The reviewer apologizes for the appalling lateness of this review. Let me also note that the book may not be very widely distributed, and that for this reason I have decided to summarize it in some detail.
Ancient philosophers who saw themselves as belonging to the school founded by Plato called themselves by different names. At least through the time of Antiochus of Ascalon in the first century BC they called themselves “Academics”; but from perhaps the first century AD onward most of them (not all, and not always) preferred to name themselves directly after the founder, as “Platonists.” Modern scholars, reflecting this history, tend to speak of “Academics” in the Hellenistic period, then of “middle Platonists” from roughly Philo of Alexandria and Plutarch in the first century AD (or from their murky precursor Eudorus) until Plotinus, and then of “neo-Platonists” from Plotinus until the bitter end in the sixth century AD. However, the word “Academic” has further connotations, which are reflected in Jan Opsomer’s subtitle. Not all Hellenistic Academics were sceptics, but the majority were, and all of them after Arcesilaus were deeply concerned with the questions of whether (or to what extent) to suspend judgment, and whether (or to what extent) human beings are capable of
Opsomer pits himself against what he suggests is the standard scholarly view, namely that Antiochus, by rejecting scepticism, became the founder of “middle Platonism” and that Platonists after him simply took it for granted both that Plato had been a dogmatist (i.e., that he taught, and claimed to know, positive philosophical doctrines) and that dogmatism was correct. On this story, the middle Platonists felt they could ignore the epistemological issues raised by the New Academics, and devote themselves to extracting a positive (increasingly elaborate and increasingly “otherworldly”) systematic doctrine out of Plato’s texts. Opsomer grants that some second century AD figures such as Alcinous and Apuleius, often taken as paradigms of Middle Platonism, do seem to be dogmatists unworried about sceptical challenges or about sceptical interpretations of Plato. But other figures, such as Plutarch and the second-century self-proclaimed Academic Favorinus, practice argument on both sides of a question, stress the limits of human knowledge and often advocate suspension of judgment on disputed questions, and readily acknowledge the New Academic part of their heritage. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that any second-century Platonist or Academic would have had warm feelings about Antiochus. Much of what bound “Plato’s school” together was a shared detestation of Stoicism, and Antiochus had broken the consensus by accepting Stoic corporealism and the Stoic claim that sensation can yield a “kataleptic impression” giving an infallible grasp of its object and by interpreting Plato in accordance with these Stoic doctrines. Antiochus’ “New Academic” predecessor Philo of Larisa, who does not advocate universal suspension of judgment but who does deny that humans are capable of kataleptic impressions according to the Stoic description, seems closer to Plutarch than Antiochus does, and it seems natural to suppose that he had a direct influence on Plutarch; while Philo as far as we know did not develop Platonic metaphysical speculations as Plutarch sometimes does, we may say that Philo left the door open for such speculations as long as they did not lay claim to certainty. Now while all of these points in Opsomer are perfectly correct, they had also all been made by Harold Tarrant in his Scepticism or Platonism? The Philosophy of the Fourth Academy (CUP, 1985), and are probably not really controversial anymore. So Opsomer sometimes seems to be attacking a straw man.1 However, his book is better taken not as an argument that “Academic” concerns remained alive for some middle Platonists (which no longer needs to be argued) but as an exploration of some interesting ways that some middle Platonists develop these concerns in their philosophizing and in their attitudes toward Socrates, Plato, and the Academy. Opsomer does not give a comprehensive survey of these themes — it is disappointing that there is no discussion of Galen, who is surely a middle Platonist and who attacks the sceptical Academic Favorinus but who can himself sound strikingly “Academic,” as in his ostentatious suspension of judgment on the immortality of the soul.2 Still, Opsomer brings out many interesting points in those authors he does discuss, and draws interesting connections between them. The core of the book (Chapters 2-4) is mainly devoted to Plutarch, but Opsomer works to put Plutarch in the context of earlier controversies about what attitudes to take toward Plato’s dialogues, toward Socrates, and toward the history of the Academy. He is also able, in Chapter 5, to use Plutarch to shed new light on the anti-Academic polemic of Epictetus and on the Academic counter-polemic of Favorinus.
