Friday, November 18, 2011


Sarah Klitenic Wear, The Teachings of Syrianus on Plato's Timaeus and Parmenides. Ancient Mediterranean and Medieval Texts and Contexts. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism and the Platonic tradition, 10. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. Pp. xiii, 353. ISBN 9789004192904. $153.00.

Reviewed by Emilie Kutash, St. Joseph's College, New York (

Version at BMCR home site

Sarah Wear's volume consists largely of passages harvested from Proclus (with a few from Damascius), tagged by Proclus's reference to his teacher and beloved mentor, Syrianus. The premise of the book is that these passages contain doctrine that can be directly attributed to Syrianus.

Lloyd Gerson, in a review of the volume that grew out of a 2006 colloquium on Syrianus,1 reminds us that the period between Iamblichus (c.245-325C.E.) and Proclus (412-485C.E.) presents the scholar with lacunae that are difficult to fill in. Syrianus, the link between the founder of the Athenian academy and Proclus, headed the Athenian school from 432-437. He was a key promulgator of Athenian school doctrine and a significant influence on the Alexandrian School Scholarchs such as Ammonius, Philoponus, Olympiodorus, Simplicius and Damascius. With these credentials, it would be mistaken to assume that Syrianus' core doctrines are confined to what is known to be his extant writings. Unresolved scholarly debate still centers around which works mentioned in the Suida (IV 478, 21) were written by Proclus and which were those of Syrianus. Both may have written works with the same name.2 It is equally difficult to establish with certainty whether Proclus elaborated upon Syrianus'lectures and whether they were, as is suspected, unwritten teachings. Syrianus' commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, 3 while the major portion of extant text, might still be only a minor glimpse into his larger philosophy.

A good course of action in trying to recreate Syrianus' doctrine is that taken by Wear. She has meticulously mined Proclus' texts for doctrines directly attributable to his teacher. Disentangling Syrianus as independent from the Gordian knot that entangles Proclus and Syrianus is a daunting project. Wear has undertaken and accomplished this task within the boundaries of possibility. Her extracts are a valuable proof-text, making it possible to piece together a more probable account of Syrianus' teaching, while remaining within the confines of plausible documentation. Wear had done much of the spadework for this volume in her PhD thesis from Trinity College in 2005, under the guidance of John Dillon. This, if nothing else, guarantees that the project has received the highest scholarly imprimatur. Indeed the clarity of the translations and the thoroughness of the commentary that follows each passage reflect these circumstances, as does Wear's own competent treatment of the material.

It is difficult to criticize any part of this well researched and thought out project , one that is vital to the scholar of the Platonic philosophers of Late Antiquity. If anything need be said it would be that the criteria by which Wear determines where Syrianus leaves off and Proclus begins is, at times, unclear. Wear identifies Syrianus' teaching by using Procline passages that bear the endorsement of the phrase 'Our master' or 'Our teacher'. While this helps to identify Syrianus' opinions, it is less clear whether Proclus, as he presents a series of opinions of predecessors and elaborates the issue at hand, has augmented the Syrianus material with his own doctrines. Wear acknowledges this difficulty openly in her introduction. Still, this consideration pales next to the overriding value of her project as it gives voice to the Athenian school context, specifically Syrianus, for Proclus' own philosophy.

Wear follows each extract with a lucid and astute commentary, sorting out all the issues as well as the historical influences on them. Proclus in his commentary on Plato's Timaeus (Tim 39e-4-a, In. Tim. III. 108.5-108.28) is an example of the thoroughness of Wear's approach. Plato, in the associated lemma, names four forms of beings; gods, the winged kind, the class that inhabits the waters, and fourth, those that go on foot on land. Here "we follow our teacher" to learn that the heavenly race of gods embraces the celestial classes, divine, angelic or daemon, and there is a hierarchy which extends down to the footed class comprising those beings that roam the earth. Wear's own commentary includes a thoroughgoing survey of interpreters of this passage and points out just what Syrianus' major innovation contributes to the issues. After providing the reader with Proclus' presentation of three groups of interpreters of these four types of being and their positions on 'intermediaries,' she presents Syrianus' system. Syrianus agrees with one group of interpreters that includes Iamblichus and debates other of his predecessors on the issue of the Paradigm. Syrianus claims the only way the universe can be whole is for it to imitate all the classes of being in the essential being, as opposed to those interpreters who posit different accounts of intermediary beings than he does. Syrianus connects the autozoa with the third intelligible triad as the Paradigmatic Model containing all four primordial species. Wear's analysis is supplemented by notes that cite supporting passages from other extant texts of Proclus and Syrianus as well as secondary sources such as those of Stephan Gersh and Jan Opsomer.

Wear reconstructs the arguments for all the passages she quotes in this volume with equal comprehensiveness. In Proclus' discussion of the weaving together of the mortal and immortal soul, the topic is the ochema (vehicle) that has a longer life than the body. (In. Tim. 236.31-237.9). This will serve as another example of Wear's methods. She carefully develops the meaning of 'ochema' in the literature, citing Porphyry, Aristotle, and Middle Platonic sources as well as elaborating Iamblicus' view of survival in the afterlife of both ochema and irrational soul. This includes Proclus' contribution of the argument for the irrational soul's survival in Hades. She concludes with a discussion of Syrianus reconciliation of Porphyry (vehicle dissolves) and Iamblichus (vehicle survives). The issue is resolved by there being a higher and lower ochema, as Damascius will later hold as well. Here she cites John Finamore, John Dillon, E. R. Dodds, Augustine, Plotinus, Philo, the Chaldean Oracles, Festugiére, among others who have treated a similar subject. This careful pattern of analysis gives credence to the interpretation by cross-referencing intertextual and modern commentary.

