Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.03

G.R. Boys-Stones, Post-Hellenistic Philosophy: A Study of its Development from the Stoics to Origen.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  Pp. x + 241.  ISBN 0-19-815264-7.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Harold Tarrant, University of Newcastle, Australia (
Word count: 2307 words

The title of this book may be confusing. It is really about the development of post-hellenistic philosophy, and in order to explain that development as Boys-Stones (henceforth BS) does, he must go back at least as far as the old Stoa. There is no suggestion that Stoicism is a post-hellenistic philosophy, though BS pays special attention to Posidonius, Cornutus, and Chaeremon. The concept of post-hellenistic philosophy emerges in the course of the study, so that the reader may be in doubt about how the subject is to be defined until well into the book. While Posidonius is seen as important, it is not until the first century AD, with Cornutus and Plutarch, that this 'philosophy' is perceived as being fully in place.

The earlier part of the book looks mainly at Stoic, Anti-Semitic, and Jewish apologetic. The principal starting point is Seneca Ep.90, where Seneca disagrees with Posidonius' attempt to make philosophers of an earlier age the discoverers of the arts (18-24). It is argued that Seneca's position, that the goodness of early humanity was prephilosophic, is the Old Stoic one. Since for orthodox stoicism error cannot arise without opinion, pre-reflective human would have been naturally good (25). Posidonius, with his complex psychology that postulated an inferior element within us, needed early humans to be properly ruled (46). [I suggest that the influence of Plato's Republic on Posidonius is again evident here, since the analogy between the soul in need of ruling reason and the community in need of ruling reason is present.] The Stoics were important for their notion that traces of early wisdom were available through early poets, in spite the poets' own deviation from it (26, 31-38). An intriguing discussion of the 'natural notions' in Stoicism occur in relation to the concept of early, uncorrupted humanity (38-42).

From p.49 we move to Cornutus, who is found to take an essentially Posidonian line on early humankind. It seems that they were reminded of their notions (ἔννοιαι) by the gods, and subsequently expressed their wisdom in allegorical and symbolic form--a matter of considerable importance. This sets limits to the amount that the poets could corrupt its tradition (52-3), particular where names functioned in this symbolic way (54-56). Neoplatonist readers will be reminded that the symbolism of primitive names becomes a crucial issue in Proclus On the Cratylus. Cornutus introduces what BS regards as vital: the introduction of a method for finding out just what had been preserved intact, comparison between peoples with ancient traditions (58).

Chapters 4 and 5 relate to the Jews, the first to anti-semitic writers and their denial of cultural independence or of an ancient cultural identity for the Jews, and the second to the response of the apologists. These chapters serve to bolster and refine the thesis presented by BS. I was disappointed that he did not make more of Chaeremon's view that Moses was an Egyptian (given Philo's idealisation of Moses) (74) and am not entirely convinced where he strives to reconcile the fact that early apologists argued that Greeks borrowed from the Jews with his own denial that they argued for the antiquity of the Jews. It seems to me that the difference is merely one between relative and absolute antiquity. Issues of relative antiquity had been around since Herodotus (2.4) of course.

The arguments for cultural borrowing are rather interesting. One starts with the observation that people's A and B both have similar significant insights in their inherited culture, assumes that such insight must be due to a primitive revelation, assumes further that such a revelation comes only once, and draws the conclusion that one has borrowed from the other. The Jews of course attempt to show in response to their detractors that Greeks borrowed from Jews. It is important for the book that this can be seen (as in Aristobulus, pp. 82-5) as Greek philosophical borrowing, rather than religious borrowing.

Part two of the book begins with two chapters on Platonism: 6 on the nature of Plato's authority, and 7 on why Plato should prima facie be given more credence than later alternatives. At 102 Platonism is defined as 'the belief that Plato's philosophy was Dogmatic and authoritative.' In view of much recent work on what δόγμα means in this period the definition appears ambiguous, but the capital D suggests to me that the author is proposing a stronger definition than one should accept. I should not use the word 'Platonist' of any who denied that Plato had any doctrine, but I should certainly allow it of those who thought that Plato's philosophy could not be simply expounded or that it contained elements of doubt. However, I support the attempt by BS to explain the Platonist revival in terms of a new commitment to the authority of Plato. He prefers authority in the sense of 'unquestioned possession of truth' to the sense of 'the right to be taken seriously' (104). But BS is too 'black and white'. For most Platonists Plato had something more like unquestioned possession of insights that made his dialogues, properly understood, convey messages that were true in important senses. It is the discovery of the nature of this truth that was the challenge of the interpreter.

