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Dialectic as autopsia: a lesson in Neoplatonic rationality

Donka Marcus

The most remarkable aspect of the Platonic tradition is its insistence upon harmonizing the rational (logicon) and irrational (alogon) aspects of the soul’s ascent, as summarized most explicitly in Sinesius’ Dio (1136) where he maintains with Aristotle (Rose, fr. 15) that there are two ways to become fit (epitedeios) for the vision of the inner light: one through initiation in the mysteries and becoming a bacchant, the other – through the methodical exercise of reason. These two approaches to the development of philosophical fitness come into contrastive focus in a short fragment by Damascius (Philosophical History Athanassiadi 1999 fr 134), capturing an important teaching moment where the philosopher Isidore helped the eager seeker Dorus of Arabia attain an inner vision of truth. Dorus’ experience is meant to promote the advantages of direct inner vision (autopsia) and to warn against the danger of spinning one’s wheels on the level of discursive reasoning.

Dorus had been ‘entangled’ in the hypotheses of Aristotle since his childhood, but he was a ‘very eager seeker after truth’ and Isidore ‘gradually drew him in and made his soul spread its wings over the vast sea of Truth, so that Dorus got rid of the Peripatetic meticulousness which concentrates on proving tiny points, and applied himself fully to that art of dialectics…the purest direct vision (autopsia) that nous (intellect) and understanding (phronēsis) are capable of ….” (fr 134, ed. Athanassiadi 1999). Dorus’ progress was gradual, but swift, a happy fusion of the reasoned and intuitive aspects of the soul’s rise that Synesius’ Dio and Aristotle’s fragment (ref. above) represent as two separate and mutually exclusive alternatives.    

Equating dialectic with autopsia in this fragment is unique and reflects the effort of the Platonists to harmonize the rational, dialogical, discursive aspects of their pedagogy with the sudden vision of the light (e.g. Plato’s Seventh Letter). It favorably contrasts Platonic dialectic with its Aristotelian counterpart in an attempt to present it as more rational, fruitful and objective. The use of the term autopsia as an outcome of Platonic dialectic plays a key role in promoting the Neoplatonic philosopher’s aspiration to develop the eye of the soul (nous) and to attain inner sight. From Porphyry on the term was pressed into use for rationalizing the Platonic enterprise, for aligning it with the scientific spirit of those who like Herodotus (II. 29.1; III.115.1; IV.16.1), Dioscorides and Galen used the term to mark their scientific objectivity.

Much of my paper is devoted to contextualizing Damascius’ fragment since it gives invaluable insights into Neoplatonic spiritual guidance and captures the practical aspects of Platonism as spiritual path aimed at leading ordinary people to the attainment of direct vision of the Truth (autopsia). The contextualization aims at showing that this is not a unique moment of Platonic pedagogy, even though the recording of it is precious and rare. I provide parallels for:

1.           the contrast between Platonic and Aristotelian dialectic and the three stages of dialectic which the fragment implies and which Proclus In Parmenidem 649ff spells out in greater detail.

2.           the uses of autopsia in Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus (the term does not occur in Plotinus or Plato).

3.           the numerous ways of talking about the restoration of the soul’s sight and the vision of the ‘eye of the soul’ (nous) in Plato and beyond.

I view this fragment as a perfect illustration of the need to move beyond the absolute categories of ‘rational’ vs ‘irrational’ and think instead in terms of multiple paradigms of rationality (as in A. Schmitt, Modernity and Plato: Two Paradigms of Rationality, 2012). Rationality has always been a fluid and relative term. In Isidore’s teaching moment with Dorus, Damascius equates the rational enterprise (dialectic) to the attainment of intellectual vision (autopsia) by masterfully capturing a moment of non-discursive pedagogy as practiced by his own teacher, the philosopher Isidore.

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Platonism and the Irrational

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