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ENG 6018
Criticism and Theory I

Class 6: Plotinus, Augustine and Macrobius

Reading Assignment:

    Plotinus, Augustine and Macrobius (NATC 171-201); selections from the Bible;
    Reports: Richard Ellman and Denice Traina on Augustine's sign theory and Megan Adams on the analysis of dreams

    Due: Post #5

Class Objectives:

  • Analyze excerpts from Plotinus' On Intellectual Beauty ;
  • Analyze excerpts from Augustine's On Christian Doctrine and The Trinity
  • Analyze excerpts from Macrobius' Dream of Scipio

Our texts this week differ greatly from the previous weeks, with a move toward idealism and the transition from Classical worldviews to Medieval. Although the readings sometimes seem to be more about god than literature, these are significant and influential works in the history of literary criticism. Part of our challenge will be to consider how they contribute to a critical theory of literature and writing; that is, after we are sure we understand what they are about!

For our "literary" reading, I would recommend that you read the passages from the Bible that are actually cited in the excerpts from Augustine. This rather lengthy list can be gleaned easily from the footnotes. Alternatively or additionally, I recommend that you read the book of Genesis and Ecclesiastes from the Old Testament and from the New Testament John 1-10 and some of the epistles of Paul.

Notes and Discussion Questions:


The editor's introduction offers a very useful and long explanation of Plotinus' philosophical system, which is based on Plato's idealism. Please read this carefully and consult it throughout your interpretation of the reading. How does this exposition of the text help you to interpret Plotinus? Why? Are the differences in style significant?

David Richter describes the metaphysical system of Plotinus: "Like Plato, Plotinues posits an Ideal world (which he calls ekei, "There") as the paradigm for the physical world here below. What is strange is encountering these ideas unaccompanied by the classical clarity of Plato. Like other Neoplatonists Plotinus derives not only from Plato but also from the Gnostics of Alexandria and the Eastern Mystery cults of Dionysus or Mithras. He gives the impression of an improbable combination of Plato and Zen: This is inaccurate historically, but there is an oriental flavor to his thought" (The Critical Tradition 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Press, 1998, p. 108). What happens to Plato in Plotinus's text? Is this more than a question of style or flavor?

Richter points out that unlike Plato, Plotinus is sympathetic to art. He does not, however, create any systematic theory of art. What role does art play in Plotinus' metaphysics? What is the source of art/beauty (see section 10)?

What is beauty for Plotinus? How does his description of beauty differ from the aesthetic qualities valued by previous writers, such as Aristotle or Longinus?

For Horace knowledge is essential for the poet -- he must know everything, apparently. What knowledge informs the artist for Plotinus? (178).

Plotinus describes the intellectual realm as an absence of discursiveness. How does one construct a discourse on the absence of discursiveness? (179)

What does Plotinus think about rhetoric? How do you know? (180)

What is required to apprehend the beauty of THERE? In what sense are these categories moral? (180-1)

Discuss: "Certainly no reproach can rightly be brought against this world save only that it is not That" (181).

Discuss Plotinus' distinction between beauty of the sensible world and that of the intellectual. What might be the implications in terms of mind/body dichotomy and the incarnation of beauty?

In the ascension from the sensible world to the soul's vision to the Intellectual IDEA what happens to the body? What happens to the mind?

In sections 10 and 11, Plotinus describes the soul's unity with the beautiful. What happens in this experience? What does possession by the muse suggest? Who has access to this experience and how might that differ from previous articulations of creativity?


Begin by addressing the distinction between sign and thing. Analyze further the distinction between natural sign and conventional sign and literal versus figurative. Further still, how are signs of sight different from signs of sound?

Language has a particularly important place in Augustine's system. What kind of sign is language? What causes signs of language -- words -- to be difficult to understand?

What is at stake for Augustine in assigning the means of interpreting language?

What role does irony or antiphrasis play in scriptural interpretation?

What is the distinction between allegory and enigma? In what sense is the Word of God an enigma? (Here it may be useful to read the Gospel of John). In what sense is this related to the figure of Christ? Evaluate Augustine's interpretation of the engima. (193-4)

Compare Augustine's sense of the Word of God with Plotinus' understanding of One. Is it possible to trace the influence of Neoplatonism on Augustine here?

As a side comment, I find it interesting that the editorial introduction to Plotinus is straightfoward and simplified in comparison with the text of Plotinus, whereas the introduction to Augustine is more complicated than the text itself. Agree or disagree? Postulate why that might be.


Describe the five types of dreams and their significance.

What are the five types of enigmatic dreams and their importance?

Macrobius greatly influenced Medieval writers such as Chaucer, and so his system may be helpful for students of Medieval literature in understanding the representation of dreams. Is there a connection between the interpretation of dreams and the interpretation of literary texts? How might that work?

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