Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The first English translation of Iamblichus' Protrepticus

The first complete English translation of all 21 chapters of the Iamblichus' Protrepticus was published by Thomas Moore Johnson in 1907:
Iamblichus’ Exhortation to the Study of Philosophy, Fragments of Iamblichus, Excerpts from the Commentary of Proclus on the Chaldean Oracles, Plotinus’ Diverse Cogitations: First translated from the Original Greek by Thos. M. Johnson, Editor of the Platonist; to which are added the Golden Verses of Pythagoras (Osceola, Missouri, U.S.A., 1907).

T. M. Johnson's work has been reprinted by Phanes Press (with a forward by J. Godwin; edited by S. Neuville, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1988; but it leaves out some material included in the orignal*). A useful biography of T. M. Johnson and an explanation of how the first English translation of Iamblichus' Protrepticus came to be published in Osceola, Missouri is available in Paul R. Anderson's fascinating account of Platonism in the Midwest. T. M. Johnson's gigantic library of Platonic Philosophy was donated by his son to the University of Missouri, Columbia library, which holds in its special collections about 1800 of the volumes he bought with the proceeds from his law practice.

Image source: p. 2 of The Thomas Moore Johnson Collection, Columbia, University of Missouri, 1949

(By the way, I, Monte Ransome Johnson have no reason to believe that I am related by blood to Thomas M. Johnson, despite a cursory attempt to establish a connection through internet-based genealogical research tools.

T. M. Johnson did not have much to go on when he set out to translate Iamblichus' work. Only the last of the chapters had been earlier rendered into English. Chapter 21 of Iamblichus' Exhortation to Philosophy consists of a list of 39 Pythagorean symbola (also called acusmata) along with a commentary by Iamblichus on each of the symbola. Thomas Stanley translated the entirety of this chapter into English in one of the sections devoted to explaining the philosophy of Pythagoras of his monumental History of Philosophy, published in London in 1660. One marvels at the scholarly accomplishment of the great Thomas Stanley, given that this is the longest, most obscure and most difficult chapter of Iamblichus' long, obscure, and difficult work. The translation was not improved upon until 1804 with the translation of the same chapter 21 by William Bridgman (also published in London).

The shortcomings of T. M. Johnson's translation may therefore be excused-- he performed a noble service by attempting to translate into English this work, a work which is much more important to the history of philosophy than even he, with his overblown conception of the continuity and importance of Platonism, could imagine.

In this post I want to reflect on my namesake's own remarks about translation (in his preface) and on the formatting and meta-textual aspects of Johnson's translation (including his notes). I will also say a little about the contents of his volume. Let me begin by quoting from the very beginning of his Preface.
The English language, by reason of the poverty of its philosophical vocabulary, is inadequate to fully express the deep insights of the Platonic thinkers. Their books are in a "sealed dialect" to the many, in any language, and to the mere verbal Greek scholar as well as to those who are innocent of Greek they are unintelligible. Chemistry, Biology, and the other natural "sciences" have technical vocabularies, and Philosophy, the Science of sciences, has a vocabulary peculiar to itself, and this must be mastered before one can apprehend philosophic conceptions. Philology alone will not furnish a key to the thought of Plato and the Platonists. (p. I)
T. M. Johnson conceived of himself as part of a long and continuous line of Platonists, one which included Iamblichus of Chalcis. He thought that it was necessary to comprehend texts in the original Greek in order to understand this Platonic tradition, but that this was far from sufficient, since a deep philosophical ability that eludes mere "verbal Greek scholars" was also necessary. These convictions also served as a kind of apologia for Johnson's frequently incomprehensible and oft-criticized translations-- critics and readers who failed to appreciate his translations did so because of their own lack of facility in Greek and the shallowness of their philosophical convictions.

