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Plotinus: Charms and Countercharms


For the last few years, thanks to the Leverhulme Trust, I've been largely absent from my department, working on the late antique philosopher Plotinus. To speak personally – it's been a difficult few years, since my youngest daughter has been afflicted with anorexia during this period, and my own bowel cancer was discovered, serendipitously, and removed, at the end of 2005. Since then I've had ample occasion to consider the importance – and the difficulty – of the practice of detachment, and also to worry about the moral some have drawn from Plotinian and similar philosophies, namely that the things of this world really do not matter much, and that we should withdraw ourselves from them. Maybe it is true, as Plotinus says, that ‘some troubles are profitable to the sufferers themselves, poverty and sickness for example’. But this is not an altogether helpful message for those afflicted by the bundle of disorders that lead to anorexia. It's difficult not to suspect, for example, that Simone Weil would have lived longer but for her Neo-Platonism. It has also been made obvious to me that we are (or at any rate, I am) much less in control of our own mental and emotional states even than I had thought before. None of this, of course, should have been any surprise: I have frequently pointed out – to myself and others – the importance of distinguishing between one's self and the states one finds oneself in, and the extreme difficulty of controlling the thoughts we say are ours (but which, by that very fact, reveal themselves as very far from ours). Any delusion that my knowledge of these facts is of itself enough to render me immune to them has been – at least for the moment – thoroughly debunked – though the facts themselves are such that this disillusionment, so to call it, is probably both temporary and almost entirely insincere!

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1 Enneads III.2.5, 15: I use Armstrong's Hilary translation throughout (Plotinus: The Enneads Loeb Classical Library, Heinemann: London 1966–88).

2 Lakoff George & Johnson Mark Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1980).

3 This paragraph also features in another paper of mine, ‘Plotinus on Becoming Love’, in Michael McGhee & Michael Chase Philosophy as a Way of Life (forthcoming).

4 Enneads IV.4 [28].5.

5 Enneads III.2 [47].13, 11ff.

6 Corpus Hermeticum II: Copenhaver Brian P. Hermetica (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 1992), 12.

7 Plato Phaedo 67b (tr. Benjamin Jowett).

8 This is not to say that I cannot imagine the impossible, but that I could not infer any definite practical conclusion from what I know to be impossible.

9 Enneads VI.7 [38].26, 20ff.

10 Chesterton G.K. Fancies versus Fads (Methuen: London 1923), 176.

11 Enneads I.4 [46].8; III.2 [47].8.

12 Enneads II.9 [33].16.

13 Enneads VI.9 [9].7.

14 Enneads VI.9 [9].11. This is McKenna's translation in his great version of The Enneads, but monos, in this context, actually means ‘pure’ or ‘uninfected’, not ‘solitary’.

15 Enneads IV.8 [6].4, 11f.

16 Enneads VI.5 [23].7, 9f.

17 I have examined the metaphor of nakedness at greater length in ‘Going Naked into the Shrine: Herbert, Plotinus and the Constructive Metaphor’: Hedley D. & Hutton S., eds., Platonism at the Origins of Modernity (Springer: Dordrecht 2008).

18 Phaedo 83c

19 Ennead I.6 [1].8, 23.

20 Ennead III.8 [30]. 10. See Perl Eric D.The Power of All Things’: ACPQ 71 1997, 301–13.

21 Enneads VI.8 [39].15.

22 ArmstrongThe Escape of the OneStudia Patristica 13 1975, 7789 (reprinted in Plotinian and Christian Studies (Variorum: London 1979), ch. XXIII), 88.

23 see Ennead VI.7 [38].15.

24 Plato, The Laws, 803–4, tr. A.E. Taylor.

25 Ennead IV.7 [2].15.

26 Ennead I.6 [1].6; VI.9 [9].11.

27 Ennead IV.4 [28].30.

28 Pickstock Catherine, After Writing: on the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Blackwell: Oxford 1998) 40, commenting on Plato Laws 653dff; 42 further cites Laws 803d, 644dff on paideia.

