Sebastian Ramon Philipp Gertz

in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition

Death and Immortality in Late Neoplatonism: Studies on the Ancient Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo. Ancient mediterranean and medieval texts and contexts. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition, 12. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. Pp. vii, 223. ISBN 9789004207172. $133.00.

This study of the two extant commentaries by Olympiodorus and Damascius on the Phaedo of Plato is a most welcome and successful attempt to set the two firmly within the context of late Neoplatonic views of the soul. Gertz however offers much more than an general analysis of each commentary, for he devotes much of his inquiry to the individual immortality arguments of the Phaedo to present not only the interpretations of them by Olympiodorus and Damascius, but importantly in any instance where possible also that of Proclus, from the Athenian Neoplatonist’s own lost commentary on the Phaedo and from many relevant passages in other of his extant works.

The volume is divided into an Introduction and six chapters, the first two chapters focusing on “the right and wrong ways of understanding Socrates’ injunction to run after him into that other world” (p. 70), and the next four, on primary issues regarding Socrates’ arguments, followed by a chapter on the final myth, and a brief concluding section. In his Introduction Gertz outlines his method of analyzing the two commentaries and compares the approaches of Olympiodorus and Damascius to commenting on the Phaedo, and their relationship to Proclus’ study. Olympiodorus he sees not quite as the inferior talent that some historians of Neoplatonism have, rather by the rather solid arrangement of the lectures that comprise his commentary as a good teacher, but no esotericist, and no innovator upon Proclus, as can be seen by comparing Olympiodorus’ commentary on the Alcibiades with that of Proclus. But more importantly Gertz notes how Olympiodorus in his reading of the Phaedo, with two exceptions, never takes into account any solution proposed by Damascius, and makes here the significant observation “where a view which Damascius criticizes corresponds to a view accepted by Olympiodorus, there is an overwhelming likelihood that it will be Proclus’” (p. 9). As for Damascius, Gertz explains how clearly at odds he is with Proclus on the Phaedo, grouping his differences into five categories, though finally despairing of finding amongst them a “unified agenda”, so that Gertz will confine himself to criticisms of Proclus arising from Damascius’ skill as a logician and some possible Neoplatonic theological variances. Gertz then ends the Introduction with an apt discussion of its possible skopos, appropriately adducing evidence from the Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy, and in fact concludes, following Westerink, that the skopos is rather concerning purification of the soul in order to succeed in a philosophical life, and not the immortality itself of the soul.

In the first chapter Gertz undertakes Olympiodorus’ handling of the arguments against suicide, but also is at pains to set them in the total context of Neoplatonic views on the subject going back to Plotinus and Porphyry, and introduces the text of Ammonius, in Isag., on the aporia of the prohibition against suicide and philosophy as melete thanatou. He goes on to elaborate Olympiodorus’ specific arguments and summarizes them as holding that in imitation of the divine the philosopher should let the body participate in soul as much as possible, but that as the Demiurge linked them, it is not for men to sever that tie, and that the main way to achieve separation is by purification, not suicide (p. 40).

Chapter Two, “Politics and Purification in Socrates’ Second Defence (Phd.63B-69E)”, deals with the “vexed question of the relation between civic and purificatory (and contemplative) ways of life” (p. 55) and again, Gertz does not examine it only in the isolation of the two commentaries, but discusses its development for Platonists, from Aristotle to David and Elias. He agrees in part with the view of Jackson, Lycos, and Tarrant expressed in their translation of Olympiodorus’ commentary on the Gorgias that politike eudaimonia refers rather to the constitution of an individual soul than in a purely civic sense, yet then would also see Olympiodorus and Damascius as applying it to both contexts. But in the end Gertz comes to conclude that both philosophers saw the civic virtues as remaining in their truly civic context as inferior to the purificatory because of their lack of perfection achieved through initiation, specifically, Orphic. Gertz does well to point out Damascius’ interpretation that the text of the Phaedo itself may be a sort of initiatory exercise to lead the philosopher, if not the statesman, to take his place among the true Bacchoi.

The next four chapters are concerned with the arguments for immortality, and constitute the most philosophically dense sections of this study, in which Gertz demonstrates again a commendable thoroughness in properly adducing other texts to expand on the two commentaries, as well as the impressive perspicacity of his own argumentation, and draws on an excellent command of the text and problems of the Phaedo itself. In Chapter Three he examines Damascius’ attempt to improve on Syrianus’ presentation of the argument from opposites. Chapter Four deals extremely thoroughly and well with both Olympiodorus’ and Damascius’ analyses of the argument from recollection, including, importantly, the exact type of forms involved in recollection—those working at the level of sense perception, not at the noetic level. In Chapters Five and Six Gertz addresses Damascius’ critique of Proclus’ view of the affinity argument and Damascius’ refutation of Straton’s refutation of the final argument, in deeply considered detail and in both again reviewing also the entire Neoplatonic tradition as relevant to the arguments. Finally, Chapter Seven deals more generally with the myth of the Phaedo, drawing on Proclus’ commentary on the Timaeus in the discussion of the structure of Tartarus, and ends with the set view of Syrianus, Proclus, and Damascius that souls cannot count on not descending throughout time into genesis.

Gertz has done many services in this volume, and it is likely not an exaggeration to hold his work as a model approach to dealing with the Neoplatonic commentary genre and its difficulties of interpretation. The presentation of the book itself is excellent in the mechanics, and very clean. All in all, Gertz’ study is a most worthy addition to the still growing exploration of these late Neoplatonic commentaries till now not so widely known, and he has done a good deal to advance it here.

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