BMCR 2006.01.09

Plotin. Traités 27-29. GF Flammarion

, , , Traités. 27-29, Sur les difficultés relatives à l'âme, trois livres. GF. Philosophes ; 1198. Paris: Flammarion, 2005. 299 p. ; 18 cm.. ISBN 2080712039 €10.60 (pb).

The fourth volume of the new French translation of the Enneads, containing three treatises on ‘The problems of the Soul’ (‘Sur les difficultés relatives à l’âme, in trois livres’), nos. 27-29 in the chronological order (IV, 3-5, according to Porphyry’s division), follows the volumes already published in 2002-2004.1

As in the previous volumes, the translation is supplied with an impressive and detailed (circa 50 pages) general introduction as well as shorter notices and comments on each treatise. Translators’ comments, often quite extensive, are organized as endnotes to individual treatises. The volume is enhanced by indices, bibliography and a chronological table, and, generally speaking, is very well structured and produced.

Translation and study of these treatises is a serious advance in Plotinian scholarship, since for a number of reasons they have not been thoroughly studied. First of all, the treatises are explicitly critical of the Stoic and the Peripatetic schools of philosophy. In order to understand arguments advanced by Plotinus, one has to learn more about the concepts of his opponents, which is sometimes difficult because the arguments often require reconstruction. Extensive commentaries by Luc Brisson and relevant references to Aristotle, Alexander of Aphrodisias, the Stoics, etc. greatly help readers to orient themselves in this complicated problematic. Another reason for their scholarly neglect is that they (along with other polemical tracts) occupy a distinctive place within the corpus and often appear to be inconsistent with the rest of the system. That is why the problem of consistency receives special attention in the introductory notice, which is very important and useful. Of course the treatises contain a great deal of ‘positive’ teaching of Plotinus, which is also profoundly analyzed in the notice.

The ‘problems’ in question are many, and Plotinus appears to divide them according to certain sections and subsections, which unfortunately do not correspond exactly to Porphyry’s artificial division of the treatises. This new edition offers a detailed plan of the treatises (p. 18 ff.) which convincingly shows that they can be subdivided into six main sections. The first section addresses the problem of unity and multiplicity in souls; the second discusses the question of the entry of souls into bodies and the consequences of this fact; the third is concerned with the embodied soul, its memory and similar difficulties, including the problem of continuity of personality in disembodied souls; the fourth is dedicated to ‘astrological’ questions, such as whether entities such as the planetary gods can have memory; the fifth seeks to solve the problem of intermediate substance, necessary for sensible experience; and the sixth is a sequel, where certain secondary problems are considered.

All the problems raised by Plotinus possess the common feature that all of them are somehow related to the question of the effects of soul. If soul and body are essentially different, a number of questions arise: how body affects or touches soul, how souls descend into bodies and leave them, in which sense souls live in bodies and what is their relation to other souls and their origins, etc. Soul cannot be of bodily nature. Being the source of life in a living body, it must itself have life. Being itself impassible, it is somehow affected by sensible world in which it lives (otherwise it would not have feelings). The logic of Plotinus’ system requires both of these theses, and he tries to harmonize them with the rest of his teaching, both in Treatises 27-29 and in Treatise 26 (The impassivity of the unembodied). Trying to solve the problem, Plotinus explains that soul remains impassible in the sense that, being immaterial, it is pure activity and action. As a mediator, responsible for discursive reasoning, it forms concepts on the basis of logos, which is a characteristic of a sensible object, and eidos, the form, which corresponds to this object in Mind. But how can logos enter soul if it is not affected? The answer is that soul receives ‘quality’ ( poiotes), something lacking in matter, since it corresponds to the form ( eidos), reflected as logos in the sensible world. Therefore, logos does not originate in matter but is a result of activity of the soul itself (based on general sympathy). The forms of sensible things are imprinted in soul, which explains how it can remain unchangeable in this process (28 [IV, 4], 23, 1-3). Soul does not receive impression ( typos), which is passion ( pathos), but a translation of this impression in the language of concepts, which inform soul in an intelligible way: it receives logoi.

This leads us to a short textual observation on the translation. The passage 27, 11, 13-14 is translated by L. Brisson as following: “Oui, et qui plus est, il était tout aussi impossible pour chaque chose produite de ne pas avoir part à ce dieu, qu’il l’était au dieu de descendre vers cette raison se trouvant dans la matière” (p. 82, with endnotes 247 and 248). Despite the justifications given we believe that the final τοῦτον corresponds to [Tὸ] αὐτοῦ γενέσθαι. That is to say: ‘… it was equally impossible for the created to be without share in the Supreme, and for the Supreme to descend into the created’ (ET by S. MacKenna) makes better sense. Although matter is mentioned by Plotinus somewhat earlier (‘… every particular thing is the image within matter of a Reason-Principle which itself images a pre-material Reason-Principle’), here we still have a neutral pronoun ( εἰς τοῦτον, not εἰς ταύτην. After all ‘the created’ is not only material world, but also soul, which is the subject of the treatise.

Generally speaking the translation of the treatises on ‘Problems of the Soul’, along with detailed commentaries and notes by Luc Brisson, is definitely a new and important step in Plotinian scholarship. It is a pleasure to work with it, and we are looking forward to reading the subsequent volumes.


1. Plotin. Traités. Traduction sous la direction de Luc Brisson et Jean-François Pradeau. Paris: GF Flammarion, 2002-2004. Vol. 1: Traités 1-6. Vol. 2: Traités 7-21. Vol. 3: Traités 22-26. 2004. For a review see BMCR 2004.09.27.