‘Problematic’ of the First Principle in Damascius’ DP I.1

Well, never to disappoint over the topical title of this blog, I now have a post formally on archai. My current work takes me into Damascius’ inquiry on first principles, and that includes an enigmatic passage problematizing the nature of the first principle.

Some background context: from Plotinus up to Damascius, nearly all Neoplatonists would affirm that the One constitutes the role of the first principle. Unlike Intellect for Plotinus and Aristotle’s divine intellect (on Plotinus’ and other Neoplatonists’ take), the One has no other character except as one-only: since unity is ontologically prior in all things, before Being (and thereby intelligibility, self-intellection, and actuality/energeia), the principle itself must be absolutely prior. No positive features can be attributed to it, but only negative predication. The One is then absolutely transcendent, but it is also causal of unity in things by its own unity.

These two aspects–transcendence and causality–are split apart for Damascius, as one can see at the beginning of De Principiis (On First Principles) I.1:

Is that which is called the single first principle of all things (ta panta) beyond all things or something belonging to all things–as it were, the summit of those things which proceed from it? And do we say that all things are together with it, or after it and from it?

For if someone were to say the latter, how would something among all things be outside? (1) Among those things that are not then lacking, ‘all things’ [indicates] absolutely these; therefore all things are not absolutely after the first principle, but with the first principle. (2) ‘All things’ yet wish to be⁠1 many things having been limited, since the unlimited would not be completely all things. Nothing therefore appears outside of all things: for totality (pantotês) is a certain boundary and already an encompassment, in which the first principle is, on the one hand, the upward limit, while the extreme of what is from the principle is the downward limit. Therefore all things are with the limits. (3) And yet the first principle is coordinated with the things which are from [it]: for it is and is called the principle of those things. Even the cause then [is coordinated] with its effects, and the first with those things after the first. Among the plurality of beings of which there is a single coordination, we call these ‘all things’, such that the principle is in ‘all things’. (4) And generally we say ‘all things’ absolutely inasmuch as we conceive in whatever way; but we also conceive the first principle. Accordingly, we are even accustomed to call every city a ruler and those ruled, and every family [or ‘kind’] both begetter and those begotten.

If ‘all things’ are with the first principle, the principle is not something among all things, since [otherwise]⁠2 even it has been taken together in all things. Therefore, the single coordination of all things, which we call ‘all things’, is without a principle (anarchos) and without cause (anaitios), that we do not go up upon the unlimited. But it is necessary that everything is either a first principle or from a first principle. However if the latter, the principle will not be with all things, but outside all things, so that the principle is of those things from it; but if the former, what would proceed from all things, just as from the principle, and outside of all things toward the things downward as the full completion of all things? For even this is in all things, since the notion of ‘all things’ leaves aside absolutely nothing. Therefore, all things are neither a principle nor from a principle. (DP I, 1,4–2,20 Westerink-Combès; my trans.)

πότερον ἐπέκεινα τῶν πάντων ἐστὶν ἡ μία τῶν πάντων ἀρχὴ λεγομένη, ἢ τὶ τῶν πάντων, οἷον κορυφὴ τῶν ᾽π᾽αὐτῆς προϊόντων; καὶ τὰ πάντα σὺν αὐτῇ λέγομεν εἶναι, ἢ μετ᾽ αὐτὴν καὶ ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς;

εἰ μὲν γὰρ τοῦτο φαίη τις, πῶς ἂν εἴη τι τῶν πάντων ἐκτός; ὧν γὰρ μηδ᾽ ὁτιοῦν ἄπεστι, ταὺτα πάντα ἁπλῶς· ἄπεστι δὲ ἡ ἀρχή· οὐκ ἄρα πάντα ἁπλῶς τὰ μετὰ τὴν ἀρχήν, ἀλλὰ παρὰ τὴν ἀρχήν. ἔτι δὲ τὰ πάντα πολλὰ βούλεται εἶναι πεπερασμένα· τὰ γὰρ ἄπειρα οὐκ ἂν εἴη πάντα ἀπαρτί. οὐδὲν ἄρ᾽ ἔξω φανεῖται τῶν πάντων· ὅρος γάρ τις ἡ παντότης καὶ ἤδη περίληψις, ἐν ᾗ ἡ μὲν ἀρχὴ πέρας τὸ ἄνω τὸ δ᾽ ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς ἔσχατον πέρας τὸ κάτω· πάντα ἄρα μετὰ τῶν περάτων. ἔτι δὲ ἡ ἀρχὴ συντέτακται τοῖς ἀπὸ τῆς ἀρχῆς· ἐκεὶνων γὰρ ἀρχὴ λέγεταί τε καὶ ἔστι· καὶ τὸ αἴτιον δὴ τοῖς αἰτιατoῖς, καὶ τὸ πρῶτον τοῖς μετὰ τὸ πρῶτον. ὧν δὲ μία σύνταξις πολλῶν ὄντων, ταῦτα πάντα λέγομεν· ὥστε ἐν τοῖς πᾶσι καὶ ἡ ἀρχή. καὶ ὅλως πάντα λέγομεν ἁπλῶς ὅσα καὶ ὁπωσοῦν ἐννοοῦμεν, ἐννοοῦμεν δὲ καὶ τὴν ἀρχήν. καὶ τοίνυν εἰώθαμεν πᾶσαν λέγειν πόλιν ἄρχοντα καὶ ἀρχομένους, καὶ πᾶν γένος τόν τε γενήτορα καὶ τοὺς γεννηθέντας.

