BMCR 2003.08.19

In Search of the Truth: Academic Tendencies in Middle Platonism

Jan Opsomer, In search of the truth : academic tendencies in middle platonism. Verhandelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Wetenschappen, Letteren en Schone Kunsten van België, Klasse der Letteren ; jaarg. 60, nr. 163. Brussels: Paleis der Academiën Hertogsstraat I, 1998. 332 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm.. ISBN 9065696660

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 κατάληψις, of the certain grasp of an object. The dogmatist Antiochus called his opponents “New Academics” in order to represent himself as returning to the original teaching of Plato and his first disciples, and, following his language, modern scholars often refer to those Academics who denied κατάληψις, or to those who advocated suspension of judgment (but these are not the same thing!) as “New Academics”; in an even more dubious shorthand, we say simply “Academics” to mean just this subgroup. While I am not sure exactly what Opsomer means by “Academic tendencies” in middle Platonism — he is not claiming that the authors he studies were sceptics — he at least wants to show that the concerns raised by Arcesilaus and Carneades did not die out at the end of the Hellenistic period but continued to be important for at least some members of the school through the end of the second century AD.

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 σκοποί or principal subject-matters to each dialogue, the dialogues are also classified by “characters”: some dialogues are “hyphegetic” (instructional or doctrinal) while others are “zetetic,” and then each of these characters is further subdivided in an elaborate series of binary divisions.3 The character-scheme seems to originate in a response to sceptical readings of Plato. A New Academic will say that Plato wrote his dialogues not to assert or demonstrate positive doctrines but merely to try out arguments or to refute rash claims of knowledge, and he will be able to point to Platonic passages that support this interpretation. A dogmatist reader can reply that, while some of Plato’s dialogues are like this, he puts forward positive doctrine in others. When more sceptical and more dogmatic members of Plato’s school argue about Plato’s purposes in different dialogues, a crucial disputed ground will be the Theaetetus — because it is about knowledge, because its prima facie negative conclusions suggest a sceptical interpretation, and because its methodological comments (notably about Socrates’ practice of midwifery, and his own infertility) were focal for ancient discussions of Plato’s approach to philosophy. For evidence of a range of Academic/Platonist interpretations of the Theaetetus, Opsomer turns to the Anonymous Commentary on the Theaetetus first published by Diels and Schubart in 1905 and now beautifully edited by Bastianini and Sedley in the Corpus dei Papiri Filosofici Greci e Latini. While the Commentary has conventionally been dated to the second century AD, Tarrant (now joined by Sedley) has argued for an earlier date, in the late first century BC or early first century AD. While the text does not itself take a sceptical position, it has a lively engagement with sceptical readings of Plato and shows more sympathy to the New Academy than we might expect from a typical second-century Middle Platonist like Alcinous; Tarrant thought that bringing the date back to an earlier period set the text in the proper context of sceptic-anti-sceptic debates, and that its position belonged with the “Fourth Academy” of Philo of Larisa.4 Opsomer argues instead for the second century AD dating. He has some arguments turning on the vocabulary of the Commentary, which he does not claim to be decisive (p.36),5 but his main point is just to undercut Tarrant’s assumption that a context of debates between sceptical and anti-sceptical interpretations of Plato implies an early date: if these debates were still alive for Plutarch and Favorinus, then this context is compatible with a date as late as the second century AD.

The Anonymous Commentary says that the σκοπός of the Theaetetus (the aim or central topic of the dialogue, for the sake of which it takes up its other topics) is knowledge, against people who think that the σκοπός is the criterion of truth. The Anonymous Commentary also rejects the Cornford-like view that the Theaetetus shows what knowledge is not of, namely sensible things, and the Sophist what knowledge is of, presumably the Forms whose combinations the Sophist discusses (Opsomer, following Sedley, calls this view the “object-related interpretation”). Against these views, the Commentary holds that the Theaetetus is about neither the criterion nor the object of knowledge, but the essence of knowledge, and that Plato in the Theaetetus maintains (but for pedagogical reasons never explicitly asserts) the Meno account of knowledge as true opinion tied down by reasoning out the cause. (Curiously, the Commentator reads Meno 98a3-4 as speaking of tying down “by cause of reasoning” — αἰτίᾳ λογισμοῦ instead of αἰτίας λογισμῷ — but this seems to make no difference in the way he interprets the phrase.) Opsomer tries to use this dispute to reconstruct some of the history of the reading of Plato, seeing the Commentator as mediating between a sceptical Academic reading and a strongly dogmatic reading. Certainly the object-related interpretation would come from a dogmatic metaphysical Platonism — Opsomer attributes it to Antiochus (p.40), which seems unlikely to me. Opsomer also thinks that the “criteriological” interpretation of the Theaetetus would come from a strongly dogmatic Platonism (pp.39-40); but what are his grounds? Perhaps he thinks that this is what would make philosophical sense, but I do not understand why. Or perhaps he is relying on the Bastianini-Sedley text, according to which the Commentary says (at II,32-9) that the people who maintain the object-related interpretation are the same people who think that the Theaetetus is about the criterion; but this text depends on a conjectural reconstruction of an illegible portion of line 33, based in turn on the judgment that this is what would make philosophical sense, and again I do not understand why. I would think that someone who thinks the Theaetetus is an argument that there is no knowledge of sensible things would think that it is about knowledge rather than about the criterion.6

