BMCR 2008.08.43

Platonisms: Ancient, Modern, and Postmodern

Kevin Corrigan, John Douglas Turner, Platonisms : ancient, modern, and postmodern. Ancient Mediterranean and medieval texts and contexts. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic tradition, v. 4. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. 1 online resource (xi, 278 pages).. ISBN 9789047420163 €119.00, $167.00.

This collection of essays arises from a conference held at Emory University in 2003 focused on the Platonic tradition from classical antiquity through the postmodern world. The essays and authors included are: Thomas Szlezák, “Platonic Dialectic: The Path and the Goal”; Luc Brisson, “What is a God According to Plato”; John D. Turner, “Victorinus, Parmenides Commentaries and the Platonizing Sethian Treatises”; Steven Strange, “Proclus and the Ancients”; Gretchen Reydams-Schils, “Virtue, Marriage, and Parenthood in Simplicius’ Commentary on Epictetus’ ‘Encheiridion'”; Gerald Bechtle, “How to Apply the Modern Concepts of Mathesis Universalis and Scientia Universalis to Ancient Philosophy. Aristotle, Platonisms, Gilbert of Poitiers, and Descartes”; Douglas Hedley, “Real Atheism and Cambridge Platonism: Men of Latitude, Polemics, and the Great Dead Philosophers”; Robert Berchman, “The Language of Metaphysics Ancient and Modern”; John Dillon, “The Platonic Forms as Gesetze : Could Paul Natorp Have Been Right?”; Anthony Cuda, “Crying in Plato’s Teeth—W.B. Yeats and Platonic Inspiration”; Kevin Corrigan, “The Face of the Other: A Comparison Between the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas, Plato, and Plotinus”; Stephen Gersh, “Derrida Reads (Neo-) Platonism”.

The “Platonisms” of the title of this book is evidently used as equivalent to “varieties of Platonism” or “versions of Platonism,” where the “variety” or “version” indicates an interpretation of Plato’s dialogues or of the implications of the claims made therein. Usually, though, a variety of Platonism is attributable to a philosopher who is defending that position. Thus, we speak of the Platonism of Speusippus or of Numenius or of Proclus and designate their different doctrines as varieties of Platonism. We usually do not speak of the Platonism of philosophers who are not self-proclaimed followers of Plato in some sense; thus, we do not normally refer to Descartes’ Platonism or Levinas’ Platonism, even though their engagement with Plato is certain to be an engagement with some variety of Platonism. Nor do we typically designate as a variety of Platonism a philosophical position that either agrees with a variety of Platonism at some very general level or with some relatively remote consequence of a Platonic position. So, philosophers who argue for the existence of a first principle of all or even for the importance of critical reflection in human life are not said thereby to embrace a variety of Platonism. The same is true for philosophers who, for example, argue for a purely remedial theory of punishment. In the present volume, “Platonisms” is a term used with maximal scope, thus justifying the immense range of topics covered as well as methodologies employed. There is no harm in this; indeed, it is a positive step in demonstrating the extraordinary fecundity of Plato’s thought. Still, I would be surprised if many individuals would have sufficient interest in enough of the areas covered to want to pay the very considerable price for this book.

The first section of the book is labeled “Platonisms of Classical Antiquity” and it contains the papers by Szlezák and Brisson. Szlezák sketches the case for the existence of Plato’s “unwritten teaching” and then proceeds to focus on the nature of dialectic as that is introduced in the dialogues. He argues that Plato’s scant but allusive treatment of dialectic there supports the hypothesis that dialectic is a central part of the unwritten teaching. He shows in some detail how the scattered references to dialectic cohere with the ancient testimony regarding the doctrine of first principles contained in the unwritten teaching. It used to be said against the so-called Tübingen School that even if there were an unwritten teaching of Plato, we could not know what that is and that even if we could, it would be irrelevant to the doctrines contained in the dialogues. Szlezák shows clearly—as he has in far greater detail in many other works—the weakness in this position. Brisson’s addresses what he terms “Plato’s revolutionary account of god.” The tradition that Plato inherited made the fundamental contrast between the divine and the human turn on the immortality of the former. Plato, with his arguments for the immortality of the human person, undermines this contrast. His historically momentous exhortation to “assimilate oneself to god” is both a radical idea for philosophy and a distinct puzzle. If we are immortal souls, are we not gods already? If we are not gods, how then are we to assimilate ourselves to them? The solution to the puzzle is to separate an immortal part of the soul from the mortal embodied parts and to identify that part with intellect. Thereby a divine being or god need not be embodied. It is the status of disembodied intellects—”personal” in their cognitive dimension though “impersonal” in their lack of idiosyncratic characteristics rooted in the body—that was to consume the exegetical and speculative efforts of later Platonists, especially those who tried to meld Platonism with Biblical religion. Plato himself seemed to resist making his first principle of all, the Idea of the Good, a god, though even relatively early followers of Plato did not.

