Sara Ahbel-Rappe Professor of Greek and Latin
My work concerns the history of Platonism, from the Sokratikoi Logoi of the fourth century BCE to the last scholarch of the late Athenian Platonic Academy, Damascius. It also includes study of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic interpreters of Platonism.
My first book, Reading Neoplatonism (Cambridge University Press, 2000) was a survey of Neoplatonic textual and contemplative methods. Neoplatonism, the most influential philosophical movement of the Roman Empire, combined metaphysical speculation on the esoteric meanings of Plato’s dialogues with a contemplative vision of reality. At once erudite and eclectic, as it drew on the six centuries of philosophical development between Plato’s Academy and its emergence in Alexandria in the 3rd century CE, Neoplatonism above all used philosophical structures to expound and expand the dimensions of inner experience.
More recently, I have completed a translation, with annotations and introduction, to Damascius the successor’s Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, for Oxford University Press (in the American Academy of Religion’s Text and Translations Series). Damascius (ca. 462–538 CE) was head of the Platonic Academy at Athens in 529 when the Christian Emperor Justinian issued a decree that banned the teaching of philosophy in that city. Upon the closing of the Academy, Damascius led a band of pagan philosophers out of Athens into exile, perhaps settling at Harran, a town in northern Mesopotamia on the border of the Persian Empire and known for its cosmopolitan paganism.
As one would expect from its title, Damascius’ Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles considers the initial principles of Neoplatonic metaphysics. What is of greatest importance about this work is that it represents the last extant, independent treatise produced in the school, i. e., it is not merely an exegetical text, but a critical exploration of the previous philosophical tradition. Damascius wrote this compendium of metaphysical and interpretive issues at the end of a philosophical epoch, in the twilight of polytheistic religion in the ancient world and at the cusp of Christian dominance.
Continuing on the later end of the spectrum, I began learning Arabic in 2004/05 on a Mellon New Directions fellowship and have started to work on this side of the Platonic tradition, though more gradually: I recently published a brief article on Suhrawardi, the 12th century Persian philosopher (INS Proceedings from Quebec), as well as a general article that concerned the reception of Plato in later religious traditions (Blackwell Companion to Plato). I also wrote an article on Christian and pagan education in late antiquity that touched on the fourth century CE Christian philosopher and contemplative, Evagrius Ponticus, in an article in the Brill Handbook to Greek and Roman Education (Too, ed., 2001). Other articles that cover this period are articles for the proceedings of the International Plato Society’s 2007 conference and an article for the Society of Biblical Literature’s Parmenides Seminar, both of which detail the philosophy of Damascius in terms of late antique dialectic.
With regard to Socrates, I have followed up a few articles on Socrates with, on the one hand, an edited collection that attempted to interrogate the meaning of Socratic philosophy by looking at Socrates primarily through the lens of reception. On the other hand, I have also drafted a book entitled, Socrates in the City of Sages: The Ethics of Wisdom in Plato’s Socratic Dialogues, in which I disagree with what I perceive to be an imbalance in the current scholarship on Socrates, with its emphasis on Socrates as not merely a doctrinal philosopher, but one who explicitly taught and even discovered egoistic eudaimonism as a central ethical construct.
If there is one thread that runs throughout all of my scholarship on the Platonist tradition, or perhaps traditions, it is an interest in the ancient conception of wisdom, not merely and solely as a scholastic, collective, and exegetical enterprise (although of course it is all of these things) but also as the contemplative quest for knowledge of the purpose and destiny of the human soul, and of its relationship to the divine, as philosophers from Socrates to Suhrawardi at any rate have thought. All of my work focuses on the way that wisdom is conceived, realized, and transmitted as outside the text, as the living self-disclosure of the philosopher who is in some sense not just a thinker, but is also a seer. For me, the Platonist tradition from first to last differs from other philosophical traditions (e. g., the Aristotelian and scholastic tradition) because it has always been accompanied by a visionary element and the great flowerings of Platonism are marked by the cosmic artistry of contemplatives, as we could call them, such as Plotinus, with his vision of the great cosmic pulse of the One resonating in the return of the soul through its intelligible journey; Proclus, with the endlessly expansive proliferation of divine power, always circling back toward its cause; and even the divine imagination of the great Islamic Platonist, Ibn Arabi.
- “Cross examining happiness,” in Ancient Models of Mind: Studies in Human and Divine Rationality. CUP, forthcoming.
- “Damascius’ Exegesis of Philebus 27, on the Nature of the Mixed in Plato’s Philebus.” In Plato’s Philebus. Selected Papers from the Eighth Symposium Platonicum. Edited by John Dillon and Luc Brisson. Academica Verlag, 2009.
- “Father of the Dogs? Cynic Elements in Plato’s Euthydemus,” Classical Philology 95 (2000): 281–302.
- “Representing a Tradition: Exegesis, Symbol, and Self-reflection.” Introduction to Reading Neoplatonism, CUP 2000.