Platonist philosophy in Late Antiquity: Schools and Doctrines

Course Status: 
CEU credits: 
ECTS credits: 
Academic year: 
Start and end dates: 
16 Sep 2013 - 19 Dec 2013
Co-hosting Unit(s) [if applicable]: 
Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies (CEMS)
Stream/Track/Specialization/Core Area: 
Culture, Religion and Intellectual History in a Comparative Perspective
Non-degree Specialization: 
EMS—Advanced Certificate in Eastern Mediterranean Studies
István Perczel
Learning Outcomes: 
By following this course the students will learn about the history of Platonism in general, about the connection of the extant texts to the school curricula as well as about the two chosen philosophical questions, namely the metaphysical structure of the universe and the question of the eternity of the world. They will be introduced to the intricate relationship between late antique Platonist philosophy and Christian theology. Also, they will be taught how to read much-read texts with a fresh eye and, hopefully, the seminars will develop to their discussing and argumenting skills, too.
Assessment : 
The main criterion of assessment will be the students' active participation in the classes, their serious preparation for the readings and their oral presentations at the seminars (70%). No seminar paper will be expected but the students are required to write class journals after the classes, which they should send to the instructor, who would reply to these papers in writing. The problems raised by the class journals will be discussed in class (30%).

In Late Antiquity four schools had survived from the classical philosophical tradition: the Platonists, the Peripatetics, the Stoics and the Epicureans. In 176 A.D., for these four schools, emperor Marcus Aurelius founded official professorial positions in Athens, financing them from the state budget, with a yearly salary of 10,000 drachmas. By the mid-third century, Platonism had become the dominant philosophical trend. It has so to say melted with the peripatetic school and was enriched by Neopythagorean elements.  Platonism evolved through the little-studied period of the so-called Middle Platonism (80 BC to AD 220) until it reached its most developed form in the early Neoplatonist school of Alexandria and, later, of Rome, Athens and the late Alexandrian school (ca. 240-ca. 700). The then emerging Christian thought has found a powerful ally as well as a tremendous competitor in Platonism and evolved in constant dialogue with the Platonist philosophers. The impact of the Platonist schools on some individual Christian thinkers has got much attention, but the study of the way Christian Platonism was working, remained in dialogue with its pagan counterpart and influenced it, constituting a major challenge and a background for the latter, remains an almost entirely untrodden field.

            The Platonist school-masters were financed by the state and were closely connected to the imperial ideology. Plotinus (205-270), the first head of the Roman Neoplatonist school was trying to establish a Platonopolis (“Plato’s State”) in Southern Italy under imperial sponsorship; Porphyry, the next head of the school (234-305), conducted anti-Christian polemics in a time when the Christians were persecuted by the state; Julian the Apostate (331-363) was a fan of Iamblichus (245-325) and wanted to set up Iamblichian philosophical religion as replacement of Christianity as state religion; the Athenian school worked upon imperial sponsorship in the 5th-6th centuries until it was closed by Justinian in 529 as part of both a centralising tendency and an anti-pagan move; Ammonius Hermiae, head of the Alexandrian school (c. 440-c. 520) made a pact in the 480’s with the Christian patriarch of Alexandria, which, apparently resulted in a switch from teaching Plato and Platonic commentaries to studying  and commenting Aristotle. Later, the Magnaura University in Constantinople (founded in the 9th century) was working under imperial patronage.

            The lectures and seminars of the present course will give an introduction to these schools and their doctrines. After a general introduction to the question of “What is Platonism?” and to the question why this philosophical school had become so dominant in Late Antiquity, it will show how, in the Alexandrian School, Neoplatonist philosophy and systematic Christian theology were born together. It will give a general overview of the evolution of the Neoplatonist schools of Rome, Apameia, Athens and Alexandria, also treating in a cursory manner those Christian thinkers who were in contact and dialogue with the Neoplatonists, mostly Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, Evagrius of Pontus, Marius Victorinus, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and, later, John Philopon and Maximus the Confessor.

            As it is impossible to give a parallel treatment either to all the main philosophical questions that were equally treated by pagan and Christian Platonists, or to all the schools the following couple of philosophical problems will be in the focus of our attention: 1. . the metaphysical structure of the universe, based on an interpretation of Plato’s Parmenides; 2. the question of the eternity versus the temporal creation of the world, based on an interpretation of several Platonic dialogues but most of all on that of the Timaeus


 The course will be divided into three thematic groups, each consisting in a lecture and an uneven number of reading seminars. First a general introduction will be given, for which appropriate secondary literature is indicated below. For the thematic philosophical classes, after the instructor’s introduction, the students will be required to read the relevant passages from Plato’s dialogues and later Platonist texts referring to these passages, as well as some specific literature on the subject. These readings will be discussed at the seminars. The texts for the reading seminars will be distributed in English but those who are capable to do this will be encouraged to read them in Greek or Latin.


I. Introduction and historical overview

Week 1. Lecture: What is Platonism and who were the Platonists? An introduction to the problem.

Week 2. Seminar: Discussion of selected pieces of general literature on Neoplatonism and of a paper by the instructor entitled “What is Platonism?”

