Dr Nick Trakakis looks at the last Neoplatonist philospher Damascius
For John Paraskevopoulos, a kindred spirit
Damascius (c.462-540) was named after his native town, Damascus, the ancient capital of Syria. He was one of the last Neoplatonist philosophers and he has been described as "the last great metaphysician of antiquity." From Damascus he moved to Alexandria, where he studied rhetoric in the school of Horapollo, an exclusive college of higher education. It was there that Damascius' brilliance was recognised and it was there that he came into contact with one of the leading teachers, Isidore, who was to become his lifelong friend.
When pagans in Alexandria came under persecution, Damascius fled the city together with Isidore. The two travelled for eight months throughout Syria and Asia Minor, and it was during this journey that Damascius made the decision to give up rhetoric for philosophy. Eventually the two companions made their way to Athens, where Damascius became a student at the Platonic Academy and was a pupil for a time under the by then elderly Proclus. It was also at this time that he wrote his "Philosophical History" (also known as the "Life of Isidore"), an eyewitness account of the philosophical and political developments in 5th-century Alexandria and Athens, focusing on the tensions between pagans and Christians. Damascius also wrote commentaries on Aristotle and Plato, but his most important work is his treatise, "Problems and Solutions on First Principles", where he subjects the metaphysical system of Proclus to rigorous critique.
In this work, Damascius develops the idea of the unspeakable or ineffable (arrheton) as the first principle and the supreme reality. Around 515 Damascius became the head of the Platonic Academy and led a remarkable revival of the institution, attracting some of the most important philosophers of the 6th century to the Academy. But all this came to an abrupt end in 529, when the emperor Justinian issued his famous decree banning the teaching of philosophy in Athens and so effectively closing down the Platonic Academy. Damascius was therefore a witness to a major turning-point in history, when Christianity finally eclipsed pagan philosophy and religion. Now in his late 60s, Damascius packed his manuscripts and together with six other philosophers he set off on a great adventure - a long and precarious journey to Persia. A young king, Chosroes, had just occupied the throne of Persia and knowing of Chrosroes' interest in philosophy, Damascius thought that conditions in Persia would be more favourable than in Athens. But the reality turned out to be quite different.
Shortly after their arrival in Persia, Damascius and his entourage decided to return home. But Chosroes at least made it possible for them to return to the Roman Empire in safety by signing a treaty with Justinian which included a provision for Damascius' group to philosophise in private without the threat of further persecution. The Neoplatonic group settled in the cosmopolitan city of Harran, which was inside the eastern Roman Empire but close to the Persian border. But it is thought that Damascius chose to spend his last years in his Syrian homeland. Dr Nick Trakakis is a Research Fellow in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. He recently edited "Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek-Australians".
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