BMCR 2003.06.10

Hierocles of Alexandria

, Hierocles of Alexandria. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xvi, 419 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199249210. $99.00.

This book contains the first modern English translation of the extant (and perhaps the only) works of the Neoplatonic philosopher, Hierocles of Alexandria (c. 1st half 5th c. C.E.). The translation is accompanied by extensive notes and preceded by a substantial (pp. 3-163) introduction on the life and philosophy of Hierocles. This book is a model of its kind and surely the best thing on Hierocles in English. It is comparable in quality and scope to Schibli’s earlier Pherekydes of Syros (Oxford, 1990).

Friedrich Koehler’s 1974 Teubner edition of the Greek text of Hierocles’ In aureum Pythagoreorum carmen commentarius has already inspired three important monographs: Theo Kobusch’s Studien zur Philosophie des Hierokles von Alexandrien (1976), Ilsetraut Hadot’s Le Problème du néoplatonisme alexandrine: Hieroclès et Simplicius (1978), and Noël Aujoulat’s, Le Néo-platonisme alexandrine: Hieroclès d’Alexandrie (1986). The present work is especially welcome for its inclusion of a translation of the substantial portions of Hierocles’ On Providence and Fate and the Relationship of Free Will to Divine Governance preserved by Photius (c. 815 – c. 897 C.E.) in his Myriobiblion.

Little is known about the life of Hierocles. We do know that he was a student of Plutarch of Athens, who died a very old man in 431/2. In all likelihood, Hierocles returned to his native Alexandria before this date where he enjoyed a distinguished career as a professor of philosophy. If this is the case, Hierocles probably did not know Proclus, who arrived in Athens in 430/1 to study with Plutarch and then with his successor, Syrianus. From a few scattered references, it seems clear enough that Hierocles enjoyed a distinguished career in Alexandria. Indeed, he was probably the major 5th c. philosopher in that city of philosophers until the arrival of Ammonius (c. 440 – after 517 C.E.), the pupil of Proclus and the teacher of Asclepius, Damascius, Philoponus, and Simplicius.

The 71 lines of the Golden Verses of the Pythagoreans, a translation of which is included here as well, was an immensely popular collection of material, parts of which date perhaps as far back as the 4th c. B.C.E. Its provenance and authorship are unknown. The first two-thirds of the verses contain the moral precepts adherence to which constitutes the first stage on the path to personal immortalization. The remaining one-third expound the religious revelation awaiting one who has been thus purified of vice. Hierocles’ commentary on the verses runs to some 150 pages including Schibli’s clear, learned, and informative notes. Iamblichus (c. 245 – 325 C.E.), along with Porphyry and Plotinus, a founder of what we have long been accustomed to call “Neoplatonism,” included a lengthy discussion of the Golden Verses in his Protrepticus, which is in fact book 2 of his work On Pythagoreanism. Iamblichus, like Hierocles, considered the study of the Golden Verses a preparation for philosophy. Indeed, Neoplatonists generally supposed that Plato himself should be considered to be the greatest exponent of the tradition they identified as Pythagorean. Thus, attention to their serious consideration of works such as the Golden Verses reveals much not only about the characteristic integration of religion and philosophy in later Neoplatonism, but also about how and why Plato was read as he was.

The work On Providence, originally in seven books, is in large part, as Schibli notes, a “thematic history of philosophy, written of course from a Neoplatonic perspective (22).” The main subject of the work is the attempt to reconcile human freedom, the existence of evil, and the providence of a beneficent deity. Hierocles clearly possessed a comprehensive grasp of the historical array of possible solutions. Schibli’s translation, notes, and introductory discussion would in themselves make an excellent text for an historical introduction to this nexus of problems. It is especially illuminating to read Hierocles mulling over the pros and cons of the various positions and to see how religion and theology are made by him to bend to accommodate philosophy as much as the other way around.

The work also contains Hierocles’ very mainstream Neoplatonic effort to fit Platonism into the Greek religious tradition and his provocative claim to fit (almost) the entire Greek philosophical tradition into Platonism. In particular, Hierocles was devoted to the idea that the philosophy of Aristotle was in harmony with Platonism. Hierocles says that Ammonius of Alexandria, the teacher of Plotinus, taught the harmony of the two. And Porphyry, Plotinus’ pupil, produced a work in six books titled On Plato and Aristotle Being Adherents of the Same School. Schibli (26-31) is rather more dismissive of the idea of harmony than I believe is warranted, in part because he assumes that harmony was understood as identity of doctrine and in part because he assumes that Plotinus’ rejection of harmony meant that this could not have been the view of his revered master, Ammonius. I think that both assumptions are mistaken. In the first case, it is clear that among the Neoplatonists themselves, disagreement over particular doctrines did not preclude an acceptance of general harmony among them. In the second, Plotinus’ sometimes severe criticism of Aristotle did not prevent him from adopting a number of crucial Aristotelian distinctions and arguments and putting them in the service of Platonism. He did so, I would suggest, on the assumption that Aristotle’s philosophy was in fact a version, albeit somewhat defective, of Platonism. At any rate, the almost universal acceptance of harmony by Neoplatonists was an essential part of their program to recover a systematic or “pure” Platonism out of their entire philosophical history. Although any attempts to erect a bridge from what Plato said to what Plato meant are bound to be problematic and contentious, it may be that the widespread contemporary denigration of harmony rests upon an uncritical assumption that no such bridge is possible in principle.

