Plotinus has popped up a few times recently in my current reading (and listening). He was a bit part of The Climax of Rome by Michael Grant that I posted on, underpinning much of the introspective shift in culture in third century Rome. He was portrayed as instrumental in the intellectual development of Augustine in Robin Lane Fox’s superb biography Conversions to Confessions. And I have been thoroughly enjoying Peter Adamson’s podcast The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps), in which his work also plays a major role.
However, through all that, I found Plotinus hard to pin down. There is a big element of mysticism in his philosophy and it is difficult to tell how to take it, and how his contemporary and successors would have received it. Pierre Hadot‘s short book is a great introduction to the man (what little we know of him) and his work. In particular, Hadot manages to portray Plotinus as a teacher who was offering a spiritual way of life.
Basing his work on that of Plato and Aristotle, the pagan Plotinus developed ideas that would soon find their way into early Christianity. His spiritual exercises and warnings against too much focus on earthly matters seems distant, but Hadot also shows a man who was grounded enough to join Gordian‘s invasion of Persia (in an attempt to learn more Eastern philosophy), teach lively classes with a wide range of influential students (there was even talk of the emperor Gallienus letting him start a Platonic city!), and show great kindness and awareness of those around him.
Hadot’s enthusiasm and admiration for Plotinus’ (and his student Porphyry’s) writing shines through, and although the book is a mere hundred pages I finished it with a lot more appreciation for the culture that surrounded these neo-Platonic thinkers.
Back in August, I wrote a post on Peter Adamson’s podcast series The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps). You can find more in depth thoughts in that post but, to be brief, I liked it a lot. It was clear, fun with an approachable structure that moved forward and built on what had gone before (both in philosophy and in the in-jokes). Adamson, a university professor, created the show in collaboration with the Leverhulme Trust and had on an array of academic guests to talk over the topics in detail.
The first section involved the greats of Greek philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It also covered many of their predecessors (this is “without any gaps” after all) with such big names as Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras. So where do we go next? Well, in his Late Antiquity section we begin with more Greek philosophers (including more household names) before moving on to the dominance of Plato and Aristotle in neo-Platonism, and finally the early Christian church.
Continue reading Post 55: History of Philosophy part 2
Covering the entire history of philosophy in one go is a tough challenge. Even covering an (so far) unfinished podcast series on the history of philosophy is pretty daunting. Peter Adamson in his series History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps) makes it as easy as possible though, with an approachable and accessible style and structure. Each podcast episode is twenty to thirty minutes in length and covers a single philosopher or a single topic; generally following on in chronological fashion. The website is rather handily divided into broad eras (so far Classical, Later Antiquity and Islamic) which are then subdivided into smaller sections – this makes things easily navigable, but it is a continuous podcast and episodes do link neatly from one to the next (with the occasional interview episode). Unlike many podcasts, which are run by enthusiastic amateurs, this is run by an enthusiastic professor (based at King’s College London and LMU in Munich) with support from the Leverhulme Trust. Don’t be intimidated though, it works like the rest but perhaps with more confidence and an impression series of knowledgeable guests.
Continue reading Post 37: History of Philosophy part 1