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Plotinus - Life and Writings

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quinta-feira 24 de março de 2022


I. Life and Writings

Plotinus   tells us nothing about his life in his own writings, and all our information about him comes from the biography which his disciple and editor Porphyry   wrote as an introduction to the Enneads. [NA: Careful examination by modern scholars seems to show that the information about Plotinus given by Firmicus Maternus, Eunapius, and Suidas has no independent value: anything dependable in it derive from Porphyry. See Schwyzer’s article Plotin in Paulys RealenzyklopadU, Band XXI, col. 475-477. Porphyry’s Life appears at the beginning of all complete MSS. of the Enneads and is printed in the same place in all editions. Extracts from it are given at the beginning of these selections.] Fortunately this is a reliable source. Porphyry seems to have taken care to be accurate, and his account of the six years at the end of Plotinus’s life when he was with him at Rome is based on close personal knowledge. He is inclined to be gossipy and rambling, and has a well  -developed sense   of his own importance, and sets out not only to glorify his master but to show himself in the most favourable light and to give a very full explanation of his procedure as editor of Plotinus’s writings: but there seems no reason to doubt his accuracy in matters of fact.

Plotinus himself would never say anything about his family or birthplace (see our first extract) and we really do not know to what race or country he belonged, though it has generally been assumed, both in ancient and modern times, that he came from Egypt. (Eunapius says he was from ’ Lyco’, i.e. probably Lycopolis in Upper Egypt, the modern Assiut; but we do not know where Eunapius got this information from or how reliable it is.) And even if we could be sure that he came of a family settled in Upper Egypt, this of course would tell us nothing certain about his race. His name seems to be Latin; the first person we know of who bore it was the Empress Plotina, the wife of Trajan: but again we cannot draw any conclusions from this about his race or social standing. Nor have we any idea   what he looked like. Porphyry tells us (ch. I) that a good portrait of him was painted, in spite of his objections and without his knowledge, in his lifetime, but we have no evidence that any copy of it or sculpture inspired by it exists. It has been tentatively suggested that a very fine portrait of a philosopher on an ancient sarcophagus [NA: cp. Jahrbuch des Deutschen archäologischen Instituts, LI (1936), pp. 104-105.] represents Plotinus, but there are really no very good reasons for the identification. There is, however, one thing we can be certain about, from Plotinus’s own writings and everything else we know of him, and that is that he was fully and completely Greek by education and cultural background.

Plotinus was born in a.d. 205 and died in 270. His life, that is, covers one of the most turbulent, insecure, and unhappy periods in the history of the Roman Empire: but the external affairs of his time have left no trace in his writings. Philosophy was for the men of his period both a full-time professional occupation and a religious vocation demanding withdrawal from the world, as we can see from the case of the senator Rogatianus, for whom conversion to philosophy meant renunciation of public office (Life, ch. 7). Plotinus, as we shall see, could play his part admirably in the affairs of this world when he thought it his duty to do so, but what occupied his mind  , and fills his writings, was the by now immense and complicated tradition   of the Greek philosophical schools, contained in a massive bulk of literature, and his own personal intellectual-religious experience.

Our first fixed date in his life is 232, when he came to Alexandria to study philosophy (it is interesting to note that he took to the study relatively late in life). Here, so he told his pupils later in Rome, he could find no philosophical teacher to satisfy him until someone took him to Ammonius   Saccas. We shall say more about the possible effect of this enigmatic person’s teaching on Plotinus’s thought in our next section. He had been brought up a Christian [Porphyry in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VI. 19. 7.] but had abandoned the Christian faith. Among his pupils, besides Plotinus, were the two Origens, the heathen Neo-Platonist who appears several times in Porphyry’s Life and the great Christian teacher and writer, [NA: The ancient evidence seems to me to make it absolutely clear that these were two different people; cp. Schwyzer, art. cit., col. 480, for some (not to me the strongest) evidence against identifying them. Cadiou, in La Jeunesse d’Origine (Paris, 1935), is the main upholder of their identity.] Plotinus was profoundly impressed by his first hearing of him, and remained in his school for eleven years. There can be no doubt that the teaching of Ammonius was the decisive influence on his mind, and determined the character of his philosophy. At the age of thirty-nine, in 243, he developed a desire to study Persian and Indian philosophy, and joined the Emperor Gordian’s expedition to the East. But Gordian was murdered in Mesopotamia early in 244, and Plotinus escaped with some difficulty to Antioch. The important thing about this episode, from the point of view of our understanding of Plotinus’s thought, is that he never in fact established any sort of contact with Eastern thinkers; and there is no good evidence, internal or external, to show that he ever acquired any knowledge of Indian philosophy.

