Ammonius of Alexandria

Category: Neoplatonism > Neoplatonists A–Z

1 Introduction

The Platonic philosopher Ammonius of Alexandria is sometimes called the founder of Neoplatonism. This is a meaningless claim, since we know virtually nothing about what the man believed. He did teach Plotinus, whose works laid the foundation for Neoplatonism, and Plotinus in some sense continued the example of his teacher. However, Longinus, another famous student of Ammonius’, strongly disagreed with some of Plotinus’ teachings, as recounted in the Life of Plotinus by Porphyry (who studied first with Longinus, then with Plotinus). As neither of them, in the extant sources, appeals to Ammonius or defends diverging from him, we do not know how their differences from each other relate to their common teacher.

Less hopeless is another avenue of inquiry, namely the question of whether there was one or two Ammonii (one pagan, one Christian). The problem is that the pagan philosopher Porphyry claims that Ammonius grew up Christian, but became a Hellene (i.e., pagan) when he took up philosophy – whereas later Christian sources insist that he was a Christian to the end of his life. At first glance, this seems intractable, but I believe that a careful consideration of the sources allow only one conclusion.

Firstly, Ammonius’ own student Longinus notes that his teacher left behind no writings, at least none in philosophy. Secondly, Porphyry claims that the Ammonius was born to Christian parents but became a pagan when he studied philosophy – while his student Origen was originally a pagan but became a Christian. Thirdly, Eusebius quotes this and rightly takes exception to the claim that Origen was ever pagan – but also, more dubiously, to the claim that Ammonius converted. Eusebius’ evidence for this consists solely in the existence of Christian works attributed to an Ammonius of Alexandria; he offers no independent biographical information or independent evidence that these works belong to the same Ammonius who taught Plotinus and Origen.

The obvious solution is that Eusebius has made a mistake and conflated two men who shared a popular name and both lived in a city famed for its many writers. Examples of further Ammonii are not hard to come by. There was another famous philosopher called Ammonius in the same period, a Peripatetic (who also did not write) mentioned by Longinus; an earlier Platonic Ammonius, who taught Plutarch of Chaeronea; and a later one, Ammonius Hermiae (‘son of Hermias’), also of Alexandria, who was one of the more important Neoplatonic teachers at the Alexandrian school.

2 Ammonius Saccas?

Ammonius is usually known as ‘Ammonius Saccas’, but this byname is not found in Longinus, Porphyry, Eusebius or Jerome. It first features in Theodoret (5th century CE), and is also found the Byzantine encyclopedias. Whether it was originally attached to our Platonist Ammonius seems far from clear to me.

(This further weakens the already tenuous theory that Ammonius might have been of Scythian origin – a Sákas, as the ancient Greek has it. Of course, Greek does not arbitrarily geminate consonants so as to produce Sakkâs from Sákas, to begin with.)

3 Sources concerning the identity of Ammonius

Longinus, On the End, in Reply to Plotinus and Gentilianus Amelius
(quoted by Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 20)

“Among the second group (=philosophers who did not leave writings), there are the Platonic philosophers Ammonius and Origen, whose (lecture) I myself attended for the longest time, men who far surpassed their contemporaries in understanding, and also the successors at Athens, Theodotus and Eubulus. For even if something was written by some of these, like On Daemons by Origen,¹ or On the Philebus and the Gorgias and Aristotle’s Arguments against Plato’s Republic by Eubulus, still this is not enough to count them in the number of those who gave full treatments.”

1: This is not the Christian Origen, who wrote a great deal on philosophical topics, and very systematically too, but a pagan philosopher, to whom Porphyry also attributes one other work, That the King is the Sole Creator, which he says was written during the rule of Gallienus (probably after Longinus published On the End). Neither work is listed in catalogues of the Christian Origen’s writings. Further, Porphyry speaks about this Origen positively in the Life of Plotinus, whereas he is very hostile to the Christian Origen (see below).

Porphyry, Against the Christians 3
(quoted by Eusebius, Church History 6.19.3–9)

Now, hear what (Porphyry) says word for word (κατὰ λέξιν): “Some, who wished not to abandon but find a solution for the wickedness of the Jewish scriptures, have turned to interpretations that are incongruous and inappropriate to what is written, which constitute not so much a defense of what is foreign (=Jewish) but approval and praise of what is their own (=Greek). For they propose their interpretations by boasting and conjuring that things clearly stated by Moses are, like divine utterances, full of secret mysteries, and through this nonsense, they bewitch the critical faculty of the soul.”
Then, after some other things, he says: “As an example of this absurdity, take someone whom I met when I was still just a young man, who was highly esteemed at the time, and is still esteemed on account of the writings he left behind¹ – Origen, whose fame is widespread among the teachers of those (Christian) doctrines.
“He was a student of Ammonius, who made the greatest contribution to philosophy in our time, and in the study of (philosophical) doctrines, he derived great benefit from his teacher, but in the correct choice of the way of life, he took the opposite path to him.
“For Ammonius was a Christian, brought up by Christian parents, but when he undertook sober thought and philosophy, he immediately went over to a lawful citizenship² – whereas Origen, a Hellene (or ‘pagan’) educated in Hellenic teachings,³ drifted into barbarian hubris (gr. tólmēma). But he retained and even peddled his attainment in (pagan) teachings, and while he lived his life in a Christian manner that is contrary to law, yet he acted like a Hellene in his teaching about things, including the divine, and he mingled the doctrines of the Hellenes with the foreign myths.⁴
“For he was always engaged with Plato, and he was aquainted with the works of Numenius and Cronius, Apollophanes and Longinus, Moderatus and Nicomachus and the men accomplished in Pythagorean matters; moreover, he used the books of Chaeremon the Stoic and of Cornutus, and having learned how to interpret the mysteries of the Greeks metaleptically,⁵ he applied this to the Jewish scriptures.”