Opsomer starts by examining different Academic/Platonist attitudes toward the Platonic texts as witnessed in the first instance by the different surviving schemes for classifying the dialogues. Besides the grouping of the dialogues into tetralogies (or alternatively into trilogies) and the assignments of
The Anonymous Commentary says that the
In general, while the attempt to use the Anonymous Commentary in reconstructing the history of Platonism is praiseworthy and while the Commentary does suggest an environment without a sharp line between “Academics” and “Platonists,” the evidence may be too patchy to allow the kind of reconstruction that Opsomer wants. And while the Commentator tries to show that there is no gulf between himself and the Academics, this may point more to a dogmatist appropriation of sceptical predecessors than to the neither-sceptical-nor-dogmatic “Academic tendencies” that Opsomer hopes to find. The Commentator defends the “unity of the Academy” (as do Philo of Larisa and Plutarch), but he does so by maintaining that even the allegedly sceptical Academics “with very few exceptions … dogmatise,” and that “they too have the most important dogmata in common with Plato” (LIV,45-LV,7, cited by Opsomer p.42). Opsomer tries to argue that the New Academics are not here being credited (as sometimes by later authors) with concealing an esoteric Platonist dogmatism. But he winds up concluding (p.61) that they are credited with believing in the goal of philosophy as assimilation to God, and perhaps also in theories of recollection and flux; and Opsomer himself finds these attributions credible. It seems to me that, if Arcesilaus and Carneades held any such dogmata, then they did in fact conceal them very effectively. Opsomer is sympathetic to the Commentator’s picture according to which the New Academics accepted many (especially) moral and religious doctrines with the Stoics but objected to the hybristic Stoic attempts to justify them infallibly on the basis of mere human reason (apparently the Academics find it particularly impious to justify morality on the basis of
Chapter 3 is an interesting discussion of a range of possible attitudes toward Socrates in the wake of the New Academy. Three main possibilities are to defend Socrates as a sceptical precursor of Arcesilaus (as the New Academics themselves did); to attack Socrates as a sceptical precursor of Arcesilaus (as the Epicureans did); or to defend Socrates by disassociating him from Arcesilaus and reinterpreting him as a dogmatist (as the Stoics did, and then also Antiochus). Opsomer as usual focusses on Plutarch, which is reasonable as Plutarch’s reply to the Epicurean polemic in his Against Colotes offers one of our best windows onto the debate. We know from Plutarch that Colotes attacked Socrates, and indeed all the other philosophers except Epicurus, by arguing that their philosophy reduces to scepticism and (if followed through consistently) would make human life impossible. Arcesilaus seems to have been prominent here, and Opsomer thinks Colotes is attacking primarily Arcesilaus, and other philosophers only insofar as the Academics had cited them as authorities or precursors (I would have guessed that Colotes is just attacking all possible alternatives to Epicurus and using Arcesilaus as a reductio ad absurdum of everyone else). Opsomer finds Plutarch’s defense of Socrates and Arcesilaus (and the others) a paradigm for the semi-sceptical semi-Platonism he is pursuing. Plutarch maintains that Arcesilaus accepted the results of the senses for practical purposes, while holding to a high Platonic ideal of theoretical knowledge and suspending full assent from sensible appearances since they do not meet this higher standard. That may be, although it fits badly with Sextus’ report ( Outlines of Pyrrhonism I,232-3) that Arcesilaus made
Chapter 4, by far the longest chapter (85 pages), is built around a discussion of the first of Plutarch’s Platonic Questions, which is about why Socrates says (at Theaetetus 150c7-8) that a god has commanded him to act as midwife to others but not to “generate” or give birth (to
Perhaps the most interesting issues which Opsomer raises in Chapter 4 concern Plutarch’s attitude toward the New Academics; unfortunately these are also issues on which it is difficult to make much progress. Plutarch wrote a book On the Unity of the Academy since Plato, another On the Difference between the Pyrrhonians and the Academics, presumably helping to defend the New Academics by distinguishing them from the more radical position of the Pyrrhonists, and a third That Divination is Preserved according to the Academics, an issue which is naturally important to Plutarch given his close connections with Delphi. Unfortunately these are lost, and beyond what Plutarch says about Arcesilaus in the Against Colotes, there is not that much evidence that Opsomer can call on to reconstruct them, and I find much of his reasoning about the differences among the Academics suspect. Opsomer asks who Plutarch meant in mentioning the thesis that nothing is
Chapter 5, perhaps the most successful chapter in the book, is devoted to Favorinus, who, as a self-proclaimed Academic in the second century AD, is naturally a star example for Opsomer.8 While Favorinus is often regarded as an isolated throwback to earlier scepticism or as belonging to the “second sophistic” rather than to philosophy, Opsomer instead regards him as a student and follower of Plutarch. There was certainly some sort of personal relation between Plutarch and Favorinus; Plutarch dedicated several works to Favorinus, including the extant On the Principle of Cold, and Favorinus’ On the Academic Disposition had the alternative title Plutarch. Opsomer begins from a discussion of the On the Principle of Cold. It is presumably not a coincidence that in a work dedicated to Favorinus Plutarch should take an attitude of detachment toward his own arguments: while his thesis is that the primarily cold element is earth (rather than, as the Stoics say, air), he tells his addressee that, if his hypothesis achieves equipollence with the others, Favorinus should suspend judgment in these unclear matters. This has a New Academic sound. On the other hand, it also resonates with the Timaeus, which, reasoning from natural things back to their elements, warns that we cannot expect anything more than verisimilitude and explicitly suspends judgment about the first elements (whatever is prior to the triangles). Opsomer reviews the discussion about whether Plutarch is doing something Platonic or Academic here and concludes that he is doing both, which is surely right — the talk of equipollence is not Platonic, but the Timaeus gives Plutarch a Platonic model for a “sceptical” detachment from the results of his own arguments about natural things. (However, I would hesitate to draw conclusions about Plutarch’s epistemology. The On the Principle of Cold is an anti-Stoic exercise, attacking the Stoic view that air is cold and defending the Peripatetic view that air is hotter than water, and Plutarch’s dislike of the Stoics comes out more strongly than any principled epistemological stance. Indeed, the text may have been a pre-existing anti-Stoic manuscript, bundled up in a few sceptical meta-comments as a present for Favorinus.9)
