On Sallustius, Part C

1 Introduction

In the third part of the Book of Sallustius the Philosopher, the systematic and clearly structured overview of Neoplatonic philosophy gives way to mini-essays on individual philosophical problems, arranged somewhat haphazardly. Usually, Sallustius is giving the Neoplatonic solution to an issue that had been debated among pagan philosophers for centuries, although some questions are more peculiar to the 4th-century context. In both cases, his conclusions must not be regarded as representative of Ancient Mediterranean polytheism as a whole, nor even of Neoplatonism in its entirety. In most cases, Sallustius is following his predecessor Iamblichus and is in harmony with Proclus, who came after him.

2 Commentary on Sallustius XIII

(1a) “Now, these things will suffice concerning the gods, the cosmos and human affairs for those who cannot be trained in philosophy, but whose souls are not beyond help”:
In all, Sallustius seems to be thinking of four categories of people: (1) those whose souls are beyond help, at least in their current life; (2) those who can be guided by Sallustius I–XII but are not able to study technical philosophy, for whatever reason; (3) “those who require stronger demonstrations” to be convinced, mentioned in XVII.10; and (4) those who properly study philosophy.

Non-philosophers with some interest in this branch of learning would typically read simplified summaries of philosophical doctrines along the lines of the book of Sallustius, which in a sense is only a Neoplatonic supplement to the pre-existing genre of doxography (a modern term meaning ‘writing about the opinions of philosophers’, as opposed to the technical treatises written by the philosophers themselves).

Students of philosophy might also consult doxographical sources, but they would begin their formal studies not with works like the book of Sallustius (which is aimed at laypersons) but with more technical manuals, like the Anonymous Prolegomena to Plato’s Philosophy (especially parallel to Sallustius is chapter II).

(1b) “It remains to discuss how these things were never originated by, or separated from, each other, even though we ourselves have said in these chapters that the secondary beings are ‘originated’ by the primary”:
Sallustius at various points uses three senses of origination (génesis): (1) that of causation, which can be timeless (as with the cosmos, which exists eternally but is causally dependent on the gods); (2) the way in which things below the Moon come together and dissolve back into the elements they are made of; and (3) coming into existence from non-being. The last he regards as impossible (XVII.5). In this chapter, he is clarifying that many beings, particularly the cosmos itself, are causally dependent on something prior, yet not originated in time but eternal.

Note that some earlier Platonists like Plutarch and Atticus, on a more literal reading of Plato’s Timaeus, believed that the cosmos was created in time. The Neoplatonists agreed with Aristotle that the cosmos is eternal, but disagreed with his interpretation of the Timaeus as teaching a creation in time (Aristotle, De caelo 280a28); on this point, they followed Plato’s student Xenocrates, who viewed the creation described in the Timaeus as timeless (Simplicius, On De caelo, CAG vol. 7, p. 303).

For the doxography of whether the cosmos is originated or destructible, see [sources]

(2a) “Everything that is originated is originated either by craft or by procreation or through some power”:
The Greek words are tekhnē for ‘craft’, phýsis (which also means ‘nature’) for ‘procreation’, and dýnamis for ‘power’. This threefold distinction, as far as I know, is an ad hoc invention of Sallustius.

(2b) “Those creating through a power produce the originated things simultaneously with themselves, because they possess their power inseparably from themselves, as the sun has light, fire has heat and snow has cold”:
To understand the analogy, we must set aside modern physical explanations of these phenomena. Light, heat and cold are all understood as incorporeal powers inherent to their respective bodies, and inexhaustibly exercised by them, unless they are destroyed (as when fire is extinguished by snow, or snow melted by fire).

(3a) “Now, if the gods create the cosmos by craft, they do not create its being, but its properties; for all craft creates form”:
‘Its being’ translates tò eînai, ‘properties’ translates tò toiónde eînai. The analogy is to something like a woodworker or an engineer, who imbues matter with form by manipulating pre-existing bodies.