One aspect of the project of harmonization well brought out by Schibli is Hierocles’ treatment of the hierarchy of virtues in On Providence (81-97). Hierocles, like Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus before him, assumed that practical or civic virtue is subordinate or instrumental to contemplative or theoretical virtue. Thus, the virtues deduced by Plato in book 4 of Republic belong to the human or embodied individual, while the practice of philosophy constitutes the divine virtue of the “man within the man.” The former contributes to and is even an indispensable preliminary to the latter but is in no way a replacement or substitute for it. “Assimilation to god,” as expressed in Theaetetus, is interpreted as the process of ascent through the practical to the contemplative. Neoplatonists generally, and Hierocles in particular, supposed that Aristotle’s ethical treatises taught nothing different. This point has been recently reaffirmed convincingly in work by David Sedley. On the Neoplatonic interpretation, the life of political virtue is not merely the second-best life, as Aristotle explicitly says, but it is also a life less divine than the contemplative. To live the best life is to undertake the process of identification with the divine, that is, with disembodied intellection.

The main controversy tackled by Schibli in regard to the philosophy of Hierocles is the vexing one of whether or not he adhered to the tenet one supposes is the condition sine qua non of any version of Neoplatonism, namely, that the universe flows from a single, perfect, absolutely simple first principle. On the one hand, Hierocles evidently shows little inclination for novelty. Yet on the other, he nowhere seems to mention such a first principle. In fact, in both the Commentary and in On Providence, he quite clearly makes the Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus the “supreme god,” the creator of order out of chaos.

Many eminent scholars of Neoplatonism, such as Wallis, Baltes, and Dillon have all remarked upon this seemingly astonishing fact. Yet, the identification of the first principle with an intellect (as opposed to that which is beyond intellect and so beyond finite being) is not unprecedented in Neoplatonism. According to Proclus, Origen, not the Christian theologian but a pupil of Ammonius along with Plotinus, taught precisely this doctrine. Aujoulat has more recently argued that Hierocles, who explicitly mentions Origen in On Providence, was indeed following a path that diverged from mainstream Neoplatonism.

Schibli (44-58), following an argument made by Hadot, seeks to show that Hierocles’ heresy is only apparent. The argument is briefly that in chapter 20 of the Commentary Hierocles identifies the Demiurge with the Pythagorean tetractys or tetrad. But it is inconceivable that Hierocles should have thought that the tetractys was a first principle, since in the entire Pythagorean tradition everyone holds that it is derived from a One or monad. Thus, Schibli claims that Hierocles is neither following Origen nor accommodating himself to the dominant Christian monotheistic presence in Alexandria.

This is not an inconsiderable argument. Schibli adds the consideration that in an ethical work, intended explicitly for pedagogical purposes, an absence of mention of the One is not at all unexpected. In Hierocles’ system, salvation consists in immortalization, though not in ultimate union with the One. Hence, it was irrelevant to the purposes of the work.

Nevertheless, puzzles remain, the most substantial of which is what the identification of the Demiurge with the tetractys is taken by Hierocles to mean. For in the crucial chapter 20, Hierocles says that both the cause, i.e., the principle, of number (i.e., presumably the monad) and the first number (i.e., the tetractys) itself lie within him (i.e., the Demiurge). Thus, though it is indeed doubtful that Hierocles would make the tetractys the first principle of all, it is not clear that in rejecting the One he did this. For within the Demiurge is apparently to be found both the principle of number and number itself.

If one asks for the purpose of such hairsplitting, it is not altogether irrelevant to point out that Hierocles probably arrived in Alexandria not that long after the pagan philosopher and mathematician Hypatia was slaughtered by bloodthirsty Christians in 415. It is not implausible that Hierocles was inspired by this event to trim his Neoplatonic sails. But more interestingly, his evident conviction that there was one true philosophy and that its name was “Platonism” might well have led him to try to see Christianity as just another version of it. In this regard, Hierocles was doing exactly the opposite of what St. Augustine was doing with early effort in De libero arbitrio to see Neoplatonism as a version of Trinitarian Christianity. An additional consideration in favor of such an hypothesis is that in On Providence the deity whose providence is defended in the face of evil is characterized in personal terms. He is, for example, apparently the recipient of petitionary prayers and is authoritative in matters of providence over particular human individuals.

Schibli’s work undoubtedly makes an important contribution to the accessibility of late ancient Greek philosophy to English-speaking readers. It is to be warmly recommended for that.