1: The surviving works of Origen make up only a tiny portion of his massive output, which in Porphyry’s day was widely current at least among Christians.
2: Differently put, Porphyry viewed ‘pagans’ as members of a community who hold to custom.
3: In fact, Origen’s father was a Christian martyr; Porphyry seems to be exaggerating the role pagan learning played in Origen’s education for rhetorical effect.
4: As one can see from what follows, what Porphyry means is that Origen used elements of Platonic (and to a lesser extent Stoic) philosophy to articulate Christian doctrine and interpret the Hebrew Bible.
5: The ‘metaleptic mode’ is to interpret by transference; very roughy, “allegorical” interpretation.

Eusebius, Church History 6.19.9–10
“He (=Porphyry) is clearly lying – for what would the opponent of the Christians not do? – in saying that (Origen) went over from the Hellens, and that Ammonius fell from a life in accordance with piety to God into the gentile manner of life (ethnikós trópos).
“For the doctrines of Christian teaching were vouchsafed to Origen by his ancestors, as the details of my previous account have shown, and with Ammonius, the contents of the divine philosophy remained pure and uncorrupted even to the final end of his life, as surely¹ the labors of the man attest until now, since he is widely esteemed for the writings he has left behind – such as his work On the Harmony of Moses and Jesus, and as many others as are found among the learned. ”

1: ‘Surely’ (που) seems to indicate that Eusebius in fact has no other evidence than the existence of Christian works attributed to an Ammonius of Alexandria.

Eusebius, Letter to Carpianus, lines 3–6
“Ammonius of Alexandria, having exerted great industry and effort – as was fitting –, left behind a diatessaron gospel for us; he placed those sections from the other evangelists which are consonant with the gospel according to Matthew.”

Jerome, On Illustrious Men 55¹
“Ammonius, a man learned and very erudite in philosophy, was famous in Alexandria at the same time (as Origen). Among many other famous monuments of his talent, he also composed an elegant work about the harmony of Moses and Jesus., and selected gospel canons, which Eusebius of Caesarea later followed. Porphyry wrongly accuses him of having went from being a Christian to a gentile (ethnicus), although it is a certain fact that he remained a Christian to the end of his life.”

1: This account seems to be entirely derived from Eusebius.

Theodoret, Cure for the Pagan Diseases 6.60
“Under emperor Commodus, Ammonius surnamed Saccas (Σακκᾶς) left behind the sackcloths (sákkoi) which he was using to carry wheat, and took up the philosophical life. They say that our (Christian) Origen attended with him, as well as the present Plotinus; and Porphyry studied under Plotinus. [Thereby,] I have shown that he (Plotinus) not only studied the writings of the Hebrews, like Plato,¹ but also those of the fisherman and the cobbler.”²

1: A spurious claim, but commonly made by the Christian apologists.
2: The New Testament.

Pseudo-Zonaras, Lexicon, s.v. Ἀμμώνιος = Suda, s.v. Ἀμμώνιος
“Ammonius was an Alexandrian philosopher, surnamed Saccas (Σάκκας). He left the Christians and became a pagan (Ἕλλην), as Porphyry says.”

Suda, s.v. Πλωτῖνος
“Plotinus of Lycopolis, one of the philosophers, a student of Ammonius who had previously been a porter (sakkophóros), and teacher of Amelius. Porphyry attended the lectures of Amelius,¹ Iamblichus those of Porphyry, and Sopater those of Iamblichus.”

1: By his own account, Porphyry was a student of Plotinus himself, and a worthier follower than Amelius. It may be, then, that this account derives from a different source, independent from Porphyry.

Suda, s.v. Ὠριγένης
“Origen,¹ also known as Adamantius, a most accomplished man, who was trained in all learning to perfection. He was a student of Ammonius, with the byname Saccas (Σακκᾶς), who made the greatest contribution to philosophy.²”

1: This is the Christian Origen.
2: This sentence, and some of what follows, is from Porphyry (via Eusebius), but in the extant Porphyrian/Eusebian text, the byname Saccas is not mentioned.

[I may add further sections in the future, but they will only further illustrate what later writers made of the figure of Ammonius; information about the man himself is virtually non-existent.]