- Damascius' Problems & Solutions Concerning First Principles
Damascius was the last head of the Platonic Academy in Athens before it was closed by Justinian in 529. It is no small paradox to see his treatise "On the First Principles," the last major work in ancient philosophy, published in the Religion in Translation series of the American Academy of Religion. To be sure, since Syrianus and Proclus, the Academy in Athens had become increasingly concerned with theological matters, insisting on the harmony between Plato's divine philosophy and the old religious traditions. Damascius shares this conviction, as is evident from the conclusion of this treatise wherein he attempts to show the harmony of his views on the principles with Chaldean, Orphic, and non-Greek theologies. Yet "On the First Principles" remains above all an impressive philosophical achievement in a tradition that started with Presocratic investigations into the archai of all things. Damascius comes at the end of centuries of discussion in the Platonic school regarding the nature and distinction of these principles, such as the One, Being, the Intellect, and the Soul.
In many ways, this complex work is an examination of a series of problems (aporiai) concerning the systematization of Platonic theology by Proclus. The first and most fundamental problem concerns the "relation" between the first ineffable (arrêton) principle and [End Page 456] what proceeds from it. How could the first still be absolute if it enters as a principle into the system? Following Iamblichus, Damascius distinguishes between the "ineffable" and the One from which all things proceed, but he understands the triad of Being in a different way. Few readers, if any, will follow Damascius to the end in this metaphysical labyrinth (see jacket design!) raising an endless series of puzzles on all levels of principles. There are, however, fascinating sections that are worth studying in themselves, even if one gets lost in often abstruse speculations: there is the opening section on whether the first principle belongs to the system, a text that deserves a place in all readers on classic metaphysics; there is the discussion of the problems involved in the concept of "procession" and "reversion" (if reversion is just a return to the origin from where it proceeded, is procession not in vain?); there is a subtle analysis of the concept of being and related notions (existence, hypostasis, ousia), the examinations of whether there are forms of individuals, of how to understand participation, and of knowledge and desire; there are beautiful pages on the limits of all metaphysical discourse and conceptualization and how to develop alternative discursive strategies in dealing with the ultimate.
This provocative work, which brings in many ways the development of ancient metaphysics into an "end," is now for the first time accessible in an English translation with an extensive introduction on the life, works, and philosophy of Damascius. Sara Ahbel-Rappe does an excellent job of translating this monumental, but also extremely difficult work. Of course, the translator was greatly helped by the three-volume edition and French translation of Westerink-Combès (Paris, 1986-91). In a translation of such a large and complex work, one may find errors and deficiencies, however. I noticed that a sentence was not translated in chapter 75 (p. 253): after 'proceeded,' add: 'If what has proceeded also remains, as has been shown, why does it need reversion, as it is already made similar in accordance with its remaining?' (II.124, 18-20). In chapter 45 (p. 167) one should correct the translation of II.8 17-23 as follows: "If we employ these conceptions, wishing to grasp with the [conception of] the 'One' that which is absolutely simple and beyond all things, and to avoid, with [the conception of] 'all things', that which is minimal and determinate as a particular one, and to indicate with both [conceptions, i.e. the One and the all] the unique principle of wholes that is beyond all things and transcends all things, clearly we must also...."