BMCR 1994.10.14

1994.10.14, Dillon (trans.), Alcinous: The Handbook of Platonism

, Alcinous. The Handbook of Platonism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, . Pp. liii + 226.

John Dillon, Regius Professor of Greek in Trinity College, Dublin, is an authority on that relatively obscure school of ancient philosophy known rather unhelpfully as ‘Middle Platonism’. This term stands roughly for the thought of the disciples of Plato from Antiochus of Ascalon who flourished in the first quarter of the first century B.C. down to the immediate predecessors of Plotinus in middle of the third century A.D. ‘Middle Platonism’ thus suggests a transition of sorts between the thought of Plato and the Old Academy and the extraordinary developments initiated by Plotinus and known as Neoplatonism. In Dillon’s book The Middle Platonists (1977) he provided the first comprehensive survey of the exceedingly complex philosophical history of this period. The reason for this complexity is that, following the period of skepticism within the Academy, Antiochus sought to recover Plato’s authentic dogmata. But by the first century B.C. Stoicism was the dominant school philosophy and Peripateticism, eclipsed but not forgotten, was about to be resurrected with the editing of the Aristotelian corpus by Andronicus of Rhodes. Hence, the return to Plato was inevitably guided by the current interests and arguments of other schools. In addition, Platonism’s well documented roots in Pythagoreanism were appealed to as reason for making use of Neopythagorean developments in the first and second centuries A.D. as tools for understanding Platonic teaching. The skeptical belief that Plato actually had no dogmata gave way to a variety of attempts in different areas of philosophy to recover the ancient truths he had revealed.

Middle Platonism includes the doctrines of a group of philosophers in Athens, Rome, and elsewhere often connected among themselves by little more than a devotion to Plato, the font of wisdom. These doctrines often seem to modern scholars to be rather more Stoic or Aristotelian than Platonic, although there is little evidence that their proponents were self-consciously syncretic. One of the relatively few documents to have survived intact from this period is a handbook or summary of Platonism by a philosopher whose name, judging solely from the manuscripts, was Alcinous. It has generally been dated to the middle of the second century A.D. In 1879 the German scholar J. Freudenthal conjectured that Alcinous was really the philosopher Albinus, the teacher of Galen the physician. This identification was largely unchallenged until twenty years ago when John Whittaker first argued that Freudenthal’s rejection of the manuscript authority was unfounded. In 1990 Whittaker produced for the French Budé series the first critical edition of the handbook or Didaskalikos since Hermann’s edition in 1853. There, along with an excellent text and notes, he reaffirmed the case for Alcinous and against Albinus. Unfortunately, not a great deal turns upon the attribution of the work to Alcinous or to Albinus since we know virtually nothing about the first and little more than nothing about the second, assuming now that all we possess by him is the Eisagoge, a four and one-half page epitome of Platonism. Nevertheless, Whittaker’s edition has inspired Dillon’s fine translation with introduction, extensive commentary, and an almost complete bibliography. The two books together will for the foreseeable future serve as the basis for study of the elusive Alcinous (as we shall have to learn to call him) and his contribution to Middle Platonism.

Exactly what was that contribution? As Dillon argues, the Didaskalikos was a manual, not for students of Platonism, but for its teachers (xiv). The work is not likely to have been original either in its form or content for Alcinous is writing at a time when Middle Platonism is already well established in its approach to Plato. It seems clear that a portion of the work is taken from a work presumably similar in form by Arius Didymus. How much more is Arius’ or someone else’s is difficult to say. Dillon (114ff) has a learned discussion of the matter in which he is shows proper skepticism about designating the original sources of Platonic interpretation in the second century A.D. In any case, the value of the Didaskalikos is precisely in its unoriginality, that is, in its having preserved a tradition of Platonic interpretation, one which is instrumental in the formation of every later philosophy, including Neoplatonic and Christian, whose roots can be traced back to the Old Academy.

The Didaskalikos contains 36 chapters which, following the expository order of Xenocrates and the Stoa, move from logic to physics to ethics. Dillon’s commentary on these is especially valuable in its citation of parallels, especially those from the prolific Philo and Plutarch. Anyone who has searched for such parallels in these authors will be grateful for Dillon’s considerable labors. Beyond the parallels within Middle Platonism, however, Dillon is able to demonstrate through his masterful scholarship how Peripatetics and Stoics were recruited into the Platonic project. For example, although the Stoics were materialists and so in principle antipathetic to Platonism, they were also rationalists. Such rationalism could be used to make the Stoic, malgré lui, a supporter of Platonism.

The two most influential chapters of the work are 9 and 10 where Alcinous expounds the doctrine of Platonic Forms as ideas in the mind of God and where he discusses the Middle Platonic theology that ultimately served to establish Platonism as a legitimate source for early Christian philosophical thinking. Dillon provides a wealth of background information in aid of understanding how the Middle Platonists generally could derive from the dialogues the doctrines they so confidently professed. Dillon does not, however, show how the Middle Platonic readings of the dialogues are not crazy, based as they are in part on the reasonable position that Aristotle is an accurate interpreter of Plato, and therefore on the assumption that the middle dialogues do not represent Plato’s final views. It is interesting that the accounts of Plato’s so-called unwritten teachings, so refined in European scholarship, do not figure in the interpretation of Alcinous. If there is some merit in these accounts, as I believe there is, then they would help in our appreciation of Middle Platonism as something more than an aberration.

I will mention only two minor quibbles with Dillon’s most valuable work. First, he suggests that Plotinus’Enneads III.2-3 is that author’s main discussion of free will and determinism. But surely VI.8 must be included here as well. Second, he fails to mention the most recent published English translation of the Didaskalikos by Jeremiah Reedy in 1991. Since the blurb on the back of this book includes the statement by Dillon himself that “Jerry Reedy’s translation is a most useful contribution to the study of later Platonism” it is odd that no reference is made to it, not even in the bibliography. Whatever the reason for Dillon’s silence, there is no question that his own work has made his claim for the work of his predecessor no longer true.