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Pauliina Remes / Svetla Slaveva-Griffin (eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism, London / New York: Routledge 2014, XI + 644 S., ISBN 978-1-844-65626-4, USD 205,00
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Rezension von:
Ryan C. Fowler
Classics Department, Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, PA
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Ryan C. Fowler: Rezension von: Pauliina Remes / Svetla Slaveva-Griffin (eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism, London / New York: Routledge 2014, in: sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 2 [15.02.2016], URL:

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Pauliina Remes / Svetla Slaveva-Griffin (eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism

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This handbook is timely. In their Introduction, the editors of this volume, Pauliina Remes and Svetla Slaveva-Griffin, note rightly that, "even when the publishers' catalogues are laden with state-of-the-art companions, guides and histories in every field," the appearance of such a Handbook is momentous, perhaps even a "rite of passage." (1)

Undoubtedly the frequency of studies of Neoplatonist authors has changed significantly in the past twenty years, and the Handbook's 32-page bibliography of modern works provides some information about the trajectory of the field. 54 publications on Neoplatonic topics published before 1950 are listed. The number of publications after 1950 increases substantially (nearly doubling every decade: from 23 [1950-1959] to 55 [1960-1969], 76 [1970-1979], and then 144 [published in the decade between 1980-1989]). The 1990s saw a jump to 197 publications on Neoplatonic topics, but it is between 2000-2009 in which, as listed in the bibliography, there is an increase to 348 publications. Furthermore, so far in the current decade (between 2010 and somewhere in 2013), there are 132 published works, indicating that research on the Neoplatonists will again see a significant increase in this decade. In other words, of the 1020 some-odd publications listed in the bibliography from The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism, 80% (821) have been published since 1981, and nearly 50% of the total works in the bibliography have emerged since 2000 (480, total).

While these numbers are not proof of anything, per se (moreover, of course, the publication date of academic work does not necessarily reflect the dates they were begun), they might at least reflect scholarly interest in specific topics, and, in the case of this volume, strongly indicate that work on Neoplatonism has been increasing at a high rate and has even picked up speed, especially in the last decade. A prolific phase in the scholastic history of Neoplatonism seems to have arrived.

Since this handbook is made up of 33 contributions consisting of 644 pages (with indices), I will not be able to concisely express the depth and breadth of the scholarship found in the volume. Therefore, I will describe the major and minor divisions of the work, and in order to outline the larger topics covered I will discuss how one more standard topic is handled, and then what might be seen as a less obvious and certainly interesting contribution. I will end with a note on the term "Neoplatonism" itself.

The volume is divided into seven parts: after a ten-page general Introduction, we find Part I. "(Re)sources, Instruction and Interaction"; II. "Methods and Styles of Exegesis"; III. "Metaphysics and Metaphysical Perspectives"; IV. "Language, Knowledge, Soul and Self"; V. "Nature: Physics, Medicine and Biology"; VI. "Ethics, Political Theory and Aesthetics"; and VII. "Legacy" (each of the sections begin with smaller sectional introductions). At the end of the work is a list of contributors, bibliography, index of passages cited, and a general index.

As the editors suggest in their introduction (7-8), Parts I and II deal with the texts and archeological remains that make up the two material sources for understanding Neoplatonism; Part III, with metaphysics, the "core" of the Neoplatonic system, which is in turn the "point of departure" from which unfolds the top-down understanding of reality and the soul as presented in Parts IV and V; Part VI reflects how the human realm continues to unfold (this section, the editors write, reflects "the new, improved understanding of Neoplatonism as an organically developed whole of interrelated ontological entities and processes"); and Part VII focuses on the main directions of Neoplatonic legacy (namely, Eastern and Western Christianity, Islam, and Judaism). Each part is composed of three to six contributions, which themselves range between seven and twenty-five pages in length (with an average of just under 15 pages).

