Category: Historical subjects

The Neoplatonic School of Athens

A school of Platonic philosophy founded in Athens in the late 4th or early 5th cent. AD which remained open through uninterrupted succession until 529.

The diadochi

From the late fourth to the early sixth century AD, Platonic philosophy flourished in mainly two major cities: Athens and Alexandria. Thus, it is customary to speak of the Neoplatonic School of Alexandria and the Neoplatonic School of Athens. Plutarch of Athens (c.350-432) is considered the founder of the latter. His works, predominantly commentaries on Plato and Aristotle, are nowadays lost.

Plutarch was -ostensibly- a noticeable intellectual figure who defined the hermeneutical lines along which the analysis of the School of Athens would proceed for over a century to come. His interest in theurgy apparently derived from family tradition, starting with his grandfather, whose key contributions proved formative for the character of the entire school. One of Plutarch’s students and his eventual successor as the head of the school was Syrianus (?-c.437); his works are all lost, with the exception of a philosophical commentary on books III, IV, XIII, and XIV of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and two treatises on rhetorical theory. The prolific Proclus (412-485) was, however, the most prominent figure in fifth century Athens; he was student of and successor to Syrianus and considerable portion of his work is extant. He was succeeded by Marinus (c. 440-?) who has bequeathed us a hagiological biography of his teacher, under the ponderous title Proclus or On Happiness.

From a historical perspective, this work, composed after Proclus’ death, is particularly important because, together with Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus, is a unique genuine example of a genre that reached its apogee in Late Antiquity: the philosophical biography of the teacher by his student. Rhetorical flourishes aside, all such works are informed by the Neoplatonists’ anguished efforts to bring life fully in line with philosophy, and thus truly experience all their theories entailed. In the case of Proclus, the biographer emphatically underlines the teacher’s ascetic holiness, his indifference towards the things of the sensible world, his ecstatic experiences with the ancestral gods (especially Athena and Hecate), and his extensive experience in matters of theurgic practice.

After Marinus, Isidorus (c.450-c.520) became the head of the school; he was a passionate man who had little faith in the capacity of human logic to unravel the world’s mystery. Nothing survives of his work. When Isidorus resigned as head of the school to move to Alexandria, he was succeeded, following the brief tenure of a certain Hegias, by Damascius (458-538). He was to be the final official representative of a great philosophical tradition that indulged in the notion that it formed a historical continuation of Plato’s Academy. Three commentaries by Damascius are extant today: on the Parmenides, the Phaedo, and the Philebus; we also have fragments from his Life of Isidorus and a profound systematic treatise entitled Problems and Solutions About the First Principles.

In 529, when Justinian issued an edict forbidding the teaching of philosophy throughout the empire, the School of Athens was a rather marginal and small group of philosophers who clung to their Hellenism in the hostile environment of what was now a predominantly Christian city (cf. Migration of philosophers and the decline of the Neoplatonic school of Athens (529 AD)).

Main characteristics of the School of Athens

Unlike the Neoplatonic School of Alexandria that focused on the study of Aristotle and the art of rhetoric, perhaps on account of the pronounced Christian presence in their city, the School of Athens was mostly given to the elaboration of metaphysics, theology, and ontology. Naturally, the two schools kept close ties. People would first study rhetoric and Aristotelian logic in Alexandria, moving later to Athens as students of philosophy, while the members of these two schools were often related between them by blood or marriage.

Judging from the extant works of the school’s major representatives, it is obvious that the Neoplatonic philosophers of Athens of the fifth and sixth centuries saw in Plato’s dialogues a repository of wisdom drawing on sources so diverse as the poetic and philosophical tradition of Greece as well as of the peoples of the Near and Middle East. The Chaldaean Oracles in particular, which since Iamblichus’ time had become sacred texts of Platonism, were understood as containing clearer and more complete, albeit enigmatic, echoes of the deeper essence of Plato’s teaching. Union with the divine through theurgy had decisively replaced Plotinian intellectual mysticism that relied exclusively on natural forces. The anxiety to comprehend the metaphysical structure of the world, a knowledge that would allow redemption through grace, was always present and pressingly felt by most members of the school.

The Athenian School was constantly concerned with buttressing the now widely-held belief that divinely inspired poetry and dialectical philosophy aim at revealing the same transcendent reality. Then again, the representatives of the School of Athens considered it their duty to clearly define the first principles that could rationally give rise to the manifold world of gods, demons, archangels, angels, heroes, and souls they posited above the level of the sensibles. Among the distinctive features of the School of Athens are their acceptance of the henads as immediate products of the transcendent One; the multiplication of the intervening entities that allow for the smooth transition between the three distinct levels of the intelligible reality (One, Intellect, Soul); the elevation of the triptych “limit-unlimited-mixed” (drawn from Plato’s Philebus) into the status of a fundamental metaphysical first principle; and the emphasis given to the triadic, yet inherently dynamic, structure of beings (through tripartite schemes such as “procession-remaining-reversion” (already found in Plotinus), or the later “being-life-intellect”).

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Wallis, R.T. Νεοπλατωνισμός. Θεσσαλονίκη, 2002.
  • Longo, A. "Plutarch of Athens." Gerson, L.P. ed. The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, τόμος 2ος.. Cambridge, 2010.
  • Rappe, S. Μελετώντας τον νεοπλατωνισμό: η ουσία των πραγμάτων στα κείμενα των Πλωτίνου, Πρόκλου και Δαμάσκιου. Αθήνα, 2005.
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