the last successive head (diadochos) of the Neoplatonic school of Athens in the sixth century C.E., a commentator of Plato and an original metaphysician.

Life and works

Very little is known about Damascius’ life (c.462 – c.540). Damascius hailed from Damascus in Syria; after studying in Alexandria, he arrived in Athens as a teacher of rhetoric while Proclus (412-485) was still alive. There, he was impressed by the figure of Isidorus, a prominent member of the Platonic circle who later became, for a brief period of time, head of the Neoplatonic school of Athens. Influenced by Isidorus, Damascius resolved to delve into philosophy; returning to Alexandria he studied in the school of Ammonius Hermiae (cf. The Neoplatonic School of Alexandria); later, he settled down in Athens where he became the head of the Platonic school. Damascius was the last diadochos (= successor [sc. of Plato]) when the Noeplatonic school of Athens was finally shut down, following Justinian’s decree in 529 (cf. Migration of philosophers and the decline of the Neoplatonic school of Athens (529 AD)). Damascius and his disciples found refuge in the court of the Persian king Khosrow I, remained there for three years, and then returned to the Roman Empire, on the condition to desist from teaching. Damascius went back to his homeland.

Five works have survived out of Damascius’ rich authorial output: three Commentaries (hypomnêmata) on Platonic dialogues (on the Parmenides, the Phaedo and the Philebus); a fragmentary Life of Isidorus (aka Philosophical History), where Damascius outlines the history of the Platonic school in Athens from the fourth century to his days; and a systematic treatise entitled Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles.

The Platonic commentaries

Damascius’ commentaries are the products of the lectures he delivered orally. Two of these, the commentary on the Phaedo and the one on the Philebus, are preserved in manuscripts under the name of his student Olympiodorus. As is evident from the study of these commentaries, his teaching included reading the Platonic dialogue to be analyzed in consignments, examining the pertinent passage from the relevant commentary by Proclus (perhaps also commentaries by others too) and, finally, a series of usually critical comments by Damascius on Proclus’ interpretation, expressed in subtle and allusive terms. In that sense, we could claim that Damascius’ hypomnêmata constitute predominantly commentaries on commentaries rather than annotations on Plato’s dialogues themselves.

His commentary on the Parmenides and his work Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles have been preserved as a one work due to the fact that the commentary’s interpretation of the dialogue’s first deduction (on the hypothesis “if the One is”) has been lost, while his systematic work examines precisely that deduction.

The systematic treatise Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles

Just like Proclus before him, Damascius believed that the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Greeks have expressed the same truth about reality in different ways which, though often enigmatic, remain fully amenable to harmonization. Pythagorean and Orphic teachings are, in his opinion, fully consonant with the views of Plato and the tenets found in the Chaldaean Oracles. The attempt to prove that agreement represents a continuously recurring theme in his works. The basic, and rather original thesis of his metaphysical work Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles is that the One, as understood by Plotinus and Proclus, is not sufficiently transcendent and absolute because, although ineffable, it is correlated with the domain of Being, which is the Intellect, and therefore with multiplicity.

Damascius strives to comprehend the supreme first principle of everything in a manner such that would allow him to avoid falling into logical contradictions, while remaining true to the ineffable priority of the first principle. Thus, through arguments drawing fine conceptual distinctions, Damascius returns to Iamblichus’ original position, abandoned by later Neoplatonists, according to which behind the Plotinian One, there lies yet another, prior first principle. This truly ineffable, incomprehensible and impossible to express first principle Damascius dubs aporrhêtos (= unspeakable) and describes it in the most apophatic terms ever employed in Greek antiquity. Logic and language are here stretched to their extreme limits (Problems and Solutions Ι.4.13-18 and Ι.8.12-20):

Therefore, our own soul divines that there is a principle of all things we are capable of conceiving [that is] both beyond all things (ἐπέκεινα πάντων) and unrelated to all things (ἀσύντακτον πρὸς πάντα). Hence it is not a principle, nor yet can it be called a cause, nor can it be called the first, nor yet is it prior to all things, nor yet is it beyond all things; hardly therefore can it be celebrated as all things. Nor indeed can it be celebrated as anything at all, nor conceived of, nor even hinted at. [...] If in saying these things about it, that it is Ineffable (ἀπόρρητον), that it is the inner sanctuary (ἄδυτον) of all things and that it cannot be conceived, we contradict ourselves in our argument, it is necessary to realize that these are names and thoughts that express our labor pains, which dare to meddle improperly [with the Ineffable], standing at the threshold of the inner sanctuary, but reporting nothing about what takes place there; instead they simply inform [us] about our own states with regard to it, namely, the puzzles and the failure to find resolution, and that, not clearly, but through intimation (δι᾽ ἐνδείξεων), and at that, [only] to those who are capable of attending to these things (transl. by Sara Abhel-Rappe, parentheses added).

In Damascius’ system, this ineffable first principle is followed by the One, from which the realm of the intelligible is produced on the basis of the triptych “Being-Life-Intellection”, which was already known in later Neoplatonism. Of interest is also the bipartition of the One by Damascius into Hen panta (= the One which is all) and panta Hen (= the all which is One) to denote the gradual multiplication taking place inside the One, a multiplication that allows for the emergence of Being.

Historical significance

Notwithstanding the originality of his thinking, Damascius’ influence on Byzantium, the Middle Ages in Western Europe, and the Modern era has been slight to inconsequential. The extremely subtle way in which Damascius criticizes Proclus; the opacity of his writing style; his extremely abstract subject matter; the fact that he creatively revisits Iamblichus’ metaphysical insights; the mode of his genuine puzzlement, just like that of Socrates or Plato in his aporetic works; and his desire to promote the mystery inherent in metaphysical questions, rather than conceal the mystical dynamics of aporia through facile answers are evidently among the reasons why his works exerted such limited influence in the history philosophy. In recent years, however, his uniqueness and the originality of his creative thinking are beginning to receive much deserved recognition.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Abhel-Rappe, S. Damascius’ Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles. Oxford, 2010.
  • Combès, J., Westerink, L. G. Damascius: Traité des premiers principes, 3 τόμοι. Παρίσι, 1986-1991.
  • Steel, C. "Proclus." Gerson, L.P. ed. The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity,τόμος 2ος. Cambridge, 2010.
  • Steel, C. The Changing Self: A Study on the Soul in Later Neoplatonism (Iamblichus, Damascius and Priscianus). Βρυξέλες, 1978.
  • Athanassiadi, P, Damascius: The Philosophical History. Αθήνα, 1999.
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