Some Passages from Damascius’ Philosophical History

At the beginning of the month, I devoured the fragments of Damascius’ Philosophical History, an out-of-print translation filled with interesting anecdotes about people in the polytheistic intellectual scene of Late Antiquity.

The translator, Polymnia Athanassiadi, identifies many continuities between the world of Damascius and Mediterranean cultures today even while emphasizing the extreme cultural loss and psychological trauma that many were undergoing during the period as they navigated Christian hegemony — much as back then, the official Mediterranean religions are often in a tug-of-war with local practices that date back to prehistory, some integrated into the dominant monotheism of the area, others suppressed. While many of us reading this work are not part of a Mediterranean culture, we can empathize with many of the circumstances because they hit close to home when we contemplate monotheistic violence, especially the form of monotheistic violence that fused with colonialism and racism several centuries ago to inflict heinous trauma on people around the world.

Some of Athanassiadi’s footnotes emphasized the negativity in Damascius’ descriptions of other people, as he candidly discussed the merits and flaws of everyone. Damascius had witnessed an intellectual crackdown in Alexandria during which his brother was tortured — a crackdown that targeted the Platonic and Platonism-adjacent philosophers, the hieratic teachers, and others in the city who refused to convert. While it is definitely possible and plausible to read these comments as rumination over how things could have been different if only people had been more perfect and less flawed, there is also a way to take his comments as showing the diversity of what people have going on in their lives, even those who are seen as holy, wise, or who broadly have their s–t together. Sarapio, an example of a very virtuous person discussed primarily in §111, doesn’t do much philosophy, but prays to and contemplates the Gods constantly, which fills him with holiness. It is uplifting to read these things because the issues people have — intemperance, emotionality, irrationality — are the same as the ones we have nowadays, but what matters is our constant journey into knowing the self and, as Plotinus says, our work improving what we find to make it as godlike as possible. Of course, we only have fragments of the Philosophical History, and I wonder if Christian copyists were less inclined to copy the positive bits.

Athanassiadi’s notes are frequently useful due to her perspective. She is a proponent of pagan monotheism, so there is an unfortunate, occasional emphasis on that, and she also plays up the divide between Damascius and Proclus. I was worried when I read her words about how much they differ, asked someone about it who reassured me that this was overblown, and then encountered §97, where Damascius calls Proclus’ exegetical commentary on Plato’s Parmenides an “exalted interpretation,” in contrast to Marinus’ attempts, as he was not as exegetically competent.

One of the things that was initially exciting to me about this is that Damascius dedicated his work to Theodora, one of his female students. There are other women philosophers mentioned, such as Damiane, who married another philosopher, Asclepiodotus, and Aedesia, Syrianus’ relative who was married to Hermias and who was known for being very charitable and generous, so much so that her children inherited debts. Beyond just the presence of women, I also enjoyed learning more about the polytheistic strongholds in Gaza, Palestine, and Syria, in addition to the hidden shrines in and near Alexandria. It’s a shame that this book is out of print, as the diversity of people involved in polytheism and philosophy in Late Antiquity really comes to the forefront, even if most people treated are still in the monied classes who can afford books and teachers.

Here are a few quotations that I enjoyed.

He used to say that, just as the soul has three parts or types (or whatever one chooses to call them), so too there are three different ways of life, each of which contains all three elements while receiving its overall shape from the dominant one, which also gives it its name. Reason is the main influence on the first of these, which could be called the Cronian life, the golden race or the generation akin to the gods, celebrated in the guise of myth by poets seated on the tripod of the Muse. Emotion influences the second, which engages in wars and battles and generally fights for the first prizes and for glory, and which we continually hear talked about by history. Appetite rules the third, which is totally dissipated, corrupted by unbridled wantoness, dominated by base and [feeble/weak] thoughts, associated with cowardice, wallowing in swinishness of every kind, avaricious and petty, [merely wanting servitude], achieving nothing noble or free, servile and weak, measuring happiness solely in accordance with the belly and the pudenda, totally without nobility of spirit; like a body dumped in a corner, lying enervated and incapable of movement. And he showed the life of the men who are now in the service of generation to be much baser even than this.

Damascius, Philosophical History, §18

In the brackets, I replaced one thing with the alternative translation suggested in the footnote because that translation was more accessible, and I also replaced the term “womanish” with two terms that likely get at the same meaning without the misogyny. (It is hilarious that he is referring to people overcome with appetites as wanting food and pussy.) I thought this passage was generally interesting in the context of what I said above about how much Damascius highlights the struggles people have with their appetites in these fragments, even those ruled by Kronos.

