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BMCR 2005.04.20, Andrew Smith, Philosophy in Late Antiquity

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  • Cosmin I. Andron
    Andrew Smith, Philosophy in Late Antiquity. London/New York: Routledge, 2004. Pp. 151. ISBN 0-415-22511-6. $26.95 (pb). Reviewed by David Konstan, Brown
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 10, 2005
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      Andrew Smith, Philosophy in Late Antiquity. London/New York:
      Routledge, 2004. Pp. 151. ISBN 0-415-22511-6. $26.95 (pb).

      Reviewed by David Konstan, Brown University (dkonstan@...)
      Word count: 1539 words
      -------------------------------

      The title of this short volume (the text comes to 130 pages) is
      misleading since Smith concentrates exclusively on Neoplatonism. It
      could as well have been called A Short Introduction to Plotinus and
      his Influence. Smith explains in the preface that the Neoplatonists
      alone were philosophically innovative in this period: they absorbed
      and transformed the main doctrines of the other schools, and they
      had the greatest impact on subsequent thought, especially Christian.
      There is practically nothing on the Aristotelian commentators, for
      example, although it is true that they were largely explicators and
      rarely ventured to philosophize independently in their commentaries,
      which were intended to instruct novices. Even so, providing a clear
      and philosophically interesting survey of the selected material in
      so brief a compass represents a considerable challenge. Whether
      Smith has risen to it successfully depends in part on the kind of
      readership his book addresses. I first present an overview of the
      topics he treats and then return to the question of audience.

      The book falls into two parts. The first, entitled "Setting the
      Agenda: The Philosophy of Plotinus," occupies a little more than
      half the book (70 pages); the second, "The Diffusion of
      Neoplatonism," comes to 55 pages. Notes, gathered at the end of the
      text, are confined almost entirely to references to ancient sources,
      with about a dozen citations of modern studies. The "Suggestions for
      Further Reading" mention editions and translations, followed by a
      total of eleven books and articles by modern scholars. Smith does
      not engage in open controversy with other interpretations or seek to
      resolve highly technical points but surveys the principal ideas and
      currents of thought. To this end, he frequently illustrates his
      commentary with well-chosen passages quoted from the original texts,
      in his own translations or, in the case of Plotinus, adapting
      Armstrong's versions in the Loeb edition. Very few terms are given
      in Greek.

      The part on Plotinus contains chapters on "The Individual," "The
      One," "Intellect," "Soul, the Universe, and Matter," and "The Return
      of the Soul." The second part has three chapters: "Philosophy and
      Religion," "The Development of Neoplatonism," and "Christianity and
      Neoplatonism." Each chapter is further subdivided into sections.
      Thus, that on "The Individual" treats "Soul and Body," "Discursive
      Reason," "Reason and Intellect," "The Ascent to Intellect,"
      and "Intellect Itself." The topics indicate Smith's approach: he
      takes up in turn the principal concepts in Plotinus' system. It is
      innovative, nevertheless, to start with the notion of the individual
      and conclude the treatment of Plotinus with the return of the soul
      and the "Mystical Union with the One," which gives a sense of
      Plotinus' psychological trajectory. The final chapter begins with
      four pages on Synesius, followed by "The Western Tradition," with a
      paragraph on Marius Victorinus and a more detailed treatment of
      Augustine (subheadings on "Concept of Incorporeal
      Being," "Mysticism," "Evil," "Epistemology," and "Contemplation and
      the Ascent of the Soul"), and "The Eastern Tradition," with a
      preliminary glance at the Cappadocian Fathers, followed by
      discussions of Dionysius the "Areopagite" and Boethius. I
      particularly approve the inclusion of Christian thinkers, since
      other introductions to Neoplatonism, such as those by John Dillon or
      R.T. Wallis, confine themselves to pagan philosophy. But Smith
      clearly packs a lot into his concise survey.

      Smith is an expert on Neoplatonism, having written an important book
      on Porphyry (Porphyry's Place in the Neoplatonic Tradition, 1974)
      and edited the Teubner text of Porphyry's fragments; he also
      contributed an extensive bibliography on Porphyry to Aufstieg und
      Niedergang der
      ro+mischen Welt. Although an elementary manual is not the place to
      present new or controversial interpretations, the image of
      Neoplatonism that Smith offers reflects his personal engagement with
      the doctrines over many decades. Plotinus in particular is a wide-
      ranging and not always systematic thinker; besides, his ideas are
      abstruse, and it takes extensive preparation to appreciate them
      fully. Thus, making his vision intelligible involves a good deal of
      judgment and tact. This is above all the case in an elementary guide
      such as this one, which must meet the needs of newcomers to
      Neoplatonism. How well does Smith succeed in this?

