Philosophy against Misosophy


Nature, Contemplation, and the One


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

A review of John M. Rist, Plotinus: The Road to Reality, Cambridge University Press, 1967, pp. vii, 280. From Dialogue, vol. 7, issue 3 (1968) 499-502

Hat tip to Professor Michael Ewbank, specialist in medieval philosophy, who responded to my request for the correct citation.

Anthony Flood

September 20, 2011


"Philosophy Is The Best Commentary on a Philosopher"

John N. Deck

The Road to Reality is "intended for those who are interested in a more detailed discussion of certain problems in Plotinus' thought which have not always received the attention they deserve at the hands of either classicists or philosophers."  The "problems" selected are the One's existence or non-existence, its infinity or finitude, its knowledge or non-knowledge, the necessary emanation of free creation of the Nous, the meaning of logos in Plotinus, free will vs determinism, the alleged monism of Plotinus' mysticism, etc.  The documentation makes clear, however, that the problems treated are precisely those that have received a great deal of attention from modern Plotinus scholars.

 The author's technique in many of the chapters is the familiar one of setting up the "problem" from the secondary sources, then a recourse to the "texts themselves" for its resolution.  Rist's resolutions are in many cases relatively sound, and reflect the considerable success which modern Plotinian scholarship has achieved in answering its own questions.  The One exists, it is infinite, it has some kind of cognition after all, the soul which is "oned" with the One is not absolutely identical with the One, etc.  What is palpably lacking in this book, and has been lacking and badly needed in the last forty years or so of interest in Plotinus, is a closer look at, a justification of, these "problems" themselves.

This deficiency, and the unfortunate results which can flow from it, are seen very clearly in Rist's handling of the One's infinity.  Yes—the One is infinite, infinite in itself as well as infinite in power. So "Infinite" becomes for Rist an important and philosophically fruitful characterization of the One.  But is the infinite-finite couplet anything of any great moment to Plotinus?  Is it important for Plotinus inthe contrast between the Nous and the One?  Or, if the infinite-finite couplet is not prominent in Plotinus, is its philosophical value such that Plotinus' philospohy should be recast according to its requirements?  Rist provides no justification for such a procedure, but does not hesitate to follow it. Through the rest of The Road to Reality the One is, functionally, "Infinite Being."

Is the One "Being" at all?  Plotinus says that the One is "beyond being."  What is "beyond being," someone might think, is the non-existent.  Thus arises the "problem":  does the One exist?  Rist's solution is that, since being means for Plotinus finite being, Plotinus' One is beyond finite being, is infinite being and so is not non-existent.  In other words, according to Rist, when Plotinus says "being" he does not really mean being but a "kind" of being, and when he says "beyond being" he does not really mean this but rather another kind of being.  Plotinus is being translated into into some other philosophic language.  No explanation for this is offered, but because the existence rather than non-existence of the One is supposed to be vindicated by this procedure, it may be hazarded that the language is that of someone to whom to-exist and to-not-exist are real alternatives.  "Being" for this person means to-exist as a real alternative to to-not-exist.  I would suggest that (a) this is not a real alternative for Plotinus, any more than for Parmenides or for the Stranger in Plato's Sophist and (b) it has no insurmountable metaphysical value.

At any rate, it is by tactics such as these that Rist violently recasts Plotinus' One as Infinite Being.  In a loose fashion, it is true that this designation is better than the one against which he is arguing, "finite non-being."  Both alternatives, however, are outside of Plotinus, who neither did nor could designate the One by either of these phrases.  Plotinus scholarship has corrected itself.  But the philosopher himself is virtually untouched.

Rist's chapter on Emanation and Necessity continues the modern commentators' game of balancing Plotinus' statements on the necessary generation of the Nous by the One against his meditations on the will and liberty of the One in Enneads VI, 8.  Rist's conclusion is that since the One is as it wills to be, it wills itself to b such as to produce the Nous, and therefore its production of the Nous is as free as it itself is.  Even within the artificial limits of Rist's solution there are serious difficulties.  To name but one, the One may will itself to be such that it necessarily produce the Nous.  "Necessary" has other meanings than "unconditionally necessary."

What is mainly at fault here again is Rist's method: his reliance on modern commentators to pose the problem.  Some, indeed many, have said that there is no "free creation" in Plotinus.  The author accepts the implied challenge, and finds a way to say that there is free creation.  At least three things are missing: an analysis of what "free creation" really means (the source of "free creation" is presumably Christian theology), an assessment of the worth of "free creation" as a metaphysical notion, and an assessment of the necessity and value of bringing this alien notion to bear on Plotinus.

It seems to me scarcely an accident that one who is preoccupied with the commentators' freedom vs necessity question will misread Plotinus' statement that the One is "greater than all willing" (by taking an explanation to be a qualification, Rist p. 78), or will altogether miss Plotinus insight that the One is above freedom and necessity.  "Above freedom and necessity" is not, of course, the textual answer either.  Taken by itself, it invites the rejoinder "Oh, well, the One is above everything anyway.  It is ineffable."  The phrase is pregnant with meaning only when coupled with a fairly complete awareness of Plotinus' careful meditation upon the "freedom" of the One.

The controls for the chapter on Logos are Philo Judaeus and A. H. Armstrong.  In the chapter on Soul, Plotinus is made to furnish his own control: his doctrine of the descent of the soul is measured by his middle-level polemic "Against the Gnostics."  In both chapters the author's preoccupation with these extraneous matters effectively blocks any profound investigation.  The treatment of the "descent of the soul" is especially light.  Plotinus' loose ends are hastily caught up, his deep inconsistencies quickly smoothed over.

The often-affirmed relevance to Plotinus to persistent human psychological, metaphysical and gnoseological experience must not be taken for granted, but must be re-thought and clearly displayed.  This is something which Dean Inge understood very well had to be done, but it has scarecely been attempted since.  Beyond this, his metaphysics just be brought into free play with the thinking of practising metaphysicians.  Only then can it be seen for what it is.  Philosophy is the best commentary on a philosopher.

Posted June 17, 2006

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