Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice
by stephen r. l. clark
university of chicago, 336 pages, $55
Probably nothing makes the philosophical texts of antiquity more remote from us in sensibility, or places a more imposing obstacle between the modern scholar and ancient thought, than our prejudice that the task of a philosopher is to produce a system of ideas—or, at any rate, a collection of ideas—of the sort that might best be expressed as discrete propositions (or even, more chastely, as symbolic algorithms). In this view, metaphors are useful to the philosopher solely as means of illustrating concepts, but whatever pictorial functions they serve might be discharged just as well by entirely different images. In the end, we tend to assume, the form of any philosophical exposition is secondary to its content, and largely dispensable if a more economical form is available.
And this is true not only of the propositional calculus of Anglophone analytic philosophy, but of the whole grand modern Continental tradition as well. Descartes’s prose was limpid and dry, Kant’s architectonically austere, Hegel’s generally ponderous, Schopenhauer’s almost as brilliant and nimble as Heine’s, Heidegger’s an oracular rhapsody, Derrida’s an exercise in cloaking simple arguments in obnoxious rhetoric—and so on. Yet in every case, summary is not only possible, but in a sense the highest tribute. To understand a philosopher, we assume, is to have stripped his thought of the accidents and idiosyncrasies of personal style. Thus the philosophical texts of Greek antiquity that most nearly approximate the modern ideal are Aristotle’s; but this is precisely because they are not really his texts at all, but little more than edited lecture transcripts.
It is possible, however, to conceive of the writing of philosophy very differently. In many ages and many cultures, the life of reason has been understood as a contemplative discipline, as learning how to see things in a certain way; and for the philosopher writing in that vein, images are not necessarily mere placeholders for concepts. If philosophy in antiquity was understood firstly “as a way of life” (as Pierre Hadot says), then its figural embroideries and flights of fancy and imaginative excursions might often have been not only illustrative or ornamental indulgences on the part of the author, but absolutely essential steps toward understanding—or, better, seeing—the truth of things. And if certain ancient philosophers regarded their discourses not only as investigations of concepts, but as initiations into a more elevated order of vision, then many of what modern readers are disposed to treat as incidental allegories or fetching analogies might better be understood as spiritual exercises, disciplines of the mind and will, which in being practiced—and only in being practiced—permit the reader to make tentative approaches to a central mystery, a reality veiled from all who have not yet achieved a certain state of soul.
Certainly this is how Stephen R. L. Clark approaches the texts of Plotinus (204–270 a.d.), the father of what we now call “Neoplatonism.” In doing so, he advances a reading of the Enneads (the collection of Plotinus’s treatises compiled and edited by his student Porphyry) that goes a great way toward dispelling the perplexity so often occasioned by the texts’ eccentric imagery and elaborate metaphors; and, moreover, he produces a picture of Plotinus’s intellectual and spiritual world that is not only strikingly attractive and convincing, but in many respects quite unlike the conventional pictures of Neoplatonism that recur with dreary predictability in countless works of philosophy, theology, and intellectual history.
This is no mean or marginal accomplishment. Plotinus is a figure of epochal significance in the evolution of Western thought in the Christian era. Arguably no thinker of late antiquity was more consequential for the later development of both pagan and Christian metaphysics (and Muslim metaphysics as well). And yet he is, in many ways, perhaps the most frequently caricatured thinker of the tradition that he inaugurated. At least, it is common to see him described as a theorist of almost dualistic hostility to the life of the body and the senses, and hence to the whole natural order, interested only in the escape of some pure particle of spirit from the trammels of matter—the journey of the alone to the alone, the self’s final disappearance in the One “like a drop of water in the sea.” Often as not, he is treated as a Western representative of the severest kind of advaita Vedanta (at least, as Western scholars typically imagine that tradition). In many Christian theological texts, Plotinus appears as the epitome of all the unworldly longings and crypto-Gnostic etherealities and spiritual individualisms that Christianity’s more robust understanding of creation and community forbid. (In my misspent youth, I was occasionally guilty of this myself, even though I knew better.)
Clark’s book is a wonderful corrective to this cartoon of a thinker of exquisite subtlety, one who cultivated a deep appreciation of the beauty of being in all its manifestations, from the most exalted heights of the transcendent One all the way down to the teeming variety of living nature. True, like all Platonists—but also, frankly, like all religious thinkers—Plotinus believed in a hierarchy of reality, one in which the world we know occupies the lowest place this side of the nothingness of unformed matter; he saw pain, mortality, ignorance, the imprisonment of every soul in its isolation from others, and all the rest of our worldly afflictions as the effects of an alienation, a “fallenness,” the loss of our true estate. But he certainly did not believe that the ascent out of the darkness of our despoiled condition consists merely in a progressive shedding of the vitality and diversity and concreteness of embodied life in pursuit of some ultimate abstraction.
Rather, he understood the ascent to Nous, Intellect, as a rising toward a fullness of reality, compared to which the impressions available to our limited senses are only thin shadows. It is the phenomenal world of fallen vision that consists in abstractions, fragmentary signs of a truth that in its proper essence is immeasurably richer and more lively than the lonely separateness of sensory existence can begin to grasp. The world of Nous toward which the philosopher strives is, according to Plotinus, a realm of communion, overflowing with life in endless variety, one that—to take a particularly lovely image from Enneads VI.vii.15—“might be likened to a living sphere, abounding in diversity, a sphere of faces, shining with faces that are entirely alive, a unity of souls, all the pure souls, not deficient but rather perfect, with Nous enthroned over the whole so that the entire realm is radiant with intellectual splendor.” Moreover, the ascent to that reality must be built upon the foundation of the senses; it is an ascent from the remote images of truth of which the individual embodied mind in its separateness is capable, up to those glories that Mind in its divine fullness immediately comprehends.