Note that many earlier Platonists, on a more literal reading of Plato’s Timaeus, believed that the Demiurge did manipulate pre-existing matter when creating the cosmos. See the doxographical sources [sources]

(3b) “Or, if someone should say that the gods are bodies, then where does the power of incorporeal beings come from?”:
Sallustius presupposes that incorporeals are superior to corporeal beings, so that incorporeal powers cannot come from bodies.

(4) “Now, the one who creates all things causes all things to co-subsist with himself, and since his power is the greatest, he must create not only humans and animals, but also gods, angels and daemons”:
The reference now is not to the Demiurge or creator god, but to the First Cause; although technically it does not create, it is the first source of all beings. The chain of beings after it includes gods, angels, daemons, heroes, human souls, non-human animals, plants and inanimate bodies, such as stones.


(5) “And the further the First God diverges from our nature, the more powers there must necessarily be between us and him, because all things that are very distant from each other must be separated by many intermediaries”:
The Neoplatonists stand out for the fine ontological gradations they propose. Although in the previous note, I listed genera like gods, angels, daemons and so on, there are really several classes of each of these orders, arranged in hierarchical sequences.

3 Commentary on Sallustius XIV

(1a) “If someone should regard it as reasonable and true that the gods are not subject to change, but is in doubt how they take joy in the good and turn away from the evil, how they are wrathful with wrongdoers and are made propitious when appeased”:

(1b) “We must say that a god does not ‘take joy’, because what takes joy can also feel sorrow. They also do not grow ‘wrathful’, because being wrathful is an affect. Neither are they appeased with gifts, or they would be overcome by pleasure”:

(1c) “In all, it would not be licit for the divine to be in a good or bad condition on account of human affairs. Rather, they are always good, and only beneficial; they never cause harm, because they are always in the same state as far as these things are concerned”:

(2) “When we are good, we are connected with the gods through likeness, but when we become evil, we are separated from them through unlikeness. And when we live according to virtue, we cling to the gods, but when we become evil, we make them hostile to ourselves – not because they are wrathful, but because our wrongdoings do not allow us to be illuminated by the gods, but tie us to punitive daemons”:

(3a) “And if we can find atonement from our wrongdoings with prayers and sacrifices, if we ‘appease’ and ‘change’ the gods, it is really through our own actions, and through a reversion towards the gods, that we heal our evilness, and enjoy the goodness of the gods again”:

(3b) “Thus, to say that the god turns away from the evil is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind”:

4 Commentary on Sallustius XV

(1) “With these points, the question of sacrifices and the other honors that are given to the gods has been solved: the divine itself stands in need of nothing, but the honors are given for the sake of our own benefit”:

(2a) “The providence of the gods, by the same token, extends everywhere, and requires only some congruity for its reception”:

(2b) “All congruity comes about by imitation and likeness, which is why the temples imitate heaven; altars, the earth; the cult statues, life – and for this reason, they are made to look like living beings; the prayers imitate the intellective; the symbols (kharaktêres) the ineffable powers above; plants and stones, matter; the animals that are sacrificed, the irrational life within us”:

“Temples imitate heaven”:

“Altars [imitate] the earth”:

“The cult statues [imitate] life – and for this reason, they are made to look like living beings”:
[Porphyry; De Homero]

“The prayers imitate the intellective”:
[sources; Proclus]

“The symbols (kharaktêres) [imitate] the ineffable powers above”:
[Damascius, PGM; Proclus?]

