Plotinus and Heliodorus have seldom been mentioned in the same sentence until now. There is a score of reasons that justify their segregation. The principal one is that the former is the founder of a philosophical school that transforms Platonism into a thriving intellectual force, shaping the ideological landscape of late antiquity, whereas the latter, a Christian bishop of Trikka, is the author of one of the most elaborate Greek novels, the Aethiopica, telling the love adventures of a young couple. In this juxtaposition, the only common thing between Plotinus and Heliodorus seems to be their proximity in time. A closer examination of their treatment of the concept of love, however, suggests otherwise.
This paper will examine Plotinus’ allegorical interpretation of the myth of Aphrodite in Enneads III.5 and VI.9.35 and Heliodorus’ literary allegory of the Platonic understanding of soul enciphered in the character of his female protagonist, Chariklea. In so doing this examination will analyze two of allegory’s aspects: allegory as a tool of philosophical interpretation of myth, as found in Plotinus, and allegory as a literary trope, as evidenced in Heliodorus. Both types of allegories work towards the same end: to convey the philosophical conception of the transcendence of higher metaphysical realities. The notion of allegory, as Struck has argued (2010), is embedded in Plotinus’ understanding of the three-tiered organization of the universe which implies that behind every tier lies another hidden metaphysical source and especially that behind soul’s material manifestation lies a higher metaphysical reality. Plotinus’ concept of the two natures of soul, the undescended and the descended, lends itself perfectly to the mythological bifurcation of Aphrodite as οá½ρανÎ¯α and πÎ¬νδημος (Enn. III.5.8-9; Enn. VI.9.35). His hieratic utterance that “every soul is Aphrodite” (Enn. VI.9.35.31) captures Aphrodite’s noble birth and her ‘fallen-ness’. For him, “in the garden of Zeus” (Enn. III.5.9.22), Aphrodite οá½ρανÎ¯α is united with her father and comes into existence in love with god like “the noble love of a girl for her noble father” (Enn. VI.9.35.34-35), while in its fallen form, Aphrodite πÎ¬νδημος is “deceived by the blandishments of her suitors, she changes, bereft of her father, to a mortal love and is shamed” (Enn. VI.9 35.36-37). This Aphrodite, for Plotinus, is “a kind of whore” (Enn. VI.9.35.31). While Plotinus seeks philosophical truth in the myth of Aphrodite’s birth, Heliodorus explores its literary plasticity. He crafts Chariklea’s character as an allegory of soul’s duality--Aphrodite οá½ρανÎ¯α and πÎ¬νδημος, the rational and irrational parts of soul. His novel creates a Platonic landscape of desire and philosophical salvation not unlike Plotinus’ treatment of soul as an Aphrodite. Like Plotinus’ motherless Aphrodite οá½ρανÎ¯α (á¼€μÎ®τορα, Enn. III.5.2.18), Heliodorus’ Chariklea is introduced as raised without a mother (á¼€μÎ®τορες, Aethiopica 188.8.131.52). But the divine light in her eyes (Aethiopica 2.31.1), her chastity and her filial dutifulness (Aethiopica 6.9.4) hint at her extraordinary birth. Unlike Plotinus’ Aphrodite πÎ¬νδημος, however, when struck by love, Chariklea successfully controls her erotic desires and remains pure. In the words of one of her suitors, “it is not for bodily pleasure (πÎ¬νδημον á¼ˆφροδÎ¯την) that I have decided that she should be mine” (Aethiopica 1.19.6).
These are only the preliminary findings of the allegorical web between Heliodorus’ portrayal of Chariklea and Plotinus’ interpretation of the myth of Aphrodite οá½ρανÎ¯α and πÎ¬νδημος. Both authors use allegory as a versatile tool of segregating and aggregating philosophical truth and literary form. The changing world of Heliodorus sends a powerful message of redesigning, on Platonic terms, the philosophical landscape from the Garden of Epicurus with its fleeting sensuality (Aethiopica 1.16.5), to the Garden of Zeus, the allegorical place where Aphrodite/Soul is united with the One (Enn. III.5.8). To do so one needs the contemplative acumen of Plotinus and the literary brush of Heliodorus.