Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Jean-Marc Narbonne, Martin Achard, Lorenzo Ferroni, Plotin. Oeuvres complètes, Tome 1, volume I: Introduction; Traité 1 (I 6), Sur le beau. Collection des Universités de France. Série grecque, 482. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2012. Pp. cccxxix, 72. ISBN 9782251005669. €55.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Gerard O'Daly, University of London (gerard.odaly@orange.fr)

Version at BMCR home site

This is the first volume of the new Budé Plotinus, which will replace the edition of Émile Bréhier (1924-38), still in print. Bréhier's text is inadequate and long superseded, though the introduction and the essays preceding individual treatises are still valuable, as is the thematic index. Several scholars will collaborate on the new project: the chief editor, Jean-Marc Narbonne, is a well-known Plotinian with several publications to his credit.1 The new edition begins with an extended general introduction of 286 pages, and includes the text and translation, with introduction and notes, of the influential treatise 1 (I 6), On the Beautiful. This edition thus follows the increasing trend of ordering the treatises chronologically, rather than following the systematic Enneads order imposed, often brutally, by Plotinus' follower and earliest known editor Porphyry.

Porphyry's Life of Plotinus (4-6, 24-6) provides the chronological information and explains the motivation of his systematic ordering. The Life has been researched with massive thoroughness by teams of French scholars under J. Pépin's direction, to which the section of the general introduction on Plotinus' life (xi-xxxv) is inevitably indebted.2 Narbonne rightly draws attention to Porphyry's self-presentation as a catalyst of debates and controversies, originating in his views or those of the Athenian milieu of Longinus from which he comes, once he joins Plotinus' circle (Life 13, 15-18, 20). Narbonne's sensitivity to the dynamics of Plotinus' thought leads him to propose a nuanced view of his development through the three phases of his career, as presented by Porphyry. The development thesis is presented in general terms, leaving room for the detailed analysis to follow in the commentaries on the individual treatises. Thus, in the first, pre-Porphyry period, the emergence of the characteristic post-Numenius concept of the One transcending Intellect – a concept facilitated by a metaphysical interpretation of the first three hypotheses of Plato's Parmenides – is discernible (xxxv-xlix). Narbonne's account considers the recent identification of a metaphysical interpretation of the first two hypotheses of the Parmenides in third-century Gnostic tractates, but is sceptical about its influence upon Plotinus. This is an informed position, for Narbonne has published research on Plotinus' engagement with the Gnostics.3 And, as he acknowledges here, even if there is no compelling reason to find the origins of the Plotinian One in Gnostic circles, this recent Gnostic scholarship expands our understanding of the environment in which interpretations of the Parmenides developed, and that environment is enriched if the anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides is Middle Platonic rather than Porphyrian.4 One might add that, whatever the influence of earlier Parmenides interpretations on Plotinus, his analytical development of the arguments about the necessity and nature of the One is uniquely his own.

The second phase of Plotinus' development coincides with the six years that Porphyry spent in his circle. Narbonne presents this period as one in which Plotinus defends the Hellenic nature of his thought against suggestions that it is quasi-Gnostic, as well as the Platonic orthodoxy (contra Aristotle) of his views (xlix-lix). This leads to adjustments and clarification of his positions on matter and evil, and an optimistic view of the human condition, stressing differences with the Gnostics. It is also the period of the great expositions of his doctrines on being, the soul, contemplation, and intellectual beauty. The final period, in the last years of his life, is one of consolidation of his views, especially on the nature of evil and on providence (lix-lx). Narbonne's survey of these three periods is persuasive, helpful, and undogmatic: the style of commentators on the individual treatises will not be cramped. And throughout all sections of the introduction he and his collaborators provide generous and judiciously chosen references to modern discussions.

In the next section of the introduction (lxi-xc) a survey of Plotinus' system is provided (with sections on general metaphysical principles; One, Intellect, Soul; matter and body; etc.): there are copious references to passages in the treatises. Narbonne acknowledges the inspiration of the synthetic presentations of Plotinus' thought by Theiler and Schywzer.5 His approach is closer to Theiler's survey, with differences in the arrangement of the material, and it is of briefer scope (30 pages to Theiler's 70). Theiler's version is more discursive, with the text pointing to individual or small groups of passages; Narbonne makes the reader search among several references. But his survey is well- ordered and helpful. It is followed by a short section (xci-xcv) listing thirty themes – without claiming that the list is exhaustive – where one may speak of Plotinus' originality (Narbonne points out that Plotinus in 10 (V 1), 8, 11 claims that not everything has been fully revealed in earlier thought), with references back to the numbered paragraphs of the survey. And in practice there is much that is novel in his philosophy – such as the range of his claims about the One, the concept of emanation, the discovery of the unconscious and of self-consciousness, the theory of the self – as well as (or, perhaps, above all) in its general tenor. Once again, this section of the introduction is finely nuanced and well considered.

