Category: Historical subjects

The Neo-Platonic curriculum

The curriculum followed by the Neo-Platonic schools in Athens and Alexandria during the 5th and 6th centuries in accordance with the scholarly arrangement of the Platonic dialogues effected by Iamblichus.

Introduction

The members of Plotinus’ circle read, and commented upon, not only Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s treatises, but also other texts by later philosophers and commentators. The structure of the seminar was rather loose. As is evident from Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus (13-14), Plotinus asked the participants to read works by mid-Platonic and Neo-Pythagorean philosophers as well as commentaries made by Aristotelian scholars such as Alexander of Aphrodisias. Then, a debate would follow. Towards the end of the session Plotinus would express his opinion on possible controversial issues in a particularly lucid and intellectually robust way. In fact, he could succinctly explain the meaning of a profound theory and round up the seminar by offering crucial responses to all possible queries. On occasion, some disciples would intervene and ask questions or voice objections. Plotinus was willing to resolve all pending issues even if it took him two or three consecutive days to revisit the points of contention. The issues would be debated on the basis of the participants’ needs without any strictly prearranged schedule. With Iamblichus in charge, however, the curriculum acquired a preordained structure and the order of study of Plato’s and Aristotle’s works was strictly fixed.

The curriculum during the 5th and 6th centuries

The curriculum of the Platonic schools in Athens and Alexandria during the 5th and 6th centuries was based on a tripartite distinction. In the religious terminology of the Eleusinian mysteries, the three stages were: (i) the preparatory purification (katharsis), (ii) the philosophical initiation (myêsis), and (iii) the theoretical overview (epopteia).

As regards the initial preparatory stage, freshmen would be taught texts such as Epictetus’ Enchiridion or the (pseudo-Pythagorean) Golden Verses (preserved thanks to the Commentaries of Hierocles, which had been obviously written to serve the teaching needs of the school of Alexandria). After that, the students would initially involve themselves in Aristotle’s philosophy starting with the works focused on logic and demonstration as assembled in the Organon (Categories, On Interpretation, Prior and Posterior Analytics, etc.). Through the intermediary stages of moral, political and natural philosophy they would reach up to the Metaphysics. Porphyry’s Introduction was generally considered to be a good introductory guide to Aristotelian logic. In general, the study of Aristotle was treated as an preliminary stage to the transition to Platonic thought proper. It is reported that, with the aid of his mentor Syrianus, Proclus managed to read and assimilate the entire Aristotelian corpus within two years (Marinus, Life of Proclus 13).

Twelve Platonic dialogues were subsequently taught. Strangely enough, neither the Republic nor the Laws were included in the curriculum possibly because of their considerable length, which rendered them inappropriate for the learning process. The twelve dialogues selected were divided into two distinct study cycles, the first comprising ten and the second two dialogues. In the first cycle, the teaching of Plato’s philosophy would start with the study of the Alcibiades, then proceed to the Gorgias and the Phaedo, and end up with the Phaedrus, the Symposium and the Philebus (in this exact order). In the second cycle, the students would be taught the cosmological Timaeus and the theologically interpreted Parmenides, which was considered to be the apex of Platonic theôria. The most intellectually endowed and talented students could later be initiated into the symbolic insights of Orphic theology as well as the theurgic wisdom of the Chaldean Oracles.

The order of the Platonic dialogues in the curriculum of late Neo-Platonism reflects Iamblichus’ idea that each dialogue serves a single fundamental end (σκοπός). With the final classification of human virtues in terms of natural, moral, political, cathartic, theoretical, exemplary and theurgic ones, the Platonic dialogues were made to correspond to the kinds of virtues, as well as to the Aristotelian distinction of sciences into practical and theoretical ones, as is shown in the Table below.

Table of the order Platonic dialogues in the Neoplatonic Curriculum

Cycles

Virtues

Sciences

Dialogues

1. Initiation - Μύησις

Moral

Practical

  1. Alcibiades

 

Political

 

2. Gorgias

 

Purificatory

 

3. Phaedo

 

Theoretical

Theoretical

 

 

 

(i) in words

4. Cratylus

 

 

(ii) in concepts

5. Theaetetus

 

 

(iii) in beings

 

 

 

Theoretical physics

6. Sophist

 

 

 

7. Politicus

 

 

Theoretical theology

8. Phaedrus

 

 

 

9. Symposium

 

 

 

10. Philebus

2. Overview - Ἐποπτεία

Theoretical

Theoretical physics

11. Timaeus

 

Paradigmatic

Theoretical theology

12. Parmenides

 

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • O' Meara, D. Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity. Oxford, 2003.
  • Goulet-Cazé, M.-OBrisson, L. ed. . Porphyre: La vie de Plotin, τόμος 1ος. Παρίσι, 1982-1992.
  • Festugiere, A. Musaeum Helveticum [ανατύπωση στο: Festugière, A. J., Études de philosophie grecque (Παρίσι 1971), σελ. 535-550].. 1969.
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