Second Scholarch of the Neoplatonic School of Athens (after Plutarch of Athens) and teacher of Proclus.

Life and Works

Plutarch of Athens, whose works have all been lost, inaugurated the so-called Neoplatonic School of Athens in the late 4th or early 5th century; a school that operated for more than a hundred years. Syrianus, who came from Alexandria where he received his basic education, was a student of Plutarch. He was appointed as his successor in 432, the year in which Plutarch passed away. Syrianus remained the καθηγεμών (= first in charge or head) of the Academy for a few years and died before 439, possibly in 437. Information about his life is scarce. He is said to have been an impressively tall and handsome man who was also intellectually endowed (Damascius, The Philisophical History frag. 47 Athanassiadi). Proclus came to be his greatest student and eventual successor in the Athens Academy.

According to the Suda (Σ 1662 Adler), Syrianus’ literary output included the following works: Commentary on Plato’s Republic, Commentary on Homer, works on the Homeric deities and Orphic theology, as well as an extended work (divided into 10 books) on the Harmony of Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Plato with the Oracles, that is, the fundamental agreement of the Orphic, Pythagorean and Platonic tenets with the divinely-inspired revelations offered in the Chaldean Oracles. Proclus also mentions in his own Commentary on the Timaeus (2.96.5-7, 273.23-26) a similar commentary composed by Syrianus. None of these works has survived. Nevertheless, the following ones are extant: a Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Books B, Γ, M, N) and a Commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus. In the manuscripts the latter is attributed to Hermias, a student of Syrianus, who probably only registered his mentor’s oral lectures.

Two more works on rhetorical theory have been ascribed to Syrianus: a Commentary on Hermogenes’ On Legal Issues (Staseis) and a Commentary on Hermogenes’ On Various Kinds of Style (Ideae). Contemporary scholarship has contested the attribution of these writings to Syrianus since some scholars believe that they were written by a rhetorician with the same name who lived before him. Others, however, hold that it was Syrianus himself who authored the said works.

Teaching methods and tenets

Given that since the era of Iamblichus the Neoplatonic curriculum had a tripartite structure, one can safely assume that Syrianus initiated his students to Aristotle’s ideas (with first philosophy or metaphysics forming the apex), and then led them to the philosophy of Plato, the highest point being the comprehension of the ‘cosmological’ Timaeus and the ‘theological’ Parmenides. He finally showed them the way to the Orphic and Chaldean theologies. As is evident from Proclus’ testimony, Syrianus would initially analyze the surface meaning of the Platonic dialogue under consideration before gradually attaining allegorical, symbolic and -most of all- theological interpretations of the deeper contents thereof.

Syrianus was deeply influenced by Iamblichus’ teaching and his concurrent attempt to harmonize not only Plato with Aristotle, but also the Platonic-Aristotelian theories with Chaldean theurgy. However, where this harmonization was not possible (as in the case of accepting or rejecting ideal numbers [Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics 80.4-81.6]) Syrianus would side with Plato contra Aristotle. The title of his longest and, arguably, most important work bears witness to his anxiety to point up the underlying unity of Orphic allegorical myths, Pythagorean symbolic sayings, Platonic theoretical philosophy and the theurgic revelations of the Chaldaen Oracles.

In the hierarchy of the suprasensible universe, Syrianus, much like most late Neoplatonists, acknowledged an absolutely transcendent Hen (= One) as the first principle of everything. This Hen supposedly gave birth –outside of time- to the Monad and the Indefinite Dyad. The Monad is the principle of identity, unity, equilibrium and stillness. The Dyad, on the contrary, is the principle of difference, multiplicity, creative disequilibrium and movement. All perceptible, intelligible and sensible beings are produced through the conjunction of these two fundamental principles. As is evident from his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics (81.31-83.11), Syrianus accepted three levels of reality: the intelligible, the discursively-thinkable, and the sensible. The necessity to regard the Aristotelian katholou (= universals) not as a posteriori abstractions of the human intellect but as self-subsistent things immanent a priori in the human soul led Syrianus to assume a mediating level that could bridge the divide between the purely intellectual realm of Forms and the material realm of sensible particulars. This assumption shows the influence that Iamblichus’ ideas exerted on Syrianus since the former vividly sought to acknowledge intermediate essences and mediating levels.

In the same spirit, Syrianus acknowledged the existence of divine Henads (= unities) (as immediate products of the transcendent One) and various prioritized levels of inferior divine entities.

Impact

Syrianus seems to have had a decisive impact on his most renowned student. Proclus often mentions, with deep appreciation and great respect (especially in the Platonic Theology and his Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides), his teacher Syrianus as the man who managed to discern the theological value of Plato’s work and analyze it in depth. Contemporary research acknowledges, slowly but steadily, Syrianus’ important contribution to the formation of Proclus’ system and, therefore, to the main current of the Platonic tradition until the Renaissance.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Longo, A. ed. Syrianus et la métaphysique de l’Antiquité tardive (Actes du Colloque international de l’Université de Genève, 29 septembre - 1er octobre 2006). Napoli, 2008.
  • Longo, AGerson, L.P. ed. . The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, τόμος 2ος. Cambridge, 2010.
  • Manolea, C.P. The Homeric Tradition in Syrianus. Αθήνα, 2004.
  • Wilberg, C. "Syrianus." Zalta, E.N ed. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ηλεκτρονική διεύθυνση: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/syrianus/. .
  • Longo, A. Siriano e i principi della scienza. Napoli, 2005.
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