Why We Study the Ancients

First, we are seeking the truth concerning both other metaphysical realities and the soul, since of all realities it is immediately most appropriate to us; secondarily, [we seek] the opinions of those who have reached the pinnacle of knowledge. I therefore believe that is is necessary to give a careful examination to Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul. Plato has handed down many blessed doctrines on the soul, but interpreters of Plato have investigated and explained them sufficiently and in harmony with each other. After Aristotle had completed his treatise On the Soul, as Iamblichus who is the best judge of the truth thought, a great deal of controversy arose among those explicating Aristotle’s doctrine not only concerning the interpretation of Aristotle’s text but especially also concerning the metaphysical realities themselves.

I have therefore decided to investigate and record the coherence of the philosopher both with himself and with the truth, avoiding controversies with others, while seeking clear confirmation for his opinions on doubtful points from Aristotle’s clear doctrines and words. And in every way and to the best of my ability I will adhere to the truth about the metaphysical realities under the guidance of Iamblichus in his own writings on the soul.

Thus, the opening lines of the commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul) which comes down to us under the name of Simplicius (full citation below).

Our author really could not be more clear: we study what past sages have written, not as some otherwise-pointless intellectual game, but in order that we can learn the truth of how things really are. The work of past philosophers can be an invaluable aid in that endeavour, but it is only ever an aid. Without actually striving for (and attaining!) the contemplation of those ultimate realities for ourselves, there’s really no point to studying the writings of all these dead blokes.

Again, our concern is not with the “controversies” which might arise between these various thinkers as subjects of focus in their own right; rather, our focus is on using what all of our predecessors have left us, to triangulate, as it were, the truth of how things really are. As our author reminds us at the end of the first paragraph above, the “interpretation of the text” is useful, but always secondary to that overarching goal of understanding the realities themselves.

The same is true, mutatis mutandis, for the writings of the theologians who have expounded the myths of our Gods. Reading their works is not some empty, pointless game, not something we do simply to know what so-and-so said or thought or believed. No, the point is to help us in our own journey toward those very same living immortals: to help us encounter the Gods ourselves, as well and as fully as we possibly can, and to reverence Them worthily and well.

The philosophers and the theologians are wonderful, and I’m immensely grateful for the gifts they have left us. But it’s critical, as pseudo-Simplicius reminds us here, not to mistake the secondary aims for the primary ones.

Just sayin’.

The quotation is from pseudo-Simplicius, in De Anima 1.1–20, as translated by John F. Finamore and John M. Dillon in the appendix to Iamblichus: De Anima: Text, Translation, and Commentary (Brill, 2002; reprinted Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), page 231. The square brackets are added by Finamore and Dillon. The boldface is my own. At the end of the first paragraph, I’ve changed the translators’ “the soul itself” to “the metaphysical realities themselves,” since this is the very same Greek term (ta pragmata) which they translate as “metaphysical realities” at the beginning and end of the quote, and it’s plural, not singular.

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