Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.42

John D. Turner, Kevin Corrigan (ed.), Plato's Parmenides and Its Heritage, Volume 1: History and Interpretation from the Old Academy to later Platonism and Gnosticism. Writings from the Greco-Roman World Supplements 2.   Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.  Pp. xvi, 333.  ISBN 9781589834491.  $42.95 (pb).  

John D. Turner, Kevin Corrigan (ed.), Plato's Parmenides and Its Heritage, Volume 2: Reception in Patristic, Gnostic and Christian Neoplatonic Texts. Writings from the Greco-Roman World Supplements 3.   Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.  Pp. xiv, 310.  ISBN 9781589834491.  $39.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter Lautner, Pázmány Péter Catholic University (

The volumes contain the contributions to the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting seminar “Rethinking Plato’s Parmenides and Its Platonic, Gnostic and Patristic Reception” (2001-2007). They considerably further our knowledge of the aftermath of the Parmenides in antiquity, especially of the way Platonic ideas were absorbed into the Christian and Gnostic milieu of the Late Roman Empire. I will quickly describe the majority, in accord with my own interests.

Following Kevin Corrigan’s survey on the interpretations of the dialogue, in which he insists, among other ideas, that, pace Proclus (in Parm. 638.2-640.16), the metaphysical interpretation predates Plotinus since Speusippus’ episodic ontology requires such an interpretation, Gerald Bechtle examines the relation between Speusippus’ theory of the One and the Parmenides. He reminds us of the plausible idea that Plato was reacting to his nephew’s theory of principles.1 They might have exchanged arguments on how to respond to certain problems, of which the result might be some parts of the Parmenides. The exchange was promoted by methodical similarities as well. Both the dialogue and the testimonies on Speusippus apply a binary distinction between the same and the other. Moreover Speusippus’ views resemble theses in the second half of the dialogue, the first and the third deductions – on the One in relation to itself and the others in relation to the One, on the hypothesis that the One is.

Bechtle has two more contributions, one discussing the relation of the Anonymous commentary on the Parmenides to Aristotle’s Categories, and the other examining the references to the dialogue in Simplicius’ in Cat 75.6 and 291.2. The result of the first is that the exegetical tradition of the Categories overlaps the history of the Parmenides-interpretation on important points, which goes along with the assumption that Aristotle’s work is first and foremost a metaphysical treatise rather than a grammatical or semantic one. In particular, Bechtle thinks that the tradition of reading the Categories with reference to the Parmenides goes back to Nicomachus of Gerasa. The second paper is, as it were, a case study on how to apply categories to metaphysical entities. Simplicius’ two references to the Parmenides in his commentary on the Categories concern the One. If the ten categories of the sensible world correspond to the same ten in the noetic realm in such a way that the former originate in and refer to the latter (an ἀϕ’ ἕνος καὶ πρός ἕν - relation) and the One is shown to extend throughout all the hypotheses, then It bounds all beings, sensible and intelligible alike, into a continuous unity. (in Cat. 75-3-8)

Luc Brisson has five contributions, all but one dealing with the Anonymous’ Commentary on the Parmenides from different points of view. The first aims to show that the fragment attributed to Speusippus, to be found in the first column of Anonymous’ commentary, is in fact not by Plato’s successor. It comes from a Neopythagorean apocryphon, written possibly in the first or second century, and which was criticized by both Plotinus (VI 9 [9] 1-8) and Porphyry (fr. 220 Smith). The critique was directed against the view that the One is a mathematical minimum, meaning both minimal number and minimal extension, and that feature manifests itself in the physical nature as well. The view is akin to what we find in the last bit of Proclus’ in Parmenidem which has been preserved in Latin only. The passage was attributed to Speusippus, but the attribution has been proved to be false.

Brisson's second paper is concerned with the critique of the Chaldaean Oracles and the Gnostics in columns IX-X. The critique aims to show that, contrary to the Chaldaean position, God cannot be known by us in any way since He is not an object. The soul can only experience Him approximately, by not knowing Him. The interpreters referring to the Oracles were probably Gnostics – a claim based on parallel passages in Plotinus II 9 [33] – thus the Anonymous commentary reproached a Gnostic position. All this points towards a common source, and Brisson claims that there was a Middle-Platonic commentary on the Parmenides at the end of the 2nd century C.E., which turned the first God into an intellect.

