Sara Magrin on Psychological Conflict in Plotinus

December 7, 2018

Sara Magrin, associate professor of Classics at UC Berkeley, spoke on Princeton’s campus on Tuesday, December 4th, delivering a lecture entitled “Being of Two Minds: Plotinus’ Account of Psychological Conflict in Ennead 4.3.31.”

The talk began with some stimulating modern examples, drawn from Woolf’s Orlando and the work of contemporary philosopher Donald Davidson, in which individuals are spoken of as possessing a plurality of distinct selves which are in competition and dialogue with each other. Professor Magrin sees this idea of dissonance between selves as belonging, broadly speaking, to a Freudian conception of the mind, but argues that its roots are visible in the non-Aristotelian account of psychological conflict offered by the foundational neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus.

The argument presented was very nuanced and at points quite technical, being founded on careful close readings of relevant passages from both Plotinus and Aristotle, not mention a discussion of the relevance of the account of the creation of the soul offered in Plato’s Timaeus and adumbrated connections with Stoicism, which only considerations of time prevented from being explored further. Its essence, however, may be given as follows: Aristotle explains psychological conflict about whether to do the right thing or the wrong thing as a battle between the rational soul and an animal being which is somehow other than and below the soul. These entities compete with each other through rival stimulation of φαντασία, the “faculty of appearances,” with the rational self presenting good and reasoned appearances of what is right, and the sub-rational “brute within” presenting bad appearances derived from passions and appetites.

According to Magrin, Plotinus identifies and objects to a basic flaw in Aristotle’s logic in this account. In the Aristotelian system, no one part of the soul can give rise to conflicting affective states with regard to the same action at the same time. Given this, how can the soul, having one φαντασία, produce conflicting images through the same faculty at the same time? Plotinus’ response, in Magrin’s account, is to posit that the soul contains a multitude of centers of φαντασία, and that the source of motivation toward bad actions is not the intrusion of something outside the soul into φαντασία, but the result of some baser parts of the soul, each endowed with its own capacity to form beliefs, each with its own center of φαντασίαto to express those beliefs, entering into conflict with the true “rational soul,” which all men possess and which never experiences conflict within itself. Magrin concluded with a reading of Plotinus’ metaphor of psychological conflict as a citizen assembly, one in which the right opinion is always voiced somewhere but is often drowned out by the noisier strains of passion. Magrin observes that in Plotinus, unlike in Aristotle, the conflict is not situated in the rational self but in this gathering, this cacophony of different voices.

As is to be expected, such a talk, which attributes to Plotinus a major, strikingly modern innovation on the Aristotelian conception of the unity of the self, proved a rich the occasion for much discussion on the part of the students and faculty who were in attendance.

Professor Magrin is in Princeton as a Visiting Fellow in the Humanities Council and the Program in Classical Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy.

The author of this article in William Dingee, a PhD candidate in Classics at Princeton.

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