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Klassische Philologie

The Subject and Ethics in Later Neoplatonism: Construction of the Self as Ethical Subject by Olympiodorus

Förderungsbeginn: April 2016
Platonic philosophy has problematized the self as subject, especially in the discussion of self-knowledge, of its meanings and of its consequences. What actually this “self” means, however, has not yet been researched in all its facets.
An important problem lies in the choice of concepts “self” and “subject”. In pre-modern philosophy a discussion of the self did not include the term “subject”. The main difference between the modern and ancient conceptions of the self is that the modern thought relies on the sharp distinction between the subject and object. Therefore is the “subject” mainly used to describe the opposition to the “objects” in the external world. The subject is considered to be a unity, a self-aware entity, which acts according to the reason. Contrary to that, the ancient “self” can mean both “self as subject” and “self as object”. There is no unitary “subject” in ancient philosophy; the self consists of many controversial aspects. We find in Plato the view of the self as immaterial object of thought, contrary to material world; whereas Aristotle puts the perception and self-awareness of the subject in the centre of the self. These two views about the self relate to controversial ethical stances: the first one tends to ignore the role of the social life on the self, whereas the second cannot explain a higher ethical principle in the soul, which directs the perceptions and actions.
In his study “Self. Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death” provides Sorabji a very comprehensive view of this phenomenon. According to Sorabji, the Neo-Platonists could not solve this bias, because they searched for a unitary faculty of human being, instead of the unity of the self. This project aims to reject this argument. Indeed, we see that later Neo-Platonists attempted to describe the self as unity of two aspects in connection with each other: the “self as subject” and the “self as object”. This idea is clearly obvious in Olympiodorus’ commentaries, where he describes the acting subject in accordance with the essence of the self. Olympiodorus’ discussion of the individual as responsible for ethical behaviour and at the same time as thinking about its own essence, embraces this duality of the self. Therefore, I suggest the term “ethical subject” to determine Olympiodorus’ proposal of the mutual relation between the self as subject in social life and the self as the object of contemplation about the higher principle of ethics.
Olympiodorus’ conception of the self as ethical subject relates to the question of Neoplatonist ethics. Many scholars have been reluctant to accept the notion of a Neoplatonist ethics, assuming Plotinus’ “disinterest” in ethical themes. However, latest research shows that the Neo-Platonists demonstrate a special interest in defining the individual as an ethical subject. This research aims to find out further argument for the Neoplatonic ethical theory in Olympiodorus’ works.
There are two reasons to research the question of self and ethics in Olympiodorus: Firstly, his commentaries show the attempts of solution to the problems in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy about these topics. Second reason for Olympiodorus’ importance is that he wrote at the turning point from the antiquity into the late antiquity, which means a special interest in the questions of identity.
This research project aims to provide an investigation of the self in relation with ethics in Olympiodorus. In a broader context is this research related with the problem of social ethics and identity constructions in late antiquity. Outlining the socio-historical background of the Olympiodorus’ conception of the self will be useful for the interpretation of his ideas. Finally, this conception of the self will be compared to our understanding of the subject today.