Despite being the only surviving ancient commentary on so beloved a dialogue as the Phaedrus, Hermias of Alexandria’s Scholia on Plato’s Phaedrus has remained an obscure work, regularly frequented by no more than a handful of specialists. It was indeed only some twenty years ago that the first modern edition of the text was translated, 1 as it happened, into German.2 However, the happy conjunction of a new critical edition of the Scholia,3 the growing scholarly interest in the Late Ancient commentaries on Plato, and some enterprising translators, has yielded a new English translation of Hermias.
This new translation of the Scholia, unlike its German predecessor, will appear in two volumes. The volume at hand contains a translation of the first of the Scholia’s three books. This bisection of the text seems to be largely a concession to the breezy new layout of the Ancient commentators on Aristotle series. While this layout does indeed make for easy reading, a two-volume translation has the considerable drawback of making this English Hermias well over double the price of the critical edition (assuming that the second volume costs about as much as the first).
The volume opens with a forty-page introduction by the translators, Dirk Baltzly and Michael Share. They begin with a standard overview of the later Neoplatonic curriculum and Phaedrus’ place therein, followed by an overview of the reception of the dialogue up to Hermias. Arriving at the Scholia themselves, the authors address the vexed question of what exactly the Scholia are. The prevailing scholarly opinion would have it that this work amounts to little more than Hermias’ course notes from his master Syrianus’ lessons on the Phaedrus.4 A minority opinion, however, argues against this, and holds that we can find compelling proof in the Scholia that Hermias added to or modified his initial notes, thereby making an original contribution to the exegesis of the dialogue.5 On this vexed question, however, the authors of the present translation chose to remain neutral. They regard the problem of distinguishing between the contributions of Syrianus and Hermias to the Scholia as “evidentially intractable” (15) and prefer to “treat the commentary as evidence for the views of an ‘Athenian school’ around Syrianus and his pupils Proclus and Hermias” (15).
After treating of the Scholia themselves, the authors move on to their reception, offering, amongst other observations, a long digression on the reception of the translations of Thomas Taylor, who made use of Hermias in his introductions. The authors next offer a highlights-reel of topics discussed in the first book of the Scholia that may be of interest to the contemporary reader of Plato, including Hermias’ perspectives on the unity of the dialogue, on its characterisation and setting, on the role of Socrates, and on the role of rhetoric. They finally close their introduction with the presentation of a new hypothesis regarding the purpose of the Neoplatonic commentaries on Plato, i.e. that they are “exercises in internalizing associations of ideas that are not at all recommended by our experience as embodied creatures” (34). The writing of commentaries on Plato would therefore play a role in the ascension of the well-known scala virtutis of the later Neoplatonists insofar as “the acquisition of the various gradations of the cardinal virtues consisted in … the creative capacity to give meaning to one’s experience in terms of metaphors and associations of ideas derived from the Platonic teachings” (35). While the authors’ assertion regarding the purpose of writing commentaries is largely in line with what Simplicius has to say on the subject (In Epict. Prooem. 73-7), it is more difficult to imagine any Neoplatonist consenting to reduce the virtues to “the creative capacity to give meaning to one’s experience”. According to Damascius at least (In Phaed. I.138-40), the virtues really were virtues and their acquisition served bring us from our present state to the ultimate experience of unification with gods. The virtues therefore did not so much give meaning to our experience as give us the capacity for meaningful experience.
As for the translation itself, it is generally accurate and fluid, reaping the full benefits of its German predecessor and surpassing it in many cases. It is also copiously annotated, with over 800 notes for 126 pages of translation. This heavy annotation is useful given how little the Scholia have been studied and how many passages there are that seem more like a series of crabbed notes than pieces of polished exegesis.
In sum, amongst this translation’s many qualities, the principal one is its very existence, which has finally rendered at least part of the new edition of Hermias’ Scholia accessible to a broad public. Hermias, one hopes, may now enjoy some small part of the limelight in which his colleague Proclus has begun to bask. This is not the translators’ first effort to make the Late Ancient commentaries on Plato available to an English-speaking audience. They have previously contributed to the multi-volume translation of Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus (Cambridge, 2007-2017) and now to that of his Commentary on Plato’s Republic (Cambridge, 2018). Their ongoing work is much appreciated.
1. Paul Couvreur (ed.), Hermiae Alexandrini in Platonis Phaedrum scholia (Paris: É. Bouillon, 1901).
2. Hildegund Bernard (tr.), Hermeias von Alexandrien: Kommentar zu Platons ‘Phaidros’ (Tubingen: Hildesheim: 1997).
3. Carlo M. Lucarini and Claudio Moreschini (eds.), Hermias Alexandrinus In Platonis Phaedrum Scholia (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012).
4. Amongst the most recent proponents of this position include Christina-Panagoita Manolea, The Homeric Tradition in Syrianus (Thessaloniki: Ant. Stamoulis Editions, 2004), 47-58; ‘Possessed and Inspired: Hermias on Divine Madness’, The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 7 (2013), 156-79 at 158; Sarah Klitenic Wear, The Teachings of Syrianus on Plato’s Timaeus and Parmenides (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 206 n. 12.
5. See Hildegund Bernard (tr.), Hermeias von Alexandrien: Kommentar zu Platons ‘Phaidros’ (Heidelberg: Mohr Siebeck), 13-19; Claudio Moreschini, ‘Alla scuola di Siriano: Ermia nella storia del neoplatonismo’ in Angela Longo (ed.), Syrianus et la métaphysique de l’antiquité tardive (Naples: Bibliopolis, 2009), 515-78; Simon Fortier, “The Nature of the Scholia on Plato’s Phaedrus”, Phronesis 63 (2018), 449-76.