Some Passages from Damascius’ Commentary on the PHAEDO

I just finished reading Damascius’ discussion of the Phaedo, and I have a few quotations that I would like to share with you all. It’s sometimes an unwieldy challenge to pull quotations that are striking from a commentary because the passages are very contextual. Here, the discussion of the Phaedo focuses on the various arguments for and against the immortality of the soul. It is divided into I and II, which have significant overlap, but II is more abbreviated — I liked it because it was like having a refresh read of (some of) I. Much of it is responding to Proclus and others in the commentary tradition.

These passages are less focused on the arguments and more focused on points of interest that I have identified. As always, I used Google Lens to do copy/paste, so while I have caught most OCR errors, I probably missed some. Let’s get started.

66. Of the proofs of immortality, the argument from opposites [69e6- 72e2] corresponds to the first point of the discourse on detachment [64d2- 65a8], the argument from recollection [72e3-77a5] to the second [65a9- d3], and the argument from similarity to things intelligible [78b4-80c1] to the third [65d4-66a10].

67. Correspondingly, the life of purification has three degrees: (i) discarding all the confusion of genesis, which has attached itself to our true being; (ii) meeting one’s own pure self; (iii) being united with one’s own cause by returning to that which is purest in oneself.

§66 and §67, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink

I found §67 interesting because I am reading a commentary on Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, and the section I am going through right now is related to the many mistakes that souls get involved in within the generated world and how yoga addresses them to give the soul liberation. The same things are under discussion here, albeit in a slightly different format. §66 has just been shown for completeness, as it is related to what I wrote in this post’s opening paragraph.

If sense-perception is not exact, how can it become the principle of demonstration? — Sense perception stirs the memory, but the soul produces the principles from itself. Nothing indeed can derive its perfection (any more than its existence) from what is inferior to it; take, for example, the lower forms of science, which cannot provide the principles for the higher ones.

§82, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink

This reminds me of Proclus’ Timaeus commentary and the attention he gave to discussing the problems of natural scientists being too confident about the fruits of sense-perception. Even within what we now consider science, there are many conflicts between people who base things solely on data/sense-perception and those who are considered idealists. A good example is Hawking vs. Penrose — both brilliant scientists active in theoretical cosmology, the first very committed to materialism and the latter a loud advocate that real ideas exist.

When I was in my teens or twenties reading Gaiman’s American Gods, one passage struck me: “All we have to believe with is our senses, the tools we use to perceive the world: our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted. And even if we do not believe, then still we cannot travel in any other way than the road our senses show us; and we must walk that road to the end.” I pinned it on Goodreads way back in the day. I was going back through my profile recently and excised it; while it’s a beautiful piece of prose, I don’t think it belongs there anymore because, unless “our senses” is referring to both sides of the divided line, and unless “our memory” is referring to the soul’s recollection of truth instead of the more plausible ordinary lived experience thing, it isn’t precisely accurate.

[66d3-7] The ‘last’ garment and the most difficult to cast off is, on the appetitive level, ambition, and, on the cognitive level, imagination. Hence even the majority of philosophers are hampered by these, and especially by imagination. Therefore Plato here bids the philosopher to strip himself even of this last garment; the first he took away from him when he took away ‘loves and desires’ [62], using the commonest appetites as examples.

§111, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink

This is another passage that sounds like it could be in a Yoga Sutras commentary. Imagination is a fact of (most) embodied minds. Sometimes passages like this bother me because in poetry and creative work, the imagination (and symbolic “language”) has to be cultivated and highly active, but then again, poets are not allowed in the perfect city, are we.

The final goal for the philosopher committed to social life is contact with the God who extends his providence to all things, for the one on the way to purification contact with the God who transcends all things and is with himself alone, for the contemplative philosopher contact with the God who is united with the principles superior to himself and wishes to be theirs rather than his own; therefore Plato says: ‘to touch the Pure without being pure’ [12].

One who is purifying himself and endeavoring to assimilate himself to the Pure must in the first place discard pleasure and pain as far as possible; secondly, the food of which he partakes should be simple, avoiding all luxury, and it should also be in accordance with the laws of justice and temperance (that is to say, free from the taint of bloodshed) and with divine command and ancestral custom (for a diet that, in defiance of religious law, offends against animal life and coarsens the vital spirit, will make the body unruly towards the soul and unfit to enter into contact with God); thirdly, he must suppress the aimless motion of irrational appetite (what indeed could arouse desire or anger in one who has disengaged himself from all external things?), but if anything of the kind should ever stir in waking or sleeping, it must be quelled speedily by reason; fourthly, he must detach himself from sense-perception and imagination, except in so far as it is necessary to make use of them; in the fifth place, the man who wants to be set free from the plurality of genesis must dissociate himself from the multifarious variety of opinion; the sixth and last precept is to escape from the complexity of discursive reason and seek the simpler forms of demonstration and division as a preparation for the undivided activity of the intellect.