After this unsuccessful expedition he came to Rome, in the year 244 at the age of forty, and began to teach philosophy and, after ten years, to write. This was the really productive period of his life and the one which we know best from Porphyry’s account. In it Plotinus appears as very much the great Professor; it is in fact the first full-length portrait of a professor in European literature; but he also appears, as our extracts show, as a man of limitless and extremely efficient practical kindliness, a trait not uncommon in great contem-platives. He became a close friend of the Emperor Gallienus and the Empress Salonina, and was probably in as good a position to influence public affairs as any other philosopher in the ancient world. But the reform of the State was now no longer, as it had been in the days of Plato and Aristotle  , a prime concern of the philosopher, and his writings show no signs of political activity or interest. He preached and practised withdrawal from the affairs of the world except in so far as his duty to his fellow men forced him to take part in them. We do know, however, from Porphyry (Life, ch. 12.) that he nearly persuaded the Emperor to found a city of philosophers in Campania, to be called Platonopolis and governed according to Plato’s Laws: and this was perhaps not quite the ridiculous piece of bookish and unpractical archaism that it appears at first sight. The city was still in the 3rd century the normal unit of civilized living, and it might well have seemed to Gallienus as well as to Plotinus that a philosophically ordered city would serve a useful purpose as a centre of the Hellenic cultural revival which the Emperor had very much at heart, a strong-point of resistance against the barbarization of the Empire and the anti-Hellenic spiritual forces of Gnosticism and Christianity. The scheme came to nothing owing to opposition at court, and perhaps was not very likely to have been successful anyhow: but we need not assume that the results would have been as grotesque as they appear in David   Garnett’s brilliantly amusing satire.

In 269 the illness from which Plotinus died became so much worse that he left Rome for the country estate of his friend Zethus in Campania; there he died in the first half of 270. The illness has been identified as a form of leprosy: how he bore it we can imagine from reading what he has to say about suffering and death in his last nine treatises, written in the last two years of his life. They are full of that noble courage, that clear-sighted refusal to regard pain and death as great evils even when suffering severe pain and very near to death, which all the great ancient philosophies, Platonist, Stoic, and Epicurean alike, could inspire in their best adherents.

Plotinus only began to write in about 254, aften ten years in Rome, at the age of fifty. His writings thus all belong to the last sixteen years of his life, and we should not expect to find, and do not in fact find, [NA: F. Heinemann, in his book Plotin (Leipzig, 1921), did attempt to trace such a development, but his conclusions have been generally rejected by Plotinian scholars.] any real development of thought in them: they represent a mature and fully formed philosophy. But they do not present it systematically. Plotinus wrote his treatises to deal with particular points as they arose in the discussions of his school, and during his lifetime they circulated only among its members. In dealing with the particular points, of course, the great principles of his philosophy are always coming in, and we are very conscious that there is a fully worked-out system of thought in the background: but it is presented to us, not step by step in an orderly exposition, but by a perpetual handling and rehandling of the great central problems, always from slighdy different points of view and with reference to different types of objections and queries. In editing this mass of detached treatises Porphyry disregarded their chronological order, which, however, he left on record in chapters 4, 5, and 6 of the Life with some appended remarks designed to show that Plotinus only did his best work while he, Porphyry, was with him, which seem to spring from his own self-importance rather than any objective judgment of the merits of the treatises and are not generally taken seriously by modern students of Plotinus. He divided the treatises into three great groups, more or less according to subject-matter, one containing the treatises on the Categories and those of which the principal subject was the One (the Sixth Ennead), one containing the treatises dealing chiefly with Soul and Nous (the Fourth and Fifth Enneads), and one containing all the other treatises (the First, Second, and Third Enneads). By some very vigorous editing he succeeded in tidying these groups into six Enneads or sets of nine treatises, thereby producing that symmetry of sacred number in which he, like others of his age, delighted. In order to do this he had to divide a number of long treatises into several parts (III. 2-3, IV. 3-5, VI. 1-3, VI. 4-5) and even to break one up altogether and put the parts into different Enneads (III. 8, V. 8, V. 5, II. 9 were written by Plotinus as a single treatise); and it is possible, though not certain, that it was he who collected the short notes on various subjects which make up III. 9 into a single treatise to make up his number. But though he was so highhanded in the arrangement of his material he seems to have treated the text of Plotinus with great respect, and to have done no more than correct his master’s somewhat erratic spelling. (NA: Sec the discussion in Plotini Opera, I, ed. P. Henry and H. R. Schwyzer, Praefatio, pp. ix-x.) We can be reasonably sure that in the Enneads we are reading Plotinus, however oddly arranged, and not Porphyry.