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The English Platonist

1758 - 1835

Thomas Taylor was the first to translate into English the complete works of Plato and Aristotle.  He also translated many of the later Platonists and also some of the remaining fragments of the earliest Greek writings, such as the Orphics, and the Pythagoreans.  These translations, together with his original works, represent the most comprehensive survey of the philosophical thought of European antiquity.

For the serious student of philosophy - that is to say those who are pursuing philosophy as path to enlightenment - the translations and writings of Thomas Taylor cannot be overestimated: Taylor writes from within the tradition of Plato with an understanding of its profundities unparalleled in modern times. Perhaps the words of Thomas Moore Johnson’s paper read to the Western Philosophical Association in 1902 best emphasize the demands of the Platonic path - demands which Taylor himself met in full measure:

“Philosophy, it must be remembered, is not a mere farrago or medley of thoughts, guesses or fancies, uttered by different thinkers in various countries and ages, without organic unity or content, contradictory and varying according to the whims and idiosyncracies of its expositors, but it is the appetite [or love] for and mastery of that Wisdom which is in its nature uniform, necessary and eternal - in other words, the Science of First Principles. . . . We cannot reasonably expect to apprehend the philosophic insights of Plato by a hasty reading or superficial study. Philosophy from his standpoint is no by-work, avocation or incidental pursuit, but is a living reality, permeating and directing the human energies to the extent that its principles are thoroughly grasped and assimilated. It does not concern itself with the transient - the temporal - the sensuous - but it deals solely with the permanent, the essential. Wherefore one who is intent on acquiring scientifically the principles of Divine Philosophy, must not ‘deceive himself by fancying that he can understand the writings of Plato and his School by barely reading them. For as the subjects which he discusses are for the most part the objects of intellect alone, to understand them is to see them, and to see them is to come into contact with them. But this is only to be accomplished by long familiarity with and a life conformable to the things themselves. For then, as Plato himself says, a light as from a fire will on a sudden be enkindled in the soul, and will then itself nourish itself.’ It is hardly necessary to add, that this ‘contact’ must be preceded by dianoetic and intuitive activity of the highest species. The ‘light as if leaping from a fire’ comes only as the result or outcome of intellectual processes, continuously and systematically carried on. . . .

“In order to apprehend the interior meaning of the recondite writings of Plato and his genuine successors, which are replete with the profoundest insights, one must be emancipated himself from the thralldom of the senses - must use his spiritual eye alone, which, as it is said in the Republic, is better worth saving than ten thousand corporeal eyes. . . The moderns as a mass are ignorant of the nature of gnostic principles. They do not know that an idea is eternal in its essence. It is as true today as it was ages ago, and ages hence will lack a scintilla of its verity or reality. And for this reason the philosophy of Plato will never lose either its value or validity.

“Another fact that bars many of the moderns from an acquaintance with the intellectual philosophy of Antiquity is, that none of the adherents of the empirical or sensational school have ever reached and apprehended the conception of absolutely incorporeal and immaterial being; and it is certain that until this conception has been attained it is utterly useless for one, it matters not how otherwise gifted he may be, to attempt to master the thoughts of Plato or of any other of his legitimate disciples and interpreters.”

Taylor laboured in the service of true philosophy with very little recognitionTT from his contemporaries - a fact which he bore with equanimity since his eye was ever on the good that derives directly from the life of intellect. As he wrote (in his introduction to Proclus’ Commentary on the Timaeus, “And now I shall conclude with observing, that though like most others who have laboured greatly for the good, not merely of their country, but of all mankind, I have only met with ingratitude from the public for those labours; and that though on this account I am not much indebted, yet I sincerely wish well to my native land, and to every individual in it. That I have neither been influenced by the expectation of sordid emolument, nor of the honours of the multitude, in the prosecution of these labours, must be evident from the nature of them, to the most careless observer. The most perfect conviction indeed, that a greater good than the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle was never imparted by divinity to man, and the consequent persuasion, that I could not confer a more real benefit on the present age and posterity than by a dissemination of it in my native tongue, as they induced me to engage in such a difficult undertaking, have also been attended with the purest delight, from a conviction that I was acting rightly, and therefore in a way pleasing to divinity. Hence in accomplishing this Herculean task, I have been satisfied with exploring myself, and imparting to others, the treasures of ancient wisdom; and with endeavouring to deserve the favourable regard of that ineffable principle, whose approbation is not only the highest honour that either mortals or immortals can obtain, but the most durable and substantial gain.”

It is now time for the above-mentioned posterity to recognise the greatest philosopher the English-speaking world has produced, and to give due thanks to Taylor: his writings laid out in our thirty-three volumes stand as a magnificent monument both to the tradition it manifests and to the dedication of a life devoted to the highest ideals of philosophy.

The Thomas Taylor series will be of great interest to several distinct groups of readers; firstly, those who are adherents of the so- called ‘Neo-Platonic’ tradition.  Taylor has always held a special place in the esteem of many of the great artists and thinkers of the last two centuries, - Blake, Shelley and Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and G.R.S. Mead have all been profoundly influenced by his writings and translations.  He still commands a small but enthusiastic following amongst those who have made philosophical mysticism their study.

Secondly, Taylor's place in the history of philosophy means that the many academics involved in this area will find this series an invaluable resource.

Thirdly, as the current re-evaluation of `Neo-Platonism' gathers pace in the philosophy departments of many universities, Taylor's writings will be seen as an essential aid in the process.  The texts from which Taylor worked were even more incomplete than those available today; wherever he found lacunas and errors Taylor used his own understanding of the Platonists to suggest how the original would have read: modern textual research and discoveries have revealed that his suggestions and corrections were largely accurate.  As a result, Taylor is now beginning to enjoy a greater appreciation amongst academic circles than at any point previously.

A lecture was given as part of a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Thomas Taylor’s birth at the Temenos Academy: the full text of this lecture can be found in our Files to download page.