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Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice

Plotinus, the Roman philosopher (c. 204-270 CE) who is widely regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism, was also the creator of numerous myths, images, and metaphors. They have influenced both secular philosophers and Christian and Muslim theologians, but have frequently been dismissed by modern scholars as merely ornamental. In this book, distinguished philosopher Stephen R. L. Clark shows that they form a vital set of spiritual exercises by which individuals can achieve one of Plotinus’s most important goals: self-transformation through contemplation.
Clark examines a variety of Plotinus’s myths and metaphors within the cultural and philosophical context of his time, asking probing questions about their contemplative effects. What is it, for example, to “think away the spatiality” of material things? What state of mind is Plotinus recommending when he speaks of love, or drunkenness, or nakedness? What star-like consciousness is intended when he declares that we were once stars or are stars eternally? What does it mean to say that the soul goes around God? And how are we supposed to “bring the god in us back to the god in all”? Through these rich images and structures, Clark casts Plotinus as a philosopher deeply concerned with philosophy as a way of life. 

368 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Ancient Studies

Philosophy: General Philosophy, History and Classic Works


“This is a bold work that applies a new approach to the interpretation of the thought of the founder of Neoplatonism. . . . [A] highly intelligent, learned, and beautifully written work, which constitutes an important contribution to Plotinian scholarship and to philosophy in general.”

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"[Clark] produces a picture of Plotinus's intellectual and spiritual world that is not only strikingly attractive and convincing, but in many respects quite unlike the conventional pictures of Neoplatonism that recur with dreary predictability in countless works of philosophy, theology, and intellectual history."

David Bentley Hart | First Things

"[T]he fruit of Clark's project begun in 2004 with Panayiota Vassilopoulu to investigate the dynamic character of Plotinus's use of images and metaphors...a worthy and potentially very fruitful project attuned to both the late antique practice of reading philosophical texts performatively–one engages in philosophy by grappling with and interpreting the text of a great philosopher—and the general Platonic understanding of philosophical education as turning the student's soul into the light so that it might see the really real."

Review of Metaphysics

"Students of Plotinus and those interested in the broader Platonic tradition must read it."

Gerard O’Daly | Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“Clark engages with Plotinus as an imaginative and creative philosopher and a trenchant religious thinker. The psychological and spiritual power of Plotinus is uniquely illuminated by Clark’s outstanding monograph: we have a first-rate contemporary philosopher reflecting upon one of the seminal minds of the occidental tradition.”

Douglas Hedley, University of Cambridge

“This is a remarkable book. Clark is a distinguished philosopher who has been engaged for some time in putting Greek philosophy in its wider Mediterranean setting, and this work continues that project with the rich works of Plotinus. Clark takes various aspects of Plotinus’s philosophical oeuvre and sets them against their larger backdrop, not only philosophical but also literary and sociological, in order to bring out the full implications of Plotinus’s positions. In this way, he convincingly shows the philosophical and religious importance of Plotinus’s extraordinary use of metaphor, which so many other scholars have overlooked as merely literary. The result is wide ranging, sound, and highly original scholarship.”

John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin

"Clark’s Plotinus is as expansive, creative, and generous as his other works in the area of ancient Mediterranean philosophy, and philosophy generally. . . . A feature of the book is the wide-ranging use of the literature drawn from all sources, a deep sense of the historical tradition in which Plotinus situates himself and, as observed earlier, a great attentiveness to placing Plotinus in the whole which was the Mediterranean world: Pagan and Christian, Roman and Greek, Egyptian and Asiatic. This book is therefore a mine of information, and of imaginative reconstruction, which will enlighten the reader endlessly."

American Journal of Philology

"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 book is the tool by which we learn to read Plotinus in a dynamic way that transforms our very selves."

Classical World

"Clark's feeling for Plotinus's theism makes this book much more than a scholarly monograph. For what he intuits, perhaps better than anyone else I have read, is the humanity of that theism and its accessibility to consciousness at every level and every perspective. Clark makes us aware of our own awareness, the relativity of where we find ourselves, the impossibility of imagining a world composed of lifeless matter, or one in which beauty exists only in the eye of the beholder."


Table of Contents


Part I: Prolegomena

1.         Why Read Plotinus?
2.         How to Read Plotinus
3.         Theories about Metaphor
4.         Dialectic

Part II: Metaphorically Speaking

5.         Naked and Alone
6.         On Becoming Love
7.         Shadow Plays and Mirrors
8.         Reason Drunk and Sober
9.         Dancing
10.       Remembering and Forgetting
11.       Standing Up to the Blows of Fortune

Part III: The Plotinian Imaginary

12.       Platonic and Classical Myths
13.       Spheres and Circles
14.       Charms and Countercharms
15.       Invoking Demons
16.       Images Within and Without
17.       Fixed Stars and Planets
18.       Waking Up

Part IV: Understanding the Hypostases

19.       Matter
20.       Nature
21.       Soul
22.       Nous
23.       The One

Part V: The Plotinian Way

Index of Passages from the Enneads
Index of Names and Subjects

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