Neoplatonic Saints: The Lives of Plotinus and Proclus by their Students, translated with an introduction by Mark Edwards, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000. Pp. 150 + lx.
Review by Andrew Smith
We are fortunate to possess ?Lives? of the two greatest Platonic philosophers of late antiquity written by their own students. This is all the more important for us in so far as the work of these two philosophers had a profound influence on medieval and renaissance thought. They also represent quite different strains in the development of what was later to be given the name ?Neoplatonism?. Plotinus, the founding father of this movement, a somewhat iconoclastic figure, who for example takes an unusual line on religious practice (?let the gods come to me?) and whose treatises display the qualities of an enquiring and pioneering intellect, inhabited a world which was still predominantly pagan. Proclus, a diligent yet brilliant systematiser, had to face in practical ways the increasing political and cultural dominance of Christianity. In a sense neither of these ?Lives? is a biography. Porphyry?s ?Life of Plotinus? was composed as an introduction to his edition of Plotinus? philosophical treatises (given by Porphyry the title Enneads because of his arrangement of them into sets of nine), whilst Marinus, who succeeded Proclus as head of the Academy in Athens, was mainly concerned to extol Proclus as a role model for those wishing to practise Platonic virtue and piety, not without admitting some of his weaknesses he was at times somewhat irascible. Yet for Porphyry too it was important to show how his master?s philosophy arose from and moulded his way of life. In antiquity all philosophical endeavour was ultimately conceived of as a way of life, in a manner which is quite alien to many modern traditions of philosophising. It may seem to many of us that the Neoplatonists with their often bewilderingly complex metaphysical speculations are an exception. But the intensity of their exploration of the transcendent is an important corrective to an over-concern with the external and a pointer to the centrality of the inner person. Such a philosophy, far from neglecting the issues of everyday living, takes it for granted that we begin the search for inner harmony only when we have ordered our external lives and that the discovery of the true self in turn enhances our relationship with others. It is partly in this spirit that Mark Edwards presents these two lives as introductions to the thought of the Neoplatonists through the more instantly understandable ways in which their ideas affected their lives. Plotinus is presented as a man who can be both contemplative and concerned for his friends at the same time; his house, for example, is full of orphans whom he helped to teach; Proclus not only spent many hours writing, composing hymns to the gods and practising a life of prayer, but also endless hours of lecturing and special sessions with advanced students, as well as advising politicians and even engaging in some practical politics. Throughout Mark Edwards points to the theoretical and doctrinal background to the lived lives of these philosophers. This is achieved through very detailed notes and an introduction which succeeds in presenting Plotinus and Proclus within the context of what is a long and complex philosophical tradition starting with Plato. It is one of the most compact and intelligent introductions I have come across, and because of his own special interests, does not neglect the element of Christianity nor the wider political, cultural and social factors. For anyone wishing to delve further into the philosophy of Neoplatonism there is a wealth of references to both the primary sources and to different strands of modern interpretation. But taken on its own this book will serve as a stimulating introduction to the world of late antiquity.