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Interview with Professor John M. Dillon

In: The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition
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John Dillon, who belongs to the elite of scholars to have been honoured by two Festschriften,1 has had the kind of career that most aspiring academics of today can only dream of. An Irishman largely educated in England, he took two gap years after graduation. He spent the first one in Ethiopia, where his father’s cousin, Sir Charles Mathew, was legal advisor to the Emperor Haile Selassie; there he taught Greek and Latin in a school run under the aegis of the British Council and enjoyed a life of colonial ease, interacting happily with the then thriving international community. His time in Africa became the subject of his one and only novel so far, The Scent of Eucalyptus. An Ethiopian Tale (2006). Returned to Ireland, he briefly studied for the Bar before realising that his vocation lay elsewhere, got married and took another gap year, again teaching Classics in a school, this time in Limerick, before deciding to pursue research with a view to an academic career. Largely through the good offices of John O’Meara, with whom he had started work on Calcidius’ commentary on the Timaeus, he obtained a generous scholarship from the University of California at Berkeley to embark on a doctoral dissertation on the fragments of Iamblichus’ commentaries on a number of Platonic dialogues, most notably the Timaeus. This became the basis of his first book, Iamblichi Chalcidensis in Platonis dialogos commentariorum fragmenta (1973). Upon successful completion of his doctorate in 1969, he was invited to join the Faculty at Berkeley and, for a number of years, taught various courses on Greek literature and philosophy. In 1980, he successfully applied for the Regius Chair of Greek at Trinity College, Dublin. Reluctant to let him go, the then Dean of Humanities at Berkeley offered him a hefty rise in salary. But money and a relatively low teaching load could not tempt John to remain away from his native Ireland any longer. As he replied to the Dean, “I am taking a salary cut of one third and an increase in teaching load of one third. You cannot match that.” Even a sun-drenched life of ease on one of the most famous campuses in the U.S. would no longer keep John away from home.

SSG: How did you come to Plotinus?

JMD: Ever since reading Stephen MacKenna’s translation of the Enneads in my teenage years, I felt drawn to Plotinus. During my undergraduate years at Oxford I formed the project of integrating a “special subject” course on Plotinus into my Greats curriculum, but I was discouraged from the idea by both Peter Brunt, my moral tutor, and Eric Dodds, who had retired by then and knew that there would be no supervisory support available. Both diplomatically pointed out to me that the heavy requirements of a “special subject” in Greats as well as my lack of background in specialised knowledge made it unwise for me to delve into the intricacies of the Enneads at that time. Although I took their advice, I did not lose my interest in Plotinus. Dodds, I am happy to say, later encouraged me to work on Plotinus. So, I did, and in fact my first published article was a study of Ennead III 5 for our short-lived graduate student journal in Berkeley, AGON in 19692 —which proved a much more demanding job than I had anticipated when I agreed to do it! But, in the following years, Plotinus was [again] put on the back burner since, through a series of happy accidents, whatever leisure I had after becoming Chair of the Department, was taken up with what became a largish book on The Middle Platonists (Cornell, 1977, 2nd ed. 1996). This was followed by further works on other notable figures of the period of transition between the Old Academy and the new phase of Platonism associated with Plotinus. I did a translation and commentary of Alcinous’ Handbook of Platonism and worked on Philo of Alexandria—if, that is, he can be counted as a Middle Platonist—and Plutarch. Later came works on the direct heirs of Plato, the Old Academy, Speusippus, Xenocrates and Polemon.

Pressure on my time grew worse after I returned to Ireland: an increased teaching load was added to the need to devise an entirely new curriculum in ancient philosophy. As a result, Plotinus had to remain on the back burner for a while longer.

SSG: You are on record writing that in doing research on various Middle Platonists you had come to understand that in order “to appreciate adequately a philosophical tradition such as Platonism, one must pay due attention to the (relatively) minor figures in the tradition, not just the big stars, as it is with them that the small changes and modifications and systematizations occur that enable larger developments to take place.”3 This strikes me as a profound judgment on the way to proceed when writing on past philosophers who belong to long-evolving traditions. Would you care to elaborate?

