BMCR 2009.05.06

Reading Plato in Antiquity

, , Reading Plato in Antiquity. London: Duckworth, 2006. 268. ISBN 0-7-156-3455-0. $90.00; £50.00.

Reading Plato in Antiquity, edited by Harold Tarrant and Dirk Baltzly is a useful contribution to the field of Neoplatonic studies, in particular the topic of the interpretation of Plato by his inheritors. The book is a collection of fifteen essays, the result of a conference held at the University of Newcastle, Australia in July 2002. The essays cover different approaches to Plato and the Platonic corpus throughout antiquity (25BC-Byzantium), with the bulk of the articles concerning the later Athenian and Alexandrian schools and their understanding of Plato. While some essays focus on a narrow issue relating to one particular aspect of commentary making, others take a fascinating look at trends or methods of exegesis with respect to the interpretation of the Platonic text. All of the articles, narrow or broad, offer high-level expertise in the field, making this a helpful book for the scholar already initiated in the generals of Platonism who has an interest in the particulars. Each article in this collection has much to offer on its topic, making the book highly valuable.

The book begins with a fine introduction by the conference organizers, Tarrant and Baltzly, who provide a cohesive summary of the articles. This introduction is extremely helpful for highlighting the major issues brought up in each article, how the issue is indicative of the concerns of the school of Platonism, and how variations show general trends in the history of interpretation. If the major weakness of the book is that some articles seem to be focused on a single philosophical issue, the introduction helps alleviate the narrowness of such an article by putting it in the larger context of the issue, relating it to the history of interpretation of Platonic texts.

The first essay, Tarrant’s “Platonic Interpretation and Eclectic Theory” is an excellent look at how Plato’s successors in the first 250 years after his death are united in their interpretation of Plato; particularly, in how they reflect Stoicism and the dialogue form. Tarrant argues that the Old Academy was defined by practices (e.g., self-examination), rather than doctrine. The writings of the early academy are identifiable from the Stoic school in the way it considers Plato an authority so that a correct interpretation must agree with Plato. Tarrant’s article is a fascinating look at what was at stake for early interpreters.

John Dillon’s essay, “Pedantry and Pedestrianism? Some Reflections on the Middle Platonic Commentary Tradition”, follows. Here, Dillon examines the types of remarks made by Middle Platonists in their commentaries on the Timaeus, particularly in their reading of the first sentence (17a) in order to see what kind of exegesis they engaged in. In his examination, Dillon rescues the Middle Platonists, who have been accused of having a pedantic approach to textual interpretation, from charges of pedestrianism. Dillon argues that not only is the Middle Platonic approach to the Platonic text similar to that of the Neoplatonic counterparts, but that Neoplatonic commentators borrowed wholesale from their predecessors.

The third essay is John Finamore’s “Apuleius on the Platonic Gods”, which examines Apuleius’ De Platone et Eius Dogmate and De Mundo and shows how Apuleius reworks material from the Greek originals (the De Platone from a basic handbook; the De Mundo, from a Pseudo-Aristotelian On the Universe), shifting the emphasis away from the transcendent god to a hierarchical, demonic universe. Much of the article does not concern itself with Apuleius’ debt to this handbook or the Pseudo-Aristotelian tradition, but instead shows Apuleius’ connection to Plato. Finamore argues that Apuleius re-interprets Plato in some areas, while maintaining Platonic doctrine in others, including the hypercosmic placement of the demiurge.

The Middle Platonists are discussed again in Julius Rocca’s “Plato Will Tell You: Galen’s Use of the Phaedrus in De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis IX”. The author argues that Galen’s use of the Phaedrus is interesting primarily because he did not consider himself a Platonist, but read Plato directly without mediation through the later philosophers. Galen argues that Hippocrates and Plato should be read as complementary and uses the Phaedrus to show how Plato’s tripartite soul and Hippocratic notions on the powers that govern us are in accord.

Essays five and six treat Plotinus’s reading of Plato. In “Platonists on the Origin of Evil”, John Phillips addresses Plotinus’ doctrine on evil, connecting it to Plato’s theory of disorderly motion and the fall of the soul. Phillips says, at the conclusion of his essay, that Plotinus re-interprets Middle Platonic theories on Plato’s description of the descent of the soul so as to reject any form of dualism; a theory this reviewer finds problematic, as well as Phillips’ remarks accusing pre-Plotinian and post-Plotinian philosophy of being “staid”. Still, Phillips does a sound job of showing Plotinus’ use of Plato in Enn. I.8. In the next essay, “The Species Infima as the Infinite: Timaeus 39e7-9, Parmenides 144b4-c1 and Philebus 16e1-2 in Plotinus Ennead VI.2.33″, Atsushi Sumi shows how Plotinus’s discussion of genera in the intelligible world in Enn. VI.2 is derived from an analysis of Sophist 25d-257a and Philebus VI.2.22, as well as sections of the Timaeus and Parmenides. This essay does a fine job of showing how a Platonist, accepting the authority of Plato and the unity of his thought, was able to read the Platonic corpus as a comprehensive account of the universe.