The first contribution by Harold Tarrant ("Platonist curricula and their influence") provides an important ingress into the volume. Tarrant begins by reminding us how much our exposure to certain works influences our own interests and priorities, and that the established Iamblichian curriculum had the same sort of impact on Neoplatonists by causing them to focus on "subtleties and ironies of certain sorts, and failing to see others" (15). Further, however, this curriculum, which lasted for several generations, did not emerge from a vacuum, but was a product of a mix of texts that Plotinus and Porphyry had made central to their own work; questions of curriculum and reading order had been the subject of discussions in the centuries before Plotinus. Tarrant's discussion moves through the various early Platonic reading and teaching orders (for example, the development of the Thrasyllan tetralogies, as well as Albinus' suggested organizations, which seem to follow a student's ability and personal circumstances); Plutarch's disinterest in reading orders; the Plotinian curriculum (which primarily included passages from dialogues, and not a formal organization); up to Porphyry's arrangement, which shows agreement with Iamblichus' later twelve dialogue arrangement of Plato. He ends his contribution with the fates of Plato and Aristotle as handled by those bookends of late-antique Platonism, Ammonius Hermiae and Olympiodorus. As a result, Tarrant looks at the influence of the so-called Middle Platonists, but shows that, relatively speaking, the Platonic curriculum changed very little for the Neoplatonists. This view in turn reflects the Handbook's editors' notion of Neoplatonism as a "stabilizing factor, of a kind" "[i]n the constantly changing, fractured, world of intellectual and ideological allegiance" (1) of the third and fourth centuries CE.

A surprise contribution (to me), and a welcome one, is Suzanne Stern-Gillet's "Plotinus on metaphysics and morality." There was a time, as Stern-Gillet begins (396), in which a number of scholars either disparaged any ethical reflections they found in the Enneads, or denied that Plotinus had an ethics at all. Indeed, as she states, the nature of Plotinus' ethics remains a hotly debated issue in studies of Neoplatonism, and, since there has not yet emerged a dominant interpretation on the subject, she looks to identify the assumptions of the debate so far and to reassess the relevant passages. Stern-Gillet divides the criticisms of Neoplatonic ethics into three categories: first, there is the basic assumption that Plotinus downplayed something we would consider to be essential for a moral life: that is, the needs and entitlements of others; second, that Plotinus' reflections on ethics are essentially "negative"; and third, that Plotinus was "somewhat contradictory" on ethical matters (396-397). That is, teaching, as an action excepted from the sage's self-sufficiency, could be seen as a distraction for the soul; however, it might also be seen, at least theoretically, to allow the soul to fully perform.

Stern-Gillet argues that the debate has emerged primarily because of the types of assumptions modern scholars have brought to it (primarily by reading into Plotinus the anachronistic expectation that ethics must consider the reconciliation between self-interest and the interests of others). That is, as the editors put it in the sectional introduction to Part I, the mistake these scholars make is in imagining that the primary axis of Neoplatonism is self/other, rather than higher/lower (393). The "variation" of Plotinus' ethics, then, reflects the "amphibious" reality of the soul: sometimes Plotinus advises that she ought to allow her body to flourish, which may include engaging in the world of men; elsewhere he advises her to give the body what it needs (not what it wants), thereby allowing her to return to the higher realities (417). Stern-Gillet's ability to provide a clear assessment of this debate, and then reassess the evidence in light of the assumptions discussed, is a very helpful addition to the volume.

Some of these pieces, or portions of them, can be found elsewhere; others, I think, cannot (e.g., Andrew Smith's 'The non-commentary tradition'). To have all of these contributions collected together in one place is invaluable; this is a highly instructive and important volume in the history of Neoplatonic studies, one that contains contributions by some of the most prolific and helpful guides in the field. I will venture that some degree of coverage can be found for any topic on Neoplatonism a student or a professional classicist might want to familiarize him- or herself with (or at least learn more about the major controversies regarding interpretation).

Neoplatonism has not always been thought of as a viable subject of study within the disciplines of classics or philosophy. As Remes and Slaveva-Griffin mention, taken from the perspective of the golden age of Greek ancient philosophy in Athens in the late fifth and fourth centuries BCE, Neoplatonism "can be easily seen as the unwanted stepchild of this period of Classical ancient philosophy which earnestly but inanely tries to dovetail with this illustrious ancestry" (1). With the increased interest in post-Classical thought throughout the twentieth century, however, Neoplatonism can no longer be dismissed as an "in-vitro offspring of Platonism, which attempts to work out the quirks of Middle Platonism..." (2). This sort of picture evaluating literature from the past to be derivative is of course not new (consider 19th-century evaluations about the literature of the Second Sophistic). That said, the more recent discussion in the field is less about the banality of these texts, but concerns the term itself, and its history.

As the editors suggest, the term captures something less than a unified phenomenon in the history of philosophy. First, they discuss in section introductions (especially in Parts I and VII) the impossibility of marking the chronological boundaries of the school (3). The concept of Neoplatonism, as they mention, is "perhaps paradoxically" not explored in this volume "primarily through Platonic or ancient means," but is viewed instead through a lens relating more to Wittgenstein's idea of "family resemblance." The ideas expressed in the volume, then, "diverge as to what, exactly, counts as Neoplatonic" (3).