JMD: Well, yes. I mean, if we think of such second-century philosophers as Atticus, or Numenius, or Severus, or “Alcinous,” they didn’t know they were minor figures. They probably thought they were quite important! And they reformulated Platonism in various ways, which helped to prepare the way for Plotinus—though they would not thank you for putting things that way. He took serious account of them, anyhow, even if only to take opposed positions to them. For one thing, Plotinus’ monism seems to me a significant reaction to the dualism of much of second-century Platonism, particularly that of Numenius, but also Plutarch. Also, I think the idea of a first principle above Intellect may be stimulated by Numenius’ First God, who is an Intellect “at rest.” Now what, Plotinus might have asked, is the point of an intellect at rest? If you’re an intellect at all, you should be in (intellectual) motion. So Numenius’ First God is not really an Intellect at all. And then there’s the question of the relation of the Forms to Intellect, provoked by Atticus, and later Longinus. So everyone has their bit to contribute.

SSG: You have experience of teaching both Classics and Philosophy undergraduates. Are there significant differences between them other than that the ones have (some) knowledge of Greek while the others generally have none? Do budding philosophers, for instance, tend to be impervious to the historical dimensions of the text? Has the analytic tradition made them even more so? Are they beholden to current theories on the mind (or soul)-body problem, for instance, while their Classics colleagues are inclined to treat the philosophical import of the text as an optional extra to the philological and exegetical problems that it raises?

JMD: Yes, it seems to me an abiding problem in the area of Ancient Philosophy that neither of the two classes of person who aspire to study it are likely to be well prepared to do so. At least it was a positive feature of “Greats” at Oxford—in former times, at least—that we, as Classicists, were introduced to a fair degree of modern philosophy (everything except Symbolic Logic, in fact—we were spared that!) as part of the overall mix. Philosophy students had no comparable chance to learn Greek, or to study ancient society in general, nor do they now—and an analytically-trained frame of mind is hardly a good preparation for Neoplatonism. Conversely, other Classics programmes of my acquaintance do not give aspiring students of ancient philosophy much chance to engage with modern philosophy, or to formulate ancient problems in modern terms. So there is inevitably something of a chasm between the two disciplines.

I have always found, though, that a seminar on Plotinus goes down surprisingly well in Philosophy departments. When asked to give one to our own Philosophy third-year students, I would always begin (in order to focus their attention!) by announcing, “Now I realise that my good friend Professor Lyons (the then Chairman, William Lyons, was a disciple of Gilbert Ryle) does not believe in the mind. I am here to tell you that I don’t believe in the body.” And we would carry on from there. A major problem, I think, though, for philosophy students, apart from not knowing the languages very well, if at all, is ignorance of the history and culture which forms the background to the philosophy. But I would not wish to sound too negative. We all get along pretty well in the Trinity Plato Centre!

SSG: The issue of a possible influence of the Gnostics upon Plotinus’ writings at some point(s) of his writing life (or possibly throughout it) is currently dividing the world of Plotinian scholarship. How do you stand on the issue?

JMD: Well, I am not inclined to suspect a Gnostic to be lurking under every bed, I must say, but I would concede that engagement with Gnostically-minded persons, both in and out of the seminar, was something that Plotinus had to reckon with, and which he discerned as a threat to rational discourse—and I doubt that he distinguished very clearly between them and what we might think of as “orthodox” Christians. They are just an aspect, though, of the background of metaphysical dualism in the previous century or so from which he is concerned to emancipate himself. But I am inclined to think that even the three other segments of the so-called “anti-Gnostic Großschrift” are not much concerned with combating Gnosticism, and it needs considerable ingenuity to discern them elsewhere.

