BMCR 2014.01.43

Plotinus, Ennead V.5: That the Intelligibles Are Not External to the Intellect, and On the Good. The ‘Enneads’ of Plotinus with Philosophical Commentaries

, Plotinus, Ennead V.5: That the Intelligibles Are Not External to the Intellect, and On the Good. The 'Enneads' of Plotinus with Philosophical Commentaries. Las Vegas; Zurich; Athens: Parmenides Publishing, 2013. 214. ISBN 9781930972858, 9781930972865. e-book.

This, the second volume to appear in the series,1 edited by John Dillon and Andrew Smith, of translations of Plotinus’ writings with commentaries, presents one of the Platonist philosopher’s core metaphysical treatises. Lloyd Gerson brings impressive credentials and specific Plotinian expertise to the task.2 After a concise and helpful introduction to Plotinus’ life and thought by the general editors, Gerson briefly introduces the treatise, provides a valuable analytical synopsis of its argument, a translation, 138 pages of commentary, a select bibliography, and indexes.

Gerson’s translation is painstakingly accurate, achieving fluency and clarity without simplifying Plotinus’ often hyper-concentrated style. If one compares it with the distinguished English translation by A. H. Armstrong,3 there are gains in precision as well as in contemporary idiom. I discuss some details below.

The commentator on V.5 has to elucidate the two difficult opening chapters on the Intellect, which are a continuation of the chronologically previous treatise V.8 (31 in Porphyry’s chronological list, where V.5 is 32), before turning to the major themes of the treatise, the One or Good, Intellect’s relation to it, and how we can attain to it or experience it. Gerson rightly devotes 52 pages of his commentary to Chapters 1 and 2, and his exegesis is a model demonstration of how and why Plotinus internalizes the intelligibles or Forms in Intellect as a necessary condition of infallible cognition. Here, as in his introduction, Gerson shows how Plotinus stands in relation to his antecedents, Plato and Aristotle, but also to later philosophers such as Epicurus and Alexander of Aphrodisias. These are not just cited as sources, influences, or targets: Plotinus’ argument is commendably integrated into a wider Greek philosophical narrative, and this is true of the commentary as a whole.

A difficulty that the commentator on a complex author like Plotinus faces is that of relating a passage-by-passage commentary to the separately-printed translation. Classicists are used to the format of the commentary at the back of the book, also adopted in, for example, the Clarendon Plato and Aristotle series. The running commentaries interspersed among passages of typographically differentiated translation that Cornford and Hackforth produced for several dialogues of Plato have not found obvious successors. A pity in some respects, for they provide a comfortable way of reading text and related commentary. But the discomfort of moving between difficult text and closely-argued commentary is, in this book, worthwhile. Gerson achieves the near miracle of making Plotinus intelligible to readers who have read nothing of him (though it helps enormously if they know something of Plato and Aristotle), and avoids, with a few rare exceptions, explicit debate with other named interpreters. The focus is where it should be, on the elucidation of the argument. The one section of commentary that might have been more nuanced is that on Chapter 12, where Plotinus argues that the Good is prior to the Beautiful. Gerson pinpoints the detail of the argument, but perhaps does not relate it sufficiently it to other celebrated passages in Plotinus that distinguish less clearly between the Good and the Beautiful.

The commentary presupposes no knowledge of Greek, but key terms and phrases are included in transliteration, and there are some discussions of, or references to, individual readings (the Oxford editio minor of Henry and Schwyzer is Gerson’s reference text), as well as other translations in English, French, and German. Readers who feel the need for a continuous exposition of Plotinus’ views on the One and the Intellect to complement the difficult piecemeal detail of the commentary will find enlightenment in the chapter on the One in Gerson’s monograph (where the sense in which the One is “virtually” everything else is explained) or the discussions of Intellect in Emilsson’s book.4