With important, but not necessarily convincing, use of Plutarch fragments 157 and 190,1 BS is able to argue that 'Plutarch, like Celsus, and both like the Stoics, believed that the cultic practice and traditional theology of the Greek and ancient barabarian nations have their roots in an authoritative philosophy which derives from the earliest generations of men' (111-12). So far this is reasonable, but BS now argues that the combination of Plutarch and Celsus provides good grounds for attributing the theory to the Platonism of the period in general. This sweeping induction is quite unjustified, particularly bearing in mind that what we have in Plutarch is a few hints in a large corpus, and Middle Platonism is extremely heterogeneous. BS seems to think that the adoption of Stoic allegorical interpretation plus their comparative mythology confirms the importance of the primitive vision theory, but that need not be so. Allegories and myths have a special place in Platonism simply because it tends to deny the effectiveness of direct indoctrination and aims to gently stimulate the so-called 'natural notions' so important here for Middle Platonists as for Stoics. Indeed Cornutus' primitive vision theory has the gods triumphing over the inner savage by awakening their (ἔννοιαι),2 and if this primitive vision was itself dependent on such (ἔννοιαι) then anybody with ready access to them 3 had access to that same vision. Certainly traces of the primitive vision in Homer etc. might trigger their reawakening in more recent times, but that reawakening could (according to the theory of Phaedo73-74) be triggered by a variety of likenesses or symbols.

BS claims (115) that ancient Platonists considered the Platonic corpus 'a textbook of ancient wisdom, reconstructed, compiled, and explained': reconstructed 'in its entirety' in fact. Fragments of religious wisdom are seen as 'raw material' (117), gathered for the imposition of Platonic form. This gives Plato the look of an antiquarian researcher, carefully piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. But pieces of this puzzle had been lost or defaced beyond reconstruction by any empirical process, and Platonists never attached the greatest weight to such processes either. Rather Plato has been assisted by surviving fragments to recreate the vision from within: to relive it rather than reconstruct it. Now BS rightly rejects a simple 'divine inspiration' theory as being adequate to explain Plato's trustworthiness, thinking this the only alternative to his reconstructed wisdom, but what BS has forgotten is that in Platonism every individual has had primitive access to the truth.

In chapter 7 BS discusses how Platonists could justify belief in Plato's alleged primitive wisdom rather than in the wisdom of the other major schools, particularly in the face of Skeptic objections based on διαφονία. His strategy goes back to Antiochus of Ascalon, who regarded the Peripatetic and Stoic philosophies as developments of Platonism, so that Platonism precedes διαφονία. First, this seems an anachronistic explanation, and second it overestimates the importance of Skepticism for the Middle Platonists--they seldom display Galen's interest in anti-Skeptic polemic, and Sextus takes virtually no account of contemporary Platonism. The reason is that it is ignorance that needs explanation for the Platonist rather than correctness. In this it differs from other Hellenistic philosophies, giving it a strong emphasis on discovery within ourselves. Hence the discovery of a primitive vision in prehistoric philosophy is closely related to, and at times may even stand as a symbol of, the discovery of a pre-carnate vision within ourselves. Here it is not insignificant that Plato's own theory of inner knowledge in the Meno is introduced with an appeal to traditional wisdom (81a-c). Going back in time assists us to go back within.

