book review: Strozynski on Mazur, The Platonizing Sethian background of Plotinus’s mysticism

Re-posted from Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR):

Alexander J. Mazur, The Platonizing Sethian Background of Plotinus’s Mysticism. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies, vol. 98. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. 337. ISBN 9789004441675. €129,00.

Mateusz Stróżyński, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.


Edited by Dylan M. Burns, Kevin Corrigan, Ivan Miroshnikov, Toumas Rasimus, John D. Turner.

Πλωτῖνος ἦν ἐξ Αἰγύπτου φιλόσοφος.[1] This quotation from Eunapius’ Vitae sophistarum might well have served as the opening words of the present, posthumous, study by Alexander J. Mazur, in the spirit of Jules Michelet’s lectures on British history: “Messieurs, l’Angleterre est une île”. Plotinus was indeed born in Egypt, and he studied in Alexandria. Speculations, hypotheses, and unanswered questions haunt this fascinating volume, which is a revised edition of Mazur’s doctoral thesis, submitted to the University of Chicago in 2010 and prepared for publication by a team led by Dylan Burns. It consists of five chapters (including the Introduction and an extensive Conclusion), a bibliography, and a large appendix containing passages from the Enneads and from the Platonizing Sethian texts. Front matter includes the author’s acknowledgments and preface, as well as a preface and an editorial note by Dylan Burns explaining the context of the publication of the volume. 

Michelet’s platitudinous observation about England has become an anecdote because it is just as obvious as it is momentous for the understanding of the history of Great Britain. It is for similar reasons that I allowed myself to compare Eunapius’ opening words about Plotinus’ life. Mazur’s book is in fact a serious attempt to take into consideration the fact that “Plotinus was a philosopher from Egypt”. The last chapter of the volume (“Conclusion: Dissolving Boundaries”) explores the import of this fact in great detail. 

But Mazur’s argument does not begin with geographic or cultural factors. In the first chapter (“Introduction: the Gnostic Background of Plotinus’ Mysticism”) the author claims that there is something missing in our understanding of what Plotinus believed to be the goal of philosophy, that is, the experience of the One, called by Mazur “mystical union”. Mazur shows that the way Plotinus describes the experience of the One is unprecedented in the history of Greek philosophy and that Plotinus scholars have either been tempted to downplay the significance of this experience or fail to give a satisfying account of it. Mazur advances a hypothesis that a much more satisfying answer can be found if we study the ascent narratives in the Platonizing Sethian texts, especially Zostrianos and Allogenes. We have access to their 4th-century Coptic translations thanks to the Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945. 

In the second chapter (“The Structure of Plotinus’ Ascent to Mystical Union with the One”), Mazur describes the ascent of the soul to the One, breaking it up into five phases. Phase A is the purification of the soul, phase B is its inward turning back on itself, which leads to what Mazur calls “autophany” (phase C), that is, the seeing of our own transcendental and primary self above Intellect, first as an “other” and then as united to ourselves. Phase D is what the author calls “annihilation” of this highest self, which is a necessary (but not sufficient?) condition for experiencing the final union with the One (phase E). Mazur’s account focuses, understandably, on the highest reaches of the ascent. That account is as refreshing as it is illuminating. 

In chapter three (“The Identity of Prenoetic and Hypernoetic Subjects in Plotinus”), Mazur proceeds to argue that the very first phase of the emerging of Intellect from the One (which he calls “pre-noetic efflux” and which has been traditionally studied in terms of Intelligible Matter or Indefinite Dyad)[2] is in fact the same as that highest state of hypernoetic consciousness which is a precondition for entering union with the One. Mazur challenges here prominent scholars, most notably John Bussanich, who argued against the identity of the prenoetic and the hypernoetic in his seminal commentary on the texts pertaining to the relationship between the One and Intellect.[3] I think that Mazur is generally right in identifying the prenoetic with the hypernoetic.[4] However, he circumvents one problem, namely, the relationship between the human self and the metaphysical principles. All the accounts of the “pre-noetic efflux” are linked to the making of the divine Intellect, while the hypernoetic phase is treated in almost equal proportion with regard to our human experience and to Intellect’s experience of the One. Plotinus’ (deliberately?) ambiguous use of νοῦς does not usually help to determine which one he has in mind at a given moment. 

In chapter four (“‘The Way of Ascent is the Way of Descent’: The Mechanism of Transcendental Apprehension in Platonizing Sethian Gnosticism”), which is the longest, the author discusses the structure of the ascent in the Sethian literature. The chapter argues convincingly that the ascent narratives have a very similar structure to the one ascribed by Mazur to Plotinus. A particularly significant similarity is that of the transcendental, hypernoetic self, which for Mazur is an “interhypostasis” (linking the One and Intellect in Plotinus or the highest God and Barbelo in the Gnostic texts) or a “travelling subject”, being paradoxically both other than the First and, somehow, being its own self-reversion (or our participation in it). 

