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The Inspired Commentator: Plotinus’ Doxographical Ascent

Michael Griffin

Porphyry portrays Plotinus as an unusually interactive and dialectical teacher. His meetings
in Rome (sunousiai, VP 1,14; 9,1) avoided set lectures and adopted a conversational tone (homilia,
5,5; 7,2), emphasizing question and answer (18,5-6). Debates were executed through the exchange
of student essays (15,1-17), which also served as a venue for the teaching and exposition of
central doctrines (18,8-24). When a guest visited Plotinus’ circle in search of ‘general
arguments… suitable for writing down in a treatise’ (katholou logoi… eis biblia), he was surprised
by a long exchange of puzzles and solutions (aporiai and luseis, 13,13-18), leaning on the circle’s
regular readings from a wide-ranging cross-section of philosophical commentary (hupomnēmata,
14,10-14). Since Plotinus treated his conclusions as emergent from such discussions (13,16-18),
he rarely cast his views in deductive terms (sullogistikai anankai, 18,7), and preferred to
emphasize his debt to his teacher (14,21) and predecessors (e.g. Enn. 3.7.1); the resulting mirage
of unoriginality was so compelling that his senior pupils fielded accusations of plagiarism
That is one thread of Plotinus’ temperament—dialogical, historically minded, and focused
on the solution of commentarial puzzles (aporiai)—that is familiar to any reader of the Enneads.
A second thread, however, seems to run in the opposite direction. Plotinus composed as if he was
“inspired” (enthousiōn kai ekpathōs, 14,2), writing up entire treatises in one sitting (8,8-10),
drawing “unique” conclusions (idios… en tēi theōriāi, 14,15-16), and applying something new—a
kind of phenomenological intuition (nous, 14,16: perhaps anticipating the “noēra theōria” later
credited to Iamblichus)—to difficult points of doctrine and exegesis. The style of the resulting
treatises startled contemporaries like Longinus, who thought something had gone wrong with the
manuscripts (19,7-42). Porphyry explains that Plotinus’ methods were peculiar to him; the
dialectical process itself took the form of a kind of ‘ascent’ (cf. Plot. Enn. 1.3.1,5-6) comparable to
Diotima’s ladder in Plato’s Symposium (VP 23,4-17).
This paper will explore the interplay between these two facets of Plotinus’ written
methodology, self-presentation, and style: his rootedness in a doxographically rich commentary
tradition, coupled with his tendency to structure treatises around a topical “ascent” toward a
culminating “inspiration” that struck Porphyry and other contemporaries as thoroughly fresh. I
will highlight Plotinus’ way of framing perspectives from the Epicurean, Stoic, Aristotelian, and
Platonic traditions, and argue for the common sequence of his presentation of these four schools
across a spectrum of treatises in the Enneads, ranging from the direct (e.g. 1.6 [1]) to the densely
scholastic (4.7 [2]). For Plotinus, the position adopted by each of these schools is not only of
historical interest, but represents a hierarchical ladder of viewpoints on each question: for
instance, in 4.7, a materialistic reduction of the soul (alluding to Epicurus) is followed and
corrected by Stoic corporealism, corrected in turn by Aristotelian hylemorphism and finally by
Plato. This general structure of doxographical ascent, I suggest, can be found across many of the
treatises, and represents an underlying assignment of each of the schools to a particular “level” of
being and understanding. In many ways, as Porphyry seems to imply (VP 23,4-17), the structure
of the Plotinian treatise takes its cue from the sequence of speeches in the Symposium, and like
the speech of Diotima, culminates in inspiration.
I conclude by exploring some implications of this reading of the methodology of Plotinus as
a commentator, emphasizing in particular his success in laying the ground work for later
Neoplatonic commentary in two dimensions: the practice of “hierarchical” exegesis and
doxography, locating different predecessors at different “levels” of being and understanding, and
the practice of commentary as a kind of spiritual exercise and “ascent” in its own right (cf.
Simplic. in Cat. 3,2-9).

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The Commentary and the Making of Philosophy

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