BMCR 2012.12.06

Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus. Philosophy and Religion in Neoplatonism. Variorum Collected Studies Series CS979

, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus. Philosophy and Religion in Neoplatonism. Variorum Collected Studies Series CS979. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. 336. ISBN 9781409421689. $165.00.

The volume represents a collection of twenty-five articles by Andrew Smith on the three Neoplatonic philosophers mentioned in the title. Most articles, with the exception of no. XIX (‘Religion, magic and theurgy in Porphyry‘) are reprints. This is one major contribution of the collection: to assemble into one volume various pieces of great importance to scholars of Neoplatonism, thus facilitating access to the work of a key scholarly figure in the field.

As is the custom of the series, the articles have each received a Roman number, retaining their typographical appearance and original pagination. A general index and an index locorum have been added to facilitate the use of the volume.

The first section is devoted to Plotinus. Thirteen papers treat various topics, such as the problem of the relationship between the higher and the lower self (explicitly I, but this is a key topic re-emerging in many of the essays), the issue of practical philosophy and the level of ethics and political virtues in Plotinus, who all too often has been regarded as ascetically aloof from all earthly concerns (II, III), eternity and time (IV), soul and time (V), reason and experience (VI), fate and free will (VII), potentiality and plurality in the intelligible world (VIII). Of special interest for Neoplatonic metaphysics and terminology is the article on the use of dynamis in Plotinus and Porphyry (IX), which explores the distinction between potentiality and dynamis in the sense of a creative force, a term which can thus be applied even to the Intellect or the One itself. Other essays present Plotinus’ exegesis of the Platonic myths of Eros (X), his thoughts on the object of perception (XI), on ideas and the tensions between Plato and Aristotle (XII). A piece on Socrates in Neoplatonism closes the section and leads from Plotinus to later Neoplatonism (XIII). The papers on Plotinus offer mostly a close reading of selected treatises or passages of the Enneads, with slender bibliography. This enables the reader not only to follow closely the treatment of these topics by Plotinus, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, to gain an insight into Plotinus’ manner of work and method of philosophising.

Papers XIV-XXIII are devoted to Porphyry, the Neoplatonist who has probably fascinated Andrew Smith most. We encounter key pieces of scholarship such as Andrew Smith’s overview of research and of exploration avenues ’Porphyrian studies since 1913‘ (first published in ANRW II.36.2), or his more recent reflection on the state of research on Porphyry in Studies on Porphyry edited by George Karamanolis and Anne Sheppard in 2007. The reader can see how Smith develops his plea for a critical reconsideration of the biographical approach of Joseph Bidez,1 who postulated that Porphyry underwent a major change in his philosophy and religion after encountering Plotinus. Critical of a chronological reading of Porphyry’s works, due to the scarcity of our evidence, Smith presents in his essays on Porphyry and religion (XIV, XV, XVIII, XIX, to a certain extent XX) a picture of Porphyry as an open- minded thinker, consciously trying out new approaches to the same questions, writing works with different purposes and addressees. This view, whose origins can be traced to J. J. O’Meara’s controversial identification of the Philosophy from Oracles with De regressu animae,2 is championed by Smith in a balanced manner, carefully avoiding overstretching the often sadly fragmentary material. However, given precisely the fragmentary nature of the evidence, Smith tends to downplay some aspects, notably the change in Porphyry’s attitude to animal sacrifices, from the Philosophy from Oracles where they are not criticised, but accepted as efficacious (as we can see from the fortunately extant exegesis which Porphyry offers on an Apollonian oracle),3 to the rather rhetorical aporiai of the Letter to Anebo, and their clear rejection in De abstinentia. Also, while in the Philosophy from Oracles, there is a greater level of acceptance of private divinatory rites and conjurations of the divine, the Letter to Anebo voices, in the guise of questions, the basic Platonic stance: the divine cannot be conjured or allured, being absolutely above the sway of passions (cf. Smith himself XXIII, 42-3).4 But apart from these controversial details, Smith’s approach has the merit of highlighting some important lines which run throughout the whole of Porphyry’s oeuvre: his Platonism, his interest in religion and myth, his search for – varying – explanations. Smith also rightly points out that theurgy, as a philosophical reworking of ritual, poses a new challenge to Porphyry, which is substantially different from the issue of traditional rites and their compatibility with philosophy (XIX, 10). Unfortunately, even in the more recent articles assembled here, research on Gnosticism and Neoplatonism5 which has brought important new perspectives to bear on the reconstruction of the religious and intellectual milieu of early Neoplatonism, and especially on the discussion of the paternity of the anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides, is not taken into account.

