Category: Historical subjects

The Neoplatonic School of Alexandria

The late Platonic philosophical school active fromca. middle 5th until early7th century CE in which pagan and Christian students were mainly taught the works of Plato and Aristotle.

Scope of the term

The term “school”may well be used in a broad sense indicating a school of thought of common characteristics, even if each of its representatives acted in different periods and places. Yet, the term “school” also has a strict sense; it means a group of people attending courses under the supervision of a teacher. In that sense a school presupposes a curriculum followed by students. The Neoplatonic school of Alexandria is meant here in the strict sense of the term; this school operated after the second half of the 5th until the beginning of the 7th century CE.

Despite the view, introduced in the 19th century , that under the term “school of Alexandria” should fall every philosopher who acted in the city between the 3rd and the 5th centuries CE, one should always distinguish between the general philosophical movement of Alexandria and the Neoplatonic school of the last period of late antiquity.

Main representatives

Hermeias (ca.410- ca.450) is regarded as the first representative of the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria; he was taught philosophy at the Neoplatonic school of Athens by Syrianus and was a class fellow of Proclus.Hermeias,after his apprenticeship at the school of Athens,returned to Alexandria to instruct philosophy.It seems plausible that Hermeias introduced Platonic philosophy in the school of Horapollo at Alexandria but we do not possess any substantial piece of evidence concerning his student circles. Hermeias was the father of Ammonius (ca.440- ca.520), who was later to succeed him as the head of the school, and Heliodorus (ca.440/450- ca.525). After Hermeias’ death, his wife Aidesia travelled to Athens with her sons so that they would study at the Neoplatonic school of Athens under the supervision of Proclus. Ammoniusand Heliodorus returned to Alexandria during the first half of 470’s. The former took the philosophical chair of the school and the latter became known for his astronomical skills but never taught philosophy at the school.

Among Ammonius’ students were some of the most prominent philosophers and scientists of the Alexandrian school in the 6th century CE. We should mention the Christian rhetorician Zacharias the Scholastic (ca.465- ca.536, also known as Zacharias bishop of Mytilene), Eutocius (ca.480- ca.560) who seems to have succeeded Ammonius as head of the school for a short period and is known for his commentaries on the geometrical works of Archimedes and Apollonius, the Christian grammarian Ioannes Philoponus (ca.485- ca.570), Asclepius of Tralleis (ca.490- ca.570), the philosopher Olympiodorus (ca.495/500- ca.570), head of the school after Eutocius, and the iatrosophist Gesius (end of 5th- after the second half of the 6th century CE). In addition, we should mention Damascius (458- 538), who attended some of Ammonius’ lectures at Alexandria beforetaking up the chair of the Neoplatonic school of Athens, and Simplicius (ca.480- ca.550), who first followed Ammonius and then went to the school of Athens. The latest representatives of the Alexandrian school are the Christian philosophers Elias (fl. second half of 6th century CE), David (fl. second half of the 6th- beginning of the 7th century CE) and Stephanus (ca. end of 6th- 7th century CE) (See, Christian Neoplatonic Commentators).

Curriculum and surviving commentaries

The school had a specific curriculum- at least up to Olympiodorus’ time- which apparently originated in the Neoplatonic school of Athens. The curriculum of the Alexandrian school, certainly systematized by AmmoniusHermeiou, started with Porphyry’s Isagoge, continued with Aristotle’s thought (beginning with the Categories) as a preparatorystage to initiation intophilosophy proper, and it was only completed with the thorough assimilation of Platonic philosophy, which was considered to be the highest instance of philosophizing.

Only a small number of commentaries (ὑπομνήματα) on Plato’s dialogues, of all those written by the main representatives of the school, survives to date. Hermeias’ commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus is the only still extant ancient commentary on this dialogue, and it reflects the teachings of Syrianus. We also have some reports that Ammonius Hermeiou wrote commentaries on Platonic works,-namely, a commentary on the Gorgias, another on the Theaetetus, and several monographs on specific Platonic issues (for instance, on Phaedo 65d5-6 and other texts)-, though none of them survives. But we do possess Olympiodorus’ commentaries on the dialogues Alcibiades major, Gorgias and Phaedo.

Philosophical teaching

Different views have been put forward about the kind of Platonism and Aristotelianism expounded at the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria. However, it is generally admitted that the curriculum of the school aimed at revealing the harmony between the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle’s philosophical positions. One may detectcharacteristic examples of this attemptin the surviving Platonic commentaries of Olympiodorus. It is also worth noting that Olympiodorus occasionally soughtto blunt the opposition across the Platonic and the Christian doctrines which at first glance seem incompatible.

Aristotle’s workswere thoroughly studied in the school, at least since the time of Ammonius Hermeiou. Teaching Aristotle in the school has often been interpreted by modern scholars as if Aristotle’s thought was the major concern of the curriculum, though it was supposed to be a preparation for Platonic philosophy. The lack of sources does not justify this view. In addition, it has also been argued that the late Platonic school of Alexandria differed from the school of Athens with regard to the metaphysical and theological Platonic positions. For instance, it is supposed that the school of Alexandria accepted a simplified ontological hierarchy of the hypostases (One, Intellect, Soul) deriving from Plotinus and even from the period of Middle Platonism, and that the school of Alexandria discardedProclus’ complex hierarchy.The few traces about the kind of Platonism that the school opted for are mainly scattered throughout the Aristotelian commentaries of its main representatives. Such fragmentaryevidence cannot lead to safe conclusions -with the exception of Olympiodorus’ commentaries on Plato, in whichthe common ground of manyontological doctrines held by the philosophers of both schools is highlighted.

Author: Ioannis Papachristou
  • Athanassiadi, P, Damascius: The Philosophical History. Αθήνα, 1999.
  • Blank, D. "Ammonius." Zalta, E.N ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy URL = Stanford, 2012.
  • Blumenthal, H. J. "Alexandria as a Centre of Greek Philosophy in Later Classical Antiquity." Illinois Classical Studies 18 (1993)
  • Emilsson, E. "Neo-Platonism." Furley, D. J. ed. Routledge History of Philosophy: From Aristotle to Augustine. London- New York, 1999.
  • Remes, P. Neoplatonism. Stocksfield, 2008.
  • Watts, E. City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. Berkeley, 2006.
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