Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.31

Mauro Bonazzi, Jan Opsomer (ed.), The Origins of the Platonic System: Platonisms of the Early Empire and their Philosophical Contexts. Collection d'Études Classiques 23.   Louvain/Namur/Paris/Walpole, MA:  Éditions Peeters; Société des Études Classiques, 2009.  Pp. 227.  ISBN 9789042921825.  €49.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ryan C. Fowler, Knox College (

Table of Contents

This 23rd volume in the Collection d’Études Classiques series contains seven articles that examine the trend by Plato’s followers of systemizing Plato’s philosophy from the 1st c. BCE onward. This process followed a variety of directions and was subjected to a number of philosophical influences, especially Aristotelian, Stoic, and Pythagorean. The result was a broad variety of “Platonisms” without strict orthodoxy, a situation that would change only with Plotinus.

The editor’s introduction (p. 1-2) grounds the task as an attempt to determine precisely the contribution and content of “the key moments that together make up the long history of Platonism.” For the editors, the moment in which devotees of Plato became Platonists and started to look for doctrines that could be organized into a systemized whole is of major importance . This endeavor (“arguably”) started at the end of the Hellenistic era, “but especially in the early days of the Empire” (2). Much of what shaped this period, beyond the systemization itself, was due to the fact that many key doctrines were still undecided even after centuries of debate. No less significant were the other forces with which Platonism was confronted: a renewed interest in Aristotelian texts; a renewed Pythagorean tradition; the continued importance of Stoicism; and the integration or rejection of the Hellenistic (New) Academy, the Platonism of which was almost unrecognizable as such (beyond its extreme aporetic stance). What follows is a brief review of each of the studies in the volume.

1. It is no surprise to see the importance of θεωρία (“l’idée de contemplation”) in either imperial Platonism (in particular Plotinus), or in the conceptions of philosophy and happiness as expressed by both Plato and Aristotle. Its relatively weak presence in Hellenistic philosophies, Bénatouïl writes, should not lead us to import this characteristic into Platonism in some broader sense, since it would be reductive to imagine that the Hellenistic period had no role in the history of θεωρία/A. Thus Bénatouïl explains the role of Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 125-68 BCE) in the gradual return of the contemplative life to Platonism. To do so, Bénatouïl examines the state of θεωρία (“le statut de la θεωρία”) in Hellenistic Stoicism, which he takes to be Antiochus’ point of departure. Antiochus, by finding that reason is in fact “eclipsed” (20) by theoretical and practical activities (contrary to Stoicism), would restore to Platonism the primacy of contemplation as the most noble activity, as thought (la pensée).

Next Bénatouïl looks at the Didaskalikos of Alcinous as a point of arrival; he compares its positions to those of Antiochus in order to confirm that the latter represents a starting point for imperial Platonism. Bénatouïl argues that Antiochus’ positions on θεωρία constitute real criticisms of the Stoics, and are inspired more by Plato than Aristotle, a view contrary to some current (and ancient, e.g., Cicero) interpretations. What makes the task difficult is reconciling Antiochus’ seeming preference for the theoretical life with Augustine’s insistence (Civ. Dei 19.3) that the philosopher preferred a third type of life comprised of both theoretical and practical activities (the “mixed life”). Bénatouïl explains that Antiochus wanted to follow both Aristotle and Theophrastus in stressing the theoretical life, as well as the first Academics (perhaps Plato himself) in valuing the mixed life. Alcinous’ hierarchization of the contemplative and practical lives, then, continues and completes the criticism of Stoicism started by Antiochus in his analysis of the various natural human activities.

2. Antiochus’ importance to imperial philosophy has been clear since Dillon (1996), Glucker (1978), and Theiler (1930).1 Here, Bonazzi looks to explain the precise nature of Antiochus’ position and philosophical affiliation. Many studies of the philosopher take extreme positions by underplaying either Antiochus’ debt to Plato and Aristotle or the significance of Stoicism to Antiochus’ stance, or overplaying his polemical attitude as signifying either his disinterest in Stoicism or his outright opposition to it.Bonazzi steers a middle course by claiming that Antiochus was neither a closet Stoic nor an anti-Stoic Platonist, but a Platonist concerned with reconciling the two schools. Far from being a simple, slapdash ‘eclectic’, however, he was interested in subordinating Stoicism to Platonism. To show this, Bonazzi focuses on the problem of the telos and the doctrine of the passions.

Was Antiochus interested in apatheia (freedom from emotions, as the Stoics), or metriopatheia (restraint over the passions, as the Peripatetics)? By taking advantage of the polysemy of apatheia and showing that apatheia is in fact eupatheia (49), Antiochus tries to integrate Stoic apatheia into his own brand of Platonism. As speculative as his conclusion must remain, Bonazzi’s attempt to solve this puzzle is appreciated, especially given the dearth of reliable or consistent evidence. In the end, then, Antiochus’ task fell between Skeptical Platonism and Platonizing Stoicism: how to tackle Stoicism without submitting to it.

3. Staab’s purpose is to understand the point of contact between Platonism and Neopythagoreanism during the Empire. He works to correct the early misinterpretation that Platonism fully eclipsed Pythagoreanism at the time. To do so, he looks at Eudorus (1st c. BCE), who begins with a view of the world informed by the dualism of Pythagoras and ends with a decidedly Platonic monotheistic view. (82)

The point of departure for the Pythagoreans’ methodology in the Empire is the conviction that Plato’s ideological structure is rooted in Pythagoras. This approach made it possible to describe all of the teachings within the Platonic tradition as able to be interpreted in Pythagorean models and terms. Thus Staab shows that Pythagoreanism did not “become” Platonism, but was an independent sect of Platonism in the Empire. He means to contradict those misinterpretations which both deny a defined Pythagorean current of thought and dissolve Pythagoreanism completely into the Platonism of this period. (58) With this in mind, Pythagoreanism might better be termed a “denomination” within the Platonism of the Empire. (56-7)

Staab’s bibliography in particular is extensive and profitable.

4. Eudorus of Alexandria is known for being involved in the two major developments in 1st c. Platonism: the rebirth of dogmatic Platonism and a renewed interest in the treaties of Aristotle’s school. Chiaradonna studies the extent to which Eudorus is involved with both the construction of a Pythagorean Platonism with an orientation toward theology, and the interaction between Platonism and Aristotelianism. The point of departure for Chiaradonna is Eudorus’ work on Aristotle’s Categories.

For Chiaradonna, if one overemphasizes the fact that Eudorus criticized certain passage of the Categories, an important point is lost: his criticisms relate to details, but never call into question the doctrines of the Categories as such. His work probably aimed to attach the Categories to a brand of Pythagorean Platonism, while correcting some individual elements. Thus, for Chiaradonna, Eudorus was at the origin of the various “Middle-Platonic” attempts to incorporate the Categories into Platonism. Several contemporary examples of this approach are found, with important variations, in the work of the anonymous commentator on the Theaetetus, in Alcinous, and in Plutarch.

In their own ways, both Eudorus and Porphyry aimed at building a unified philosophical tradition by subordinating the re-examined and corrected doctrines of Aristotle to their own views of Platonism. The few fragments of Eudorus we have, however, are not enough to develop this parallel with certainty. What is more, the oeuvre of the important authors of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, e.g., Alexander of Aphrodisias and Plotinus, on which the complex integration of Aristotelianism and the Platonism of Porphyry is based, has very little in common with Eudorus and his conceptual background.2

In short, the first reception of the Categories of Aristotle into the Platonism at the time of Eudorus is indebted to a general trend found between the first century BCE and the first century CE. “If” there are any elements of continuity that connect the Platonism of this time to that of later centuries (in particular, in Plotinus and Porphyry), they are definitively not to be found in the uses of the Categories in this period.

5. Trabattoni helpfully identifies the targets of Philo’s controversial De opificio mundi 2.7-12: Who is it who admires the world more than its maker? Are these the same men who deny providence? Can one attribute the metaphysical theory in sections 8-9 (i.e., on involving an active, creative cause and passive object) to a particular school? To what extent can it be said that this treatise was influenced by Plato’s Timaeus?