The criticism of Numenius in columns XI-XIV is the theme of Brisson's third paper, which leads to a distinction between two moments in the Intellect. The first is in a state of perfect simplicity and seems to be blended with the One itself, the other is a state in which it emerges from itself in order to return to itself. The commentator may have aimed at accounting for the procession of the Intellect by distinguishing two moments, the first of which coincides with the Intellect that cannot return within itself. Brisson also shows, in the fourth paper, that columns VII and VIII contain vestiges of a logical interpretation according to which the dialogue is nothing but a dialectical exercise which aims at escaping sophisms. He draws the conclusion that to write a commentary of such a scope is impossible without a proper library, a scholarly milieu and a deep conviction that the second part of the Parmenides should be read as a metaphysical treatise, which requires a context similar to that of Plotinus’ school. The fifth paper sheds light on crucial stages of the interpretation of the Parmenides in Platonism in the 3rd and 4th century C.E., discussing authors such as Longinus, Origen the Platonist (not to be equated with the Church Father), Plotinus and members of his school, and Iamblichus.

John Dillon contributes two studies. The first deals with Speusippus and starts from the admittedly controversial and unnamed evidence in Iamblichus’ De communi mathematica scientia ch. 4. Relying also on Plotinus VI 6 [34] 9.23-32 Dillon conjectures that an ontological interpretation of Plato’s argumentation in the second hypothesis of the Parmenides may have been behind Speusippus’ theorizing on the way in which the cosmos is generated from a radically unitary and simple first principle. The second paper discusses Syrianus’ exegesis of the second hypothesis with the aim of analyzing the commentator’s effort to show that the fourteen propositions making up the hypothesis correspond to the levels of the intelligible realm.

Thomas Szlezák argues that the report in Sextus Empiricus’ Adversus Mathematicos X 248-283, discussing a theory of principles of supposedly Pythagorean origin, goes back to Plato’s lectures On the Good; it might be a ‘Neopythagorean’ version of these(82).2 He concentrates on the concept of indefinite dyad. The argument is twofold. First, it sets out to show that the report can be affiliated with Plato’s lectures. It is only the attribution (to the Pythagoreans) that had been changed by Sextus’ time, not the content. Second, as a parallel approach we can refer to seventh and fourth hypotheses in the Parmenides that show, ontologically and epistemologically, strong resemblance to the theses surrounding the indefinite dyad.3

Zlatko Pleše shows that the description of God in Plutarch’s De E apud Delphos fits the Platonic dichotomies of being/becoming, thinking/sense-perception and eternity/time. The Parmenides is a possible source of the thesis, especially with regard to Ammonius’ abrupt introduction of otherness in 393B. J. Noel Hubler starts from Dodds’ dictum that Moderatus anticipated the emanation system of Plotinus, and points out that the only text Dodds could rely on, Simplicius’ in Phys. 230.34-231.21, witnesses that the Neoplatonist commentator imported theories of his school in order to elucidate Moderatus’ views.

Both of John D. Turner’s contributions focus on the Sethian Gnostic Platonizing treatises. The first deals with the relation of these texts to pre-Plotinian commentaries on the Parmenides. It shows that the negative theologies presented in these Gnostic treatises have common roots, possibly some Middle Platonic epitome or commentary, which proves that the theological interpretation of the first hypothesis of the Parmenides was put forward before the time of Plotinus. The second paper compares these Sethian texts with the Anonymous commentary and the Chaldaean Oracles, and Turner draws the conclusion that the Gnostic authors were well aware of the Neopythagorean arithmology, the Existence-Life-Intelligence triad, and the Chaldaean metaphysics built upon it. It also shows that the aforementioned triad has the same function in the Anonymous commentary as in the Sethian treatises. With due caution, Johanna Brankaer points out that, for all the resemblance they may have to Plotinus’ treatises, the Sethian texts do not contain such a well articulated henology as we find in the Enneads.

In one of his papers Volker Henning Drecoll traces the Greek text behind the parallel sections in Zostrianus and Marius Victorinus, from which he concludes that we cannot assign a single source for them, and thus that the basis for supposing the pre-Plotinian date of the Anonymous commentary is fairly uncertain. His views are shared by Alain Lernould who argues that the Anonymous commentary is of post-Plotinian origin since, e.g., the prayer in folios I-II contains elements characteristic to the Neoplatonism after Plotinus. In the other paper, on discussing Marius Victorinus’ use of sources in Ad Candidum and Adversus Arium 1B, 3 and 4 Drecoll provides a well grounded argument against Pierre Hadot’s thesis on Porphyry as the single source. He calls for a reassessment of Victorinus’ character as a creative and independent thinker who was inspired by different philosophical and even Gnostic texts.