With this emphasis on inner wisdom, much of the debate in the second century is conducted in terms of adherence to or deviation from the natural notions, a concept that could be shared between Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and Science. However, here Platonists had the distinct advantage that such notions could be seen as the target of Socratic definitions and the means by which the Platonic Ideas were accessed. In no philosophy, it could be argued, had the natural notions played such a part as in Platonism. Like the lover who has had a strong and undamaged vision of Beauty (Phaedrus 251a), Plato was under the influence of powerful forces that guided his life in accordance with the truth: no other philosopher had made primitive wisdom within us so important. Those with a great concern for chronologically primitive wisdom were more likely to end up, like Moderatus, Numenius, and (on one view) Philo, as Pythagoreans, with Plato highly regarded to the extent that he was held to follow Pythagorean material. In that case it was Plato who was mined for pieces of the primitive Pythagorean vision.

At 135-8 BS claims that Plutarch's polemical works were designed to show the results of diverging from the true philosophy. I should be wary of this in general, while accepting the general point that Plutarch is primarily interested in doctrines which conflict with Platonism; but in particular it seems odd to think that De Communibus Notitiis is not more concerned with divergence from the common notions. One should add that Plutarch is in general polite towards, and ready to learn from, other philosophers where possible--and wherever he thinks that Platonism receives polite treatment from them.

I read with interest the final two chapters on 'The Invention of Hebraeo-Christian Orthodoxy', with its reworking of the concept of αἵρεσις, and 'The "Dependency Theme"', and in general my doubts about the handling of Platonism did not cause me to doubt the overall importance of the topic or of this book in particular, from which I have learned some things and been made to think harder about others. Bibliography, Index Locorum, and General Index complete a book whose scholarly presentation is commendable.

Clearly my main difficulties have been over Platonism. The preface (viii) stated the thesis that Platonism should not be defined mainly by its doctrines but rather by its methodologies, in the context of which doctrines are better understood. While it is hard to see how doctrines will not be the primary element of a definition of Platonism (for the methodologies discussed here are not the prerogative of a single school), I fully agree that the doxographic approach to the revived Platonism of the first and second centuries AD has not been especially satisfying and that Platonism in particular should be seen in terms of its practices and of the theory behind those practices. It is of importance that Platonism now shared with its rivals the belief in some primitive age in which humans had access to the truth and that the truth was seen to be embodied in the rather more recent corpus of Plato's writings. This should give rise to many further important topics that are not here discussed: How is it that Plato's philosophy itself can give him access the primitive vision? What were the means by which such a vision could be communicated by the Platonist to the pupil? What was the content of this vision? How far is the content reducible to a collection of doctrines? These are vital questions for Middle Platonism with which further studies of its methodologies could profitably engage.

Confining the study to the methodologies of apology and polemic makes it less a study in philosophy. It also narrows the range of sources to those who conducted polemic themselves or supplied the theory behind it. The priority of methodology over doctrine is used to justify neglect of figures like Albinus, Alcinous, and Apuleius, but there is much more method than doctrine in Albinus' extant Prologus, the methods of Alcinous certainly deserve attention, and Apuleius' methods of conveying the Platonic message would involve far more than a study of the De Platone et eius Dogmatis. Worryingly, it also has made us rather dependent on those polemicists whose works Christian authors have seen fit to preserve, notably Celsus' attack on Christianity, but also Numenius' attack on post-Platonic philosophy and Atticus' attack on Aristotle (both preserved by Eusebius), and Porphyry's attack on Christianity. Obviously when Christian writers engage with Middle Platonists there will be considerable attention to those who attack the Christians themselves. This in turn is likely to result in a corpus of Middle Platonists that gives too much weight to the polemicists. Perhaps a better idea of the balance between polemic and instructive discussion is to had from Plutarch, but here too caution is necessary because of the more Academic persona of Plutarch in his polemical works. Even his degree of allegiance to the New Academy is hard to match elsewhere in Middle Platonism.


1.   Fragments are hard to work with, difficult to extract without accretions from their source, and often not particularly representative of their author: after all, they have been carefully selected according to the interests of others. In the case of fr. 190.6-9 I am not convinced that the crucial words παλαιὰ φιλοσοφία are those of Plutarch, even though I allow that they might well be.
2.   See Cornutus De Natura Deorum 39.15-21, used by BS at 49.
3.  For the notion that the natural notions are in some individuals not far buried and so relatively easy to access, see anon. Tht.46-47.

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