BMCR 2001.02.28

The Anonymous Commentary on Plato’s ‘Parmenides’

, The Anonymous Commentary on Plato's 'Parmenides'. Bern/Stuttgart/Wien: Paul Haupt, 1999. 285.

In 1873, a librarian at the University of Turin identified in a Latin manuscript 16 palimpsest pages of an anonymous commentary on Plato’s Parmenides. The first critical edition of the fragments was published by Kroll in 1892. Unfortunately, in 1904 a fire destroyed the manuscript. In the first part of this century, the anonymous commentary received little scholarly attention. But in an important article in Revue des ├ętudes grecques in 1961, and then in a major two volume work in 1968 titled Porphyre et Victorinus, Pierre Hadot advanced the hypothesis that the anonymous commentary was to be attributed to Porphyry. Hadot’s hypothesis offered for the first time the possibility of situating the commentary within a phase of the Platonic tradition that was at least partially understood. Even more importantly, it suggested a serious revision of our understanding of Porphyry’s relation to his master, Plotinus, and to later philosophers influenced by Porphyry. Hadot’s hypothesis has not been demonstrated to be false, although it is certainly not universally accepted. The problem is that there is nothing like compelling evidence for the attribution of the work to Porphyry, but there is also no evidence for attributing it to any other philosopher whose works are extant.

The present work is a revised Ph.D. thesis done at Oxford under Michael Frede. Its goal is to challenge Hadot’s hypothesis by situating the commentary in the ‘pre-Plotinian’ or so-called ‘Middle Platonic’ period. Negatively, this would free the study of Porphyry’s philosophy from the need to accommodate the assertions made in the commentary. Positively, it would show that (depending exactly on when in the pre-Plotinian period it is placed) ‘Neoplatonic’ interpretations of Plato based on a certain way of reading the Parmenides have a provenance perhaps going back even to Speusippus, one generation after the master himself. The success of this challenge generally would be to add in a small way to the basis for insisting that ‘Neoplatonism’ represents not so much an innovation as just a name for one serious way of reading Plato.

The author has happily chosen to ground his arguments in a close commentary on the text itself. That text (i.e., Kroll’s) along with a serviceable but rough English translation is provided as well. Unfortunately, there is no way of telling what is missing from the text in the only, now lost, manuscript. This exacerbates the problem caused by anonymity. There is also a sketch of the various philosophical problems that were of concern to the Middle Platonists (67-117), an analysis of the text in comparison with the relevant sections of Parmenides (119-79), an attempt to recover the philosophical position apparently assumed in the commentary (181-220), and finally an argument refuting Hadot and fixing the date of the commentary sometime in the pre-Plotinian period (221-63).

In order to appreciate the significance of the issues with which this book deals, a brief word needs to be said about the historical transition from the Platonic dialogues everyone knows to the Neoplatonic interpretations (almost) everyone ignores. In the Republic (509B) Plato evidently postulates a ‘Form of the Good,’ a superordinate Form that is the source of ‘existence or being’ for the other Forms. This Form is itself ‘above being’. Aristotle tells us in his Metaphysics (1091b13-14; cf. 988a14) that Plato identified this Form with ‘the One’ or the ultimate principle from which, in combination with another principle, ‘the Indefinite Dyad,’ all things were derived. Although Plato does not explicitly invest the Form of the Good or the One with all the properties generally associated in the Greek philosophical tradition with the divine, he was manifestly a theologically oriented philosopher. Thus, when his disciples came to interpret his words in order to expand upon his insights and to confront the enemies of Platonism, they were in one way or another led to reflect on how Plato’s theology was to be integrated with a doctrine of ultimate ontological principles. They came to divinize the first principle in various ways and to make it a principle not just of Forms but of all reality. In this they were abetted by Aristotle’s testimony about Plato’s written and unwritten doctrines. In addition, or perhaps as a consequence of their reliance on this testimony, they arrived at an interpretation of Plato’s Parmenides that found in the first hypostasis of the second part of that dialogue a ‘One’ identifiable with that first principle and in the second hypostasis a ‘One-Being’ identifiable with its first product. We do not know exactly when something like a canonical or at least constructive interpretation of the Parmenides first arose. Bechtle is certainly correct that in a general way these issues are rooted in intra-Academic discussions going back to Speusippus, Xenocrates, and Aristotle. Also beyond dispute is that what we have learned to identify as ‘Neoplatonism’ is in large part the collective effort to find a coherent amalgam or harmonization of theology and ontology in Plato.

The fragments that constitute the anonymous commentary on Parmenides are in this sense Neoplatonic. In it there are tantalizing peculiarities of interpretation of Plato’s thought in that dialogue, including the author’s apparent identification of the divine as in some sense above the primary One, which is exactly the reverse of much of the later tradition. Since this first principle is, as absolutely first, supposedly utterly simple, the attribution to it of what we might term ‘personal’ properties is something of a puzzle. One line of argument inevitably depersonalizes the divine in some way, for example, by identifying its providence with the necessary operation of nature. Another line of argument strives to assimilate simplicity to unknowability, thus separating the postulation of the fact of divinity from any need to explain the fact. Both of these lines of argument are visible in the commentary’s elliptical and obscure remarks.

Another important distinction found in the commentary is between infinite and finite being, one historically important way of avoiding the perhaps natural conclusion that the cause and principle of everything cannot be itself something. If Bechtle is correct about the provenance of the commentary, it provides one additional piece of evidence that Neoplatonic struggles with theology and ontology never, if at all, forced them to identify the first principle with that which was literally nothing. The commentary also suggests the development of a rudimentary negative theology, and at least an awareness of the problem of associating omniscience with that which is infinitely removed from everything else. One can sympathize with Hadot’s efforts to attribute the commentary to some known philosopher because without such attribution it is exceedingly difficult to place such remarks in a perspicuous context. Without such a context, we cannot even really say whether the author of the commentary actually agrees with the views he attributes to Plato.

Bechtle makes a strong case that there is nothing in the commentary itself or in pre-Plotinian Platonism to make the dating of the work before Plotinus an unreasonable possibility. I think his strongest point is that the commentary differs from Plotinus on a number of points where Porphyry otherwise seems to follow him. I fear that without further evidence, however, resolution of the matter cannot go beyond this point.

The chapter on Middle Platonism adds nothing to John Dillon’s standard work on the subject. Bechtle concedes that there is no evidence of any unquestionably pre-Plotinian Parmenides commentaries, although he does show that the matters with which the later commentaries dealt are frequently addressed in this period. The treatment of these matters is more often than not subordinated to the central thesis that in a very general way the commentary does not assume a knowledge of Plotinus. Someone who was not already familiar with the details of Neoplatonism would probably find the going pretty rough. Altogether, the work looks very much like an unrevised Ph.D. thesis. That is not to deny the author’s evident command of a vast amount of material. Owing to the way the book is constructed, one sometimes has to read in several disparate and unindexed places all that the author has to say on a topic.

What Bechtle would ideally like to show is that the commentary is one of the ‘missing links’ between the Old Academy and Neoplatonism. I am not quite sure what this would amount to if, as the author himself suggests, the Neoplatonic ‘positive’ reading of Plato’s Parmenides has much to recommend it. In any case, the book contains a good deal of useful material. For those who are not specialists, it could serve as a relatively painless introduction to one pillar of the Neoplatonists’ reading of Plato. Even the specialist will find the book a useful addition to the vexed topic of the commentary’s authorship and date.