The second section of the book is labeled “Platonisms of Late Antiquity” and it contains the papers of Turner, Strange, and Reydams-Schils. Turner’s paper is a detailed treatment of four little known so-called Sethian Gnostic treatises that reveal clear Platonic features. These treatises, perhaps written between 150 and 250 C.E., represent a non-Christian version of a sort of mythological Platonism arising out of the Jewish tradition, thereby distinguishing it from the “Middle” Platonism of philosophers like Alcinous and Numenius. According to Turner, Plotinus had these Gnostics, among others, in mind when he wrote his treatise “Against the Gnostics.” Turner locates the Sethian Gnostics treatises “at the cusp of the shift from Middle Platonism to Neoplatonism.” At issue among both Gnostics and Middle Platonists was the status of Plato’s Timaeus and Parmenides, the two dialogues that later came to be recognized together by Platonists as containing the culmination of philosophical wisdom. In the former dialogue, the supreme principle of all seems to be the Demiurge, a being sufficiently personal to have (or be) an intellect with a will; in the latter, assuming that the second part of the dialogue contains positive doctrine, the supreme principle seems to be an impersonal and unknowable One. Much of the speculation and mythological writing in this period focuses on the reconciliation or systematization of these seemingly divergent views. As Turner shows, one path of reconciliation is in effect to make the Parmenides a theological treatise, expressive of what later came to be known as negative theology, that is, the claim that, though we cannot know what the first principle of all is, we can know what it is not. Making the first principle of all indirectly knowable in this way seems at least compatible with its being something like an inscrutable person as opposed to, say, a principle of number. Strange’s paper provides a nice complement to Turner’s, surveying Proclus’ references to earlier Platonic exegetes of Plato’s Parmenides in his own commentary on that work. By the time of Proclus’ first teacher, Plutarch of Athens, the theological or metaphysical interpretation of the second part of the Parmenides was well established, and it was this interpretation that Proclus wanted to defend. But he was aware of many other interpretations, including those that held that there was no substantive content in the second part of that dialogue. He was also aware that some of “the ancients” up to Iamblichus “theologized” that dialogue. Strange briefly addresses the puzzle about the Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides, a theological reading of the text that may, according to the recent arguments of some, be situated within the period of Middle Platonism. The wealth of evidence provided by Turner seems to increase the probability of this view.

Reydams-Schils’ paper has a quite different orientation, focusing on late Platonic use of material from the Roman Stoa, in particular, Simplicius’ commentary on Epictetus’ Enchiridion. As is well known, Platonists from Antiochus of Ascalon to Plotinus thought that of all the competing positions, Stoic ethics was closest to the Platonic model. Strikingly, Simplicius wrote an extensive commentary on Epictetus’ little work, evidently because that work was thought to be a worthy introduction to the study of the Platonic philosophical way of life. This Platonic “curriculum”, after passing through the works of Aristotle, culminated in the Timaeus and the Parmenides. Reydams-Schils gives a thoughtful account of how Simplicius’ appreciation for but distance from Epictetus’ Stoic ethics flows from their varying metaphysical assumptions. According to her, their differing valuations of personal, especially familial, relations is explained by the Stoic identification of being with material nature and the Platonists’ identification of being with the immaterial or “supernatural.” In this regard, Reydams-Schils is probably correct to point out that Simplicius conceived himself to be fighting to preserve traditional Greek philosophical wisdom against the by then dominant Christian incursion. His casting of the Platonic position in a way that would make it a palatable alternative to Christianity is not a necessary consequence of his metaphysics.

The third and longest section, labeled “Platonisms of the Renaissance and the Modern World” is the most far reaching, both in the number of thinkers it covers and in the various genres it examines. It includes the papers by Bechtle, Hedley, Berchman, Dillon, and Cuda.

Bechtle investigates the Renaissance and early modern conceptions of mathesis universalis and scientia universalis, the former being the general science of quantity, and the latter being a postulated primary science of everything. He is particularly interested in applying this important distinction to the Platonism of antiquity. After a wide-ranging discussion, he concludes that Plato’s division between the intelligible/metaphysical and the dianoetic/mathematical levels of analysis is normative for the later tradition. That is, philosophers from Aristotle, Speusippus and onwards are reacting to Plato’s fundamental distinction either, in the former case, endorsing it by distinguishing mathematics from the universal science of being or, in the latter case, by conflating the mathematical with the universal. It is this debate that Bechtle sees as being reflected well into the modern period. Hedley’s paper is very much in line with the earlier papers that focus on the question of whether or not the first principle of all is in any sense a person. In particular, the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth railed at length against the “atheism” of ancient philosophers like Epicurus. Cudworth knew perfectly well that Epicurus explicitly mentions the gods in his writings. For Cudworth, his atheism consisted precisely in his rejection of divine benevolence. Cudworth, searching for an account of divine benevolence more congenial than that which he found in Calvinism, embraced the Platonism of both Plotinus and of early Christian theologians like Clement of Alexandria and John Scotus Eriugena. For Cudworth and other Cambridge Platonists, the challenge was to “personify” the first principle of all in the appropriate measure, that is, in a way that avoided both Stoic or Spinozistic pantheism and Cartesian voluntarism. What Cudworth, especially, seems to be doing is relying on a humanist version of the argument for the superiority of the spiritual to the material and for its essential goodness. For him, the justification for characterizing God as benevolent follows from his argument that God is the cause of the existence of this spiritual goodness.