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 οἰκείωσις, and thus of mere human nature, rather than on flight from the world to God, pp.46-8). Late ancient Platonists such as the Commentator do have real points in common with the New Academics, chiefly a detestation of the Stoics. The New Academics develop strategies for shooting down what they see as sophistical Stoic claims to teach wisdom, and these strategies are taken up by other anti-Stoics who may have quite different final goals. But we should not let such real commonalities lead us into letting down our guard against the highly suspect Platonist appropriations of the New Academy.7

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 ἐποχή itself the τέλος. On the other hand, Plutarch feels bound by school loyalty to mount a Platonist defense of Arcesilaus, and he tries the only possible tack; and on at least some points Opsomer is insufficiently critical of the Platonizing of Arcesilaus (did Arcesilaus say, against the Stoics, that one can live through mere impulse without assent? Opsomer thinks this can only be a dialectical use of Stoic premisses against the Stoics (p.94), since the Academics reject the Stoic attempt to ground morality on mere human nature and so must reject a life based on instinct not controlled by reason). Plutarch’s defense of Socrates against Colotes also involves him in the debate about Socrates’ εἰρωνεία and/or ἀλαζωνεία. ” *εἰρωνεία” in what seems to have been its original sense, “dissimulation,” is ascribed to Socrates, but as an accusation, and Plato defends him against it; this is to be distinguished from the later rhetorical sense of εἰρωνεία, where it is supposed to be clear to the reader that the writer means the opposite of what he literally says. Aristotle and Theophrastus develop a conception of εἰρωνεία which seems to be designed especially to apply to Socrates: the εἴρων, who pretends to be worse than he really is, is the opposite of the ἀλαζών, who pretends to be better than he really is. By contrast, the Epicureans accuse Socrates of εἰρωνεία and consider εἰρωνεία as a species of ἀλαζωνεία, apparently because the εἴρων, in praising his interlocutor and diminishing himself, dishonestly sets his interlocutor up for humiliation (the Epicureans recommend instead παρρησία, honestly telling the interlocutor where he is right or wrong). Antiochus and the New Academics will dispute whether (or in what sense) Socrates’ disclaimer of knowledge is “ironic.” While Plutarch consistently defends Socrates, Opsomer concludes that he does not have a consistent line on Socratic irony and uses ” εἰρωνεία” freely in all of the senses available in his time.

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 λόγοι) himself. Even though Opsomer frequently turns away to other texts for comparison, this is simply too much for a not especially profound text which fits on a single traditional page, and I will select only some of Opsomer’s themes for comment. Why does Socrates speak of himself as commissioned by a god ? Plutarch feels a need to defend Socrates here from an accusation of an εἰρωνεία that would be a species of ἀλαζωνεία. The god is not just an exalted way of referring to Socrates’ intellect; it might be Delphic Apollo, or the δαιμόνιον. (Elsewhere in Plutarch, Apollo gives oracles in riddles in order to produce aporia and thus stimulate philosophy.) In any case Socrates was an instrument of providence for freeing young men of conceit implanted by sophistic education. Either κατάληψις is possible for human beings or it is not. If not, then certainly it is best that Socrates should not claim it but should rather devote himself to purging others of their false claims to knowledge. Even if κατάληψις is possible, for two reasons it is better for Socrates not to proclaim doctrines of his own. First, what is chiefly required of him is a critical assessment of claims, and the natural tendency to favor one’s own offspring would bias his critical ability. Second, Socrates’ frank criticism of his interlocutors will be more effective if he represents himself as equally ignorant and subject to the same criticisms as they. (Opsomer finds parallels, in Plutarch and beyond, for all these ideas, and also tries to explain them — sometimes in rather strange ways — in terms of a Platonic psychology.) The second of these reasons is not a reason for Socrates not to have knowledge, only for him to profess ignorance. And indeed Plutarch proposes at the end of the Question (and so seems to endorse) a non-sceptical solution: midwifery means recollection, and Socrates does not “generate” knowledge because no one generates it, in themselves or in others, but only recollects, or stimulates others to recollect, knowledge or νοῦς that was innate within them. (Or rather, knowledge of divine things is like this, and Socrates does not care about the lesser kinds of knowledge which can be generated — among which, in a remarkably un-Platonic step, Plutarch includes mathematics.) Opsomer fills out the very short text by turning to other texts of Plutarch on the νοῦς divinely implanted in us and on its struggles with the irrational soul, and on recollection (which does not seem to be a very important theme for Plutarch; most of the passages that mention recollection are just literary allusions to the Phaedrus — not the Meno, except in some fragments whose authenticity Opsomer doubts for what seem insufficient reasons, pp.200-3; Opsomer takes Platonic Question 3 to refer to recollection, p.197, but it does not).

