Sara Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism: Non-Discursive Thinking in the Texts of Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius. Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xxii + 266. ISBN O-521-65158-1.
Review by John Dillon
This is in some ways an odd book, though always stimulating, and sometimes provocative. Rappe sets out to look at a variety of Neoplatonic texts first, the Enneads of Plotinus, then the commentaries and Platonic Theology of Proclus, and lastly the Doubts and Solutions on the First Principles of Damascius as texts, that is to say, primarily as literary enterprises. This is not to say that she ignores the philosophical content; it is just that she is concerned to explore the modes of presentation resorted to by the various authors concerned of material which is in its essence non-discursive, or even downright ineffable.
?Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber müss man schweigen? (?If one cannot speak, then one must be silent?), says Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus, but that has never been a very attractive option for authors of a mystical or transcendental bent, and the Neoplatonists are no exception. The broad purpose of Sara Rappe?s book is to study a number of the strategies employed by the above-mentioned authors to lead the reader to a level of insight which transcends discursive thinking, and therefore language itself. To assist in putting the efforts of these Neoplatonists in perspective, she adduces (though not always successfully, it seems to me) the work of various modern theoreticians, such as Gadamer, Lacan, Nagel, Ricoeur, Searle, and Tambiah her reading is impressively wide. There is much talk of ?textuality?, ?discourse?, and ?intentionality?. But she does manage to throw considerable light, I think, on what these ancient philosophical authors are up to.
?Decoding these texts,? she says (p. 3), ?involves seeing them as something like meditation manuals rather than mere texts. The non-discursive aspects of the text the symbols, ritual formulae, myths, and images are the focus of the pedagogy. Their purpose is to help the reader to learn how to contemplate, to awaken the eye of wisdom, to, in the words of the Chaldaean oracles, ?Open the immortal depth of the soul; open all [your] eyes up in the heights.? In other words, these texts constitute a language of vision.? This, if somewhat hyperbolically expressed, does certainly point up an important aspect of the overall Neoplatonic project.
The book falls into two main sections, after an introductory chapter, ?Representing a Tradition: Exegesis, Symbol, and Self-reflection?, in which she sets out her stall. The first (Chapters 24), entitled ?Language in the Enneads?, concerns Plotinus? efforts to transcend discursivity, and to lead his reader upwards to a knowledge of intelligible reality. In Chapter 2, she examines his critique of discursive thinking in general, with special reference to Enn. VI 7, and his interpretation of demiurgic activity there; in Chapter 3, she examines (with the help of Frank Farrell, Subjectivity, Realism, and Postmodernism) Plotinus? concept of non-discursive thought and introspection, and enquires how far this leads him towards any kind of Cartesian subjectivism. She quite rightly concludes that it does not, precisely because Plotinus is not concerned to ?reify the introspective stance?, as was Descartes; rather he wishes us to transcend our ?vulgar? subjective consciousness, and become conscious of our union with Nous as a whole. Chapter 4, ?Introspection in the Dialectic of the Enneads?, examines a number of Plotinus? notable ?thought-experiments?, such as the image of the fragrance that contains all fragrances in VI 7, 12, and that of the sphere in VI 5, 8-9, to demonstrate how they assist in the process of introspection which for Plotinus, of course, as opposed to Descartes, is also the recognition of our union with the rest of intelligible reality.
In Chapter 5, she turns to a consideration of Plotinus? symbolism, approaching it primarily from a rhetorical perspective, and seeing it as a device which he uses to lead us upwards to the intuition of what is not sayable. She focusses in particular on the notable image of the illuminated world sphere in V 8, 9, but also brings in, in a most interesting way, some visionary, ?anagogic? passages from the Corpus Hermeticum (XI and XII), for purposes of comparison. It is a somewhat different thought-world, of course, but the juxtaposition is thought-provoking.
The second part of the book, entitled ?Text and Tradition in Neoplatonism?, concerns Proclus and Damascius. She begins (Chapter 6) with a study of Proclus? use of Pythagorean mathematical symbolism, which, as she points out, signals an upgrading of the ?Pythagorean? tradition within Platonism, begun by Iamblichus. The tetraktys, of course, had had a special place in Platonism ever since the Old Academy, but there is undoubtedly a upswing in such symbolism in the Athenian School.
She turns next (Chapter 7: ?Transmigrations of a Myth: Orphic Texts and Platonic Contexts?) to the other great source of imagery and symbolism in later Neoplatonism, the Orphic poems. Again, as she points out, Plato himself was interested in the Orphics, and makes Socrates allude to them, even if obscurely, at various points, but for men like Syrianus, Proclus, and Damascius, Orpheus has become an inspired theologian, and fully-fledged predecessor of Plato. Luc Brisson has done most of the work here, of course, but she adds some interesting insights, such as about Damascius? use of Orpheus to buttress his own postulation of an ?absolutely ineffable? principle above the One.
The next chapter (Chapter 8: ?Language and Theurgy in Proclus? Platonic Theology?) turns to examine ritual elements in the text of that remarkable work, seeking to argue that, as she says (p. 170), ?the Platonic Theology is meant to be a support, not for argument, but for vision. The text can be seen as iconic, and the system that it supposedly conveys is more like a ritual invocation or theurgic rite than a handbook of metaphysics.? While this may be going rather too far, it does serve to bring home to us the fact that a work of Proclus is intended to be read in a rather different frame of mind than that which would normally be brought to it by a modern scholar. That great man, Thomas Taylor ?the Platonist?, would have understood this.
The same goes for her treatment of Damascius? treatise On First Principles in her last chapter (9: ?Damascius? Ineffable Discourse?). ?Damascius,? she says (p. 208), ?recognizes that the language of metaphysics functions to signify something beyond itself. It is best thought of as a mnemonic device; its purpose is to deliver human beings from their own ignorant determinations about the nature of reality, without thereby imprisoning them in a metaphysical system that displaces reality itself.? Hence Damascius? extensive use of apophasis, or negative, and indeed self-cancelling, forms of expression.
In her Conclusion, she reminds us that, when all is said and done, the Platonic tradition is primarily an oral one, and so the texts that we have are rather in the nature of reinforcements or reminders of the central activity of the school, which expressed itself in activities such as meditation, theurgical ritual or the chanting of hymns as well as in the exegesis of Plato (or of other ancient sources of wisdom, such as Orpheus or the Chaldaean Oracles), so that these texts have to be seen as having the aim of anago¯ge¯, leading the reader up beyond himself to a higher level of consciousness, not constrained by the distinction of subject and object.
All in all, as I say, a stimulating and provocative book.