BMCR 2024.07.18

Later Platonists and their heirs among Christians, Jews, and Muslims

, , Later Platonists and their heirs among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Texts and studies in eastern Christianity, 27. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2023. Pp. xvii, 550 pages. ISBN 9789004450264.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


As the title and the table of contents indicates, this is a book with a very wide scope. It is structured in a traditional way, one might say, around language and geography, with the first twelve chapters treating different aspects of Greek philosophical thought from Plato to the end of the Byzantine empire. Syriac and Armenian interactions with (mostly Alexandrian) Neoplatonism cover a chapter each, while the chapter on Georgian scholarship is more narrowly concerned with Ioane Petritsi’s commentary on Proclus’ Elements. The Oriental Christian overview ends with a look into the appeal of Neoplatonism to the Melkites. Chapters seventeen to eighteen on Western Christian heirs moves the enquiry to Grosseteste and further in time to Ficino and beyond, so, apart from the introduction and scattered references, the early Latin reception, e.g., Boethius, does not receive separate treatment. The book closes with a chapter on the Jewish reception and the influence (or not) of Neoplatonism on Sufism.

The contributions build on the vast scholarship on Neoplatonism in general and the still more refined discussions of the finer points of this philosophical tradition. Beyond the attention granted the Alexandrian school and, to a lesser degree, the Athenian, the volume summarizes newer scholarship into the less-researched (and edited) eastern traditions and points to a multitude of new approaches and enquiries. An especially stimulating aspect of the book is the chapters on the interfaces between Greek thought as Neoplatonism and Arabic through Syriac: tangentially through the lens of Jewish Neoplatonism (Afterman and Michaelis, ch. 20) and late Byzantine philosophy (Steiris, ch. 12) and more directly in the case of John of Damascus (Adrathas, ch. 6) and Melkite (Tarras, ch. 16) and Syriac Neoplatonism (Watt, ch. 13). Without much overlap in subject matters, these chapters sketch an intellectual map of the medieval Near East. Together with the emphasis on Alexandrian Neoplatonism represented by Clement of Alexandria (Anagnostou-Laoutides, ch. 1), Origen (Ramelli, ch. 2), Olympiodorus (Tarrant, ch. 3), David the Invincible (Calzolari, ch. 14) and the light touch on western Neoplatonism (three chapters together with Baltussen, ch. 11, on Plethon and his sojourn in Florence) combines to place the scholarly centre of attention firmly in the east.

Some highlights: Anagnostou-Laoutides (ch. 1) on the Platonic and Neoplatonic notions of silence and The One as being beyond harmony and the desirability of silence in Clement of Alexandria’s proto-hesychast thought; Ramelli’s search (ch. 2) for Origenes’ use of Platonic zetesis and his novel use of hypostasis, influenced by Scripture and Greek philosophy, which in turn influenced Trinitarian thought and Porphyry alike; Skliris’ (ch. 5) analysis of Maximus the Confessor’s concept of the non-existence of evil; Parry’s (ch. 7) succinct, yet thorough, analysis of Neoplatonic attitudes towards images, contrasted with the Iconoclast discussion of images in general and John of Damascus in particular; Baltussen (ch. 11) on Plethon and how his stay in Florence might have influenced his anti-Aristotelian rhetoric; Watt’s (ch. 13) learned exposé of Neoplatonism in Syriac and Calzolari (ch. 14) on the same subject in Armenian; Tarras’ (ch. 16) analysis of orthodox, Melkite critique of Islamic predestination on the basis of the Neoplatonic notion of the non-existence of evil; de Garay (ch. 19) on Proclus’s influence on the debate about mathematics and Aristotelian science in the sixteenth century; Afterman and Michaelis’ chapter (20) on Jewish Neoplatonism, which goes beyond and engages with the Christian and Islamic reception of Plotinus as well.

A work this ambitious cannot be expected to be comprehensive, albeit the structure – geography, language, religion – indicates a completeness that is not without its holes. Many of the chapters have a rather narrow scope where one would have expected a broader presentation, and the subjects are unevenly distributed. Further, the individual papers are not well served by a very short index of subjects and places, which leaves the reader looking in vain for all but the most general subjects, and a few not so general. Thus, ‘Iconoclasm’, ‘Icon’, or related terms are lacking, though being the subject of one paper and mentioned in another, while Descartes’ place of education, the Jesuit school at La Flèche, mentioned once in the work, is. Worse, there is no index locorum, which severely limits the effective use of the variegated collection. Further, the volume seems under-edited with numerous typos, incomplete references, and several chapters appears to be rushed and unfinished. That said, the quality is for the most part high and written with clarity and authority, and the collection as a whole is thought-provoking and stimulating.


Authors and Titles


Part 1: Early Christian Heirs

1 Man before God: Music and Silence as Induction to Altered States of Consciousness from Plato to Clement of Alexandria, Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides

2 Some Aspects of the Reception of the Platonic Tradition in Origen, Ilaria Ramelli


Part 2: Late Antique and Early Byzantine Heirs

3 Doubts in Olympiodorus’ Later Commentaries: Could Plato Be Wrong about Suicide and Metempsychosis?, Harold Tarrant

4 The Hermeneutics of Dionysius the Areopagite’s Platonic Writing Style, Dimitrios A. Vasilakis

5 ‘Optimistic Monism’: The Logocentric Neoplatonism of Maximus the Confessor, Dionysios Skliris

6 Damascenus Neoplatonicus: Suggestions regarding a Research Agenda for the Study of Neoplatonism in John Damascene’s Oeuvre, Vassilis Adrahtas

7 Attitudes to Cult Images in Neoplatonism and Byzantine Christianity, Ken Parry


Part 3: Middle and Late Byzantine Heirs

8 Rhetoric, Philosophy, and Transformation in the Thought of Michael Psellos, Michael Champion

9 Psellos on Achieving ‘Likeness to God’ and Being ‘In the Image of God’, Graeme Miles

10 The Neoplatonism of Barlaam the Calabrian, Michele Trizio

11 Middleman or Man in the Middle? Plethon and the Plato-Aristotle Controversy, Han Baltussen

12 Trapezuntios and Bessarion on Arabic Philosophy and Science, Georgios Steiris


Part 4: Oriental Christian Heirs

13 The Syriac Heirs of Neoplatonism, John W. Watt

14 The Armenian Reception of Neoplatonism, Valentina Calzolari

15 Providence and Fate in Ioane Petritsi’s Commentary on Proclus’ Elements of Theology, Lela Alexidze

16 The Christian Arabic (Melkite) Reception of the Neoplatonic Doctrine of Evil, Peter Tarras


Part 5: Western Christian Heirs

17 Reading Theophrastus’ Mind: Marsilio Ficino’s Reception of Priscian of Lydia, Anna Corrias

18 Michael of Ephesus and Robert Grosseteste: Neoplatonic Tradition and Epistemological Rupture, Georgios Arabatzis

19 Proclus’ Reception in the Sixteenth Century: Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements, Jesús de Garay


Part 6: Jewish and Muslim Heirs

20 Jewish Neoplatonism, Adam Afterman and Omer Michaelis

21 Mysticism in the Islamicate World: The Question of Neoplatonic Influence in Sufi Thought, Milad Milani