Plotinus Treatise on the Virtues

Topics: Virtue, Neoplatonism, Plato Pages: 15 (5637 words) Published: March 19, 2013


Russian Studies in Philosophy, vol. 42, no. 1 (Summer 2003), pp. 84–95. © 2003 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved. 1061–1967/2003 $9.50 + 0.00.


Plotinus’s Treatise On the Virtues (I.2) and Its Interpretation by Porphyry and Marinus

Manibus tatianae magistrae

As is well known, Plotinus’s philosophy served as the starting point for the development of all Neoplatonism. It created the basic schema that set the framework for the thought of all later representatives of this tendency from Porphyry to Damascius. The doctrine of the transcendence of the One, of the three original hypostases, the application of the categories of Plato’s Parmenides in the construction of ontology—all this and much else besides became the property of the Neoplatonic schools, which were scattered throughout the Roman empire, and was incorporated partly into the Christian theology, which was then in the process of formation. Naturally, as a result of its wide dissemination and the change in its cultural and social environment, Plotinus’s legacy appeared in a different light and took on new forms; through these changes in form we can try to understand the difference in content. For this purpose Plotinus’s treatise on the virtues is of special interest. The point is that Porphyry relies precisely on this treatise and at times even literally borrows large fragments from it in setting out the doctrine concerning the virtues in the thirty-second maxim (Athormaì English translation © 2003 M.E. Sharpe, Inc., from the Russian text © 2002 the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Traktat Plotina ‘O Dobrodeteliakh’ (I.2) i ego interpretatsiia Porfiriem i Marinom,” Voprosy filosofii, 2002, no. 8, pp. 134–41. A publication of the Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences. Dmitrii Vladimirovich Bugai is a candidate of philosophical sciences and a senior research associate of the Faculty of Philosophy at Moscow State University. 84

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pròs tà noitá). The same treatise serves as a basis for Marinus in his biography of Proclus. The aim of my lecture is to analyze the content of the treatise and its interpretations. In writing his works Plotinus did not set himself the goal of presenting his doctrine in a consistent and systematic fashion. Fully in the spirit of his age, he did not want to see himself as a creator or innovator, and believed that the doctrines presented by him were not his but belonged to the ancients or, at least, to Ammonius, with whose spirit, according to Porphyry’s testimony, he infused his lessons. By the testimony of the same Porphyry, writing for Plotinus was not something important: he began to write late in life, at about fifty years of age; he wrote at the request of his pupils in order to record what had been said in the course of discussions; he never reread what he had written; and he wrote quickly, caring only for the truth of the ideas, not for the beauty or even the correctness of the text. Thereby he fulfilled the testament of Plato’s Phaedrus and Seventh Letter: the written word is merely an aide-mémoire for him who already knows, not a textbook or an encyclopedia. Very often Plotinus’s works pose and solve a problem contained in the books of ancient philosophers, first of all Plato and Aristotle. However, he cannot be called a commentator: the genre of consistent commentary on the text of one or another work held no appeal for him, as it did for many of his Platonic and Peripatetic contemporaries. As Bréhier noted, he strove, quite in the spirit of the second sophistic, to exert a rapid and direct effect on the souls of his listeners and this could not be achieved by the enormous opuses of commentators. So Plotinus takes small separate fragments of text to interpret, and on the basis of their exegesis formulates problems and proposes solutions. Treatise I.2 examines a quotation from Theaetetus (176a–b) in which it is said that,...
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