Saturday, February 27, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Angela Longo (ed.), Syrianus et la métaphysique de l'antiquité tardive. Actes du colloque international, université de Genève, 29 septembre-1er octobre 2006. Elenchos 51. Napoli: Bibliopolis, 2009. Pp. 649. ISBN 9788870885576. €50.00. Contributors: L. Corti, N. D'Andrès, D. Del Forno, E. Maffi, A. Schmidhauser
Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto

The present volume is the product of a colloquium held at the University of Geneva in 2006 on the philosophy of Syrianus. This very rich collection of essays includes the following: M. Frede, "Syrianus on Aristotle's Metaphysics"; J. Barnes, "'Drei sonnen sah' ich. . .' Syrianus et l'astronomie"; R.L. Cardullo, "Natura e moto del cielo in Siriano"; A. Lernould, "Les réponses du platonicien Syrianus aux critiques faites par Aristote en Métaphysique M et N contre la these de l'existence séparée des nombres"; P. Mueller-Jourdan, "L'indéterminé 'matière' chez Syrianus. Brève exégèse d'in metaph., 133, 15-29"; S. Klitenic Wear, "Syrianus' Teachings on the Soul"; C. Steel, "Syrianus' Theological Interpretation of the Parmenides. The Time of the Divine Souls"; J. Dillon, "The Architecture of the Intelligible Universe Revealed: Syrianus' Exegesis of the Second Hypothesis of the Parmenides"; L. Van Campe, "Syrianus and Proclus on the Attributes of the One in Plato's Parmenides"; J.-P. Schneider, "Les apories soulevées par Syrianus sur la thèse de l'identité de l'un et de l'être (Syrianus, in metaph. pp. 59, 16-60, 26)"; D.J. O'Meara, "Le fondement du principle de non-contradiction chez Syrianus"; P. d'Hoine, "Le commentaire de Proclus sur le Parmenide comme source du Περὶ τῶν ἰδεων λόγος de Syrianus?"; C. Helmig, "'The Truth Can Never be Refuted' -- Syrianus' View(s) on Aristotle Reconsidered": A. Longo, "The Principle of Contradiction. An Ancient Interpretation (Syrianus, AD Vth cent.) and a Modern Interpretation (J. Lukasiewicz, 1878-1956): a Comparison"; K. Ierodiakonou, "Syrianus on Scienfic Knowledge and Demonstration"; M. Bonelli, "Dialectique et philsophie première: Syrianus et Alexandre d'Aphrodise"; L. Brisson, "Syrianus et l'orphisme"; C.-P. Manolea, "The Treatment of Ancient Greek Myth in Syrianus' Philosophical Works"; C. Moreschini, "Alla scuola di Siriano: Ermia nella storia del neoplatonismo".

Syrianus (d. c. 437 C.E.) was the "head" of the Academy at Athens for the last five years of his life. He succeeded Plutarch of Athens, whose tenure in this position evidently lasted throughout most of the first quarter of the 5th century. Syrianus was the teacher of Proclus, who succeeded him after his death and also the teacher of Hierocles of Alexandria, who was, during the middle of the century, perhaps the leading Platonic philosopher there. Among his works, his commentary on four books of Aristotle's Metaphysics (2, 4, 13, 14) is extant and recently translated into English for the first time by John Dillon and Dominic O'Meara in the series edited by Richard Sorabji. Aside from what can be gleaned from the commentary, what we know of his teachings depends on the testimony of Proclus, who throughout the massive corpus of his writings frequently refers to the views of his revered master.

