Sunday, April 19, 2015


Alexandra Michalewski, La puissance de l'intelligible: la theorie plotinienne des Formes au miroir de l'heritage medioplatonicien. Ancient and medieval philosophy. Series 1, 51. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2014. Pp. vii, 264. ISBN 9789462700024. €82.50.

Reviewed by Christian Tornau, Universität Würzburg (

Version at BMCR home site


In the present book, which has grown from a doctoral thesis defended at Paris in 2008, Alexandra Michalewski attempts to find a new perspective on Plotinus' theory of causality by comparing it to the various exegeses of Plato's Timaeus in Middle Platonism, especially with a view to the theory of Forms. She reconstructs the general line of development as follows: the Stoics had rejected Plato's demiurge or divine maker of the universe, and postulated an immanent causal force (the divine Logos) instead, replacing, as it were, the artisanal pattern of the Timaeus with an organic one. The Middle Platonists, whose metaphysics was almost entirely based on the Timaeus, vigorously reasserted the demiurgic pattern, countering Stoic immanentism by emphasizing the necessity of a transcendent efficient cause. Plotinus in turn rejects a literal interpretation of the anthropomorphic figure of the demiurge. Having strictly identified the demiurgic Intellect with the Forms, he has to develop new philosophical approaches to causality in order to replace the artisanal pattern of the Middle Platonists (and the Timaeus) without falling back into Stoic vitalism. The relevant Plotinian patterns of thought are, primarily, the so-called double-ἐνέργεια theory, and the constitution of reality through procession from and return to the One. Plotinus' innovative metaphysics of the One is thus vital for understanding his view of the causality of the Forms.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, which deals with Middle Platonism, begins with a general introduction that highlights the doctrinal opposition of the relevant thinkers to Stoicism and their method of doing philosophy by interpreting authoritative texts from Plato ('Qu'est-ce que le Médioplatonisme?', pp. 9-45). Michalewski discusses the founding figures Antiochus of Ascalon and Eudorus of Alexandria; Antiochus, whom she rightly regards as a precursor of Middle Platonism rather than a fully-fledged Platonist, did accept the Platonic Forms but apparently did not accord them a function in his largely Stoicizing cosmology. Instead, he limited their relevance to epistemology, as Michalewski argues on the basis of the speech of the Antiochean Varro in Cicero's Academica posteriora.

The remaining two sections of the first part are devoted to the relationship of god and the Forms in Middle Platonism. In the first ('Causalité du Dieu et des Formes', pp. 47-67), Michalewski starts her discussion with Seneca, Letters 58 and 65 and ends with Atticus and Numenius. Though she admits that Middle Platonism is a kind of metaphysical laboratory rather than a unified philosophical system, Michalewski thinks it possible to discover some general patterns. All Middle Platonists accepted the so-called Dreiprinzipienlehre, which was developed from the Timaeus and posited three cosmological principles, viz. god or the demiurge, the intelligible cosmos constituted by the Forms, which is the eternal paradigm or model of the visible world, and matter. What is debated is their relative importance and precise causal functions. Because of their opposition to Stoicism, Michalewski argues, the Middle Platonists tend to privilege the demiurge over the Forms. Some Platonists of the 1st century AD, at least as reported by Seneca and Philo of Alexandria, made the Forms merely instrumental causes, the truly efficient cause being god. Atticus employs the term παραίτια for the Forms, which is reminiscent of Plato's συναίτια (Timaeus 46d) and presumably means necessary conditions. In Plutarch, the Forms have almost disappeared as principles, even though he never explicitly calls them 'thoughts of god'.

The notion that the Forms are the thoughts of god, which is arguably the most prominent (though by no means omnipresent) Middle Platonic doctrine about the Forms, is discussed in the third section ('Les Formes, pensées du Dieu', pp. 69-96). Michalewski interprets it as evidence for her claim that Middle Platonism generally subordinates the causality of the Forms to that of god. This is especially convincing in the case of Atticus, who endorses the doctrine that the Forms are the thoughts of god, but at the same time seems to have placed them outside of Intellect. According to Michalewski, this means that, while Atticus rejected a self-thinking god in the Aristotelian manner because, in his view, that doctrine endangered divine providence, he nevertheless thought that the Forms actualized their paradigmatic causality only when they were actually contemplated by the demiurge. The paradigmatic causality of the Forms thus becomes dependent on the efficient causality of god (p. 77). The section ends with a discussion of Alcinous and Numenius, who are rather special cases among the Middle Platonists. Whereas most Middle Platonists assumed that the demiurge of the Timaeus was the highest god and identified him with the Form of the Good of Republic 6, Alcinous and especially Numenius distinguished the two. Numenius regarded the relation of the supreme god (i.e. the Form of the Good) to true Being (i.e. the Forms) as analogous to that of the maker of the universe (the demiurge) to Becoming (i.e. the visible cosmos), thus reducing the demiurge to the rank of a 'second god'; his perfectly valid argument was that Timaeus calls the demiurge 'good' but not 'the Good'. Alcinous is the Middle Platonic thinker who most obviously introduced Aristotelian elements into Platonic theology; he says that god thinks himself by thinking the Forms and that his οὐσία is his ἐνέργεια. He explicitly interprets the Forms as thoughts of god, which means that they are produced by the thinking activity of god. Relying on the difficult and much-debated passage Didaskalikos 10-12, Michalewski claims that in Alcinous god delegates demiurgic activity to the World Soul by arousing her desire to imitate him and to become productive. Like Numenius, then, Alcinous subordinates the Forms to god in the same manner as the visible world is subordinated to the demiurge; the causality of the Forms is, at best, indirect. What is less clear is whether it is accurate, in the case of Alcinous and Numenius, to speak of an artisanal pattern of causality (a question Michalewski does not ask). Both thinkers seem to be concerned to avoid an anthropomorphic interpretation of the Timaeus and to be moving towards an allegorical exegesis of Plato's demiurgic imagery that could be built upon by Plotinus.

