BMCR 2021.06.23

Studies in Hermias’ commentary on Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’

, , , Studies in Hermias' commentary on Plato's 'Phaedrus'. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition, 24. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. 224. ISBN 9789004414303 €116,00.

The book is an upshot of the growing interest in the Neoplatonic commentator. Squeezed in between Syrianus, his teacher, and Proclus, his co-disciple, Hermias was seen as a mediocre figure transmitting some of his master’s ideas and overshadowed by his exceptionally gifted classmate. The volume serves the purpose of modifying this view.

The Phaedrus’ description of the walk taken by Socrates and Phaedrus is interpreted as an allusion to different stages in the life of the soul. Occasionally, Hermias’ interpretations may seem to be overstrained. To mention but one example (29.24-8), he claims that the absence of footware in the crossing of the river Ilissus indicates a relaxed attitude, straightforwardness and readiness for elevation that in Socrates’ case was always there and in Phaedrus’ case was there at that time, since he was about to be initiated by Socrates. Dirk Baltzly shows that all these stages in the journey are designed to be reminders for the student of the possibility of psychic transformation that allows them to experience everyday phenomena as references to the ascent of the soul.

Because he assumes that Hermias’ commentary is little more than edited notes on the lectures given by Syrianus, which does not seem to be accepted by all the authors of the volume, John Dillon uses the text to unearth Iamblichus’ exegesis of the Phaedrus. This is all the more possible because Syrianus acknowledges his debt to Iamblichus many times. Its main characteristic may have been a holistic approach that emphasizes the importance of each detail, even in the ‘frame story’, however tiny and random they may appear. Dillon shows that some passage (e.g., 11.16-12.5 and 215.12-26) refer to the general structure of this approach. Especially, the account of the soul’s ascent to higher, more intelligible kinds of love and its object reflects Iamblichus’ understanding of the dialogue. An important question in Iamblichus’ psychology is the relation between soul and pneuma. Following Iamblichus’ approach Hermias also makes a sharp distinction between the two; the first is identified with the rational soul right below the intellect, whereas the pneuma belongs to the lower realm and can be ensouled, thus constituting the irrational life. John Finamore examines the development of the notion of the ensoulment of the body by the rational soul from Porphyry to Proclus and points out that Hermias deals with the notion within the context of the intermediary levels between the rational soul and bodily life. With the support of an interpretation of Michael Psellus (in Philosophica Minora Vol. II, treatise 19, ed. by D. J. O’Meara [the reference is missing from the paper]) he argues that there are two aspects of the irrational life; ensoulment of the pneuma, which differs from the bodies, and life around the bodies.[1]

Gary Gabor deals with methods in rhetoric. Division and collection are also discussed with reference to Hermias’ position in the methodical debates in Neoplatonism. As for the use of genus-species division, for instance, Iamblichus argued that it is applied to material substances in the first place, and only analogously to the entities in the suprasensible realm (Myst.I.4). By contrast, Hermias insists that noetic forms are also subject to division and collection (In Phdr. 248.5-8). His interpretation of the dialectical passage in the Phaedrus aims to show that just like dialectic true rhetoric cannot succeed without the knowledge of the subject. To make appropriate division the rhetorician must know the true nature and function of passions.

Another seemingly technical issue is the unity of the Phaedrus. This concerns the unifying theme, the σκόπος of the dialogue. As Quinton Gardiner and Dirk Baltzly argue, Hermias insists that the unifying theme is beauty at every level. The dialogue must form an organic unity (cf. 264c2-5), which in his view implies that there must be a common theme to be referred to in the whole dialogue. The authors are cautious in deciding whether this theme does all that the Neoplatonists required of a σκόπος or that every detail of Plato’s text can be subordinated to it.

Immortality is another central theme in the dialogue; it is linked both to the charioteer’s myth and to the proof of the self-motion of the soul. Sebastian Gertz argues that the proof is not as faulty as some modern interpreters suggest. He shows convincingly that Hermias’ reconstruction succeeds in maintaining the validity of Plato’s argument, but that the success comes with a price. Much hinges on whether the expression πᾶσα ψυχή (245c5) is to be understood collectively or distributively.[2] In arguing for the immortality of each individual soul, the Platonist commentator has to accept premises that are missing from the dialogue. Hermias divides Socrates’ demonstration into two separate syllogisms which, however, entail one another. The result is the thesis that the soul can come to perish neither from within itself, nor from the outside. As for the basic element of self-motion, the commentator points to the capacity of choice (τὸ ἐφ’ ἡμῖν, 109.30). His argument for the perpetual existence of the self-mover reminds us of some paragraphs in Proclus’ Elementatio Theologica (§§43, 46).

There is a passage with a list of the activities of the soul in the commentary (135.14-138.9). It focuses on the effects the different vehicles produce on the souls in their descent, and it bears many similarities with Proclus’ account in the commentary on the Timaeus. Sarah Klitenic-Wear examines the precise way in which the descending soul unfolds the various non-rational activities. The descent occurs in three phases, the pure rational soul in its aethereal vehicle which is immortal, the rational soul in the pneumatic vehicle which is mortal and a preparation for non-rational life, and the soul with the two vehicles in the human body.

