BMCR 2017.01.54

Plotinus and Epicurus. Matter, Perception, Pleasure

, , Plotinus and Epicurus. Matter, Perception, Pleasure. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xviii, 236. ISBN 9781107124219. $99.00.


Porphyry tells us in his Life of Plotinus that the Enneads are packed with Peripatetic and Stoic doctrines. A perusal of the index fontium of the critical edition of the Enneads will provide some measure of the truth of this statement. The presence of Peripatetic and Stoic doctrines in Plotinus’ writings is both positive and negative. Plotinus appropriates and criticizes his predecessors in his ongoing project to provide a systematic expression of Platonism. Unmentioned by Porphyry is the presence of Epicureanism and Scepticism, both of which are consistently treated negatively by Plotinus. The present collection of essays is a welcome and original addition to the literature. The ten essays included probe the treatment by Plotinus of Epicureanism in the matters of divine providence, atomism, and hedonism. On all three counts, Epicureanism is rejected not primarily because it is opposed to Platonism but because it does not stand up to philosophical scrutiny in its own terms.

The essays are: “The School and Texts of Epicurus in the Early Centuries of the Roman Empire” (Tiziano Dorandi); “The Mention of Epicurus in Plotinus’ tr. 33 ( Enn. II 9) in the Context of the Polemics Between Pagans and Christians in the Second to Third Centuries AD: Parallels Between Celsus, Plotinus and Origen” (Angela Longo); “Epicureans and Gnostics in tr. 47 ( Enn. III 2) 7.29-41” (Manuel Mazzetti); “‘Heavy Birds’ in tr. 5 ( Enn. V 9) 1.8: References to Epicureanism and the Problem of Pleasure in Plotinus” (Mauricio Pagotto Marsola); “Plotinus, Epicurus and the Problem of Intellectual Evidence”: Tr. 32 ( Enn. V 5) 1” (Pierre-Marie Morel); “‘What is Known Through Sense-Perception is an Image’. Plotinus’ tr. 32 ( Enn. V 5) 1.12-19: An Anti-Epicurean Argument?” (Daniella Patrizia Taormina); “Corporeal Matter, Indefiniteness and Multiplicity: Plotinus’ Critique of Epicurean Atomism in tr. 12 ( Enn. II 4) 7.20-8” (Marco Nicci); “Plotinus’ Reception of Epicurean Atomism in On Fate, tr. 3 ( Enn. III 1) 1-3” (Erik Eliasson); “ Athroa epibolē : On an Epicurean Formula in Plotinus’ Work”: (Andrei Cornea); “Plotinus and Epicurus on Pleasure and Happiness” (Alessandro Linguiti).

The historical essay by Dorandi collects the evidence for the availability of Epicurean texts in the 3rd century CE. Dorandi concludes that in all likelihood Plotinus had available to him not only doxographical reports on Epicurus and Epicureanism, but texts of Epicurus himself. It seems that certainly in Athens and in Alexandria but probably elsewhere, Epicureanism still flourished during Plotinus’ career. Thus, Plotinus probably encountered Epicureanism when he was a student in Alexandria and then later, when he moved to Rome, knew of it as an extant philosophical school deserving of at least some attention.

Longo analyzes the only passage in the Enneads, II 9 [33], 15 in which Plotinus explicitly mentions Epicurus. She focuses on Plotinus’ arguments against Epicurus’ rejection of providence. According to Longo, the principal consequence of Epicurus’ error is to be found in his hedonism, the idea being that, without divine providence, the attraction of hedonism cannot be resisted. The mention of Epicurus is found in the treatise primarily directed against Gnostics. Longo’s interesting claim is that Epicurus is introduced by Plotinus to highlight the even more egregious failings of Gnostics whose lapses in virtue, though not tending towards hedonism, are also a consequence of their misconception of providence. She adds the intriguing possibility that this approach by Plotinus to the Gnostics is paralleled by Celsus’ polemic against Christians. The latter did not deny providence; rather, they denied universal providence, limiting it only to the elect. Without a commitment to universal providence, the appeal of at least psychological hedonism would be greater than it ought to be.

Mazzetti argues that a passage in Plotinus’ treatise “On Providence,” III 2 [47], 7, has Epicurus as a target, although he is not explicitly mentioned. Plotinus argues against those who hold that providence exists, but that it does not extend down to the earth. Specifically, the Epicureans are taken to hold that the gods, being good, can do no evil. But their blissful lives mean that they do not concern themselves with affairs on earth. Plotinus’ commitment to Plato’s defense of divine providence in Republic X and Laws X would have made this position unacceptable even if its illogical commitment to the limited goodness of the divine were not the case.

