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Neoplatonists and the Unwritten Doctrines of Plato

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  • vaeringjar
    This is a subject I have been researching on my own for some time now, and I wanted to share my thoughts with the group and of course get your reactions. This
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 28, 2005
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      This is a subject I have been researching on my own for some time
      now, and I wanted to share my thoughts with the group and of course
      get your reactions. This may turn out to be an overly long posting,
      so to shorten it at least somewhat, I will not include full
      quotations of the passages I cite.

      When I first read about the subject of the Unwritten Doctrines
      (mostly from the standard works of Findlay, Gaiser, Kraemer, Reale,
      as well as much general help from Ross's book on the Ideas) and got
      the gist of what appears to be their content from the passages cited
      in Aristotle, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Simplicius, et al, I
      couldn't help being struck by how very much closer they bring the
      Neoplatonists to Plato, at least as regards principles of ontology
      or as the ancients would say, archai, are concerned.

      Much of the modern discussion on this subject includes numerous
      quotations from Neoplatonist writers, especially Simplicius, as the
      main sources for the U.D. themselves, but nowhere have I found an
      attempt to draw any inferences about the U.D. from the philosophical
      positions of the Neoplatonists themselves and any relationship to
      the U.D. they might have. They really appear only as a source to be
      mined for quotations, and nothing much more, again as far as I know.

      And also since the Neoplatonists held Plato in such reverence,
      would we not expect them to feature the U.D. as prominent or even
      central to their own works concerning first principles? The fact is
      however that other than Numenius' lost work on the Secret Doctrines
      of Plato - and who knows what the content of it was - there is no
      extant or reported work by any Neoplatonist that I know of
      concentrating on the U.D., and most references to them come in
      commentaries made in the context of discussing issues usually raised
      in dealing with Aristotle's works, albeit usually ones relevant to
      the elements of the U.D. Is this not really odd and quite
      significant, given the similarity of their positions?

      Of course the question comes to mind, how exactly would they know
      the content of the U.D.? A purely oral tradition handing them down
      from Plato himself seems unlikely, give the vagaries of the Academy
      as an historical institution. Also they were, after all, Unwritten.
      So it seems to me that whatever knowledge the later Platonists had
      must have turned on the textual fate of Aristotle's treatise On the
      Good (and perhaps also the treatise On Philosophy), and of course
      most of the reports made on the U.D. are direct or indirect quotes
      from that work. So I then started wondering, how long was On the
      Good actually extant, which Neoplatonists would have had access to
      the full text as opposed to excerpts and short quotations in earlier
      writers, and to figure this out I worked from the references the
      Neoplatonists did actually make to it in their extant works. As
      usual there is always the wild card of what they may have said on
      this subject that we don't have, in their lost works.

      It seems to me that, after On the Good, the writings of Speusippus
      and Xenocrates potentially could have offerred information as well,
      and in fact in one main reference to the U.D. (on Aristotle's
      Physics, 187a 12) Simplicius says as much, including "other friends"
      of Plato aware of his lecture On the Good, but unfortunately we have
      no relevant direct witnesses of the U.D. of either Speusippus or
      Xenocrates, as far as I know. So I think that leaves Aristotle's On
      the Good as the main focus. (I am leaving out here any consideration
      of the Neopythagoreans having offered what may in essence be the
      same teachings as what are found in the U.D., since as far as I
      know, none of their fragments or other relevant passages refers
      explicitly to the U.D., regardless of the similarity of content.)

