BMCR 2005.04.20

Philosophy in Late Antiquity

, Philosophy in late antiquity. London/New York: Routledge, 2004. 1 online resource (xi, 151 pages). ISBN 020364509X. $26.95 (pb).

The title of this short volume (the text comes to 130 pages) is misleading since Smith concentrates exclusively on Neoplatonism. It could as well have been called A Short Introduction to Plotinus and his Influence. Smith explains in the preface that the Neoplatonists alone were philosophically innovative in this period: they absorbed and transformed the main doctrines of the other schools, and they had the greatest impact on subsequent thought, especially Christian. There is practically nothing on the Aristotelian commentators, for example, although it is true that they were largely explicators and rarely ventured to philosophize independently in their commentaries, which were intended to instruct novices. Even so, providing a clear and philosophically interesting survey of the selected material in so brief a compass represents a considerable challenge. Whether Smith has risen to it successfully depends in part on the kind of readership his book addresses. I first present an overview of the topics he treats and then return to the question of audience.

The book falls into two parts. The first, entitled “Setting the Agenda: The Philosophy of Plotinus,” occupies a little more than half the book (70 pages); the second, “The Diffusion of Neoplatonism,” comes to 55 pages. Notes, gathered at the end of the text, are confined almost entirely to references to ancient sources, with about a dozen citations of modern studies. The “Suggestions for Further Reading” mention editions and translations, followed by a total of eleven books and articles by modern scholars. Smith does not engage in open controversy with other interpretations or seek to resolve highly technical points but surveys the principal ideas and currents of thought. To this end, he frequently illustrates his commentary with well-chosen passages quoted from the original texts, in his own translations or, in the case of Plotinus, adapting Armstrong’s versions in the Loeb edition. Very few terms are given in Greek.

The part on Plotinus contains chapters on “The Individual,” “The One,” “Intellect,” “Soul, the Universe, and Matter,” and “The Return of the Soul.” The second part has three chapters: “Philosophy and Religion,” “The Development of Neoplatonism,” and “Christianity and Neoplatonism.” Each chapter is further subdivided into sections. Thus, that on “The Individual” treats “Soul and Body,” “Discursive Reason,” “Reason and Intellect,” “The Ascent to Intellect,” and “Intellect Itself.” The topics indicate Smith’s approach: he takes up in turn the principal concepts in Plotinus’ system. It is innovative, nevertheless, to start with the notion of the individual and conclude the treatment of Plotinus with the return of the soul and the “Mystical Union with the One,” which gives a sense of Plotinus’ psychological trajectory. The final chapter begins with four pages on Synesius, followed by “The Western Tradition,” with a paragraph on Marius Victorinus and a more detailed treatment of Augustine (subheadings on “Concept of Incorporeal Being,” “Mysticism,” “Evil,” “Epistemology,” and “Contemplation and the Ascent of the Soul”), and “The Eastern Tradition,” with a preliminary glance at the Cappadocian Fathers, followed by discussions of Dionysius the “Areopagite” and Boethius. I particularly approve the inclusion of Christian thinkers, since other introductions to Neoplatonism, such as those by John Dillon or R.T. Wallis, confine themselves to pagan philosophy. But Smith clearly packs a lot into his concise survey.

Smith is an expert on Neoplatonism, having written an important book on Porphyry ( Porphyry’s Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition, 1974) and edited the Teubner text of Porphyry’s fragments; he also contributed an extensive bibliography on Porphyry to Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt. Although an elementary manual is not the place to present new or controversial interpretations, the image of Neoplatonism that Smith offers reflects his personal engagement with the doctrines over many decades. Plotinus in particular is a wide-ranging and not always systematic thinker; besides, his ideas are abstruse, and it takes extensive preparation to appreciate them fully. Thus, making his vision intelligible involves a good deal of judgment and tact. This is above all the case in an elementary guide such as this one, which must meet the needs of newcomers to Neoplatonism. How well does Smith succeed in this?

