Plotinus. Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice, written by Stephen R.L. Clark

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Stephen R.L. Clark, Plotinus. Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. xxi + 344. ISBN 9780226339672.

This book deals with various aspects of Plotinus’ philosophy, and emphasizes the protreptic and pedagogic character of his writings. It begins with an introductory section laying down some methodological principles, including a few remarks on metaphor in general and on Plotinus’ conception of dialectic (Part I Prolegomena, pp. 1-42). There follows an analysis of the function and meaning of several metaphors and images to be found throughout the Enneads (Part II Metaphorically Speaking, pp. 43-145; we will go into this later). Next comes a historical and philosophical discussion of some aspects of Plotinus’ worldview, namely his attitude towards myths, spheres and circles, magic charms, invocations of demons and gods, statues of gods and virtues, heavenly bodies, and the metaphor of waking up (Part III The Plotinian Imaginary, pp. 147-230). The subsequent section contains a psychological and phenomenological interpretation of Plotinus’ metaphysical principles—not only the One, nous and soul, but also nature and matter (Part IV Understanding the Hypostases, pp. 231-278). The final chapter asks what way of life could sensibly be prescribed to present-day readers in accordance with the principles of Plotinus’ philosophy (Part V The Plotinian Way, pp. 279-298).

As is said in the Preface (p. ix), the idea for this book originated in 2002 with a research project on Plotinus’ use of metaphor. Clark has since co-edited two collections of essays1 and authored a number of studies2 which served as a preparation for this book. Recent scholarship is properly discussed. The bibliography is rich and covers an impressively wide spectrum of subjects. However, earlier scholarship on images, metaphors, and myths in the Enneads, such as the valuable works of Vincenzo Cilento3 and Rein Ferwerda,4 remains necessary for the study of these topics.

Clark agrees with Pierre Hadot’s contention that Plotinus’ writings are to be conceived of as “spiritual exercises”5 aimed at changing the life of the reader, rather than as a collection of theoretical arguments supporting a doctrinal system. This view is taken to imply that a genuine understanding of Plotinus’ oeuvre requires us not only to place it in its historical context and analyse its arguments, but also to be willing to follow its instructions and advice (cf. pp. ix, 20). Clark shares Sara Rappe’s view that the pedagogical or psychagogical function, though common to all of Plotinus’ writings, is especially proper to their non-argumentative sections, i.e. “the symbols, ritual formulae, myths, and images”.6 He also agrees with Gregory Shaw’s closely related view that the mathematical images used in the Enneads are meant for a “theurgic” use.7 Both philosophical arguments and metaphorical images aim to bring about a change in the readers’ soul. However, philosophical arguments appeal to the readers’ rationality, whereas metaphorical images require them actively to use their imagination while following a set of instructions given in the text.8 Two important consequences of this are spelled out in the book. First, Clark emphasizes that Plotinus’ images and metaphors deserve to be studied in their own right, as forming a set of spiritual exercises, and should not be downplayed or dismissed as merely performing an ornamental or explanatory function with respect to the argumentative sections. Second, he reminds his readers that Plotinus’ philosophy, as a way of life, has to do not only with strictly rational practices such as dialectic or philosophical discourse, but also with a broader set of spiritual practices revolving around the role of active imagination.

Clark’s chosen method of interpretation might be described as working on three distinct levels. (1) On a basic level, he quotes passages from the Enneads and situates them in their historical context by comparing them with other texts representative either of the earlier philosophical tradition or of the broader cultural milieu of the Roman imperial age. (2) On a higher level, Clark offers some speculations about Plotinus’ intentions, beliefs, and habits which cannot be entirely justified by referring to the extant sources. For example, he often asks whether Plotinus performed specific rituals or spiritual exercises, such as dancing or sungazing, which he seems to refer to in his writings. Though historically unanswerable, such questions are a powerful reminder that Plotinus’ philosophy, for all its intellectual clarity, is not in principle incompatible with the appreciation of non-strictly rational practices. (3) On a still higher level, Clark makes a case for the therapeutic validity and usefulness of these practices, regardless of whether Plotinus had an opinion about them. Numerous texts are adduced from a wide variety of traditions, ranging from eastern religious writings to English metaphysical poetry, and including Christian sources.

