BMCR 1995.12.08

1995.12.08, Goeransson, Albinus, Alcinous, Arius Didymus

Tryggve Göransson, Albinus, Alcinous, Arius Didymus. Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia, 61. Goeteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1995. 257 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9789173462822

It was not so long ago that doxography was, in the eyes of most classicists, a moderately stable field. Certain broad facts about the ancient tradition of recording the philosophical and scientific opinions of earlier authors were largely unquestioned, and those not directly engaged in the business could comfortably rely on the theories produced by Hermann Diels and other (usually German) authorities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Very little was certain, of course, but few doubted that the results of early doxographical research had produced the best results possible given the available evidence. We all knew about the contributions of Theophrastus, Aëtius, and Arius Didymus.

That has changed in recent years. One result of the explosion of interest in philosophical texts from the Hellenistic and Imperial periods has been a critical reexamination of many cherished views, and there is now relatively little that can be taken for granted by the researcher. On many topics, scholarly respectability now requires that one critically re-examine the results of earlier research before building on them. To some extent Theophrastus’Opinions of the Natural Philosophers is still special: its character as a funnel through which a high proportion of our information about the Presocratics passed down to the world of later antiquity makes Diels’ theories about the Presocratics more secure (or at least less exposed to reasonable challenge). But for much of the rest of ancient philosophy outside the fourth century B.C., a revolution in our understanding of the surviving sources is under way.

Tryggve Göransson has produced a trenchant, often dryly witty book which forces a reexamination of several traditional source-critical and doxographical theories touching on middle Platonism and on the doxographical accounts found in book 2 of Stobaeus’Anthology. Writing with the kind of radical scepticism demanded by the field and with a keen eye for the logical structure of historical argumentation, G. returns to the year 1879, when two important works appeared. Jacob Freudenthal published Der Platoniker Albinos und der falsche Alkinoos and Diels’Doxographic Graeci established a new standard for and orthodoxy in doxographical studies.

G. traces the evolution of the “school of Gaius” theory from Freudenthal’s claim that the Didaskalikos was actually written by the known Albinus (a student of the known Platonist Gaius) rather than by the otherwise unknown Alcinous to whom it is attributed by the manuscripts. The arguments of Giusta and Whittaker against Freudenthal’s identification are now accepted almost universally, and G. builds on that conservative foundation in his re-examination of many middle Platonic texts and doctrines. One key feature of the traditional view had been the further belief that the Didaskalikos, whoever wrote it, was crucially dependent on the work of Arius Didymus, the doxographer and friend of Augustus. G.’s critique of the development of middle Platonic school doctrine also casts this proposition into doubt. This leads him to a more general reconsideration of the traditional portrait of Arius Didymus as a doxographer and to much more radical arguments which (if successful) will force a serious reassessment of the date and character of the major doxographies of Stoic and Peripatetic ethics preserved in book 2 of Stobaeus. The traditional portrait of Arius Didymus has not yet lost its standing as a “fact” about the history of ancient philosophy, and had recently been assumed uncritically by the present reviewer in the article “Arius Didyme” in R. Goulet’s Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques vol. 1 (1989) and defended at length by David Hahm in “The Ethical Doxography of Arius Didmyus”, ANRW II.36.4 (1990).

There are, thus, two main lines of argument in G.’s book: the critical re-examination of middle Platonism, which is the logical result of carefully thinking through the results of Whittaker’s conclusions about Alcinous, and the radical reassessment of Arius Didymus. In addition to methodological care, G.’s book is also distinguished by a number of common-sensical assumptions about the history of philosophy. For instance, G. declines to believe that Platonist teachers and philosophers could be so substantially dependent on doxographical sources for their knowledge of Plato’s doctrines—whose works were, after all, widely available (see p. 22). Moreover, G. puts us on more solid ground with his sensible assumption of pluralism in middle Platonism, the contrary preference for Einzelquellen having been a product of source-critical methodology (see pp. 183-4).

A short review cannot do justice to this tight and closely reasoned book. The reader will perhaps be best served by a rapid summary of the results claimed for the understanding of middle Platonism and a quick sketch of the argument about Arius Didymus. The former claims seem destined to achieve a significant measure of agreement; the latter argument is more contentious but will have to be confronted by anyone working on Stoic and later Peripatetic ethics.

Chapters 2 to 5 deal with Gaius and Albinus. The modest results are:

  • Albinus was active in the Greek east (we know he once lectured in Smyrna) in the middle of the second century B.C., Gaius some years earlier (possibly based in Pergamum or Athens).
  • Albinus’Prologos is probably a part of a now lost set of notes by Albinus based on introductory lectures by Gaius on Plato, the whole work having been called Hupotuposeis.
  • As to commentaries on Platonic dialogues, there is “no clear evidence” for any by Gaius, while Albinus probably did publish commentaries on Phaedo and Timaeus.
  • Negative conclusions include the rejection of Lucian’s character Nigrinus as a pseudonym for Albinus and the denial that Albinus’ lost book on incorporeals with the pseudo-Galenic De Qualitatibus Incorporeis.