T. M. Johnson's bewildered readers might have justifiably wondered why, given Johnson's views about translation and about the English language, anyone should bother to read an English translation of Iamblichus' work-- and why Johnson should bother to have produced one. If English lacks the vocabulary to translate ancient Greek philosophy, then no English translation of this work would be possible. And if it were not possible even to apprehend philosophical conceptions before mastering the philosophical vocabulary in Greek, then what would be the point of reading an English translation, even if one could be produced? The answer to this question comes later in Johnson's rambling Preface:
This translation is not intended for the Greek scholar, who will read the writings of Iamblichus in the original, if at all-- but it was made and is printed for the benefit of those who, ignorant of Greek, ardently desire to acquire a knowledge of Platonic thought. The work was not designed for the proficient in philosophy: it is avowedly of an elementary character, though by no means lacking in profound thoughts and insights. Compared with many modern "philosophical" books, now enjoying an ephemeral popularity, it may well and truly be termed 'profound'. (p.II)
The answer, then, is that T. M. Johnson saw the translation of Iamblichus' Protrepticus as serving a protreptic function. Just as Iamblichus' own work had represented the works of the ancients as the best introduction to the true philosophy in his own time, so Johnson saw the translation of Iamblichus' work as the best introduction to the very same true philosophy. The purpose is to introduce philosophy, and to encourage one to study philosophy. The purpose of the translation is not then to engage in philosophy per se, because that is an activity that requires not only working in ancient Greek but, even more importantly, having gone beyond introductions and on to the mastery the Greek philosophical conceptions. Johnson represents himself as one who has accomplished this, and who has put himself in a position to indicate not only what Iamblichus said, but also how he said it.
Every translation from the Greek is more or less defective and unsatisfactory, and the version of Iamblichus' Exhortation to the Study of Philosophy now printed will not be found to be an exception to the rule I have simply aimed to reproduce faithfully in English the manner and thought of the original text, but to what extent this has been done, must be determined by others. It would be a severe and just reflection on this translation, if it could be truly said of it that it rad like an original work. No accurate translation, by reason of its very nature, ought to resemble an original production. The reader is entitled to have the manner as well as the matter of an ancient author presented to him. I other words, a faithful translation will show not only what the original writer said, but how he said it. (p.II, emphasis in original)
Unfortunately, T. M. Johnson does not elaborate further on this point. He does not indicate what this difference amounts to, the difference between what Iamblichus said and how he said it. The key to that difference, I contend, is in Iamblichus' use of earlier sources-- his use of the ancient philosophers, including Plato, but also Archytas, Aristotle, and an anonymous philosopher (probably Democritus)-- in order to make his own point. But that is not a difference that someone convinced of the continuity and even unity of the Platonic philosophy is in a very good position to appreciate. And although T. M. Johnson does understand that Iamblichus used other sources, he does not understand how, or even how much, Iamblichus has used other sources. He writes:
The text of Iamblichus is in a corrupt condition. Some of the corrupt passages are easy to emend, the sense and structure of the text clearly showing what is demanded, but others are beyond correction. Iamblichus, moreover, is a difficult author to interpret. The changes of pronouns, the long and involved sentences, the abrupt beginnings and endings, all these and other idiosyncrasies are in the original, and must reappear, partially at least, in the translation. Steadily intent on the formulation and expression of his thought, Iamblichus gave little or no heed to his style. (p.III)
T. M. Johnson does not have any comprehension of why Iamblichus, seemingly inexplicably, changes pronouns, why his sentences are so long and involved, why his beginnings and endings all seem so abrupt. He conceives of Iamblichus as "steadily intent" on his own formulation and expression of thought. But the answer to all these questions lies in how Iamblichus uses his sources-- the fact that he preserves them intact and refrains from modifying them, or modifies them as little as possible, but tries to assemble them as building blocks in his teetering monument to Pythagorean philosophy. The changes in pronoun occur because he cuts passages straight out of dialogues and pastes them into his own continuous monologue meant to serve as a ladder from exoteric and popular philosophy to esoteric and technical Pythagorean philosophy. The long and involved sentences come when he is making a transition from one disconnected topic-- or source text-- to another. The abrupt beginnings and endings are due to his desire to minimize his own contribution and to focus on the message of the texts he has selected.

T. M. Johnson was aware that Iamblichus used Plato-- he included footnotes that indicated page ranges of Platonic dialogues that are the sources for chapters XIII-XIX. For this he acknowledges consulting certain earlier English translations of Platonic dialogues. He did not, however, apparently perceive that Iamblichus also used Plato (extensively) in chapter V, and T. M. Johnson's own footnotes do not show where Iamblichus starts or stops citing Plato, how much source material has been left out, or whether any modifications have been made to it.