Week 3. Lecture and brief discussion: An overview of the history of Late Antique Platonism: Middle Platonism; the birth of the Neoplatonist school and of systematic Christian theology in Alexandria: Philo, Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen. A brief history – factual and doctrinal – of the early Neoplatonist schools: the traditions of Plotinus and of Iamblichus, the development of the pagan Platonist-Christian Platonist polemics.

Week 4. Lecture and brief discussion: Later Platonist schools: a brief history of the Schools of Athens and of Alexandria in the 5th-7th centuries (until the Arab conquest)

II. The structure of the divine world and the levels of being, based on an interpretation of Plato’s Parmenides

Week 5. Lecture: Plato’s Parmenides and the hierarchical levels of being; The “three primary hypostases” of Plotinus and Porphyry and Christian speculations about the metaphysical structure of the Holy Trinity in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Synesius of Cyrene and Augustine.

Week 6. Reading seminar: The first three hypotheses of Plato’s Parmenides: Parmenides 9-20, 136e-157b. Part one: The first hypothesis, 136e-142a.

Edition and translation to be used: Plato’s Parmenides: Text, Translation and Introductory Essay, transl. Arnold Hermann in collaboration with Sylvana Chrysakopoulou (Las Vegas-Zürich-Athens: Parmenides Publishing, 2010), p. 102-125.

Week 7. Reading seminar: The first three hypotheses of Plato’s Parmenides: Part two: The second and third hypotheses, 142b-157b.

Ibid. p. 125-177.

Week 8. Reading seminar: Plotinus on the three primary hypostases: Enneads V.1 [10].

Edition and translation to be used: Plotinus in Seven Volumes with and English translation by A. H. Armstrong. V Enneads V. 1-9 /The Loeb Classical Library/ / (Cambridge MA-London: Harvard University Press-W. Heinemann, 1984), 7-53

Week 9. Reading seminar: Clement of Alexandria and Origen and a certain Pseudo-Basil on the Trinity: Rug-Carpets (Stromata), IV, 25, 155-157, Origen, Contra Celsum TBD, Pseudo-Basil, On the Spirit TBD. Pseudo-Dionysius on the three first hypotheses of the Parmenides – passages from the first four Letters.

Translations to be used:

Clement of Alexandria: Stromateis, translated by Roberts-Donaldson: ; another translation of the passage in consideration by I. Perczel will also be distributed.

Origen, Contra Celsum translated by Henry Chadwick (Cambridge: The University Press, 1953)

Pseudo-Basil, On the Spirit, the relevant passages will be distributed in a translation by I. Perczel.

Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works. Translated by Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987). However, the relevant passages will be distributed in a translation by I. Perczel.


III. The question of the eternity versus the creation in time of the world

Week 10. Lecture: The question of the eternity versus the creation in time of the world; the Middle Platonist views; Origen’s solution for the philosophical problem; Plotinus’ doctrine; Porphyry’s lost treatise on the eternity of the world; the Christian reply to Porphyry: the Cappadocian Fathers; Pseudo-Justin (Theodoret of Cyrus?); the “Origenist” solution; Proclus’ treatise on the eternity of the world; John Philopon’s reply to Proclus.

Week 11. Reading Seminar: Plato’s Timaeus 27D-39E, Plotinus’ “On eternity and time” Enneads III. 7 [45].

 Editions and translations to be used:

 Plato in Twelve Volumes. VII. Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles, with an English translation by R. G. Bury /The Loeb Classical Library/ (Cambridge MA-London: Harvard University Press-W. Heinemann, 19999).

 Plotinus in Seven Volumes with and English translation by A. H. Armstrong. III Enneads III. 1-9 /The Loeb Classical Library/ / (Cambridge MA-London: Harvard University Press-W. Heinemann, 1980), 293-355.

 Week 12. Reading seminar: The pagan-Christian Platonist debate about the eternity of the world.

 Origen, Fragmenta in evangelium Ioannis in catenis, ed. E. Preuschen, Origenes Werke, vol. 4 /Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller 10/ (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1903), 483ff.  - 

translation of I. Perczel.

 Proclus, In Platonis Timaeum commentaria, ed. E. Diehl, 3 vols. (Leipzig: Teubner, 1:1903; 2:1904; 3:1906, repr. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1965), 395, 10-396, 26 = A.R. Sodano, Porphyrii in Platonis Timaeum commentariorum fragmenta (Naples: n.p., 1964), frg. 51, 110-151. - translation of I. Perczel.

Pseudo-Justin Martyr, Christian Questions to the Pagans (Quaestiones christianorum ad gentiles, ed. by J. C. T. Otto in: Corpus apologetarum Christianorum sauculi secundi, vol. 5, 3d edn. Jena: Mauke 1881, reprint Wiesbaden: Sandig 1969), 176 B-179 B - translation of I. Perczel.

Anathema 6 of the anti-Origenist Council of 553 A.D., ed. J. Straub in Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum IV/1, Berlin 1971, p. 248-249, here : 248 - translation of I. Perczel.

 Other texts will also be added for this seminar.