Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Eyjólfur K. Emilsson, Steven K. Strange, Plotinus, Ennead VI.4 and VI.5: On the Presence of Being, One and the Same, Everywhere as a Whole. The Enneads of Plotinus with philosophical commentaries. Las Vegas; Zurich; Athens: Parmenides Publishing, 2015. Pp. 295. ISBN 9781930972346. $37.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Sui Han, Beijing (

Version at BMCR home site

This new English translation of, and commentary on, Plotinus, Ennead VI.4-5, the joint achievement of the Plotinian scholars Eyjólfur K. Emilsson and Steven K. Strange, combines philological rigor with philosophical insight. After the untimely death of Strange in 2009, Emilsson took on the completion of the work and brought it to publication. An introduction and a synopsis help the readers on their way. As the title, On the Presence of Being, One and the Same, Everywhere as a Whole, indicates, Plotinus here explores the question of how intelligible being remains the same and whole, and the participation of the dispersed bodies in it does not render it divided. His ingenious solution to this problem, raised in Parmenides 131b-c, is that the participation of the sensible in the intelligible does not amount to the spatio- temporal presence of the intelligible in the sensible realm. In fact, the intelligible realm, where all individuals together form one unity, is always present to itself as a whole at its own level; the sensible, when it approaches this eternal presence, gives the impression of fragmentation only because it cannot receive all of the intelligible. Despite the clear formulation of this main thesis, some side issues in these two treatises are less lucid and cause more difficulties to their interpreters. In their introduction and commentary, Emilsson and Strange outline these controversial problems too, such as the doctrine of sense-perception in VI.4.6 (pp. 30, 151), the question of who we are in VI.4.14 and 16 (pp. 30, 195-200, 208) and the topic of the soul-trace in VI.4.15 (pp. 150-1).

Emilsson and Strange develop a new take on at least two issues. The first one concerns the doctrine of double activity. Since the emphasis in VI.4-5 is laid on the thesis that the intelligible remains in itself and does not come down to the sensible, it seems that Plotinus here has reservations about his usual language of powers and illumination (VI.4.3; VI.5.8). Emilsson and Strange hold that this does not mean, as Lee claims,1 that Plotinus rejects emanationism and the doctrine of double activity as such. Rather, Plotinus distances himself here from a specific version of that theory, according to which the intelligible powers (the external act in his doctrine of double activity) are cut off from its source (the internal act). They support their interpretation with a number of convincing references (pp. 36-8, 188, 224-5).

The second issue concerns the main topic of these two treatises. In contrast to the traditional reading of VI.4-5, according to which the main topic is the relation between intelligible being and what is sensible, Emilsson and Strange call attention to the fact that throughout VI.4-5 Plotinus concerns himself with the soul-body relation (pp. 39-42, 123-4, 156, 162, 187, 267). A change of topic from intelligible being to soul in the text serves as evidence for this interpretation: e.g. VI.4.3.1-4; VI.4.5.20; VI.4.6. 1-4; VI.4.12.21. Although this view is attractive, it is worth noticing that, as the passages just listed show, the issue of the soul-body relation does not occur in VI.5.2

Emilsson and Strange are not the first to translate and comment upon VI.4-5. Apart from the well-known translations of Plotinus' entire oeuvre, such as the French translation by Bréhier (1924-1938), the German translation with learned commentary by Harder, Beutler and Theiler (1956-1971), and the English translations by Armstrong (1966-1982) and MacKenna (1917-1930), as well as the new series of French translations edited by Brisson and Pradeau, in which Richard Dufour's translation with commentary to VI.4-5 was published in 2004, the book of Emilsson and Strange invites comparison to the brilliant German commentary by Christian Tornau that was published in 1998. In many cases, Emilsson and Strange adopt Tornau's philological contributions and his reconstruction of the argument (pp. 31, 148, 150, 175-6, 206, 230, 236, 239, 247, etc.) – although divergences from Tornau's views occur as well (pp. 152, 181, 232). The contribution that Emilsson and Strange make can be summarized in three points. First, their accurate translation and incisive commentary render a difficult Greek text more accessible to English readers. Secondly, they include new, important literature that has appeared since Tornau's study. Thirdly, they enrich our understanding of certain thorny issues. An example is their analysis of the structure of the text, which is infamous for its repetitive character and loose organisation. According to Bréhier, the progress of the argumentation consists in an increasingly profound and precise revelation of its main thesis. Bréhier situates Plotinus' first statement of his main thesis in VI.4.8 and interprets VI.4.11-16 as a reply to four objections that follow upon an exegesis of Parmenides 142b-143a in VI.4.9-10. 3 In contrast to this reading, Dufour divides VI.4-5 into the introduction of the question of omnipresence (VI.4.1) and five answers to it (VI.4. 2-6 the first, VI.4.7-16 the second, VI.5.1-7 the third, VI.5.8-10 the fourth, VI.5.11-12 the fifth).4 But Emilsson and Strange add a new possibility: the main thesis is already laid out in VI.4.1-4; the following chapters offer a clarification of this thesis, a possible refutation and response to these objections and, finally, renewed argumentation for the main thesis from common conceptions and from first principles (p. 29). Their suggestion certainly merits the attention of future scholarship.

