Plato and Plotinus on Mysticism, Epistemology, and Ethics by David J. Yount
This book is Yount's second installment in the Bloomsbury Studies in Ancient Philosophy. It comes on the heels of his debut in the series with Plotinus the Platonist: A Comparative Account of Plato and Plotinus' Metaphysics (2014). The titles of both works clearly indicate what is close to Yount's heart; and he delivers, here as well as previously, the same passionate defense that there is an essentially inseparable connection between the philosophies of Plato and Plotinus. This stance may come as a surprise to the expert reader of late ancient philosophy. For no opinion to the contrary has been put forth in the Neoplatonic scholarship in the last 120 years if we take, with Yount, as our terminus post quem Shorey's "The Idea of Good in Plato's Republic." For Yount, however, the crux of the matter is in the details, in that we [End Page 172] cannot subscribe to the assessment above unless we also accept without any reservation the more principally challenging position that Plotinus is a Platonist rather than a neoplatonist (Yount's 2014 book), just as Plato is a mystic in the book under review. For the beginning reader of late ancient philosophy, Yount's latest work documents the birthing pains of Neoplatonic scholarship wherein the purity of Plato's philosophy is expected to be sparklingly polished—and guarded—on a background of the derivative, and thus tarnished, core of its last major incarnation, as found in Plotinus.
In Plato and Plotinus on Mysticism, Epistemology, and Ethics, Yount sets to crack the old chestnut of Plotinus's mysticism that has earned his philosophy—more often in the past than today—the attribute 'religious.' The chief contention of Yount's thesis in the current book is that, if Plotinus "is nearly unanimously taken to be a mystic," "then we have more, if not sufficient, reason to believe that Plato is a mystic—at least in the same way in which the term applies to Plotinus" (9). Later, in one of the concluding sections of his first chapter, we learn that the qualifier 'nearly' in his thesis statement is warranted by the "sizable minority" (eighteen, to be exact) of scholars who have purported the view that Plotinus is not a mystic and therefore have looked to rebuild a stronger conceptual continuity between him and Plato (47). The scholars who have purported the opposite view, however, have also strived to espouse Plotinus's conceptual debt to Plato. When we put the two sides together, we may wonder why it is necessary to pay fresh attention to the minority's position when both views lead to the same outcome, but through different paths. Yount does not provide a clear answer for why he thinks exactly now is the time for us to revisit the question of Plotinus's mysticism, especially considering the fact that the most recent major contributions to the scholarship do not deem it important to address. The second half of Yount's thesis, however, presents an interesting and original proposition that invites us to rethink some of Plato's signature treatments of the purpose of philosophy and of human existence. Yount has shown with passion that those signature treatments fully support Plotinus's cathartic, anagogical, and otherworldly stance.
The book has a simple structure consisting of an introduction, three chapters, and a three-paragraph conclusion. In the introduction, Yount collects the evidence to argue for an all-inclusive reading of Plato against the "esoteric" argument, promoted by some modern scholars, that Plato reveals the true essence of his philosophy in his so-called "unwritten doctrines." Yount builds his defense on Tigerstedt's examination of the issue in The Decline and Fall of the Neoplatonic Interpretation of Plato (1974). Inspired by Tigerstedt, Yount collects the comparative evidence in Plato and Plotinus that they "do not have essentially different views on philosophically significant matters" (6–7). Accordingly, chapter 1 presents the textual evidence regarding what Yount calls "the ultimate experience" in Plato and Plotinus, which leads to knowledge of true reality, the nature of knowledge itself, and virtue ethics. Chapter 2 collates Plato's and Plotinus's views on wisdom, knowledge, dialectic, recollection, prayer, and opinion (in Yount's order) to show that they do not "essentially differ" (7). The last chapter applies the same comparative approach, with the same outcome, to matters of ethics.
The book offers a felicitous opportunity for mining primary and secondary sources for anyone who is interested in the subjects of Platonic discursive and non-discursive thought, the tension between spiritual ascent and epistemology, or between divine gift and human virtue. It also shows a compelling example of how research that is done with passion can cohere, and even partially compensate for, lapidary analysis and rushed execution. [End Page 173]