Matthias Vorwerk surveys the views on the origin of Plotinus’ concept of the One with the aim to show by analysis of Enn. VI 1 [10] 8 that Plotinus was both inspired by the first hypothesis and needed it as evidence for his own Platonic orthodoxy. But the use of the dialogue could only be very limited.

On the basis of Proclus’ in Parm., Kevin Corrigan surveys the interpretations of all the hypotheses in the second part of the dialogue and tries to find evidence for Plotinus’ interpretation of the hypotheses other than the first three. Tuomas Rasinus comes up with the well grounded thesis according to which the author of Anonymous commentary on the Parmenides might have been a Sethian Gnostic attending Plotinus’ seminars. John Finamore discusses Iamblichus’ interpretation of the third hypothesis, to be found in fragmentary form in Proclus’ in Parm. 1051.34-1052.17 and Damascius’ in Parm. IV 3.15-4.1. The term ὀπαδοὶ ἀιδιοί (‘eternal consorts’) in Damascius refers to Iamblichus’ exegesis of the charioteer myth in the Phaedrus; Iamblichus himself also uses the expression in De Mysteriis I 10. He takes the hypothesis to refer to superior classes such as angels, daemons and heroes. Each of these classes is somewhat purer in interacting with the generated world, which makes their descent different. The view was rejected by Proclus and Damascius alike who criticized the bifurcation of superior classes. The result is important since it provides further evidence for the fact that Iamblichus’ doctrines were not endorsed unanimously by the Neoplatonists at Athens. Sara Ahbel-Rappe examines Damascius’ interpretation of the third hypothesis in the context of his theory of the soul. Damascius understood the dialogue to be an illustration of the complete career of the soul. The attentive faculty (τὸ προσεκτικόν) plays a crucial role since it is not subject to transformation. As a center of the soul it also works as a gateway to the reversion to the higher realms.

The papers in the last section are devoted to the indirect reception of Plato’s text in Philo of Alexandria and some Church Fathers. David Runia expresses doubts about Philo’s use of the dialogue but provides evidence for the knowledge of the first hypothesis in the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria (IV 156.1-2 and V 81.4-6). In the first of his two contributions Mark Edwards discusses the Anonymous commentary on the Parmenides and by examining the Christian expression ἄρρητος καὶ ἀκατονόμαστος, which does not appear in other pagan philosophical texts, comes to the conclusion that, if not a Christian, the author occupied a hinterland in which free trade between pagan and Christian was the norm. Furthermore, the noetic triad – existence, life, intelligence – does not turn up in Porphyry, neither in Plotinus, nor in the Chaldaean Oracles, which have δύναμις instead of life. The other paper points to the peculiarities of Origen’s alleged Platonism and thereby shows the difficulties in calling someone a Platonist in that Christian milieu. Jean Reynard traces out the possible influence of the text on Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea. Even if they were familiar with it, they did not refer to it explicitly since they were convinced that pagan Neoplatonism in their age – in which this kind of interpretation flourished – had to be rejected altogether. In his second paper Kevin Corrigan detects traces of the Parmenides in Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzus. Especially instructive are the remarks on the triadic causal procession of sameness and otherness in the discussion of the Trinity. Andrew Radde-Gallwitz discusses Pseudo-Dionysius’ effort, shared with Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, to undermine the law of non-contradiction and excluded middle. Pseudo-Dionysius might have found support from an interpretation of the first hypothesis.

All in all, it is a fine collection of papers, even if the principles of arrangement are not always clear. Brisson’s four contributions make up a running commentary of Anonymous’ in Parmenidem, but they are scattered throughout. In the case of some papers it is hard to see why they are included in a book about the aftermath of the Parmenides, since they have nothing to say about the conscious reception of the dialogue in antiquity. It is also a great pity that none of the 31 papers in the collection has its primary aim to discuss any aspect of Proclus’ in Parm. Given the extent and depths of that commentary – not to mention the occasion provided by the two contemporary editions – it is somewhat surprising. The book is furnished with an extensive bibliography, and a detailed index locorum and another index of subjects and names, and they are for each volume. The slips are few (e.g., write Zambon for Zambo in Vol. I., p. 93 and 296, in Vol. II, p. 47 we have a marginal residue of the editorial process.)

