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The School of Platonism – Commentaries on Plato in Late Antiquity

The philosophers of the period we usually call Neoplatonism saw themselves as interpreters of Plato.  This self-understanding, clearly developed by Plotinus, is evidenced by the fact that for them the main form of philosophical investigation was a systematic close-reading and interpretation in commentary form of the dialogues of Plato.

In all centers of late antique Platonism, i.e. in Athens, Alexandria, Syria etc., the instruction in philosophy was systematically concevied as an introduction to Plato’s ideas and theories.  The foundation of this curriculum was a canonical selection of Platonic dialogues established  by Iamblichus, a student of Porphyrius, which was added to a specially developed didactic concept.

The instruction was strictly anagogic and started off with training in the so-called quadrivium, called by Plato the communis mathematica scientia or the mathematical sciences which formed the basis of all philosophical training and education.  Aristotelian logic, which had a propadeutic function, was also taught, using the Organon as a textbook.  All this was done before the real core of Platonic philosophy was introduced.  Only after that was finished did the step-by-step introduction to the contents of Platonic philosophy take place: beginning with Alcibiades, whose theme is self-knowledge, and progressing through the ethical dialogues Gorgias and Phaedo as well as the logical ones Cratylus and Theaetetus the first course reached its summit in the so-called physical dialogues Sophistes and Politikos and the dialogues Symposium, Phaedrus and Philebus.

In the second course, the dialogues Parmenides and Timaeus were read, which were seen as the summit and epitome of Platonic physics and the doctrine of intelligible being.

The method of commenting on the dialogues follows hermeneutic principles much discussed in the schools, among which the principle that every dialogue has a skopos is the most important.  In claiming that each individual dialogue has one single theme or subject, which unites all its different aspects, i.e. linguistic, literary, argumentative, logical, conceptual, and parts and is a concrete philosophical theme or theory the student needs to learn and internalize, the commentators have reflected on and developed a hermeneutic method for interpreting Plato’s dialogues which is comparable to modern hermeneutic methods.

Although many important commentaries have been lost over the centuries, this method of teaching philosophy has left us a substantial number of commentaries on Plato – besides the commentaries from the 4th century of the most important commentator on Plato Proclus, we have the commentaries of Hermeias of Alexandria, Damascius of Athens, Olympiodorus etc.

The analysis of these philosophical texts is important in its own right for an understanding of late antique Platonism.  However, they also offer new ideas and fresh approaches to the understanding of Plato himself as the late antique Platonists offer in their commentaries possible solutions to many modern problems concerning the interpretation of Plato.

Both research goals haven’t been and are still not being achieved today.  The Leibniz project “The School of Platonism – Commentaries on Plato” has as its goal a systematic interpretation of these commentaries, which have unfortunately been ignored for a long time.

These studies aim at contributing to a new understanding and possible rehabilitation of Platonic philosophy in late antiquity.  This project makes use of the results already obtained by Arbogast Schmitt (Marburg) and Gyburg Radke in their project “Modern Views of Antiquity” and is thematically related to this project as our modern view of the commentaries on Plato in antiquity is influenced in many ways by certain historical and philosophical prejudices propagated from time period to time period concerning the alleged naïveté and speculative metaphysics of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy.

One focal point is to be the commentary on the dialogue Parmenides.  By using this a starting point, it is easier to pinpoint how Platonic doctrines were transmitted to the Christian Middle Ages.  Through Dionysius the Areopagite, a student of Proclus, the dialectic, ontology, and theology of the late antique Parmenides commentary became the epistemological basis of Christian theology.

In this respect, a secondary goal of the project is to contribute to an understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Platonism.