BMCR 2017.01.21

Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice

, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2016. xxi, 344. ISBN 9780226339672. $55.00.


This book is motivated by two main concerns. First, Professor Clark aims to demonstrate that the frequent images and metaphors in Plotinus are no mere rhetorical ornaments, but are an integral part of his philosophical argument, as well as initiating the reader into therapeutic meditation. Secondly, he wants to remove barriers between scholarly and esoteric interpretations of Neoplatonism. The book has five sections. The first part contains prolegomena on why and how to read Plotinus, thoughts on metaphor in general, and a critical look at Plotinus’ understanding of dialectic. The second part deals with metaphor and image motifs found in Plotinus: nakedness, love, shadows and mirrors, drunkenness and sobriety, dancing, and so on. The third part discusses what Clark calls the “Plotinian Imaginary”, how Plotinus imagines the world to be: hence there are chapters on his reception of Platonic and Classical myths, on his use of the imagery of spheres and circles to attain insight into the nature of the divine, on charms, magic, demons, astronomy, and astrology in his life and writings, and on images internalized and external (such as statues). The fourth part surveys the Plotinian hypostases (Soul, Intellect and the One, but Clark adds chapters on matter and nature). In the fifth and final section, Plotinus’ notion of the philosophical way of life in its physical, therapeutic and intellectual aspects is considered.

There have been recent studies of individual topics, and Clark has edited two volumes of essays in collaboration with other scholars that touch on many related themes.1 In addition, he himself has published several papers that are direct antecedents of this book (listed on pp. xix-xx). Among earlier research, Rein Ferwerda’s 1965 dissertation remains valuable as a comprehensive survey of images and metaphors in Plotinus, with a succinct and perceptive summary of conclusions about their significance.2 Vincenzo Cilento’s classic essay on myth and poetry in Plotinus (surprisingly not referred to by Clark) captures the poetic dimension of the treatises and, among much else, brings out the differences between Platonic and Plotinian uses of myth.3 Yet Clark’s book is none the less an original contribution, given its scope and detail, as well as its chosen line of interpretation.

This interpretative approach is outlined in the preface (pp. xii-xvi). Clark proposes going beyond exegesis of what the text of Plotinus explicitly says. He justifies this for a number of reasons, including the assumption that Plotinus, like all philosophers, has beliefs that he does not express, but which may influence his arguments, and the claim that we can only achieve understanding of the text when we, as latter-day recipients of it, make plausible additions to it. Other reasons why we should be prepared to go beyond the text have to do with a philosophy that does not claim originality and so makes assumptions that are part of the tradition within which it operates, and which in addition depends on oral transmission from teacher to student.

This approach is not as controversial as it might sound. In literary studies, very few critics these days would argue that our overriding aim should be (or even could be) to determine precisely from the text itself what an ancient text means. Among other factors, our own reading habits and our reception of texts from other periods, as well as an heightened awareness of the complexities that “reading” entails, influence our interpretation. Clark’s chief dispute is with philosophical exegetes who confine themselves to analysis of Plotinus’ arguments, and regard his images and metaphors as mere icing on the cake.

In practice, his interpretation takes two forms. One approach is speculation about things for which we have no textual evidence, but which Plotinus might have done or thought. For example, dance metaphors feature in his writings (105-20). Clark asks: did Plotinus dance, alone or with his followers? We do not know. Lucian’s On Pantomime (which raises some philosophical issues) is adduced,4 as well as dancing in Hindu ritual. Clark’s hypothesis is that dance could have been a feature of Plotinus’ coterie. How interesting this kind of discussion may be depends on the reader’s taste. But one may question how useful such speculation is.

