Damascius (c.462-c.540) was the head of the Neoplatonic School of Athens when the school was closed down by a decree of the emperor Justinian in 529. Damascius came from Damascus of Syria and came to Athens as a teacher of rhetoric while Proclus was still alive. Under the influence of Isidorus, a prominent member of the Platonic circle, he decided to dedicate himself to philosophy. Thus he moved to Alexandria to study in the school of Ammonius Hermeiou and then he returned to Athens where he became head of the school. After the official extinction of the school, Damascius and his circle found refuge in the court of Chosroes I in Persia whence they returned, three years later, to the Roman empire under the condition of renouncing teaching. Damascius finally retired in his homeland.

From Damascius’ rich literary production five works survive to date: three commentaries on Platonic dialogues (on the Parmenides, Phaedo, and Philebus), a fragmentary Life of Isidorus (or Philosophical History) and a systematic work On the First Principles.

Damascius believed that the Orphic and Pythagorean doctrines were in full harmony with Plato’s philosophy as well as with the teachings of the Chaldaean Oracles. The demonstration of this harmony is a recurring theme of his writings. However, a fundamental and most original view of his is the idea that the One, as conceived by Plotinus and Proclus, is not sufficiently transcendent and absolute since it is related to the domain of Being and, hence, to plurality. By means of elaborate arguments drawing the subtlest conceptual distinctions Damascius claims, much as Iamblichus prior to him, that behind the One there lies hidden a still more primary first principle. Damascius calls this truly inconceivable and wholly inaccessible first principle “the unspeakable” and describes it in terms of the most extreme negative theology known in antiquity. In recent years, the creative originality of Damascius’ thought has begun to be appreciated.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
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