BMCR 2003.12.24

The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347-274 BC)

, The heirs of Plato : a study of the Old Academy, 347-274 B.C.. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003. x, 252 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0198237669. $65.00.

In The Heirs of Plato, John Dillon (Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College, Dublin) has done students of Platonism everywhere a keen favor by illuminating with notable lucidity and clarity a particularly vexing era in the history of Platonic studies, namely the years 347-274 B.C. Indeed, as the book’s tailgate teaser proclaims, Dillon is the first to devote an entire volume to the contours of the Old Academy. That no one has done so before is not completely surprising, given the abysmal state of the evidence from this period. The work’s six chapters follow an intuitive progression chronologically and by theme, beginning with Speusippus, Plato’s immediate successor, continuing through Xenocrates and Polemo, and ending with an assortment of lesser lights like Philippus of Opus and Crantor of Soli. Thematically, it moves from questions of structure and system in chapters 1-2 to more nuanced questions concerning the application of particular Platonic doctrines in 3-5. The Epilogue of Chapter 6 is a brief but indispensable excursus on the transition to the sceptical New Academy of Arcesilaus.

The course and tone that the book will take are decided very early on, when Dillon presents in chapter 1 what Harold Cherniss called the Riddle of the Academy. Though acknowledging a debt to Cherniss’ work, Dillon opts for a much different treatment. Rather than confine himself to “the evidence of the dialogues” (p. 1) and therefore discount Aristotle as guilty of misinterpretation, Dillon examines every available piece of textual data contemporary and subsequent. The advantage gained by this is that Dillon is enabled to look more carefully at the “true dynamics of the Academy as institution, and into the relation of the doctrines of Plato’s disciples and successors as to what they conceived to be his teachings” (p. 1). The work thus does not aim to be philosophy proper, though careful and challenging arguments break out everywhere and on a wide variety of topics, but rather to illuminate a neglected period in the history of philosophy.

In chapter 1 Dillon sets himself a twofold task, both to explain the “nature and structure of the Academy” and the “nature of the basic doctrines that he [Plato] arrived at before his death.” These themes are treated in two sections. The first, entitled “The Physical Structure of the Academy”, adduces evidence primarily from Diogenes Laertius as to the “nature of the physical plant” (p. 5). Dillon organizes and evaluates this data, offering insight on the location and appearance of the school and its apparently communal life and arrangements for meals and sleeping quarters. The section is enlivened by well-chosen anecdotes whose plausibility Dillon also weighs. Carefully canvassed are the opinions of Wilamowitz, Guthrie, Glucker and others.

The second section is ambitiously titled “Plato’s Intellectual Legacy.” At the start, the author states his assumption that “… despite Plato’s strong view on many subjects, it was not his purpose to leave to his successors a fixed body of doctrine which they were to defend against all comers” (p. 16). Instead, Dillon believes that Plato was promoting a “method of inquiry” (p. 16) like that which he had himself received from Socrates. Under this assumption Dillon discusses the Platonic inheritance on two main points: cosmology, which concerns above all the implications of Pythagoreanism and the mathematical understanding of the universe, and the World-Soul in its relation to the Forms. Throughout, special attention is given quite reasonably to Timaeus; Aristotle’s Metaphysics is used as an important secondary source. Later Platonists Iamblichus and Proclus are also quarried. Much less attention is given in this section to ethics and logic, though each is discussed briefly on pp. 26-8.

Chapter 2, entitled “Speusippus and the Search for an Adequate System of Principles” deals with the leadership of Plato’s nephew within the Academy. The chapter contains two main sections, “Life and Works,” and “Philosophy,” with the latter divided into “First Principles,” “Ethics,” “Epistemology and Logic,” and a brief conclusion. Dillon emphasizes Aristotle’s influence on Speusippus and the controversies between them as well as the significance of Pythagoreanism. In the realm of ethics, Dillon describes Speusippus’ acknowledgement of the importance of pleasure and its necessary subordination to “freedom from disturbance” (p. 65). This position is helpfully compared to the Stoic and Epicurean teachings. The central issue of the section on epistemology and logic is Speusippus’ claim that “knowledge of any given physical object requires knowledge of its differentiae in respect of everything else” (p. 79). Aristotle’s criticism of this and other notions of Speusippus are prominently featured, and for the most part Dillon finds them persuasive. The conclusion to chapter 2 summarizes Speusippus as a thinker with “some idiosyncrasy of viewpoint, but by no means lacking in coherence or breadth of vision” (p. 88).

