E. R. Dodds (essay date 1928)
SOURCE: “The Parmenides of Plato and the Origin of the Neoplatonic ‘One’,” in The Classical Quarterly, Vol. XXII, Nos. 3-4, July-October, 1928, pp. 129-42.
[In the following essay, Dodds traces Plato's influence on the thought of Plotinus.]
expedition to the East with a view to studying the philosophy of Persia and India, but failed to get there; and that on one occasion he accepted the invitation of an Egyptian priest to take part in a spiritualistic seance arranged by the priest at the Iseum in Rome.1 Add to this the fact that in one passage, dealing with the theory of Beauty,2 he expresses his admiration of the Egyptian hieroglyphs; and that (like Plato) he compares philosophy to an initiation into the mysteries—perhaps in his case the Isiac mysteries,3 and perhaps not. Even so might an Englishman, educated and perhaps born in India, take advantage of a punitive expedition to study comparative religion on the North-West Frontier, and of an invitation to a Tantrist temple to see something of Indian devil-worship; he might even praise the sacred sculpture of Benares, and adorn his style with occasional allusions to the car of Juggernaut. We know with certainty that Plotinus' name is Roman, and that he wrote the idiomatic Greek of a native speaker; he may have been an expert in Egyptian religion, but all that he tells us on the subject could have been picked up on a Cook's tour.
The second method of proof is much simpler, since it rests entirely on negative evidence. Certain thoughts and points of view are shared by Plotinus with earlier writers who have been given their passports as ‘true Greeks’; these are deducted from the sum total of Plotinus' system, and the residuum is labelled ‘oriental.’ Three assumptions are involved in this labelling: That the labeller has a safe criterion for distinguishing the ‘true Greeks’ from the half-breeds among Plotinus' prodecessors; that he is intimately familiar with the whole of ‘true Greek’ literature, both with what has survived and with what has not; and, lastly, that Plotinus never invented anything for himself, but composed his works by copying out passages from ‘authorities.’ Clearly these are large assumptions. If we are to avoid making them, we must find convincing parallels between specific passages in Plotinus and specific passages of non-Hellenized oriental religious literature. Perhaps the orientalists will one day help us there. Until such parallels are forthcoming4 it seems to me wisest to maintain a position of [épokhé] on the whole question and in the meantime see what can be made of possible sources nearer home.
This was in substance the advice of Zeller, who called attention to the existence of such sources in Stoicism, Neopythagoreanism, and Middle Platonism. They are scattered and for the most part fragmentary. In the last fifty years German scholars like Schmekel and Praechter have done a good deal to illuminate them and bind them together; but easily the most important contribution to the question since Zeller is contained in Werner Jaeger's brilliantly written book Nemesios von Emesa—a book which has not yet received in this country the attention it merits, perhaps because it was published on the eve of the war. Jaeger shows, in my judgment convincingly, that some characteristic Neoplatonic doctrines, in particular the notion of … the universe as a spiritual continuum extending through a definite series of media from the supreme God to bare Matter—go back to the Platonizing Stoic source which the Germans have agreed to call Poseidonius. Jaeger indeed would be more precise, and say that most of them went back to Poseidonius' commentary on the Timaeus—the epoch-making commentary thanks to which, he tells us, the Plato of the Timaeus is the Plato of Neoplatonism and of the Renaissance. He concludes that Poseidonius was the true father of Neoplatonism; had but Poseidonius found a place for the Platonic Ideas there would have been nothing left for Plotinus to do!5vIt is apparent that Jaeger has here allowed his discovery to carry him too fast and too far. Poseidonius left out something far more essential to Neoplatonism than the Ideas (which Plotinus might at a pinch have dispensed with had he not found them in Plato): Poseidonius left out the One. If there is one doctrine more than another which the tradition justifies our accepting as echt-Poseidonisches it is his definition of God as ‘a fiery breath which thinks,’6 which has no shape of its own, but changes into what it chooses and assimilates itself to all things. Poseidonius' highest principle is thus material, immanent (though in varying grades of immanence), and of the same stuff as the human intellect. But the Plotinian doctrine of an undifferenced ground of all existence, transcending not only Matter but Mind, creative without will or causality, unknowable save in the unio mystica, having no character save the character of being a ground—this is the part of Plotinus' system which has at all times impressed itself most deeply on his readers.
