BMCR 2007.09.31

Plotinus and the Presocratics. A Philosophical Study of Presocratic Influences in Plotinus’ Enneads

, Plotinus and the presocratics : a philosophical study of presocratic influences in Plotinus' Enneads. SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press, 2007. xi, 270 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780791470619 $24.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

The investigation of the origins and sources of Plotinus’ philosophy has been a major topic in modern scholarship for several years. The focus of the discussions naturally lies on Plotinus’ references to Plato and, less prominent, Aristotle, since the philosophical importance of Plato and Aristotle for Plotinus’ thought is undoubted. However, any philosophical significance of the Presocratic sources Plotinus directly or indirectly refers to in his Enneads for the development of Plotinus’ philosophy is usually dismissed by modern scholars. Plotinus’ references to Presocratic sources are generally considered to be mere citations traditionally listed to justify Plotinus’ claim that his own philosophy is not a new doctrine differing from the earlier ones but that his accounts are old and belong to the continuity of Greek thought. In his study about ‘Plotinus and the Presocratics’, Giannis Stamatellos tries to contradict this common assessment. His monographic investigation of the Presocratic influences on Plotinus’ philosophy — the first one of this kind — is in pursuit of three aims:

(1) to reinstate the significance of the Presocratic tradition for Plotinus; (2) to offer a comparative philosophical study between fundamental Presocratic and Plotinian concepts; and (3) to suggest possible new references to Presocratic fragments within the Enneads, beyond those mentioned in modern studies and commentaries. — (p. 2)

Stamatellos tries to show that, in contrast to the common opinion, “Presocratic philosophy is in fact an important source for Plotinus, which he recognized as valuable in its own right and adapted for key topics in his thought” (blurb). For this purpose, the author discusses the significance of Presocratic tradition, mainly Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras, for Plotinus’ philosophy by following the main ontological levels of Plotinus’ system of the Three Hypostases, starting with “One and Unity” (chapter 2), followed by chapters about “Intellect and Being” (chapter 3), “Eternity and Time” (chapter 4), and finally “Matter and Soul” (chapter 5). The main Plotinian texts discussed within the study are Enneads II.1 [40] (On Heaven), II.4 [12] (On Matter), III.7 [45] (On Eternity and Time), IV.8 [6] (On the Descent of the Soul into the Bodies), V.1 [10] (On the Three Primary Hypostases), and VI.6 [34] (On Numbers).

The first, introductory chapter discusses Plotinus’ philosophical method, his use of metaphors and similes, and his reference to earlier philosophers. At the end of the study the author has added an appendix with his suggestions for possible new references to Presocratic fragments to be included in the index fontium of the Enneads. Stamatellos’ general method in all chapters consists in three steps. First, he gives some major outlines of Plotinus’ theory concerning the discussed subject-matter. Second, he rejects common interpretations by pointing at passages in which Plotinus directly or indirectly works with Presocratic sources instead of passages from Plato or Aristotle. Third, he develops his argument by thoroughly analysing the passages referred to in the second step. In the course of step three, Stamatellos takes the opportunity to pursue his third aim, i. e. to suggest possible new references to Presocratic fragments within the Enneads.

In the first chapter Stamatellos investigates Plotinus’ philosophical method and philosophical sources. The author points out that Plotinus is not so much a systematic scholar or a commentator of the accounts of earlier philosophers but “an original thinker” who “clearly preferred free-ranging philosophical discussion of a topic to the scholarly analytical observations of the philologists” (p. 5). This is the cause for the rather non-systematic style which characterizes the Enneads and their closeness to oral speech as well as for Plotinus’ specific use of similes and metaphors. Concerning Plotinus’ attitude towards his predecessors, it is Stamatellos’ main thesis that Plotinus shows admiration and respect in the treatment of philosophical sources; unlike Aristotle and very often Plato, Plotinus’ “criticism is more a return to his philosophical roots than a radical abolition or replacement of the earlier views” (p. 9). This is what Stamatellos tries to prove in the course of his further investigations.

The second chapter analyses the Presocratic influences on Plotinus’ conception of the One and the concept of unity. Stamatellos argues that these Plotinian conceptions are dependent on Parmenides’ Being, the Pythagorean Monad, Heraclitus’ λόγος, Empedocles’ φιλία, and Anaxagoras’ νοῦς. This chapter foreshadows the third one about Intellect and Being, since Plotinus does not simply agree with his predecessor’s accounts of oneness and unity but criticises them for not having clearly distinguished between a oneness which is constituted as a unity out of many ( ἕν‐πολλά) and the ineffable transcendent One which is Plotinus’ First Hypostasis and the principle of all being. In other words, one could say that according to Plotinus the Presocratics have mixed the First Hypostasis with the Second. For this reason, the Presocratic conceptions of oneness and unity seem to be more important for Plotinus’ Second Hypostasis, i. e. Intellect and Being, than for the First Hypostasis. Nevertheless, some major characteristics of Plotinus’ One, such as its ineffability and its status as a principle of all being, can be found in the Presocratic sources, since its ineffability is foreshadowed in the Pythagorean concept of the Monad and its character as a first principle in Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras.