By far the longest chapter, at 66 pages or more than one-fifth of the whole, is Chapter 3: “Xenocrates and the Systematization of Platonism.” Consistent with Chapters 2 and 4 this shows the same divisions of “Life and Works” and “Philosophy.” The section on philosophy contains four subdivisions, namely “First Principles, Physics”; “Ethics”; “Logic”; and “Pythagorism and Allegorizing”.1 The biography of Xenocrates which Dillon provides is more complete than the ones he gives for Speusippus and Polemo, as dictated by the source material, and the discussion of his philosophy more thorough. The number of works attested for Xenocrates is fairly large, seventy-six according to Diogenes (p. 96). Xenocrates’ position on the supreme principles of the Monad and the Dyad as well as his importance as a religious thinker are emphasized: “[Xenocrates’] Monad exercises a far more providential role in the universe than Aristotle’s God…We see here, as elsewhere, Xenocrates exhibiting far more concern than Speusippus to remain true to what he conceives to be the doctrine of Plato” (p. 107). The same judgment is evident in Xenocrates’ positions regarding the Forms and the World-Soul, though there are noticeable developments and subtle modifications (pp. 129 ff.) The next section, on ethics, shows Xenocrates’ primary ethical contribution as placing due emphasis on the importance of the body for virtue and happiness. This conclusion is read through Cicero ( Fin.) and the hurly-burly of Stoic entanglements regarding the τέλος of nature. Generally, Dillon finds a fair amount of common ground between Xenocrates and the Stoics, though tangible differences remain (pp. 148 ff.). Dillon’s discussion of the Xenocratean importance for logic concerns broadly the question of the diairesis of divine and human knowledge and more narrowly whether the genus or species is primary in a definition, with Xenocrates maintaining the latter against Aristotle. The final section in chapter 3 explains the supposed connection between Xenocrates and Pythagoras as well as his penchant for allegorizing. The claim for the former is based upon one work entitled Pythagoreia of “unknown contents” (p. 153) and anecdotal evidence of his vegetarianism and dislike for oaths. For allegorizing, Dillon cites Aetius’ remark that the tendency to treat the Olympians as natural forces was passed from Xenocrates to the Stoics (p. 154). The chapter concludes with the assessment that Xenocrates was lacking in stylistic merit (according to Diogenes Laertius), conceded much to Aristotle, yet still exercised more influence over subsequent Platonists than his predecessor. The briefest portion of the book is Chapter 4, entitled “Polemo, Champion of Ethical Praxis“. The biographical portion is lamentably slim, but Dillon had almost nothing to work with. With Polemo, obvious signs of the ascendancy of Stoicism in the philosophical environment are beginning to show. His one surviving title, On the Life According to Nature seems to have anticipated the ensuing conflict between Stoics and Epicureans as to what was properly basic, what nature forbids and what she requires. Another possible contribution by Polemo that Dillon investigates is the question whether P. prefigured Stoic oikeiôsis. Dillon concludes that it is likely (p. 165). Additionally, based on a remark of Plutarch, Polemo is credited with furthering the notion of philosophical love (pp. 167-8). Dillon argues that the most significant addition by Polemo was “an increase in the austerity of Academic doctrine” (p. 166), thereby anticipating Zeno and other Stoics. The discussion transitions here from ethics to religious and metaphysical items, but this chapter shows no subdivisions as do the others. Apparently this is because there is so very little to go on for Polemo. Dillon concludes with an apparent endorsement of the notion that Polemo was “an important bridge figure between Platonism and Stoicism” (p. 177).