Clark’s readiness to go beyond the scholarly exegesis of the texts, which is expressly advocated and duly justified in the Preface (pp. xii-xv), is balanced by his keeping the first level of his interpretative method sharply distinct from the other two. Reading Clark’s book, one is impressed by his deep respect both for the original meaning of the texts (even when they serve as a starting point for his own philosophical elaboration), and for earlier Plotinus scholars (even when he takes issue with such interpreters as Eric R. Dodds or Arthur H. Armstrong, who downplayed the role of non-rational elements in Plotinus’ philosophy). In Clark’s view, Plotinus’ claims about the sensible world should be interpreted in a phenomenological rather than a realist way, i.e. they should be taken to refer to the world of experience rather than to the physical world. In addition, he suggests that the hypostases should be regarded as psychological realities rather than as metaphysical principles (pp. 16, 231). Nevertheless, he is quite clear that such an interpretation need not fully correspond to Plotinus’ real intention—and the metaphysical import of Plotinus’ doctrines is never questioned. Unexperienced readers might perhaps be baffled by some passages in Part IV, where direct textual exegesis is lacking, and philosophical interpretation prevails. For example, on pp. 234 and 236f., where extension is described as an aspect of “bare matter”, it could have been useful to point out that Plotinus considers extension as a feature not of matter, but of corporeality, which he sharply distinguishes from matter.

Classical scholars will find the detailed discussion of images and metaphors in Part II particularly interesting. Clark traces the comparison of the soul with a priest having to strip off his garments and go up naked into the shrine (I 6 [1], 7.4-9) back to its source in Philo of Alexandria, Leg. 2, 56, and shows that it lacks any literal foundation in such historical rites as Plotinus could possibly have known (pp. 46, 50-53). The frequent metaphor of erotic love to describe the soul’s striving towards and union with its principle is contrasted with Plotinus’ view of bodily love as a distraction and of sexual intercourse as a mistake (pp. 65-69, 77-80). The myth about someone who tried to catch their own reflection and disappeared into a stream (I 6 [1], 8.11-12), as well as the reference to the mirror of Dionysus (IV 3 [27], 12.2), are presented as reversing the literary motif whereby seeing one’s own reflection in a mirror leads to self-recognition and awareness (pp. 87f.). The use of drunkenness as a metaphor for a state superior to intellectual knowledge (VI 7 [38], 35.20-8) is aptly compared with Philo’s views in his De ebrietate and elsewhere (pp. 92-97). The dance metaphor (VI 9 [9], 8.38-45; IV 4 [28], 33.12-9; VI 1 [42], 27.20; III 2 [47], 16.23-7; and passim) is set against the background of what information about dancing in the imperial age we can gather from the De saltatione of Lucian of Samosata and the Reply to Aristides on Behalf of the Dancers of Libanius of Antioch (pp. 106, 110f.). The meaning of harmonia in III 2 [47], 16.39-40 is clarified through reference to recent scholarship on ancient Greek music theory (pp. 107f.). The significance of Plotinus’ view of memory is emphasized by an appropriate parallel with ancient mnemonics (pp. 121-125). The image of the soul having to “stand up against the blows of fortune like a great trained fighter” (I 4 [46], 8.25), in Armstrong’s translation, or “like a great athlete”, as Clark prefers, is historically contextualised by reference to both the cult of Heracles and the commonplace view that athletes make bad soldiers (pp. 139-143). Putting quite a few passages to good use, Clark shows that Plotinus’ metaphors, myths, and images reverse the value judgments and opinions of the cultivated people of his day about such topics as nakedness, erotic love, drunkenness, dancing, and athleticism.

This discussion has been brief and schematic. It will be clear, however, that this is an important and original book, both for its approach to Plotinus’ thought and for its way of reading the Enneads. At the same time, it will certainly raise debates and controversies, due to its method and its results. In any case, it should definitely be taken into account and carefully discussed in future works on Neoplatonism.


P. Vassilopoulou and S.R.L. Clark (eds.), Late Antique Epistemology: Other Ways to Truth, Basingstoke, UK, Palgrave Macmillan 2009; M. Chase, S.R.L. Clark, and M. McGhee (eds.), Philosophy as a Way of Life, New York, Wiley-Blackwell 2013.


Listed on pp. xix-xx.


V. Cilento, “Mito e poesia nelle Enneadi di Plotino”, in Les Sources de Plotin. Dix exposés et discussions (Entretiens sur l’Antiquité classique, V), Fondation Hardt, Vandoeuvres-Genève 1960, pp. 245-310.


R. Ferwerda, La signification des images et des métaphores dans la pensée de Plotin, Groningen, J.B. Wolters 1965.


Cf. P. Hadot, Plotinus; or, the Simplicity of Vision. Translated by Michael Chase, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press 2002, p. 22, cited on p. x.


Cf. S. Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2000, p. 3, cited by Clark on pp. x-xi.


Cf. G. Shaw, “Eros and arithmos: Pythagorean Theurgy in Iamblichus and Plotinus”, Ancient Philosophy 19, 1999, pp. 121-143, cited on p. x.


The exemplary case of an image fitting this description can be found in V 8 [31], 9 (quoted on p. 180). See John M. Dillon, “Plotinus and the Transcendental Imagination”, in J.P. Mackey (ed.), Religious Imagination, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press 1986, pp. 55-64, in part. pp. 58-9; and S. Rappe, “Metaphor in Plotinus’ Enneads v 8.9”, Ancient Philosophy 15, 1995, pp. 155-170, both referred to by Clark.

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