Trabattoni works through all the possible answers to these questions systematically and clearly, and his thoroughness is apparent. His argument, therefore, is worth a careful reading. In essence, this section of the De opificio mundi is consistent with the ideas Philo would have come away with after reading the Aristotelian Peri philosophias and the De mundo, which may help identify the men who seem to admire the world more than its creator (or who support a thesis that “praises the world and blames God”). For Philo the idea of the eternality of the world prevents any idea of providence, which is predicated on the act of creation of the world by God and His continued involvement with it: one leads essentially to the other. This stance is consistent with both Mosaic and (aspects of) Platonic philosophy, since God’s creative action turns the passive into the most perfect masterpiece, the world (though it is only Moses who has reached “the very summit of philosophy,” given the influence of the opening of Genesis). For Trabattoni the impetus of Philo’s drive to reconcile Platonic with Mosaic philosophy is the fact that Platonism provides the Ideas, which are absent from Genesis, while the Mosaic contribution accounts for their creation, a notion absent from the Timaeus.

6. Opsomer attempts a philosophical portrait of Plutarch’s teacher, the mysterious Ammonius (1st c.). He portrays the Egyptian as a mild and tactful instructor who discussed aspects of Platonic theory (e.g., the doctrine of recollection), and the hermeneutic tool of allegorical interpretation of texts. He is represented as reverent to the Delphic God, Being and the One, and (thoughtful) numerology.

Opsomer gives one important possible difference between Plutarch and his teacher, in that the latter has no interest in the irrational soul, while the student uses it to explain disorder in the world (cf. De animae procreatione in Timaeo), instead of blaming matter’s penchant for chaos.

Opsomer helpfully suggests that, instead of looking for specific influences, we should imagine a general tradition of interpreting the theory of flux in a certain way (e.g., leading to a lack of personal identity, which alleviates the fear of death), and that Philo, Seneca, and “Ammonius”/Plutarch were aware of it. This suggests that Ammonius was not directly involved in a Neopythagoreanism that was independent of Platonism, but rather was guilty of moderate Pythagorean tendencies in a New Academic/skeptical framework. This explanation could account for the various philosophical elements in Ammonius’ famous speech in Plutarch’s De E.

Opsomer’s presentation of all the evidence is exhaustive, and his judgment balanced. His twenty-six numbered conclusions concerning Ammonius at the end of the piece are enormously helpful (174-178); the bibliography is an excellent source for works on Plutarch and Ammonius.

7. Donini answers some of the questions that surround Plutarch’s De genio Socratis. While there have been recent attempts to understand how the two topics of Socrates’ daemon and the execution of the anti-Spartan Thebans in 379 are connected in this work, by looking specifically at Epaminondas as a thematic connection, Donini looks to explain Plutarch's philosophical point through the characterization of his protagonist.

By using both philosophical discourse and historical narrative, Plutarch offers Epaminondas as proof of the unification of two opposing interpretive principles: one construing Plato (and even Aristotle) as a progeny of Pythagoras (or Pythagoreanism), the other presenting Plato as the disciple of Socrates and progenitor of the New Academy. Plutarch was constrained to argue for the coexistence (indeed, a convergence), of these different threads in Platonism and the Academy's unification of both traditions (as reflected in the title of his lost work, “There was only one Academy of Plato”). Pythagorized Platonism and the Socratic-Academic tradition could co-exist readily in Plutarch’s characterization of Epaminondas.

Read in this way, Plutarch’s De genio Socratis contains allusions and novelistic references that transmit a message that has great historic, philosophical, and conceptual value. Plutarch emerges as a true inheritor of his model’s style: Plato also uses invention and careful attention to detail to help form convictions without necessarily dictating them.

At the end of the volume is a reasonable “Index of Ancient Names” (including names important to the volume, but no “Simmias,” “Galaxidorus,” etc.); a helpful “Index of Modern Names”; and a five-page “Index Locorum.”

The topics of all of these pieces clearly interrelate and help explain aspects of the imperial systemization of Plato. This volume is a welcome addition to the continued effort to push against the unhelpful label ‘eclectic’, which can be coupled with dismissal without much investigation. Anyone with an interest in the origins of Platonism at the start of the Roman Empire would do well to study this volume.


1.   Theiler, W. Die Vorbereitung der Neuplatonismus. Berlin 1930. [1964] Dillon, J., 1996. The Middle Platonists , 2nd ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Glucker, J., 1978. Antiochus and the Late Academy, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. One may add Tarrant (e.g., Scepticism or Platonism? The Philosophy of the Fourth Academy. Cambridge 1985), whose work seems to be relatively neglected in much current scholarship and might warrant more than a single reference in this volume.
2.   Reading the grammatical referent of elle after the semicolon to be the more remote l’intégration, rather than the more proximate l’oeuvre. (108)

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