Table of Contents

Vol. I
Section I: Plato, from the Old Academy to Middle Platonism
1. Kevin Corrigan, The Place of the Parmenides in Plato’s Thought and in the Subsequent Tradition.
2. Gerald Bechtle, Speusippus’ Neutral Conception of the One and Plato’s Parmenides.
3. Luc Brisson, The Fragment of Speusippus in Column I of the Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides.
4. John Dillon, Speusippus and the Ontological Interpretation of the Parmenides.
5. Thomas Szlezák, The Indefinite Dyad in Sextus Empiricus’s Report (Adversus Mathematicos 10.248- 283) and Plato’s Parmenides.
6. Zlatko Pleše, Plato and Parmenides in Agreement: Ammonius’s Praise of God as One-Being in Plutarch’s The E at Delphi.
7. J. Noel Hubler, Moderatus, E. R. Dodds and the Development of Neoplatonist Emanation.
Section 2: Middle Platonic and Gnostic Texts
8. John D. Turner, The Platonizing Sethian Treatises, Marius Victorinus’s Philosophical Sources, and Pre-Plotinian Parmenides Commentaries.
9. Johanna Brankaer, Is there a Gnostic "Henological” Speculation?
10. Volker Henning Drecoll, The Greek Text behind the Parallel Sections in Zoroastrianos and Marius Victorinus.
11. John D. Turner, The Chaldaean Oracles and the Metaphysics of the Sethian Platonizing Treatises.
12. Luc Brisson, A Criticism of the Chaldaean Oracles and of the Gnostics in Columns IX and X of the Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides.
13. Gerald Bechtle, The Anonymous Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides and Aristotle’s Categories: Some Preliminary Remarks.
14. Alain Lernould, Negative Theology and radical Conceptual Purification in the Anonymous Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides.
15. Luc Brisson, A Criticism of Numenius in the Last Columns (XI-XIV) of the Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides.
Vol. 2
Section 1: Parmenides Interpretation from Plotinus to Damascius
1. Matthias Vorwerk, Plotinus and the Parmenides: Problems of Interpretation.
2. Kevin Corrigan, Plotinus and the Hypotheses of the Second Part of Plato’s Parmenides.
3. Luc Brisson, The Reception of the Parmenides before Proclus.
4. Volker Henning Drecoll, Is Porphyry the Source Used by Marius Victorinus?
5. Tuomas Rasinus, Porphyry and the Gnostics: Reassessing Pierre Hadot’s Thesis in Light of the Second- and Third-Century Sethian Treatises.
6. Luc Brisson, Columns VII-VIII of the Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides: Vestiges of a Logical Interpretation.
7. John F. Finamore, Iamblichus’s Interpretation of the Parmenides’ Third Hypothesis.
8. J. M. Dillon, Syrianus’s Exegesis of the Second Hypothesis of the Parmenides: The Architecture of the Intelligible Universe Revealed.
9. Sara Ahbel-Rappe, Damascius on the Third Hypothesis of the Parmenides.
10. Gerald Bechtle, Metaphysicizing the Aristotelian Categories: Two References to the Parmenides in Simplicius’s Commentary on the Categories (75.6 and 291.2 Kalbfleisch).
Section 2: Hidden Influence of the Parmenides in Philo, Origen, and Later Patristic Thought.
11. David T. Runia, Early Alexandrian Theology and Plato’s Parmenides.
12. Mark Edwards, Christians and the Parmenides.
13. Mark Edwards, Origen’s Platonism: Questions and Caveats.
14. Jean Reynard, Plato’s Parmenides among the Cappadocian Fathers. The Problem of a Possible Influence or the Meaning of a Lack?
15. Kevin Corrigan, The Importance of the Parmenides for Trinitarian Theology in the Third and Fourth Centuries C.E.
16. Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Pseudo-Dionysius, the Parmenides, and the Problem of Contradiction.


1.   The possibility has been proposed by A. Graeser, Prolegomena zu einer Interpretation des zweiten Teils des Platonischen Parmenides. Bern: Haupt, 1999.
2.   There might be a problem with the translation since Walter Burkert did not see in Sextus’ report an exact transcript of the lecture On the Good (p. 80) – that would be a very strong claim indeed. The footnote (n. 6) illustrating it says only that the report is based on an exact transcript (liegt eine genaue Nachschrift . . . zugrunde), leaving open the possibility of a certain amount of modification.
3.   Although Szlezák might be right in saying (85) that when interpreting Plato we do not have to stick to ὀνώματα, a note would have been in order on why in all the crucial passages that he takes to refer to indefinite dyad are all in plural and thus suggest that they are about the plurality of things. At one point (88) he renders it in singular without explanation: ‘Here its own nature reveals itself, ἑαυτῶν ϕύσις’. (italicized by T. Sz.)

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