Some Quotations from Olympiodorus’ Commentary on Plato’s PHAEDO

In January, I read eight books, among them Olympiodorus’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo. It comes from notes taken during his lectures, so as with any lecture notes, mileage may vary based on the likely-Christian student’s (or students’) accuracy and attentiveness. Here are a few notes. (As a reminder, I have a commonplace book tag with a lot of notes on things I read.)

There are two affects, indeed, that are hard to wipe out, among the cognitive faculties imagination, and in the vital faculties ambition; for what the soul puts on first, it strips last. The first garment of the soul, where the vital faculties are concerned, is ambition, because it is the will to rule that decided the human soul to descend into genesis; even if we seem to have no ambition, ambition is the motive behind it, and we have again failed to escape from this passion. In knowledge the most persistent affect is imagination; therefore Odysseus needed the moly of Hermes, right reason, to escape from Calypso, who is imagination and who like a cloud covers the sun of reason; imagination, indeed, is a veil (kalymma), hence someone has spoken of it as ‘Fancy, with thy flowing robes’.

Olympiodorus’ lectures on the Phaedo 6 §2, trans. Westerink

I decided to highlight this passage because the imagination/ambition angle was interesting. “Even if we seem to have no ambition, ambition is the motive behind it” made me consider the ways in which ambition manifests in a variety of fields — in poetry, in medicine, in art, and so on — and how that drives many of us. I thought that the mention of Calypso was especially interesting. The eventual escape through Hermes makes me think of the power of the theurgic and hieratic arts, as Hermes is one of the Gods most associated with them, especially if one considers the Hermetic corpora.

Tigunait writes in The Secret of the Yoga Sutra, a commentary on the Yoga Sutras, “The thoughts that afflict us physically, mentally, and spiritually are klishta thoughts — in layman’s language, ‘bad’ thoughts. They block our growth and disturb us internally and externally. No matter how committed we are to a spiritual path, if we fail to pay attention to the effect of our thoughts, we will make no progress. To a large extent, spiritual practice involves removing these painful thoughts and replacing them with constructive, auspicious (aklishta) thoughts” (Kobo ebook). The Platonic commentators make a slightly different division of the problematic types of thoughts/fancies and so on, but the way imagination is referred to here reminds me of the way that Tigunait characterizes afflictive thoughts and desires both in what I just quoted and elsewhere. In the Platonic commentators, the three parts of the soul (appetitive, spirited, reasoning) are kind of like an interdependent mechanism that is set into motion by the flower of the mind and the one of the soul; the reasoning part of the soul, in what I have read, is closest to that pure consciousness. The reason I call the tripartate soul a “mechanism” is less to evoke modern ideas of the body as a machine and more to emphasize that interdependence, with some bits (e.g., the appetitive soul) transiently illumined by the core, eternal element. Our embodied selves vary depending on incarnated context, with genes, internalized cultural elements, family histories, and so on coming to be and passing away with each incarnation choice we make; much less is permanent about us than we are probably comfortable considering. It doesn’t mean that we should value it less, but that we should try to have a mature sense of acceptance.

This explains also why Odysseus first lands on the island of Circe, who, as the daughter of the Sun, stands for sense-perception. Imagination, then, gets in the way of our thinking. For the same reason an ecstatic condition is interrupted, if during it we form a mental picture, for ecstasy and imagination are contraries. Because of all this Epictetus [Enchir. 1, 5] tells us to repeat to ourselves continually: ‘Fancy, you are only a fancy, and not necessarily what you appear to be’. This, the influence of imagination upon their thought, also caused the Stoic community to think of God as corporeal, for it is imagination that clothes incorporeal realities in bodies. What does Plato mean then? Is there no thought unaccompanied by imagination? Yes, there is; when the soul apprehends universals, imagination has no part in its activity.

