BMCR 2009.01.06

Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the ‘We’

, Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the 'We'. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ix, 287. ISBN 9780521867290. $95.00.

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Table of Contents

During the last thirty years of scholarship considerable attention has been paid to Plotinus’ theory of the self. The first complete monograph derives from G. O. Daly’s influential study Plotinus’ Philosophy of the Self (published in 1973) and, so far, a considerable number of studies have been published on Plotinus’ conception of selfhood, with more recently the work of Richard Sorabji Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life and Death (Oxford, 2006). Remes’ book aims to offer a new, complete and multi-angled study on Plotinus’ philosophy of the self ‘not just for students and scholars of Neoplatonism but also for readers interested in self and/or ancient philosophy in general, but who may be unacquainted with the subtleties of the heavy metaphysics of Plotinus’ (p. 18).

Ancient philosophers constantly declared the importance of self-knowledge and self-reflection. From the Presocratic and the Socratic exhortation to ‘know yourself’, to the Stoic psychology of the self, the concept of selfhood underlies not only the self-reflective nature of psyche but also the perceptible and cognitive relation of ourselves to the others. Plotinus develops the concept of selfhood in different philosophical matters. Initially he notably prefers the plural ‘we’ in place of a singular ‘I’ and poses, as Remes correctly states (p. 9), the central philosophical aporia : ‘Who are we?’ ( Ennead VI.4.14.16). This question highlights the distinction between the terms ‘person’ and ‘self’; whereas ‘person’ is a term related to the body, preferences and responsibilities, the term ‘self’ is more directly related to human soul.

Plotinus envisions psyche as having an amphibious nature ( Ennead IV.8.4); the human soul has a ‘double life’ and a ‘double nature’ participating in both the intelligible and the perceptible realms ( Ennead IV.8.8.11-13). It occupies a ‘middle rank’ at the boundary between the higher intelligible world of the Forms and the lower corporeal nature of the perceptible reality ( Ennead IV.8.7.5). Plotinus’ famous metaphor of the soul is that of a ‘double city, one above and one composed of the lower elements set in order by the powers above’ ( Ennead IV.4.17.30 ff.). On this basis, Remes maintains that Plotinus conceptualises two notions of the self: the higher rational self and the lower corporeal self. Whereas the former marks soul’s goodness, knowledge and intelligence, the latter signifies imperfection and opinion. The author supports the position that, for Plotinus, there is unsubstantiated connection between the higher self and the faculties and capacities of the embodied self such as that of sense-perception and phantasia. Remes correctly states that ‘through its share of these capacities, the lower part does tend towards a rational organization even if it does not succeed in expressing this tendency. The inner self is the spring of the self-conscious and deliberative life of the composite. The rational or intellectual dimension dominates the whole picture, but the bodily dimension is not neglected’ (p. 256).

Remes’ monograph on Plotinus’ philosophy of self is divided in two main parts. After an informative introduction on the aims and the objectives of the book, the first part investigates the internal nature of selfhood with regard to the ontological relationship between higher-intelligible self and the lower-embodied self; the self as conscious center of awareness; self-knowledge and self-thinking as integral capacities of selfhood. The second part investigates the interrelated structure of the self between the perceptible world and the intelligible world with special reference to the limits of the self, self-determination, self-control and self-constitution. The book is also supplemented by an index locorum.

Particularly, in the first chapter Remes focuses on Plotinus’ ontology of selfhood. The author correctly places this discussion within the framework of Plotinus’ metaphysics of being and the anthropology of psyche. Plotinus’ metaphysics entails a kind of anthropology of the selves based on the ontological distinction between eternal universals and temporal particulars. Whereas eternal entities persist in the stable identity and unity of the intelligible forms, temporal beings exist in the temporal flux and continuity of becoming. On this basis, Remes maintains two kinds of selves: (1) the higher selves related to the pure eternal life of the intelligible being and (2) the composite soul-body selves related to the fluidity of temporal becoming. For Remes, ‘Plotinus seems to think that an entity in time is stretched across episodes in analogy with the way an entity in matter has spatial parts’ (p. 13). However, Plotinus is careful to discriminate between temporal and spatial existences. For instance, in Ennead III.7 Plotinus criticises previous theories of time due to their association of chronos with physical motion, bodily change or spatial properties. For Plotinus temporal motion and spatial movements must be distinguished: since motion occurs in time, time cannot be identified with something occurring in it (III.7.8.45-47). Spatial movement can stop or be interrupted, but temporal motion cannot (III.7.8.6-8).

