Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.06.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.06.25

Federico M. Petrucci,, Taurus of Beirut. The Other Side of Middle Platonism. Issues in ancient philosophy.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2018.  Pp. xv, 287.  ISBN 9781138186743.  £115.00.  

Reviewed by Christina Hoenig, University of Pittsburgh (


Federico Petrucci’s thought-provoking study of Taurus of Beirut has the ambitious aim of rewriting the traditional account of Taurus’ role within Middle Platonism. The traditional account associates Taurus with a non-literalist or metaphorical interpretation of Plato’s creation story as it is set out in the dialogue Timaeus, relying on Taurus’ inventory of alternative interpretations of the crucial term genēton, “generated” (on which more later) which is used by the dialogue’s protagonist to describe the cosmos. Reevaluating the textual evidence, Petrucci paints a radically new portrait of Taurus the teacher and philosopher; a portrait, moreover, that places the author at the origin of an ideological shift towards a literalist reading—as Petrucci insists—of Timaeus’ creation story that would exert a decisive influence on the Middle Platonist tradition. He undertakes to do so in four chapters, and an appendix that offers a new collection and the first English translation of Taurus’ “texts”, a term that avoids the problematic distinction between “fragments” and “testimonia”.

Chapter One, “Taurus in Context”, grounds the discussion with a biographical sketch of Taurus as the central figure of Athenian Platonism, mostly based on the account by his famous pupil Aulus Gellius. Gellius, whose credentials as a rhetorician must be kept in mind, describes a mentor close to the elusive ideal of the philosophical sage; a teacher of a conservative bent, concerned to convey to his students Plato’s ideal combination of rhetorical style with philosophical depth. Taurus’ mathematics and medicine are given short shrift in Gellius’ account, while his ethics turn out to align with those of Aristotle and his school, admittedly with some added Platonic refinement. The remainder of the discussion is a preview of the subsequent chapters: Taurus’ Plato left behind complete philosophical discussions, designed as purposeful rhetorical constructs that explore a given topic from all the relevant viewpoints. It is up to Taurus and his students to deconstruct his “multiplex” writings, and to disentangle Plato’s doctrine from alternative viewpoints that are to be rejected.

Chapter Two, “Taurus on Plato’s Cosmogony. Middle Platonism and Literalism”, of which the core has been explored in a previous publication by the author,1 is an important contribution to the scholarly conversation on the reception of Plato’s Timaeus. The crucial question is whether we are to take literally the protagonist’s statement that the universe is generated (genēton). A literalist reading of his creation account has thus far been associated with a temporal interpretation, i.e. an interpretation according to which the Timaean creator god created the universe at a specific point in time. This interpretation has traditionally been opposed to the supposedly metaphorical “sempiternalistic” reading, which denies that an actual creation has taken place, and instead takes the account of creation to be a metaphor, describing a step-by-step creative process for the sake of elucidation, clarity, or similar educational purpose. According to the sempiternalistic reading, the universe has neither beginning nor end, but is eternal in nature.

With regard to the traditional dichotomy of a literalist-temporal vs. a metaphorical-sempiternalistic interpretation of the dialogue, Petrucci’s central and revolutionary claim is that no representative of the sempiternalistic camp ever regarded their own view as “metaphorical”—quite the contrary. Sempiternalists, too, interpreted the term genēton literally, albeit not as implying temporality. Petrucci’s new literalist interpretation is based on a fresh analysis of sources. These include Cicero and Varro, in whom we find the temporal understanding of creation, which had been favored during the Hellenistic period before the opposite course was taken by Eudorus. Taurus emerges as the originator of a literalist-sempiternalist interpretation of Plato’s cosmogony, as witnessed by his own inventory of nontemporal interpretations in John Philoponus’ On the Eternity of the World against Proclus. All sides of the debate, then, rely on a “literal” reading of Timaeus’ creation account, but disagree on what precisely the meaning of the account is. In contrast to the “truly” metaphorical reading of the dialogue by the Neoplatonists, the appeal to literalism, that is, to Plato’s own words—whatever they are meant to signify—is shown to be a common methodological feature among Middle Platonic writers.

Chapter Three, “Taurus’ Cosmology. The Other Side of Middle Platonism”, aims to dethrone what has commonly been regarded as a hallmark of Middle Platonism, the idea that craftsmanlike divine causation is responsible for the creation of the universe. This requires Petrucci to rewrite our traditional narrative, according to which the Middle Platonists were unified in their cosmological and metaphysical perspectives. Petrucci paints a more fragmented picture, arguing that support for craftsmanlike divine causation was limited to individuals like Plutarch and Atticus (and, in a qualified sense, Numenius, whose second god takes on the craftsman’s role), against whom Taurus establishes what Petrucci calls “the other side of Middle Platonism”, a network of intertwined doctrinal stances centered on the commitment to a non-craftsmanlike model of divine causation. Petrucci’s analysis focuses on texts T26 and T27 (= John Philoponus, On the Eternity of the World against Proclus VI.8, pp. 121.18-21 and 145.1-148.25 Rabe; VI.21, pp. 123.15-16 and 186.6-189.13). These texts lay out four nontemporal meanings for the crucial term genēton. The kind of causation Petrucci finds at work in Taurus’ cosmos combines the paradigmatic effect of form, which accounts for the structure of the physical universe, and the impact of the god’s mere presence, which ensures that this structure is the best possible and able to function as an automaton.

