Because Neoplatonism was the last school of ancient Mediterranean philosophy to flourish, it is better attested than any before it. This includes a whole series of texts aimed at beginning students, including the present Prolegomena to Plato’s Philosophy, thought to have been written by someone in the wake of the teaching of Ammonius Hermiae, a student of Proclus, and head of the school of philosophy at Alexandria in the late 5th and early 6th centuries CE.
Here, I give a partial translation of the second chapter of the Prolegomena, based on the Greek edition of Westerink, because this section parallels the Book of Sallustius in interesting ways; and a full translation of chapter 11 (plus ancient TOC), which I find one of the most interesting meta-philosophical passages in all of ancient literature. In the future, gods willing, I may translate the rest of the work.
[Work in progress]
7. Let us now give an account of what Plato’s philosophy is like. Now, many sects (haireseis) of philosophers have arisen before Plato and after Plato, and he has surpassed them all in doctrines and reasoning—one person at once excelling in all matters. Before him, there were the following sects:
- (1) The poetic sect, whose preceptors were Orpheus,1 Homer, Musaeus2 and Hesiod. There also arose
- (2) the sect deriving from the Ionic school; which Heraclitus, Thales and Anaxagoras initiated. And there arose
- (3) the sect of Pythagoras and
- (4) of Parmenides.3
After Plato arose:
- (5) the Stoic sect,
- (6) the Epicurean,
- (7) the Peripatetic, and
- (8) that of the New Academy. The followers of the New Academy differ from the sceptics (ephektikoi) in that the sceptics say that ungraspability extends to all beings alike, whereas the New Academy’s followers do not say that it does to all alike, but that there are some things which move our soul towards a measured assent.
Plato has shown to be greater than all of these.
Firstly, he made use of the poetic sect’s usage of hymning the order of beings. But he surpassed it in that the poets speak without demonstration and, as he says, frenzied and with an inspired (enthousiōn) mouth, whereas he has spoken everything with demonstration. He also surpassed them by the appropriateness of his myths, because they composed their myths arbitrarily, whereas Plato says that those who want to compose any myth about gods must (observe the rules) that prevent readers from being misled. It is necessary to know, namely,4
- (a) that the deity (ho theos) is good and in no way proffers falsehood, neither through ignorance of the truth nor by any deception; and
- (b) that every god (pas theos) is unchangeable and impossible to transform, since it changes neither for the worse nor for the better, because it does not have the nature to do the one, and it does not have the ability to do the other: it does not have the nature to change for the worse, and it does not have the ability to change for the better, as it already is better than all things.
This is what is appropriate for myths. Readers of myths must keep these things in mind, so that children are not harmed, but instead, the good in the myths appears to them immediately—at first glance, from what is said, not by waiting for the moral, as in Aesop’s fables5 (mythoi)—when they want to learn the purpose of the myth. Because children, if they do not hold on to them, they will find it difficult to purify themselves of what they have read badly.
8. So, he surpassed the poets by a greater degree of demonstration and appropriateness, and secondly, he also surpassed those from the Ionic school, who were natural philosophers (physikoi). For it is necessary to know that, even if they said that there are co-causes, then Plato differentiated them from each other and declared their qualities, that they are paradigmatic, efficient and final.6 And even if Anaxagoras—like someone dreaming in a deep sleep—says that Intellect is an efficient cause, nevertheless he did not make use of it in his account of origination and destruction, but adduced vertices of air and winds as causes, and never Intellect.7 And while they said that there are elements (lit. ‘letters’) for matter, Plato showed that the elements cannot even be compared to letters. For he says that formless matter can be resemble the twenty-four letters, quality-less body resemble syllables, and the elements resemble words, so that they cannot be compared to letters.8 Thus, Plato surpasses them both,9 by a greater degree of demonstration than the former, and of inspiration (entheastikōteros) than the latter.
Thirdly, he made use of Pythagoreans in signifying things through numbers, because he used this trope in the Timaeus;10 and he surpassed them by a greater degree of clarity and demonstration, because he appears to show things through numbers more clearly and demonstratively than them in the Timaeus.
Fourthly, he surpassed the philosophy of Parmenides in that he says that the first principle (arkhē) of beings is Being, but Plato shows that it is not this, but that the One is prior to it. For if it were Being, then all things would aim at being, because all things hang upon their own principle; but we see that some people are contemptuous of their own being11 because the good is greater. So, the one first principle of all things is not Being, but the One, which transcends Being.
