BMCR 2024.02.22

Olympiodors Kommentar zu Platons Alkibiades: Untersuchung, Text, Übersetzung und Erläuterungen

, Olympiodors Kommentar zu Platons Alkibiades: Untersuchung, Text, Übersetzung und Erläuterungen. Classica Monacensia, 59. Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 2023. Pp. 690. ISBN 9783823385905.

Once upon a time it was almost unimaginable that there should be enough interest in Olympiodorus’ commentaries to warrant the production of a 690-page volume on one of them. Admittedly L.G. Westerink’s study of the remains of the Phaedo-commentary had embraced introduction, text, English translation, and notes,[1] and had exceeded 200 pages when dealing with what survived, perhaps one quarter of the original text. But Westerink’s new texts of the commentaries on the Gorgias and Alcibiades I, while a huge step forward in providing the basis for serious study of this author, offered mainly a Greek text with full apparatus. In the last decade we have received a two-volume English translation of the Alcibiades-commentary, an Italian translation with Greek text of all three Platonic Commentaries, and the first composite volume devoted solely to Olympiodorus, as well an annotated translation of the introduction to logic that precedes the Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.[2] There is also the prospect of an English translation of books of Olympiodorus’ commentary on the second and third books of Aristotle’s Meteorology, though work on the Aristotelian part of the corpus has generally lagged behind.

This revival of interest has in this case produced what I believe to be the first volume that sets out to give us both a modern translation of the Alcibiades-commentary plus a Greek text on facing pages (133-481), as well as an introduction (12-114), commentary in the form of a staggering 1985 endnotes (484-658), and ten pages of supplementary material on particular themes. This is already generous, though I rather regret that the volume is not indexed, and therefore does not make it quite so useful as a research tool as it might otherwise have been. Furthermore, the Greek text, which mainly reproduces the work of Westerink, is not accompanied by a full apparatus, but for the most part contents itself with noting discrepancies between the Olympiodorus and the texts of Plato and such other authors whose work had been quoted. The small number of modern textual variants are placed in a list beforehand (126-127), in a short section about the text and previous work on it since the editio princeps of Creuzer (115-132). The Literaturverzeichnis extends to nineteen pages, from which it can be seen that it by no means confines itself to citations that would be expected for work on this author.

It is perhaps possible to deduce a little about the special interests that Umsu-Seifert has developed by looking at the supplementary appendices. The first concerns the interesting but seemingly derivative material on δαίμονες inspired by the opening of the dialogue and its apparent reference to Socrates’ δαιμόνιον. Note here the words ἀνάνκη γέγονε τοῖς ἐξηγήταις τὸν περὶ δαιμόνων λόγον περιεργάσασθαι (15.5-6), which show that the material cannot be taken as a sign of Olympiodorus’ particular interest in the topic.  Other points examined here are the soul’s ὄχημα, customary language (συνήθεια), the division of the cosmos in 22, ἄγγελος and τὸ συνειδός. Τhis suggested to me that her interests were best stimulated by the earlier part of the commentary rather than by later material, since all occurrences of ὄχημα came by section 17 (of 232), all of συνειδός by 87, all of ἄγγελος by section 63, mostly in relation to the major discussion of δαίμονες at 15-23, all of συνήθεια by 106, and 90% on δαίμονες or the δαιμόνιον by 104. Surely this does not entitle the author to refer to these as ‘einiger zentraler Begriffe des Alkibiades-Kommentars’ (659). The regular endnotes also gave significantly more space to the earlier pages of the commentary.