On the whole, the translation of Emilsson and Strange is very exact. In the case of VI.4.6.4-5, τί γὰρ διαφέρει; ἢ καὶ ταῖς προσθήκαις, for example, they faithfully render the καί ('In what do they differ? They differ as well in what is added to them'), as opposed to Armstrong, who omits it, and Harder, who deletes it. This is of importance to the understanding, because the καί suggests that the addition of the body does not exclusively account for the difference between the individual souls (cf. IV.3.8). In the case of VI.4.6.11, Emilsson and Strange prefer the emendation of Kirchhoff and Harder, εἰ <ὁ> αὐτὸς, over the reading of Henry and Schwyzer. This reading is better, in consideration of its parallel in 6.5: τὴν αὐτήν. In VI.4.10.19-20, Emilsson and Strange, following Theiler and Tornau, add <οὐ> between τοῦτο and χωρίς. That is right, because τοῦτο refers to πῦρ ἐν τῇ θερμότητι: in this case, the heat is not apart from (<οὐ> χωρίς) the fire. In some cases there is room for improvement:

VI.4.2.39-43: 'Wherever the body of the universe may come into contact with it, it finds the whole (τὸ πᾶν), so that it no longer has any need to go further, but instead rotates in the same place, since what it enjoys as a whole in each of its parts is indeed everything (ὡς παντὸς ὄντος τούτου, οὗ κατὰ πᾶν μέρος αὑτοῦ ἀπολαύει ὅλου ἐκείνου).' In these lines, Plotinus explains the circular motion of the sensible universe by its participation in the real whole of the intelligible. In the translation of Emilsson and Strange, ἐκείνου in ὅλου ἐκείνου (2.43) is not translated. This is not a trifle, for it ignores the contrast between παντὸς ὄντος τούτου and ὅλου ἐκείνου. In fact, from this translation one cannot infer that 'whole' and 'everything' in 2.41-3 refer to two different things: ὅλου ἐκείνου in this context (2.45; 2.47) should be 'that intelligible whole' and παντὸς ὄντος τούτου 'this sensible all'. For this reason, I prefer the translation of Armstrong: 'because this [perceptible All] is All where with every part of itself it enjoys the whole of that other."

VI.4.8.6-7: 'does not possess any source or place or body from which it began': but 'or body' is not in the Greek text.

VI.4.12.49: ὁ αὐτὸς is translated 'that cosmos'; 'the same cosmos' would have been better.

VI.5.9.13: ὡς ἄπειρος αὖ. Emilsson and Strange translate ἄπειρος as 'unlimited in number'. 'In number' is the interpretation of the translators; but in the whole context of VI.4-5, ἄπειρος in relation to the intelligible whole, means 'unlimited in totality and in power' (cf. VI.4.14.3-4 and VI.5.9.36).

Finally, some small words, and occasionally a phrase, have not been translated. E.g. αὑτοῦ in VI.4.3.9-10; τῇ φύσει in VI.4.8.3-4; κενοῦ in VI.4.15.11; ἐν αὑτῷ in VI.5.3.22; ἵνα ὄντως λαμβάνωσι in VI.5.10.32.

Emilsson and Strange do a good job in identifying the ancient sources, while making critical use of existing scholarship. In VI.4.1.13-14, for example, they correctly prefer the reference of Tornau to Numenius fr. 4b des Places over that of that of Henry and Schwyzer to SVF II.836. In VI.4.7.42-4, the reference to Marcus Aurelius 8.57 and 12.30 is new. The suggestion of Stoic sources for the circle analogy (VI.5.5) is also innovative (p. 236).

Some typos occur, as is perhaps only to be expected. E.g. on p. 30, 'the' in 'that the a likeness' should be deleted. On p. 47, 'Chapter 2, 1-13' should be 'Chapter 2, 1-12'. On p. 99, 'go of' should be 'go off'. On p. 127, 'means' in 'means in a unity' should be 'to be'. On p. 163, a 'that' in 'Plotinus does not deny that that' should be deleted. In p. 202, '15, 18-40' should be '15, 18-41'. On p. 208, '16, 32-35' should be '16, 32-36'.


1.   J. Scott Lee, 'The Doctrine of Reception according to the Capacity of the Recipient in Ennead VI. 4-5', Dionysius 3 (1979), 79-97. Lee's interpretation has already been refuted by Dominic O'Meara in 'The Problem of Omnipresence in Plotinus, Ennead VI, 4-5: A Reply', Dionysius 4 (1980), 61-73.
2.   Richard Harder, Rudolf Beutler, Willy Theiler, Plotins Schriften. Band II (b): Anmerkungen (Hamburg, Felix Meiner, 1962), 395.
3.   Emile Bréhier, Plotin. Ennéades, Tome VI, première partie (Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2003), 161-75.
4.   Plotin. Traités 22-26, traductions sous la direction de Luc Brisson et Jean-François Pradeau (Paris, GF Flammarion, 2004), 21-3.

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