Hence the ingenuity of Clark’s concentration upon the “Plotinian imaginary.” If we read Plotinus’s often confusing or impenetrable metaphors and imaginative exercises as forms of mental and spiritual discipline, they begin to look like strategies by which the philosopher might rise above simple dialectic and acquire a more direct intuition of the truths he seeks. And sometimes this amounts to no more than being willing to pay attention to Plotinus’s imagery in precisely the way he invites his readers to do. For instance, in one famous passage in the Enneads, Plotinus instructs the reader to form a mental picture of the universe in which all the terrestrial and celestial parts—while retaining their distinctness—constitute a unity like the surface of a transparent globe. He then tells the reader to contemplate this gleaming globe for a time, and then to abstract from it a sphere devoid of magnitude and spatial extension; and then, having done this, to call on God—as the creator of this sphere—and to implore him to enter into it, bringing with him his whole universe, and all the gods dwelling therein; and then to imagine all these latter as blending into the unity of the one God, and yet distinct like the facets of God’s single power, and . . . (and on it goes).
Now, it makes all the difference in the world whether one understands Plotinus here to be saying something like “The idea I am trying to communicate might best be depicted as a sphere . . .” or whether instead one understands him to be saying “Become still, form this image in your mind, then slowly proceed step by step in the manner I shall lay out, until you see something that the senses cannot see.” Writes Clark, “What was aimed at was real assent, not merely a notional one. It was not enough, as it were, to ‘know the way to Larisa’ and be able to repeat the directions: what mattered was getting to Larisa.”
Hence much of Clark’s text is a slow, scrupulous survey of Plotinus’s metaphors and figures of speech: images of drunkenness and sobriety, nakedness, dancing, forgetfulness and recollection, mirrors, shadows, “becoming Love,” and so forth. It is also, however, a long, careful consideration of the delicate matter of telling, from our modern vantage, precisely where the demarcation between the metaphorical and the literal ought to be drawn. And thus the book provides numerous illuminating treatments of aspects of Plotinus’s intellectual, religious, and cultural world that are vital to understanding the language he uses and the images he employs: the relation, say, in a temple between the statuary of the forecourt and the inner sanctuary; practices of summoning daemons; charms and apotropaisms; beliefs regarding the spiritual intelligence of the fixed stars and planets, and so on.
And, while Clark is careful not to assume or suggest that Plotinus was a literalist about all these things, neither, commendably, does he try to convert Plotinus into the kind of rationalist that modern scholars might be better disposed to view as respectable. He certainly does not feel (as, say, the eminent Plotinus scholar A. H. Armstrong often seemed to do) a need to rescue Plotinus from the embarrassment of being an ancient man; nor, in fact, does he fall prey to the parochial prejudice of imagining that ancient views of reality, simply because they seem somewhat outlandish to us now, are obviously logically inferior to our own. It is only at the end of this odyssey through the world of Plotinus’s “imaginary” that the book finally arrives at a treatment of the metaphysical “system”: the hierarchy of the three divine hypostases—the One, Nous, and Psyche—and the world of nature.
Clark’s is a book that needs to be read to be understood, since in its own way it as much exemplifies as describes the kind of imaginative pedagogy Clark finds in the Enneads, and the experience of following his expositions of Plotinus’s images is something of a philosophical hygiene in its own right. I will add only that, to my mind, there could be no better guide to Plotinus’s thought than Clark. He is perhaps—at least, I think he is—one of the world’s finest philosophers. Over the past four decades, he has gone about quietly producing some of the most luminous, original, intellectually capacious philosophical essays written in English—and in very admirable English at that. Some of them (“Could Consciousness Evolve?,” for instance, and “How to Believe in Fairies”) are masterpieces of subversive clarity, which often force the reflective reader to retreat, however reluctantly, from all his most settled intellectual prejudices. Broadly speaking, Clark could be called a Christian Platonist, but his range of reading and sympathies extends beyond any single category or school. He is one of the few Anglophone philosophers today who has a genuine knowledge of and respect for Asian traditions. (He has also, incidentally, done the best philosophical work yet on the moral status of animals.)
None of this by itself, of course, guarantees that he would be the best person to write a book like this. One gifted philosopher writing about another is not always a happy arrangement. As often as not, rather than a blissful marriage of minds, the whole exercise becomes one philosopher’s violent misappropriation of another’s project, or a contest of wills conducted all from one side. But here all forces conduce to the good. Clark’s classical education, his intellectual generosity, and the literary cast of his mind—splendidly exhibited in the variety and appropriateness of the book’s numerous citations and allusions—make him an ideal reader of Plotinus and of the late antique world as a whole, genuinely concerned to learn from the past. The book is a delight to read—as well as one very persuasive model of how intellectual history should be written.
David Bentley Hart is a fellow of the Notre Dame Institute of Advanced Study. His most recent book is A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?