Among the numerous frustrating lacunae in our knowledge of Platonism from Plotinus to its effective end in the 6th century, the largest one is still the period between Iamblichus (c. 245-325 C.E.) and Proclus (412-485 C.E.). The commentaries of Plutarch of Athens on some dialogues of Plato and on Aristotle's De Anima are lost, though some fragments remain, mostly, again, from the testimony of Proclus. So, we are not likely to have much more light shed from that source. In the last decade, however, much valuable work has been done on Hierocles, especially by Hermann Schibli.1 Also, recent studies of Theon of Alexandria, his daughter Hypatia, and her pupil Synesius have helped somewhat to fill in the picture at least for Alexandria in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. But it is to detailed studies of Syrianus' extant commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics that we must now look for help in advancing our understanding of late Platonism. Taking up this task is likely to yield valuable results given that most of the major philosophers of the so-called Alexandrian school -- Ammonius, Philoponus, Olympiodorus, Simplicius, and Damascius -- are direct or indirect inheritors of the teachings of the Athenian school of Plutarch, Syrianus, and Proclus. In this regard, we should note an important point, namely, that Platonism always was primarily transmitted orally. This is so despite the fact that most of the pupils of the Athenian school were exceptionally prolific writers. So, the better we understand "the Athenians," the better will we understand what was passed on to their "Alexandrian" brothers.

Although Syrianus was by no means completely ignored by scholars in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the present volume contains the most detailed and wide ranging treatment of his philosophy to date. The principal issues on which study of Syrianus' commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics focus have been and still are: first, how did Syrianus interpret the Platonic doctrines that Aristotle's criticizes, especially in books 13 and 14; and second, to what extent did Syrianus maintain that these criticisms undercut Aristotle's Platonic bona fides? The first issue is especially relevant to our understanding of the Platonism of Proclus and the Alexandrians. The second issue arises owing to the fact that by the time that Proclus came to study with Plutarch and Syrianus, it was already a well established practice in Platonic "schools" to introduce the student to Platonism by means of an intensive study of Aristotle, including his metaphysics. Such an introduction would be odd, to say the least, if it was thought that Aristotle's criticism of Plato was either uninformed or irrelevant. In fact, Syrianus, who in his commentary expresses his regard for Aristotle in the warmest terms, took Aristotle's criticisms of Plato as resting ultimately on shared principles. It is for this reason that all of Aristotle's writings, including of course much that is not directly or indirectly critical of Plato, were so assiduously studied and commented on by self-declared disciples of Plato. When Simplicius later pronounced Aristotle to be authoritative for the sensible world just as Plato is for the intelligible world, he did this in full recognition that this authority flowed from Aristotle's applying Platonic principles to the study of nature.

It is not possible in a short review to discuss or even provide a resumé of the arguments contained in the 20 papers in this volume. A useful feature, though, for those seeking such an overview, is that each article contains a one or two page conclusion, summarizing the main points covered. Thus, anyone interested enough to get their hands on this volume can in a fairly short space of time get a pretty good idea of the lines of thought contained therein and even acquire a sense of the more contentious scholarly matters. I shall here focus on those papers I found most thought-provoking, though I found in every one material of interest, if sometimes only for the specialist.

The opening article is the last thing Michael Frede wrote before his untimely death in 2007. It is a substantial, although unfinished piece, focusing both on technical issues in the manuscript tradition of Syrianus' commentary and on the broad lines of his understanding of both a Platonic and an Aristotelian conception of a science of being. Frede provides a perspicuous, although much too short, discussion of what is for the Platonist the fundamental problem of sorting out the relations among separate Forms, their ultimate cause the Good or the One, the "thoughts" in the divine intellect and in human intellects, and their simulacra among sensibles. It is from the discussion within the Platonic school and between Platonists and Peripatetics on these issues that the so-called problem of universals arises. This problem touches virtually every philosophical issue of the time, including the status of mathematical objects, the subject of books 13 and 14 of the Metaphysics.

An exceptionally clear discussion of this vexed matter is provided by Lernould who shows that Syrianus' basic strategy in replying to Aristotle's criticisms of the mathematization of the Forms is to show that Form Numbers are not the (combinable) numbers of mathematics. The combinable units of number are the matter and the cardinal number itself is the form, whereas the Form Numbers are, like other Forms, their paradigms. This strategy enables Syrianus to maintain that Aristotle's criticisms are for the most part a misunderstanding and that in fact an Aristotelian hylomorphic account of number fits nicely within a larger Platonic framework.

