Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.06.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.06.31

Harold Tarrant, Danielle A. Layne, Dirk Baltzly, François Renaud (ed.), Brill's Companion to the Reception of Plato in Antiquity. Brill's companions to classical reception, 13.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2018.  Pp. xxi, 657.  ISBN 9789004270695.  €187,00.  

Reviewed by Adrian Pirtea, Freie Universität Berlin; Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Although the reception of Plato’s philosophy is discussed to various degrees in the standard handbooks and companions to Plato published in the last two decades,1 Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Plato in Antiquity is the first English-language publication to do so in a truly comprehensive and systematic manner. Excluding the treatment of Plato himself and only briefly mentioning Aristotle, the Companion focuses on how Plato’s dialogues and letters were read, interpreted and adapted by admirers of Plato’s thought, from the philosopher’s death in 347 BCE until the late 6th century CE. In doing so, the book nicely illustrates the academic scope and relevance of the new series “Brill’s Companions to Classical Reception” edited by Kyriakos Demetriou. This series was inaugurated in 2014 and has so far offered, among others, an equally comprehensive volume on the ancient reception of Aristotle.2

After the pioneering studies on the history of interpreting Plato by the likes of František Novotn‎‎ý‎‎‎‎‎‎ (1881-1964), Eugène N. Tigerstedt (1907-1979), or Endre von Ivánka (1902-1974), whose early achievements are sadly almost forgotten today, few attempts have been made to offer overarching narratives of the reception history of Plato’s philosophy (in antiquity and beyond). Obviously, the sheer number of specialized monographs, articles, editions and conference proceedings that appeared in the last fifty-or-so years on the subject of Platonism(s) have made it virtually impossible for a single person to provide a complete and coherent history of Platonism (or even of ancient Platonism). Relying on the collaborative effort of no less than thirty scholars, the Companion sets out with a more pragmatic goal: it aims to provide some guidelines for readers interested in, but potentially overwhelmed by the complexities and pitfalls of studying the Platonic tradition of Antiquity. The four editors, who are all leading experts on various aspects of ancient Platonism, deliberately avoided the adoption of a specific methodological approach or “school” and offered a clear and balanced picture of ancient readings of Plato in all their (sometimes conflicting) variety.

The Companion is divided chronologically into three parts and 31 chapters, which usually center on individual Platonist philosophers, beginning with Plato’s immediate successors Speusippus and Xenocrates and ending with the celebrated exponents of the Neoplatonic schools of Athens and Alexandria (Proclus, Simplicius, etc.). The three parts cover (1) the Old Academy to Cicero, (2) the Early Imperial/Middle Platonic reception (1st cent. BCE - 2nd century CE), and (3) Late Antiquity. Some chapters provide broader overviews, such as Ryan Fowler’s survey of Plato’s reception in the Second Sophistic (pp. 223-49) or Crystal Addey’s chapter “Plato’s Female Readers” (pp. 411-32). The latter contribution is particularly important, since it covers the long and hitherto neglected history of female Platonists, from Plato’s direct disciples Lastheneia of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius (4th century BCE) to Hypatia of Alexandria (d. 415 CE) and the accomplished theurgist Asclepigeneia, the daughter of Plutarch of Athens (5th/early 6th century CE). One very useful and new feature of the volume, absent e.g. in the Companion to the Reception of Aristotle, is the addition of separate, more detailed introductions for each of the three parts. Aside from giving a general overview over the periods under discussion, the role of these introductions is to address those topics and authors which, for various reasons, could not be alotted separate chapters in the book. Thus, the introduction to Part One (pp. 10-27) contains a section on the Peripatetic engagement with the cosmology of the Timaeus. The controversial issue of Plato’s “unwritten doctrines”, famously advocated by the Tübingen school, as well as the question of the exact doctrinal relationship between Plato and his “greatest pupil” Aristotle (p. 14) are also mentioned, albeit only briefly.

Part One (pp. 29-99) itself contains four chapters dealing with Speusippus and Xenocrates (Horky), the Stoics (Alesse), the New Academy (Snyder), and Cicero himself (Renaud). A particularly welcome contribution in this section is Francesca Alesse’s study on the influence of Platonism on Stoicism. Alesse rightly begins by stating that any inquiry into the Stoic reception of Plato has to take into account (a) the basic incompatibility of the Platonic and the Stoic worldviews (e.g. Stoic materialism) and (b) the Stoic enduring interest in the historical figure of Socrates, who was perceived as an ideal model for ethics and morals. The issue of incompatibility comes to light in Alesse’s discussion of the Stoic interpretation of the Timaeus, which involved the conflation of the Demiurge and the World Soul, and the transformation of Plato’s intelligible forms into the Stoic “seminal reasons” (pp. 49-50). Alesse also gives a good overview (pp. 48-9) of other key Platonic dialogues that became relevant for the Stoics, such as Protagoras, Laches, Euthydemus, Meno, Gorgias, Theaetetus (for Stoic epistemology and the concept of φαντασία καταληπτική) and the Republic (in her discussion of Panaetius, pp. 51-3). What is missing from Alesse’s list is the Cratylus, whose influence on Stoic philosophy of language has been highlighted recently.3 Alesse then focuses on a few fundamental ideas in Stoic ethics which also have their antecedents in Plato’s dialogues. More specifically, the Chrysippean doctrine of the interconnectedness of all virtues (ἀντακολουθία) is convincingly shown by Alesse to be a response to Protagoras’ views expressed in Protagoras 329c-332a. Unfortunately, what Alesse does not address in any detail is the reception into Stoicism of Platonic tripartite psychology by the Platonizing Stoic Posidonius.

