Damascius (c. 460 C.E. – c. 538 C.E.) was the last head of the Neoplatonic Academy in Athens. Born in Damascus about 460 C.E., he studied rhetoric in Alexandria before traveling to Athens, where he studied philosophy and mathematics, and eventually succeeded Isidore as head of the Academy. His scholarship inspired a revival of interest in philosophy, but in 529 C.E. the Christian emperor Justinian I closed the Academy and all the other pagan schools.
Damascius' position as head of the Academy when it was closed led him to be associated with the end of the long tradition of Greek philosophy and the beginning of the Dark Ages in Europe. Damascius is known for a treatise, entitled Difficulties and Solutions of First Principles (ἀπορίαι καὶ λύσεις περὶ τῶν πρώτων ἀρχῶν), based on the metaphysics of Proclus and Syrianus, but maintaining the unity and the indivisibility of the First Cause, God, as an unfathomable and unspeakable divine depth. Large fragments of his Biography of Isidore contain valuable notes and observations on the Platonic philosophers of the fifth century and were later incorporated into the Suda.
Damascius was born in Damascus around 460 C.E. In his early youth he went to Alexandria, where he spent twelve years as a pupil of Theon, a rhetorician, and later as a professor of rhetoric. He then turned to philosophy and science, and studied under Hermias and his sons, Ammonius and Heliodorus. In 489, when Christian persecution of polytheists in Alexandria was becoming intolerable, Damascius traveled with Isidore of Alexandria, the dialectician, to Athens, spending eight months visiting sites in Syria and Aphrodisias in Asia Minor. Around this time he experienced a “conversion” from the study of rhetoric to the pursuit of philosophy, realizing rhetoric to be a distraction from more important matters.
In Athens Damascius continued his studies under Marinus of Neapolis, the mathematician Zenodotus, and Isidore. He became a close friend of Isidore, succeeded him as head of the school in Athens, and wrote his biography, part of which is preserved in the Bibliotheca of Photius. (See the appendix to the Didot edition of Diogenes Laertius.)
In 529 C.E. the Christian emperor Justinian I closed the Academy in Athens, along with all the other pagan schools, and Damascius, with Simplicius, Prisicanus and four other of his colleagues sought asylum, probably in 532, at the court of Khosrau I of Persia, whose troops were then engaged in battle with those of Justinian along the Euphrates River. Khosrau I gave them a warm welcome, but they found the conditions intolerable, and in 532, when the Treaty of Eternal Peace between Khosrow and Justinian was ratified, Khosrow expressly stipulated that the seven philosophers should be allowed "to return to their own homes, and to live henceforward in the enjoyment of liberty of conscience" (Agathias ~ 30, 31). There is no further information about the life of Damascius; it is believed that Damascius returned to Alexandria and there devoted himself to the writing of his works. The only evidence of his whereabouts after his return from Persia is an epitaph for the slave girl Zosime, erected at Emesa in 538. The date of his death is not known.
Damascius is remembered historically as the last head of the Academy in Athens. Many scholars and historians use 529 C.E., the date when the emperor Justinian I closed the Academy and other pagan schools of philosophy, to mark the end of the Greek tradition of philosophy and the beginning of the Dark Ages. Some scholars suggest that under Damascius’ leadership, Athenian philosophy was reformed and revitalized to the extent that it attracted the attention and concern of Justinian and brought about the closing of the schools, in a time when a repressive Christian government associated Neo-Platonism with polytheism.
Damascius’ chief treatise, entitled Difficulties and Solutions of First Principles (ἀπορίαι καὶ λύσεις περὶ τῶν πρώτων ἀρχῶν) (published, not complete by J. Kopp, Francof. 1828. 8vo.) is a detailed dialectical analysis of the metaphysical system of Proclus and Syrianus. A large fragment of Damascius’ biography of his mentor Isidore, preserved by the Christian writer Photius, appears to have been his most important work in the eyes of ancient commentators. The rest of Damascius's writings are for the most part commentaries on works of Aristotle and Plato, including a continuation and completion of Proclus's commentary on Plato's Parmenides. Commentaries on Plato's Timaeus, Alcibiades, and other dialogs, are cited by other writers but seem to be lost; a fragment exists of a commentary on Aristotle's treatise " de Coelo." Simplicius cites Damascius in his commentary on Aristotle's Physica (fol. 189, b., 153, a., 183, b.), and the Bibliography of Fabricius (BibL Grace, vol. ii. p. 294) mentions an epitome by Damascius of the first four and the eighth book of Aristotle's Physica. There is also a fragment of a commentary on Hippocrates's "Aphorisms" in a manuscript at Munich, which is ascribed to Damascius.
The biography of Isidore followed a tradition which began in the third century, when Porphyry wrote a biography of his teacher, Plotinus. The work was far more than the biography of one man, containing biographical notes and anecdotes about the Platonists of Athens and Alexandria in the fifth century, from the celebrated figures like Hypatia to Isidore’s obscure Alexandrian friend, Sarapion, who devoted his life to reading the poetry of Orpheus in isolation. The work also contained numerous references to Damascius’ own life and philosophical development. In his criticism, Photius pointed out that Damascius had something bad to say about absolutely everyone, notably those he praised (Test. III, p. 337), and the surviving fragments of Isidorus contain a number of self-satisfied criticisms.
It is impossible to reconstruct the entire work in sequence from the fragments which remain. A large portion was preserved as a series of excerpts in the ninth century by the Christian writer Photius, who praised Damascius’ succinct, clear, and pleasing style, while being highly critical of him for not mentioning Christianity anywhere. Photius, or another commentator, then recopied some passages for their stylistic interest. During the tenth century, the compiler of the Suda made extensive use of Damascius’ biography of Isidore, which he called Damascius’ History, to illustrate numerous words and expressions and for information on various Platonist teachers. After this the original manuscript disappeared, and it was not until the twentieth century that scholars were able to organize and publish translations of it.
"Doubts and Solutions of the First Principles inquires into the first principle of all things, which Damascius finds to be an unfathomable and unspeakable divine depth, being all in one, but undivided. It also examines the nature and attributes of God and the human soul. His conclusion is that God is infinite, and as such, incomprehensible; that the attributes of goodness, knowledge and power are credited to Him only by inference from their effects; that this inference is logically valid and sufficient for human thought. He insists throughout on the unity and the indivisibility of God, whereas Plotinus and Porphyry had admitted not only a Trinity, but even an Ennead (nine-fold personality).
Damascius made considerable effort to express, in written language, concepts that were not easily explained; his attempts have been considered tedious by some modern scholars and worthy of praise by others. “Doubts and Solutions of the First Principles” is also valuable for its many references to earlier philosophers.
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