T. M. Johnson also acknowledges that Iamblichus used Aristotle: "I am specially indebted to Prof. Ingram Bywater's paper 'On a lost dialogue of Aristotle' (p.III). But in fact T. M. Johnson seems to made very little use of the insights of Bywater's groundbreaking article. In the preface he writes "Certainly, as Prof. Bywater says, Iamblichus 'makes no secret of the composite origin of his book,'-- but nevertheless, there is much more originality in the Exhortation than is generally supposed" (p.III). The comment is never given a warrant, and cannot possibly cast doubt on Bywater's sage discernment of the voice of Aristotle among the pages of Iamblichus. And Johnson makes no reference to Aristotle's own Protrepticus, except in a footnote in chapter V (footnote on p.112-113 to his p.19 = 28,6-7 Pistelli), a footnote to a passage that does not derive from Aristotle's Protrepticus but from Plato's Clitophon (containing a partial quotation and paraphrase of Clitophon 407bd, which T. M. Johnson apparently does not realize); in the note Johnson quotes as a parallel a translation of the Oxyrhynnchus Papyrus 666, which contains a fragment that has been attributed to Aristotle's Protrepticus. He never even mentions the thesis of Bywater's article, that Aristotle's dialogue the Protrepticus was the source for chapters VI-XI of Iamblichus' Protrepticus.

Similarly, T. M. Johnson never discusses the sources of chapters II (which contains excerpts from an otherwise unknown set of hortatory maxims) or XX (which contains excerpts from an otherwise unknown late fifth century political writer, probably Democritus).  T.M. Johnson does acknowledge the source of chapter III (the Pythagorean Golden verses, for which he provides a complete translation elsewhere in the volume), and chapter IV (Archytas of Tarentum, although he casts doubt on the scholarly consensus that the fragments are not genuine). The Pythagorean Golden verses he indents and puts into quotation marks, also providing the verse numbers; the fragments of Archytas he puts into quotation marks. But in general T. M. Johnson does not pay much attention to Iamblichus' sources-- not even Plato: except in chapters III-IV he never tries to rigorously differentiate the cover text from the source texts. The main reason for that, and in turn the main reason for the shortcomings of his translation of Iamblichus' Protrepticus, is his conviction that the importance of the work is not as a source of lost original works of philosophy, but as a living exhortation to the perennial and esoteric Platonic philosophy. This also explains the other translations he includes in the same volume, which might otherwise seem disconnected: other fragments of letters of Iamblichus; the complete Pythagorean Golden Verses; excerpts from Proclus' commentary on the Chaldean Oracles; disconnected passages of Plotinus. According to T. M. Johnson, these works all serve the same function: exhortation to the study of philosophy.

But the great value of Iamblichus' work as a sourcebook for classical philosophical protreptic and as evidence of the philosophical curriculum of late antiquity is obscured by this focus. What is needed is a deeper appreciation of Iamblichus' sources and how he used them, and why he used them (and modified them) as he did. An appreciation of that might help to make the interpretation of Iamblichus easier than T. M. Johnson perceived it to be, and also make a translation into English more feasible and more useful. One hopes that the next English translation of Iamblichus' work will be able to bring out that value as well as serving the purpose that T. M. Johnson pursued: encouraging people to the study of philosophy.

* Note: The Phanes reprint leaves out some material, including the title page, dedication, supplementary notes, and Johnson's translation of Plotinus Ennead III.ix. So I have scanned these pages and link to them here.


Anderson, P. R. Platonism in the Midwest. New York and London, 1963.

Bridgman, W. Translations from the Greek, viz. Aristotle’s Synopsis of the Virtues and Vices; the Similitudes of Demophilus; The Golden sentences of Democrates; and the Pythagoric Symbols with the Explanations of Iamblichus. London, 1804.

Bywater, I. On a lost dialogue of Aristotle. Journal of Philology, 2 (1869), 55-69.

Stanley, T. The History of Philosophy: the third and last volume, in five parts. London, 1660.

Thomas Moore Johnson Collection of Philosophy at the University of Missouri Libraries.

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