Friday, April 17, 2015


Paul Kalligas, The 'Enneads' of Plotinus: A Commentary, Volume 1. Translated by Elizabeth Key Fowden and Nicolas Pilavachi. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014. Pp. xx, 706. ISBN 9780691154213. $85.00.

Reviewed by Sara Magrin, University of California Berkeley (

Version at BMCR home site


This is the first of the three volumes in which Paul Kalligas' modern Greek commentary on the Enneads of Plotinus is being translated into English. Kalligas' work on the sixth Ennead is still under way, but his modern Greek translations with commentary of the first five Enneads have been published by the Academy of Athens in several volumes over the past twenty years.1 The first volume of the English translation contains the commentary on the first three Enneads.

Scholars who work on Plotinus know Kalligas' original modern Greek commentaries and tend to consult them regularly. But until now they have been accessible only to specialists, and even the specialists have had trouble finding them, since few libraries own them, and they cannot be easily acquired otherwise. With their translation, Elizabeth Key Fowden and Nicolas Pilavachi have finally made available to the public what is generally considered the most informative, and even-handed commentary on the complete Enneads.

Kalligas' modern Greek translation of the treatises has not been translated into English, and the commentary relies on A. H. Armstrong's Loeb translation of the Enneads. I do not share Kalligas' view that Armstrong's English translation can hardly be replaced (Preface, p. xiii). Armstrong's translation is, I think, mostly adequate, but is often insufficiently technical, and it fails to convey important nuances of the Greek text. I agree with Kalligas, however, that it would have been a bad idea to attempt a translation of his translation, since this would have probably led to inaccuracies or outright mistakes. To avoid this risk, in the end it would have been necessary to translate into English the original Greek text itself. This would have been an enormous task to embark upon, and it would have considerably delayed the publication of the commentary. When the commentary presupposes an interpretation of the original Greek which is significantly different from Armstrong's, Fowden and Pilavachi signal the discrepancy, and this seems to me a good compromise. The Greek text on which the commentary is based is that of the OCT second edition of the Enneads by Henry and Schwyzer (H-S2). Kalligas, however, opts for several variant readings, only some of which are included in the Addenda et Corrigenda at the end of the third volume of H-S2. In some treatises there are just a few variant readings, but in others their number is considerable (I have counted forty-four variant readings in Enn. 2.9.[33], for instance, and this is not an exceptional case). The variant readings are listed at the end of the volume (pp. 657-668). Fowden's translation of the commentary on Porphyry's Life of Plotinus and Pilavachi's translation of the commentary on the Enneads are excellent throughout, and they consistently convey Kalligas' fluid and lucid writing style. There is only one editorial choice which, though entirely understandable, causes some problems of consultation. The book follows the author-date model of citation, but does not have a general bibliography for the secondary literature, as this will be provided only in the final, third, volume. This choice has the benefit of avoiding needless repetitions, but, in the short term, it forces the reader to cope with incomplete references. The problem is mitigated by an online provisional bibliography (see Preface, p. x for details), and by a most useful and up-to-date list of recommended readings at the end of the volume. The volume itself is free from typographical errors, and the layout is designed to facilitate a quick consultation.

But let us turn to the commentary itself. We tend to view a commentary as a kind of tool for the study of a text. But this commentary is more than a mere tool. As Kalligas himself says in his Preface (p. viii), one cannot avoid a feeling of "awkwardness" when reading Plotinus. The problem is not just that Plotinus' Greek prose is difficult. Most of the time, the problem is that to understand his arguments one needs to reconstruct the philosophical debate to which they were originally meant to contribute. The exercise is not very different from that of interpreting an ancient text of which only fragments survive. In the case of Plotinus, we do have the whole text, but his arguments survive in fragments, so to say, insofar as they are embedded in a discussion between different philosophical schools the knowledge of which is almost always presupposed. Thus, to understand Plotinus' arguments, one needs first to reconstruct the philosophical debate that constitutes their context. This is precisely what Kalligas does: he provides the contemporary reader with the philosophical context in light of which each treatise is to be read. He starts the commentary on each treatise with a brief Synopsis, where he reconstructs, chapter by chapter, the main points of the discussion and its conclusions. These synopses help the reader to keep track of how Plotinus' thought unfolds, but they also reveal his method of philosophical inquiry. As emerges from Enn. 3.7.[45].1, this is the same method that Aristotle outlines in Metaphysics 3.1.994a 1-995b 4. It consists in the analysis of a set of philosophical aporiai which one tries to solve by examining the relevant opinions of one's predecessors. Kalligas signals the Aristotelian background of this method (p. 583), but also organizes the synopses around the discussion of the relevant aporiai (see, esp., pp. 101, 131, 161, 192, 223, 249, 304, 346, 353, 413, 440, 501, and 577).

