Book review: Ennead iv.8: On the Descent of the Soul into Bodies, written by Plotinus

in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition

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Ennead iv.8: On the Descent of the Soul into Bodies. Translation with an Introduction and Commentary by Barrie Fleet. Parmenides. Las Vegas, Zurich and Athens, 2012. $37.00

Plotinus’ Enneads have known chequered fortunes in the last hundred and fifty years. Although excellent critical editions and in-depth studies of individual tractates have appeared in French and German, the philosophy of the Enneads has tended to suffer from prejudicial and adverse judgment on the part of analytically-minded Anglo-American philosophers. It is all the more encouraging therefore to note that, thanks to the efforts of British and North American classicists and philosophers prepared to swim against the current, the Enneads are at long last enjoying a revival of interest in the tradition that had so far spurned them. Of this revival, Barrie Fleet’s translation and commentary of Ennead iv.8 is a welcome sign. It is the first volume in a new series, directed by John Dillon and Andrew Smith, which aims at providing new translations and running commentaries of Plotinian tractates. Although the new collection will inevitably invite comparisons with its two recent French counterparts, the one started by Pierre Hadot in 1988 (‘Les Ecrits de Plotin’) and the other completed in record time by a team headed by Luc Brisson and Jean-François Pradeau (2002-2010), the signs are that the Dillon-Smith series will have no difficulty in rapidly securing its own corner of the market. Stemming from the two general editors’ conviction that ‘Plotinus has something to say to us today’, the new translations and commentaries, conceived as being primarily philosophical in content, will open up the Enneads to readers who approach Plotinus for the first time and whose main interest lies in the philosophical issues raised in the tractates. Furthermore, given the reluctance of most native speakers of English to engage with material written in languages other than their own, the new series will afford them the comfort of approaching a difficult author in their own tongue.

Tractate iv. 8 [6] was a good choice for the first volume. It opens with one of the most attention grabbing sentences in western philosophy (‘I often wake up from my body into my true self’), it is relatively clear and discursive, and it deals with a central issue in Platonism, namely the relationship between soul and body. With an audience of newcomers to Plotinus in mind, Fleet has wisely chosen to devote the bulk of his introduction to showing how the tractate as a whole relates to Plato’s diverse teachings on the nature of the soul, the manner of her descent into body, and the ideal of god-likeness which guides the virtuous soul’s ascent to the intelligible order. His sober translation serves Plotinus well; not drawing attention to itself, as McKenna’s does, and often more accurate than Armstrong’s, it enables the Greekless reader to follow the train of Plotinus’ thought with relative ease.

The detailed commentary that follows the translation is exegetical for the most part. Having divided each Plotinian chapter into sections corresponding to the articulations of the argument, Fleet points to the dialectic thrust of Plotinus’ thought, places his arguments and counter-arguments in their wider doctrinal context, traces their genealogy from the Presocratics onwards and points to their nachleben in diverse Neoplatonic commentaries, all the while making conscientious references to recent and not so recent secondary literature in English. All this is done with the clarity and attention to detail that are the hallmarks of his earlier commentary of Ennead iii 6 (Oxford: 1995). But if the exegetical aspect of the commentary will be of most interest to specialists of ancient thought, the needs of students and readers who approach Plotinus for the first time are not neglected: Fleet outlines with exemplary clarity how the views expressed in the tractate fit in the wider context of the Enneads as a whole and represent attempts on Plotinus’ part to deal, if not to resolve, some of the difficulties in Plato’s philosophy.

Prospective readers of this volume, however, must be warned not to expect from it more than it actually delivers. Given the length of the volume (209 pages in all, including bibliography and indices as well as the two main editors’ general introduction to the series), it was inevitable that Fleet would have to be ruthless in his selection of what to include in the commentary and what to leave out. Rather surprisingly, in view of the two series editors’ stated conviction that ‘Plotinus has something to say to us today’, Fleet has included little in the volume that could be made grist to a philosophical mill. While the Platonic antecedents of the views outlined in the tractate are conscientiously and meticulously drawn to the reader’s attention, the philosophical issues raised in it are either ignored altogether or given only the briefest of mentions. Philosophical opportunities are missed. They include a discussion of the ethical significance of the tractate. In view of current debates over the nature of Plotinus’s ethics, one would have expected Fleet to draw the reader’s attention to the possible ethical implications of such statements as ‘. . . not all providential care taken over an inferior stops the carer from remaining in the best possible state’ (2. 25-26). Can this remark be taken to mean that Plotinus holds that it behoves incarnate human souls to concern themselves with the wellbeing of the cosmos as a whole, including that of other, weaker, souls? And if such is Plotinus’ view, how can it be reconciled with the advice he repeatedly gives elsewhere to ‘keep the soul’s power of apprehension pure and ready to hear the voices from on high’ (v 1 [10] 12. 18-20)? Another example of F’s reluctance to engage philosophically with the tractate is his account of descent of the soul, a descent that Plotinus describes as both necessary and voluntary. In view of the protracted scholarly debates generated by this paradoxical claim, one would have expected F to contribute to the debate instead of remaining on the fence, merely recording the main lines of interpretation.

It may be that greater familiarity with the writings of German and French Neoplatonic scholars—Beierwaltes, Halfwassen, Tornau, Bréhier, Hadot, Brisson et al.—would have usefully enlarged his philosophical frame of reference. This is especially true of the volumes in the Brisson-Pradeau edition, which are both readily available and very modestly priced, a quality that is unfortunately reflected in the poor quality of the binding. The volumes published under the Parmenides imprint, being dearer, would warrant a better, more durable, physical presence. Unfortunately, if the paperback copy received by this reviewer is anything to go by, it shares with its French counterpart a tendency to fall to pieces, with badly glued pages dispersing themselves on desk and floor before having to be put back by hand in the volume. F’s description of the care that individual incarnate human souls need to exercise in order to preserve their integrity might well be taken to apply to the printed version of his commentary, whose component pages have to be ‘constantly controlled to preserve their compound nature and avoid disintegration into separate elements’ (p. 100)

With the exception of the few titles in French mentioned in the bibliography, the volume is generally devoid of typos and other blemishes. David Sedley’s Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity came out in 2007, not in 2004, as stated on p. 197.

In spite of the reservations expressed above, the volume is a useful addition to secondary literature on the Enneads.

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Book review: Ennead iv.8: On the Descent of the Soul into Bodies, written by Plotinus

in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition

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