BMCR 2020.05.09

Plotinus on beauty (Enneads 1.6 and 5.8.1-2): the Greek text with notes

, Plotinus on beauty (Enneads 1.6 and 5.8.1-2): the Greek text with notes. Writings from the Greco-Roman world, 44. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019. x, 108 p.. ISBN 9781628372489 $25.00.

The book contains a concise Introduction, the Greek text of Enn. 1.6 (On Beauty) and of the two initial chapters of Enn. 5.8 (On the Intelligible Beauty) with commentary, and a bibliography. The text with commentary is clearly divided into chapters and every chapter is preceded by a short synopsis. The book is in a close relationship with two earlier publications of Andrew Smith, namely, his commented translations of Enn. 1.6 and Enn. 5.8 in the series co-edited with John Dillon, published by Parmenides Publishing.[1] The crucial difference is that here we have the Greek text without translation (I was not able to find any information concerning the source of the Greek text—is it the Henry-Schwyzereditio minor?) and the work seems to be addressed to a slightly wider audience than just scholars specializing in Plotinus or interested in (ancient) philosophy. Here Smith presents a book which may be of interest to classicists in general, even those not particularly familiar with the thought of Plotinus.

The Introduction is shorter than in the one in Smith’s earlier translation of Enn. 1.6, but covers mostly the same points. It is divided into short sections, the first of which is a brief sketch of Plotinus’ life. Next we have a section devoted to Plotinus as a Platonist, a member of the continuous philosophical tradition, claiming, famously, not to be an “original” thinker (leaving aside the question how he would put that in Greek) but an exegete of the divine Plato. The next part of the Introduction is a little longer and gives a very accessible account of Plotinus’ philosophical system, along with the place of Enn. 1.6, the first treatise in Porphyry’s chronological order, within this system. The next sections are devoted to the Plotinian concept of beauty and art (“Aesthetic Theory”)—beginning with a short summary of his views and then proceeding to the question of his interpretation of what Plato had to say about art, mostly in the Republic (the famous problem of art as the “image of image”, 596a-599b). Then Smith touches upon Plotinus’ treatment of beauty and symmetry in Enn. 1.6 and on the relationship between physical and noetic beauty (which he also already discussed in the previous book). The penultimate section of the Introduction is focused on Marsilio Ficino, the great Platonist of the 15thcentury and Plotinus’ editor and translator, as the main figure in transmitting his views on beauty and art to modern European culture. Apart from Ficino, Michelangelo is mentioned and one of his sonnets quoted, with a suggestion that he might have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Plotinus via Ficino. The last part of the Introduction is devoted to Plotinus’ language and style.

On the whole, the Introduction is a very accessible and interesting prelude to the detailed commentary on the selected texts. A point that can be made also with regard to his earlier commentaries on Enn. 1.6 and 5.8 is that Smith tries to pass between the Scylla and Charybdis of Plotinus’ interpretation of Plato’s aesthetics. He does not interpret Plotinus as a critic of Plato, radically original in ascribing greater value to art and thus sweetening the Platonic pill for modern readers (and saving oppressed poets from the hands of the totalitarian founder of the Academy). He also does not claim that Plotinus was unaware of the differences between his own and his master’s views. Smith advances, instead, a very plausible hypothesis that Plotinus was trying to read the criticism of art in the Republic in a broader context of other Platonic dialogues, especially the Symposium and the Phaedrus. The author of the Enneads was probably aware of the tensions or even discrepancies in Plato’s thought in this area, just, we might add, as he was aware of them with regard to the question of the relation between the soul and the body, when he discusses Plato’s views (we can even imagine a reverent, but noticeable, sigh when Plotinus says: “What, then, does this philosopher say? He is obviously not saying the same thing everywhere, so that one can easily know what his intention is”, Enn. [2] Plotinus, Smith argues, was convinced that Plato had a coherent view of beauty and art, which is an approach not only interpretatively valid, but faithful to Plotinus’ self-understanding as a disciple and an exegete of Plato – albeit not a blind, uncritical follower. Another interesting point is Smith’s emphasis on Plotinus’ positive view of sensible beauty and the sensible realm in general, which seems to be in harmony with how other scholars interpret this issue. The older approach to Plotinus, expressed by such eminent scholars as e.g. E. R. Dodds or Émile Bréhier, that the author of the Enneads was full of contempt towards physical reality, was criticized already by Pierre Hadot in the sixties.[3]

A section which was, understandably, absent from the 2016 book, is the one devoted to Plotinus’ Greek. It is excellent and very useful, especially (albeit not only) to those who are not yet familiar with the language and style of the Enneads. Smith enumerates in several points the most significant difficulties and problems here, starting from what Macrobius expressed as Plotinus’ brevity (Plotinus magis quam quisquam verborum parcus; Comm. somn. Scip. 2.12.7), thanks to inconsistencies of his syntax, linguistic idiosyncrasies and other peculiarities (like omission of ἄν in potential constructions or the usage of μή instead of οὐ).

The only critical remarks that could be made about the Introduction is that Smith’s choice to include the initial chapters of Enn. 5.8 is not justified or commented upon in any way. Perhaps Smith assumes that the reader is quite familiar with his commentaries on Enn. 1.6 and 5.8. But the reader who is not might wonder why he adds two chapters of another treatise to the treatise “On Beauty”, especially since Enn. 5.8 is only one part of the so-called “great treatise” which was divided by Porphyry into four parts (Enn. 3.8, 5.8, 5.5, 2.9) and directed, as it seems, mostly against Gnostics and their contempt of the physical reality. The whole of Enn. 5.8 could have been added instead of just the initial two chapters and it would form an interesting pair of treatises approaching the relationship between sensible and noetic beauty and the ascent to the One in a somewhat different vein. Smith quite often quotes sections of a late treatise Enn. 3.5 (On Love) and of Enn. 6.7 (How the Multiplicity of Forms Came Into Being: and on the Good), which are pertinent to his discussion of beauty. Portions of those treatises would be also good candidates for a book entitled “Plotinus on Beauty”. Even brief remarks on the reasons for this particular choice would have been very welcome in the Introduction.

