The Last Neoplatonists
When the philosopher Proclus died in 485 he was succeeded, as the leader of Athenian Neoplatonism, by Marinus; but the greatest of Proclus’ pupils, according to Damascius who knew the pupil but not the teacher, was Isidore. Damascius thought that all the wisdom of Athena dwelled in Isidore’s eyes which were “an unimaginably harmonious combination of opposites,” “the true images” of the philosopher’s soul or rather of “the divine emanation dwelling therein.” Isidore was eccentric even for a Platonist. When he held dinners he thought the little dessert he laid out on the table—three or four nuts or as many dried figs—was sufficient for his guests who had to coax their thrifty host to bring out more. Proclus was amused by his imitations of the cries of birds and the fluttering of their wings as they roused themselves for flight. Isidore was prone to dreams and waking visions. His sister’s son, who was about his age, died when he was eighteen, and although he was traumatized by his death his nephew often appeared to him afterwards.
Isidore refused to wear the coarse garments Proclus suggested as more befitting the asceticism of a philosopher, and he had a wife who died in childbirth. But he severely restricted his diet of reading and followed Proclus in condemning the sense of touch as the vilest of the senses and the one most bound to the earth and to generation. Isidore learned from his master that the soul had a luminous vehicle which was starlike and eternal and enclosed in an astral body which was located either in the head or the right shoulder. Isidore’s soul, despite the fact that he traveled to Alexandria and never became the official diadochus of the Athenian school, was a link in the golden chain of Platonism to which Proclus also belonged and of which he had once dreamed.
Isidore’s disciple Damascius was born in Syria and studied rhetoric in Alexandria in company with his younger brother Julian. The Platonic school of Alexandria was headed by the pagan philosopher Horapollo who had converted many Christians to Hellenism. Horapollo was, like his father who also taught at the school, a devotee of the Egyptian religion and wrote an essay on hieroglyphics. Another teacher was Horapollo’s uncle Heraiscus who was able to determine whether a statue was possessed by the god it represented and who, for supernatural reasons, was seized with a headache whenever he found himself near a menstruating woman. Ammonius, the son of Hermeias and Aedesia, was the least mystical of his Platonist colleagues and revered Aristotle, accepting the essential agreement of the two philosophies. He had once studied under Proclus and had outstripped all his fellow students. In addition to his intelligence he was ambiguous, charming, sarcastic, and crafty.
Horapollo’s evangelistic zeal as leader of the Platonic school did not sway some of his pupils who became famous in Monophysitism, and the school was doomed from the start. When the Hellenistic apostate Paralius antagonized the professors of the school and a band of pagan students nearly beat him to death the Monophysites responded by desecrating a secret shrine of Isis and by appealing to the emperor Zeno who sent the envoy Nicomedes to Egypt. One of the teachers at the school, Asclepiodotus, had already left Alexandria for Aphrodisias, a city to which he would return after an interval of travel during which he is said to have studied people. Three other teachers—Horapollo, Heraiscus, and Isidore—went into hiding. Ammonius may have betrayed his fellow philosophers. Horapollo, Heraiscus, and Damascius’ brother Julian were tortured to reveal Isidore’s whereabouts, but the three firmly stood their ground.
Isidore remained in hiding at Damascius’ house and the two at length traveled to Bostra where they were hosted by the Aristotelian Dorus whom Isidore duly converted to Platonism. Isidore, Damascius, and Dorus visited the sacred places, including the River Styx in the Yarmuk Valley, and progressed to Heliopolis where Isidore was regrettably apprehended by the authorities and tortured. Upon Isidore’s release the three philosophers traveled to Aphrodisias which, in the hands of Asclepiodotus the Elder, the father-in-law of the Alexandrian Asclepiodotus, was becoming something of a holy city. Asclepiodotus’ work in Aphrodisias would influence Damascius in his role as diadochus of the school of Athens. It was to Athens that Isidore now returned and Damascius came for the first time.
The Athenian school was currently under the uninspired leadership of Marinus who was a Samaritan, a virgin, sickly to the point of alarming his master Proclus, and utterly lacking in self-confidence. When Isidore read Marinus’ commentary on Plato’s Philebus and did not overpraise it Marinus destroyed the work and also attempted to destroy his commentary on the Parmenides which proved impossible both because copies of it were already in circulation and because its endurance had been prophesied by Proclus. Upon his arrival at Marinus’ school Damascius was irretrievably turned from rhetoric to philosophy. He studied mathematics under Marinus and theoretical philosophy under Zenodotus. He came to despise not only rhetoric but poetry and never tired of relating the story of a philosopher of his acquaintance who gave lectures on poetry to which his donkey would listen entranced even if it had been starved beforehand.
