Quotes from Bréhier’s Plotinus

Émile Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, translated by Joseph Thomas (UChicago, 1958)

The history of philosophy does not reveal to us ideas existing in themselves, but only the men who think. Its method, like every historical method, is nominalistic. Ideas do not, strictly speaking, exist for it. It is only concrete and active thoughts that exist. The problems which philosophers pose and the solutions they offer are the reactions of original thought operating under given historical circumstances and in a given environment. It is permissible, no doubt, to consider ideas or the representations of reality which result from these reactions in isolation. But thus isolated, they are like effects without causes. We may indeed classify systems under general titles. But classifying them is not giving their history (182).


A true philosophical reform, such as that of a Socrates or of a Descartes, always takes for its point of departure a confrontation of the needs of human nature with the representation the mind forms of reality. It is the sense of a lack of correspondence between these needs and the representation which, in exceptionally endowed minds, awakens the philosophical vocation. Thus, little by little, philosophy reveals man to himself. It is the reality of his own needs, of his own inclinations, which forms the basis of living philosophical thought. A philosophy which does not give the impression of being indispensable to the period in which it appears is merely a vain and futile curiosity (pp. 183-4).


About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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2 Responses to Quotes from Bréhier’s Plotinus

  1. Al says:

    You and Mike already went over this a bit on another post, but I’d like to chime in. I wonder what patronage and power have to do with philosophy – which comes first. What are these so-called “given historical circumstances”? Leisure happens thanks to some sort of abundance and success. Even if an artist intends to express the needy and forlorn, pages need to be printed and dispersed somehow. (The history of Bible-printing has got to be a pretty intense story on its own.)

    Philosophy’s a leisurely activity. So what about power? German idealism, for example. On Jena’s campus in 1858 you had Geothe, Schelling, Schiller, Holderlin, Fichte, Hegel and three Schlegels all living within walking distance in apartments next to each other. What “philosophical” system allowed that to happen in the first place? Where did they get their socks? And who’s mopping the floors? (Don’t tell me it’s the Absolute.)

    Some claim all that thinking is thanks to German beer or Pumpernickel bread. I’m reading Genius, Power and Magic by Roderick Cavaliero. Great book, full of tasty examples about patronage and the arts. “The philosophy and imagination of a regimental sergeant-major precluded much in the way of cultural patronage; Frederick William I closed his court, disbanded its orchestra and appointed his court dwarf President of the Leibniz inspired Berlin Academy.” (p.100)

    Ha! Put that in your hair, Leibniz!

    But the more metrophilosophical Frederick II “encouraged Leibniz’s Academy of Arts and Sciences… to recruit an international body of savants who were free to discuss abstract subjects…” (102)

    Later, concerning musicians, “the prevailing climate of relative peace and order…allowed music to flourish as an essential attribute of princedom. It was so essential that musical court service became a form of caged slavery, while princes presided over a musical establishment that could be both a zoo and a prison, musicians of varying distinction being bound in contracts of service that impeded movement and development.” (131)

    Bach in chains. So here you have philosophers and musicians “allowed” to flourish at the whim of basic political powers and historical events. The question is, can it be otherwise? (I have no argument about it, and this has little to do with Brehier’s point, but I think it’s a big steamy question.)

    Brehier mentions Socrates.

    I’m recently converted to the school of Shapiro and convinced you can’t read ancient philosophy without history. It would be crazy talk. The Republic didn’t pop out of a disembodied head. It’s a direct response to real worries of the age. For example, Thucydides: “The great lawlessness that grew everywhere in the city began with this disease [plague], for, as the rich suddenly died and men previously worth nothing took over their estates, people saw before their eyes such quick reversals that they dared to do freely things they would have hidden before – things they never would have admitted they did for pleasure…the pleasure of the moment, and whatever contributed to that, were set up as standards of nobility and usefulness. No one was held back in awe, either by fear of the gods or by the laws of men: not by the gods, because men concluded it was all the same whether they worshiped or not, seeing that they all perished alike; and not by the laws, because no one expected to live till he was tried and punished for his crimes…such was the misery that weighed on the Athenians…”

    This historical narrative accompanies – possibly explains on some level – the Ring of Gyges myth about what people do when nobody’s watching. Similarly, the story of whoever was mopping the floors at Jena in some sense explained whatever it was that Hegel was doing. (God knows.)

    I’m probably talking to myself at this point, but on a last note, Emerson, occasionally a big-time Platonist, seems to disagree with this approach. He says, “But the thought is always prior to the fact. All the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws…The Sphinx must solve her own riddle. If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience…” (from the essay History) So the Universal form of Man exists eternally and history is just a mishmash of predicates. Why then bother with the details, when we could get down to something of substance?

    Blah, too weird. I don’t even know what that means. At this point I’m more of a Nietzschean historian than anything. In that case, forgive a long post. It was probably something I ate.


  2. Huenemann says:

    I agree with you that history of philosophy needs to be grounded in real historical inquiry. There’s no understanding Spinoza without understanding the world in which he wrote, in as concrete and nominalistic terms as possible. But philosophical thought isn’t reducible to historical circumstances – meaning, what philosophers write is not completely determined by their environments. A philosophical work is a creative work. So it takes both historical familiarity and philosophical sensibility to understand the philosophical works of the past.


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