Marsola examines V 9 [5] 1, where Plotinus gives a typology of lives: the life of pleasure seeking, the life of practical affairs, and the life of contemplation. Plotinus draws from both Plato and Aristotle in his analysis of the three, with his likely target in his criticisms of the first life being Epicurus. But Plotinus takes the opportunity to connect the hedonistic life with the atomistic materialism of the Epicureanism. They seek pleasure and avoid pain because they are convinced that they are merely bodies, and so are “weighted down” by them. The thought here is that, in order to pursue a contemplative life and so, on Platonic principles, the most virtuous life, one must identify oneself as “weightless,” that is, immaterial.

Morel considers Plotinus’ multiple attacks on those who maintain that knowledge or epistēmē can be obtained from sense-perception. Although Plotinus does not identify this view exclusively with the Epicureans, Morel argues that the evidence—in particular, the use of technical Epicurean (and Atomist) terminology—indicates that Epicureans are probably included, along with Peripatetics, in Plotinus’ attack. Morel makes the important observation that Plotinus frequently focuses on a philosophical position, in this case “empiricism,” rather than a particular philosophical school or person. He does this as well for Platonism. That he should have thought he found an error common to Peripatetics and Epicureans is unsurprising. It is an error that contradicts the Platonic account of knowledge as exclusively of the intelligible world.

The related paper by Taormina takes up the same text as Morel and should be read alongside it. Taormina, too, suggests that Epicureanism is subsumed under Plotinus’ general attack on empiricism. Given the context of the entire treatise, namely, the argument that intelligibles are not outside the Intellect, we can perhaps see Plotinus’ net cast even wider to include both those who deny the possibility of infallible cognition, namely, Sceptics, as well as those who, like Epicureans and Stoics, seek to retain infallibility at the same time as they espouse materialism. The reason for insisting on infallibility within a materialistic context is basically that fallible knowledge is difficult to distinguish from mere true belief, a fatal result for those who viewed philosophy as pursuing an exalted form of cognition.

For me, the highlight of the volume is the paper by Nicci, who provides a detailed examination of Plotinus’ reasons for rejecting Atomism. The paper is especially illuminating in showing how Plotinus draws on Aristotle’s physics to refute Epicurean claims regarding the motion of bodies. Here is one passage that helps us to understand the later Neoplatonic view that Aristotle’s authority in physics, broadly speaking, is compatible with Platonic metaphysical principles. In addition, Nicci nicely exposes Plotinus’ Platonic and Aristotelian arguments against the possibility of accounting for soul in atomistic terms. Surprisingly, Plotinus will even employ Stoic arguments for the infinite divisibility of bodies to counter Atomism, at the same time as he argues that the Stoics can no more account for the soul and its properties than the Epicureans can. It is on the basis of the priority of the intelligible to the sensible generally that Plotinus rejects the shared materialism of Epicureans, Stoics, and no doubt others.

Another paper on Plotinus’ criticism of Atomism is that of Eliasson. The criticism is found in Plotinus’ treatise on fate ( heimarmenē). Epicurus’ explanation for his denial of determinism, namely, the “swerve” of atoms, is found unacceptable on the grounds that it posits uncaused causes. But without the swerve, determinism still does not follow since Atomism cannot account for psychical action. Thus, a providential world is saved from Epicureanism.

Cornea traces the technical Epicurean term, athroa epibolē from its first use in the Letter to Herodotus to its appropriation by Plotinus. It means something like “comprehensive grasp” or “overall application” and is clearly distinguished from epibolē kata meros, meaning a “partial grasp,” that is, a grasp that proceeds seriatim through the many technical discussions contained in Epicurus’ treatises. Plotinus, somewhat surprisingly, takes over the term to refer to the possibility of Soul’s having comprehensive cognition of intelligibles, something that has already been argued to be possible for Intellect alone. Cornea suggests for athroa the English translation “concentrated,” perhaps in the sense of an epitome. Plotinus probably knew the Letter to Herodotus and other Epicurean texts, here showing his willingness to employ somewhat alien terminology.

Linguitti provides a brief but helpful survey of Plotinus’ various encounters with hedonism in those treatises devoted to happiness (I 4) and the role of Forms and the Good in human life (VI 7). He shows how Plotinus evaluates the claims of hedonism in the light of his own anthropology, that is, his distinction between the embodied individual human being and the person, which itself is bifurcated into the rational (embodied) intellect and its “undescended” paradigm. Further, in the treatise responding to the question “does happiness increase with time?” (I 5), Plotinus sides with Epicurus in arguing that it does not, for one reason with which Epicurus would agree and one with which he would not. Happiness does not increase with time for the embodied person since, as Epicurus and Stoics both maintain, happiness, when attained, is perfect at any moment. But it does also not increase for the person that one really is since that person is eternally contemplating all that is intelligible.

The volume has a clear and comprehensive stage-setting introduction by the editors and a full bibliography. There is hardly a sentence in the Enneads that is not rooted in the history of philosophy as Plotinus knew it. This book is a valuable addition to the scholarship seeking to illuminate this background.