29 Plato Statesman 263d.

30 Ennead V.8 [31].6; IV.3 [27].11; see Asclepius 37: Copenhaver op.cit., 90.

31 See Shaw GregoryEros and Arithmos: Pythagorean Theurgy in Iamblichus and PlotinusAncient Philosophy 19 1999, 121–43.

32 Ennead V.1 [10].11.

33 On the Dignity of Man, after Plato Charmides 156dff.

34 Ennead IV.4 [28].43: Armstrong op.cit., vol. 4, pp. 269ff.

35 Ennead IV. 4 [28].43, 19ff: Armstrong op.cit., vol. 4, p. 271.

36 Armstrong ‘Plotinus’: Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, ed. Armstrong A.H. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 1967), 195–271: 260, after Plotinus Ennead V.3 [49].17.

37 Armstrong ‘The Apprehension of Divinity in the Self and Cosmos in Plotinus’ in Baines R., ed., The Significance of Neoplatonism (Studies in Neoplatonism vol. 1 Old Dominion University: Norfolk VA 1976), 187–98.

38 ArmstrongPlotinus and IndiaClassical Quarterly 30 1936, 22–8: 28.

39 Treatise XIII, 8–9: Copenhaver op.cit., 51.

40 Klibansky R., Panofsky E., & Saxl F. Satum and Melancholy (Nelson: Edinburgh 1964), 80, citing Hildegard of Bingen: Kaiser ed., Hildegardis Causae et Curae, Leipzig 1903, 43. See ps.Denis Celestial Hierarchy $14: ‘the Celestials’ fury of anger represents an intellectual power of resistance of which [our sort of] anger is the last and faintest echo' (taken from, accessed 27th May 2008).

41 See Ennead VI.3 [44].16,28ff; Ennead VI.8 [39].5.

42 Ennead V.8 [31].10, 14ff.

43 Makransky ‘Offering (mChod pa) in Tibetan Ritual Literature’ in Cabezón José Ignacio & Jackson Roger R., eds., Tibetan Literature Studies in Genre: Essays in Honor of Geshe Lhundup Sopa (Snow Lion: Ithaca, New York 1995), 312330: 318f (housed at See Beyer Stephan The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet (University of California Press: Berkeley, CA 1973).

44 Ennead VI.7 [38].41,22–27.

45 Beyer op.cit., 76–7.

46 Ennead III.6 [26].15.

47 Dillon John ‘Plotinus and the Transcendental Imagination’ (Mackey J.P., ed., Religious Imagination, Edinburgh University Press 1986) 5564, reprinted in Dillon The Golden Chain (Variorum Press: Aldershot 1990), commenting on Plotinus Ennead V.8 [31].9.

48 Ennead VI.7 [38].15, 25–16, 3. Armstrong, Enneads op.cit., vol. VII, 136 suggests that the image of many faces might have been inspired by the sight of ‘some small Indian image’. It seems just as likely that the inspiration was Ezekiel's vision of the four living creatures, each with four faces and four wings, and each with a wheel full of eyes, before the throne of God: Ezekiel 1.4–28. Merkabah symbolism has a long Rabbinic history. Scholem Gershom G. remarks: ‘The throne-world is to the Jewish mystic what the pleroma, the “fullness”, the bright sphere of divinity with its potencies, aeons, archons and dominions is to the Hellenistic and early Christian mystics of the period who appear in the history of religion under the names of Gnostics and Hermetics’, (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Shocken Books: New York 1974; 1st published 1941), 44). Plotinus doesn't mention these various inmates of the pleroma, but they may well be there in his imagination.

49 Ennead I.9 [16].

50 Phaedo 114d, tr. Benjamin Jowett.

51 Ennead V.1 [10].2.

Stephen Clark, University of Liverpool

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