BMCR 2007.05.43

Culture and Philosophy in the Age of Plotinus. Classical Literature and Society Series

, Culture and philosophy in the age of Plotinus. Classical literature and society. London: Duckworth, 2006. vii, 198 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0715635638 $31.00.

The age of Late Antiquity (c.200-600 AD) was a time when the Roman Empire experienced radical and unpredictable change. People from different civilisations streamed into the major cities of the Empire, bringing with them different traditions and religions, and affecting both culture and politics. One consequence was the decline of pagan polytheism and the rise of early Christianity. After the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, the leading philosophical movements that survived into late antiquity were based on the works of Plato, the Pythagoreans and Aristotle. From the third to the sixth centuries, Neoplatonism, which synthesised Middle-Platonic and Pythagorean doctrines, predominated.

Mark Edwards’ book Culture and Philosophy in the Age of Plotinus is mainly concerned with Neoplatonism, focusing on Longinus and Plotinus for the earlier period and Porphyry and Iamblichus for the later. Edwards discusses and evaluates Neoplatonic tradition within the cultural and political structure of late antiquity. Edwards’ position on the survival of Platonism during this multi-divergent and complex period of antiquity is that it “was not a reclusive discipline for the intellect, but a mixing-bowl for all the diverse achievements of the Greek spirit: Greek poetry, Greek religion, Greek philosophy, and even the cohesive sense of Greekness that was soon to be dispelled by Christianity, were not quite dead so long as it seemed possible to combine a Platonic faith in the integrity of the rational soul with the Aristotelian dictum that the mind can become all things” (p. 5).

Edwards’ book is divided into nine chapters, and his presentation follows a thematic way of exposition, presenting major philosophical topics of Neoplatonic tradition, from logic and mathematics to psychology and magic. After a short introduction, the first chapter presents the development of Platonic tradition from the Middle-Platonism and Pythagoreanism of the Hellenistic Age to the Neoplatonism of late antiquity with special reference to Plato’s legacy in later Platonism, the role of Aristotle and the Pythagoreans, as well as the nature of religious Platonism in late antiquity.

The object of chapter two is to sketch the personae of the four protagonists: Longinus, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus. Edwards presents not only biographies and texts but also places the lives of these four philosophers within the cultural, political and religious atmosphere of the period. His aim is to show that, in contrast to the common view of modern scholars and classicists, these philosophers were neither outside the public sphere nor isolated in their own philosophical study and discourse.

Chapter three exposes the influence of Plato’s dialogues on the Platonists of the third century AD. Edwards correctly states that, for later Platonists, Plato’s original teaching was not necessarily derived from the unwritten doctrines (mentioned in Plato’s Seventh Letter) but mainly from the work and interpretation of Plato’s followers based on his original work such as the Timaeus, the Republic, the Parmenides, the Sophist and the Philebus. For Edwards, Plato’s dialogues formed a coherent system structured “not in any unwritten doctrine but in an ordering of the corpus which was designed to lead the student from the experimental or tentative stage, a mere testing of his wits, to the communication in which all truth becomes luminous to the intellect” (p. 40). He correctly concludes that Neoplatonists would not accept the prefix Neo- of modern terminology; Neoplatonists regarded themselves as true followers of Plato’s teaching, focusing not only on the philological analysis of the dialogues but mainly on the philosophical discussion of the truths within them.

Chapter four is the first chapter in which the author proceeds in a detailed and technical philosophical discussion. He focuses on Neoplatonic logic, ontology and metaphysics by analysing particularly Plotinus’ and Iamblichus’ theory of numbers, Plotinus metaphysics of the One and its connection to Plato’s Parmenides as well as an interesting analysis of the Neoplatonic Aristotelianism particularly found in Porphyry’s treatment of Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics.

Chapter five follows the philosophical discussion of the previous chapter at the level of soul. Edwards exposes Plotinus’ theory of soul in comparison to Porphyry’s and Iamblichus’ relevant theories. The author discusses in particular Plotinus’ account of the existence and descent of the soul and appropriately explains that, whereas Plotinus conceives of the soul as an original inhabitant of the intelligible world from which the higher part of the soul never falls or descends into the lower realm, Iamblichus’ position is that the soul descends entirely into bodily corporeality. Edwards, moreover, observes the Pythagorean influences in Porphyry and Iamblichus and points out the transformations of the Neoplatonic psychology after Plotinus.

In the sixth chapter, Edwards turns his attention to Longinus and the relationship between philosophy and literature. The author presents a short but enlightening commentary on Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime and offers sound arguments in support of the originality of the work and its attribution to this third century author. On the whole, the sixth chapter is an exposition of Neoplatonic aesthetics with special reference to Plotinus’ innovative theory of beauty and the arts as well as Porphyry’s account of literature.

In the seventh chapter, Edwards moves to the religious aspects of Neoplatonism by focusing on the cultural correlations between philosophy and the oracles in late antiquity. This chapter offers an analysis of Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles and the influence of the Chaldean Oracles in later Neoplatonism. Here, Edwards brings to light the religious and mystical bonds of later Neoplatonic thinkers through the work of Porphyry, and elucidates the Hellenistic origins of paganism in the Roman age.

Chapter eight could be regarded as a continuation of the previous chapter. In this chapter Edwards moves from oracles and religion to magic and occult sciences. His discussion places the reader within the real tone of late philosophical tradition by highlighting the fundamental epistemological and metaphysical distinction between pure contemplation ( theoria), practised by Plotinus, and the religious practice ( theurgy), followed by Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus and other later Neoplatonists. Edwards focuses on two central texts on the issue: Porphyry’s Letter to Anebo and Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries. On the latter, Edwards offers a more detailed analysis based on the contents of Iamblichus’ treatise.

Finally, in chapter nine, Edwards closes his book by presenting both differences and correlations between later Neoplatonism and early Christianity. He justifies the influence of Plato’s teaching on the first Christian authors by presenting the nature of theism in Plotinus and Porphyry, as well as an interesting treatment of exhortation on the analogies between Porphyry and Paul on piety. This chapter actually establishes the link between Platonism and Christianity, late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The book is also supplemented with a useful glossary of historical and philosophical terms.

Overall Edwards’ book is a well-structured and motivated discussion of the culture and philosophy of late antiquity. He focuses appropriately on Longinus, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus, four eminent figures that dominate the development of Neoplatonism. Edwards offers a systematic analysis of their philosophical contribution as it is found in Longinus’ On the Sublime, Plotinus’ Enneads, Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles and Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries. The author uses in a balanced way both primary and secondary sources. His thought-provoking language vividly illustrates the narrative of the book and engages the reader in fundamental principles of Neoplatonism. Edwards covers successfully all the central topics of the Neoplatonic philosophy and fruitfully discusses concepts and ideas within a cultural, political and religious framework. Despite the fact that these topics are not treated in depth, Edwards successfully offers a concise introduction to Neoplatonism emphasising both its intellectual and cultural heritage.