Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.27

Frédéric Fauquier, Le Parménide au miroir des platonismes: logique, ontologie, théologie. Collection d’études anciennes: série grecque, 157.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2018.  Pp. 546.  ISBN 9782251448275.  €55,00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Renato Matoso, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (renatomatoso@puc-rio.br)

After the publication of E. R. Dodds’ seminal paper ‘The Parmenides of Plato and the Origin of the Neoplatonic “One”,1 it became widely accepted that Plotinus was the first Neoplatonist to interpret Plato’s Parmenides in terms of his distinctive three ‘hypostases’: One, Intellect, and Soul. It also became common ground that it was Plotinus who conceived the theory of an existing One beyond being, finding in the first hypothesis of the second part of the Parmenides the textual foundation for this claim. But what philosophical paths led Plotinus to this innovation? What are the antecedents of this rather particular interpretation of the Parmenides? And how did this revolutionary reading of the Parmenides influenced other generations of Neoplatonists?

Fauquier’s book addresses these questions and, in doing so, provides an excellent entry-point for understanding both Neoplatonist metaphysics and the history of ancient Platonism. It gives the reader valuable material for understanding how ancient Platonism changed from the skeptical debates of the New Academy to the scientific theology of Neoplatonism. The work also addresses important philosophical questions related to Neoplatonist metaphysics, such as: How can absolute transcendence can be reconciled with causality? And how is it possible to understand and talk about a first principle that transcends all forms of knowledge and discourse?

The book is a revised and modified version of the author’s PhD dissertation and the enormous amount of information that Fauquier provides makes it clear that it is the outcome of a thorough investigation on the topic. With more than five hundred pages and more than fifteen hundred references and footnotes, the book is probably the most complete assessment of the history of ancient interpretations of Plato’s Parmenides that has ever been written. As a result, just because of its magnitude and of Fauquier’s meticulousness, the book is already an indispensable asset for those interested in the history of the reception of Plato’s Parmenides and, indeed, for anyone interested in the history of ancient Platonism.

In order to organize the great amount of information it deals with, the book follows the conceptual scheme proposed by Proclus in his own Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides. There, Proclus divides all the interpretations proposed before him into three different groups: logical readings, ontological readings, and theological readings. This is exactly how Fauquier divides his exposition.

The first part of the work discusses logical interpretations of the Parmenides. The author distinguishes them into two kinds, again following Proclus: those that understand the dialogue as a refutation of Zeno, and those that read it as a manual of logic. After presenting compelling arguments, the author concludes that there is not enough evidence for attributing the first kind of interpretation to the New Academy, as others have suggested. With respect to the second kind of reading, the author argues that they represent Middle Platonist interpretations, providing convincing evidence that Middle Platonists used the Parmenides to debate Aristotle’s Topics and Categories. Nevertheless, the author seems to beg the question when dealing with J. Whittaker’s hypothesis that passages in Alcinous and in Clement of Alexandria suggest the existence of a Middle Platonist ‘theological’ interpretation of the Parmenides.2 His argument against Whittaker presupposes that Middle Platonist readings must have a logical nature to conclude that, even if we have evidence of theological speculation, “we would have a theological use of a logical dialogue, which does not compel us to consider it as a theological dialogue.”3 This first part of the book is completed by a well-documented chapter on the place of the Parmenides in ancient classifications of Platonic dialogues, and ends with a very interesting chapter on Proclus’ concept of dialectic.

The second part of the book is dedicated to ontological readings of the Parmenides. The author identifies Origen the Platonist as the name behind Proclus’ commentaries on this kind of interpretation, and argues that this disciple of Ammonius represents a middle point between Plotinus’ theological interpretation and Middle Platonist logical readings. Responding to previous publications on the subject as well as presenting new arguments, the author succeeds in demonstrating how Origen based his exegesis on a more straightforward reading of the Parmenides’ first hypothesis. This is a reading that takes the negative conclusion of the first hypothesis seriously. This conclusion, famously ignored by Plotinus, states the impossibility of a concept of One deprived of being. According to the author, Origen’s restatement of this impossibility puts him closer to Middle Platonism than to Neoplatonism. It also makes his interpretation an interesting challenge for the subsequent generations of Neoplatonists, who will find in the criticism of his ontology an important source of doctrine. The last sections of the second part show how Porphyry, Iamblichus, Syrianus, and Proclus developed important aspects of their philosophical systems based on the criticism of Origen’s interpretation.