Olympiodorus’ lectures on the Phaedo 6 §2, trans. Westerink

There are so many ways for the mind to get off-track and lose focus in contemplative exercises. For personal examples, when I’m trying to focus on my breath and go into some kind of contemplative mode and I suddenly remember an email I never responded to or put in my to-do list queue or I have a sudden sense of dread over whether I’m going to get tagged in anything awful during my eight-month Twitter hiatus. (I’m using WordPress’s autopost-to-social-media feature.) The advice that Olympiodorus pulls from Epictetus reminds me of the noting techniques that are taught in popular meditation apps like Headspace, which teaches meditators to acknowledge the thought, classify it as thinking or feeling, and re-center onto the object of meditation, in Headspace’s case the breath.

What Olympiodorus says about Circe made me think back to reading Proclus’ On the Cratylus, when Proclus described Circe thusly:

[Circe] weaves all of life in the four classes and at the same time makes the region under the moon harmonious with songs. Thus, to these weaving deities, Circe too — indeed, ‘golden’ Circe, as they say — is assigned by the theologians, who thereby indicate her intellectual and immaculate essence, both immaterial and unmingled with generation. Her function is to discriminate the things that are at rest from those that are in motion, and to separate them according to divine difference.

Proclus: On Plato Cratylus, 22,1-15, trans. Duvick

The difference between how she is characterized by each author is very interesting. Proclus’ characterization is more positive; I’d characterize Olympiodorus’ as contextually negative, as he’s discussing the mind losing itself in imagination, but value-neutral, as sense-perception isn’t necessarily bad as long as one handles it properly. Being Helios’ daughter would place Circe in the solar series in a Platonic way, which would connect her to the truth-bringing (elevating/Apollonian) triad, which Apollon and Helios both occupy; Proclus might be discussing her role in making things harmonious as a sublunary (read: the changeable, visible cosmos with all of its contradictions and warfare) Goddess within that mode.

But let us consider this question by itself, whether it is possible, while in the body, to lead an uninterrupted life of purification or of contemplation. The ancients do not grant this, and Plato too seems to deny it, since he says that it will never be possible, as long as we are in the body, to know the truth. Our own professor, however, maintains that it is possible: if one can share in the life of a community when outside the body, why should a life of purification and contemplation be impossible, while still in the body? Another point in the Phaedrus [248d2-e3], where he mentions various ways of life, Plato does not speak of a lifetime of continuous ecstasy, but he does refer to the contemplative life, because it is not possible to spend one’s whole life in ecstasy, but there is nothing to prevent us from spending it in purification and contemplation. For though we partake of food, we do so in a spirit of purification, that the soul should not be impeded in its activities by the body. Therefore the man who has dedicated himself to purification or contemplation pays attention to the body as to a talkative neighbor, so as not to be disturbed in his thoughts; this is what Plato says about the perfect philosopher, that he does not know where in the world he is, and is unaware that he does not know [Theaet. 173c6-174a2]. Here we find a double ignorance that is superior to knowledge.

Olympiodorus’ lectures on the Phaedo 6 §3, trans. Westerink

No embodied existence can be 100% pure, which makes a lot of sense. I was initially skeptical of what Olympiodorus (“our professor”) was saying as a modification to it, but I think he could mean that there is an ideal embodied practice of purification and contemplation that takes into account all of the issues with embodiment (the talkativeness) rather than my initial impression, which was that he thought the actual ideal of purification and contemplation was achievable. Again, because I am currently reading Tigunait’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras, this reminds me of the Yoga tradition’s concept of brahmacharya: “Practicing brahmacharya involves living a balanced live: eating the right food at the right time in the right proportion with the right attitude; doing the right kind of exercise in the right proportion at the right time; complying with a code of conduct designed to regulate day-to-day activities and interactions with others; and finally, going to bed on time and waking up on time. Living a balanced life helps us conserve our energy, stay focused, and attend our main objective with few distractions. A lifestyle where all our physical and mental activities are geared towards reaching and serving our core being is brahmacharya.”