The editors squarely engage this sticky problem first by discussing Leo Catana's 2013 piece in which he argues that by acknowledging the rise of the division between Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism by Brucker in the 18th century, we should recognize that "the division is untenable and we ought to abandon it." [1] As they also admit, this injunction reflects Lloyd Gerson's decision for The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity not to use the term (for his argument, cf. vol. 1.1-10, at 3, as quoted by the editors of the Handbook (3-4)).

The Handbook's editors have divided their defense of their use of the term into three main categories: "linguistic," "pragmatic," and "interpretive." First, despite the term's initial, pejorative beginnings, the existence of first-rate scholarship (ironically, like that reflected in Gerson's History) is the best way to ameliorate its negative past. (As a side note, while it is true, as they note, that pejorative terms do not always stay such, the "neo-" prefix has for some time given an impression that the school is in fact somehow new, and not a grouping of texts to some extent comprised of various attempts to comment on philosophical problems and discussions as articulated by both Plato and various phases of the Academy [cf. Plotinus' expression of this line of thinking at Enn. V.1.8.10-14]). Second, "Platonism" (even "late Platonism") is simply too large an umbrella to be able to distinguish the branch of Platonism that they want to focus on. (At the same time, I wonder if defining their object as "the interpretation of Plato that gets its full expression in the Enneads of Plotinus in the third century CE and continues in such central figures as Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus and many others" (4) flies in the face of the previous suggestion that the concept of "Neoplatonism is explored...not primarily through Platonic or ancient means," quoted above.) Third, they believe that the term "Neoplatonism" captures a phenomenon, and allows for further discussion "whether this unity could be something stronger than a family resemblance, and described through a list of shared background assumptions, convictions or doctrines" (4).

In the subsequent list they give, which matches Gerson's definition of "Platonism" [2] (paraphrased by them at length (4-5)), the editors suggest that Neoplatonism should contain all the features of Platonism, but should "be open for a more detailed description." Again, there seems to be a suggestion that Neoplatonism is a subset of Platonism ("the very field which founds its identity upon the study of Plato" [7]), and is something more than merely a subset of Platonism. The singular verb used in some paragraphs after the explanation given above (for example, "Since Neoplatonism has holistically thought out its principles..." (5)) seems to complicate the insistence on the plurality of perspectives and divergence of thought of the authors treated in this volume on page 3, and suggests more than a family resemblance. I spend so much time on this point because an answer to this debate seems to have not yet necessarily emerged, and whether authors use "Neoplatonism" affects not only issues of tradition and genre, but also the inclusion of some less orthodox authors of the time.

Understood as shorthand for a group of various more or less 'Platonistic' ideas into a grand expression of Platonic philosophy that is generally speaking temporally bound (and basically traced back to Plotinus), in which there is almost nothing that can be pointed to as an essential element, the term can be argued to have value (perhaps more value than the term "Middle Platonism," at this point), especially as studies of authors writing during and after the third century who are engaged with Platonic problems and issues continue to increase. That said, however, the term Neoplatonism still can be seen to have a pejorative connotation, but, more to the point, it is still used to demarcate a group of authors who are thought to have deviated from Plato on matters of principle. Alternatively, by tracing some of the first articulations of a number of ideas that are considered today to be 'Neoplatonist' back to Xenocrates, or Hermetic-Gnostics, or Platonizing Jewish and Christian thinkers (which I think we can), then Neoplatonism could be thought to have begun more or less after Plato's death. (To paraphrase one way it has been explained to me: these authors are no more Neoplatonist than Thomas Aquinas is a NeoChristian.)

The editors suggest that this volume is designed to be of use by "the newly inspired graduate or postgraduate who is still looking for the forest after seeing the trees or looking for the trees after seeing the forest, as well as for the expert who is interested to find on state-of-the-art discussions, diversity of views, and perhaps kernels of new ideas" (10). With regard to that goal they have succeeded. They do acknowledge (I think rightly) that a number of chapters (for example, those on metaphysics, psychology, and epistemology) require previous familiarity with the topic. This volume is, as they say, a snapshot of the current scholarship on Neoplatonic topics, not a self-study.

Given its price (which is currently, according to the publisher's website, $240.00), I imagine this volume would be a library purchase for many; regardless, The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism is an invaluable volume for anyone interested in the most current interpretive debates about these authors and their work.


[1] L. Catana: The Origin of the Division between Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism, Apeiron 46 (2012), 166.

[2] L. Gerson: What is Platonism?, JHP 43 (2005), 253-76.

Ryan C. Fowler