In the third chapter about “Intellect and Being” Stamatellos very clearly and convincingly points at the important role of Parmenides’ conception of the identity of Being and Thought. The author also shows how major characteristics of Plotinus’ Being/Intellect, such as its self-identity and changelessness, depend on Parmenides. However, the reader would have expected a more detailed discussion of the influences of the other Presocratics mentioned in chapter two, since there they appeared to have foreshadowed some of the structural qualities that are crucial for Plotinus’ Intellect.

In chapter 4, Stamatellos demonstrates that Parmenides’ concept of the unchangeable, indestructible, incorruptible, and therefore strictly timeless Being is a source for Plotinus’ own concept of αἰών as timeless eternity. He also shows how this timelessness gets connected — via Plato — with the concept of life or lifetime which is involved in the term αἰών — a term that is not apparent in Parmenides but frequent in the fragments of Heraclitus and Empedocles. The last section of this chapter analyses Plotinus’ cosmology and offers again an enlightening discussion of its Presocratic influences, namely Heraclitus and Empedocles. Stamatellos shows how the concepts of the everlastingness of the cosmos, the movement of the spheres, eternal recurrence, and spiral time ( ἕλιξ) derive from Pherecydes, Anaximander, Heraclitus, the Pythagoreans, and Empedocles.

In his final chapter, Stamatellos’ analyses of Plotinus’ theory of matter and the question of the embodiment of the soul — or rather the ensoulment of the body — again in a very scholarly and informative way. In this chapter, however, the author’s results are closer to the common assessments of Plotinus’ attitude towards the Presocratics than in his preceding chapters. Plotinus turns out to be very critical towards his Presocratic sources, e. g. Anaximander’s theory of the ἄπειρον, Empedocles’ theory of the four elements, Anaxagoras’ theory of the primeval mixture, and Leucippus’ and Democritus’ theory of atoms. Another main divergence between Plotinus and his predecessors, even Plato, is Plotinus’ rejection of an pessimistic interpretation according to which the generation of the visible world has to be understood as ‘sin’, ‘fall’ and ‘punishment’ for the soul’s audacity. Contrarily to this view, Plotinus’ tries to develop a more systematic perspective on the generation of the visible world by describing it as a necessary reality that reflects the intelligible realm. Nevertheless, the author determines that Plotinus’ description of the generation of the visible world as well as the procession of the Intellect depends on the Pythagorean concept of τόλμα (audacity). This seems to be an ambivalence in Plotinus, since the characterization of the processions as τόλμα indicates a negative connotation which Plotinus wanted to reject. Stamatellos, however, gives no discussion of this matter.

Stamatellos concludes by summarizing the Presocratic influences on Plotinus, worked out in his study not in terms of subject-matter, but of thinkers. He states, that “Plotinus … regards the Presocratics as eminent, autonomous, and original philosophical figures” (p. 174) by whom “the fundamental philosophical ideas have been inaugurated” (p. 173).

The study is very scholarly and informative at a philological level. Most of the author’s suggestions for possible new references to Presocratic fragments to be added to the index fontium of the Enneads are convincing, even though many of these references turn out to be allusions. Stamatellos’ appendix is quite useful, although the author should have added Empedocles’ fr. 134, which, as he claims at p. 38, is referred to in Ennead III.8.2.1-4, and has not been noted in the index fontium of Henry and Schwyzer. However, the author’s analyses are sometimes irritating at a philosophical level. The reader very often gets the impression that Stamatellos is more interested in the discussion of philological matters and in the emendation of the index fontium than in the reconstruction of philosophical problems. The second chapter about One and Unity for instance initially gives a long list of the characteristics of Plotinus’ One that can be found in the Enneads. After that, Stamatellos searches for the philological correspondences and parallels in Presocratic texts which fit the list of characteristics he has worked out . He does not, however, consider the question how the different attributes of the One fit together, how for instance the One can be simple and non-composite on the one hand and “in perfect contemplation of itself” (p. 25) on the other. Another example is Plotinus’ ambiguous attitude towards the concept of τόλμα which has been mentioned above. A ‘philosophical study of Presocratic influences in Plotinus’ Enneads‘ that claims ‘to offer a comparative philosophical study between fundamental Presocratic and Plotinian concepts’ should have discussed these problems in more detail and with a more systematic focus. Furthermore, one of Stamatellos’ main theses consists in the idea of “some uniform progress” within “the history of Greek philosophy” (p. 21). This suggested uniform progress, however, gets somewhat out of sight in the course of Stamatellos’ investigations, since the author tries to reject the common focus on Plato and Aristotle as the sources for Plotinus’ thought. Further work should try to focus on the continuity of the history of Greek philosophy, starting from the Presocratics via Plato and Aristotle up to Plotinus. The philological material Stamatellos has worked out in his study provides an important basis for such an investigation.

To summarize: Stamatellos’ study is an enlightening philological work which adds crucial aspects to the present philological discussion about Plotinus’ sources. Many of his suggestions for references to be added to the index fontium are convincing. The philosophical problems of Plotinus’ and of the Presocratics’ accounts as well as the history of Greek thought remain the topics for further studies for which Stamatellos’ work offers a very considerable basis.