After the Synopsis there is an Introduction to each treatise, followed by a line by line commentary, where Kalligas reconstructs the details of Plotinus' argument(s), points to parallel or, more broadly, pertinent passages in the Enneads and in other ancient sources, and provides references to the secondary literature. The synopses and the commentary are similar in format to those of the recent Clarendon editions with translation and commentary of single Plotinian treatises. This is not to say, however, that Kalligas' commentary aims to replace those editions. The value of the Clarendon volumes rests on the in-depth analyses of the treatises they provide. Since Kalligas' commentary covers not one but twenty-seven treatises, its value rests mostly on the fact that it makes Plotinus accessible to a wide readership, rather than on the in-depth discussion of particular philosophical issues. This is why the introductions to the treatises are a highlight of the book. Here is where Kalligas reconstructs the philosophical debate that lies in the background of Plotinus' work. A nice example, I think, is the introduction to one of Plotinus' most difficult treatises: Enn. 1.1.[53] (pp. 102-105). In this treatise Plotinus introduces his philosophical anthropology, and he argues that, though human beings have a complex substance, in the end, they are soul. Fairly obviously he works against the background of the Platonic Alcibiades, but throughout the treatise he struggles with a problem which is not raised in that dialogue. This is the problem of explaining how we can be pure soul and still remain the unitary subject not just of our thoughts but also of all the psychological states and activities – for instance sensations and emotions – that we have in virtue of having a body. Instead of dealing with the subtleties related to the interpretation of the Alcibiades and the history of its reception, Kalligas introduces the discussion of this problem by providing a list of passages where Plato argues that a human being is nothing but soul and that the soul is a substance separable from the body. Then he examines the Aristotelian conception of the soul, and he shows how the Platonists of the Early Empire developed, using passages from both Plato (Timaeus and Statesman) and Aristotle (De anima 3.4-5), the view that the soul is divided into an immortal, rational part and a mortal (on most interpretations), non-rational one. He explains how this view can help us to understand the problem with which Plotinus deals in Enn. 1.1.[53]. If our soul is divided into a "lower" and a "higher" part, it would seem that our psychic life should be split on two levels as well, one rational and one non-rational, but we tend to experience ourselves as the single subject of both our rational and our non-rational activities and states. Having reconstructed the relevant philosophical discussion, Kalligas introduces Plotinus' solution to the problem, and explains how his solution differs from that of his Stoic and Peripatetic adversaries.

Naturally, the reconstruction of a philosophical debate involves some degree of personal interpretation, and Kalligas does argue at times for his own reading of a particular issue. But in the introductions his primary goal is that of providing the reader with the information and clarification she needs to arrive at her own understanding of the treatise. This does not mean, however, that Kalligas' introductions are profitable only for the student who approaches Plotinus for the first time. For such a reader they certainly are profitable, but they are likewise indispensable for the specialist. For they provide a number of references to ancient sources that finds no parallel in other commentaries on the complete Enneads. The wealth of ancient sources to which Kalligas refers is apparent in the Index at the end of the volume, which is twenty-seven pages long. Not all these references are directly relevant for Plotinus' discussion, but they are always thought-provoking, and in some cases they point to new paths of research. This is the case, for instance, with the references to Aspasius' commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics. We know that Plotinus read several Peripatetic commentators (Porph. Vita Plot. 14.12-14), among whom were Aspasius, Alexander, and Adrastus. But while much research has been done on Plotinus' use of Alexander's commentaries and short works, we still know very little about the impact of Aspasius on his thought. Kalligas' observations in the commentary on Enn. 1.2.[19], 1.5. [36], and 3.6.[26] suggest that Aspasius was important for the development of Plotinus' views on virtue and, especially, for his analysis of the affections of the soul. Another fascinating example can be found in the commentary on Enn. 3.6.[26].1 (p. 539). To explain Plotinus' view that sensation is an "activity" (energeia) of the soul rather than an "affection" (pathos), Kalligas invokes a passage from Themistius (In De an. 17.25-29) where Themistius reports the example used by Porphyry to clarify Plotinus' view. According to this report, Porphyry compared the activity exercised by the soul in sensation to that of a spider that leaps on the pray caught in its web. The example is obviously Stoic in origin, and it is important because it suggests that, even if Plotinus rejected the Stoic view that in sensation the soul is subject to affections, nonetheless he used to some extent the Stoic account of sensation as a model. Themistius' report is not included in Smith's Teubner edition of Porphyry's fragments.2

At any rate, I do not need to convince the specialists that this book is a "must have", for they know this already. I just hope to have given enough reasons to persuade anybody who is interested in reading Plotinus that this is the book they should have by their side. When Kalligas' commentary will be available in English in its entirety, it will be the standard commentary on the complete Enneads for the foreseeable future.


1.   Pavlos Kalligas, Plōtinou Enneas Prōtē, Vivliothēkē A. Manousē. Kentron Ekdoseōs Ergōn Ellēnōn Syngrapheōn, Athēnai 1994; Id.,Plōtinou Enneas Deutera, Vivliothēkē A. Manousē. Kentron Ekdoseōs Ergōn Ellēnōn Syngrapheōn, Athēnai 1997; Id.,Plōtinou Enneas Tritē, Vivliothēkē A. Manousē. Kentron Ekdoseōs Ergōn Ellēnōn Syngrapheōn, Athēnai 2004; Id.,Plōtinou Enneas Tetartē, Vivliothēkē A. Manousē. Kentron Ekdoseōs Ergōn Ellēnōn Syngrapheōn, Athēnai 2009; Id.,Plōtinou Enneas Pemptē, Vivliothēkē A. Manousē. Kentron Ekdoseōs Ergōn Ellēnōn Syngrapheōn, Athēnai 2013.
2.   Andrew Smith, Porphyrii philosophi fragmenta, Stuttgart 1993.

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