An Interview with Professor E.K. Emilsson

in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition

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Eyjolfur K. Emilsson is Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Oslo. He lives with his wife, an architect, and their teenage son in a converted eighteenth century farmhouse in Oslo. I took advantage of a holiday in Norway to visit him with a view to discussing Plotinian matters in general and his own interest in the Enneads in particular. Although informal, the conversation was of such a level of interest that it seemed worth summarising the main points for the benefit of readers of this journal.

Suzanne Stern-Gillet: How did you come to Plotinus?

EKE: By a somewhat circuitous route. I entered the University of Iceland in Reykjavik in 1973 as a student of philosophy and French language and literature, but quickly switched off from French to Classics, where I felt much happier. My study of French, although brief, gave me a useful working knowledge of the language in which so much has been published on Neoplatonism.

SSG: When did you decide to specialise in ancient philosophy?

EKE: Pretty much at the end of my undergraduate around 1976 studies as I was working on my undergraduate dissertation on Plato’s ethics, which included a translation of the Gorgias, Previously, I had some notion of becoming a painter, but, in the end, ancient philosophy won. But I still like to paint.

SSG: How and why did you develop an interest in Plotinus?

EKW: I entered the program in classical philosophy at Princeton in 1977. My hope at the time was to be supervised by Gregory Vlastos and work on Plato’s ethics. As it turned out, Vlastos had left Princeton when I arrived and had been replaced by Michael Frede whom I had never heard of. I soon learnt that this was not such a bad replacement. At the time, Michael somewhat discouraged his graduate students from concentrating on Plato and Aristotle for their doctoral theses on the ground that the chances of coming up with something new and interesting in the course of two years’ work or so were dim. I was by then happy to take that challenge. Michael suggested various authors and topics in the later Classical tradition, none of which struck a chord with me. At that point, Plotinus’s name was mentioned. “Had I read any of the tractates?” Michael asked. I had not and, rather than dismissing the suggestion out of hand, I went to the library, borrowed a copy of the Enneads and read tractate iii 6 [26] (On the Impassibility of the Bodiless).

SSG: Although it is often said that the systematic nature of Plotinus’ thought makes any tractate as suitable a point of entry into his philosophy as any other, iii 6 [26] does not seem an obvious place to begin reading the Enneads. The argument is intricate and, on the face of it, highly counter-intuitive. Why did you choose it?

EKE: As I recall it, there was at once an immediate fascination mixed with frustration, but fascination was by far the stronger reaction and I agreed on sense-perception in Plotinus as a doctoral topic.

SSG: Was the dissertation the basis of your first book, Plotinus on Sense-Perception: A Philosophical Study (Cambridge, 1988)?

EKE: It was. In the meantime, however, I had returned to Reykjavik and taken a temporary position at the University there. It was then that I embarked on the translation of the Republic into Icelandic. My translation of the Gorgias was already published. Both translations, I am glad to say, remain in print to this day, and have actually been reprinted a few times.

SSG: When did you come to Oslo?

A.: In 1993 I was offered a lectureship at the University of Oslo for a semester, a lectureship that was extended until I secured a full-time permanent appointment and was finally made a full professor in the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas—well, it was called Department of Philosophy during my first years there.

SSG: The subtitle of your book on sense-perception tells the reader that your interest in the thought of Plotinus and the text of the Enneads is mostly philosophical. That impression is confirmed by the publication of your next book, Plotinus on Intellect (Oxford, 2007). Although you do not as a rule shy away from discussing the intricacies of Plotinus’ syntax and exegetical cruces as they occur in the text, it is nonetheless clear that you do so in order to achieve a better understanding of the philosophical issues involved. Furthermore, it seems to me that you always take care to keep your philosophical distance from Plotinus’ views. You do this by refusing to be locked in the sheer intricacies of the system and by asking basic, seemingly elementary, questions of it. This approach is seen to best advantage, or so it seems to me, in your latest book, Plotinus (Routledge, 2017),1 which is both an introduction to Plotinus and a ‘state of the question’ book. Would you comment on this particular aspect of your strategy in handling Plotinus’ text? How deliberate is it? Could it be a reflection of your analytical training in philosophy?

EKE: Well, I suppose this attitude and style of writing just reflects the way I naturally think: I do not have to make a decision to write in this way rather than some other way. I was trained more in the analytic tradition of philosophy than the continental one, and perhaps this background is to some extent reflected in my work. I do not, however, see myself as any sort of protagonist of analytic philosophy as such or an analytical approach to Plotinus or to historical figures in general. Actually, I find people in the continental tradition generally more open to the history of philosophy than their analytic colleagues who tend to see philosophy as an advancing discipline in which one can safely leave the figures of the past behind. They are wrong, of course. After my first book came out, the one on sense-perception, and I met for the first time with the European Plotinus scholars, I was told—and I think not necessarily as a compliment—that I approached Plotinus from the point of view of analytic philosophy. This had not occurred to me and I don’t think it is true. To come back to your question, I guess I am simply motivated by a wish to understand Plotinus’—or any philosopher’s—thought as providing a reasonable view on the world given some presuppositions one can reasonably attribute to the thinker in question. I try to reflect the understanding I come to in what I write.

