Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Jean-Baptiste Gourinat, Plotin. Traité 20: Qu'est-ce que le dialectique? Bibliothèque des textes philosophiques; Les écrits de Plotin. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2016. Pp. 307. ISBN 9782711626946. €25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (jmdillon@eircom.net)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

We have here another welcome addition to the French series of editions of the tractates of Plotinus initiated by Pierre Hadot, and now being carried on by Gwenaelle Aubrey and Dominic O'Meara. I 3, On Dialectic, is a short treatise, but a significant one, and Gourinat has given it the full treatment—186 pages of commentary to 18 pages of text (and even of those 18 pages over half are footnotes!). But we are not complaining; it is all valuable.

He begins with a most useful and comprehensive introduction, divided into 'Structure' and 'Themes'. The first thing to be noted is that, although we might think of 'dialectic' as part of Logic, Plotinus does not see it that way. Indeed, Plotinus does not deal with explicitly 'logical' themes—in an Aristotelian sense—anywhere in his published work, so that Porphyry has no section reserved for Logic in the Enneads. The present treatise is taken as concerning ethics, and is thus included in the first Ennead, which is devoted to ethical themes. Indeed, as Gourinat points out (in accord with many before him), it can be viewed, if not as an appendix, at least as a sort of complement to the tractate preceding it in both Porphyry's thematic and chronological order, I 2 [19]: 'On Virtues'. There Plotinus sets out an ascending order of levels of virtue, and 'dialectic' may be seen as the method to be employed in this ascent.

Under the heading of 'Themes', Gourinat discusses such matters as why Plotinus composed the treatise, how he constructed it, and what are the chief themes dominating it. A first matter to note is that Plotinus' choice of three types of person, the Musician, the Lover and the Philosopher, who are suitable candidates for ascent to the intelligible (and beyond) is based on a rather formalized interpretation of Plato's mention of these three types at Phdr. 248d. Plato in fact rather lumps all these together, to characterize one "who is a lover of wisdom and beauty, a follower of the Muses [mousikos, in the sense of a lover of the arts in general], and a lover", but Plotinus firmly distinguishes them into three types of person, in ascending order of dignity and understanding the mousikos strictly in the sense of a musician. The musician is at the lowest level of potential enlightenment, as being a lover of sounds, hearing being regarded as inferior to sight. The lover (erōtikos) comes one stage higher, as being a lover of sights; but both of these require a good guide or teacher to ensure that they rise above the love of physical sounds or sights to an appreciation of the intellectual beauties underlying these. Only the natural philosopher can make his or her own way upwards.

All this Gourinat sets out very lucidly and helpfully, both in the introduction and in his commentary on the first three chapters. That commentary, it must be said, tends to err on the side of copiousness. That is not, admittedly, a very serious complaint, but it does make it difficult, on occasion, to see the wood for the trees. For example, the first nine lines of ch. 4, where Plotinus propounds the question 'What is Dialectic?' and proceeds to give a fairly succinct answer, provoke a total of 24 pages of commentary, in which we are taken through all previous definitions of dialectic, particularly those of Plato himself and the Stoics, but in the course of which many interesting points are made. Here, and in his commentary on the rest of the chapter, Gourinat helpfully discusses the processes of division and analysis as components of dialectic, its ultimate attainment of 'tranquility' (hēsykhia, and Plotinus' strong distinction between it and 'logic', relegating the latter to the status of an 'instrument' (organon) of philosophy.

The topic of dialectic and its status within philosophy continues into ch. 5, where Plotinus identifies it as 'the noble (timion) part of philosophy', and its role in the definition of Being and 'what is beyond Being'—emphasizing again its distinctness from logic as mere organon. Gourinat discusses the Peripatetic and Stoic background to this very soundly, and in considerable detail.

Lastly, there is ch. 6, focusing on the role of dialectic in structuring both physics and ethics, which has been viewed by earlier commentators, such as Heinemann and Harder, as somewhat anomalous, and not cohering very well with the previous five chapters; but Gourinat demonstrates very well that, far from being so, it provides a suitable capstone to the little treatise, and further that it connects it in an interesting way to the subject-matter of the previous treatise On the Virtues (I 2 [19]), by showing how dialectic converts 'natural' virtues into 'higher' or rational virtues.

The volume is completed by a bibliography and a full set of indices, comprising both the ancient and modern authors quoted in the notes, an index of Greek terms, and a general index.

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