“Plants and stones [imitate] matter”:

“The animals that are sacrificed [imitate] the irrational life within us”:

5 Commentary on Sallustius XVI

(1) “Firstly, we sacrifice because we have all things from the gods, and it is just for those who make gifts to be given a share from what is given. So, we give a share of our possessions through dedications; of our bodies, through a lock of hair; of life, through sacrifices”:

“Secondly, prayers without sacrifices are only words (lógoi), but with sacrifices, they are ensouled words: the speech (lógos) empowers the life, while the life ensouls the speech”:

“Thirdly, the happiness of every given thing is its own perfection, and the perfection of anything is a connection with its own cause. For this reason, we also pray to be connected with the gods”:

“And for this reason, people sacrifice animals – now, only those who are wealthy, but anciently, all people”:

“And they did not do so in just one way, but gave the appropriate animal to each god, with many different kinds of worship”:

6 Commentary on Sallustius XVII

(1) “It has been said that the gods do not let the cosmos perish, but we must also go on to explain that it has an imperishable nature”:

(3) “But those moving circularly do not have a destructive nature – or why do we not see anything be destroyed from there? Neither can those moving rectilinearly reach the things up there – or why have they never been able to until now?”:

“But neither can those in rectilinear motion be destroyed by each other, because the destruction of one is the origination of another, and that is not destruction, but change”:

(4) “Next, everything that is destroyed is destroyed either in form or in matter; form is the shape, matter the body. And we see that, when the forms are destroyed, but the matter persists, other things are originated; and if matter can be destroyed, how has it not run out over so many years?”:

(5) “But if matter originates from non-beings – then, firstly, it is impossible that anything derives from non-beings”:

(8) Next, if the cosmos perishes, it must necessarily perish either according to nature, or against nature. Now, nothing contrary to nature is superior to nature, but if it were against nature, there would have to be another nature that changes the nature of the cosmos; but it does not appear that there is.

(10) Next, everything that can perish changes through time and grows old; but the cosmos, over so many years, persists unchanged.

Having said this much for those who require stronger demonstrations, let us pray that the cosmos itself be propitious to us.

7 Commentary on Sallustius XVIII

(1) “That instances of godlessness often arise in certain places of the earth, and will exist hereafter, is not worth any disturbance for the sensible, because these things have no effect on the gods, just as we saw that their honors do not benefit them”:

(1–2) “The soul, being of a middling essence, cannot always be upright; and the whole cosmos cannot always enjoy the providence of the gods in the same manner. Rather, some things participate in it eternally, others for a time; some primarily, others secondarily, just as the head possesses all senses, but the whole body only one of them”:

(2) “It was on this account too, I believe, that those who instituted festivals also ordained inauspicious days, on which some temples were inactive, others were closed, some again would even remove their adornments, avoiding them on account of the weakness of our nature”:

(3) “It is not unlikely too that godlessness is a kind of punishment; for it is quite reasonable that those who knew the gods but only had contempt for them should, in their next life, be deprived even of that knowledge”:

“It is also right that those who have honored their own kings as gods should, as their punishment, be cut off from the gods”:

8 Commentary on Sallustius XIX

(1) “But if the punishment for these or for other wrongdoings do not follow immediately, we should not be surprised”:

“It is not only daemons who punish souls, but the soul also brings itself to judgment”:

(2) “Souls are punished when they have left the body; some roam about here”:

“Others go to hot or cold places of the earth”:

“Others again are vexed by daemons”:

“They undergo all these things together with the irrational soul, as it was with it that they did”:

“The shadowy body which can be seen around graves, and especially the graves of those who led evil lives, subsists for the sake of the irrational soul”:

9 Commentary on Sallustius XX

(1) “When souls transmigrate into rational beings, they simply become the bodies’ own soul”:

“if they transmigrate into irrational beings, they follow the body while remaining outside […]; for a rational soul can never belong to an irrational being”:

“the daemons allotted to us”:

(2) “Now, that there is transmigration can be concluded from congenital diseases”:


10 Commentary on Sallustius XXI

(1) “The souls that have lived according to virtue are already fortunate (eudaimon-) in all other respects; but when they have been separated from the irrational part and have become purified of everything, they are even joined with the gods and govern the whole cosmos together with them”:

(2) “Yet even if none of these things came true for them, still, virtue itself, the pleasure and reputation arising from virtue, and a life free of grief and oppression would suffice to make those who choose to live according to virtue, and are able to do so, fortunate”: