Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.60

Mauro Bonazzi, Vincenza Celluprica, L'eredità Platonica. Studi sul Platonismo da Arcesilao a Proclo.   Naples:  Bibliopolis, 2005.  Pp. 335.  ISBN 88-7088-484-8.  €40,00.  

Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto (
Word count: 1609 words

This volume contains seven papers delivered at a conference held in 2004 in Gargnano, Italy on "The Platonic Heritage: From the Academy to Neoplatonism." To the seven has been added a paper delivered at an earlier seminar by Franco Trabattoni. The roster includes: F. Trabattoni, "Arcesilao platonico?"; C. Lévy, "Les petits Académiciens: Lacyde, Charmadas, Métrodore de Stratonice"; A.M. Ioppolo, "La critica di Carneade al criterio stoico di verità in Sesto Empirico, Adversus mathematicos VII"; M. Bonazzi, "Eudoro di Alessandria alle origini del platonismo imperiale"; J. Opsomer, "Plutarch's Platonism Revisited"; G. Boys-Stones, "Alcinous, Didaskalikos 4: In Defence of Dogmatism"; R. Chiaradonna, "Plotino e la corrente antiaristotelica del platonismo imperiale. Analogie e differenze"; C. Steel, "The Philosophical Views of an Engineer. Theodorus' Arguments against Free Choice and Proclus' Refutations.

It has been evident to scholars for quite some time that the question "What is Platonism?" requires a nuanced historical response. Part of the difficulty standing in the way of a clear answer is the disheartening paucity of evidence, especially regarding the long period from Plato's successors in the "Old" Academy up to Plotinus. It is hardly surprising that the hit-or-miss survival of five hundred years of testimony should result in the perception that the Platonism that appears in the third century C.E. is really something "neo." The present volume contains a number of wide-ranging discussions on various aspects of the construction of Platonism over the course of some seven hundred years.

Trabattoni tackles the problem of Arcesilaus' Academic credentials. On the one hand, Arcesilaus argued for the suspension of judgment; on the other, he was held in antiquity to head the school founded by the arch-dogmatist Plato. Trabattoni rejects the approach that maintains that Arcesilaus was taking up only a dialectical stance in opposition to Stoic claims, maintaining all the while a crypto-(Platonic) dogmatism. Trabattoni considers the main evidence regarding Arcesilaus' Academic Skepticism found in Plutarch and Sextus Empiricus and concludes that Arcesilaus is interpreting Plato in a legitimate manner when he claims that without knowledge, suspension of judgment with regard to the truth or falsity of propositions is appropriate. But this does not eliminate the possibility of "reasonable" (eulogon) action, which is in fact an authentic Socratic imperative for happiness.

Lévy considers the relatively obscure figures of Lacydes, Charmadas, and Metrodorus. The doxographies inform us that all three of these philosophers were somehow involved in the Academic reception of Platonism through its "Skeptical" phase and its eventual return to its "roots." According to Lévy, Lacydes probably wanted to combine elements both of the "New" or "Middle" Academy (depending on whose division is followed) with those of the Old Academy, including Plato's successors, Speusippus and Xenocrates. The former element is derived from Carneades, not from the supposed founder of the Skeptical Academy, Arcesilaus. It was Carneades, according to Sextus Empiricus, who deviated from the pure Skeptical position of Arcesilaus; and it was Carneades, according to Lévy, who tried to join the mitigated Skepticism of Carneades with the traditional dogmatism of the old school. Sextus also tells us that Charmadas, along with Philo of Larissa (158-84 B.C.E.), was one of the founders of the "Fourth" Academy. If this is indeed the case, then the almost complete absence of testimony about his philosophical views is to be deeply regretted. Lévy claims that Charmadas, in apparent imitation of Plato, argued against the efficacy of the techné of rhetoric and supposed this argument to be in the spirit of the Skeptical Academy. Metrodorus, disciple of Carneades, probably provided some inspiration to Philo in his mitigated Skepticism. He rejected the unmitigated Skepticism of Arcesilaus in favor of the position of his teacher. He thereby recovered what he held to be the true Platonic position, rejected by the Skeptics and also by the Stoics, that the sage will indeed hold opinions.

The contribution by Ioppolo focuses on the passage in Sextus Empiricus' Adversus mathematicos (VII 159-173) in which he criticizes Carneades for falling away from the pure Skepticism of Arcesilaus and embracing a sort of negative dogmatism, the view that all things are ungraspable. If Carneades did indeed maintain this position, then as many scholars have noted, it is puzzling why he should have apparently favored to pithanon as a criterion of action. Ioppolo argues that Carneades did this as part of his strategy to oppose the Stoic criterion of truth, which they held to be a requirement for action. The claim that one should follow that which is persuasive or plausible despite there being no grounds for assent, no "graspable presentations", is intended both to demolish the Stoic position and to meet the anti-Skeptic charge of apraxia. So, despite Sextus' claim, acting on the basis of to pithanon is not assenting to the truth of any proposition or presentation.

Bonazzi offers a useful study of the badly understood "Middle" Platonist Eudorus of Alexandria (fl. c. 25 B.C.E.). He examines the key testimony of Simplicius (in phys. 181, 7-30) wherein Eudorus is said to have distinguished two "Ones" or first principles: (a) that which is identified with a supreme deity and (b) that which is called "Monad" and, along with the Indefinite Dyad, is the generator of all intelligible reality. This distinction evidently rests upon early attempts to reconcile Aristotle's testimony about Plato's doctrine of principles with what Plato actually says in Parmenides, Timaeus, and Philebus. Bonazzi demonstrates that long before the third century C.E. Platonists took Aristotle to be an important guide to the teachings of the dialogues, which were themselves continuous with the so-called unwritten doctrines. Eudorus, for one, evidently saw Stoicism, not Aristotelianism, as the true enemy of Platonism.

Jan Opsomer reprises his account of the Platonism of Plutarch in his recent book In Search of Truth (1998). Opsomer's main thesis is that there are more "Academic tendencies" in Middle Platonism than is generally recognized. His view is that Plutarch, influenced by Philo of Larissa, assumed that the Skepticism of the Academy of the third century B.C.E. must in some way be continuous with Plato's own position. This was precisely the position over which Antiochus of Ascalon split with Philo. Opsomer argues that Plutarch found the zetetic position of the New Academy to be in harmony with the dialogic or non-dogmatic interpretation of Plato's philosophy.

Boys-Stones in an original study of chapter four of Alcinous' Didaskalikos (second century C.E.?) aims to show that Alcinous was defending the metaphysically grounded epistemology of Plato against both the Stoic and Skeptical alternatives. In particular, what Alcinous wants to do is show that the Stoic idea -- shared by the Academic Skeptics -- that knowledge must be empirically based is insupportable. In fact, knowledge is only of immaterial Forms and possible only for immaterial souls. Thus, the account of knowledge must be rooted in arguments for metaphysical claims. Alcinous, according to Boys-Stones, maintained that the Stoics were right to insist on the authority of reason, and the Academic Skeptics were right to insist against the Stoics that reason could not be successfully used to acquire knowledge of the sensible world. Only the Platonist could combine the best of both positions.

Chiaradonna takes up the question of Plotinus' criticism of Aristotle. He argues that this criticism sets him apart both from his successors who tried to harmonize Aristotle with Plato and from his Platonic predecessors whose criticisms of Aristotle were otherwise directed. That is, Plotinus' criticisms were directed, as those of his predecessors were not, against the defense of Aristotelianism made by Alexander of Aphrodisias. Chiaradonna is primarily concerned with Plotinus' arguments against the Aristotelian account of the structure of causality in the sensible world. He claims that Plotinus rejected any harmony of Aristotle with Platonism on the sensible plane. This qualification on Plotinus' criticism evidently leaves open the way for Porphyry and his successors to maintain that with a broader perspective, the Aristotelian position could be accommodated by a more capacious Platonism.

Steel examines Proclus' treatise defending the existence of free choice against proponents of determinism. The refutation is directed to a friend of Proclus, Theodorus, a highly educated non-philosopher with a technical scientific background. Interestingly, many of these arguments seem to be a radicalized version of Stoic arguments for the compatibility of freedom and determinism; others come from Epicurean and Skeptical sources. The subtle shift that Theodorus makes to the Stoic position and that Proclus focuses on in his refutation is in the nature of causality. Theodorus assumes that causality in the kosmos occurs within a mechanical framework, not, as in the Stoic view, within an organic one. On this view, the mainstay of Stoic compatibilism, namely, the idea that we do in fact have rational participation in the causal framework of nature, simply disappears. We might suppose that Proclus aims his attack on Theodorus' version of determinism because he thought that this is the inevitable or logical result of the abandonment of the Platonic libertarian position. For Theodorus, it is only an illusion that we actually participate in the causing of our actions. Revealingly, Proclus' reply to Theodorus depends on three distinctions: (a) between providence and fate; (b) between the rational, immaterial soul and the inseparable form of the body; and (c) between our cognition of the sensible world and our knowledge of intelligible reality. Unless these distinctions are accepted, Proclus maintains, it is not possible to refute the deterministic position; with them, all deterministic objections can be met. For Proclus, the defense of these distinctions is virtually what defines Platonism.

Altogether, this is a stimulating but by no means ground-breaking collection of essays. Someone seeking a richer understanding of the vagaries of the history of Platonism will find here much material not frequently dealt with elsewhere.

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