A review of John M. Rist,
The Road to Reality, Cambridge University Press, 1967, pp. vii, 280.
From Dialogue, vol. 7, issue 3 (1968) 499-502.
Hat tip to Professor
Michael Ewbank, specialist in medieval
philosophy, who responded to my request for the correct citation.
September 20, 2011
"Philosophy Is The Best
Commentary on a Philosopher"
John N. Deck
The Road to Reality is "intended for those who are
interested in a more detailed discussion of certain problems in Plotinus'
thought which have not always received the attention they deserve at the
hands of either classicists or philosophers." The "problems"
selected are the One's existence or non-existence, its infinity or
finitude, its knowledge or non-knowledge, the necessary emanation of free
creation of the Nous, the meaning of logos in Plotinus, free will vs
determinism, the alleged monism of Plotinus' mysticism, etc. The
documentation makes clear, however, that the problems treated are
precisely those that have received a great deal of attention from modern
The author's technique in many of the chapters is the
familiar one of setting up the "problem" from the secondary sources, then
a recourse to the "texts themselves" for its resolution. Rist's
resolutions are in many cases relatively sound, and reflect the
considerable success which modern Plotinian scholarship has achieved in
answering its own questions. The One exists, it is infinite, it has
some kind of cognition after all, the soul which is "oned" with the One is
not absolutely identical with the One, etc. What is palpably lacking
in this book, and has been lacking and badly needed in the last forty
years or so of interest in Plotinus, is a closer look at, a justification
of, these "problems" themselves.
deficiency, and the unfortunate results which can flow from it, are seen
very clearly in Rist's handling of the One's infinity. Yes—the One
is infinite, infinite in itself as well as infinite in power. So
"Infinite" becomes for Rist an important and philosophically fruitful
characterization of the One. But is the infinite-finite couplet
anything of any great moment to Plotinus? Is it important for
Plotinus inthe contrast between the Nous and the One? Or, if the
infinite-finite couplet is not prominent in Plotinus, is its philosophical
value such that Plotinus' philospohy should be recast according to its
requirements? Rist provides no justification for such a procedure,
but does not hesitate to follow it. Through the rest of The Road to
Reality the One is, functionally, "Infinite Being."
One "Being" at all? Plotinus says that the One is "beyond being."
What is "beyond being," someone might think, is the non-existent.
Thus arises the "problem": does the One exist? Rist's solution
is that, since being means for Plotinus finite being, Plotinus' One is
beyond finite being, is infinite being and so is not non-existent.
In other words, according to Rist, when Plotinus says "being" he does not
really mean being but a "kind" of being, and when he says "beyond being"
he does not really mean this but rather another kind of being.
Plotinus is being translated into into some other philosophic language.
No explanation for this is offered, but because the existence rather than
non-existence of the One is supposed to be vindicated by this procedure,
it may be hazarded that the language is that of someone to whom to-exist
and to-not-exist are real alternatives. "Being" for this person
means to-exist as a real alternative to to-not-exist. I would
suggest that (a) this is not a real alternative for Plotinus, any more
than for Parmenides or for the Stranger in Plato's Sophist and (b)
it has no insurmountable metaphysical value.
rate, it is by tactics such as these that Rist violently recasts Plotinus'
One as Infinite Being. In a loose fashion, it is true that this
designation is better than the one against which he is arguing, "finite
non-being." Both alternatives, however, are outside of Plotinus, who
neither did nor could designate the One by either of these phrases.
Plotinus scholarship has corrected itself. But the philosopher
himself is virtually untouched.
chapter on Emanation and Necessity continues the modern commentators' game
of balancing Plotinus' statements on the necessary generation of the Nous
by the One against his meditations on the will and liberty of the One in
Enneads VI, 8. Rist's conclusion is that since the One is as
it wills to be, it wills itself to b such as to produce the Nous, and
therefore its production of the Nous is as free as it itself is.
Even within the artificial limits of Rist's solution there are serious
difficulties. To name but one, the One may will itself to be such
that it necessarily produce the Nous. "Necessary" has other meanings
than "unconditionally necessary."
is mainly at fault here again is Rist's method: his reliance on modern
commentators to pose the problem. Some, indeed many, have said that
there is no "free creation" in Plotinus. The author accepts the
implied challenge, and finds a way to say that there is free
creation. At least three things are missing: an analysis of what
"free creation" really means (the source of "free creation" is presumably
Christian theology), an assessment of the worth of "free creation" as a
metaphysical notion, and an assessment of the necessity and value of
bringing this alien notion to bear on Plotinus.
seems to me scarcely an accident that one who is preoccupied with the
commentators' freedom vs necessity question will misread Plotinus'
statement that the One is "greater than all willing" (by taking an
explanation to be a qualification, Rist p. 78), or will altogether miss
Plotinus insight that the One is above freedom and necessity.
"Above freedom and necessity" is not, of course, the textual answer
either. Taken by itself, it invites the rejoinder "Oh, well, the One
is above everything anyway. It is ineffable." The phrase is
pregnant with meaning only when coupled with a fairly complete awareness
of Plotinus' careful meditation upon the "freedom" of the One.
controls for the chapter on Logos are Philo Judaeus and A. H. Armstrong.
In the chapter on Soul, Plotinus is made to furnish his own control: his
doctrine of the descent of the soul is measured by his middle-level
polemic "Against the Gnostics." In both chapters the author's
preoccupation with these extraneous matters effectively blocks any
profound investigation. The treatment of the "descent of the soul"
is especially light. Plotinus' loose ends are hastily caught up, his
deep inconsistencies quickly smoothed over.
often-affirmed relevance to Plotinus to persistent human psychological,
metaphysical and gnoseological experience must not be taken for granted,
but must be re-thought and clearly displayed. This is something
which Dean Inge understood very well had to be done, but it has scarecely
been attempted since. Beyond this, his metaphysics just be brought
into free play with the thinking of practising metaphysicians. Only
then can it be seen for what it is. Philosophy is the best
commentary on a philosopher.