SSG: Another characteristic of your exegetical style is to bring in later authors to the discussion of Plotinus’ views whenever these authors stand to shed light on aspects of Plotinus’ thought that would otherwise be likely to remain opaque to non-specialists and even to escape the attention of specialists not versed in later philosophical developments. Leaving aside the much-discussed and tired question as to whether it is appropriate to call Plotinus the first Cartesian, you have made use of thinkers as varied as Augustine, Kant, Anscombe and Sellars to reflect on Plotinus’ views on the nature of consciousness, the self-thinking of Intellect and the difficult issue of Plotinus’ putative idealism. So doing, you have contributed to bringing Plotinus into mainstream philosophical debates. Some would sense danger in your approach. Although your borrowings from, and allusions to, later philosophers are deft and low-key, they rely, as you yourself have admitted, on ‘fairly abstract reasoning that has taken place well above the texts’ (22007; 137). Does this way of handling your author put you at odds with those specialists who prefer to work ‘à ras du texte,’ some of whom may even deny the trans-historicity of philosophical problems? How would you respond to the charge of anachronism, if it were levelled at you?

EKE: I think I am more hesitant now to bring contemporary philosophers to bear than I was, e.g., in my perception dissertation and book. This may reflect my student days when I was more immersed in contemporary philosophy than I am now. I can see dangers in this approach which at its worst becomes an urge to have your historical hero see and possibly solve some intricate puzzles that occupy our contemporaries. So I have come to think that one must use contemporary stuff with extreme caution. But it can be enlightening. And I do think that comparisons between Plotinus and later philosophers, not ncessarily contemporary, can be fruitful.

SSG: Plotinian scholars are divided on the question as to whether one can be content to read the tractates in the Porphyrian Enneadic order or whether it is sounder to take them in the order in which they were written. The question is not as innocuous as it may seem since the choice of the Enneadic versus the chronological order presupposes that one has taken a position on the much larger and more controversial issue as to whether Plotinus’ thinking did evolve in the course of the seventeen years or so he spent on writing the texts that came down to us as the Enneads. What is your position on the issue, especially regarding the vexed question of his attitude to the Gnostics?

EKE: I do not think that the issue is as important as you make it sound. When I started working on the Enneads, it was more the custom in the literature to stick to the Enneadic order without even mentioning the chronological order. Mostly through sheer force of habit, I never changed my practice. Even in my latest book, the chronological sequence of the tractates is kept in the background and not made explicit consistently. I do mention quite often though whether a treatise is early or late. An additional reason for what may seem a reactionary position on my part is that I do not believe that Plotinus significantly changed his views.

SSG: What are you working on at the moment? Still on Plotinus?

EKE: There are some articles I hope to write. There are things which I came across when writing the Routledge book that I wish to pursue further, Plotinus’ view on evil, for instance, and his views on providence and freedom. I also would like to do work on ancient ethics more generally, Stoic ethical views on happiness in particular. But I cannot say that I have been particularly prolific since the work on the book was completed!

SSG: What do you think of the current state of Plotinian Studies? Are there any topics or facets of his philosophy and literary style that have not been addressed so far, but should be?

EKE: Plotinian studies are clearly flourishing at the present time as new translations, monographs and specialized articles are appearing in prestigious journals at an ever increasing rate. I have also noted a significant change in attitude: when I started, people in the “mainstream ancient philosophy” would often frown or, more often perhaps, politely change the subject, when I told them that I am working on Plotinus. This was perhaps more true in the English speaking world than elsewhere. But this has changed. Although this recent flurry of activity is much to be welcomed, much more work remains to be undertaken. Comparative studies linking Plotinus with later thinkers or indeed trends in the history of ideas and artistic movements are still few and far between, while studies of the influence that earlier Greek philosophers, from the Presocratics to the Middle Platonists, had on Plotinus are plentiful. Now that his thought is better known to the larger philosophical public and he is routinely counted amongst the ‘great philosophers,’ it would be appropriate to assess the influence he has exerted upon later, post-medieval, Western philosophers. I have myself dipped my toe in the water by writing on Leibniz’ reading of Plotinus (see Karfik and Song, 2013), but much more remains to be done. Ficino’s translation of Plotinus, for instance, undertaken in the late 1480s, was read extensively at the Renaissance beyond, and tractate I 6 [1] (On Beauty) is known to have influenced painters such as Michelangelo and Raphael. German aesthetics, developed in the eighteenth century by Baumgarten and Wincklemann, is also indebted to Plotinus, as is German idealism as a whole. Yet, with the exception of Beierwalters’ writings, we have precious few studies on that period. We need more detailed monographs on Plotinus’ influence upon early modern and contemporary thought. In that respect the work of R.-M. Mossé-Bastide, Bergson et Plotin, published by Vrin as long ago as 1959, remains a shockingly lone example of what still remains to be done in Plotinian studies. I believe it may also be fruitful to compare Plotinus systematically with the luminaries of the early modern period without necessarily thinking of his possible influence. Spinoza was a monist, we learn, but also a kind of parallelist with respect to mind and matter; Descartes was a dualist, Leibniz a pluralitst and perhaps a kind of idealist. Can we place Plotinus somewhere on such a scale perhaps by inventing a new category for him but one understandable in the same kind of terms?

To be reviewed in the next issue of the journal.

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An Interview with Professor E.K. Emilsson

in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition

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