BMCR 2012.05.13

Death and Immortality in Late Neoplatonism

, Death and Immortality in Late Neoplatonism: Studies on the Ancient Commentaries on Plato's Phaedo. Ancient mediterranean and medieval texts and contexts. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic tradition, 12. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. vii, 223. ISBN 9789004207172 $133.00.

This volume, a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation, examines the ancient Neoplatonic commentary tradition on Plato’s Phaedo, concentrating primarily on the commentaries of Olympiodorus (as well as David and Elias), Damascius, and, to a lesser extent, Proclus and his teacher Syrianus. Gertz concentrates his study on the immortality arguments in the Phaedo, particularly how the immortality argument shows how the philosopher ought to live and die and what happens to the philosopher after death. This book is altogether very useful: it is organized both thematically and by carefully marked sections of the Phaedo (according to Damascius’ and Olympiodorus’ division of the text into three parts: a discussion of suicide and purification, the arguments for immortality, and the final myth). The index is quite thorough and the author writes clearly; moreover, he collects key passages, which are then interpreted sensibly. Readers of Plato’s Phaedo, as well as those interested in the commentary tradition or the thought of Olympiodorus and Damascius, in particular, should be grateful for this volume.

The finest element in this book is Gertz’s attention to the methods of interpretation used by Olympiodorus and Damascius. Gertz makes a number of fascinating observations with respect to these two Neoplatonsits, which are particularly important as they shed light on Proclus’ lost commentary on the Phaedo. He argues that Olympiodorus tends to simplify Proclus and that Olympiodorus’s notes lack the subtle points found in Damascius’ commentaries. Furthermore, according to Gertz, Olympiodorus does not take into account solutions proposed by Damascius. This relationship, thus, between Olympiodorus and Damascius can provide insight into Proclus’ lost work; the author argues that “where a view which Damascius criticizes corresponds to a view accepted by Olympiodorus, there is an overwhelming likelihood that it will be Proclus’” (p. 9). This kind of analysis of exegetical method is extremely important for showing the ongoing interaction among Neoplatonists within their writings and can be very fruitful when trying to uncover lost writings thinkers may have used. Gertz, in addition, does an excellent job of examining marker phrases in the writings of Damascius which signal Damascius’ own interventions in the text (p.11), an observation that is crucial in trying to delineate subtle disagreements between thinkers. In other sections, in addition, Gertz looks to Elias’ and David’s comments in order to explore Olympiodorus’ thought.

Chapter One, “Olympiodorus on Suicide”, traces the Platonic tradition’s treatment of Socrates’ prohibition of suicide with the pursuit of death in the Phaedo. Gertz begins with Ammonius, but also treats Plotinus, Porphyry, and the Stoic history of the philosophical question of how one cares for the body while still focusing on the philosophical life. Chapter Two discusses the “Politics and Purification in Socrates’ Second Defence ( Phd. 63b-69e)”, exploring, in particular, the civic virtues and the statesman; here, Gertz makes the contrast between the philosopher in civic life and the philosopher pursuing the path of purification. Again, Gertz approaches this chapter by exploring the history of the problem among Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus before turning to Olympiodorus and Damascius. The central problem in this chapter is the meaning of civic virtue among the commentators on the Phaedo. This appears to take on a more general application to the moderation of the passions. The key to this discussion is the Neoplatonic notion that the higher virtues possess the lower ones; civic participation allows the philosopher to transmit his participation in the Good to lower levels. The author makes a side comment that, in their introduction to the Categories, David and Elias make the distinction between civic virtue and purificatory virtues that can be made into a distinction between action and contemplation (p. 56). Here, as in other chapters, Gertz’s attention to David and Elias’ commentaries is appreciated, as these two thinkers are often overlooked in studies on Platonism, but certainly have much to do with the late antique schools.

Chapter Three discusses Syrianus and Damascius on Phd. 69e-72d, including Syrianus’ interpretation of the argument from opposites and Damascius’ critique of Syrianus. Gertz, rightly, pinpoints the difference between Damascius and Syrianus’ arguments to a disagreement over what the cyclical argument covers, so to speak; for Syrianus, the cyclical argument refers to two substances joined together and separated; for Damascius, it applies to one substance which can undergo a change in its accidents. This conclusion which Gertz draws shows how, for Syrianus, the issue of intermediate stages in any kind of process of change is key (see p. 84).

Besides the Phaedo’s discussion of death, the next most important topic for the Platonists in the Phaedo was certainly memory and recollection. Chapter Four concerns “Memory, Forgetfulness and Recollection”, including a discussion on the meaning and function of recollection and what forms are recollected and the general importance of forms. In addition to doxography on the topic, Gertz offers an intriguing analysis of Olympiodorus’ summary of Proclus’ approach to the theory of memory (p. 117), whereby recollection is limited to rational souls. This is a fine example not only of Gertz’s philosophical analysis, but also of the tendency in the late antique schools for students to continually summarize and report the ideas of teachers, leaving the modern scholar to come to terms with the problems of reading testimonia. In this instance, Gertz shows Elias as quoting a passage from Proclus’ Phaedo commentary saying that recollection does, in fact, extend to irrational creatures. Gertz here presents Proclus’ criterion of self-consciousness as separating human memory from animal recollection.

Chapter Seven treats Phd. 107C-108C, the myth of the afterlife, which has received attention from recent studies of Platonic myth and Plato’s literary imagination. In this chapter, Gertz alerts the reader to Damacius’ connection between the cosmology of the Timaeus and the myth of the afterlife in the Phaedo. Besides the philosophical discussion, Gertz, again, displays the fluid ways Platonists move between texts, using one Platonic text to shed light on another.

This is an excellent book which makes a great contribution not only to the literature on the commentary tradition of the Phaedo, but also to the study of Neoplatonic commentaries and the way in which such commentaries should be read.