An interest of my own, the Athenian school's position on Time and Eternity, is the subject of another of the passages that are presented here.4 The treatment follows the precedent set by all the other passages and can serve here to demonstrate Wear's careful rendering of a complex subject matter. In In Tim III.35.25-36.33 Proclus examines the simultaneity of the construction of Heaven and the production of days and nights and months and years, and of 'was' and 'shall be' as generated portions of Time, a complicated set of passages which encompass a highly nuanced view of Time and Eternity endemic to the Athenians School. Here Wear gives us a summary of the lemma, Syrianus' exegetical method in regard to Timaeus, the similarities between Syrianus' account and that of Iamblichus and footnotes with reference to modern commentators such as John Dillon and Richard Sorabji who have done major work on these same passages. She provides Iamblichus' fragment wherein he condemns the Aristotelian definition of time as motion. Dillon explains of Iamblichus' higher and lower time and Syrianus stress on Day and Night as transcendent principles standing prior to their generated endless cycle of days and nights. Again the brilliance of this treatment is in its careful teasing out of Iamblichus' and Syrianus' contribution to the Procline theory of time.

Wear's practice of providing taxonomies to help the reader with complex material in a form that is 'user friendly' is impressive and helpful. Neoplatonic philosophers are prone to supply multiple subdivisions and Syrianus is especially prone to "proliferate levels of triads"(p. 4). Wear helps to clarify Syrianus' categories by providing, in this case, a chart comprised of the structure of the henadic realm reproduced from her own discussion of Syrianus In. Tim fr. 17. She also reproduces Jan Opsomer's hierarchy of layers of reality in the noetic realm (p. 10).5 Other charts that appear throughout this volume help the reader compare doctrinal differences on the part of key figures and/or catalog key concepts. In a set of passages that concern the relationship between the first and second hypotheses of Plato's Parmenides (In Parm 1011.25-1064.10 234-241) construed as about the absolute God and the intelligible world, she lists Proclus nine hypothesis (5 positive and 4 negative) for the nine hypotheses expressing the different senses of One and Being and Non Being). This is followed by a list of Amelius' eight hypotheses, Porphyry's and then Iamblichus' nine hypotheses. She then supplies the lists of the first commentator to arrange the hypotheses into positive and negative, "the philosopher from Rhodes". In this arrangement, the first five categories are on being, the second group related to what there would be if there was nonbeing. She then provides Plutarch's list. Finally, she shows how Syrianus uses the hypotheses to theologize, aligning the megista gene with the divine orders so that Limit and Unlimitedness represent ranks of gods. Another chart that Klitenic Wear provides both in the introduction and in her commentary on In Parm 1118.24-1123.16 concerns levels of being and how Limit and Unlimitedness, key hypostatic categories for the Athenian school, affect them. There are two columns, Unlimit and Limit, under which the nine ranked subdivisions range from Matter and Formlessness through Soul Time, Intellect, Eternity and Infinity. In this chart the effect of Unlimit and Limit on these respective ranks is made clear. Limit is related to unity, sameness and form while Unlimit causes production, procession plurality and motion etc. The importance of the Hypostasis Limited /Unlimited has been a focus of my own work on Proclus and is essential to understanding Proclus' ontology and its source in Syrianus. Syrianus' elevated the two categories as immediately beneath the One, a key innovation for the Athenians.

The ever-unfolding project of "footnoting" Plato extends from the Early Academy through Middle Platonism and finally falls into the capable but theologizing hands of the Neoplatonic commentators. The result is a many-layered exegetic and interpretative tradition. The task of mining these texts to sort out the many levels of meaning requires masterful scholarly archeology. Expert knowledge of the positions of predecessor and successor commentators is crucial to this scholarship. Wear's volume achieves precisely such a task and gives the reader basic tools for his or her own similar pursuit. The very difficulty that Wear identifies in siphoning out which ideas are Proclus and which are Syrianus tells us a very important fact about Neoplatonic tradition. It is testimony to the effectiveness of a collaboration by which a 'golden chain' of successor -predecessor effort forms the backbone of most of the doctrines of these latter day Platonists. One can get a sense of this precisely in the closely woven fabric that consists of the views of Proclus and his beloved mentor as they appear in the Commentaries. With this in mind, the Wear volume can be seen to be a sourcebook not only for Syrianus' views but also for the complex intellectual genealogies comprising the academic milieu of the Platonic Academy in Late Antiquity.


1.  [Angela Longo (ed.), Syrianus et la métaphysique de l'antiquité tardive Napoli: Bibliopolis, 2009. BMCR 2010.02.77
2.  See A.D.R. Sheppard, Studies on the 5th and 6th Essays of Proclus' Commentary on the Republic (Gottingen, 1980):46 and Wear, 2- 3.
3.  Dominic O'Meara (trans) and John Dillon (trans), Syrianus: On Aristotle's Metaphysics 3-4, (London: Duckworth Press) 2008; and Syrianus: On Aristotles Metaphysics, 13-14 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) 2006
4.  Emilie Kutash Ten Gifts ofthe Demiurge: Proclus on Plato's Timaeus London: Bloomsbury (2011): 159- 176.
5.  Jan Opsomer, "Proclus on Demiurgy and Procession: A Neoplatonic Reading of the Timaeus," in M.R. Wright (ed) Reason and Necessity: Essays on Plato's Timaeus (London, 2000) 113-143.

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