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Damascius (c. 462–c. 538)

(c. 462c. 538)

Damascius was a neoplatonic philosopher and the last head of the Academy in Athens. He was born around 462 CE in Damascus and studied in Alexandria and Athens. In 515 he became head of the Academy, which, through his reforms and teaching, would see a final flourishing. After the closing down of the Academy by Emperor Justianus in 529, Damascius and six colleagues went into exile at the court of King Chosroes in Persia. They returned in 532, having been granted the freedom to continue their philosophical work. Damascius died in Syria sometime after 538.

His writings include the "Life of Isidore" (Isidore was his teacher and predecessor), in which he offers a privileged insight in the history of the pagan Platonic school in the fifth century CE; and commentaries on Plato (preserved are those on the Parmenides, the Philebus, and the Phedo ). He is, however, mainly known for his treatise "On the First Principles" (De principiis ), an ingenious philosophical speculation about the first causes of all things.

Damascius had no ambition to develop a better metaphysical system than his predecessors. His own thought is primarily aporetic: He raises critical questions in the margin of the doctrine of the principles, as it had been developed in the neoplatonic tradition, and confronts the doctrine with all sorts of difficulties. When he ventures a solutionand on many issues he can be original (for instance, his doctrine on time)he again puts that solution into a question with new aporias (or doubts). Damascius's work is in many ways a critical analysis of the position of Proclus, who, in his view, was too preoccupied with logical coherence and system building. He raises questions about the One and multiplicity, about procession and return, about triads of principles, and about concepts such as powernot in order to discredit all philosophical discourse skeptically, but to clarify what is inadequate in the formulations of his predecessors.

The most fundamental aporia is discussed at the beginning of the treatise: Is the first principle itself a part of the whole of which it is the principle? But if it is a part, how could it still have the status of a principle? If it is outside the whole, how can we understand that the whole originates from it? The first principle, it seems, is neither principle nor cause, nor does it fit in any other category used to explain relations between beings: It is an ineffable "nothing" we have to postulate beyond the one whole. This "ineffable" is even beyond the "One" that is the first principle of all things.

More than any other Platonic philosopher, Damascius is aware of the precarious nature of all rational discourse when people deal with questions that go beyond the limits of what they can experience. More than any other, he explored the boundaries of rationality; he tried, by all means, to say what could not be said, because about the first principles one can only speak using analogies and "indications" (endeixeis ), which are as such unfitting to indicate divine realities.

Damascius's sharp critical mind does not, however, bring him to skepticism. If philosophical systems remain tentative and fragile, there is also the mythological tradition and religious practice, to which Damascius remains devoted. Damascius is, together with Proclus, our main source on Chaldean and Orphic theologies. In many ways his work is a wonderful swan song of pagan Hellenism.

See also Greek Academy; Neoplatonism; Plato; Proclus.


works by damascius

Damascius: Traité des premiers principes. 3 vols, edited by Leendert Westerink and Joseph Combès. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 19861991.

Damascius: Commentaire du Parménide de Platon. 4 vols, edited by Leendert Westerink and Joseph Combès. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 19972003.

works about damascius

Athanassiadi, Polymnia, ed. Damascius: The Philosophical History. Athens: Apamea Cultural Assocation, 1999.

Hoffmann, Philippe. "Damascius." In Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques. Vol. 2, 541593. Paris: CNRS, 1994.

Carlos Steel (2005)

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