Next follows a section whose inclusion Narbonne, in his preface (ix-x), feels the need to justify. Over 150 pages (xcvii-ccl) are devoted to the history of the terms hupostasis and taxis and some related terms (such as seira) in Greek Neoplatonism. Of these, only 17 pages deal with Plotinus and Porphyry. It is pointed out that modern scholarly references to the three metaphysical realities as 'hypostases' are not based on any extensive use by Plotinus or Porphyry of the term hupostasis to refer to 'level of reality'. In both philosophers the term commonly means 'existent' or 'existence', and Plotinus uses phusis or arkhê or ta theia (or simply tauta ta tria) to refer to the three realities. This is common knowledge among Plotinians, but Narbonne's discussion argues persuasively that Plotinus would have been content for his 'three' to be called hypostases, on the basis of his use of the term in 33 (II 9), 6, 1-2, and the plausible assumption that he accepted the title of 10 (V 1), reported by Porphyry as among those of the early treatises which, though given by others, had 'prevailed' (Life 4, 16-19). Narbonne rightly stresses that the use of hupostasis as a philosophical technical term by Alexander of Aphrodisias is likely to have influenced its adoption by Plotinus.

But is the extended survey of later Neoplatonic usage of hupostasis and related terms justified in this introduction? The principal focus is on Iamblichus. Narbonne admittedly develops his observations on the latter's replacement of hupostasis by other terms into a full discussion of much of Iamblichus' system, and this has its value, not least in showing what post-Plotinian Neoplatonism became. But, while one must acknowledge the diligence and skill shown here, an exposé of such length seems out of place in an introduction to Plotinus. It would have been preferable to have provided a more detailed survey of Plotinus' thought, or to have included sections on his philosophical vocabulary, or (in an edition which proposes to discuss textual problems in some detail: see below) to have provided an even tentative account of features of his Greek style (not everybody will be able to work through Schwyzer's compressed survey), or to have given some general indication of the influence of his readings of earlier philosophers, from the Presocratics to Peripatetics and Stoics, or of the commentaries mentioned by Porphyry in Life 14. Such information, even if it consists of little more than an overview of the scholarly state of play on particular topics, might well be expected in a Budé edition, which, though it will undoubtedly be used by specialists, will surely also be consulted by occasional readers of Plotinus.

Tucked into this section are some illuminating pages (ccxli-ccxlv) on the genre and literary form of Plotinus' treatises. Narbonne argues persuasively that to identify them as belonging to the genre of the philosophical diatribe is inadequate. Some of them fit this description, but others are analytical essays of some complexity and varying length. Narbonne proposes that these are instances of the 'dissertation philosophique', premeditated and carefully constructed literary works, as Porphyry testifies (Life 8, 7-12).

There is a clear and well-informed survey of the textual tradition of Plotinus by L. Ferroni (ccli-cclxxxiii), which includes a full discussion of the possible evidence for a pre-Porphyrian edition of the treatises. Ferroni's sensible conclusion is that we have no evidence that such an extended edition existed, or any traces of its use by Eusebius or others. There follows a brief account of earlier editions, due praise for the epoch-making editions of Henry and Schwyzer (H.-S.1 and H.-S.2), and a programmatic declaration of the editorial policy for the new Budé, which is to be warmly welcomed.6 Based on the collations of H.-S., it will nonetheless provide an independently established text and apparatus, and the notes accompanying individual treatises will pay due attention to textual and linguistic issues. One can only agree that this is the right approach: H.-S.2 contains several changes of mind, and Schwyzer continued to rethink details of the text even after the publication of H.-S. 2, which should not be treated as if it were, in every instance, a definitive, unchangeable text.7

