Riccardo Chiaradonna is a prolific scholar in the field of Plotinian studies. He has published numerous detailed analyses of Plotinus’ doctrines in the past few years. In his latest book, however, he has a much larger goal in mind: to offer a general presentation of every major aspect of Plotinus’ thought. This is a valuable contribution, but its readership remains unclear. The newcomers in ancient philosophy will soon realize that they need a solid background in the major schools of thought in antiquity (Aristotelian, Platonic, Skeptic and Stoic) to understand this book. The specialists will find a lot of material they are already familiar with, and a few deeper analyses that are not fully developed, due to the broad scope of the volume. This work will be most helpful to someone who is well-versed in ancient philosophy up to the Stoics, but who is not particularly familiar with Neoplatonism.
What is interesting and clearly at work here is the personal interpretation that Chiaradonna has of Plotinus. It shows in the way the book is divided into its seven chapters. The subject matter is organized in the way the author thinks is best in order to understand what is at the core of Plotinus’ doctrine. After a first chapter on Plotinus’ life and teachings, the second chapter delves straight into explaining how important the “search for causes” is to Plotinus. This quest for causes is, according to Chiaradonna, the best way to understand what Plotinus is trying to accomplish as a philosopher. This chapter guides the subsequent chapters and we will discuss it later. The following chapters are about the intelligible world, anthropology, the One, the physical world, and finally, ethics and mysticism.
Chiaradonna does a good job at retracing the sources of Plotinus’ doctrine: Aristotle, Plato, the Skeptics, the Stoics, the Gnostics and Ammonius Saccas. He believes that Aristotle’s influence is almost as great on Plotinus as Plato’s. That is not to say that Plotinus is an Aristotelian, which of course he is not; Plotinus believed that the foundations on which Aristotle based his philosophy were wrong and that Plato’s philosophy had a clearer view of the truth. According to Plotinus, Plato’s thought needed further development, particularly in light of Aristotle’s criticisms, but its basic assumptions were correct. Chiaradonna’s efforts to highlight the philosophical tradition Plotinus draws on are to be found throughout the book, and not only in the initial chapter entitled “Plotino e le tradizioni filosofiche”. That said, the weakest part of the initial survey on Plotinus’ sources is clearly, in my opinion, the one concerning the Gnostics. The author barely devotes a page to this subject. This is clearly insufficient for a topic that has attracted much attention among Plotinian scholars. No references are made to the classic paper by Tardieu1 or to a recent dossier summing up this question.2
As far as sources go, Chiaradonna is also keenly aware that Plotinus is not merely repeating what previous philosophers have said. Plotinus’ originality is constantly brought to light, especially when the vocabulary he uses is borrowed from other schools. The erudition of Chiaradonna is also perceptible in the way he refers to modern studies. The recent interpretations, conflicting views and dilemmas are constantly highlighted in the text and notes. Chiaradonna takes a position in modern debates, although there is not enough space devoted to detailed discussions in this book.
The major thesis of this book is that Plotinus’ primary objective consists in explaining the causality of the intelligible realm: “As we shall see, in Plotinus’ thought, the doctrine of the causality of the intelligible is the center around which everything else revolves: the ethics, the cosmology, the theory of knowledge, all these can only be understood on the basis of a reflection about Being, substance and causality” (pp.29-30, my translation). As a Platonist, Plotinus believes in the existence of intelligible beings, but he is also aware that many objections were made against that claim and that Plato himself had left many questions unanswered. Plotinus wants to explain in greater detail how the intelligibles are causes and what knowledge we can have of them. This will affect how he thinks about metaphysics, nature, ethics and anthropology. In this sense, says Chiaradonna, the intelligibles and their causality are at the core of Plotinus’ doctrine and everything will have to fit with his explanation of intelligible causality. His Platonism adopts a causal point of view (p. 79).
Accordingly, Plotinus introduces many explanations in terms of double activity, emanation, conversion and so on, to illustrate how each intelligible level can produce something below itself, as an efficient “Stoic” cause would do. But besides that, Chiaradonna puts great emphasis on what he considers the main assumption at work in Plotinus: inspired by Aristotle, Plotinus believes that we can only know something properly if we grasp it with the principles that belong to the same level of reality. It is a common mistake, according to Plotinus, to describe intelligible reality with categories that pertain solely to physical bodies. The intelligible can be one and everywhere, but a physical body cannot. In the same way, Intellect cannot be described by the reasoning that happens in the common man. Discursive reasoning cannot comprehend what Intellect is, since their principles are not equivalent. Thus man participates in two worlds, here and there, and must transcend his mundane self to reach higher. Even the One must be “thought of” according to the principles that belong to it. It cannot be understood by the discursive human soul, nor by the non-discursive thinking of the Intellect. The One is above all else and must be considered as such. Another way of putting it would be that Plotinus is keen and systematic in considering that every product is heterogeneous with its generator. Intellect is inferior to and different from the One, as souls are from Intellect, and bodies from souls. Each level of reality must be comprehended with the principles that correspond to it.
This book is well written, well documented and ends with a 14-page bibliography and an index nominum. It will not shed new light for experienced scholars in Plotinian studies, but it will be helpful, by virtue of its short and informative format, to those seeking a vigorous introduction to Plotinus’ thinking.
1. Tardieu, M., “Les gnostiques dans la Vie de Plotin“, in La Vie de Plotin II, par L. Brisson, et al., Paris, Vrin, 1992, p. 503-546.
2. Plotin: traités 30-37, traductions sous la direction de L. Brisson et J.-F. Pradeau, Paris, Flammarion, 2006, p. 187-194; Annexe 1, p. 399-406.