εἰ δὲ πάντα μετὰ τῆς ἀρχῆς, οὐκ ἂν εἴη τι ἡ ἀρχὴ πάντων, συνειλημμένης ἐν τοῖς πᾶσι καὶ τῆς ἀρχῆς· ἡ ἄρα μία τῶν πάντων σύνταξις, ἣν πάντα φαμέν, ἄναρχός ἐστι καὶ ἀναίτιος, ἵνα μῆ ἐπ᾽ ἄπειρον ἀνίωμεν. ἁλλὰ μὴν δεῖ γε πάν ἢ ἀρχὴν εἶναι ἢ ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς· καὶ τὰ πάντα ἄρα ἢ ἀρχή ἐστιν ἢ ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς. ἀλλ᾽ εἰ μὲν τοῦτο, οὐκ ἂν εἴη σὺν τοῖς πᾶσιν ἡ ἀρχή, ἀλλ᾽ ἔξω τῶν πάντων, ὡς ἡ ἀρχὴ προϊὸν ὡς ἀπ᾽ ἀχῆς καὶ ἔξω τῶν πάντων ἐπὶ τὰ κάτω ὡς τῶν πάντων ἀποτέλεσμα; καὶ τοῦτο γὰρ ἐν τοῖς πᾶσιν· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀφίησιν ἡ τῶν πάντων ἁπλῶς ἔννοια· τὰ ἄρα πάντα οὔτε ἀρχὴ οὔτε ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς.

So, what does an Aristotelian or a Neoplatonist say to this? Some may easily dismiss this passage as an ornery logical exercise, and not acknowledge the difficulty. Others might accept it as a radical-skeptical aporia which implies that there is no ‘real’ first principle.

But first, what is happening in this passage? Paragraph 1 gives us a disjunction (actually there are two, but the first is an inversion of the second): ‘all things’ are (a) ‘with’ or (b) ‘after’ the first principle–vice versa, the principle is (a) with, or (b) before, all things. Paragraph 2 gives us (4) reasons to say (a). Paragraph 3 responds against paragraph 2 by asserting (b): a first principle definitionally must be prior to its effects–so it can’t be ‘with’ all things, simply speaking. But the rest of paragraph 3 also shows that this is problematic. Therefore the principle–it would seem–can’t be straightforwardly ‘with’ all things or ‘before’ all things. Damascius will eventually call this the ‘Ineffable’ at the beginning of DP I.3–something that one can’t talk about, neither with assertions nor negations.

Now, given this structure, one could be led to think that the conclusion we reach, what is the ‘ineffable’, is an implicit reductio: there is no ‘real’ first principle, although one can’t prove it. It merely becomes a condition when one does metaphysics–so in that respect, a quasi-/proto-Kantian position. (Or, of course, one could write off Damascius’ aporia as non-problematic.)

There are multiple points to be made about this passage (I am writing a chapter, of course), but here are a couple tentative thoughts:

  • It would seem that, no, the ‘Ineffable’ is not solely a condition of thinking, and it is not an absurdity, but it actually ‘describes’ the principle ad intra. The ‘Ineffable’ makes clear the principle in itself without implicating it, both in our concepts, discourse, and ‘our’ relation to it. It seems like this becomes an objective ground on which metaphysics, beginning with the One, can be done.
  • Damascius does not deny that there is a single cause for ‘all things’–in fact this is made plain in DP I.2 where he admits the One as the ‘summit’ (korphè) of all things. What is in dispute is whether the One is sufficient as the ultimate principle. As it becomes apparent later, the One cannot be signified by itself without relating it to its effects, ‘all things’. The One’s causality, then, can’t be indicated without referring to that, or those things, of which it is a cause. In this regard, Damascius’ Ineffable isn’t de-emphasizing metaphysics or science, but it actually solidifies it.

These are theses that I hope to draw out and elaborate further in future posts and writing.

For now, I’m more interested to see if others have further thoughts on this passage–or disagreements. Shoot away!


1 I.e., ‘[The phrase] “all things” means many things having been limited’. The phrase ‘wishes to be’ (βούλεται εἶναι) is a typical construction especially in Aristotle for definitions.

2 Following Westerink-Combès’ suggested insertion. The text does not specify, but the context of the paragraph certainly implies this is a counter-conditional.


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