Part Two (Chapters 5-13, pp. 92-249) focus on the “Early Imperial reception of Plato”, i.e. the period between Cicero and the end of the 2nd century CE. This period includes chapters on the Middle Platonists Plutarch (Bonazzi), Alcinous (O’Brien), Theon of Smyrna (Petrucci), Numenius (Athanassiadi), but also contains excellent discussions of Apuleius (Roskam), Philo of Alexandria (Yli-Karjanmaa) and Galen (Rocca). Harold Tarrant’s account of how Plato’s dialogues became part of the philosophic “core curriculum” (pp. 101-14) is extremely useful to understand the wider context of early imperial Platonism. In this section I would highlight Mauro Bonazzi’s comparative study of Plutarch and the Anonymous Commentary on the Theatetus and their understanding of Academic skepticism within the Platonic tradition. While, in the eyes of many, the skeptic Academy was an embarassment or even a betrayal of Plato, Bonazzi argues that both Plutarch and the anonymous commentator (most likely a contemporary of Plutarch) regarded Academic skepticism as a legitimate reaction to Stoic and Epicurean empiricism. Taking a Platonic stance, the skeptics layed bare the philosophical inconsistency of the empiricist/materialist stance and thus safeguarded Plato’s metaphysical dualism, which for Plutarch (and the entire later tradition) became the fundamental tenet of Plato’s philosophy (pp. 135-38).

Part Three, by far the largest section (Chapters 14-31, pp. 252-579) deals with the large diversity of Platonic interpretations in Late Antiquity (ca. 3rd-6th centuries). Most of these chapters focus on the Greek (“pagan”) Neoplatonism and consider all the representative figures of this tradition, from major authors like Plotinus (Gerson), Porphyry (Chase), Iamblichus (Finamore), Proclus (Opsomer), Damascius (Ahbel-Rappe), to lesser known authors, such as Amelius and Theodore of Asine (Baltzly), Syrianus (Klitenic Wear), Hermeias (Tarrant/Baltzly), and Olympiodorus (Griffin). Two highly relevant contributions discuss the anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides (Clark) and the anonymous Prolegomena to Plato (Layne).

Rather dissapointingly, only two chapters really address the early Christian reception of Plato: a clear exposition of Augustine’s knowledge of Plato (van Riel, pp. 448-69), and a cursory survey by Ilaria Ramelli, which hastily covers the Christian Platonism of Clement, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Evagrius Ponticus. While Ramelli’s contribution is often insightful (e.g. her suggestion that Evagrius’ spiritual teacher was Gregory of Nyssa, not Gregory of Nazianzus), she devotes perhaps too large a part of her chapter to reiterate earlier arguments for the identification of Origen the Neoplatonist and Origen the Christian (pp. 279-84).

One very commendable feature of this third part is the inclusion of often ignored or marginalized traditions of Late Antique Platonism, which are shown to fully belong, even if in unexpected ways, to the broader Platonic tradition. Turner’s in-depth study of the reception of Plato in the Sethian treatises from Nag Hammadi (Zostrianos, Allogenes, Three Steles of Seth) is a case in point (pp. 292-315). Likewise, Julian the Apostate’s admiration for Plato’s dialogues (O’Meara, pp. 400-41), or the Platonic-Pythagorean number symbolism in Theodore of Asine (pp. 394-8) are extensively discussed, probably for the first time together in a handbook on ancient Platonism. However, given this increased awareness of the more mystical and religious aspects of Platonism, one does wonder if the pervasive role of theurgy and the Chaldean Oracles, although repeatedly mentioned in some chapters, would not have deserved a fuller treatment.

In terms of how the volume is organized, the editors opted for the most practical solution, i.e. a strict chronology and a focus on individual authors. Still, one could have envisaged an alternative, perhaps more appealing structure, based on the Platonic dialogues themselves. It is for instance quite difficult to appreciate the tremendous influence of the Timaeus, the Republic, or Parmenides from the scattered references in the various sections of the book. Separate chapters on the reception of these (and other) key dialogues – and indeed, on the Platonic dialogue as a literary form itself – would certainly have proven helpful.