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 καταληπτόν for humans, and after running through every possible interpretation of Arcesilaus and Carneades (pp.162-8), concludes that he meant Arcesilaus, when I would say he clearly meant both. (Opsomer’s discussion is damaged by not distinguishing carefully between ἀκαταληψία and ἐποχή. He says on p.163 that if Arcesilaus asserts ἀκαταληψία and decides on ἐποχή as the correct response, he wouldn’t be contradicting himself unless he claimed to have κατάληψις of ἀκαταληψία; but surely it would be a practical contradiction for Arcesilaus to assert anything if he has decided to suspend judgment on everything.) Opsomer says that “Antiochus was probably the only ‘Academic’ philosopher whom Plutarch did not regard as such” (p.172), but in the passage Opsomer cites, Plutarch offers both a charitable and an uncharitable version of Antiochus’ disagreement with Carneades and Philo without choosing between them, and Opsomer gives no justification for preferring the anti-Antiochean version. Opsomer also assimilates Plutarch’s saying that arguing on both sides is useful for reaching κατάληψις (if we can have κατάληψις) to Cicero’s saying that arguing on both sides is useful for finding the veri simile (pp.186-8), but these are quite different. Perhaps Plutarch is merely not excluding the possibility of κατάληψις, but, if (as seems more likely) he accepts it, then the only way to assimilate this to the New Academy would be to connect it with Philo’s “Roman Books” and to say that Plutarch, like these books but unlike Philo elsewhere or the other New Academics, lowers the Stoic requirements for κατάληψις. But Opsomer, who says merely that ” [p]ossibly Philo did not even object to the term κατάληψις taken in a weak sense,” (p.192, my emphasis), is unwilling to get into what seem to me to be the crucial technical issues.

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 καταληπτόν, but that in another book he implies that something is reliably knowable (” βεβαίως γνωστόν,” a phrase that Galen claims to prefer for reasons of Atticism to the Stoic neologism ” καταληπτόν“). However, Galen’s evidence for attributing to Favorinus the thesis that something is reliably knowable seems to be merely that Favorinus expects his students to judge between the two sides of a question, which (Galen says) they could not do unless something was reliably knowable. Opsomer must also be right in saying that Galen does not really substitute ” βεβαίως γνωστόν” for ” καταληπτόν” from motives of linguistic purity but because it will be easier for him to pin Favorinus to the vague statement that some things are reliably knowable than to the technical statement that something is καταληπτόν, which Favorinus clearly rejects. If I may add a suggestion: Galen reports that Favorinus denied that the sun was καταληπτός, and Opsomer apparently takes this to mean that we cannot be certain of the existence of the sun.10 But, according to Galen, one of Favorinus’ three books against kataleptic impressions was “against Aristarchus,” presumably Aristarchus of Samos: so it seems likely that it was here that Favorinus denied that the sun was καταληπτός, and that what he was denying was that we can be certain about the size or distance of the sun or about whether the sun goes around the earth or vice versa.

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 [1983], pp.161-87) and his Scepticism or Platonism? The Philosophy of the Fourth Academy (CUP, 1985), pp.66-88.

5. The Commentator uses *)AKADHMAI+κός with the initial expectation that that will mean something like “sceptic,” although he himself then contests that expectation (LIV,38-LV,13); he uses δογματίζω in what Opsomer thinks is too rigid a sense for the first century BC,42-3; LV,1-2; LXI,38-9); and he uses Πλατωνικοί (II,11-12) for a group of people (though perhaps “Plato scholars” rather than “committed Platonists”). All of these points have some merit, but in all of them it is disputable when the usage shifts.

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 ἀκαταληψία applies to all things in the same way, while the New Academics think that ἀκαταληψία does not apply to all things in the same way but that some things prompt a moderate assent. Opsomer misreads this as saying that the New Academics did not believe ἀκαταληψία applied to all things and thinks this must be Philo of Larisa, when it is more likely Carneades; and he thinks that the “ephectic” reading of Plato must be Pyrrhonist, when it could very well be Arcesilean.

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 δόξα. The text speaks of “the first and highest” causes, not of the divine, and it attributes these equally to Plato and to Democritus.

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’ δαιμόνιον. But the text speaks of testimony, not of promptings, and the daemon must be the Delphic oracle, which testified that Socrates was the wisest of men. It is however true that Socrates’ δαιμόνιον was referred to as a daemon at 26,9, and it is possible that Apollo and the δαιμόνιον have somehow been blurred into one.

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, κατάληψις stands for something stronger than ἐπιστήμη; the reverse is true. His dismissal of the thoroughly anti-Stoic (and sometimes Aristotelianizing) Alcinous as “a syncretism of Platonism and Stoicism” (p.208 n386) also suggests lack of interest in the doctrinal details.