It is somehow surprising what Smith writes about Augustine and Plotinus, namely that “it still remains unclear whether Augustine had direct access to the Enneads either in Greek or in a Latin translation” (pp. 15-16). Augustine in his earliest writings, written after his conversion in 386, openly stated that he read, at this time, a few books of Plotinus, Plotini paucissimi libri (De beata vita 1.4), calling them also in another work written in the similar period: pretiosissimi unguenti guttae paucissimae (Acad. 2.2.5). Given his limited knowledge of Greek, it is usually assumed that he read Plotinus in Latin, using Marius Victorinus’ translation. Already in 1934 Paul Henry proved by astonishing verbal similarities found in Book Seven of the Confessions, that Augustine most certainly read Enn. 1.6.[4] Scholars such as Robert J. O’Connell and Pierre Courcelle were convinced that he studied the Enneads intensely for basically all of his life, but even those who were more skeptical about the degree of Plotinus’ influence on Augustine (Goulven Madec, Frederic Van Fleteren, John Rist), never doubted that he read and often referred to the three early treatises of Plotinus, Enn. 1.6, 5.1 and 4.8.[5] In the entry “Plotinus, the Enneads” in one of the fundamental lexicons, Augustine Through the Ages, Anne-Marie Bowery sums up the current scholarly knowledge simply by saying that Augustine “encountered Marius Victorinus’s translations of the Enneads in the 380s”.[6] That is why it is hard to understand why Smith hesitates over whether Augustine read Plotinus and cautiously says that “it is possible to detect the influence of 1.6” (p. 16); and that he refers the reader to the City of God (CD 9.17; also 10.16), while remaining completely silent about the Confessions, one of the main sources testifying to the influence of the Enneads on the bishop of Hippo. It is also interesting that, in his entry on Plotinus in the Augustinus-Lexikon,[7] Smith is much more nuanced about this issue. Although, being an eminent student of Porphyry, he seems to be very sympathetic to Willy Theiler’s claim that Augustine relied much more on Porphyry than on Plotinus and was familiar with the latter through the former,[8] in the Augustinus-Lexikon Smith does say that it is highly likely that Augustine read some of Plotinus’ treatises in Latin, and he includes Paul Henry’s seminal paper on Enn. 1.6 in the bibliography.

Andrew Smith’s commentary on the Greek text is excellent. The philosophical context is, of course, limited in comparison to the previous commentary, but Smith explains in detail the intricacies of Plotinus’ syntax and often suggests illuminating readings of difficult places. The notes are not overloaded with references to the other ancient sources or to the secondary literature (which is a good thing) but, usually, significant allusions to Plato, Aristotle or the Stoics are explained as well as the most important scholarly studies referred to. Apart from the more linguistic side of the commentary, what deserves to be highly praised is the philosophical elucidation of Plotinus’ argument and Smith’s appreciation for the practical side of his works, namely the spiritual exercises and personal transformation to which both of the treatises he comments on exhort the reader. I would only point out that opposing “intellectual exercise” to “experiential encounter” (p. 52) is not felicitous, since for Plotinus the “intellectual” or “noetic” is highly experiential, having little to do with what we today associate with “abstract thought” and “intellectualism”.

All in all, Andrew Smith’s work is an excellent book for classicists and the historians of ancient philosophy interested in studying Plotinus’ fascinating and influential views on beauty, art and the contemplative ascent to the One.


[1] Plotinus, Ennead I.6: On Beauty (Las Vegas / Zurich / Athens, 2016); Plotinus, Enneads V.8: On Intelligible Beauty (Las Vegas / Zurich / Athens, 2018).

[2] Plotinus, Enneads, tr. A.H. Armstrong (Cambridge / London, 1966-1988).

[3] Plotin ou la simplicité du regard (Paris, 1963). More recently, cf. for instance R. Mortley, Plotinus, Self and the Word (Cambridge, 2013).

[4] P. Henry, Plotin et l’Occident (Louvain, 1934).

[5] See R. J. O’Connell, “The Enneads and St. Augustine’s Image of Happiness”, Vigiliae Christianae 17 (1963), 129-64; G. Madec, “Une lecture de Confessions VII.9.13-21.27 (Notes critiques a propos d’une these de R.J. O’Connell)”, REAug 16 (1970), 79-137; F. Van Fleteren, “Augustine’s Ascent of the Soul in Book VII of the Confessions: a Reconsideration”, AugStud 5 (1974), 29-72; J. M. Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized (Cambridge, 1997), 3; P. Courcelle, Recherches sur les Confessions de saint Augustin (Paris, 1968), 202 n. 1.

[6] Augustine Through the Ages: an Encyclopedia, ed. A. Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids, 1999), 654-7.

[7] “Plotinus”, Augustinus-Lexikon, vol. 4, ed. C. Mayer (Basel, 2016), 772-4.

[8] The hypothesis was revived in an excellent book by Brian Dobell, Augustine’s Intellectual Conversion: The Journey from Platonism to Christianity (Cambridge, 2009).