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  • Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice by Stephen R. L. Clark
  • Sarah Klitenic Wear
Stephen R. L. Clark. Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. xxi, 344. $55.00. ISBN 978-0-226-33967-2.

This is an original contribution to Plotinus studies, a breed different from studies rooted in a history of philosophy approach to the Enneads. Clark views the Enneads as a piece of literature, filled with images, myths, and metaphors to be cracked open by the reader; and he sees the interpretation of these myths and images in the Enneads as part of a larger spiritual exercise. The pleasure of reading these myths, according to Clark, fundamentally alters the reader’s imagination, facilitating a virtuous life. What Clark essentially offers the reader is a lectio divina approach to reading Plotinus; such an approach not only enriches our understanding of Plotinus, but—potentially—the very life of the reader.

Clark explores Plotinian myths and metaphors by appeal to a wide range of authors (William Blake, Gregory Nazianzen, and Stephen Hawking, for instance, are cited one after the other in the interpretation of a given passage). The idea behind this comparative approach is the belief that the Enneads describe aspects of reality and human phenomena. The images in the text can be enlightened by other writers of any genre who touch on the same reality and human phenomena.

A religious exercise, however, fundamentally underlies a reading that goes beyond the literal or purely philosophical meaning of the text. Clark shows us that the images in the Enneads are part of a spiritual exercise that puts the philosophy of Plotinus into practice. In this way, Clark’s volume builds on research conducted on Neoplatonic allegory, as well as on studies on theurgy, particularly Proclus’ use of myth as theurgic. Clark’s attention to Plotinus’ spiritual [End Page 282] technique for reading myth and images focuses on how they “change the way we live. Plotinus’s goal was to clarify our thinking and to facilitate our virtuous way of living,” as the author explains in the preface. Herein lies the import of Clark’s volume. Plotinian studies have included notable editions, translations, commentaries, and studies; now scholars need to move to a new phase of research that questions why Plotinus asked the questions he did, why he was interested in particular images, and why all of this is applicable to the lives of modern man.

Clark’s own practice of exegesis offers a literal reading and a historical/philosophical explanation of a passage. Finally, he employs writers from other genres who discuss the same reality as Plotinus, all in an effort to unfold the true meaning of Plotinus’ myth or metaphor for the reality of the reader’s life. Chapter 5, “Naked and Alone,” exemplifies Plotinian lectio divina in a reading of, 4–9, where one must attain the intelligible world by stripping off what was “put on in [the] descent.” First, Clark says that Plotinus alludes to the one who goes to celebrate the sacred rites by first stripping off his clothes. Second, he outlines how, historically, philosophers have used this image to show how one must put aside distractions in order to enter the contemplation of intelligible reality. Finally, Clark shows how the passage teaches us, the readership, right now, to look inward, putting all other things aside. As we read this passage of the Enneads, Plotinus wants us to engage in the act of putting away all other thoughts so as to contemplate the intelligible. Clark explores this meaning by posing to the reader a variety of texts with similar messages: from the Upanishads to A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. These other texts help the reader to enter into contemplation of Plotinus’ writings.

This book is highly enjoyable. Clark’s volume itself functions as a spiritual guide to reading Plotinus; it poses Plotinian images in a nontraditional way that forces us, the readers, to adjust the lens through which we read. This is the true genius of the study. Clark changes the reader’s “underlying mind-set” (his term). His...


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pp. 282-283
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