Within the framework, the first chapter is further divided in two parts. The first part (pp. 32-59) exposes Plotinus’ metaphysical discrimination between being and becoming, eternity and time. Remes correctly highlights the ontological relationship between eternal beings and temporal particulars by stressing their diverse metaphysical unity, identity and persistence throughout the hypostases of being. The author appropriately maintains that Plotinus’ metaphysics and ontology is an essential prerequisite for understanding his philosophy of self and the possibility and structure of self-knowledge (p. 55 ff.). In the second part (pp. 59-91), Remes focuses on human individuals and individuality in relation to Plotinus’ notion of self. The discussion is based on two extremes (p. 60 ff.): on the one hand, there is an argument that human individuality justifies, in metaphysical terms, the existence of forms of individuals and, on the other hand, that the ‘fall’ of the soul from the higher realms of existence causes a deficient temporal existence of individuality. On this Remes offers an enlightening discussion on Plotinus’ understanding of the Platonic forms and their metaphysical connection to soul-forms, logoi and individuality. The author concludes that an embodied self is a deficient entity due to disunited psychic individuality compared to higher self that persists in the perfect unity and stability of Intellect.

Remes frequently speaks of ’embodied selves’ or ’embodied souls’; however, it has to be mentioned, that Plotinus usually describes psyche to animate or illuminate perceptible bodies through logos (IV.3.10): soul is not conceived as present in the body but the body as present in the soul. Therefore, for Plotinus, it is more appropriate to speak of ‘ensouled bodies’ rather than ’embodied souls’ (IV.3.22-23). Following this rationale a questions must be posed: is it ‘we’, as Remes maintains, that find ourselves as composite and embodied individuals (p. 85), or is it ‘we’ that recognize ourselves as intelligible ensouled beings?

In the second chapter, Remes focuses on Plotinus’ analysis of awareness and consciousness as centers of the self. This chapter is divided into two parts by offering two different perspectives of selfhood related to ‘body’ and ‘mind’. The first part (pp. 96-110) exposes ‘bodily self-awareness’ ( sunaisthêsis) with special reference to the concepts of ‘immediacy’ as the directness of the way knowledge is gained by the self; ‘unity’ of the experiencing subject and ‘ownness’ of experience at a first-personal level. In this part Remes correctly highlights and properly justifies the Stoic influence in Plotinus’ conception of bodily proprioception. The second part (pp. 110-124) focuses on the inquiry of personal identity as mental connectedness with special reference to the relationship between memory and consciousness related to the temporal self; the problem of double-selfhood between personal identity and the inner self is also discussed. For Remes, self-awareness characterizes all levels of selfhood, and on this basis a metaphysical connection between the higher self and the lower self could be established.

In the third chapter, Remes investigates Plotinus’ reflections on rational self and its knowledge of itself. For the author the higher self and the animated self are interrelated through an innate exercise of reason, consciousness and self-reflection. The embodied self is able through self-knowledge and reasoning to actualize intellection and to integrate itself to the higher reality of the Forms. Through this process human psyche realizes unity and coherence beyond multiplicity and plurality. The dianoia leads the soul to awareness of its own intelligible capacities and ascends through self-knowledge to reason to the higher reality of nous. On this issue, Remes correctly notes that Plotinus foreshadows Edmund Husserl’s view of the self as being subject and object of the world simultaneously: “Plotinus demands that true self-knowledge ought to reveal the self not just qua the object, but qua the subject of thinking. There is an aspect of subjectivity that persistently flees the objectifying gaze” (p. 15).

Chapter four opens Remes’ section on the construction of selfhood between the world and the ideal. In this chapter, Remes focuses on the ways and faculties through which selfhood is realized in real life with special reference to self-determination, self-control and self-constitution as ‘acts’ of the self that relate to human freedom and emotions. Through these ‘acts’ the self realizes its ideal core and integrates with its supreme intelligible origins. On this basis, chapter 5 is an exposition of the role of the self as moral agent. Remes discusses Plotinus’ ethics of disinterested interest in connection to virtue and moral action. Finally, in chapter 6, the author offers a discussion on the limits of the self. Remes describes the experience of self beyond the search for knowledge but the identification with the supreme unity of the One.

In conclusion, Remes’ monograph is a well-structured and informative study on Plotinus’ philosophy of self. The author uses in an enlightening and scholarly way both primary and secondary sources, deriving from ancient and modern inquiries about the self, on Plotinus’ theory of selfhood. Remes’ most important contribution is that places Plotinus’ theory of the self within the Western philosophical tradition and reestablishes the importance of the Neoplatonist in the history of ideas. The author appropriately shows that Plotinus’ psychology on the reflective nature of selfhood opens a new direction in the ancient philosophical speculation of the self, but also foreshadows eminent philosophical figures of later philosophical tradition such as Saint Augustine, Renê Descartes, John Locke and Edmund Husserl.