‘Until God himself releases us’ [67a6]: The God to whom he is referring here is Dionysus, who is in charge both of life and of death, of life because of the Titans, of death because of the gift of prophecy that we receive when death draws near. For he is the patron of all Bacchic rapture; therefore he is the guardian not only of comic poets, whose object is pleasure, but also of tragic poets, whose concern is with sorrow and death.

Olympiodorus’ lectures on the Phaedo 6 §12, trans. Westerink

And Apollon is the guardian of purificatory and hieratic poets, the latter which I am ascribing to him in its more limited sense of “founding mystic rites” that is mentioned as an attribute of souls in his series.

[W]orthless people in this world want to die when they are in love, thinking that in the hereafter they are going to see their beloved and be with them, though as a matter of fact this will not necessarily come true, because they may belong to the spheres of different divine herdsmen — some souls indeed, belong to the Healing Powers, others to the Moon; for, as Plato says in the Timaeus [42d4-5], the Creator scattered the souls on the Sun and the Moon; and from this comes failure or success in our enterprises, because our actual condition is often at variance with our original choice; lives of great men show great achievements because their condition tallies with their chosen destination, while failure is the result of the reverse: many a Plato digs the soil, as somebody has said […].

Olympiodorus’ lectures on the Phaedo 7 §4, trans. Westerink

I may have literally laughed while reading this because my girlfriend and I have been watching Keeping Up Appearances for nostalgia, Rose’s over-the-top wailing every time she has a breakup is truly astonishing, and the love-pining reminded me of that. Olympiodorus goes on here to discuss how many people will choose lives not in alignment with what they really are and thus may be less than competent at executing that life. The ending sentence is really interesting because I’ve seen similar sentences used in arguments about ensuring equal access to education around the world, usually mentioning Einstein or Newton.

For if the soul were destroyed with the body, it would be better for the good to be alive and for the wicked not to exist; since, however, it is not destroyed with the body, it is better for the wicked to be alive, because so long as they are alive they may well mend their ways, with the help of books and teachers, and become better men, so that they can depart this life with purified minds.

Olympiodorus’ lectures on the Phaedo 10 §16, trans. Westerink

Ending on a positive note. The soul is immortal, and embodied existence provides many opportunities to learn from mistakes and get better even under the worst circumstances. The emphasis on books and teachers was very apt.

Good night, and may the Gods grant you good things.


2 thoughts on “Some Quotations from Olympiodorus’ Commentary on Plato’s PHAEDO

  1. I’d be very cautious about the link between Platonic discussions of intellect and the Yogic notion of “pure consciousness.” While translations are widely varied and often ambiguous (a problem in itself!), I’m most accustomed to “pure consciousness” refering (in Indian philosophies, especially Sāṃkhya and Yoga, but some Vedānta too) to awareness without being aware of anything at all. This is the oft-repeated metaphor of the clear crystal which is “pure” when there’s nothing whatsoever around to color it, but “impure” when there’s a cognitive object, such that the crystal appears to take on the color of that object. (Hold the crystal over the red cover of the Prometheus Trust edition of Olympiodorus, and the crystal itself appears to be red. Even though, for the Sāṃkhya-Yoga philosopher, it never was and never will be.) Thus the ideal of “purity” here works out to the kaivalyam, literally the total “aloneness,” of the consciousness: having nothing at all to think about, being conscious without being conscious of anything whatsoever, including itself! Whereas for the Platonist, on the other hand, there are better and worse ways to direct the intellect, but the goal of “purity” through total isolation from all cognitive objects—and from all relations, even with the highest causes of things—just isn’t present.

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    1. Thank you for the description of the differences between the two schools beyond the overt similarities in some approaches (e.g., the need for purification via coming into a more balanced lifestyle and so on). I think these are important caveats; even though I haven’t studied Yogic philosophy in any great detail (I’ve just done asana and pranayama), the differences do come out in striking ways, like in the placement of the hieratic/theurgic art in Late Platonism, which at least with Tigunait’s commentary would be placed much lower due to the reliance on sensory objects for a lot of theurgy.

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