SSG: Another issue discussed in Plotinian circles is whether one can be content to read the tractates in the Porphyrian/Enneadic order or whether it is sounder to take them in the chronological order of composition. 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 that he spent writing the texts that came down to us as the Enneads. The translations and commentaries of the Enneads that you are currently editing with Andrew Smith follow the Enneadic order. Was the decision motivated exclusively by your view that Plotinus’ writings show no significant doctrinal evolution?

JMD: Yes, Andrew and I felt on the whole that, in the case of a man who only began to set his thoughts down in writing at around the age of 50, not much development in philosophical positions need be postulated. And indeed all I would tentatively discern is some refinements of terminology in certain areas—certainly not major doctrinal developments. What one does need to bear in mind, of course, is the contiguity of certain treatises that Porphyry places far apart, such as the four components of the Großschrift, since sequences of thought and subject-matter can be observed and are important—but one can bear that in mind, I think, while sticking to the thematic order of Porphyry who, in any case, has given us clues to enable us to check his editorial judgment. So we decided not to follow the French on this!

SSG: Plotinus’ reputation as a mystic has cast a long shadow on his philosophy. Perhaps, for this reason, some scholars have recently argued that he was not really a mystic. Is this going too far the other way? How, if at all, would you characterise his so-called mysticism?

JMD: To cast Plotinus as a mystic, as was been prevalent for a very long time, is to do him a disservice in a philosophical context still dominated by the analytic tradition. Furthermore, for many, “mystic” conjures up beliefs and attitudes associated with Christian sacramental theology, Sufism and Indian mysticism such as that of Ramakrishna. Plotinus’ mysticism, which I would recognise as genuine mysticism, is driven by the desire to comprehend the structure of the cosmos as a whole, and in particular to give a rational account of his personal experiences of union with the realm of Intellect—and even, on rare but plainly very memorable occasions, of the One. It is a little unnerving, indeed, to be faced with a man who has plainly “been There”, so to speak, but one must grant that he is making a valiant effort to formulate his experiences in rational terms.

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? Any advice for young scholars entering the field?

JMD: It seems to me that Plotinian studies are in a very lively state at present, and that really makes it a little discouraging for young scholars trying to find a new angle for a thesis. I actually think that the most rewarding line to pursue at the moment is the detailed commentary on an individual tractate, teasing out Plotinus’ thought-processes in a given context—and indeed we have engaged a number of young scholars, along with a fine line-up of distinguished authorities, to produce such commentaries in our series, on tractates which they have worked on for their theses.

SSG: What are you working on at the moment? Any plans for the near future?

JMD: Well, I think I am actually getting a bit past it! Much of my time at the moment is spent being a general editor of our Plotinus series. My three current chief undertakings are (1) a translation and commentary, with Ellen Birnbaum, of Philo’s Life of Abraham, for the SBL Philo series; (2) a little book, arising from my recent (October 2016) set of lectures in Beijing, entitled The Roots of Platonism, concerning the question of the stages by which Plato’s originally rather open-ended philosophizing gradually became a system, to be published by CUP; and (3) a translation, with commentary, of Iamblichus’ De Communi Mathematica Scientia, with Sebastian Gertz (who did Enn. II 9 for our Plotinus series), for Richard Sorabji’s Ancient Commentaries on Aristotle series. But after that, I think I will pack it in!

1

The first was edited by the late John Cleary in 1999 under the title Traditions of Platonism: Essays in Honour of John Dillon. London: Ashgate. The second Festschrift was edited in 2017 by J.F. Finamore and S. Klitenic Wear under the title Defining Platonism: Essays in Honor of the 75th Birthday of John M. Dillon. Steubenville: Franciscan University Press. It is reviewed above, pp. 193-195, by José Baracat Jr.

2

Ennead III 5: Plotinus’ Exegesis of the Symposium Myth”, AGON III, pp. 24-44.

3

Dillon in Finamore and Klitenic Wear: XVI.

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