§119-120, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink

This is interesting, as it draws from many trends in Late Antiquity that fused together ideas from Pythagoreanism, Orphism, and so on. The food that “avoid[s] all luxury” makes me think of the Republic and first polis before the desire for external luxuries is brought in. One may be reminded of 19th century movements in Christianity advocating for bland food as an antidote to the irrational appetites thought to be stimulated by too much flavor. However, I think one could interpret luxury as an indication of food where the flamboyancy of the ingredients and/or preparation has far outstripped the utility, or food that is solely indulgent. I won’t comment on the vegetarianism stuff because I’m not vegetarian.

The same relation that exists between education and life in society (the function of education being to quiet down the wild turmoil of birth and to make the soul fit to attain complete harmony), exists also between the life of purification and the life of contemplation: purification checks the downward trend to prepare us for the effort of ascension, and this is also the aim of the purifying ceremonies that precede sacred rites. If one is to be united with the higher powers, it is necessary to detach oneself from lower influences first.

Any disposition on our part inevitably assimilates us to one particular category of beings in the universe. If we are pure, we join the pure, if impure, the impure, i.e. matter-bound demons in the latter case, the Gods in the former, or, if our condition is intermediate, the intermediate kinds. In each case similarity is the binding force that unites things of one kind to form a continuous whole, as water does with water and air with air. Therefore, when approaching God, we should strengthen our likeness to him, as far as it lies in our power, through purity; for, as Plato says, ‘it is unlawful to touch the Pure without being pure’. It is called ‘unlawful’, because God must not be soiled by an impure contact; at the same time it is impossible, since darkness can never approach light.

Purity is threefold: of the soul, of the body, of external things. We must strive for all of these, so that everything, not only ourselves, but our tools also, may be flooded by divine illumination, that no demoniac darkness may settle on our soiled tools, turning away our sight from the Gods, and that our soul may travel lighter on her way to the divine and, so far from being burdened by those tools, may derive strength from them for the upward journey, since she is still tied to them as far as natural life is concerned. If, on the other hand, we come to God with an impure mind, though pure externally, we lose our pains; for then the soul by her way of life remains chained to the evil genii she resembles.

§121-123, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink

I think that the first paragraph, §121, is a great example of why purification rituals and remaining attentive (but not obsessive) about this is important. In §123, it’s important to note that the daimones under discussion are material daimones, the ones who function to bind us to our desires, emotions, and impulses (the material world) and that, due to what they are, may appear to cause bad things to happen to us. These daimones are Highly Algorithmic. This is why §122 focuses so much on establishing likeness.

Like Kore, the soul descends into genesis, like Dionysus she is scattered by generation, like Prometheus and the Titans she is chained to the body. She frees herself by acquiring the strength of Hercules, gathers herself together through the help of Apollo and of Athena the Savior, i.e. by truly purifying philosophy, and she elevates herself to the causes of her being with Demeter.

§130, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink

The evocation of the labors of Herakles and the shining light of Apollon and Athene makes this passage sing to me. I thought this was so touching.

Dialectical thought should either start from the divine riddles, developing the mysterious truth in them, or come to rest in them and derive its final confirmation from their symbolical indications, or it should combine the two, as Socrates does here. The whole discussion consisting of two problems, the ban on suicide, and, in spite of this, the necessity of detaching oneself from the body, he makes the divine mysteries the starting point for the first [62b2-6] and the final point of the second.

§165, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink

This reminds me of something I just read about discursive meditation techniques, but also of conversations elsewhere online about using myths as nodes of reflection to come to a deeper understanding of something.

Why are conscious memories from former lives so rare? — Because conscious perceptions of particular things are external as regards their objects and their origins, while those of universals arise from within and are our own and at the same time present themselves to our consciousness with a less strong impact because they are familiar and not strange. Besides those of universals are more numerous.

§270, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink

I thought this reincarnation passage would be of interest to some blog readers.

[8607-05] The noblest part of our being is intelligence with its direct intuition of reality; so long as this has not been stirred to action, the dialectical argument must suffice, which is called the ‘most irrefutable’, not because it can be refuted as false, but because it does not yet have the evidence of that other, divine account. It is ‘human’ and therefore ‘risky and comparable to a ‘raft,’ inasmuch as it does not offer the best crossing possible.

§391, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink

This is returning again to the earlier comments I made about the Gaiman quotation and the divided line.

If the sky is said to be the Creator’s head, the world of coming-to. be the middle of his body, Tartarus his feet, and if he brings forth Gods from every part of his body [Orph. frag. 168], it is evident that there must be a kind of Tartarean Gods, and then, of course, companions of these Gods a too, and consequently also individual souls and whatever else is found at the extremity of each series. These souls not only can be lifted up to the level of the divine herdsmen of their own kind while still remaining in that part of the world, but they may even spend the whole time of their sojourn in genesis there. The commentator says that there must be also souls in heaven who descend no farther, and therefore we may take it that the same occurs in all other parts of the world; on the other hand, there must also be some that descend deeper and ascend again, passing from level to level, upward from the lower regions, downward from the higher ones, for we know that of souls that came down to this earth many have ascended to heaven. With regard to this whole group we must hold that some descend and ascend to a certain point, others the whole way, for each series as it proceeds strives to fill the entire world.

