BMCR 1994.09.04

Response: Tarrant on Gerson on Tarrant

Response to 1994.03.07

Response by

It seems more than appropriate for Platonists to be seizing the right to respond to the failure of their writings to produce conviction, thus answering questions on which the original book can say nothing new. Conviction, of course, was never my intended goal, and speculation never a charge which I shy away from; some problems are simply too important not to be discussed. Ignoring thorny historical issues is a kind of speculation in itself, and it is wishful thinking to assume that what is not provable is not relevant. My book is not slow to criticize certain kinds of speculation; if it replaces that with another kind that ‘has examined with minute attention the small amount of material available’ then I am not unhappy. The relevant material far exceeds that which we have for certain Presocratics on whom far more has been written.

One point that I should like to take up is the rapidity with which Gerson dismisses my view, still held, that Republic VII is behind the rationale for the tetralogical arrangement. This dismissal is a natural consequence of his presumption that it is simply the ‘educational theory in book 7’ that I find relevant. My wording is partly responsible for this presumption, though the one passage which I quote is 540a-c which deals primarily with what will follow higher education proper: with the duties of the guardians as educators and as political leaders. My claims arise from a discussion of the whole ‘philosophic rite’, not just of Platonic education. The vision of the Good indeed concludes the Platonic educational process, but that vision marks the turning-point rather than the end of the guardian’s career.

If we are to deal with the surviving Middle Platonic reading orders we must realise that the corpus was not seen as a body of literature for the student, but as one which often conceals messages barely intelligible to the philosopher-politician himself (D.L. 3.63-64). Most of these reading-orders seem to end with the works of relevance to the politician, and there is no hint that any of these reading-programmes (contrast that of Iamblichus) was simply designed to lead to a vision of the Good. The vision of the Good, even if it is the epistemological goal, is merely a step along the road to the individual’s wider ethical/political goal.

The next thing that one must appreciate is that for corpus-organizers who were largely ‘dogmatists’ it was the so-called ‘zetetic’ works in the corpus that were an embarrassment. Albinus ( Prologus 6) could utilize the more positive ones among them for ‘cathartic’ and ‘maieutic’ purposes, but saw the polemical ones as belonging to the final stage, the second ‘reinforcement’ stage, long after any vision had been created. Their position in the Thrasyllan tetralogies reflects the belief that these are not works that teach the pupil (for they are a fortiori not works of instruction), but works that served another purpose. The dangers of elenctic argument are well enough spelled out by Plato ( Rep. 7.538c-539c); such argument is inappropriate for the under-thirties, and the over-thirties are said to prefer to model themselves on the truth-seeker rather than the more playful and contentious arguers. Does one despair, then, of finding any purpose for Plato’s more playful and contentious works that Republic 7 would sanction?

The guardian who has experienced the vision is required to descend again from time to time to practical matters, and the dangers of that descent are discussed by Plato at 517d-518b. What help might written works of Plato offer the guardian who has to confront these problems? He needs above all techniques of dealing with life in the cave: techniques for handling those who have not risen to the life above themselves. I am not committed to arguing that tetralogies IV to VII are the perfect vehicles for illustrating how some new Socrates could indeed cope with the thoughts and aspirations of those who are as yet spiritually blind. But I believe that a corpus-organizer could have attributed such a role to them. Their presence in the corpus required that a use be found for them, and this could most safely be done by allowing them to be read by those beyond their first round of dialectical studies. In the hands of the fully-educated they might safely serve as illustrations of the essential processes of testing the young, stimulating them to develop their ideas, and countering the rival claims for their attentions made by other groups of intellectuals. Four tetralogies composed chiefly of such works might seem too many, but their total length amounts to only about one quarter of the Thrasyllan corpus.

Perhaps more important is the question whether Porphyry is following Thrasyllus for a longer or for a briefer passage in his commentary on Ptolemy’s Harmonics. We are assured by Porphyry that for as long as he uses a source here (pp. 12-15 Düring), he follows Thrasyllus, as he is naming sources and Thrasyllus is the sole source named. Gerson’s scepticism is based on the observation that ‘this logos doctrine is in its main lines not substantially different from that of Plotinus, Porphyry’s teacher, and from Middle Platonists.’ I find it odd that Gerson can so confidently make this assertion, for the Middle Platonist evidence is very thin if we exclude Theon (whose frequent indebtedness to Thrasyllus is not an issue) and Philo of Alexandria (who is not primarily a Middle Platonist, but is unquestionably a contemporary of Thrasyllus. But if Gerson is correct, and particularly if he is thinking of Philo here, then there should be no difficulty in acknowledging that Thrasyllus did share ‘this logos doctrine … in its main lines’. If I do not explain why Porphyry should have picked out Thrasyllus as an authority on philosophic matters, that cannot alter the fact that he chose to mention what Thrasyllus called the type of logos which he discusses, so that, at very least, he knew of a parallel discussion in Thrasyllus more worthy of mention than any other parallel discussion. I do not claim that Porphyry added or subtracted nothing, and I do not claim that he wrote anything incompatible with his own views, but the originality of Porphyry has frequently been questioned, and in this case he himself admits to a lack of originality in his logos-theory (p. 13.13 = my T23.20).

I am grateful for the observation on p.55 that Platonists had to struggle, after Andronicus, with Aristotle’s very different picture of Plato’s doctrines. My picture of Thrasyllus (p. 180) was of one who saw Plato as an esotericist (on some matters at least), but as an esoterist whose written meaning was observable to the initiated. While I do not think that Plotinus took a markedly different attitude, I agree that he is much less text-dominated. That is not true of most of the Neoplatonists who followed, but still I agreed that they were not much conscious of Thrasyllan influence (p. 212). My claim for Thrasyllan influence (p. 208), as reported on p.54, must be considered alongside the qualifications expressed in the remainder of the conclusion. My title’s apparent claim, that there exists a ‘Thrasyllan Platonism’, is the claim of one who does not see Platonism (or indeed any philosophy) as simply a collection of doctrines. Thrasyllus was at the centre of a distinctive approach to ‘doing Plato’, based upon wrestling with the corpus and moulding it into new shape; this was an important approach, outwardly shunning originality, yet seeing the whole through spectacles of a particular colouring.