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Commentary and doctrinal integration: Olympiodorus on self-knowledge in the First Alcibiades

Albert Joosse

As head of the Platonic school in Alexandria in the middle of the 6th Century AD, Olympiodorus is often viewed as a conserver of ancient learning in an environment which had become less and less congenial to it. Such conservation efforts, however, called for considerable creativity, since the tradition in which Olympiodorus saw himself was not monolithic. The genre of the commentary allows Olympiodorus to strengthen the Platonic tradition by weaving together different voices of his predecessors. In this paper, I will show how Olympiodorus develops new views about human nature in an attempt to harmonise views of Proclus and Damascius.

The disagreement between Proclus and Damascius which Olympiodorus attempts to overcome concerns the correct interpretation of two key phrases in the First Alcibiades. In this dialogue, Socrates urges Alcibiades to improve himself and, in order for him to be able to do so, helps him to discover what he himself is. The question to be answered, he claims, is: ‘in what way may ‘self itself’ (auto to auto) be found? For in that way we will perhaps find out what we are ourselves’ (129b1-2). In the ensuing discussion, Socrates and Alcibiades establish that the human being is his soul. Having reached this result, Socrates says that they have not actually found auto to auto, but merely ‘self’, to auto (131d3-5, 132c7). What these phrases mean exactly is as debated today as it was in antiquity. According to Olympiodorus, Proclus interpreted the former phrase as referring to the tripartite soul and the latter as referring to the logical (part of the) soul only (in Alc. 4.10-11, 204.1-2, 209.16-17). Damascius later claimed that it would be better to say that auto already referred to the logical soul, but in its political mode. For him auto to auto stands for the logical soul in its cathartic and theoretical modes (4.12-13, 204.13-15, 209.18-19).

It is Olympiodorus’ aim to show that his two predecessors are in fact in agreement. He does this by distributing the praise of a philosopher-commentator: Damascius’ interpretation is more in accordance with knowledge, while Proclus’ is more in accordance with the text. In this way, Olympiodorus can present his own interpretation, which combines the readings of Proclus and Damascius, as doing justice to both aspects.

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The Commentary and the Making of Philosophy

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