Zenodotus succeeded Marinus upon his death, and Damascius, succeeding Zenodotus, broke with the tradition of Proclus and reestablished the school’s connections with Iamblichus. Damascius adhered to an ineffable principle higher than the One which was elusive not only to human but divine intellection. He did not completely sever the school’s links with Proclus and illustrated the Procline triad of monē, proodos, and epistrophē (permanence, procession, and return) with the Dionysian passion. He usually taught on the Chaldean Oracles or on the Platonic dialogues (we have the lecture notes of two of his students on the Philebus and the Phaedo), and he wrote commentaries on the Parmenides, the Timaeus, and the First Alcibiades, none of which has survived but for the commentary on the Parmenides and all of which were critical commentaries on Proclus’ commentaries. Upon the death of Isidore, Damascius was approached by Theodora, a descendent of the royal house of Emesa, to write a life of the philosopher which was dedicated to her and became known as the Philosophical History.
Damascius was immensely intelligent, so much so that his capable pupil Simplicius sometimes found him difficult to understand, but he thought as highly of the theurgy of Iamblichus and Syrianus as he did the rigorous philosophizing of Plotinus and Porphyry and sought to unite the two extremes in his own person. He knew the respective mythologies of the Orphics, Persians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, and Egyptians, and he followed Iamblichus in finding in these, as well as in Plato, Homer, and the Chaldean Oracles, perfect reflections of the sensible and supersensible worlds. On one occasion he was vouchsafed an apparition of Marinus and knew of a philosopher who had a vision of Justice: a radiant woman who wore a yellow tunic decorated with purple bands. He also attended a paranormal session in which a young woman poured water into a glass cup and explained the prophetic images she saw there. It is likely that Asclepiodotus the Younger had recourse to such divination before he chose to leave Alexandria for Aphrodisias.
So thoroughly did Damascius revitalize the school of Athens that the emperor Justinian was compelled to pass legislation prohibiting its teachings. The diadochus and his fellow philosophers traveled to Ctesiphon which they found so uncongenial that they returned to the Byzantine Empire. Damascius lived for awhile in Harran, writing an epitaph for a woman which read, “I, Zosime, who was before a slave in body only have now gained freedom for my body too.” He never really outgrew his need for rhetoric, and he wrote a no longer extant book of five hundred seventy-two stories similar to the Arabian Nights. He also wrote on the immortality of the soul, mythology and miracles, and the topography of the sacred places.
Ammonius, the Alexandrian philosopher hated by Damascius, numbered among his pupils the Christians Boethius and John Philoponus and permitted the latter to publish an edition of his lectures. Philoponus’ surname means “lover of affliction” and indicates his ascetic frame of mind. He came to Ammonius’ school around the age of twenty and seven years later wrote his famous commentary on Aristotle’s Physics in which he used Aristotelian ideas to disprove Aristotle’s notion of the eternity of the world, a doctrine held by nearly every Neoplatonist, in thrall to Aristotle while he himself believed that the world had a beginning in time.
Proclus had argued that being cannot spring from nonbeing because before coming to be it must be able to become and it must therefore derive from preexistent matter. Philoponus notes the invalidity of Proclus’ argument which assumes the priority of matter over being. Everything that comes to be derives from a source, but that source need not be material. God creates both the Platonic Forms and matter out of nothing. Aristotle’s notion that every movement presupposes another movement does not touch Philoponus to the quick because it is incognizant of the ultimate creative cause. He demonstrated that the world cannot have had an eternal preexistence because if it had such a preexistence an infinite number of men would have already lived, and the men now living and the men to live in the future would impossibly add to an infinite number. Philoponus returned to his attack on Aristotle’s eternal world in Against Aristotle. If the world is existent from eternity all movements would be added to an infinite number of antecedent movements. A study of astronomy also refutes Aristotle: if the world is eternal the orbits of Jupiter and the orbits of Saturn would each be infinite, but as the orbits of Jupiter are three times as frequent as the orbits of Saturn we are left with an infinity three times as large as another infinity. Philoponus thought that the world would have an end as well as a beginning because it is a finite body and all finite bodies, composed of the dissoluble union of Form and matter, must come to an end.
Simplicius, a representative of the embattled Athenian school, reacted violently to the writings of Philoponus whom he called a traitor for abandoning Greek philosophy for myth. In his own commentary on the Physics, which quotes and refutes Philoponus’ commentary, Simplicius mocked the Genesis account of creation, especially the idea of God creating light on the first day and the sun three days afterwards. Simplicius accepted the rationality of eternal movement but denied that a movement has an infinite number of prior movements because the infinite is bound towards the future by the present. Like Plato, Aristotle is said to have thought of the world as eternal and of eternity as infinite temporality.
Philoponus’ defense of the finitude of the world establishes him as a fierce defender of Christianity, but his other views must have made him as hated in orthodox circles as he was in Athens. Philoponus believed in Monophysitism, tritheism, the preexistence of the soul, a bodiless future life, and the ensoulment of the embryo. For Philoponus nature was solely an individual existence; in the Trinity there were not only three persons but three natures. He divided the soul, like any loyal Platonist, into a rational and an irrational aspect. Animals possessed only an irrational soul which was inseparably linked to the body, but in the case of man the irrational soul was an entelechy, performing the same function to the body as music to a lyre. The rational soul was entirely separate from the body, like a sailor on his ship or a charioteer on his chariot.
Theodore Sabo is a resident of Washington State and an extraordinary lecturer at North-West University of South Africa. He has published in Acta Classica and the Journal for Late Antique Religion and Culture.