It is also—and very surprisingly, I think—the part which historians have found most difficulty in accounting for. Zeller called it ‘a dialectical development from Stoicism,’7 and asserted that it appeared first in Plotinus;8 Monrad found it ‘oriental’ in contrast with the echt hellenischen doctrine of [nous];9 Vacherot, Guyot, and others derive it from Philo, despite the profound difference in point of view between Philo and Plotinus, and despite the fact that Philo repeatedly calls his God öv and voûs.10 Some have thought of Numenius or Alcinous (whom we are now taught to call Albinus); but the God of both these writers remains a superior voûs,11 and neither of them speaks of him as the One. Others, more reasonably, have been reminded of the One and the Indeterminate Dyad in some Neopythagoreans and in Aristotle's version of Plato's metaphysic. But, oddly enough, apart from a passing reference in Whittaker's book all the professed historians of Neoplatonism whom I have read ignore for some reason the obvious Platonic source.
Think of a principle of unity which so completely transcends all plurality that it refuses every predicate, even that of existence; which is neither in motion nor at rest, neither in time nor in space; of which we can say nothing, not even that it is identical with itself or different from other things: and side by side with this, a second principle of unity, containing the seeds of all the contraries—a principle which, if we once grant it existence, proceeds to pluralize itself indefinitely in a universe of existent unities. If for the moment we leave fragments out of account and consider only the extant works of Greek philosophers before the age of Plotinus, there is one passage and so far as I know one passage only, where these thoughts receive connected expression—namely, the first and second ‘hypotheses’ in the second part of Plato's Parmenides. Plotinus ignored one or two of the more fanciful conclusions reached in these hypotheses; and to some of those which he adopted he gave a new turn. …
Small wonder that Plotinus13 regarded the Platonic Parmenides as a great improvement on his historical prototype; that Iamblichus14 considered the Parmenides and the Timaeus as the only Platonic dialogues indispensable to salvation; that Proclus15 found in the Parmenides, and there only, the complete system of Platonic theology. Read the second part of the Parmenides as Plotinus read it, with the single eye of faith; do not look for satire on the Megarians or on anybody else; and you will find in the first hypothesis a lucid exposition of the famous ‘negative theology,’ and in the second (especially if you take it in connexion with the fourth) an interesting sketch of the derivation of a universe from the marriage of unity and existence. What you will find in the remaining hypotheses I cannot so easily predict; even within the Neoplatonic school there were violent differences of opinion about them16—differences which I must not attempt to discuss here, as they would carry me too far from the main intention of this paper.
Even as regards the first two hypotheses, it is no part of my purpose to argue that the Neoplatonic valuation is an entirely just one; Parmenides' description of his own performance …,17 taken in conjunction with the obvious fallacies in which some of the hypotheses abound, should be sufficient to warn us against assuming that all his conclusions necessarily found a place in Plato's own system. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the Idea of the Good, no less than the ‘One’ of the first hypothesis, is beyond Being. … Moreover, some of the most important discoveries of the later Platonic logic, especially the distinction between absolute and relative non-Being, appear first in the Parmenidean hypotheses—surely an odd way to publish them, if these speculations are pure fun. However that may be, I have difficulty in understanding the present position of so distinguished a scholar as Professor A. E. Taylor, who, when he meets with the negative theology in Proclus or the schoolmen,18 takes it seriously as a necessary and salutary ‘moment’ of religious experience, but when he meets it in the Parmenides, describes it as ‘a highly-enjoyable philosophical jest.’19 Professor Taylor cannot well have it both ways: what is sauce for all the little Neoplatonic and medieval geese should also be sauce for their parent, the great Platonic gander.
But is Plato indeed the parent, or only the putative father of these theological bantlings? It may be urged that the Plotinian interpretation of the Parmenides is a complete misunderstanding; that important philosophies are not built solely on the misunderstanding of other philosophies, or, if they are, the misunderstanding is not accidental; that the Neoplatonists notoriously found in Plato whatever they wished to find (‘Hic liber est in quo quaerit sua dogmata quisque’); and that, in fine, the Neoplatonic interpretation of the Parmenides is subsequent to the rise...
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