Clark’s broader interpretation is to go beyond the text by situating Plotinus in a kind of perennial philosophy. The book is studded with textual rapprochements between Plotinus and a variety of texts: later Neoplatonists, the New Testament, Greek and Latin Patristic writers, Byzantine religious texts, English metaphysical poets, William Blake, G. K. Chesterton, Simone Weil and other modern mystics. Clark duly invokes Pierre Hadot’s assertions that Plotinus’ writings, and those of other ancient philosophers, are, at least in part, “spiritual exercises”.5 This much-repeated trope has, for some of us, the effect of wanting to reach for our Aristotle, though Plotinus too offers the antidote of hard philosophical argument. To Clark’s credit, he does not play the “spiritual exercise” card to cut short analysis. His knowledge of Plotinus and other Neoplatonists is too profound for that. The textual labyrinth is skilfully negotiated. And there is an autobiographical thread in his narrative, from the explicitness of the preface (pp. xvi-xvii) on. This personal note, and the therapeutic theme, will no doubt strike a chord with many readers today. It helps if readers are by temperament sympathetic to this kind of approach. But Clark’s discussion does redress the balance between, on the one hand, a focus on argument and analysis in Plotinus, and, on the other hand, an awareness of his undoubted intuitive dimension, when an argument flows seamlessly into a brilliantly apt image that extends the text’s meaning, as in the exercise of dematerialising the material universe, imagined as a transparent sphere, in order to grasp the notion of an intelligible universe in V.8, 9. 6 There is greater sympathy today for this approach than Clark might appear to suggest. The scholars he criticizes for insisting too much on Plotinus’ rationality and intellectualism (E. R. Dodds, A. H. Armstrong) are those of an earlier generation, and their motive was in its time an honourable one, for they had to argue that Plotinus was a respectable philosopher worth reading. That is no longer necessary.

There are some excellent discussions of details. The meaning of harmonia in III.2.16 (not melody, but concordant intervals, as in the different musical modes) is illuminatingly argued (107-8). The suggestion that in V.8.11.28-30 Health ( Hygieia) is personified is attractive and persuasive (207-8). The symbolic importance of Hestia and Demeter in Plotinus’ “worldscape” in ingeniously argued (221-5). The discussion of mirror images is enhanced by a well-informed awareness of what mirrors were like in Plotinus’ day, and what they actually reflected (84-7). The section on the theme of charms contains an interesting discussion of the distinction between persuasion and deductive argument (171-8).

The book is elegantly produced and is remarkably free of misprints.7 Students of Plotinus and those interested in the broader Platonic tradition must read it, and those who are attracted to Plotinus by his arguments should bear in mind that he has also written that “teaching goes as far as the road and travelling, but the vision” (sc. of the One) “is the task of someone who has already resolved to see” (VI.9.4.15-16).8 Clark does not quote this particular passage, but its insistence on the importance of belief and will in philosophical understanding runs parallel to his argument for the essential role of the persuasiveness of images and metaphors in Plotinus.


1. P. Vassilopoulou and S. R. L. Clark, eds. Late Antique Epistemology: Other Ways to Truth (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); M. Chase, S. R. L. Clark, and M. McGhee, eds. Philosophy as a Way of Life (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

2. R. Ferwerda, La signification des images et des métaphores dans la pensée de Plotin (Groningen: Wolters, 1965).

3. V. Cilento, “Mito e poesia nelle Enneadi di Plotino”, in Les Sources de Plotin. Entretiens Fondation Hardt, 5. (Vandœuvres-Geneva, 1960), 245-310.

4. This work is called On Dancing in M. D. Macleod’s Oxford Classical Texts edition of Lucian’s writings (vol. III, no. 45).

5. P. Hadot, Plotinus, or The Simplicity of Vision. Translated by M. Chase. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); P. Hadot, “Spiritual Exercises” in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Translated by M. Chase, ed. A. I. Davidson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 81-125.

6. See J. M. Dillon, “Plotinus and the Transcendental Imagination” in Religious Imagination, ed. J. P. Mackey. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), 1986, 55-64 (reprinted in The Golden Chain, Aldershot: Variorum Press, 1990, Essay XXIV). Clark discusses this image on 19, 168, 180-1, 239.

7. I have noticed: p. 5 n. 14 (read “I.6 [1]. 5, 54”); pp. 76 and 278 (the last words of the transliterated Greek should read “ hautou eros ”); pp. 287-8 n. 26 (read “ kathara ” and “V.1 [10]. 6, 11-12”). On p. 231 the reference should be to the “Hypothesis/es” (not “Hypostasis/es”) of Plato’s Parmenides.

8. Translated by A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus, vol. VII. )Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), 317.