BMCR 2008.01.26

Plotinus on Eudaimonia: A Commentary on Ennead I.4

, Plotinus on eudaimonia : a commentary on Ennead I.4. Plotinus. Enneads. II, 4.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xxiii, 236 pages). ISBN 9781429469517 $95.00.

Table of Contents

This book was initially a Ph.D. thesis submitted in 1992 to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. The current work has been thoroughly updated since then and is now published as the first full-length commentary on Ennead I.4 (46). The volume divides itself into three major sections: Introduction, Greek text/English translation and Commentary. The detailed commentary is the main interest of the book. Specialists in ancient philosophy will think of McGroarty’s contribution as a fine addition to Plotinian studies.

The seven-page introduction is somewhat of a let down. McGroarty (hereafter M.) first restates what we already know about Plotinus’ life from Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus. He then briefly summarizes the content of the treatise. Finally he mentions the discrepancy that many scholars have noted between the sage as Plotinus describes him in his treatises and how Plotinus actually led his own life. On the one hand, the Plotinian sage should live a life of contemplation in the Intellect, but, on the other hand, Plotinus is portrayed as a man surrounded by friends, running a sort of orphanage and caring about the property of other people. M. does not discuss thoroughly the interpretations of modern commentators, nor does he argue much about his own interpretation. He simply states that he cannot see how to reconcile Plotinus the philosopher and Plotinus the man. We have “to accept that he did not always preach what he practised” (xviii). On the whole, this introduction is of no real interest to the specialists of Plotinus, who will not learn anything new from its pages.

The Greek text, with critical apparatus, is printed with a facing page English translation. The Greek is taken from the editio minor of P. Henry and H.-R. Schwyzer, with the emendations in the Addenda ad textum (volume 3). Five changes have been made to the Greek text and they are listed in a footnote to the Introduction (xix). Two are modifications in punctuation, one is a removal of square brackets, one is an alternate reading from other manuscripts, and one is a new emendation by M. It is surprising that M. does not make the Greek text his own. He reprints the exact text from the editio minor, with the corrections from the Addenda. He does not incorporate into the text the modifications that he thinks are necessary. As a result, the English translation does not always correspond to the Greek text. For example, in 10.3, although he prints δοκεῖ, he translates “necessarily”, because he prefers to read δεῖ. Another confusion arises when M. inserts the emendations from the Addenda in 8.12. Henry and Schwyzer, in their Addenda, decided to bracket a few Greek words. M. then prints the text with brackets. But he finally decides, in his few changes, to keep those words. So the words are bracketed in the Greek, but are translated in English. Why not just print the text as you think it should be and then modify the apparatus accordingly? Moreover M. does not take into account the paper of H.-R. Schwyzer, “Corrigenda ad Plotini textum”, in which Schwyzer makes further comments on and modifications to the Greek text.1 It is true, as M. notes, that the text in 4.23 has changed between the editio maior and the editio minor, and that the Addenda make no mention of this. But the necessary precisions are given by Schwyzer in the above-mentioned paper. Despite these shortcomings, the Greek text and both apparatuses are flawless reproductions of what is to be found in the editio minor by Henry and Schwyzer with incorporation of the Addenda.

In his translation, M. decides to transliterate four words that, in his opinion, cannot be properly translated in English: eudaimonia, Nous, spoudaios and phantasma. This can sometimes bring a little confusion. As the “translated” title of the treatise, we read “Peri Eudaimonias”. The transliteration has expanded to the preposition and we now have an “eudaimonias”. The title should of course be read as “On Eudaimonia”. More importantly, we are uneasy with the fact that “phantasma” and “phantasmata” are transliterations of φαντασία. It is not obvious that you can equate “phantasma” and “phantasia”, at least not without further argumentation. The overall feeling, when we read the translation, is not one of ease. The reader might be discomforted by the transliterated words, by the too numerous added words in brackets and by the complicated phrasing. We noted a few mistakes or omissions in the translation. The line numbers, inserted in the translation, are regularly off the mark by five to ten words. The αὐτοῖς at 1.14, the γινομένῳ at 2.9 and the προσήκοντες at 4.34 have not been translated. The translation at 2.7-8, “Just as this good exists and is present, the one who has it already has the good”, is incorrect and should be read “So if this affection is good and present, that which possesses it is immediately in a state of well being”. The same may be said of the translation at 2.12-13: read “So the good will belong also to what has sense-perception, no matter what is perceived” instead of “so [the good will belong] also to whatever can lay hold of it [through sense-perception]”. At 2.27, ἐναντίῳ means “contrary”, not “subordinate”. The passage at 3.14-15 means “but the rational life is, according to them, the substrate”, not “But their hypothesis is [that eudaimonia is founded on] rational life [not rationality]”. The translation at 1.7-8 and especially at 8.14-17 should also be revised.

The Commentary, which expands over 160 pages, is undoubtedly the core of the book. The analysis is detailed and well-documented. At the beginning of each chapter, M. presents a summary of the arguments. He then proceeds with a line-by-line discussion of Plotinus’ treatise. The ancient sources are highlighted and modern interpretations are taken into account. M. is particularly keen on showing that Plotinus, in the two opening chapters, argues not only against Aristotle but also against the Stoics and the Epicureans. The opening lines of the treatise, it seems, refer to the Eudemian Ethics 1219b1 rather than to the Nicomachean Ethics 1098b20-1. The beginning of chapter two is concerned, M. believes, with Epictetus, not Aristotle. There is not much criticism that can be addressed to this commentary, at least none that really compromises its quality. M. could have discussed J. Igal’s contention that Plotinus, at 4.26, borrows an idea from Heraclitus (DK B111): illness makes health good and pleasant.2 M. also declares many times that this treatise is proof that Plotinus’ powers, at the end of his life, are waning, as Porphyry acknowledges in his Life of Plotinus (6.34-7). Plotinus, notes M., is unclear at times and starts anew on topics that he already discussed. But the fact is that Plotinus, from his early treatises, is often unclear and likes to return over and over again to the same topics. We think that Porphyry, in the aforementioned testimony, is primarily anxious to highlight his own importance at Plotinus’ school, when he says that Plotinus wrote his best treatises when he, Porphyry, was by his side and stimulated the debates.

Two appendices follow the Commentary. The first draws ten parallels between Ennead I.4 and St Ambrose, Jacob and the Happy Life. For comparison’s sake, each selected passage of Plotinus is cited in the English translation above the selected passage of St Ambrose. The second is a brief discussion of Plotinus’ stance on suicide. Plotinus, according to M., changes his attitude on suicide in Ennead I.4 (46) compared to Ennead I.9 (16), a short treatise dealing with suicide. At the time he wrote I.9, Plotinus was opposing the Stoic teaching which advocated a fairly free exit from the body. He wanted to deter Porphyry from his melancholic inclination towards suicide. But in his old age, more concerned with his own poor health, Plotinus thought suicide legitimate for the sage who could not progress anymore towards eudaimonia.

The book ends with an extensive bibliography, an index locorum and a general index.

This is an important and interesting work as far as the commentary goes. It feels like M. put all his heart in the commentary and showed less enthusiasm in writing an introduction and a translation. The material quality of the book is fantastic. The hard cover, the great page editing and the quasi-absence of misprints make this book a pleasure to handle and to read.


1. “Corrigenda ad Plotini textum”, Museum Helveticum, 44, 1987, pp. 191-210.

2. J. Igal, “Observaciones a las Eneadas I-II de Plotino”, Helmantica, 85-87, 1977, pp. 241-52.