That brings us to the second part of the volume, the edition of treatise 1 (I 6). The text and apparatus criticus have been established by L. Ferroni (who also includes an apparatus of sources and one of testimonia), while Narbonne, together with M. Achard, is responsible for the introduction, translation, and the 47 pages of notes. The text follows for the most part H.-S.2, but the notes offer welcome detailed discussions of the issues, even where this is the case (for instance, p. 2 n. 8 on 1, 34; p. 6 n. 6 on 4, 7; p. 13 n. 2 on 8, 10). In a few places the text departs from H.-S.2, and here again the discussions are illuminating and persuasive (p. 4 n. 14 on 3, 3, where Kirchhoff's correction is followed; p. 5 n. 8 on 3, 17 where, with Harder and others, kratêsei is taken as a noun; p. 12 n. 2 on 7, 34, where H.-S.1 is preferred). At 7, 14 Roussos' insertion of ouk, accepted by the addenda to H.-S.2 (OCT III, p. 306), is included and justified (p. 11 n. 7). These discussions prove the value of the editorial insistence on notes that are philological as well as philosophical. It would have been helpful if, at least in these textual discussions, the chapter and line numbers were given (as above) at the beginning of the note. As it is, following Budé practice, the note references are in the translation and the user who is merely consulting a passage has to search the facing Greek for the relevant text.

The high standard of the general introduction is maintained in the introduction to the treatise and the discussions of philosophical issues in the notes. In the former, Plotinus' debt to Plato's Symposium and Phaedo is discussed (with a useful list of references to the arts and the artistic process in several of Plato's dialogues, ccci), but so are differences from Plato, with parallels noted in third century Gnostic tractates (cccvi, cccxxv) and Philo of Alexandria (cccxiii). There is an excellent examination of the identification of the Beautiful with the highest principle, here the Good, in the final chapters of the treatise, with brief discussion of Plotinus' later assertions, especially the problematic treatise 32 (V 5), 12 (cccxxii-cccxxvi). The translation reads fluently: francophone readers, who now have three recent translations to choose from, can best identify their favourite.8 Last not least, the volume is carefully produced.


1.   Notably Plotin: Traité 25 (II 5), Paris, 1988 (repr. 2002) and La métaphysique de Plotin, Paris, 1994.
2.   Porphyre, La vie de Plotin, I (L. Brisson, M.-O. Goulet-Cazé et al.), Paris, 1982; II (L. Brisson, J.-L. Cherlonneix et al.), Paris, 1992.
3.   Several of his essays are collected in Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics, Leiden/Boston, 2011.
4.   Wide-ranging essays in J. D. Turner and K. Corrigan (edd.), Plato's Parmenides and its Heritage, 2 vols., Atlanta, 2010.
5.   W. Theiler, 'Überblick über Plotins Philosophie und Lehrweise', in Plotins Schriften, VI, Hamburg, 1971, pp. 101-75; H.-R. Schwyzer, 'Plotinos', RE 21 (1951), 471-592, 1276, and RE Suppl. 15 (1978), 311-28 (also published separately, Munich, 1978).
6.   P. Henry and H.-R. Schwyzer, Plotini Opera, I-III: Paris/Bruxelles/Leiden, 1951-73 (= H.-S. 1); Oxford (OCT), 1964-82 (= H.-S.2).
7.   H.-R. Schwyzer, 'Corrigenda ad Plotini textum', Museum Helveticum 44 (1987), 191-210.
8.   The other translations: L. Brisson and J.-F. Pradeau (edd.), Plotin: Traités 1-6, Paris, 2002 (treatise 1, translated with introduction and notes by J. Laurent, pp. 55-92); A.-L. Darras-Worms, Plotin: Traité 1 (I 6), Paris, 2007.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this good review. I would just like to point out that, as the title page says, I contributed to the general introduction as well, and that the following part was researched and written by me: "This is common knowledge among Plotinians, but Narbonne's (actually ACHARD'S) discussion argues persuasively that Plotinus would have been content for his 'three' to be called hypostases, on the basis of his use of the term in 33 (II 9), 6, 1-2, and the plausible assumption that he accepted the title of 10 (V 1), reported by Porphyry as among those of the early treatises which, though given by others, had 'prevailed' (Life 4, 16-19). Narbonne (actually ACHARD) rightly stresses that the use of hupostasis as a philosophical technical term by Alexander of Aphrodisias is likely to have influenced its adoption by Plotinus." MARTIN ACHARD (martin.achard@hotmail.com)