Category: Works of Plato

Ancient commentaries on Platonic dialogues

Ancient texts interpreting Plato’s dialogues, composed mainly in late antiquity by philosopher-scholars of the Neoplatonic school.

Introduction

The ancient Greek word hypomnêma means “reminder” and could refer to any monument whose creation aimed at perpetuating the memory of an important person or event (a military victory, a natural disaster, etc.). As a technical term of philology, the word was employed to designate a written comment explaining an obscure term, an abstruse phrase, or even an entire text. It eventually acquired the meaning of a treatise on a specific subject. In late antiquity, hypomnêmata were texts, often extensive, expounding scientific, poetic, rhetorical, or philosophical works.

Platonic hypomnêmata

The need to elucidate Plato’s thought through a detailed analysis of his dialogues was probably felt quite early – perhaps even during the Athenian philosopher’s lifetime. Following his death, however, this need became even more acute. There is no doubt that the members of the Academy in the 4th century B.C. were embroiled in heated debates over the correct interpretation of enigmatic Platonic passages or dialogues.

On the basis of the available evidence, the earliest attempt to explicate a Platonic dialogue by composing an exegetical work was made by the Platonic philosopher Crantor of Soli (4th-3rd cent. B.C.), who composed a commentary on the Timaeus. In the Roman era, an author unknown to us composed a commentary on the Theaetetus, which has been fragmentarily preserved in an Egyptian papyrus. During roughly the same period (1st cent. A.D.), Onesander, the author of an extant work on the duties of the general, compiled a hypomnêma on the Republic. A commentary on the Parmenides should be dated to approximately two centuries later but perhaps before Plotinus’ floruit, i.e. in the period of Middle Platonism, although it is commonly attributed to Porphyry.

In the period of Neoplatonism, the trend of composing commentaries and explicating Platonic dialogues reached its apogee. We know that Porphyry, Dexippus, Iamblichus, Plutarch of Athens and Syrianus authored commentaries on Platonic dialogues. Not all of these works are extant today. The most extensive surviving commentaries (see table below) were mainly penned by three philosophers of late antiquity: Proclus, Damascius, and Olympiodorus.

Author

Extant commentaries

Anonymous (1st cent. BC – 2nd cent. AD)

On the Theaetetus

Porphyry (234 – c.305?) – uncertain attribution

On the Parmenides

Calcidius (4th – 5th cent. AD)

On the Timaeus (Latin translation of the first part of the dialogue and annotations)

Hermias (c.410 – c.450)

On the Phaedrus

Proclus (412 – 485)

On the Alcibiades Ι

On the Cratylus (fragmentary notes)

On the Parmenides

On the Republic

On the Timaeus

Damascius (458 – 538)

On the Parmenides

On the Phaedo

On the Philebus

Olympiodorus (c.495 – c.570)

On the Alcibiades Ι

On the Gorgias

On the Phaedo

George Pachymeres (1242 – c.1310)

On the Parmenides

Conditions of composition and form of the Platonic commentaries

The commentaries on Platonic dialogues need to be distinguished from other three literary genres also geared towards explicating Plato’s thought: the ancient introductory handbooks to the study of Platonic dialogues; monographs focusing on and seeking to provide an answer to a specific question of Platonic philosophy; and short scholia found on the margins of Platonic manuscripts (marginalia), the latest of which date to the time of Arethas of Caesarea (c.860 – c.932). Contrary to the introductory works that contain general overviews of Plato’s philosophy, each hypomnêma is confined to the analysis of a single, specific dialogue, seeking to interpret it in whole through a close and detailed reading of its individual sentences. Unlike monographs (e.g. Plutarch’s On the psychogony in the Timaeus) that systematically treat a specific Platonic question, hypomnêmata explain one dialogue in its totality. Finally, in contrast to the brief scholia on specific words or phrases in the dialogues, hypomnêmata are extensive works, whose volume often greatly exceeds the length of the dialogue commented upon.

The production and dissemination of Platonic hypomnêmata in late antiquity is inextricably linked to Plato’s recognition as an absolute authority on matters of truth by all Neoplatonic philosophers as well as to the scholastic character of Neoplatonic philosophy. Since the time of Iamblichus at the latest, the Neoplatonic curriculum prescribed a specific order for the study of Plato’s dialogues, and the goal of the heads of the philosophical schools was to initiate students into the timeless truths of Platonic philosophy through the interpretation of specific dialogues. In this educational context, the kathêgemones (= guides or leaders) of the schools composed hypomnêmata themselves or orally presented their interpretations, which were subsequently recorded in a commentary form by the worthiest among their audience. This is the reason why commentaries carrying the names of specific authors (e.g. Hermias) in the manuscripts are sometimes attributed to their tutors nowadays (e.g. Syrianus).

The form of each commentary varies depending on the personality, the style, and the philosophical idiosyncrasy of its author. In general, however, most extant Platonic hypomnêmata are characterized by the following features: (i) they expound the main skopos (= aim, goal) of the dialogue under consideration; (ii) they analyze in detail the text by dividing it into sections on the basis of its meaning; (iii) they correlate the dialogue explained with related views expressed in other dialogues; and (iv) they promote the dialogue at hand as a statutory text of Platonic philosophy and the philosophical way of living in general, thereby introducing it as not just an important reading but also a timeless philosophical tract.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Most, G.W. ed. Commentaries – Kommentare. Göttingen, 1999.
  • Thiel, D, Platons Hypomnemata. Μόναχο, 1993.
  • Sorabji, R. The Philosophy of the Commentators 200-600 AD: A Sourcebook. Ithaka, 2005.
  • Sedley, D. "Plato’s Auctoritas and the Rebirth of the Commentary Tradition." Barnes, J., Griffin, M. eds. Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle at Rome. Οξφόρδη, 1997.
  • Gibson, R.K., Shuttleworth Kraus, C. eds. The Classical Commentary: Histories, Practices, Theory. Leiden, 2002.
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