BMCR 2020.02.21

Plotin. Qui es-tu?

Jean-François​ Pradeau, Plotin. Qui es-tu?. Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 2019. 156. ISBN 9782204126533 €15,00.

This little—or at least, very compact—book, excellently constructed as it is, provides Francophone readers with a fine conspectus of all that is distinctive and important about Plotinus as a philosopher. Pradeau himself has been having much to do with Plotinus over the last decade or so, in company with Luc Brisson, in connection with co-authoring the valuable Flammarion edition of translations, with notes, of the tractates (in chronological order), and the work is doubtless to some extent a fruit of those labours. As such, it is most welcome.

After a short introduction, in which he sets out his stall—he sees Plotinus as championing a return to the timeless truths enunciated by Plato, against the dominant (though declining) philosophical tradition of Stoicism, and in face of the rising threat of what he would see as the irrationalities, and disrespect for the wisdom of antiquity, of Christianity, and the various forms of Gnosticism—we are presented with a sequence of nine short chapters, dealing, first, with Plotinus’ life and working environment in Rome (chs. 1-3), and then with Porphyry’s strategy in putting together his edition of his master’s works (ch. 4), with the last five chapters focusing on various aspects of his philosophical system. We are reminded of the peculiar—though comfortable—situation in which Plotinus found himself in Rome, under the patronage of the lady Gemina, and the informal nature of his school, together with his remarkable habits of composition, as related by Porphyry.

In each of the later chapters, Pradeau picks out a key issue or issues relevant to Plotinus’ philosophical position. In ch. 5, (‘Un platonicien?’), he highlights the fact that the great majority of the tractates—and therefore of Plotinus’ seminars—take their start from an aporia arising out of some Platonic passage or other, and deal with it, normally, through the lens of later Platonist, Aristotelian, or even Stoic positions, though without ever explicitly challenging Plato’s infallibility. In ch. 6 (‘L’inventeur d’une philosophie nouvelle? L’apparition du néoplatonisme’), he dwells on the salient features of Plotinus’ form of Platonism, as opposed to that of his immediate predecessors, viz. the rejection of dualism, as well as of tendencies towards the adoption of theurgical or religious practices, and the supplanting of that by a doctrine of progressive emanation of all things from a single first principle; the development of the doctrine of a supra-intellectual and radically simple One; and the concept of a part of the soul, or of the personality, that does not ‘descend’, but remains ever embedded in Intellect.

And indeed it is to these three topics that the last three chapters are devoted: Pradeau is not concerned to give an exhaustive account of Plotinus’ philosophy, but rather to focus on salient points. The three features that he selects are indeed the most distinctive aspects of Plotinus’ philosophy. In ch. 7 (‘La méchanique de la procession’), he provides a most refined analysis of the mechanism of procession, from the One to Intellect, and from there to Soul and beyond, with due attention also to the corresponding process of ‘return’ In this connection, he focuses on the exegesis of just two key passages from the Enneads, ch. 6 of Tractate 10 [V.1], and ch. 1 of Tractate 11 [V.2], both very aptly chosen. The chief problems to be addressed are the nature of the ‘overflow’ from a first principle that is absolutely simple and absolutely self-sufficient, and how it generates both multiplicity and the desire and capacity of the lower principles thus generated to turn back towards their source, and thus generate themselves.

He next (ch 8: ‘L’un: premier, indicible, insaisissable’) tackles the topic of the One itself, and why Plotinus felt it necessary to postulate it. In this connection, after having noted how Plotinus’ presentation of an ineffable first principle attracted such French philosophers as Bergson, Jankelevich and Levinas, he once again picks out some key passages to discuss, in this case ch. 6 of tractate 32 [V.5], and ch. 7 of 10 [V.1], which are indeed key passages for setting out both the otherness of the One and its connection with what follows from it. He then makes the interesting move of adducing the doctrine of an influential predecessor of Plotinus, the Neopythagorean Numenius, who does postulate a system involving three levels of reality, with at the top a divinity described as an ‘intellect at rest’, which could indeed have provided a stimulus to Plotinus’ postulation of a first principle above Intellect altogether; and he follows this by making an enlightening contrast between the systems of Plotinus and Proclus—all this to emphasise the originality of Plotinus’ position.

Lastly, in ch. 9 (‘L’âme humaine peut-elle remonter vers son principe?’), Pradeau focuses on what is distinctive about Plotinus’ doctrine of the human soul—specifically, its non-descended element—noting how this position of his is rejected by later Platonists, from Iamblichus on. He also includes some pertinent remarks about matter, and the sense in which it is ‘evil’ for Plotinus: it is ‘evil’, really, only as a negativity.

The work is rounded off by a short conclusion, in which he reminds us of the remarkable way in which what seems to be the complete corpus of Plotinus’ writings was preserved in later antiquity, and filtered down also through the mediaeval culture of the Arab world, till it was restored to the early Renaissance West by the industriousness of Marsilio Ficino.

All in all, this is a very finely composed little work, aimed, I presume, primarily at the reader seeking an acquaintance with Plotinus’ thought, but replete with insights for all who appreciate his genius.