9. So, he had the first rank among the philosophers before him on account of the aforementioned reasons, and he also surpassed all those after him. He showed himself to be greater than the Stoics, in the fifth place, because they say that all beings are bodies, but Plato showed that there are also certain incorporeals. For he showed that the soul is incorporeal; and if it is incorporeal, then the angels which are prior to it will also be incorporeal, and so will the Intellect which is prior to them, and the First Cause, which he calls the Good.12
Sixthly, he also surpassed the Epicureans, because these said that things here13 are without providence, and that the providence of the demiurge only proceeds to the celestial bodies.14 For they say that he would need to have troubles and to take on labors if he were provident for them;15 but Plato shows that even the things here are subject to providence. And he avoided the absurdities of the former and those of the latter, but grasped the truths in both. For from the former—I mean the Stoics—saying that all beings are bodies, it follows that the demiurge will be need a lever or direct contact if he wants to govern things here, because affecting bodies works through a lever whenever another body is what actually acts on the object. So, Plato avoided this absurd consequence of the Stoics by showing that there are certain incorporeal beings, but he approved their doctrine that the divine is provident for things here. And the absurd consequence of the Epicureans is that the demiurge cannot effect providence over all things, and Plato avoids this because he does not say that providence works through a lever, as they do, because the demiurge is incorporeal, and so he can effect a providence of this kind without any toil or fatigue.
Seventhly, in addition to the aforementioned, he has a certain advantage over the Peripatetics, because while they believe that the first principle of all things is Intellect, he showed that the One is prior to Intellect and prior to all other things. For if Intellect (nous) where the first principles of all beings, then all things would need to think (noein), because all things hang upon their own principle; but we see that some things do not think, so Intellect is not the first principle. And while the Peripatetics say that Intellect is the final cause of all beings, Plato shows that it the One is both the efficient and final cause of all beings. There is also another way of showing that Intellect is not the First Cause, because if it were, there would be many intellects, because there are many forms; but if this were the cause, then the first principle would be a multitude, which is absurd, because the first principle (lit. ‘the beginning’) must begin from one thing.
10.–11. [Work in progress]
12. Because we have now learned that his philosophy is preeminent over all, and that he is dogmatic and not a sceptic, let us now show the procession and order of beings according to Plato. He said that the first principle of all things
- (a) is one, and not two, like Empedocles says, or an infinite number, like the Epicureans; and
- (b) that it is not a body, like the Stoics, but incorporeal; and
- (c) that it is not incorporeal Life—or else all things would be alive—, nor Soul, nor Intellect, nor Being—because of the same absurdities—, but the One, which he also calls the Good.
After this, he says, there are Limit and the Unlimited; and after these, the intelligible cosmos; and after it, the gods beyond the cosmos; after them, the gods within the cosmos; after these, the 12 genera of angels;16 then the souls of humans; and also the (irrational) souls of the irrational animals; and next the vegetative souls of plants; and also body, material as well as immaterial, mortal as well as immortal;17 and enmattered form; and finally matter.18
13.–26. [Work in progress]
27. The last point to investigate among the preliminaries of Plato’s dialogues is to know what mode (tropos) of teaching Plato used. Now there are fifteen teaching modes that Plato made use of: (1) the enthusiastic, (2) the demonstrative, (3) the definitory, (4) the dihaeretic, (5) the analytic, (6) the indicative, (7) the iconic, (8) the paradigmatic, (9) the inductive, (10) the analogical, (11) the enumerative, (12) the negative, (13) the additive, (14) the historical and (15) the etymological.
And he used:
- the enthusiastic (‘divinely inspired/possessed’) mode in the Phaedrus, where he becomes possessed by the Nymphs (nympholēptos), and in the 8th book of the Republic, when he discusses the Muses, and in the Timaeus, when he adopts the persona of the Demiurge talking to the celestial beings, as well as in certain others.
- the demonstrative (apodeiktikos) in the Phaedo, when he proves the immortality of the soul through the mean term of the self-moved.
- the definitory (horistikos) in nearly all of his dialogues, both using definitions himself and having the speakers use definitions.
- the dihaeretic (or ‘divisive, separative’) he used in the Sophist, where he says, as we have noted above, that nothing can boast of having escaped the dihaeretic method which was given from a god to humanity by means of Prometheus.
- the analytic in the Timaeus, where he analyzes (‘dissolves)’ all natural entities into receptacle and form – he calls matter ‘receptacle’ (dexamenē) –, form into shapes, and the shapes into triangles; and he says that what transcends these, only a god and the one who loves them can know.
- the indicative (tekmēriōdēs) in the Alcibiades, where he says that disagreement is an indication of falsehood, but agreement of truth; and that the truth never disagrees or fights with itself.
- the iconic he used in the Phaedrus, where he compares our soul to a charioteer, its faculties (dynameis) to horses, and he says that one of them is good, the other evil.
- the paradigmatic in the Republic, where he says that the city is like a ship, the people like a captain, and the rulers to mariners who want to make the captain drunk so that he will freely do that they want.
Now, the iconic differs from the paradigmatic in that the iconic shows and imitates the nature of what it is an icon (‘image’) of rather more, while the paradigmatic imitates it less. And indeed, it is possible to call the real thing by the name of the icon – thus, someone who called the soul a charioteer would not go wrong. But who would call a city a ship? The reason for this is that they resemble it more or less.
