How Plotinus Is Done

I spent two early hours reading two difficult chapters on an introduction to Plotinus. It was intense effort. Afterward I did a little Latin and then a hundred pages of a trifle of a book, then some more on Plotinus, reading carefully, thinking, making sure I had each step of the argument. I covered a lot of territory but few pages in a way I haven’t done since I was reading Jonathan Edwards back in the day. And this was slower.

Plotinus is a tough nut to crack. If you pick up the Enneads and start at the beginning you are liable to get nowhere at all. He is of such a strange world, that I don’t think most of us could just come to him. Maybe if you’d been doing ancient philosophy you could, but I haven’t. And he did not write well.

Plotinus advanced the conversation though. He took Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the commentaries and he moved forward on what he could. Not many people do that. But it is tough even to know which direction is up in his world. I’m hoping after this lucid and rigorous introduction I’ll be able to proceed, but Plotinus is tough.

So tough, that now I’m getting into him I’m finding people’s mistakes about him. It happens anytime you do history: you find discrepancies in the accounts, more than just interpretations. There are people who are not interested in reading the primary sources and there are people who are. (Do not read history by the first.) But there are people who are interested in reading the primary sources who are not interested in finding out what the writer was after, what he wanted to do. They are interested in completing their system, in putting a piece in a place they need a piece for. Such a one, for example, appears to be Peter Kreeft. It is probably an uncharacteristic error. He’s good on lots of things, specially Plato whom he obviously loves. He interprets, it seems to me, Aristotle to be more of a Platonist than perhaps he ought, but that’s for all I know a valid interpretation. Anyway, I can’t really judge that, and the truth is that Kreeft cares more about the divide between ancient and modern philosophy, which makes distinctions between ancient philosophers indiscernible cracks. But what he says about Plotinus on the body and matter is wrong; he nearly makes Plotinus out to be a Gnostic. You can see why he does it: Plotinus is unexpected and subtle. Besides being that, he says in one place matter is not evil and in another that it positively is. Apparently he believes matter is evil, but only when it does not achieve form. Having form is what matter is for, and it should be attentive to that and not degrade itself. He believes humans are bad when they are distracted from higher things to material things, so that material evil comes before moral evil; mater is the reason for moral evil. It sounds to me oddly like the fall in Origen: the souls were bored with the bliss of contemplation, they looked elsewhere, they fell. In Plotinus matter seduces soul by little slips, and gradual turns, leading to more of matter and less of form, or mind. At least that’s how it was explained by O’Meara, if I understood him correctly. And it seems Plotinus had a higher place for beauty and ugliness than he did for good and evil. That’s a hunch on my part, but this would explain how to take him.

Now I have to read the primary material and see what I get from that, if anything–Plotinus is tough, I may founder. There are now sufficient introductory materials where I think I’ll be able to get oriented sooner or later and make it through enough of Plotinus to tell. And I’m rooting for O’Meara. Which makes me think: there are two ways of studying things, that I can tell: there are historians who can maintain their balance by debunking. They are not sentimental, but the problem can be they are condescending. I think Barbara Tuchman is that way. The opposite is to love what you’re studying, but it is hard sometimes not to be loyal and get the thing wrong because you’re fond. Still, I think it is the wiser way–give me those historians–and wiser for me to do something I’m interested in understanding and explaining than in debunking for the sheer zeal of truth (which I ain’t got like I got love). Plotinus will never gather the support Plato commands, and rightly so. But his influence on the thought of the Church is enormous, and he should have his advocates and explainers. He deserves some devotion, at least to be handled better than Kreeft does.

Plotinus has not been without devotion, fortunately. Stephen McKenna was an Irish contemporary of James Joyce. He supported himself by reporting, and so one day reporting in Russia purchased some Greek texts of Plotinus. He returned to Dublin intending to study, live on as little as he could by doing journalism, and translating Plotinus. He had the encouragement of a man called E. R. Dodds who wrote an essay on Plotinus everybody quotes in anything about Plotinus still (and I can’t lay my hands on it in Philadelphia without paying JSTOR 12 bucks). Eventually McKenna, who was studying English prose styles and making a thorough business of it, decided that Plotinus could not be done with less than a life of dedication. He just worked on Plotinus and lived however he could. His finished product was revised by someone else and published (in a tome I got from the library) in 1930 by Faber & Faber. I think it is very unlikely T.S. Eliot, with his background in philosophy, would not have handled the editorial process, but I do not know. But here’s the point: that’s how Plotinus is done. Today, McKenna has been superceded and the Loeb volumes have a translation by Arthur Hillary Armstrong, based on a critical edition of the Greek not available back in McKenna’s time. Anything done before A.H. Armstrong started writing on Plotinus is superceded, except Dodds, everything after is legitimate. But here’s the point: all that work only for more work is how Plotinus is done.


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