Friday, January 25, 2019


Noel Aujoulat, Adrien Lecerf, Hierocles d'Alexandrie: Commentaire sur les 'Vers d'Or' des Pythagoriciens, Traité sur la Providence. La roue à livres, 84. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2018. Pp. xvi, 311. ISBN 9782251447988. €35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (

Version at BMCR home site

This is a most useful addition to scholarship in the area of Neoplatonism, largely the work of Noel Aujoulat (who had done important work on Hierocles before this), but brought to completion after his death in January 2017 by his younger colleague Adrien Lecerf. The volume consists of a comprehensive introduction (80 pp.), and annotated translations, first of the commentary on the Pythagorean Golden Verses, and then of the treatise On Providence, preserved to us (in part) only by courtesy of Photius, in his Bibliotheca.

Hierocles is an interesting figure, being a pillar of the Platonist school of Alexandria in the mid-fifth century, but also a somewhat controversial one. Specifically, there is the problem (which Lecerf – modifying Aujoulat, it seems – addresses most judiciously in a section of the Introduction) of how far Hierocles—and indeed the Alexandrian School in general – has taken on board the metaphysical complexities of the later Athenian School. Lecerf, following Ilsetraut Hadot, takes the reasonable view that Hierocles is here concerned with a text, viz. The Golden Verses) which is to be studied by beginners in the field of philosophy, and thus the introduction of the full panoply of post-Iamblichean theology would be quite inapposite. After all, as he argues, Iamblichus himself, in the 'Pythagorean Sequence', gives little hint of the complexities of his own theology, since those works too are for relative beginners in his school. Whether it also behooved the Platonists in Alexandria, in face of the much more aggressive Christian climate prevalent in that city, to play down the higher theological aspects of Platonism, and indeed to concentrate rather upon Aristotle, is another matter! At any rate, it need not be assumed that Hierocles represents a sort of throw-back to pre-Plotinian Platonism, stemming directly from Ammonius Saccas.

And that brings us to another little mystery, this time arising from Hierocles' only other (semi-)surviving work, his treatise On Providence – or rather, On Providence and Fate, and On the Relation which Obtains between What is In Our Power and Divine Providence. Photius, in his first survey of this work, in codex 214 of the Bibliotheca, reports Hierocles as heaping praise on the wisdom of the 'god-taught' (theodidaktos) Ammonius – generally agreed to be a reference to the mysterious Ammonius Saccas, teacher of Plotinus – for reconciling the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle 'in all important respects', thus 'purifying' earlier Platonism from its errors. Something of this reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle may be observed in Plotinus, and more in Porphyry, but one would not regard that, I think, as the salient aspect of Plotinus' philosophy. Hierocles sees Ammonius as a key figure in the development of late Platonism, and gives the distinct impression that he has some source for his doctrines — certainly he cannot get much help here from either Plotinus or Porphyry.

A third issue on which Aujoulat-Lecerf is very sound (in section IV of the Introduction) is the question of the period of compilation of The Golden Verses as a coherent collection. We have some evidence of the existence of individual verses of the collection even in the early Hellenistic period – notably through a quotation of Verse 54 by Chrysippus – so the elements of the collection plainly go back a while, but for the existing compilation they would favour rather the period of the second century A.D., with the rise of a more 'aggressive' form of Neopythagoreanism, in the persons of such figures as Moderatus of Gades, Nicomachus of Gerasa, or Numenius of Apamea, for its formal construction as a book, and that seems reasonable to me. As such, it becomes a sort of Pythagorean 'gospel' text, providing a counterweight to certain other offerings that were coming on the market at the time.

Those issues once dealt with, we may turn to the main features of this edition. The Introduction comprises five main sections (the subject-matter of which we have given some attention to above): I concerns the authorship of The Golden Verses; II discusses the life and times of Hierocles; III provides a survey of the contents of the Commentary and the Treatise on Providence; IV provides a more detailed discussion of the dating, authorship, nature and purpose of the Golden Verses; and V a detailed exposition of the philosophical position of Hierocles, as it emerges from these works. This is followed by a translation of the 71 verses of the poem itself; then the translation of the 27 chapters of the Commentary; then, a translation of the Treatise on Providence, in the two different codices of the Bibliotheca, the first (cod. 214) being merely a summary and critique of its seven books by Photius, the latter (cod. 251) containing a number of verbatim extracts from the first three books; and lastly a series of copious notes on both works. This is followed by an index verborum et rerum. There is no bibliography as such, but the main sources employed (Aujoulat, Hadot, Koehler, Mullach, Schibli, Schwyzer, Thom) are listed in a list of 'abbréviations bibliographiques' at the beginning.

We have discussed a number of the issues arising in the various sections above, but we may deal with some more here. First of all, the authors, in section IV, set out very lucidly the structure of the Golden Verses, followed by Hierocles in his commentary. After 5 verses of introduction (covered by Hierocles in sections I to VI), the first section of the work (vv. 6-44, dealt with by Hierocles in sections VII-XIX)) covers the 'practical' or 'civic' virtues, involving the moderation of the passions (metriopatheia), the practice of which issues in the state of virtue, or perfection on the human level. There then ensues a short passage of transition (vv. 45-481), covered by Hierocles in section XX. The latter part of the poem (vv. 482-71) concerns the theoretical or purificatory virtues, the practice of which leads to the acquisition of 'Truth', or perfection on the divine level (homoiôsis theôi), dealt with by Hierocles in sections XXI–XXVII. Thus Hierocles employs a somewhat simplified version of the grades of virtue, as set out initially by Plotinus in Enneads I 2, to impose a structure on the poem, and present it as an excellent introduction to Neoplatonic ethics.

As for the treatise on providence, it is certainly notable that Hierocles seems to present us with a much simplified metaphysical system, headed by a Demiurge figure, who dispenses providential oversight, first to a class of (celestial) gods, then to a range of intermediate, daemonic beings, and lastly to rational mortals. It would almost seem from this that Hierocles is drawing on some such source as the treatise of Origen the Platonist, That the King is the only Creator (mentioned by Porphyry, VP 3) – indeed it could be from such a source that he draws his information about Ammonius. One might, of course, argue that, for the purpose of expounding the work of providence, Hierocles does not need to ascend any higher in the Neoplatonic metaphysical hierarchy than the Demiurge, but the fact remains that there is no clear sign of anything higher in what Photius has preserved of the work.

On the other hand, as Aujoulat and Lecerf well bring out in their notes, Hierocles seems well acquainted with Iamblichus' doctrine of the intermediary status of the soul, as set out in his De Anima and Timaeus Commentary, and his doctrine of a higher and lower level of providence, as exhibited in his Letter to Macedonius, so he is by no means out of touch with later developments in Neoplatonism. We must just assume, I think, that it suited him to keep things simple – whether in accord with his own preferences, or in deference to outside pressures, we cannot really know.

It would be impertinent of me, I think, to deliver a critique of the French translation, but I must say that it reads very smoothly; as do the notes, which cover all points of importance, both philological and philosophical. All in all, a most useful contribution to scholarship – even if not all problems about Hierocles can be cleared up definitively.

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