Opsomer then turns to talk about Favorinus’ Academic epistemology (Opsomer insists rightly that Favorinus was an Academic and not a Pyrrhonist, although Favorinus may have been the first to use “sceptic” as a generic term covering both Academics and Pyrrhonists). Unfortunately, our main source of knowledge here is Galen’s tendentious attack in his On the Best Kind of Teaching against Favorinus. Galen is arguing against Favorinus’ preferred method of teaching by arguing both sides of each question. Favorinus says that students will be able to judge the questions for themselves once they have seen the arguments on both sides, but Galen argues that they will be in no position to judge if Favorinus has given them no criterion and has indeed tried to undermine the certainty of our natural criteria. There is some confusion about what Favorinus’ epistemology was since Galen says that Favorinus takes contradictory positions in different works. This has predictably given rise to developmental interpretations, but Opsomer argues, surely correctly, that Galen is polemically misinterpreting. Galen says that Favorinus in one book finds it probable that nothing is
Finally, Opsomer offers an interesting and attractive reconstruction of Favorinus’ attack on Epictetus. Favorinus wrote an Against Epictetus, in which Epictetus was refuted by a slave of Plutarch’s; scholars have taken this to be both contemptuous (“Plutarch doesn’t have to refute you himself, even a slave of his could do that”) and a gratuitously cruel reference to Epictetus’ servile origin. (This work moved Galen, ordinarily no admirer of Stoics, to write an On behalf of Epictetus against Favorinus.) However, Epictetus in his attack on the Academy in Discourses II,20 has an almost slapstick narrative of how, if he were a slave of an Academic, he would torment his master with “mistakes” and sceptical excuses for them until the Academic is driven either to hang himself or to give up his scepticism. Opsomer suggests, very plausibly, that Favorinus is responding to this attack on the Academy. This would explain why Epictetus is talking with a slave — but why specifically with a slave of Plutarch’s? Opsomer suggests (pp.232-5) that Epictetus’ attack was in fact directed against Plutarch (which would imply that Epictetus thinks of Plutarch as belonging to the Academy, not to a separate “Platonist” school). This seems to me to be no more than a possibility, but it does seem likely that Favorinus read Epictetus this way and so responded in defense of Plutarch and the Academy. We would then have a sequence of Epictetus attacking Plutarch, Favorinus defending Plutarch against Epictetus, and Galen defending Epictetus against Favorinus.
Chapter 6 discusses a Latin Christian apologia from the third century, the Octavius attributed to Minucius Felix, and tries to use it as evidence for strains of (New) Academic philosophy that might have survived until its day. Here one character, Caecilius, gives a philosophical criticism of Christianity from what seems to be a New Academic perspective; the Christian Octavius then replies to each of his arguments, with such force that Caecilius becomes a Christian. The text does indeed draw on some of the Academic themes that Opsomer has been pursuing in the book, but of course Minucius Felix is not himself a sympathizer of the Academy, and it does not seem possible to use the text as a witness to any living Academic tradition. Opsomer exhaustively reviews the discussion about what Caecilius’ standpoint is (Opsomer suggests, oddly, that Caecilius is not a pure sceptic, but perhaps he means only that, while Caecilius is against Christianity, he is not against traditional religion) and about what sources Minucius Felix was drawing on for Caecilius’ speech. He suggests that Favorinus was one target and that the author may have been acquainted with living self-proclaimed Academics in the tradition of Plutarch and Favorinus. However, it seems clear that every “Academic” element in the Octavius can be sufficiently explained from Cicero (from the New Academic speakers in the De Natura Deorum and the De Divinatione) and that the text gives no evidence for later developments. I see no reason to think Minucius Felix read Greek, so it is doubtful what access he could have had to Favorinus; his sources seem to be, rather, Cicero as a source for the Academic critique of claims about the gods (adapted here into a critique of Christianity) and as a stylistic model for philosophical dialogue, and then Tertullian as a model for Christian apologetics. While it was an interesting idea to try to use this little-studied text as a new angle on Academic ideas, in the end it does not seem to yield many results.11
The author’s English is sometimes awkward, and too often he approaches a question by first citing twenty opinions from the scholarly literature. Which is just to say that this is a not thoroughly revised dissertation.12 Opsomer focusses heavily on the semi-sceptical semi-Platonic philosophy with which he seems deeply sympathetic and has no sympathy or patience with the Stoic side of the debate.13 Even on his favored authors, he is sometimes too busy defending them (especially from charges of impiety) to evaluate critically how coherent their positions really are. Nonetheless, the book does useful work, and it will be good to have. In part this is because Opsomer brings together passages from sometimes little-studied authors (including many that I have not mentioned in this review) and connects them to give a broader picture of the philosophy of the time than many of us are used to. Perhaps more, it is because he brings to life philosophical themes scattered throughout the Plutarchan corpus, and lets us see better a Plutarchan mode of philosophy. Most of all, though, his own personal example helps to show what it might be like to actually believe in the Philonian and Plutarchan thesis of the unity of the Academy.
