BMCR 2021.03.45

Calcidius on Plato’s “Timaeus”: Greek philosophy, Latin reception, and Christian contexts

, Calcidius on Plato's "Timaeus": Greek philosophy, Latin reception, and Christian contexts. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. vii, 243. ISBN 9781108420563 $99.99.

This fine volume is the product of many years of productive research and meditation on the rather mysterious figure of Calcidius and the tradition that he represents, that of the transmission of Greek philosophy in Latin. Reydams-Schils has already produced a most useful monograph, Demiurge and Providence: Stoic and Platonist Readings of Plato’s Timaeus (Brepols, 1999), and a succession of articles on various aspects of Calcidius (the substance of a number of which find their way into various chapters of this work), so this may be seen as the culmination of quite a substantial intellectual journey, and is warmly to be welcomed.

The book, consisting of an introduction, 16 chapters, and a conclusion, is divided into three parts. The first, consisting of three chapters (‘An Authorial Voice’, ‘How to Read Plato’s Timaeus’, ‘The Coherence of the Commentary’), provides an authoritative guide to the structure and peculiarities of the commentary. We are presented with a sophisticated and self-confident commentator, who is conscious both of inheriting a considerable tradition of interpretation (of which he is suitably critical), but also of introducing the complexities of Plato’s thought to a Latin audience—fronted by his patron Osius, of whom, as of Calcidius himself, we know all too little. Reydams-Schils shows how he groups his commentary (which only extends as far as Tim, 53C) into fully 27 topics, beginning with the generation of the world, rather than simply commenting on one lemma after another.

In the second, central section of the work, she takes these topics in order, though grouping them under seven headings, corresponding to the chief issues dealt with in the commentary: Time and the Universe; On Souls and Soul (1) The World Soul; On Soul and Souls (2): The Human Soul and its Relation to the World Soul; God and Gods; Providence and Fate; Matter and Evil; Matter, Being, and Form. On all these topics, she sets out Calcidius’ position soundly and authoritatively. I was particularly interested, I must say, by her analysis of his position on the divinity, since it is there that some influence from Neoplatonic sources, specifically Porphyry, has been suspected; but, although the supreme deity is presented as ‘beyond all Being’, and ‘superior to thought and intellect’ (e.g. in chs. 176-7), in fact there is nothing here that cannot be derived from e.g. the relation of the first to the second god in the system of Numenius, who is acknowledged to be one of Calcidius’ major sources; and the same goes for his doctrine of Providence, which also exhibits strong Stoic influence.

Her analysis of these major themes leads logically into the third part of the work, where Reydams-Schils deals with the vexed question of Calcidius’ sources. After two chapters addressing influences from Aristotle and the Stoics, such as would be present, in varying degrees, in all later Platonists, Reydams-Schils turns to the key issues of influence from Numenius (ch. 13), Porphyry (ch. 14), and then, in chs. 15 and 16, Christian sources. The influence of Numenius is, of course, palpable, but she emphasises that it is not adopted wholesale or mindlessly and illustrates this well through various examples. As for Porphyry, she shows satisfactorily that there is no compelling reason to assume any influence from him, and various indications (such as, for example, Calcidius’ complete disregard of the prefatory portion of the dialogue) serve to militate against such influence.

As regards the vexed question of Calcidius’ relation to Christianity, I find her very sound also. As she suggests, he comes across, not as any kind of committed Christian, but rather as a Hellenic philosopher prepared to accommodate himself to Christianity in order to please a patron, and his occasional Christian references are designed to do that. But who was this patron? I think that Reydams-Schils is right to plump, after all, for Bishop Osius of Cordoba, thus dating Calcidius in the early fourth century, instead the late fourth or even early fifth, as Waszink and others prefer. The only argument against Bishop Osius, after all, that, if Calcidius were an author based in Spain, one would expect him to have been mentioned by Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae, is not conclusive. As Reydams-Schils points out, one could postulate that Osius came upon Calcidius in some other part of the Empire and commissioned him when there to compose a commentary on the Timaeus, which might thus have escaped Isidore’s notice. The advantage of an early dating — let us say, in the 310s or 320s — is that it helps greatly to explain why Calcidius shows no clear sign of acquaintance with post-Plotinian developments in Platonism.

All in all, then, this a most useful analysis of a complex and intriguing author, and a fine monument of scholarship.