Category: Persons

Olympiodorus

Neoplatonic philosopher who flourished in the 6th century CE at Alexandria. Olympiodorus is the last known head of the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria.

Life and work

Olympiodorus’ birth should be placed before 505 CE around the end of the 5th century and the beginning of the 6th century (ca. 495/500).The terminus ante quem for this date is the fact that Olympiodorus attended some lectures of Ammonius Hermeiou (ca. 440- ca. 520) on Plato’s Gorgias around 515. Olympiodorus was presumably born at Alexandria where he also taught philosophy; he certainly died after 565, since there is a reference to a comet that appeared that year in his commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology (52,30-53,2). We do not have any information about the exact starting date of Olympiodorus’ leadership of the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria. Perhaps he was not the immediate successor of his teacher Ammonius for it seems that Eutocius (ca.480-ca.560) immediately succeeded Ammonius. The Christian commentators Elias and David were Olympiodorus’ students, and they often refer to his works.

Olympiodorus must have commented on the whole of the Aristotelian and Platonic corpora, according to the curriculum of the school. His surviving commentaries are on Aristotle’s Categories and Meteorology and Plato’s dialogues Alcibiades major, Gorgias and Phaedo.

The commentary on the Categories (Ὀλυμπιοδώρου σχόλια εἰς τὰς Ἀριστοτέλους Κατηγορίας) was published along with a text entitled Ὀλυμπιοδώρου φιλοσόφου εἰς τὰ προλεγόμενα λογικῆς. However, we should note that, despite the different titles, the latter text is the proem of the commentary on the Categories. According to a tradition introduced by Ammonius Hermeiou, the study of the Categories should open up the study of the Aristotelian philosophy as a whole. In the proems, i.e. in the introductory lectures, to the Categories, the commentators used to discuss ten preliminary issues concerning Aristotle’s philosophy as a whole and six preliminary about each particular treatise. The so-called “prolegomena to logic” deals with precisely those issues and it is not, therefore, an autonomous text.

Olympiodorus himself refers to his commentaries on Porphyry’s Isagoge (Olymp., In Categ. 16,26) and Plato’s Sophist (Olymp., In Alcib., §110,8 cf.). Arabic sources report that Olympiodorus wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s On the Soul and his On generation and corruption. In addition, fragments of Olympiodorus’ comments on Aristotle’s On interpretation survive in the codex Vaticanus Urbinas Graecus 35. A commentary on the astrological treatise Isagogika written by Paul of Alexandria is also attributed to Olympiodorus. Finally, some scholars attribute to Olympiodorus a work entitled Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy which is an introductory handbook including a biography of Plato (See, Introductory handbooks to the study of the Platonic dialogues). The authenticity of the work is still disputed but its content surely suggests that the text originated in Olympiodorus’ circle.

Basic characteristics of Olympiodorus’ exegetical work

The exegetical works of Olympiodorus, namely his commentaries, are products of his oral teaching. His commentaries are constructed according to the «θεωρία-λέξις» form. Each «θεωρία-λέξις» pair constitutes a unity, i.e. a complete lecture. This practice was not a novelty introduced by Olympiodorus himself. Prior to him, Ammonius Hermeiou had already established this specific exegetical structure in the school of Alexandria, which had a great impact on the school lectures up to Olympiodorus’ time.

Olympiodorus’ work has been often examined on the basis of the social changes established by the gradual strengthening of Christianity at Alexandria in the 5th-6th centuries. It is certain that in the 540’s the number of Christian pupils attending classes on rhetoric and philosophy in the school was greatly increased; yet the broader intellectual climate of the philosophical school remained in the hands of pagans. We may identify some pervasive characteristics of Olympiodorus’ work that were related to those changes; general loyalty to the unity of Greek culture, tendency to promote Hellenism, and an effort to avoid straightforward ruptures in issues where Neoplatonic and Christian world-views significantly diverged.

Olympiodorus studied and taught side by side the Aristotelian and the Platonic doctrines. However, the goal of this approach is unclear. When one studies the texts of the Alexandrian commentators in the 5th- 6th centuries, one realizes that the commentators sometimes try to reveal the harmony between Plato and Aristotle; at other times they emphasize Plato’s superiority to Aristotle concerning the clarity of expression; and at still other times they draw attention to Aristotle’s false statements. All these tendencies lead to the conclusion that Plato was the absolutely respected and foolproof authority for those Platonists. Yet, we also find in Olympiodorus’ commentaries nuggets of modest critical confrontation with Plato for the sake of the truth. The philosophical quest of truth stood as one of the basic hermeneutical stipulations of the commentator’s proper work, according toAmmonius Hermeiou (In Categ., 8,11-19). This element strongly emerges in Ioannes Philoponus’ texts and it is certainly echoed in Olympiodorus’ works too.

We may say that Olympiodorus accepts the basic ontological principles of late Platonism. In his work a clear distinction is made between three hypostases, namely God (One- Good), the Intellect and the Soul, which constitute the intelligible world and are the ultimate causes of the sensible universe (In Alcib., 103,10-15, 109,21- 111,2; In Gorg., 46,2,1-28); in addition, Olympiodorus supports the view that the cosmos is eternal (In Gorg., 11,2,12-19; In Meteor., 118,10-14) and often cites the positions of other Platonists of late antiquity, for instance Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius and Ammonius Hermeiou. The Platonic tradition of late antiquity was the immediate source of Olympiodorus’ interpretative lines although, as it seems, Olympiodorus did not put much emphasis on theurgy, as it happened in the Neoplatonic school of Athens

Author: Ioannis Papachristou
  • Baksa, I. The First Book of Olympiodorus’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology. Berlin, 2013.
  • Opsomer, JGerson, L.P. ed. . The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity 2. Cambridge, 2010.
  • Renaud, F. "Tradition et critique: lecture jumelée de Platon et Aristote chez Olympiodore." Laval théologique et philosophique 64/1 (2008)
  • Tarrant, H., Lykos, K., Robin, J. Olympiodorus, Commentary on Plato’s Gorgias. Leiden- Boston- Köln, 1998.
  • Westerink, L. G. Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy. Amsterdam, 1962.
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