BMCR 2021.03.40

Olympiodors Kommentar zu Platons “Gorgias”: eine Gegenüberstellung seiner modernen und seiner antiken Interpretation

, Olympiodors Kommentar zu Platons "Gorgias": eine Gegenüberstellung seiner modernen und seiner antiken Interpretation. Studien zu Literatur und Erkenntnis, 11. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2020. Pp. 288. ISBN 9783825368098 €52,00.

The 6th-century philosopher Olympiodorus of Alexandria lectured on a number of Plato’s and Aristotle’s works. The work under review is devoted to his commentary on the Gorgias, and is the first monograph about a work of Olympiodorus. Study of the Gorgias commentary was advanced significantly with the publication of the 1998 English translation, with introduction and notes, by Robin Jackson, Kimon Lycos and Harold Tarrant, their work building on Leendert Westerink’s 1970 Teubner edition.[1] The commentary has been studied in particular for its interesting reflections on poetic and philosophical myths and the ways in which they may be interpreted; for comments that may or may not reveal Olympiodorus’ attitude to Christianity; and for the prominent role of the concept of common notions, koinai ennoiai, which Olympiodorus puts at the core of epistemic and moral progress, including that of the dialogue’s characters.[2]

Bettina Bohle focuses on the Gorgias commentary as a whole. Her principal claim is that Olympiodorus’ work can improve contemporary debate about Plato’s Gorgias by showing the unity of the dialogue. This claim can be read, I think, in both a strong and a weak version. The strong version is that the commentary offers a better reading of the dialogue than is on offer today.[3] The weak version is that it conceptualizes the unity of the dialogue in a way of which contemporary interpreters would do well to take note. While I do not think the book offers enough substantiation of the strong version, Bohle certainly is successful in showing that this late antique reading of the dialogue, which builds on centuries of interpretation, has much of interest to offer to readers of Plato today.

After the introduction, Chapter 2 summarizes the Gorgias (27-36) and Olympiodorus’ commentary (36-54). Chapter 3 provides the status quaestionis of the unity of the Gorgias (55-97). Chapter 4 first extends the status quaestionis by summarizing two modern accounts of the function of Plato’s dialogues (99-115) and then turns to what we know of Olympiodorus’ interpretation of the dialogical aspect of Plato’s writing (115-136). Chapter 5, the last and longest, contains the meat of the work: Bohle’s own reading of the Gorgias (137-263).

What, then, is the unity that Bohle thinks Olympiodorus sees in the Gorgias? It is, on the one hand, the dialogue’s use of Aristotelian causes (in their later Platonic elaboration) to discuss successively different aspects of its subject matter while at the same time showing their intrinsic unity. The subject matter of the Gorgias, according to Olympiodorus, is the principles of politikê eudaimonia (civic or constitutional happiness). Rather than having to choose, for instance, between rhetoric or pleasure as the focus of the Gorgias, readers following Olympiodorus can recognize these as aspects of a discussion of happiness (as false notions, specifically, of its efficient and final cause). On the other hand, the dialogue’s unity consists in its use of three characters (Gorgias, Polus and Callicles) to represent the three parts of the soul. This is not an accidental choice but goes to the heart of what the dialogue is about: politikê eudaimonia, according to Olympiodorus, consists in the harmony of the three parts of the soul, under the guidance of reason. Each of these characters’ interaction with Socrates, moreover, is a literary representation of the way in which a perfect soul educates each of the soul parts, Bohle argues.

There is much to like about this way of reading Olympiodorus’ interpretation of the Gorgias. Olympiodorus does explicitly connect Socrates’ three interlocutors to the soul parts of the Republic in his proem (proœm. 8, 7.4-8 Westerink). He also does, in various places (starting from proœm. 6, 5.12-14 Westerink), mark the sections of the dialogue in terms of Platonic causes: the conversation with Gorgias is about the efficient cause, that with Polus about the formal cause, that with Callicles about the final cause, and the myth about the paradigmatic cause of politikê eudaimonia (the paradigmatic cause is stated later, 46.7, 240.2-12 Westerink). The great merit of Bohle’s book is to highlight these programmatic remarks and to follow up on them, exploring the extent to which they can be harnessed to offer a unified interpretation of Plato’s text. She is right to insist that Olympiodorus sees form and content of the dialogue as working in unison.

This account also raises questions that Bohle might have pursued. The two main ones concern the very unity we are meant to see in Olympiodorus’ reading of the Gorgias. First, the mapping of characters onto soul parts is not as neat as one would wish. Bohle argues that the conversations with Gorgias, Polus and Callicles showcase the epistemic views and conditions of the soul parts of logos, thumos and epithumêtikon respectively. But Olympiodorus also interprets Chaerephon as standing for correct reason, yet Chaerephon is virtually absent in Bohle’s reading.[4] As evidence that the conversation with Polus evinces a thumetic state of mind, Bohle points to Polus’ appeal to witnesses, but it is a stretch to see that as typical for thumos. The exchange with Polus is also home to most of Olympiodorus’ discussion of the working of Socratic elenchus, but it is not clear to me why this should not more properly belong with the character that stands for the logistikon. In the case of Callicles, he certainly stands for desires, but it is less clear that he stands for the whole of the desiring part: he is a hedonist (e.g. ἀναλογεῖ… τῷ ὑώδει καὶ φιληδόνῳ, proem. 8, 7.7-8 Westerink). Bohle claims that it is a sign of Callicles’ role as representing the epithumêtikon that he is stuck on the particular level and is unable to formulate general views (pp. 252-253, cf. 241-242). This sits uncomfortably with the general hedonist theory Callicles is made to advance in the dialogue.