      A close reading of just a few of the major passages documenting the
      U.D. gives some interesting results. As I said, we know almost
      nothing at all about Numenius'work, but we do know that we have no
      reference to it in any extant work of later Neoplatonists, but I
      would have to think if it really were a significant work on Plato's
      Doctrines someone would have at least made some reference to it,
      especially I would think Damascius in de Principiis, for example. As
      to On the Good, it seems to me that Alexander of Aphrodisias, and
      probably also Sextus Empiricus, still had access to it (for the sake
      of brevity I won't go into why I think that.) I rather think that
      Porphyry did too, from the way that Simplicius quotes him in his
      commentary on Aristotle's Physics, 202b 36. In this passage and 187a
      12 mentioned above, Simplicius quotes Alexander in each for
      Aristotle On the Good, and Porphyry from his commentary on the
      Philebus, representing it appears directly Plato's U.D. If
      Simplicius still had direct access to Aristotle's On the Good, why
      wouldn't he quote from it directly instead of relying on Alexander
      and Porphyry? Is it enough to answer he preferred to cite the
      authority of earlier commentators? I think not.

      In another passage Simplicius (and Philoponus apparently following
      him), in the commentary on Arist. de Anima where Aristotle refers to
      his work On Philosophy, claims that the latter is the same as
      Aristotle's On the Good (Ross in his edition of the fragments refers
      to this, in the context of the Philoponus version, as a "gravis
      error".) This doesn't argue too strongly for a close familiarity
      with either text, it seems to me. But Syrianus in his commentary on
      the Metaphysics 1086a 2-13 directly quotes the On Philosophy. Unless
      he is omitting to give an intermediate source, it would appear that
      in his time the On Philosophy still at least was extant.

      None of this evidence is hardly conclusive, but I think it's at
      least highly plausible that Simplicius did not have access to On the
      Good except from direct or indirect quotations in earlier writers.
      But if Porphyry did, so presumably would have Plotinus, and there is
      nothing in his writings referring to them at all (although he does
      certainly accept the Second Letter as genuine.) What of this? The
      passage of Porphyry from his Philebus commentary is perhaps the most
      important to mention the U.D. since he also makes the link to the
      Philebus; as Simplicius puts it, "[Porphyry on the One and the
      Indefinite Dyad] setting forth in order the enigmatic utterances
      made at the seminar On the Good, and maintaining that these were
      perhaps in accord with what was written down in the Philebus"
      (Findlay's translation). I know of no other instance in any of the
      dialogues where Plato refers directly to the One and the Many than
      the Philebus. This led me to wonder what if anything Damascius in
      his commentary on the Philebus might have to say in this context,
      and in fact he makes no mention of any earlier commentary on the
      dialogue nor the U.D., making rather general comments regarding the
      nature of the One and Many. Where Iamblichus stood on all this I
      don't think we can determine, given the state of his extant
      writings. One would have to wonder at least however about his
      commentary on the Chaldean Oracles, if perhaps there he might have
      discussed these issues.

      I will leave off here, since this is such a long posting, and
      apologize also for the generality of it. I think this is a very
      significant issue, and if indeed Arist. On the Good was still extant
      up til Porphyry's time, then unless the information contained in it
      was just taken for granted, I think it definitely odd that Plotinus
      chose not to cite it anywhere in the Enneads, at a minimum. The
      fragment of Porphyry's commentary on the Philebus - which by the way
      was for me personally the text that finally allowed me to get a real
      understanding of the Indefinite Dyad - makes one realy curious about
      the rest of that particular work, and perhaps it might have provided
      the best discussion of these issues. Also his History of Philosophy
      likely would have been central as well. Probably the contribution of
      the Neopythagoreans cannot be left aside as I have here - as
      Simplicius says in the passage on the Physics, 187a 12 mentioned
      above, after referring to On the Good and Speusippus et al, he
      adds "It is very likely (pany eikos) that Plato made the One and the
      Indefinite Dyad the Principles of all things, since this was the
      doctrine of the Pythagoreans whome Plato followed at many points"
      (Findlay's translation). I find that "very likely" telling -
      Simplicius is not completely certain. Determining the cause of his
      uncertainty would shed a lot more light on this subject, I think.


      Please, any and all reactions (and corrections!) here, I would love
      to hear them, and thanks for your patience.


      Dennis Clark
      Issaquah
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