There is otherwise very little criticism that can be adduced against the individual chapters, which are all high quality contributions by leading experts in their respective fields. In a few cases some recent publications have not been taken into account. For example, Marie-Luise Lakmann’s new comprehensive prosopography, which gathers all the known sources on the several dozen lesser known Platonists of Antiquity,4 apparently passed unnoticed. Similarly, the seminal studies on Hierocles of Alexandria by Ilsetraut Hadot, Theo Kobusch and others, were not taken as an incentive to include a chapter on this rather neglected figure of 5th century Neoplatonism.

Equally puzzling is the absence of a chapter on Synesius of Cyrene, who is only fleetingly mentioned by Addey and O’Meara. Finally, it would have been worthwhile to include a discussion of the “negative” reception and criticism of Plato in the writings of the early Christian heresiographers like (pseudo-)Hippolytus, who considers Plato to be the source of all heresies, or Tertullian, who harshly criticizes Plato’s psychology and epistemology. Regardless of these minor omissions, the Companion is a truly impressive and much needed scholarly achievement, written with clarity and edited with great care. The volume will certainly set a new standard for research on the reception of Plato in Antiquity, but it will hopefully also encourage scholars specializing on Plato to reconsider Plato’s thought in light of later Platonism. If anything, the incredible variety of ancient interpretations, reactions and responses to Plato’s dialogues discussed in the book should make the historicity and partiality of today’s interpretations painfully evident. Thus, any scholarly attempt to get as close as possible to Plato’s own thought can only profit from engaging with and drawing from the deep well of the Platonic tradition.

Authors and Contributions

Speusippus and Xenocrates on the Pursuit and Ends of Philosophy, Phillip Sidney Horky
The Influence of the Platonic Dialogues on Stoic Ethics from Zeno to Panaetius of Rhodes, Francesca Alesse
Plato and the Freedom of the New Academy, Charles E. Snyder
Return to Plato and Transition to Middle Platonism in Cicero, François Renaud
From Fringe Reading to Core Curriculum: Commentary, Introduction, and Doctrinal Summary, Harold Tarrant
Philo of Alexandria, Sami Yli-Karjanmaa
Plutarch of Chaeronea and the Anonymous Commentator on the Theaetetus, Mauro Bonazzi
Theon of Smyrna: Re-thinking Platonic Mathematics in Middle Platonism, Federico M. Petrucci
Cupid’s Swan from the Academy (De Plat. 1.1, 183): Apuleius’ Reception of Plato, Geert Roskam
Alcinous’ Reception of Plato, Carl S. O’Brien
Numenius: Portrait of a Platonicus, Polymnia Athanassiadi
Galen and Middle Platonism: The Case of the Demiurge, Julius Rocca
Variations of Receptions of Plato during the Second Sophistic, Ryan C. Fowler
Origen to Evagrius, Ilaria Ramelli
Sethian Gnostic Appropriations of Plato, John D. Turner
Plotinus and Platonism, Lloyd P. Gerson
Porphyry, Michael Chase
The Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides, Dennis Clark
Iamblichus, the Commentary Tradition, and the Soul, John Finamore
Amelius and Theodore of Asine, Dirk Baltzly
Plato’s Political Dialogues in the Writings of Julian the Emperor, Dominic J. O’Meara
Plato’s Women Readers, Crystal Addey
Calcidius, Christina Hoenig
Augustine’s Plato, Gerd Van Riel
Orthodoxy and Allegory: Syrianus’ Metaphysical Hermeneutics, Sarah Klitenic Wear
Hermias: On Plato’s Phaedrus, Harold Tarrant and Dirk Baltzly
Proclus and the Authority of Plato, Jan Opsomer
Damascius the Platonic Successor: Socratic Activity and Philosophy in the 6th Century CE, Sarah Ahbel-Rappe
The Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy, Danielle A. Layne
Olympiodorus of Alexandria, Michael Griffin
Simplicius of Cilicia: Plato’s Last Interpreter, Gary Gabor


1.   See e.g. Charles Brittain in Gail Fine (ed.). 2008. The Oxford Handbook of Plato. Oxford University Press, pp. 526-52; “Part VI The Platonic Legacy” in Hugh Benson (ed.). 2006. A Companion to Plato. Malden; Oxford;Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 403-451; “Teil VII Wichtige Stationen der Wirkungsgeschichte”, in Christoph Horn, Jörn Müller and Joachim Söder (eds). 2008. Platon-Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung. Stuttgart; Weimar: Metzler, pp. 387-433.
2.   Andrea Falcon (ed.). 2016. Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Aristotle in Antiquity. Leiden: Brill.
3.   See Francesco Ademollo. The Platonic Origins of Stoic Theology. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 42 (2012), pp. 217-43.
4.   Marie-Luise Lakmann. 2017. Platonici minores. Leiden: Brill.

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