Monday, November 5, 2018


Nicholas Banner, Philosophic Silence and the 'One' in Plotinus. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. ix, 299. ISBN 9781107154629. £75.00.

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (

Version at BMCR home site


This fine book, developed from the author's doctoral thesis, completed under the guidance of Christopher Gill at the University of Exeter, concerns two allied and intertwined themes manifesting themselves in the philosophy of Plotinus, and indeed in much of the Platonic tradition both before and after him, the problem of maintaining discretion in the dissemination of abstruse philosophical propositions among the uninitiated 'vulgar herd'; and the problem of how to approach the discussion of levels of reality so exalted that they are strictly ineffable, or not susceptible of linguistic description, such as, in Plotinus' system, the One, or even, to a large extent, the realm of Intellect. In both cases, a degree of philosophic 'silence' is called for, but for different reasons, and Banner gives substantial coverage to all aspects of the question.

The book is divided, following on an Introduction, into two main sections: (1) The Cultural Roots of Platonist Philosophic Silence, comprising four chapters; and (2) The Transcendent Absolute, the Ineffable and Plotinian Poetics of Transcendence, comprising three.

The first section concerns mainly the pre-Plotinian period, both in early and middle Platonism, and the traditions of mystery religions and other religious traditions, such as Hermetism, as well, though ch. 4 is concerned with Plotinus and his relation to these traditions. The second section is devoted more particularly to Plotinus himself, though ch. 5 focuses rather on the Transcendent Absolute in the Middle Platonist milieu, ch. 6 is devoted to the topic of the transcendent absolute and the ineffability of reality in Plotinus, and ch. 7 addresses the 'poetics of transcendence'. There follows on these a series of four short appendices, the titles of which sum up, between them, the main themes of the book: (A) The Plotinian Idea of Tradition and 'Platonism'; (B) Esoteric Hermeneutics, Plato and Aristotle in Plotinus; (C) Some Useful Notes on Plotinian Metaphysics; and (D) Modern Theories of Philosophic Silence – this last incorporating a critique of the positions of the 'Tübingen School', Leo Strauss, and Jacques Derrida.

Banner begins, in ch. 1, "De Philosophorum Graecorum silentio mystico: preliminaries' (borrowing this title from that of a 1919 book on this subject by Odo Casel), by analysing at some length the motifs of 'philosophic silence', secrecy and apophatic discourse both within and without the Platonic tradition, an area in which Plato himself occupies a rather ambiguous and ironically-stated position. If we accept, as against obstinate upholders of the Chernissian position, that there is more to Plato's doctrines than appears, overtly, at least, in the dialogues, then we have to recognise various Socratic ploys, such as postponing the conclusion of a discussion till 'tomorrow', or 'some other time', or regretting that he is unable to give an adequate account on the present occasion, as an invitation to the reader, or hearer, to work it out for themselves, either alone or in dialectical disputations. And of course there are some subjects, such the nature of 'the Good', which cannot be expounded as such at all, but must be grasped, if at all, in a sudden flash of insight, consequential on much hard dialectical work. This is not in itself the establishment of a hieratic cult of 'secrecy', but, as Banner argues, by the first century CE it has taken on a distinctly hieratic tone, and becomes entangled with the practices of mystery cults, not least that of Eleusis.

In the next three chapters, 'The Silent Philosopher', 'Perennial Wisdom and Platonic Tradition', and 'Plotinus and 'the Ancients': Tradition, Truth and Transcendence', Banner explores, in a most enlightening manner, the ways in which both traditions of secrecy and silence, and the development of a respect for 'the wisdom of the ancients' build up during the 'Middle Platonic' period, and how Plotinus takes them on board in establishing his own philosophical position. On the issue of the establishment of a 'perennial wisdom', he might, I think, have adduced Philo of Alexandria (to whom he gives due attention in other connections) as himself drawing on an existing late Hellenistic move to emphasise Plato's dependence on Pythagoras, to extend that to asserting his dependence, via Pythagoras, on Moses, as the true founder of philosophy – as indeed of the 'hidden', allegorical mode of philosophical writing.

In the second half of the work, Banner focuses more properly on Plotinus, and presents an excellent analysis of his strategies for discussing both the level of the intelligible world, where we are faced with a level of reality transcending space and time and involving levels of unity in diversity that we cannot properly express linguistically; and, ultimately, the level of the One or the Good itself, where no linguistic expression can properly do justice to the situation. Yet Plotinus is committed to taking on both. He must therefore resort to various strategies of apophatic, self-contradictory, and indeterminate modes of discourse, of all of which Banner produces selected examples, from such treatises as VI 9 [9], V 8 [31], V 5 [32], [VI 7 [38], and V 3 [49], all of which he subjects to ample scrutiny.

The overall result of this enquiry is a much clearer view than hitherto both of the influences being brought to bear on Plotinus, both from philosophical and religious sources, such as those of mystical silence, perennial wisdom, and the ineffability of ultimate principles, and his absorption of those influences into his own distinctive view of the world and of the nature of philosophical enquiry. A valuable addition to scholarship in the area!

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