I should be less bothered by this unevenness if I did not also have reservations about the usefulness of some of the notes, and about the selection of secondary literature on Olympiodorus referred to in the bibliography. I was alerted to this by the fact that it includes references to a number of my own publications, but not to the article that seems to be most cited in relation to On the First Alcibiades;[3] an article very much focused on the later pages of the work. I also had a similar feeling about the absence of A. Motta’s edition of the Anonymous Prolegomena,[4] and of some of D.A. Layne’s work on relating to that text, and thus important for the Olympiodoran school’s approach to any Platonic dialogue.[5] The Prolegomena are also crucial for the study of the life of Plato at the beginning of the Alcibiades-commentary. Other works of these authors were of course referred to, but none by A. Sheppard, widely used in later Neoplatonism and author of an article included in the Olympiodorus volume edited by Joosse; nor was Joosse’s own article in that volume mentioned, only his introduction. However, I would not wish to register more than mild surprise, and authors should indeed cite what they think fit (except the rare cases of a publication aiming to be comprehensive).

However, overall I do not wish to challenge either the historical or the philological credentials displayed in this book. Nothing I have said is intended to deny the presence here of observations that stimulate the reader and send them on the path to further research. At one time I must have read something that sent me rushing to discover just how often the vocative ἰδού was used across the Olympiodoran corpus, usually the lexis-section, when drawing the students’ attention to a feature of the text that confirms what has already been said. An index would perhaps have allowed me to rediscover what had caused this. In fact ἰδού is used about twice as often in the two complete Platonic commentaries as in the Aristotelian ones or the in Phaedonem. This should remind one that there is still a great deal of routine philological work that needs to be done across Olympiodorus’ output, a task to which the present volume is already contributing.

Philosophically, I felt that the most important material was to be found in the treatment of two areas (71-96): the various levels of virtue, an important topic in relation to this commentary, and one to which Griffin has also been a major contributor, for which reason I thought that Griffin’s article in Joosse might also have been usefully cited; and the epistemological material, including that on the senses, on knowledge and on self-knowledge.

My main reservation about the treatment of Olympiodorus’ philosophy, and one which others will disagree with me to some extent, is the extent to which appeals are made to the views of Neoplatonists or Neoplatonism in general. I have always thought that the most interesting question in the study of Olympiodorus is actually how far he was ever prepared to follow the lead of the Athenian Neoplatonists, and how far he wished to revert to pre-Plotinian lines of interpretation or strike out in new directions. Neoplatonism was not a single monolithic system, as I am sure that Umsu-Seifert will admit, and it was not even a concept that had an equivalent in Olympiodorus’ day. These were simply Platonic philosophers, with every right to disagree amongst themselves over matters of Plato’s interpretation. I will in turn admit that the closest resemblances to, and influence of, Athenian Neoplatonism are to be found in this particular work. But it remains a remarkable fact that Olympiodorus assiduously avoids the complexities of theology, rarely even mentioning the demiurge (25 times in the whole corpus, 3 in this commentary). All the more reason then, to work out precisely what is going on when the demiurge is mentioned at the start of the explanation of the mechanics of self-knowledge at 7.11-12.



[1] L.G. Westerink, The Greek Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo, vol. I: Olympiodorus, Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing, 1976.

[2] See M. Griffin, Olympiodorus. Lfe of Plato and on Plato First Alcibiades 1-9, London: Bloomsbury, 2015; M. Griffin, Olympiodorus. On Plato First Alcibiades 10-28, London: Bloomsbury, 2016; Filippi, F. Olimpiodoro. Tutti i commentari a Platone. Sankt Augustin: Academia. 2017; A. Joosse (ed.), Olympiodorus of Alexandria. Exegete, Teacher, Platonic Philosopher, Leiden: Brill, 2021; S. Gertz, Elias and David: Introductions to Philosophy. Olympiodorus: Introduction to Logic, London: Bloomsbury, 2018.

[3] H. Tarrant, ‘Olympiodorus and Proclus on the Climax of the Alcibiades’, International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 1, 2007, 3-29.

[4] Prolegomeni alla filosofia di Platone, Roma, Armando Editore, 2014.

[5] E.g. ‘The character of Socrates and the Good of Dialogue Form: Neoplatonic Hermeneutics, in Layne and Tarrant (eds.), The Neoplatonic Socrates, Philadelphia 2014, 80-96.