One of the central issues for late Platonists in their interpretation of Plato was how to understand the second part of the Parmenides. Proclus, in his commentary on that dialogue, provides an extensive survey of the widely divergent interpretations that appeared virtually from the middle of the 4th century B.C.E. onward. He calls the interpretation of Syrianus the "most theological of all," meaning, principally, that it maintains that the first hypothesis of the second part of the dialogue concerns the "One above being" which is the Platonic first principle and that the second hypothesis concerns the "One-that-is," namely, all the fundamental intelligible properties of being, which are themselves divine principles or different classes of gods. The third hypothesis is about human souls and the fourth about forms in matter. The fifth hypothesis concerns matter itself. This is a theological interpretation because it was assumed that any discussion of first principles would perforce be a theological discussion. In his interpretation of the second hypothesis, Syrianus departs from Plotinus and those who followed him in holding that the "One-that-is" or "One-Many" refers to Intellect which is the systematic representation of Plato's Demiurge. Steel's article focuses on the problem that Syrianus faced in reconciling his interpretation with the fact that the One-that-is seems to possess temporal attributes, whereas the divine "henads" or principles of the classes of properties deduced within the One-that-is do not. The answer, which for later Platonists like Damascius had an air of arbitrariness about it, is that time is attributed in the second hypothesis to divine souls as opposed to the human souls, discussed in the third hypothesis (represented by modern scholars like Cornford, for example, as hypothesis 2A, but universally regarded as a separate hypothesis by the Platonists of antiquity). Whatever the merits of the theological interpretation of the Parmenides, its elaboration by Proclus and some of the Alexandrians in defense of ancient Greek philosophy against what was by then the overwhelming threat of Christian theology was considerable. That is, it enabled Proclus and others to argue that Platonism was not just a philosophy of life but a theological doctrine incomparably more sophisticated and venerable than Christianity. Some of the details of the Syrianic interpretation are further worked out in the papers by Dillon and Van Campe in this volume.

In a brief but important discussion, Schneider deals with Syrianus' commentary on Aristotle's discussion in book 4 of the Metaphysics (1003b22-5) on the sameness of being and unity. As Schneider shows, this seemingly technical matter is for Platonists precisely where Aristotle went astray. Again relying on the second part of Parmenides (but not especially on a theological interpretation of it), Platonists insisted that being and unity are really distinct, as Plato argued in the second hypothesis. This means that they are not, as Aristotle says, one nature only conceptually distinct from each other. The portentous consequence of this is that one being--whether as analyzed in the second hypothesis or as found in Aristotle's Unmoved Mover or in Plato's Demiurge--cannot be the first principle of all. This is basically because whatever is composite is in need of an explanation for its being ultimately by that which is absolutely simple. Hence, the need to postulate the Platonic One above being. Aristotle's mistake, for the Platonist, was in failing to see the real distinctiveness of being and unity and so of taking what is in fact the second principle of all to be the first. Syrianus argues for this claim in posing six aporiai for Aristotle's position. As Schneider suggests, what is in effect the subordination of the Unmoved Mover to the One is at least one element of the basis for the legitimate use of Aristotle as an introduction to the study of Plato.

O'Meara explores Syrianus' treatment of the ontological foundation of the fundamental principle of scientific demonstration, namely, the law of non-contradiction. This law is famously and extensively treated by Aristotle in book 4 of the Metaphysics. As O'Meara shows, Syrianus' commentary on this passage defends the claim that human wisdom is an image of the activity of the divine intellect whose principal property in this regard is its substantial identity with all that is intelligible. In effect, the law of non-contradiction is here being taken as equivalent to the law of self-identity. The identity of the One beyond being is not at issue here, since knowledge is of being; the One itself is unknowable. The identity of intellection and intelligible in the divine Intellect is reflected in the soul in its achievement of wisdom. What Syrianus says is that the divine Intellect is virtually all that is intelligible in nature and in the soul and therefore gives both the substance of science and the principles of demonstration. The upshot of this for the Platonist (and at least here Aristotle does not at all stand apart) is that the so-called laws of thought are ontological principles even if they can be translated into a purely formal framework. Hence, to speak of degrees of identity can make sense ontologically even if not formally.

