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Damascius (ca. 480-550 A.D.)

Damascius was born at Damascus in Syria about 480 AD and died probably about 550 AD. He was educated at first at Alexandria and was a pupil of the sophist Theon, under whom he became an accomplished rhetorician. But he was soon attracted by the "divine mathematics" and profound speculations of the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies and gave up the study of oratory in order to attend the lectures of Ammonius, the son of Hermeias. Having learnt all that he could from Ammonius, he went to Athens where Marinus, Isidorus and Zenodotus upheld the Platonic tradition amid increasing difficulties. These Athenian philosophers lived together in a community in order to prosecute the study of philosophy in all its branches. The energy and ardour of Damascius were such that when Isidorus and Zenodotus had successively retired from the scholarchship or headship of the school Damascius was chosen as their successor. He was thus the last outward link of the Golden Chain of the Platonic succession before the Dark Ages, for in 529 AD the Emperor Justinian promulgated an edict ordering the schools of philosophy to be closed, while a few years later their property was confiscated. "The fall of philosophy," says Thomas Taylor, "was naturally succeeded by the darkness of delusion and ignorance; by the spirit of wild fanaticism and intolerant zeal; by the loss of courage and virtue; and by the final dissolution of the empire of the world."

Damascius with six other philosophers retired from Athens to Persia at the invitation of King Chosroes, surnamed Noushirvan or "generous soul". After a few years, however, perhaps because of the jealousy of the Magi at the Persian court, they decided to return. Chosroes unwillingly allowed them to go and, in a special treaty of peace with Justinian, stipulated that they should be allowed perfect religious freedom.

Damascius was a man of much learning, great intellectual power, and unblemished moral character. Unfortunately, many of his works have perished, among them commentaries on the Platonic dialogues Timaeus, Phaedo and First Alcibiades and treatises on Time, Space, Number and Miracles. The Doubts and Solutions concerning the First Principles is his only complete surviving work.

Extract from an article in Shrine of Wisdom Magazine, Issue Number 37, 1928