- the inductive (epagōgikos) he used in the Alcibiades, in which he says that someone who convinces one person can also convince many, and that someone who convinces many can also convince a single person. And he proves this by induction (epagōgē), since a geometrician who convinces one person can also convince many, and if he convinces many, it is clear that the same can also convince many.
- the analogical in the Gorgias, where he says that the knowledge of justice (dikastikē) is to sophistic as medicine is to fine cooking. For as medicine …
- the enumerative (arithmētikos) he used in the Philebus, where he says that there are sixx orders of goods, and of what sort they are, and he enumerates them.
- the negative (aphairetikos) in the Timaeus, where he tests and discovers matter by negating (or ‘removing, taking away’) all forms.
- the additive (prosthētikos) in the Alcibiades. For he proposes to investigate what the human being is, whether it is body or soul or the association of both, and he proves that it is neither the body nor the association of both, but the soul in itself. Then, he proceeds to add that it is not the whole soul, since it is not the vegetative soul or the irrational, but the rational; and then, that the human being is the mean between divine and originated beings. See how he proceeds by adding to the investigation.
- the historical he used in the Laws, where he gives the history of events from the flood to the Persian Wars.
- the etymological in the Theaetetus.
28. So let the preliminaries for the reading of Plato’s philosophy end here, encompassed in eleven points:
- One, encompassing the history of the philosopher.
- Another, the form of his philosophy.
- And third, why he came to write.
- Fourth, why he pursued the dialogic form of writing.
- Fifth, what things make up the dialogues.
- Sixth [!], on what basis one should make subdivisions of Plato’s dialogues.
- Seventh [!], on what basis one should find out their titles.
- Eighth, what mode of exposition (hyphēgēsis) he used in the dialogues, that is, that their structure is.
- Ninth, on what basis one must find out the skopoi (‘topics, objects, aims’) of the dialogues.
- Tenth, what the order of the dialogues is.
- Finally, how many modes of teaching the most divine (theiotatos) Plato used.
1 Only two relatively marginal works ascribed to the mythical Orpheus now survive, namely the Orphic Argonautica and Orphic Hymns, but many more existed in antiquity. However, unlike with Homer and Hesiod, no particular poem was canonized, and instead, Orphic poetry was frequently reworked.
2 Musaeus was the supposed author of some hymns and oracles in verse, but his reputation seems to rest more on his association with the Eleusinian mysteries and connection to Orpheus (whose son or disciple he was said to be) than on the popularity of any poetry attributed to him.
3 Pythagoras, Parmenides and their respective followers are sometimes called the Italic sect. Unlike the Ionic philosophers, they were not referred to as physiologoi or “natural philosophers”.
5 Myths and fables were both part of rudimentary education, but there was a sense that fables have more to do with rhetoric, myths with philosophy: “Some fables (mythoi) are called Aesopian, others Sybaritic, others again Lydian and finally Phrygian, taking their appellations from certain places or persons. The Sybaritic fables are those composed of rational animals only, Aesopian of irrational and rational, Lydian and Phrygian from irrational only. There are also certain myths (mythoi) which are composed of gods, like Hera has intercourse with Zeus (Iliad 14), which I believe pertain rather to philosophy, since it is the business of philosophy to discern the allegories within them. But one should know that some have called the myths about gods not myths but mythical narratives”—narrative being another genre of rhetorical exercise—“and they put them together with the accounts of metamorphoses and many others of that sort. Whichever it is, the philosophers are those who disclose the allegories in them. But we (i.e., orators) shall make use of it (i.e., the surface meaning), whether plausible or implausible, as in a civic speech” (Nicolaus, Progymnasmata pp. 6–7).
6 The Neoplatonists adopted Aristotle’s taxonomy of four kinds of causes—material, formal, efficient and final—but added the paradigmatic, and subordinated the material and formal causes to the others as “subsidiary or instrumental causes” (Carlos Steel, “Neoplatonic versus Stoic causality: the case of the sustaining cause (‘sunektikon’)”, in: Quaestio. 2 (2002), p. 78.
7 This—rather ungrateful—characterization of Anaxagoras is derived from Plato, Phaedo 97–98. In fact, the Platonists owe much to his doctrine of an intelligent incorporeal cause.
8 This is an extrapolation from systematic Platonic doctrine, not something Plato says in so many words.
9 The poets and the Ionic sect.
10 Plato’s use of mathematics is discussed, for example, in Theon of Smyrna’s Mathematics Useful for Understanding Plato.
12 The Good is the same as the One.
13 On earth, or more precisely below the moon.
14 This is, in fact, a form of Aristotelian doctrine. The Epicureans rejected the notion of a demiurge and of providence out of hand.
17 Our bodies are of course mortal and material, but the gods (e.g., the stars) have immortal bodies, and beyond the perceptible cosmos, there are immaterial bodies (sometimes called aethereal, following the terminology of the Chaldaic Oracles).
18 Meaning formless matter, the substrate of bodies which has none of body’s properties (like spatial extension, color, temperature).