Men tend to bestow the name of virtue on a life of inactivity, but I do not agree with this view. For the virtue which engages in the midst of public life through political activity and discourse fortifies the soul and strengthens through exercise what is healthy and perfect, while the impure and false element that lurks in human lives is fully exposed and more easily set on the road to improvement. And indeed politics offers great possibilities for doing what is good and useful; also for courage and firmness. That is why the learned, who sit in their corner and philosophise at length and in a grand manner about justice and moderation, utterly disgrace themselves if they are compelled to take some action. Thus bereft of action, all discourse appears vain and empty.

Damascius, Philosophical History, §124

Athanassiadi commented in some places about Damascius’ characterization of Christians. Building on the comments she made, it is interesting to me that, in the Christianity of the period, many of them tended to become ascetics and hide in the desert doing penances and stuff, and they most often came into town to commit religious violence against pagans. The way they handled their desires and emotions was by fleeing from them. By contrast, Damascius has the highest praise for pagan intellectuals who commit to some types of what would fall under the “asceticism” definition — abstinence, generosity, frugality, and restriction in the service of piety and one’s own spiritual growth — but who remain within the city. This is similar to Plato’s position in the Laws that you can never truly know someone’s character unless you see lim when le has the opportunity to overindulge and be insensible — due to wine there, but this could also be said of any other substance, including money.

The situation under discussion also reminds me of that story in a lot of Yoga Sūtras commentaries about the ascetic who accidentally saw two fish copulating one day and whose desires exploded and drew him from the path of liberation because he had been suppressing his desires instead of actually working through and overcoming what was toxic about them.

He would follow his friends’ wishes, in preference to his own; for he cultivated none of the many virtues as fully as friendship, which, according to Pythagoras, is the mother of virtues.

To sum it all up in a word, his actions were a clear illustration of the manner in which Pythagoras conceived of Man as most resembling God: eagerness to do good and generosity extended to all, indeed the raising of souls above the multiplicity of evil which encumbers the world below; secondly the deliverance of mortal men from unjust or impious suffering; thirdly, engagement in public affairs to the extent of one’s abilities.

Damascius, Philosophical History, §26

The emphasis in §124 is honestly similar to §26 here, where Isidore’s merits are being discussed, including generosity. Damascius emphasizes doing right by the poor and needy, which follows from cultivating the soul’s temperance. This is likely because hoarding wealth when people are in need is not temperate.

The amassing of money is of no assistance to those in Hades nor is luxury nor the accursed honours which are prized above all else by those politicians who are envied by the multitude for their good fortune, but are in truth ill-fated.

How pernicious an activity was rhetoric, focusing all my attention on the mouth and the tongue and turning it away from the soul and from the blissful and divine lessons which purify it. Realising this, I was sometimes distracted from my rhetorical exegeses with which I had been occupying myself for nine years.

To give up rhetoric and poetics and witticisms.

We passed eight months in each other’s company, both day and night.

Damascius, Philosophical History, §137

This was very relatable and I had to journal about it a bit.

For context, Damascius didn’t start out in philosophy, but he was a rhetorician for nine years, and after he helped Isidore flee Alexandria, they traveled together for a bit. While on the road, it took Isidore about the same amount of time as it takes a fetus to incubate to entice Damascius into philosophy.

Nothing human is worth as much as a clear conscience. A man should indeed live together with his fellow-humans in a decent manner, and if the true good is contrary to the apparent good, never prefer the latter nor give greater importance to anything other than Truth — not the danger of an impending struggle, nor a difficult task from which one turns away in fear; nor the profit gained from undeserved praise; nor a long-standing friendship nor the obligations which arise from family connections.

Damascius, Philosophical History, §146B

This also made me think a lot. We live in a post-Truth society (yes, it’s a cliché by now), where narratives and likely stories carry more weight than discovering the truth beyond them. We are living in a period of Titanic division and extreme loss, the tragedies more numerous than visible stars. At the same time, the way we have structured our societies creates us vs. them mentalities that worsen our ability to move forward on many issues, and I mourn for the future we are creating sometimes. While Earth may be made of cubes, humans are messy and far less tidily divided and stacked. I think this is what resonates most with me about Parmenides’ fragments concerning the Way of Truth and the Way of Seeming, despite not having read a ton about their context — people, including myself, really suck at (a) identifying what is true and (b) advocating for it when we know that doing so will hurt us because (c) we are social animals who instinctively fear ostracism and abandonment.

Even if we choose a Kronian life, we still have mixtures of emotions and desires that can help us or ruin us.


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