1. E.g. p.20: “What I want to do is merely to oppose the extremist but still commonly held thesis that New Academism was totally extinct after Antiochus, and show the existence of Academic sympathies in some traditions within Middle Platonism” (emphasis original). The view attacked pp.14-15 and many times thereafter, that because the New Academics were “sceptics” they must have been antireligious and that because Middle Platonism was an essentially religious philosophy it cannot have been influenced by the New Academy, seems particularly silly.
2. Opsomer does discuss Galen against Favorinus (pp.222-9), but he is mainly interested in Galen as a source for Favorinus. For some reason scholars of Middle Platonism often ignore Galen — perhaps they are simply intimidated by the vastness of Galen’s surviving work.
3. For a discussion of these problematic binary schemes, see Tryggve Göransson, Albinus, Alcinous, Arius Didymus (Göteborg, 1995), pp.78-104.
4. The edition is in Corpus dei Papiri Filosofici Greci e Latini, Testi e lessico nei papiri di cultura greca e latina, Parte III: Commentari, (Firenze: Olschki, 1995). For discussions of the date and philosophical standpoint of the Commentary see, beyond the editorial material of Bastianini and Sedley, Sedley’s “Three Platonist Interpretations of the Theaetetus” ( Form and Argument in Late Plato, ed. Gill and McCabe, Clarendon Press, 1996, pp.79-103) and Tarrant’s “The Date of Anonymous In Theaetetum” ( Classical Quarterly 33 , pp.161-87) and his Scepticism or Platonism? The Philosophy of the Fourth Academy (CUP, 1985), pp.66-88.
5. The Commentator uses
6. But see Sedley, “Three Platonist Interpretations of the Theaetetus,” pp.89-93, for an attempt to spell out how this interpretation would work, drawing chiefly on Alcinous (see also Sedley, “Alcinous’ Epistemology,” in Polyhistor: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ancient Philosophy, ed. Algra, van der Horst and Runia, Brill, 1996, pp.300-312). Tarrant, “The Date of Anonymous In Theaetetum,” p.171, suggests, just as plausibly, that it was sceptics who read the Theaetetus as being about the criterion.
7. Opsomer also tries to use the 6th century AD Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy, which argues against a sceptical reading of Plato, to reconstruct debates about Plato from the first centuries BC and AD (pp.69-77). I think he presses the text too hard. A text he cites on p.70 distinguishes the “New Academics” from the “ephectics” in that the ephectics think that
8. Opsomer published an earlier version of this material as “Favorinus versus Epictetus on the Philosophical Heritage of Plutarch. A Debate on Epistemology,” in Plutarch and His Intellectual World. Essays on Plutarch, ed. Judith Mossman (London-Swansea, 1997), pp.17-39.
9. I am also suspicious of the contrast Opsomer draws (pp.216-19) between sensible physical causes and “the noetic and the divine” causes which, for Plutarch as for the Timaeus, lie behind the physical causes and may be immune to the instabilities of
10. Judging by his citing Cicero De Natura Deorum II,4-5 as a parallel.
11. On p.256 Opsomer cites Octavius 38,5, where Octavius, in the course of insulting all the Academic heroes, describes Socrates as nihil se scire confessus, testimonio licet fallacissimi daemonis gloriosus. Opsomer, following the Loeb, translates “who confessed that he knew nothing, though he boasted of the promptings of a deceiving demon,” taking this to be Socrates’
12. There are also many small mistakes, of which my favorite was “Lachesis” for “Laches” on p.149. “Likeliness to God” (p.46) is a rather lovely statement of Opsomer’s Academic ideal. On the second line of p.92, “can” should be “cannot.”
13. This leads him into some odd mistakes: notably, on p.224 (perhaps also p.40) he seems to suggest that, in Stoic technical use,