The last chapter is both the most exciting and the most methodologically problematic. It is an ex silentio “hypothesis”, as Mazur calls it, but it is also much more. A “scientific myth” (as Sigmund Freud described his account of the murder of the primal father in Totem and taboo) or perhaps a sketch for a fascinating historical novel would fit almost as well as the term “hypothesis”. According to this hypothesis, Plotinus was a Gnostic in his youth. His teacher, Ammonius Saccas himself, was (possibly) an ex-Christian/Gnostic/Platonic philosopher, and in his school Plotinus met those whom, decades later, he calls his Gnostic friends (Enn. For reasons unknown, and which Mazur does not even speculate about, Plotinus broke up with the Sethians and left Ammonius in order to join Gordian III’s military campaign against the Sassanid Empire in 244. After the Emperor’s death, he managed to get to Rome, where he founded his own school. The growing presence of the Sethians in Rome in the 260s and even the coming of Porphyry, with his occult and esoteric interests, was for Plotinus a meeting with the ghosts of the past. He produced his Großschrift (divided by Porphyry into Enn. 3.8, 5.8, 5.5, and 2.9), crowned by the anti-Gnostic polemic, to persuade both himself and others that he was an orthodox Platonist and had nothing to do with “them”. Plotinus’ philosophy and its contemplative or mystical side is a result of the conscious and unconscious struggle between the Gnostic baggage and the Platonic aspirations of the Egyptian philosopher. 

No-one can say if this is what happened. It is certainly presented by Mazur in a virtuoso manner, because once you are (at least a bit) open to it, you start to see all the previously meaningless biographical details in a new light. Mazur’s interpretation of the only anecdote from Plotinus’ childhood (how he was still being breastfed when he was eight, until he was shamed out of it by someone) is brilliant: it may be a parable of Plotinus’ long overdue dependence on Ammonius’ Gnostic milk and his shame that it took so long for him to grow up intellectually and become an orthodox Platonist. Great interpretative hypotheses are just like that; they force you to see everything in their light. Take it or leave it. Personally, I think it is, in Platonic parlance, an εἰκός μῦθος, a “likely story” (Pl. Tim. 29d). 

I would like to end with a more critical point about the very last section of the last chapter, where Mazur writes briefly about “ritual praxis” in Plotinus. I must confess I do not understand the reason for distinguishing between it and what Pierre Hadot called exercices spirituels.[5] For instance, Mazur seems to call verbal prayer, even if it is repeated internally and silently, a religious ritual. I do not think it helps to extend the meaning of the term “ritual” to cover internalized spiritual acts. Even if those internalized acts derive from external, physical religious rituals, once they are internalized they become nothing other than spiritual exercises in Hadot’s sense. Mazur himself points out that the Sethians did not seem to rely much on external rituals. For example, they spoke of “baptism” or “entering a shrine” in a purely metaphorical way. 

Another issue is visualization in Plotinus. Mazur seems to single it out as a “ritual praxis” leading to the mystical union with the One. It is clear that the notorious visualization in 5.8.9, whether we call it a ritual or not, is hardly the royal road to the experience of the One. Plotinus says explicitly that even if the exercise is successful, we still have to pray in order to experience Intellect. There is nothing about the One there. 

There is also a curious omission of a very interesting criticism of the Gnostics in chapter 15 of Enn. 2.9: “they do not tell us what kind of thing virtue is, nor… how it is to be attained, nor how one should care for the soul (θεραπεύεται), nor how it is purified. For it does no good at all to say ‘Look to God’, unless one also teaches how one is to look.” ([6] If Plotinus is referring here to the Sethian literature, can we trace the quotation “βλέπε πρὸς θεόν” in any of the Nag Hammadi documents? And how does this charge that the Gnostics do not teach “how” to look fit into Mazur’s claim that Plotinus relied heavily on Sethian spiritual exercises? Plotinus clearly criticizes them here for not having any spiritual method or technique or of having a seriously defective one with regard to the stage of purification and the therapy of the passions. Plotinus insists, in a very practical way, that it is ἀρετή, along with φρόνησις, which “shows God” (δείκνυσι), while without it the name “God” is a mere word (ὄνομά ἐστιν). 

Of course, neither those issues nor the hypothetical reconstruction of Plotinus’ spiritual biography undermines the value of Mazur’s work. I think we can remain unconvinced by certain aspects of his argument and still accept his general claim that Platonizing Sethian spirituality influenced and inspired Plotinus’ own view of the ascent of the soul to the One. And if someone finds it difficult to think of Plotinus as struggling his whole life with the intellectual and spiritual ghosts of the past, it is worth pointing out that he would not be unique at all. Mazur himself points to the similar cases of Julian the Apostate and Augustine of Hippo. The latter not only developed his Platonism through polemic with the Manichaeans (having been their auditor for about a decade), but, as an old man, had to answer Julian of Eclanum’s charges that his late theology of original sin, predestination, and grace were giving away his deeply rooted Manicheanism. 

[1] Eunapius, Vitae sophistarum 455 (Boissonade’s edition, pagination retained in the Loeb bilingual edition: Philostratus and Eunapius, The lives of the sophists (Cambridge; London, 1998 [1st ed. London; New York, 1922]).

[2] See A.H. Armstrong, The Architecture of the Intelligible Universe in the Philosophy of Plotinus: An Analytical and Historical Study (Cambridge, 1967 [1st edition: 1940]), 65-68; J.M. Rist, “The Indefinite Dyad and Intelligible Matter in Plotinus”, CQ 12, 1-2 (1962), 99-107. 

[3] J. Bussanich, The One and Its Relation to Intellect in Plotinus (Leiden / New York, 1988). 

[4] See my “The Self as Hypernoetic Intellect in Plotinus’ Philosophy,” Hermes 148, 1 (2020), 27-53.

[5] P. Hadot, Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique (Paris, 1987).

[6] Plotinus, Enneads, tr. A.H. Armstrong (Cambridge; London, 1966-1988). Armstrong’s translation slightly modified.