The self-moving nature of the soul as the source of all the other motions invites a comparison with Aristotle’s unmoved mover which has the same role. Angela Longo discusses the reception of the two notions in the exegesis of Hermias and Simplicius. She points out that Aristotle, Physics VIII.5 is regarded by the two commentators as closely linked to Phaedrus 245c-e. Their effort was in line with the general strategy of showing that the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle are basically in agreement. Although Aristotle claimed that the self-moving thing is not the soul but the animal which is composed of body and soul, both Hermias and Simplicius were keen on producing a common Platonic-Aristotelian theory of self-motion. Longo examines the history of the triad αὐτοκίνητον – ἑτεροκίνητον – ἀκίνητον we find in Hermias and concludes that it was created as a part of the exegesis of Phaedrus 245c-246a. Unlike Syrianus, Hermias uses the three terms in a coordinated way and αὐτοκίνητον is an intermediate term. On the other hand, the animal is self-moving only by derivation, because there is a soul within it. Simplicius discusses the relation between Physics VIII.5 and Phaedrus 245c-246a somewhat differently and more thoroughly. He subscribes to the view that in animals the body is moved by the soul which is an unmoved mover, not a self-moved entity as Hermias understand it.

The presence of some Orphic elements in a Neoplatonic commentary on the Phaedrus may not be surprising even if we are still in need of a precise description of the whole current of Orphism. Christina-Panagiota Manolea examines the way Hermias used it in the explanation of Plato’s doctrines. She stresses three motifs: the role of the three forms of Zeus, the first being the transcendent Demiurge; the activity of Phanes and Night as the ruling deities of the world, although with a function still unclear; and the influence of Orpheus and Pythagoras on his work in general. Connected to this, Claudio Moreschini focuses on the theological side of the Phaedrus commentary. He discusses the approach to the commentary by Psellus and Ficino, who treated Hermias as an independent thinker, using lots of religious material. The extensive use of Orphic and, first of all, Chaldaean terms and texts attests that Hermias employed religious ideas in order to clarify philosophical problems. The problems of demonology – hardly discussed in the Phaedrus – occupy an important part of his works. He may correct Syrianus in saying that aside from intermediary daemons there are daemons above us that direct us, our soul in conformity with its substance, toward the good. Most interestingly, he also describes the vehicle of the individual soul as linked to the vehicle of the daemon, which enables the daemon to influence the moral conduct of the soul.

By now, it may have become clear that Hermias makes use of the very colourful pantheon and Carl O’Brien undertakes to give a theotaxonomy (classification of gods). He sets out from Hermias’ interpretation of 246a-259b, the allegory of the chariot, to show that the commentator attempted to populate Plato’s ontological scheme with as many deities as possible. Along with Plato, his authorities were Homer, the Orphic texts and the Chaldaean Oracles. Such a vast variety of divine actors of different origin may call for a kind of harmonizing but we do not see it frequently in the commentary. Hermias did manage to emphasize the theistic character of Plato’s theory even if his attempt to give a coherent account of the various divinities is not so subtle as we find in Proclus’ commentary on the Cratylus.

Both the coherence and the style of the dialogue was the object of criticism in antiquity as well. The diction of dithyramb, the use of arguments for and against a thesis and Plato’s doubts about writing philosophy were seen as signs of a youthful feature. Harold Tarrant surveys the early polemics regarding arguments pro and contra and discusses Hermias’ response to these critiques. On this view, Plato had to use contrary arguments to dispel public confusion and the outright rejection of Lysias’ speech was also tempered later in the commentary since Plato’s aim might have been only to demonstrate that the speech contains some mistakes. Furthermore, the diction was also to the underlying matter since this kind of style serves to elucidate matters that transcend the understanding of ordinary people. Finally, Tarrant compares Hermias’ approach to the one we find in the Anonymous Prolegomena which preserves a critique we have to take it more seriously today.

There are some small typos (e.g., we should have energeiai for energeieis on p.101, ‘Chulp’ should be ‘Chlup’ on p.104 and ‘Decleca’ should be ‘Decleva’ on p. 121). In the bibliography, we only have the subtitle of Siorvanes’ book: ‘Proclus’ has been left out; ‘Martin’ should be ‘Martijn’; Radcliffe D. Edmonds is misreferred to as ‘E. Radcliff’; and in some references to the CAG editions Berlin appears as Berolini.

In sum, the volume represents a high-quality effort to draw attention to a fairly neglected author in the commentary tradition. It helps us situate Hermias in the context of the Neoplatonist philosophy in Athens and see both the merits and the drawbacks of his approach.


[1] The treatise does not mention Hermias – or Syrianus – by name, which calls for a study of Psellus’ sources here.

[2] Here we also run into the problem of the distributive versus collective meaning of πᾶσα ψυχή and it seems that the meaning of the expression varies. If it refers to the rational soul – as Klitenic-Wear mentions – then it would have been useful to know about the peculiar character (ἰδίωμα) of the individual rational soul. Given that the content is the same (inborn notions), how to tell the difference between them?