BMCR 2021.12.07

A text worthy of Plotinus: the lives and correspondence of P. Henry S.J., H.-R. Schwyzer, A.H. Armstrong, J. Trouillard and J. Igal S.J.

, , , A text worthy of Plotinus: the lives and correspondence of P. Henry S.J., H.-R. Schwyzer, A.H. Armstrong, J. Trouillard and J. Igal S.J.. Ancient and Medieval philosophy. Series 1, 59. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2021. Pp. 428. ISBN 9789462702592 €98,00.


The thought of Plotinus and his style of expression present a formidable challenge to his interpreters. But an additional obstacle has been the unavailability of a reliable Greek text. It is only with the final completion of the great edition of Paul Henry and Henry Schwyzer (editio maior, 3 vols., 1951-1973) that modern scholarship of interpretation could be set on a firm foundation. Moreover their work continued to provide improvements, which appeared in the OUP text (editio minor, 3 vols., 1964-1982). This magnificent work of sustained scholarship was also enriched by the active co-operation of numerous other scholars who generously communicated their insights to Henry and Schwyzer, who in their turn reciprocated with the latest information of the progress of the text in advance of publication. The present volume recounts and celebrates this remarkable story of an international community of scholars, who over a period of some thirty years freely shared their knowledge and expertise with the sole purpose of furthering our understanding of a long neglected major philosophical figure.

The scene is set with an account of the publication of the Enneads from Ficino until the work of Henry and Schwyzer. There follow five chapters dedicated in turn to Paul Henry S.J. (1906-1984), Hans-Rudolf-Schwyzer (1908-1993), Hilary Armstrong (1909-1997), Jean Trouillard (1907-1984), and Jésus Igal S.J. (1920-1986). Each chapter contains a biography, selected letters, obituaries and a list of published works. In the period covered Armstrong was working on his Loeb translation and Igal on his Spanish translation and commentary. Trouillard is best known for his studies of Proclus and was more interested in the philosophy of Plotinus than textual matters and was in close contact with Armstrong. A final chapter contains briefer accounts of the contributions of Bréhier (author of a French edition of Plotinus, Theiler (joint author of a German edition, Page (who revised the English translation of Stephen MacKenna) and Evanghelos Roussos.

This is an important contribution to Plotinian studies in two respects: firstly, the purely historical account of how the work of editing the text was achieved and secondly, for the insights, mostly through the correspondence, into the discussions of variant readings and interpretations of the protagonists, and of their more tentative and stimulating unpublished views.

Henry’s drive in promoting the edition is allowed to emerge mostly through his correspondence and extracts from his memoirs. His search for manuscripts, which began in 1932 at the age of 26, involved extensive visits to European libraries and even travelling on a donkey through Lebanon and Palestine in Arabic dress just before the Second World War. We are provided with an engaging picture of how he worked together with Schwyzer as they met daily for four months each summer over nearly thirty years in Schwyzer’s Zürich house. They worked from 9-12 and 14-18.30, on desks facing each other, with Henry’s five cloth and leather bound volumes of photocopies of the ten major manuscripts ready to hand. Henry spent most of his career teaching to an appreciative audience in Paris and in numerous universities in North and South America. One of the more stimulating items to be found in this collection (pp.86-91) is a set of handouts in French for exploratory Plotinus seminars on subjects including the One as a personal god and the relationship between mysticism and metaphysics.

The letters of Schwyzer reveal his care and generosity in sharing his immense learning with younger scholars (e.g. the correspondence with Roussos, pp.112-117) as well as the intense co-operation with other scholars, when the editions of Beutler-Theiler and the translation of Armstrong were being worked on at the same time as the Henry-S text. Particularly interesting are the friendly exchanges with Armstrong. A few examples illustrate this well: in Letter 19 we find Schwyzer gently criticising Armstrong’s translation (‘IV.3.24, 25 I do not understand your translation.’ p.127) – Armstrong made the recommended change in the published version. Another suggestion, however, is firmly, but good humouredly, rejected by Armstrong. Schwyzer had argued for emending kra/seiv to bra/seiv at IV.4.28,32 in an article in Museum Helveticum, but tells Armstrong that he won’t be ‘angry if you prefer Bréhier,’ which Armstrong finally does, but with a long and apologetic footnote in his translation (‘With the utmost regret I find myself compelled to reject . . . . ‘). In a subsequent letter (20 p.128) Schwyzer insists on his emendation with evident self-mockery: ‘quamvis ab omnibus nec non infideli Page 4 despectus repulsus derelictus’. Interestingly, in the ‘Addenda ad textum’ in Vol. III p.391 he adds the conjecture kakw/seiv of Bury from the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, published during the war, which, many years previously (letter 13), he had asked Armstrong to locate for him as they were unavailable in Switzerland. Armstrong had clearly gone to the trouble of finding and sending on to him the relevant article. This intense and friendly co-operation amongst scholars is one of the more remarkable features of the Henry-Schwyzer Plotinus editions and is admirably documented in this volume.

While the correspondence shows how Armstrong was in frequent contact especially with Schwyzer while he was preparing his own translation, we learn that he was also pursuing projects such as a Plotinus commentary with Henry, which unfortunately never came to pass, or important themes such as the issue of to/lma in the context of his evolving views on dualism in Plotinus. His letters to Kevin Corrigan reveal his more tentative and exploratory ideas on this topic (pp.191-8) including ‘some notes on kako/n in the Platonic-Pythagorean Tradition’. Some idea of the direction of his interpretation is revealed in the comment: ‘I hold it rather against Plotinus that he slips too often into using the language of conflict-dualism in speaking of his matter-evil’ (p.192). It is a view he seems to have shared with Trouillard (p.231).

Igal, who had been asked to see the final volume of the text through the press with the failing health of Henry and Schwzer’s own advanced age, unfortunately died prematurely, even before completing his own translation. We are fortunate, however, to be given here over eighty pages of his correspondence with Armstrong containing his notes on the Enneads transcribed by Baracat, pp.257-338). These include (pp.306-12) the unpublished draft of an article on III.2.16,12ff. Much of the material found in the correspondence of Igal and of the others has remained unpublished and, even when it had been noted and incorporated in the published texts, in its original form and context provides valuable insights into the justification and adoption of variant readings as well as the careful interpretation of their philosophical import. To make full use of this rich resource the volume is equipped with a full Index Locorum, as well as an Index Nominum.

Whilst acknowledging the immense editorial work and specific contributions of the three editors, it is also appropriate, in the context of scholarly collegiality, to mention the contributions made by Leo Catana, Martin Schwyzer, Richard Dufour, Elena Corrigan, Christopher Armstrong, Greg Shaw, Georges Leroux, Gary Gurtler, Luc Brisson, Gerard O’Daly, Michael Atkinson and Paul Kalligas. Although at times one could have wished for a fuller picture of this great enterprise, it is clear that the material which the editors had at their disposal was incomplete. From such incomplete and often fortuitous survivals, as is always the case when writing about those who care more about contributing to the advance of our understanding than about managing their ‘legacy’, the editors have managed to create a compelling account, a rich source of hitherto inaccessible comment on the Enneads, and a worthy celebration of the achievement of a previous generation of Plotinian scholars.