Friday, July 23, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Jean-François Pradeau, Luc Brisson (ed.), Plotin. Traités 45-50. GF 1401. Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 2009. Pp. 515. ISBN 9782081223288. €15.30 (pb).
Reviewed by Wilson H. Shearin, Stanford University

This volume is the eighth in an ongoing nine-volume series that provides a complete, up-to-date French Plotinus.1 Covering some of the richest treatises in the Plotinian corpus —— including "On Eternity and Time" (45), "On Happiness" (46), and "On Love" (50) — it offers many of the features of a commentary, with introductions to each treatise, outlines of main arguments, and ample notes. While the translations stem from a variety of hands — a fact that results in some unevenness in treatment — they are well done and should command an audience beyond the francophone world.2

Unlike many ancient authors, Plotinus did not have a true critical text until recent times. The final volume of Paul Henry and Hans-Rudolf Schwyzer's editio maior was first published in 1973, and their Oxford Classical Text (the so-called editio minor), which serves as the basis for the present translation, appeared only in 1982. The translations here, with their surer textual foundation, thus possess a clear advantage over ÉÉmile Brééhier's older Budé renderings, the previous complete French Plotinus.3 They should also be an immediate resource for students and scholars who primarily work and write in other languages. Anglophones, for example, will find much here that is not available in complete English renderings of Plotinus. The number of new studies and recent commentaries taken into account for this volume make it more attractive as a scholarly tool than the standard English versions of Stephen MacKenna or A. Hilary Armstrong, even if it is not a replacement for those works.4

The general character of the volume (and the series as a whole) is that of an interpretive translation; that is, it presents each Plotinian treatise in clear, cogent French but also, it is worth noting, French that is occasionally clearer or more elaborate than Plotinus's original Greek.5 This character is not a fault — in most instances, it helpfully makes difficult ideas more accessible — but it does shape the experience of reading the volume. Consider, for example, the following passage, drawn from the fifteenth chapter of "On the Knowing Hypostases and the Beyond," in two recent French renderings:

...mais, le multiple, comment? Ne faut-il pas dire que ce qui procède de lui ne devait pas être la même chose que lui? Si donc il n'est pas la même chose, il n'est bien sûr pas meilleur non plus: qu'y aurait-il de meilleur que l'Un ou, pour tout dire, au-delà de lui? Il est donc moins bon; c'est-à-dire plus déficient. Qu'y a-t-il donc de plus déficient à l'égard de l'Un? le non-un; le multiple, donc; cependant il désire l'Un; il est donc un-multiple.6

...mais comment la multiplicité pourrait-elle venir de lui?
— Parce que ce qui vient de lui ne devait pas être identique à lui. S'il n'est pas identique, il ne saurait être meilleur non plus, car qu'est-ce qui pourrait être meilleur que l'Un, ou entièrement au-delà de lui? Il est alors inférieur à lui, c'est-à-dire déficient.
— Qu'est-ce donc ce qui a le plus besoin de l'Un?
— Ce qui n'est pas un bien évidemment, et qui donc est multiple, mais qui aspire cependant à l'unité, car il est 'un-plusieurs'.

This selection describes the "apories de la procession," that is, the paradoxical questioning through which Plotinus speaks of what proceeds from his ultimate, ineffable principle, the One.7 It shows the beautifully anguished reasoning typical of Plotinus's writing about the One. The first version, from the hand of Bertrand Ham, renders Plotinus's Greek in more literal, if also in some ways choppier, French; the second, from Francesco Fronterotta's translation in the present volume, is generally smoother, more philosophical prose, but it also occasionally adds to, or interprets strongly, Plotinus's original.

The difference in the character of these translations is already apparent in the first line of each rendering above, where from πῶς δὲ πολλά; Ham offers a brief, nearly word-for-word rendering, while Fronterotta both supplies a more elaborate verbal complement (roughly implied in Plotinus's text) and reaches for the more abstract nominal form "multiplicité." This stronger, more interpretive practice is present throughout Fronterotta's version: he separates the series of aporetic questions into an exchange between two interlocutors; he finds "parce que" in the multivalent Greek particle ἢ; he renders ταὐτόν with "identique à lui" (compared with Ham's "la même chose"); he translates ἐνδεέστερον, which occurs twice in quick succession and clearly links a statement to a subsequent question, with "déficient" followed by "ce qui a le plus besoin de." None of these renderings is wrong, and only the last — the two different translations of ἐνδεέστερον — seems capable of creating difficulty for one tracking the flow of Plotinus's argument. Collectively, though, they create an effect different from Plotinus's Greek.

Fronterotta's version — and one may extend this assessment to much of the rest of the volume — succeeds most where it exerts the most effort. Its strengths are in making the broad argumentative structure of Plotinus's works clear and — through ample notes and introductions — elucidating the place of each Plotinian treatise within both the larger Plotinian corpus and the ancient philosophical tradition. Other facets of Plotinus — his style or his unusual syntactical features, for example — are less well rendered; but it is perhaps unfair to expect any translation to capture these fully. In this regard, the notes, which address elements of style and syntax ranging from basic definitions and textual problems to bibliography and larger interpretive difficulties, are particularly valuable. For the selection of treatises covered by this volume, there are already indispensable translations and commentaries in modern European languages — most in French, German, and English but some in Spanish and Italian — which means that scholarly readers necessarily will consult this volume alongside other resources.8 But there is no doubt that Plotinian scholars of all stamps, along with students and general philosophical readers, will want to consult and engage with it.