Berchman, too, indirectly addresses the issue of how the personal is to be interjected into the ontological, by presenting a survey of fundamentally differing concepts of metaphysics in the history of philosophy. In particular, Berchman argues that the term “intellect” in ancient philosophy is used in a way fundamentally different from modern conceptions, according to which the element of consciousness or self-consciousness is present. For Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, the argument for the existence of immortal or separate intellect is not an argument for something that is conscious or that is capable of representing the world in consciousness. By contrast, modern accounts of intellect from Descartes to Husserl assume a representational element in mind following from the conflation of intellect with consciousness. He argues that the underlying assumption of idealism implicit in the modern language is incommensurable with the ancient. Berchman thus sheds light on modern philosophical efforts to personify the first principle and how profoundly different these are from the ancient Platonic tradition.

Dillon’s article serves as a nice continuation of Berchman’s discussion, reviving for discussion the idealistic interpretation of Plato’s theory of Ideas produced by the scholar and philosopher Paul Natorp (1854-1924). Natorp’s Neo-Kantian interpretation of Plato maintained that the Ideas or Forms are stable features of the world realized in an intellect contemplating them. They are something like norms or laws for structuring reality, actualized by consciousness. Dillon finds this interpretation implicit in the Stoicizing Platonism of, among others, Antiochus of Ascalon. He thereby implicitly challenges Berchman on the origin of idealism. The latter would no doubt reply that Natorp’s Neo-Kantian interpretation of Plato, not surprisingly, owes more to Kant than to Plato. On a quite different path, Cuda explores W.B. Yeats’ reflections on Platonism in his struggle to understand the nature of artistic inspiration. Yeats found in Platonism, distilled through the groundbreaking English translation of Plotinus by Stephen MacKenna, a vocabulary for thinking about what sort of knowledge, if any, is transmitted in poetry. What Yeats discovered in Plotinus, and which he transmuted into his concept of the daemonic, is the “metaconsciousness” of the first principle. Poetic inspiration, like a mystical experience, is an experience of an unknowable source of all that is knowable. The fourth section, containing the papers of Corrigan and Gersh, is devoted to Platonisms of the Modern World. Corrigan engages in a detailed discussion of Emmanuel Levinas’ encounter with early Platonism. Corrigan treats Levinas’ concept of the Other and tries to show that in his account of how the Other and the divine are simultaneously disclosed Levinas is forging an alternative to the ontological tradition that focuses on sameness, which, in the Platonic tradition, leads to the source of all samenesses, the first principle of all. As such, it is the ultimate Other. The irreducible transcendence of the Other, that is, of the person, is thus made inseparable from the otherness of the divine. Levinas’ criticism of traditional philosophy in its focus on limited being or substance is at the same time a rethinking of Platonic negative theology. Gersh, offering an analysis of Jacques Derrida’s thoughts on Platonism, wants to show that Derrida’s reading of Platonic texts is neither inconsequential nor unjustified. Derrida is especially on firm grounds in returning again and again to the fundamental oppositions in Platonic metaphysics—intelligible/sensible, good/evil, stability/change, etc.—and to the way that Platonic discourse itself “overcomes” these oppositions. According to Gersh, Derrida sees in Plotinus’ articulation of Platonism both an assertion of the traditional oppositions and an attempt to overcome them both in postulating a first principle beyond being which is at the same time the source of all being, and in acknowledging the impossibility of the written word to convey the opposition and its overcoming. What Gersh calls a “disruption of oppositions” is present both in Platonism, especially in the Plotinian concept of emanation, and in Derrida’s deconstruction of it.

My initial reaction to this collection was that, like most collections of conference papers, it was a hodge-podge of essays more or less of value to the student of Platonism. In thinking through them again for this review, it struck me that there is a broad unity of theme that I was not initially aware of. I have tried to emphasize that unity here, a unity that manifests the astonishing vitality of Platonism. Anti-Platonism, so to say, is the position that virtually every philosophical claim made in this volume is false. That itself is a very large claim, indeed.