The last part of the book tackles ‘theological’ readings of the Parmenides. This part comprises almost half of the book’s length and presents a lot of important, well documented debates on Neoplatonism and its origins. First, it looks into three conditions for the emergence of a theological reading: the identification of the concept of unity as a first principle; the development of a scientific theology through the study of Platonic dialectic; and the rise of an exegetical tradition of the Platonic dialogues in Late Antiquity. Starting from Speusippus and his more mathematical understanding of the One, the author shows how this concept passed through successive modifications until Plotinus proposed it as an absolute transcendent principle of reality. Then the book considers how Platonic theology, understood as the scientific analysis of first principles, developed into negative theology in the hands of Neoplatonist philosophers. Another chapter considers the nature of Neoplatonist commentaries on Plato’s dialogues, and the significance for Neoplatonism of this exegetical form of doing philosophy.

The nineteenth chapter is probably the most controversial. It discusses the book’s underlying thesis that the Plotinian reading of the Parmenides represents a radical innovation and a fundamental break with previous interpretations. The chapter reviews all major attempts to find in figures such as Moderatus, Numenius, and the Gnostics a theological interpretation of the Parmenides, here understood as a reading that uses the first hypothesis to present the One as a first principle beyond being. The book’s strategy is to approach these attempts with skepticism in order to see if the evidence provided really corroborates their conclusions.

The book is indeed successful in casting doubt on the results of these interpretations, favoring a more moderate point of view against those that are too eager to find a direct source for Plotinus in Middle Platonism. However, we should not consider the lack of a definitive proof for the existence of a Middle Platonist theological reading as equivalent to the confirmation of its nonexistence. Specifically, this is because our access to Middle Platonist interpretations is, in many cases, only indirect or fragmentary. Discussing Moderatus, for instance, the book brings forth the possibility of Neoplatonist contamination in the vocabulary of the most relevant fragment, since its ultimate source is Porphyry. However, such contamination is always possible when dealing with fragments, and this kind of skepticism would eventually undermine the analysis of any philosophical fragment. The author himself recognizes this, deciding that the evidence on Moderatus is inconclusive. But similar reasoning should be applied to the analysis of other Middle Platonists. The fact that we do not find explicit reference to the Parmenides in Numenius’ fragments does not rule out the possibility that his negative theology anticipated some aspects of Plotinus’ theological reading. And the same goes for the Gnostic texts. The author seems to expect very high standards of similarity between Middle Platonist interpretations and Plotinus in order to decide for the continuity between them. Therefore, his conclusion about Plotinus’ radical novelty comes as no surprise.

The last two chapters investigate the Neoplatonist interpretation of the Parmenides’ first hypothesis. With clear and acute argumentation, the book describes how the identification of the absolute transcendence of the One, as well as the formulation of a radical negative theology through this text, serves as a unifying feature for a Neoplatonist “spiritual family”. The reader will also find in these last chapters an interesting discussion on the rather polemical Anonymous Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides, which the book identifies as Neoplatonist. Finally, sixteen short annexes complete the book with a more detailed examination of specifics topics that were debated along the exposition.

Without any doubt, the book represents a great contribution to the study of the emergence and evolution of Neoplatonist metaphysics. It also presents abundant material on Middle Platonism and its metaphysical debates. At the end, the reader is left wondering if the book’s conclusion about the novelty of the Plotinian interpretation would not be different had the author not followed Proclus so closely on his exposition. But this does not undermine in any way the importance of this book’s contribution.


Notes:


1.   E. R. Dodds, “The Parmenides of Plato and the Origin of the Neoplatonic One”, Classical Quarterly 22 (1928), Pp. 129-43.
2.   J. Whittaker, “Platonic Philosophy in the Early Centuries of the Empire”, ANRW II.36.1 (Berlin; New York: de Gruyter, 1987). pp. 81-123.
3.   “Le propos de Clément comme d’Alcinoos reviendrait à montrer l’incapacité qu’a l’outil logique à faire connaître le principe, ou pour le dire autrement, on aurait un usage théologique d’un dialogue logique, qui n’impliquerait pas de considerer ce dialogue comme théologique” (p. 91).

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