Chapter 5, “Minor Figures”, discusses Plato’s secretary Philippus of Opus, Hermodorus of Syracuse, Heraclides of Pontus, and Crantor of Soli. A short and patchy biography is given for each and notable, if woefully under-documented, accomplishments. For Philippus it is the authorship of the dialogue Epinomis and the concept of a five-tiered universe (p. 193). For Hermodorus, it is to have written a Life of Plato, in which he seems to have connected the master with Zoroaster and other eastern antecedents, and to have marketed his books in Sicily (which strangely earned him criticism). Dillon concludes regarding Heraclides that he furthered the Platonic biography tradition, helped to refine the dialogue format (p. 207), and vigorously attacked Democritean atomism (p. 211). Lastly, Crantor, arguably the most interesting, is presented as an associate of Arcesilaus who helped begin the turn toward scepticism, likely in reaction to the Stoic threat (p. 217). In addition, Dillon argues that he seems to be the first to have conceived of the notion of writing commentaries on Plato’s dialogues (p. 218).

The Epilogue “Arcesilaus and the Turn to Scepticism” concludes the book. Here Dillon is at his best, explaining how Zeno’s successful adoption and adaptation of the theories of Xenocrates and Polemo brought incredible pressure to bear on the Academy and its dogmatism:

For a Platonist, it was a case of either throwing in the towel, and admitting that Stoicism was the logical development and true intellectual heir of Platonism (a conclusion that commended itself to Antiochus of Ascalon two centuries later), or of going back to the drawing board, returning to the roots of one’s tradition, and launching a radical attack on the whole concept of dogmatic certainty. It was this course that Arcesilaus decided to take (p. 236).

With that brief but incisive discussion of Arcesilaus, Dillon concludes his book.

Although not intended as such, the work would serve as a good introduction to many of the interpretive questions in Platonic studies, specifically those surrounding the metaphysics of Timaeus and its reception. Many of the ongoing controversies that perplexed the Neoplatonists, like the Monad-Dyad conflict and the proper way to understand the role of the Demiurge, as well as exactly what Plato meant by the Forms, had their origin in the Old Academy.

Observable everywhere is Dillon’s marked restraint. Though much is known of this era and its protagonists, precious little is known directly from the authors themselves.2 For example, when relating the surviving stories about Speusippus in Chapter 2, Dillon prefaces his remarks with a commiseration on the “farrago of unreliably attested anecdotes” (p. 31). In case the enthusiastic reader has missed this important caution, Dillon reiterates it at least twice more in subsequent pages. Likewise, when providing Polemo’s biography, Dillon candidly acknowledges that it is nothing more than a “complex of anecdotes” (p. 158).

As for weaknesses, the book has few. The very occasional typographical errors (e.g. p. 159, “speakingly [sic] scathingly” and p. 222, “as a principles [sic] of motion and rest”) are a minor annoyance at worst. Dillon’s style is engaging and as readable as can be expected given the obtuseness of some of the material and its, once again, tattered and fragmentary state. The author helpfully summarizes and restate his conclusions in more than one place, and the indices are clean and well-organized.

In conclusion, Prof. Dillon provides a sensible, candid approach to a difficult subject, avoiding an excess of speculation and yet not refusing to walk down a few beckoning paths to see where the argument may lead.3 When that argument is one only suggested rather than dictated by the text, as is usually the case with members of the Old Academy, Dillon is careful to note that he offers what he believes is the likely flow of the argument, not the received gospel.4 The difficulty in writing such a book, i.e. one that is honest about the meagerness of the primary sources and yet manages to provide a connected and interesting account, cannot be overestimated. Dillon has succeeded.


1. Even at this early stage the reduction of philosophical topics to the Hellenistic trio of ethics, logic, and physics, was beginning to be felt, Dillon, p. 98. Dillon employs the term “Pythagorism” (rather than the more familiar Pythagoreanism), stipulating its definition as “a more than objective interest in the thought and personality of Pythagoras, and a tendency to try to reconstruct his teachings, fathering the theories of later men, including one’s own, on him in the process” (153).

2. In fact, for Speusippus we have verbatim fragments for only two works, as Dillon explains (39). A quick glance at the Index of Passages Quoted, however, demonstrates that Aristotle, Cicero, Diogenes Laertius, and Plutarch are the primary sources for this era.

3. This tension occasionally gives rise to some odd expressions, as at p. 57 where Dillon, when discussing the ontological interpretation “of the hypotheses of the Parmenides” calls this possibility “dangerously radical.”

4. Note such intellectually sober and responsible statements as “With some difficulty, then, and a good deal of speculation, our exiguous information on Polemo’s philosophical position can be fleshed out somewhat” (p. 176).