§540, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink

This was deeply intriguing, and I really want to follow the implications of this to the river’s source because I really do not know what Tartarean individual souls would be like. There are other sections of I and II that discuss this in greater detail.

[107e4-108a2] There is one common road to Hades, but after the common start there are many various ways, since there are so many different destinations which the wayfarers choose as their goals, and also because the emotional patterns which drive them towards their destination change again and again. Plato makes this clear, first by a philosophical argument, viz. that the guides are different and will accordingly load them to different destinations. Then by a religious argument, taken from ritual practices; the reference may be either to assimilation to different Gods, each soul having a divine example of it own (this is not specific enough); or to the wanderings of Demeter, who went astray because there were different roads; or to sacrifices offered to Hecate Trioditis at points where three roads meet and to representations of such forkings in other ceremonies. Furthermore, there are three ways of paying worship to the souls of the departed, one for the venerable priests, one for those who have died a violent death, one for the common run of people.

§108, Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo II, trans. Westerink

The cultic anecdote at the end of this passage is very interesting, specifically the reference to the representation of the crossroads in ceremonies. Because the commentary is actually semi-repeated, this discussion of the roads to Hades from II is similar to a prior passage in I that did not make as much sense. Encouragingly, the marginal note I wrote in I was clarified in this second version.

There are some other elements within the commentary that I will be considering for a while, such as the discussions of memory and Mnemosyne that truly highlight how she operates in the Titanic mode.

Finally, I am not completely satisfied by the treatment of the myth at the Phaedo‘s end — I’d say it’s a can of worms except a can of worms is less complex than the Earth within the myth — and much of the dissatisfaction is that, as a reader who has benefitted from the significant advances in our understanding of physical cosmology over the past few centuries, a discussion of the myth would need to rely heavily on symbolism and less so on analogies to the physical cosmos.

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5 thoughts on “Some Passages from Damascius’ Commentary on the PHAEDO

  1. This was deeply intriguing, and I really want to follow the implications of this to the river’s source because I really do not know what Tartarean individual souls would be like.

    After some thought, I suppose that these would simply be souls who follow Tartarean Gods, i.e., Gods whose activity is specific to the Netherworld, just like the souls described as “followers” of other Gods in the Phaedrus. I don’t think the idea here can be that such souls are sowed directly in the Netherworld, for example.

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    1. This makes sense, thank you! I was also considering it from the sense of how souls are either living embodied lives that are like or unlike the God they follow and what that might mean for Tartarean Gods’ followers. I don’t think I’ve even come across anyone devoted to one of them (at least, not intensely) on the blogosphere, so it’s an interesting hypothetical.

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  2. On the ways in which we think about the senses and perception, I think you’re spot on, and I share some of your discomfort with Gaiman’s sentiment that you quoted.

    On that theme, I’m reminded of a passage from Lloyd Gerson’s book From Plato to Platonism (p. 188, note 83) where he writes: “The use of ‘seeing’ for higher cognition is not so much a metaphor drawn from sense perception as it is the primary referent of ‘seeing,’ whereas perceptual seeing is a defective form. […] What sets sense perception apart from all other forms of cognition for Plato is that it has an irreducible material or physical component.”

    A very interesting conceptual space opens up, once we distinguish this higher kind of seeing from sensing. And that may have some implications for your discussion of imagination (another term for which we may need some very careful distinctions). I think that, much like the case of ‘seeing,’ our ordinary English use of ‘imagining/imagination’ may have a kind of ambiguity, between what for Plato would be the lower faculty of generating and thinking in “concrete” images, and what would be a higher faculty of apprehending (seeing but not sensing) the realities that beyond images, from which the poet can emulate/participate the fontal power of the Gods, bringing these higher realities into the manifest cosmos. I think that Plato would want to resist using any term based on ‘image’ for the latter, but nonetheless, such a sense does seem to be present in ordinary English.

    Two different kinds of poetry, then. Or maybe just special pleading. I mean, I’m a poet, too… 😉

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    1. Regarding higher senses of “seeing” in Platonism, it’s important that Plato emphasizes the “visibility” of the cosmos prior to the demiurge’s work (Tim. 30a, 32b). The pre-intellective divine illumination suggested by this could ground a kind of “phenomenology” corresponding to this “visibility” of things, perhaps somewhat of the kind that Merleau-Ponty proposes in his late speculative work The Visible and the Invisible.

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    2. I don’t think it’s special pleading! The commentators do indicate that poetry is acceptable as long as it is engaged with higher realities, to think back to Proclus’ essays on the Republic, where he (if I recall correctly) lays out the levels that poetry may be active on. I do often think about Socrates’ criticisms of poetry in Plato’s dialogues, and it most recently came to mind while reading the Protagoras where he notes that people can have so many different impressions and interpretations of the same poetic verses.

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