The second part of the book is devoted to Plotinus. Its central insight may be summarized as follows: by identifying Intellect and the Forms (exegetically speaking: the demiurge and the paradigm) Plotinus replaces the traditional forms of causality – efficient and paradigmatic – which the Middle Platonists had attributed to god and the Forms respectively, with a novel notion according to which the Forms are both productive and formative simply by being what they are. In order to explain this, Plotinus employs three patterns of thought: (1) the double-ἐνέργεια theory, which means that every being is per se productive as soon as it reaches perfection; thus the (internal) ἐνέργεια of being fire always implies the (external) ἐνέργεια of heating the environment; (2) the theory of creative contemplation, which is most fully set out in Enneads III.8; and 3) the idea that a causal principle may 'give what it does not have' (VI.7.17.3-4).

As befits an inquiry into causality, Michalewski looks at Plotinus' metaphysics from above. She begins with a section on the Plotinian supreme cause, the One ('De l'Un à l'Intellect', pp. 99-135). To account for the specific unity of Intellect and the Forms, which is also a plurality, Plotinus, she argues, needs an absolutely unified principle. His resistance to the Middle Platonic tendency to subordinate the Forms to the demiurgic Intellect thus results in positing a higher cause from which both Intellect and the Forms are derived. Following G. Aubry,1 Michalewski bases her interpretation of the causality of the One on the notion of power ('puissance', δύναμις): the infinite power that proceeds from the One and which, by returning to it, constitutes itself as the unity of Intellect and the Forms works as a kind of intermediary between the absolute One beyond Being and the plurality of Being itself (p. 113).

The second and third sections deal with the causality of the Forms themselves. In the second section ('L'Intellect et le monde intelligible', pp. 137-184), Michalewski points out that the Forms are not, as in their Middle Platonic predecessors, thoughts of god or inert, lifeless models unable to exert their paradigmatic causality without the mediating activity of the demiurge. The unity of Intellect and the Forms, as conceived by Plotinus, implies that the Forms are themselves living and active entities that form an organic and dynamic unity with each other and with Intellect as a whole. Their productivity is the immediate expression of their activity (ἐνέργεια); by incorporating the Aristotelian notion of ἐνέργεια and the identification of οὐσία and ἐνέργεια – the backbone of Aristotle's theology in Metaphysics Λ – into his interpretation of the Timaeus and his metaphysics of the Platonic intelligible world, Plotinus succeeds in disarming Aristotle's criticism that the Platonic Forms are causally ineffective. In this context, Michalewski addresses the much-disputed issue of Forms of individuals in Plotinus. Michalewski rightly emphasizes the ethical aspect of this seemingly curious theory, but her main concern in analyzing it is to determine how exactly the Forms contribute to the formation of sensible entities. Relying primarily on a close reading of Ennead V.7, she argues that, say, an individual human being is caused by three factors: the Platonic Form of Human Being; an individual intellectual soul (to be identified, I take it, with the individual form or undescended soul) that contemplates the Form; and the formative principles (λόγοι) this soul generates in itself through its contemplation. The concluding section ('Le Démiurge', pp. 185-219) surveys the passages where Plotinus actually mentions the demiurge and reveals that this mythical anthropomorphic mediator familiar from Plato and the Middle Platonists is virtually eliminated in Plotinus.

Michalewski has to say much of interest on Middle Platonism and fruitfully compares Plotinus' views on causality with those of his immediate predecessors. Inevitably, many of the texts Michalewski adduces have often been discussed. She nevertheless offers a useful repertory of relevant passages and a wealth of secondary literature (the bibliography has almost 30 pages).2 While acknowledging the diversity of Middle Platonism, she succeeds in identifying common features and assumptions that unite most of the thinkers of this period but separates them from Plotinus. Her work thus convincingly reasserts the distinction between Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism that has sometimes been challenged. However, some extensive discussions of single aspects of Plotinus' philosophy (for instance, his adaptation of the Kinds of Being from the Sophist or his anti-Gnostic polemics) are neither very innovative nor immediately relevant to the subject of the book, but unnecessarily obscure the main line of the argument. Yet even though it could have profited from some shortening, Michalewski's book will be of substantial interest to students of the Platonic tradition in antiquity.


1.   Gwenaëlle Aubry, Dieu sans la puissance. Dunamis et Energeia chez Aristote et chez Plotin, Paris 2006.
2.   It must be said that the bibliography lacks careful proofreading. To name but two of the more serious errors: Kevin Corrigan is misspelt as 'Korrigan' and, accordingly, appears at the wrong place. Franco Ferrari's contribution referred to as 'Ferrari (2010)' on p. 72 cannot be the same as the entry 'Ferrari (2010)' in the bibliography; presumably Michalewski means his 'Provvidenza Platonica o autocontemplazione aristotelica: la scelta di Plutarco' in Gods, Daimones, Rituals, Myths and History of Religions in Plutarch's Works. Studies in Honour of Frederick C. Brenk, ed. by Luc Van der Stockt al. (Logan 2010), 177-92. And it is hardly adequate that, in a study on the Platonic Forms in Plotinus, the work of Werner Beierwaltes is entirely ignored.

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