatise, ‘On the Immortality of the Soul’ (Enn. IV 7) seems to be perfect. In the third treatise, ‘On Fate’ (III 1), Plotinus inquires why we prefer one action to another; whether our actions lack natural causes, or, quite the opposite, are determined by circumstances external to the Soul? Could it actually be the case that the causes of all actions are internal to the Soul, which chooses freely what it considers to be the best. Here and later on Plotinus establishes his concept of independent action of the Soul and criticizes various alternative opinions. In the passage 1, 22-24 he states that ‘will’ and ‘deliberation’ of the Soul are the cause of its actions. That is why free actions and ‘movements’ of the Soul are different from other ‘movements’ in inanimate nature. We believe that the following important statement
The fourth treatise (IV 2) is actually a continuation of the treatise 2 (IV 7). The title is strangely translated as ‘Sur la réalité de l’âme’. It should be ‘On the essence (
The fifth treatise, ‘On the Intellect, the Ideas, and the Existent (translated as ‘ce qui est’)’ (‘On the Intellectual-Principle, on the Ideas, and on the Authentic-Existent’ in MacKenna-Page), is a chronologically early account of the ascent of the soul to the intelligible reality. Details of argument cannot be summarized here even briefly, but one important problem must be pointed out. The question whether Plotinus allows the reason-principles of sensible individual objects to be present in the Intellect, still intrigues scholars. This is remarked in note 96. Plotinus’ position is clearly expressed, for instance, in 18 (V 7) 1, 19-27. He says here that ‘one Reason-Principle cannot account for distinct and different individuals: one human being does not suffice as the exemplar for many’ (MacKenna-Page’s translation). Having this in mind the translator must handle with care the passage usually supplied as the proof of the opposite view:
The first volume ends with the sixth treatise, ‘On the Descent of the Soul into Bodies’ (IV 8). One of the most important treatises of the second volume is the text, entitled ‘On the Two Orders of Matter’ (II 4). The translator of passage 4, 4
Let us end with one final remark on Treatise 26, found in the third volume and entitled ‘On the Impassibility of the Bodiless’ (III 6). In the 12th chapter Plotinus quotes Timaeus 52d5-6, inquiring whether it is possible to say that Matter is taking ‘the shapes (
To sum up, these three volumes of a new French translation of the Enneads, issued by ‘GF Flammarion’ in the series ‘La philosophie de l’Antiquité’, are to be ranked among the most illustrious recent achievements of classical scholarship. The publication is an excellent present to all lovers of classical wisdom in the year of the 1800 Anniversary of the author (born 203/204 A.D.). A new and important step has been made towards better understanding of the heritage of Plotinus, surely one of the most mysterious and difficult among the classical writers.