      The answer, as I indicated at the beginning, depends in part on the
      kind of the reader the book is expected to serve. One who is wholly
      new to Neoplatonism and comes to it with a knowledge, say, of
      Aristotle and Stoicism or of modern analytic philosophy, will, I
      think, find it rough going in places. Difficult or recondite
      concepts are sometimes presented as though they were more or less
      self-evident, when a word of explanation might have made them more
      accessible. Let me take some examples from the section on Plotinus.

      In the Introduction, Smith provides a brief overview of Plotinus'
      career and observes that "he refined Plato's concepts of the Idea of
      the Good, the Forms and the Soul into his own succession of
      principles, the One, Intellect and Soul which he regarded as
      distinct entities or Hypostases (real beings)"; he thus transformed
      Plato's "two-world view" into one of "three levels" (5). Smith
      explains that Plotinus begins "with the search for the nature of man
      himself, his soul and his destiny," and quotes Ennead 5.1.1 by way
      of illustration: "What is it, then, that has made the souls forget
      their father, God, and be ignorant of themselves and him, even
      though they are parts which come from his higher world and
      altogether belong to it?" Smith comments: "he encourages us to turn
      our attention inwards and upwards.... The philosophical point is
      that the self is in the end to be identified with the universal
      structure itself, i.e. with the Hypostases" (p. 5). With all three?
      With the highest only? What is the nature of an Hypostasis? A
      beginner might well feel confused at this point.

      A little later, Smith tells us that discursive reason "is not
      eternal in the sense of being in a timeless condition. But ...
      reason does not necessarily operate in time... And while the realm
      of Soul is not eternity, Soul is not in time either: rather it is
      time, as being the cause of time" (9; the topic is discussed further
      at 53-55). Now, for a reader accustomed to this language, the
      exposition is perhaps clear enough. But a neophyte may experience a
      certain perplexity.

      Within the body of the book, Smith often provides elegant summaries
      of Plotinus' more puzzling views. Take the controversy over whether
      intellect is "identical with the object of thought" (15): Smith
      indicates the Aristotelian provenance of this notion and the tension
      with the traditional Platonic view of self-subsistent, objective
      forms and explains well why Plotinus' distinction between object and
      image obliged him to adopt the view that intellect "must be its
      objects" (19; cf. 29, where Smith characterizes this insight as "one
      of the most important of Plotinus' philosophical achievements"). In
      the chapter on "The One," Smith explains that, according to
      Plotinus, "it is necessary that there is such a thing as an absolute
      One since without it individual entities could not exist." He then
      cites Ennead 6.9.1: "It is by the One that all beings are beings,
      both those which are primarily beings and those which are in some
      way classed among beings. For what could exist if it was not one?"
      The strategy of interpreting Plotinus by means of Plotinus is in
      principle a good one, but I sometimes found myself desiring a better
      account of why a given problem might still be philosophically
      interesting.

      Smith notes that "One of the most enlivening features of Plotinus'
      style of philosophical exposition is his use of metaphors," but
      insists that "his use of metaphor is often rooted in analogy."
      Analogy, in turn, is presumed to do more serious philosophical work
      than mere
      metaphor: "For Plotinus an analogy is not always simply an
      illustration from another aspect of reality, but rather from another
      level of reality" (21; cf. 30, 44-45). I would have liked to see
      more on just how analogy works as a philosophical tool. Smith is
      also alert to the variety of Plotinus' own approaches in
      communicating his ideas (47), and to his "sensitive psychological
      observation" (63).

      In his treatment of Plotinus' successors, and above all the quarrels
      between Porphyry on the one side and Iamblichus, and later Proclus,
      on the other, Smith rightly, in my view, cautions against regarding
      the new interest in magic and ritual as a "relapse from Plotinian
      rationalism into superstition" (78). One of the most attractive
      features of the book is the sense that Smith provides of the
      continuity within Neoplatonism, up to and including its adaptation
      by Christian thinkers, although I am not always convinced that
      Augustine's philosophical views, for example on the problems of time
      and evil, which Smith examines in relatively greater detail (a few
      paragraphs), are in fact indebted to this tradition. Nevertheless,
      Smith brings out well the persistence of themes and approaches
      throughout late antiquity, and his remarks are a stimulus to further
      thought and study.

      In all, then, Smith has provided a rich introduction to Neoplatonic
      thought for those readers who come to it with a sympathetic and at
      least to some extent informed interest in the subject. As the
      distilled product of Smith's reflections on the subject, it is a
      fine survey of the field.



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