Christoph Helmig addresses Syrianus' position on the question of the harmony of Aristotle's philosophy and Platonism. Helmig argues for the view that Syrianus' commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics is a counter example to the general harmonizing tendency among Neoplatonists. In particular, he maintains that the thesis of harmony that I defended in my book Aristotle and Other Platonists (2005) needs to be qualified and that in fact the degree to which different Neoplatonists assumed harmony varied. This is certainly not the place to respond to Helmig's nuanced argument. Perhaps the most useful way to frame our disagreement is to indicate that Helmig's claim that Syrianus differed from Aristotle on the nature of the first principle of all is certainly correct. I do not believe that I ever denied this. Nevertheless, the fact that Aristotle unequivocally maintained that there must be a unique and absolutely simple and divine first principle of all--apart from an account of what its nature must be--is what I continue to hold is part of the "baseline" of harmony that the Neoplatonists saw. The thesis of harmony was for no Platonist a thesis about identity; rather, it was a thesis about agreement with regard to first principles and a claim that Aristotle's errors could be "corrected" allowing for his philosophy to be set within the framework of Plato's more capacious (and ultimately truer) account. Helmig is correct, though, in maintaining that Syrianus and after him Proclus (we may add here Philoponus) were more critical of Aristotle's Platonism than were their predecessors.

Maddalena Bonelli takes an approach to Syrianus which is the opposite of that of Helmig. She concentrates on the portentous passage in book 4 of the Metaphysics (1003a21-5) in which Aristotle describes the science of being qua being and its commensurately universal properties, a science which is distinct from any of the special sciences. She compares Syrianus' commentary on this passage with that of Alexander of Aphrodisias and argues that Syrianus is consciously interpreting Aristotle in a way that assumes the ultimate harmony of Plato and Aristotle. In particular, he sees the demonstrative science of being qua being as set within the framework of the Platonic science of dialectic which in Republic requires that knowledge of intelligible being is possible only by connecting Forms with the Good, which is "beyond being". Since this Good is unknowable in itself, the property of goodness that the science of being qua being studies will be the goodness of the second principle, not the first. And most intriguingly, according to Bonelli this reading of Aristotle is in line with Alexander's. In this regard it does not seem to me so difficult to understand the harmony between a view of a science of being qua being as first philosophy and a view according to which this entirely legitimate science depends ultimately on an unknowable first principle of all.

One of the more notorious properties of what has come to be called Neoplatonism is its tendency to see Platonism as a theological doctrine, itself in harmony with traditional Greek theological thought. As we have already seen, Syrianus attempts to systematize the theologizing of Platonism by his interpretation of the second part of Plato's Parmenides. Luc Brisson, in a detailed and careful study shows how Syrianus, perhaps depending on Iamblichus, tries to connect Platonism with Pythagoreanism and through the latter ultimately with Orphism and the so-called Chaldean Oracles. Syrianus wrote a separate work on this topic, only fragments of which remain. What Brisson amply shows is that at least from the time of Iamblichus, theological discourse is inseparable from philosophical discourse for Platonists. It seems to me that Brisson also implicitly reveals that there is perhaps not so great a distance between the Stoic "demythologizing" of traditional gods as aspects of nature and the Platonic "remythologizing" of nature as the traditional pantheon.

In addition to the above, the following topics are treated in this volume: scientific demonstration in astronomy (Barnes and Cardullo); Aristotelian matter in relation to the receptacle of Timaeus and the unlimited in Philebus (Mueller-Jourdan); the world-soul (Wear); the sources of Syrianus' exegesis of Plato's Parmenides (d'Hoine); Syrianus' understanding of the law of non-contradiction in relation to modern versions (Longo); the nature of scientific demonstration and knowledge (Ierodiakonou); Syrianus' treatment of skepticism (Bonazzi); myth in philosophical writing (Manolea); the thought of Hermias, another pupil of Syrianus and early head of the Alexandrian school (Moreschini).

To sum up, this is a book from which both the specialist and the non-specialist have much to learn. Along with the two volume English translation of Syrianus' commentary by Dillon and O'Meara, it will serve to open wide yet another door on the last phase of ancient Greek philosophy.


1.   See Hermann S. Schibli, Hierocles of Alexandria (Oxford, 2002).

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