A few local observations on individual translations in the volume:

The first translation (treatise 45), the work of Matthieu Guyot, renders "On Eternity and Time" in an instructive and heavily annotated version. Guyot's notes make his positions clear so that — even when one disagrees with his rendering — his justifications are apparent. Thus, while I find the translation of τόδε τὸ πᾶν at 1,3 as "notre univers" inexact — τόδε conveys clearly (which "notre" does not) that Plotinus speaks of the material world of sensory particulars — Guyot's note here indicates that "notre univers" means "l'univers sensible," thus correcting his first rendering. His notes regularly close off such potential ambiguities. But at times he overdoes the annotation. On page 65 (13,23-28), for example, a single sentence carries an unwieldy eight notes. It would have been possible to combine and condense some of this commentary.

Second in the volume Thomas Vidart renders Plotinus's treatise "On Happiness" (46). Vidart's version is a useful addition to the growing bibliography on this work, which is significant for showing how Plotinus connects more ethical and practical considerations — particularly the ethical paradigm of the sage (σπουδαῖος) — to his seemingly otherworldly metaphysics. My greatest concern here is Vidart's limited engagement with the Epicurean background for portions of this treatise. Chapter 12, for example, as such scholars as D. J. O'Meara, A. Lernould, and A. Schniewind have already noted, is colored by Epicurean concepts of pleasure, even if Plotinus is hardly a full-blooded Epicurean.9 Plotinus's development of a serene pleasure that seems to owe much to notions such as ἀταραξία and katastematic pleasure, while it is pointed to at note 119, deserves fuller discussion.

From the hand of Richard Dufour comes the third treatise, "On Providence" (47-48). Dufour makes an important contribution to our understanding of Plotinus not only with his translation but also with his introductory "Notice," which shows — alongside the expected influence of Plato — the key role that the Stoics play in helping Plotinus to articulate his defense of divine providence.

(I have already discussed the penultimate piece, "On the Knowing Hypostases and the Beyond" [treatise 49], in some detail above.)

The final treatise in the volume (50), from Jean-Marie Flamand, provides a new version of Plotinus's study of love, Eros. Pierre Hadot's recent (1990) French translation and commentary on this treatise as well as A. Wolters's somewhat older (1972) English edition make this an area where there is not a tremendous scholarly gap, but Flamand lays out well Plotinus allegorical reading of the Eros myth in Plato's Symposium. His textual choices, too, are commendable, as he marries necessary emendations (e.g. 1,56) to a sensible defense of manuscript readings (e.g. 3,5).

Errors, listed below, appear occasionally, but they are not serious.

In the middle of p. 8, the attribution of the reading λέγοι to Kirchhoff is wrong; this reading was suggested by a corrector of the thirteenth-century manuscript A (Laurentianus 87,3), who may have been Marsilio Ficino.10

On the bottom of p. 8, several changes to the Oxford Greek text of treatise 46 (I, 4) have been omitted — for example, the corrections on p. 184 in notes 91 and 93.

On p. 11, the note on treatise 50, chapter 1, line 56 twice incorrectly accents διά.

On p. 144, the header misidentifies the treatise as III, 7.

On p. 510, under the heading of Cicéron, the index (index des notions) lists De finibus twice with different titles (Des fins and Des termes extrêmes des biens et des maux), as if it were two distinct works.


1.   Most of the earlier volumes have been reviewed in BMCR: volumes 1-3 (traités 1-6, 7-21, and 22-26), volume 4 (traités 27-29), and volume 6 (traités 38-41). The series follows recent practice in arranging the treatises in their chronological (rather than their Porphyrian) order.
2.   Unevenness is particularly apparent in the number of notes appended to each treatise. "On Eternity and Time" (45), for example, receives 525 notes for 31 pages of text, while "On the Knowing Hypostases and the Beyond" (49) receives 129 notes for 33 pages.
3.   Bréhier's work was published from 1924 to 1938.
4.   MacKenna's version remains a masterpiece of English prose style, although it was long ago surpassed as a guide to the state of Plotinus's text. Armstong's Loeb edition (1966-88 will retain its central position for English readers, as it is the most convenient way for Anglophones to access Plotinus's Greek, but it is not consistently as clear or well-annotated as the Brisson-Pradeau series.
5.   I am not the first to comment upon ways in which the Pradeau-Brisson translations transform the language of Plotinus. Cf. the discussion of volume 6 (traités 38-41) by José Baracat, Jr., with the response of Luc Brisson.
6.   B. Ham (tr., comm.) Plotin. Traité 49 (Paris, 2000).
7.   The phrase "apories de la procession" is Ham's.
8.   Richard Dufour's rendering of treatises 47-48 ("On Providence I-II") is the only one in the present volume that did not already have a major commentary in French, German, or English. Treatises 45, 49, and 50 already have French translations and commentaries in the series published by Les Éditions du Cerf. A French commentary on treatise 46 is in preparation for this same series by Prof. Alexandrine Schniewind of Lausanne.
9.   D. J. O'Meara, "Epicurus Neoplatonicus," in T. Fuhrer and M. Erler (eds.) Zur Rezeption der hellenistischen Philosophie in der Spätantike (Stuttgart, 1999), 83-91; A. Schniewind, l'Ethique du Sage chez Plotin (Paris, 2003), 146, with n. 2; A. Lernould, "Le plaisir dans le néoplatonisme" in L. Boulègue and C. Lévy (edd.) Hédonismes. Penser et dire le plaisir dans l'Antiquité et à la Renaissance (Villeneuve d'Ascq, 2007), 119-37, esp. 130-31.
10.   Cf. the discussion of the correctors of A in Henry-Schwyzer's editio maior, vol. I: XIV.

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