Next, in “The Doctrine of the Degrees of Virtues in the Neoplatonists: an Analysis of Porphyry’s Sentence 32, its Antecedents, and its Heritage”, Luc Brisson discusses Porphyry’s theory of the virtues, paying special attention to its place in the history of Platonism. Brisson outlines virtue for Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Plotinus, before showing how Porphyry amalgamates the earlier positions, adds a fourth degree of virtue called the “paradigmatic virtues”, and makes the sum total of virtue a philosophical way of life. The article ends with a summary of virtue for the later Platonists, including the influence of Porphyry’s paradigmatic virtue in the moral theory of Iamblichus, Proclus and Damascius; Marinus and Olympiodorus; and Psellus in the East, and Macrobius in the West.

The place of mathematics in the philosophical realm, particularly in the realm of political theory, is described by Hayden W. Ausland in “The Mathematics of Justice”. Ausland shows how Plato’s three mathematical means: the arithmetic, geometric, and harmonic are embedded metaphysically in the World Soul, psychologically in the individual soul, and politically, in his account of justice. He also shows how Iamblichus uses Plato’s Pythagorean understanding of Justice to derive a highly numerical account of justice, which bears little resemblance to any discussion on what is owed one, but is based on the fundamentally Platonic idea that justice involves proportion and harmony.

In Tim Buckley’s “A historical Cycle of Hermeneutics in Proclus’ Platonic Theology,” Buckley argues that the Phaedrus, not the Parmenides, is the key text for understanding Proclan hermeneutics. Buckley boldly argues that Proclus’ literal reading of the Phaedrus shows that Proclus saw himself and his predecessors as “actors in the drama” of the myth.

Proclus’ interpretation of Plato is treated further by John J. Cleary in “Proclus as a reader of Plato’s Timaeus“. This is, in my opinion, a particularly fine piece that examines Proclus’ hermeneutical assumptions made while reading and commenting upon the Timaeus. For instance, Cleary makes the point that Proclus treats Plato’s hypotheses and demonstrations as assumptions regarding the metaphysical order of the cosmos. Cleary, moreover, also argues for various divisions within the Timaeus manufactured by Proclus for his own plan for his commentary.

Marije Martijn, in “The eikôs mythos in Proclus’ Commentary on the Timaeus“, also takes on the topic of exegetical strategy. Here, she discusses, among other things, the skopos of the Timaeus which guides Proclus’ reading of the dialogue, displaying graphs (an impressive undertaking!) which show the number of pages Proclus spends on the lemmata and how the time is divided between theoria and lexis. With this, she shows that Proclus uses the division loosely; she suggests the possibility that the lexistheoria structure might be a remnant of Proclus’ method used in lecturing on the Timaeus.

Dirk Baltzly looks at the later commentators’ understanding of Phaedo‘s cathartic virtues in his essay, “Pathways to Purification: the Cathartic Virtues in the Neoplatonic Commentary Tradition”. Here, he examines, in part, how the later Platonists derived a cohesive doctrine, made it responsive to their own philosophical arguments, and integrated it with the Orphic poems and Chaldean Oracles. Baltzly makes a compelling argument that one can achieve separation of soul from body through ritual acts or through the purgation of false opinion, making the cathartic virtues reliant upon ritual and intellectual purification.

The relationship between Plato and Aristotle as viewed by the commentators is treated in essays by Richard Sorabji, “The Transformation of Plato and Aristotle”, and Lloyd Gerson, “The Harmony of Aristotle and Plato According to Neoplatonism”. Sorabji argues that harmonization is not the driving motivation for all Platonists who grapple with differences between the Plato and Aristotle; rather, Plato is transformed, as well as Aristotle, by later commentators, particularly in the areas of perception, concepts, the fifth element, individuals and universals. Of interest in Sorabji’s discussion is an investigation into the issue of individual immortality, a topic which caused great reinterpretation of Platonic and Aristotelian works by Christians such as Thomas Aquinas. Gerson also addresses the question of how harmony between Plato and Aristotle was achieved through Platonist interpretation; in doing so, he underscores the rather important point that Aristotle, when harmonized, was said to be in harmony with Platonism, rather than Plato. Gerson looks at the categories, the ethics, the four causes, the immortality of the soul, and the forms to show how the Aristotle of the Platonists is a separate creature unto itself.

In the last essay, Ken Parry discusses the indirect assimilation and direct promotion of Proclus in Byzantium in his essay, “Reading Proclus Diadochus in Byzantium”. Parry examines the ways in which Byzantine readers, including Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus Confessor, and John of Damascus, among others, use Proclus without attributing their source or offering quotations. Parry does a nice job of listing the works of Proclus which would have been available to the Byzantine reader and giving a general account of the Byzantine reception of Proclus.

This collection of essays is well-edited with a fine bibliography and fine indices.