To turn to details of the translation. One example of the superiority of Gerson’s version to the best general English translation, by A. H. Armstrong, is at Chapter 10, lines 21-3, on the unlimited nature of the first principle, the One. Armstrong translates: “But he has infinity in the sense of power: for he will never be otherwise, or fail, since the things which do not fail exist through him.” Gerson’s version runs: “No, it is insofar as it is power that it possesses unlimitedness, for it will never be otherwise or lack anything, whereas it is because of it that there are things which are not lacking as well.” Use of the impersonal “it” rather than personalized “he” here and elsewhere gives in Gerson’s translation a less distracting sense of the One’s nature. Armstrong, in the lines immediately preceding the quoted extract, translates apeiros as “unlimited” with reference to the One, but then translates to apeiron as “infinity”, thus losing continuity of vocabulary and the close allusion to Plato’s Parmenides 137d. Gerson’s “insofar as” is the more accurate rendering of hēi, and his “lack(ing)” is more intelligible than Armstrong’s “fail”. Finally, Gerson’s version of the last phrase brings out more clearly the link between the completeness of the One and the lack of defects in the second and third principles, Intellect and Soul. This precision is characteristic of Gerson’s translation, and it produces at least one novel and persuasive interpretation of a notoriously difficult passage, V.5.8.9-13. It is generally assumed that “the beautiful” that Intellect is contemplating here is the One, and this seems to be corroborated by line 9. But in his commentary, and in his finely-nuanced translation of the passage, Gerson argues that Plotinus is talking about Intellect’s self-contemplation of the beauty of the intelligible universe, and using Intellect as an illustrative model for the ascent of embodied human intellect to the One: the One is “near” it, but is not yet “seen” by it.

Critics should quibble, but there is not much to quibble about in Gerson’s translation. Two details, the first in V.5.6.36-7. If one tries to look at the One as a form, says Plotinus, oude touto eisetai. Gerson translates, “he will not see the One”. Despite the links, in Greek as well as English, between “see” and “know” it would be better to translate here “he will in no way know this [the One]”, in order to convey the sense that the person attempting to comprehend cognitively the One as a form cannot comprehend it, indeed that it cannot be comprehended cognitively at all. The sense of a second passage, V.5.3.4-8, depends on the translation of the preposition epi with the genitive, which occurs three times in the passage. In the first occurrence, the first principle is metaphorically imagined to sit, or be settled, on Intellect as if on ( epi) a pedestal, and Plotinus immediately and characteristically corrects the daring metaphor by adding that the pedestal is suspended from it (for the One does not depend upon Intellect). The metaphor is then linked to the procession of the Persian king, as well as the Plotinian concept of the “procession” of the hierarchical levels of reality from one another. Gerson’s translation involves a change of sense of the second and third uses of epi, from location to motion, the One now proceeding “to”, not seated “on”. This is perfectly sound Greek, but it seems more convincing to see continuity in the meaning of epi throughout the passage, and a momentary, risky extension of the metaphor of the pedestal to something like that of a portable throne, upon which the One is seated – before the image of the procession dominates the narrative.

The concept of this series is unique in English: there is no other treatise-by-treatise annotated translation series of Plotinus’ writings accessible to non-specialists. The commentary is less detailed and technical than that of the volumes in the French Cerf series inaugurated by Pierre Hadot, but more comprehensive than the notes of the translation, also French, edited by Luc Brisson and Jean-François Pradeau.5 The editors have judged well the balance between readability and the need for serious exegesis, and Gerson has maintained a high standard for future contributors to the series to emulate. The book is elegantly produced: compact and durable, it can be puzzled over comfortably in the train or in the air. Parmenides Publishing is to be congratulated.


1. The first volume to appear, Barrie Fleet, Plotinus: Ennead IV.8 (2012), has been reviewed by D. M. Hutchinson in BMCR 2012.11.23.

2. See notably L.P. Gerson, Plotinus (London and New York; Routledge, 1994).

3. A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus, 7 vols. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1966-1988).

4. Gerson, Plotinus (see n. 2 above), chapter 2; E. K. Emilsson, Plotinus on Intellect (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 2007).

5. Enn. V.5 has not yet been included in the Cerf series. Richard Dufour has done the translation and commentary on V.5 [32] in L. Brisson and J.-F. Pradeau (eds.), Plotin, Traités 30-37 (Paris; Flammarion, 2006), 129-84.