An analysis of relevant passages from Apuleius’ On Plato and his Doctrine and On the Cosmos, Maximus of Tyre’s Orations, and Alcinous’ Didaskalikos illustrates how Taurus’ model was adopted by subsequent authors of varying philosophical inclination to propound the idea of non-craftsman-like causation. In the case of Apuleius, it is worthy of mention that he not only appropriates Taurus’ first and third meanings for genēton in, as Petrucci notes, “the qualified sense that [the cosmos] encompasses generated items, but in itself … has never been generated and has always existed” (p. 92). Apuleius also adopts an additional meaning, Taurus’ number four, explaining at On Plato and his Doctrine 1.8, 198, that the universe’s sempiternal nature is owing to its ontological dependence upon the highest god, who is its nascendi causa. In the case of Alcinous’ Didaskalikos, which distinguishes a highest god from divine intellect, Petrucci cautiously suggests that the work’s support of a non-craftsmanlike type of causation develops aspects that have their foundation in Taurus’ side of Middle Platonism, without discounting a direct influence between the two authors. In what follows, Petrucci draws up a compelling and enjoyable narrative that reveals Taurus as the thus-far unacknowledged central protagonist and strategist on the doctrinal battlefield, and establishes multiple connections between the main characters invested in the fight, ascribing to them rather shrewd strategies. With Atticus and Plutarch on one side of this battle, Taurus himself spearheads the other side of Middle Platonism and, having chosen his allies wisely, can rely on support for the advance of his Platonic cosmological model from the Aristotelian and Peripatetic repository of ideas, most crucially the idea of a cosmos that does not require any direct, craftsman-like intervention for its orderly structure and preservation.

One may ask, of course, if the history of Middle Platonism really involved such wily and farsighted planning. Did Taurus deliberately intend to undertake “two moves”, one being his emphasis on the harmoniously constructed and self-preserving structure of the cosmic machinery, and the other his “subordinative appropriation of Peripatetic elements and arguments, acting as troopers within the Platonist army”, a move that “makes his Platonist army ready to fight against the curious motley alliance it is called to defeat” (p. 118)? Taurus’ efforts, according to Petrucci, were answered by a “radical pact with the Stoics” on the part of Atticus, that, in turn, elicited Alcinous’ sempiternalism, itself a “reaction against Atticus’ radicalization” that led him to “recruit new and fitter troopers from the Peripatetic army, hoping to win the final battle through this new strategy” (p. 123). This kind of narrative rather confidently credits the various Platonic actors with intentions, motives, and strategies, of which they themselves might not always have been aware. That said, Petrucci’s account makes for a captivating read, and there is really no good reason why one should not inject some excitement into Middle Platonism.

Chapter Four, “Taurus and Middle Platonist Exegesis”, underlines Petrucci’s case for a more fragmented narrative of Middle Platonic doctrine by arguing that any coherence of this ideological current was due mostly to shared exegetical methodologies rather than doctrinal perspectives. Examining Taurus’ exegetical method, Petrucci denies that T12, in which Gellius describes Taurus’ pedagogical practice, is sufficient evidence for a shared Middle Platonic methodology of written exegesis. After a survey of sources including Galen’s Commentary on the Timaeus, the Anonymous Commentary on the Theaetetus, and Longinus’ fragmentary Commentary on the Timaeus, he concludes in fact that no standard pattern can be identified. Instead, Petrucci argues that the pattern revealed in T12, an apparent combination of rhetorical analysis and philosophical discussion, is witness to a common didactic approach or school activity.

Turning to Taurus’ own written practice, Petrucci argues that it revolved around so-called “centers of gravity”, i.e. individual, thematically aligned passages that have been detached from the internal flow of their individual dialogues and arranged by Taurus into a web of core doctrinal perspectives that, in turn, attract and throw a specific light on other passages less central to, but compatible with, the specific doctrine under focus. Petrucci relies mostly on T26, T27, and T30 for examples of Taurus’ written exegesis, but draws on other texts for support, in particular T13. In this text, Gellius describes a philosophical dinner conversation at Taurus’ house attended only by his preferred students, and thus a rather exclusive “educational” venue that perhaps does not lend itself readily as an example with which to compare Taurus’ written exegetical practice. In fact, T13 and other texts, such as T17, T18, T19, T20, T21, and T22 are interesting in that they reveal a penchant for “ad hoc” teaching on Taurus’ part, in scenarios outside the classroom in which a particular event (a slave boy who has run out of supplies; a philosopher friend who has fallen ill) gives rise to spontaneous philosophical discussions. In any case, Petrucci’s analysis of Taurus’ exegetical practice leads him to dispense with the traditionally detected patterns of philosophical commentary, the specialist commentary limited to a specific topic or cluster of topics, and the running commentary that follows the flow of Plato’s dialogues. In their place, Petrucci detects a “wave-like” pattern in Taurus and other Middle Platonists, whose commentaries he characterizes as “lemmatic” in the sense that they pick out specific problems or dilemmas from a given dialogue without following Plato’s narrative in its entirety. Petrucci’s appendix helpfully provides a revised collection of texts and their first English translation. Petrucci follows the example of Lakmann in not distinguishing between “testimonia” and “fragments”, in contrast to Gioè.2 Petrucci’s rationale for choosing and discarding specific texts is sound, and his English translation lucid and flowing. I only found a single rendering I would contest: for Petrucci’s “accomplishment” for the Greek teleiōsis in T31, “completion” seems preferable.

It is no exaggeration to describe Petrucci’s study as an impressive and revolutionary portrayal of Taurus, embedded in an exciting account of the battle for Middle Platonic doctrine.


1.   F. Petrucci, “Argumentative Strategies for Interpreting Plato’s Cosmogony: Taurus and the Issue of Literalism in Antiquity”, Phronesis 61 (2016), 43-59.
2.   M.-L. Lakmann, Der Platoniker Tauros in der Darstellung des Aulus Gellius (Leiden: Brill, 1995); A. Gioè, Filosofi Medioplatonici del II Secolo d.C. (Naples: Bibliopolis, 2002).

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