Besides the issue of philosophy and religion in Porphyry, other articles highlight an array of other topics, such as the possible existence of a Porphyrian treatise against Aristotle, mentioned in the Suda (XVI), his position on the transmigration of human souls into animals (XVII), his use of the notions hypostasis and hyparxis (XXII) or the assessment of the value of Arabic material for understanding Porphyry’s ethics (XXI). Also included in the Porphyry section is a paper on philosophical criticism of Christianity before the Diocletian persecution (XXIII), which highlights the importance of Porphyry and provides a very nuanced overview of Porphyry’s various arguments against the Christians, setting out Porphyry’s good knowledge and understanding of his opponents’ religion.

The volume closes with two essays on Iamblichus and his treatise De mysteriis, forming a small coda rather than a section in its own right. The first analyzes Iamblichus’ position on the relationship between philosophy and religion in De mysteriis (XXIV). The other represents a sequel to another article not included in the collection (‘Iamblichus as the First Philosopher of Religion?’ in Habis 31, 2000, 345-53), viewing Iamblichus from an interesting angle: not as the philosopher championing religion and theurgy, but as a philosopher of religion, observing its nature and dynamics and providing reflections on the applicability of philosophical terms and arguments to religion.

Assembling the isolated articles into a volume not only produces a helpful scholarly tool, but enables the readers to see some threads of thought in Plotinus or Porphyry which might otherwise not be so apparent. Throughout the close reading of various Plotinian treatises and passages, the importance of his doctrine of the undescended soul, mostly treated in scholarship as the contrasting background to Iamblichus and his successors, is made very clear: the distinction between a higher and a lower self, which ideally should be in harmony, replicating in miniature the relationship of World Soul (which the individual soul must imitate to gain perfection) and the cosmos, proves a crucial instrument for the elaboration of Plotinus’ ethics and his position on fate and free will. The delicate balance between reason and personal engagement with, and experience of, the higher realities is highlighted, stressing the importance of reason but also its limits. This in turn helps us gauge the importance of Plotinus’ method of ’circling‘ around a subject, presenting different arguments and aids to comprehension, attempting to illustrate what he himself claims to have experienced (see especially essay IV, 196-98 and 201, and essay VI). Andrew Smith shows how, although Plotinus constructs a metaphysical system, he does not do so not in a rigidly systematic way, as later Neoplatonists such as Proclus do. He captures the experimental and dynamic quality of philosophising which characterises not only Plotinus but also Porphyry, cautioning us against seeking an excessively clear-cut categorisation and valorisation of reality which would remain the same throughout the whole oeuvre (see e.g. VI, 29; XVIII, 34). The constants of their philosophy appear from the interpretation of Smith to be less their answers than the philosophical problems the two philosophers face: the issue of plurality and unity, the development of the various levels of reality from the first principle, the tension between the two fundamental Platonic ways of looking at the world, perceived either cosmologically as a good and ordered being or soteriologically as a hindrance to the soul in its upward journey (e.g. II, 227). This view of early Neoplatonic philosophy highlights the relationship between theory and experience, and draws attention to issues which deserve closer treatment than they have received hitherto: the argumentative functions of analogy and paradox (see e.g. VIII, 100-2), the polysemy and fluidity of philosophical terms (IX, 65; XXII, 36) and the implications for the intention and dynamics of Neoplatonic philosophical exposition.

[I thank the BMCR editorial team cordially for their stylistic suggestions.]


1. Joseph Bidez, Vie de Porphyre le philosophe néoplatonicien, Ghent 1913.

2. John J. O’Meara, Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles in Augustine, Paris 1959; id., ‘Comment of Prof. O’Meara’ in: Revue des Études augustiniennes 6, 1960, 245-7 (a response to Pierre Hadot, ‘Citations de Porphyre chez Augustin’, in the same issue at 205-44).

3. Fragments 314F and 315F in Andrew Smith (ed.), Porphyrii philosophi fragmenta, Stuttgart/Leipzig 1993.

4. I have presented a different reading along these lines in an analysis of Porphyry’s attitude to rituals: ‘ “Nur der Weise ist Priester”: Rituale und Ritualkritik bei Porphyrios’ in Ulrich Berner and I. Tanaseanu-Döbler (eds.), Religion und Kritik in der Antike, Münster 2009, 109-55.

5. E.g. Michel Tardieu, ‘Les Gnostiques dans la Vie de Plotin’ in Luc Brisson et al. (eds.), Porphyre. Vie de Plotin, vol. II, Paris 1992, 503-46; Ruth Majercik, ‘The Existence-Life-Intellect Triad in Gnosticism and Neoplatonism’, Classical Quarterly 42, 1992, 475-88; John D. Turner, Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition, Quebec/Louvain 2001; id., ‘The Chaldaean Oracles and the Metaphysics of the Sethian Platonizing Treatises’, Zeitschrift für antikes Christentum 12, 2008, 39-58.