The answer, as I indicated at the beginning, depends in part on the kind of the reader the book is expected to serve. One who is wholly new to Neoplatonism and comes to it with a knowledge, say, of Aristotle and Stoicism or of modern analytic philosophy, will, I think, find it rough going in places. Difficult or recondite concepts are sometimes presented as though they were more or less self-evident, when a word of explanation might have made them more accessible. Let me take some examples from the section on Plotinus.

In the Introduction, Smith provides a brief overview of Plotinus’ career and observes that “he refined Plato’s concepts of the Idea of the Good, the Forms and the Soul into his own succession of principles, the One, Intellect and Soul which he regarded as distinct entities or Hypostases (real beings)”; he thus transformed Plato’s “two-world view” into one of “three levels” (5). Smith explains that Plotinus begins “with the search for the nature of man himself, his soul and his destiny,” and quotes Ennead 5.1.1 by way of illustration: “What is it, then, that has made the souls forget their father, God, and be ignorant of themselves and him, even though they are parts which come from his higher world and altogether belong to it?” Smith comments: “he encourages us to turn our attention inwards and upwards…. The philosophical point is that the self is in the end to be identified with the universal structure itself, i.e. with the Hypostases” (p. 5). With all three? With the highest only? What is the nature of an Hypostasis? A beginner might well feel confused at this point.

A little later, Smith tells us that discursive reason “is not eternal in the sense of being in a timeless condition. But … reason does not necessarily operate in time… And while the realm of Soul is not eternity, Soul is not in time either: rather it is time, as being the cause of time” (9; the topic is discussed further at 53-55). Now, for a reader accustomed to this language, the exposition is perhaps clear enough. But a neophyte may experience a certain perplexity.

Within the body of the book, Smith often provides elegant summaries of Plotinus’ more puzzling views. Take the controversy over whether intellect is “identical with the object of thought” (15): Smith indicates the Aristotelian provenance of this notion and the tension with the traditional Platonic view of self-subsistent, objective forms and explains well why Plotinus’ distinction between object and image obliged him to adopt the view that intellect “must be its objects” (19; cf. 29, where Smith characterizes this insight as “one of the most important of Plotinus’ philosophical achievements”). In the chapter on “The One,” Smith explains that, according to Plotinus, “it is necessary that there is such a thing as an absolute One since without it individual entities could not exist.” He then cites Ennead 6.9.1: “It is by the One that all beings are beings, both those which are primarily beings and those which are in some way classed among beings. For what could exist if it was not one?” The strategy of interpreting Plotinus by means of Plotinus is in principle a good one, but I sometimes found myself desiring a better account of why a given problem might still be philosophically interesting.

Smith notes that “One of the most enlivening features of Plotinus’ style of philosophical exposition is his use of metaphors,” but insists that “his use of metaphor is often rooted in analogy.” Analogy, in turn, is presumed to do more serious philosophical work than mere metaphor: “For Plotinus an analogy is not always simply an illustration from another aspect of reality, but rather from another level of reality” (21; cf. 30, 44-45). I would have liked to see more on just how analogy works as a philosophical tool. Smith is also alert to the variety of Plotinus’ own approaches in communicating his ideas (47), and to his “sensitive psychological observation” (63).

In his treatment of Plotinus’ successors, and above all the quarrels between Porphyry on the one side and Iamblichus, and later Proclus, on the other, Smith rightly, in my view, cautions against regarding the new interest in magic and ritual as a “relapse from Plotinian rationalism into superstition” (78). One of the most attractive features of the book is the sense that Smith provides of the continuity within Neoplatonism, up to and including its adaptation by Christian thinkers, although I am not always convinced that Augustine’s philosophical views, for example on the problems of time and evil, which Smith examines in relatively greater detail (a few paragraphs), are in fact indebted to this tradition. Nevertheless, Smith brings out well the persistence of themes and approaches throughout late antiquity, and his remarks are a stimulus to further thought and study.

In all, then, Smith has provided a rich introduction to Neoplatonic thought for those readers who come to it with a sympathetic and at least to some extent informed interest in the subject. As the distilled product of Smith’s reflections on the subject, it is a fine survey of the field.