Byzantine Philosophy and Its Ancient Sources

By Katerina Ierodiakonou | Go to book overview

10
Byzantine Commentators on
the Chaldaean Oracles: Psellos
and Plethon

POLYMNIA ATHANASSIADI


The Collection and its Transmission

The Chaldaean Oracles are a divine revelation—or so they were believed to be by their Neoplatonic commentators—of a cosmological and soteriological system and of a set of moral and ritual rules and instructions. What survives of them is a total of some 350 lines in Greek hexameter verse divided into 190 fragments of unequal length, the overwhelming majority of which have reached us through two channels: Proclus and, to a lesser extent, Damascius. In Byzantine times, however, Damascius’ testimony as transmitter and interpreter of the Chaldaean material was flatly ignored, while Proclus remained an influential figure as exegete of both Plato and the Oracles.1 It is true that, unlike Damascius, he had produced a systematic—and voluminous—commentary on the Chaldaean revelation, a commentary which was indeed deemed worthy of a refutation by Procopius of Gaza. Yet this pious act was not enough to prevent the Commentary from traversing the so-called dark ages so as to reach men like Arethas and Psellos. The latter in particular was a confessed admirer of Proclus, whom he proclaimed to be at the pinnacle of all science and wisdom.2

Intrigued by the Chaldaean Oracles themselves as much as by Proclus’ exegesis, Psellos decided to form his own collection and append to it a systematic commentary for the use of his Christian audience. At the same time he epitomized the Proclean commentary in the form both of selections and of summaries; in the case of the latter one may safely assume (with the

1 On the history and the theology of the Oracles, see Athanassiadi (1999).

2 Cf. Psellos, Chron. 6. 38:

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