Clark, Stephen R. L. Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice

By Zimmerman, Brandon | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Clark, Stephen R. L. Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice


Zimmerman, Brandon, The Review of Metaphysics


CLARK, Stephen R. L. Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. xxi + 344 pp. Cloth, $55.00--This study is the fruit of Clark's project begun in 2004 with Panayiota Vassilopoulu to investigate the dynamic character of Plotinus's use of images and metaphors. The goal was to understand the original meaning of these metaphors in Plotinus's philosophical and cultural context and then to investigate the existential impact thinking through the metaphors was to have on the reader, namely, to understand the metaphors as spiritual exercises meant to transform the reader into "the sort of person who could see [the] reality" being explained. Clark adds the further goal of validating Plotinus's ideas and experiences by showing their resonance with various wisdom traditions.

This is a worthy and potentially very fruitful project attuned to both the late antique practice of reading philosophical texts performatively--one engages in philosophy by grappling with and interpreting the text of a great philosopher--and the general Platonic understanding of philosophical education as turning the student's soul into the light so that it might see the really real. To simply abstract from Plotinus's text arguments or a metaphysical system is to do violence to the protreptic and existential aspects of his work. Furthermore, Plotinus was a master of using striking imagery to accomplish his pedagogical goals, while also pointing out how the imagery fell short of fully presenting the intelligible reality.

From the preface and part 1, chapters 1-4, which discuss how and why to read Plotinus with a general defense of the value of immersing oneself in worldviews foreign to one's own, I expected that each chapter of Clark's book would begin by discussing the use of a Plotinian image in his Greek and Roman predecessors and contemporaries (above all Plato), follow with an attentive and sympathetic thinking through of the passages in which the image appears, and conclude with the reception or resonance of the image in like-minded traditions. Indeed, part 2, chapters 5-11, covers the images that have universal appeal: ascending naked and alone to God, becoming love, shadow plays and mirrors in explanation of the material world and soul, drunk and sober reason, dancing as an image of the cosmic order, remembering and forgetting one's self and reality, and withstanding the blows of fortune. Pail 3, chapters 12-18, discusses images whose primary significance are bound to Plotinus's cultural context, such as classical myths, magical spells, demons, the significance of images, stars and planets in Ptolemaic astronomy, and waking up. In his second chapter, however, Clark refocuses his project as a phenomenological reading of Plotinus, meaning that he is less interested in Plotinus's physics or metaphysics than he is in Plotinus's experience of the world. In chapter' 12, Clark says that since we regard so many aspects of Plotinus's worldview as false, "the question in interpreting and developing the Plotinian story then becomes whether we can adapt his methods and conclusions to our own very different world, or whether instead we might profitably 'imagine ourselves' back into his. …

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