Second, it is unclear to me how the two backbones in this interpretation—the causal structure and the structure based on soul parts—cohere. Why does Socrates talk about the efficient cause of politikê eudaimonia with Gorgias, who represents the rational part of the soul; about the formal cause with Polus, thumos; and about the final cause with Callicles, the representation of the epithumêtikon? The paradigmatic cause is addressed in the final myth, which, as Bohle underscores, is also part of Socrates’ conversation with Callicles. What does this mean for the connection between paradigmatic cause and epithumêtikon, and between final and paradigmatic causes? Bohle might have said more about the remaining Platonist causes, matter and instrument. One could argue, for instance, that the soul parts, represented by the characters, constitute the material cause (characters are, after all, commonly included among the elements that according to Neoplatonists constitute the matter of dialogues, e.g. Anon. Prol. 16), or that the material cause has already been treated in the commentary on the Alcibiades I, the dialogue Olympiodorus’ students would have read immediately prior to the Gorgias (see his comment at proœm. 6, 6.1-6 Westerink).

Existing scholarship on Late Platonism and Olympiodorus specifically could have been included more generously. The discussion of characters as representing soul parts and ontological realities would profit from contextualization within other Neoplatonic interpretations of the figure of Socrates and of Socratic interlocutors.[5] Given the importance of koinai ennoiai in the commentary, more explicit engagement with existing work on this subject would also have been welcome. On multiple occasions, the major contribution of Jackson, Lycos and Tarrant to the study of this commentary is criticized, not always fairly.[6]

The book would have been easier to use with an index, particularly since topics recur multiple times in different places: in the summary of the Gorgias, the summary of the commentary, the literature review, the discussion of causal factors and the discussion of the dialogue’s characters. Typos are mostly innocuous, but note that ‘Gorgias-Kommentar’ on p. 146 should be ‘Alkibiades-Kommentar’; the etymology on p. 193 is of νόμος rather than νοῦς (correct on p. 194); for the reference 42.10.10f. on p. 197 n. 243 read 42.2.10f.; for apekritêsen on p. 245 read apeskirtêsen.

The book is a welcome contribution to the growing literature on the work of Olympiodorus and on Late Ancient Platonism generally. Bohle persuasively argues that Olympiodorus employs the Neoplatonic skopos theory to articulate a sophisticated and unitary account of the Gorgias. In doing so, she shows that modern Platonic scholarship can benefit from studying the Neoplatonic exegesis of the Gorgias, as preserved in Olympiodorus’ commentary.


[1] R. Jackson, K. Lycos, and H. Tarrant (ed.) (1998), Olympiodorus: Commentary on Plato’s Gorgias, Leiden: Brill. L.G. Westerink (ed.) (1970), Olympiodori in Platonis Gorgiam commentaria, Leipzig: Teubner.

[2] Myth: e.g. R. Jackson, R. (1995), ‘Late Platonist poetics: Olympiodorus and the myth of Plato’s Gorgias’, I. Sluiter et al. (eds), Greek literary theory after Aristotle, Amsterdam: VU University Press, 275-299. Christianity: e.g. pp. xxii-xxxi in L.G. Westerink (ed.) and J. Trouillard (trans.) (1990), Prolégomènes à la philosophie de Platon, Paris: Les Belles Lettres. Common notions: pp. 145-151 and 154-158 in F. Renaud (2006), ‘Rhétorique philosophique et fondement de la dialectique : Le commentaire du Gorgias par Olympiodore’, Philosophie antique 6: 137-161.

[3] This version is explicit when Bohle faults Jackson, Lycos and Tarrant for not recognizing that Olympiodorus’ interpretation is of at least equal value to modern readings (‘Dass er eine mindestens gleichwertige Interpretation anbietet, ist nicht die Sicht von Tarrant et al.’, p. 24).

[4] proœm.8, 7.4 Westerink. There is one mention of Chaerephon’s role on p. 190 n. 212: a reference to a fuller discussion on p. 208 that is not found there.

[5] This could start from Michael Griffin’s 2014 article ‘Hypostasizing Socrates’, in D. Layne and H. Tarrant (eds), The Neoplatonic Socrates, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 97-108.

[6] On p. 24, their nuanced attempt to convince scholars of the value of reading Olympiodorus’ commentary and their warning not to judge Olympiodorus by his success in answering our modern questions (1998, p. 5-6) is cited as a failure to appreciate Olympiodorus’ philosophical calibre; their proposal to ‘read[] between the lines’ (1998, p. 50) is viewed as ‘problematic’ on p. 25, even though this refers to exactly the kind of charitable interpretation that Bohle herself advocates. It is unfortunate that the names of Jackson and Lycos are treated without care: p. 22 n. 37 has ‘Robinson’ instead of ‘Jackson’; p. 23 n. 39 refers to ‘Tarrant, Lycos und Kimon’. Of Tarrant’s 1997 ‘Politike Eudaimonia: Olympiodorus on Plato’s Republic’, in K. Boudouris (ed.), Plato’s Political Theory and Contemporary Political Thought, Athens: International Center for Greek Philosophy and Culture, 200-207, pages 202-203 are misrepresented on p. 139 n. 11.