BMCR 2013.09.56

Aristotle, Plato and Pythagoreanism in the First Century BC: New Directions for Philosophy

, Aristotle, Plato and Pythagoreanism in the First Century BC: New Directions for Philosophy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xxiv, 305. ISBN 9781107020115. $99.00.


The first century B.C. saw a profound change in philosophy. The old schools determining the scene in the Hellenistic period now lost their dominance and the study of the works of Plato and Aristotle got a new impetus. This volume explores these new developments from different angles. It is the second volume of a project which aimed at exploring a field which has largely been neglected hitherto.1

Myrto Hatzimichali discusses the fate of the works of Plato and Aristotle. Some of Plato’s dialogues were widely known already in the Hellenistic age and the author gives us evidence for engagement with the minutiae of the text in Alexandria. The tetralogical ordering, however, was not the norm there. The treatise by Galen On Freedom from Grief, which was discovered recently, shows that Plato’s influence was not confined to his own followers. It mentions ‘the Plato of Panaetius’ (ch.13), which may indicate that Panaetius owned a copy of Plato’s dialogues and provided it with notes and corrections. Aristotle’s works fared much worse since they may not have gone through an editorial process in the Hellenistic age. Against this background, Andronicus’ role was not so minimal as has been argued by Jonathan Barnes.2 It can be downgraded only if we expect the same standards as those faced by modern editors. His achievement consisted in arranging and dividing Aristotle’s books according to subject-matter, and making them accessible to the public.

Riccardo Chiaradonna examines Platonist approaches to Aristotle. He does not see any conclusive evidence for a textual analysis or commentary in Antiochus, and this absence seems to be a general feature of the reception of Aristotle’s doctrines in that period. The reports on his doctrines are fused with Stoic elements, as we find in Sextus’ doxography on the Peripatetic notion of the criterion ( M 7.217-26). On the other hand, we can see a smooth transition towards a direct acquaintance with Aristotle’s school treatises; the first signs of this development can be found in Cicero’s acquaintance with the Topics and Eudorus’ interest in the Metaphysics and the Categories. Moreover, in the case of Eudorus, we do not have decisive evidence for his supposed anti-Aristotelian allegiance. Platonists in the 2 nd century A.D. turned to Aristotle’s text under the influence of the flourishing Aristotelian commentary tradition.

Marwan Rashed finds a subtle ontology in Boethus. The Peripatetic philosopher insisted on the principle put forward in the Categories, that in order for something to be a substance it must be a subject and must not be in a subject. As a consequence, form can not be substance, which goes against the doctrine apparently espoused in Metaphysics Z. For Boethus, form is predicated of the matter. To put it otherwise, the matter has the form. His views were criticized by Alexander of Aphrodisias who, relying on another principle (‘the parts of a substance are substances’), claims that in order for something to be a substance it must be a part of an individual substance (where part is understood either as matter or as form). To stress the primacy of form he concludes that matter is ‘deontically’ predicated of the form, and that form has the matter.3 Boethus might have treated form as intimately connected to species. He endowed the category of ἕξις with one single function: it indicates the inherence of the accident in the substance, or the fact that we can predicate the attribute of the subject.

Andrea Falcon offers a condensed version of the main results of his book on Xenarchus of Seleucia.4 He argues that Xenarchus’ criticism of the doctrine of the fifth substance formed part of a broader critique of Aristotle’s position. By showing that fire can also revolve when it reaches its natural place, the uppermost region of the universe, Xenarchus believes that the concept of a fully realised, non-stationary fire that naturally moves in a circle makes the concept of an unmoved mover expendable. Thus he adopts a position that can be best described as strict naturalism. The revolution of the heavens is eternal because there is nothing that can prevent the fire that has reached the uppermost region from moving in a circle. In ethics, based on a close textual reading of Aristotle’s work, he elaborated a Peripatetic doctrine of the πρῶτον οἰκεῖον out of the concept of φιλία we find in the Nicomachean Ethics.

Anna Eunyoung Ju focuses on Posidonius’ explanation of some passages in the Timaeus, as preserved in Plutarch’s De an. proc.. Her aim is to reveal the way in which Posidonius responded to the syncretistic move of his school, initiated by Antipater of Tarsus and Panaetius of Rhodes. She argues that Posidonius’ references to Plato cannot be read straightforwardly as Platonising because (1) the majority of the references also take in Plato’s predecessors, (2) they allow us to see him as someone recovering a Pythagorean heritage as a part of Stoicism’s ancestry, and (3) they reflect a wider interest in the reconstruction of the history of philosophy in his work. The case- study given by Plutarch’s passages shows that in explaining the status of the soul as a kind of mathematical entity Posidonius drew on the conception of the cognitive faculty (λόγος) of the soul in the Timaeus, and that he might have been encouraged by Pythagorean tenets.

Roberto Polito examines the appropriation of the corpuscular theory of Heraclides of Pontus by Asclepiades of Bithynia. The notion of ἀνάρμοι ὄγκοι is unclear, but it is likely that Plato’s geometrical atomism in the Timaeus paved the way to Heraclides’ theory of masses and found echoes in Xenocrates’ minima. Heraclides made use of the notion of minima : he called them θραύσματα (Stobaeus, Ecl. 1.14.1 = fr. 121 Wehrli). Asclepiades proposed to measure himself against the Platonizing tradition and to target it via Heraclides. He took over some of its ideas for the sake of transforming and criticizing it.5

Alexander Polyhistor is a shadowy figure, and A. A. Long tries to unearth as much about him as can be known with some certainty. He argues that Alexander’s text, preserved in Diogenes Laertius, is too heterogeneous to be associated with a single philosophical movement. Just one example: the allegedly Pythagorean principles and elements – the Monad and the Indefinite Dyad – are of Academic origin and replace Philolaus’ notion of limit and unlimited. Because of the wildly eclectic nature of the text, the author may have been a learned Hellenistic scholar, not a faithful Pythagorean. It is doubtful, however, whether his treatise made any significant impact on Roman intellectuals during the first century BC. 6

Eudorus is also a figure whom many scholars have invested with various accolades, but Mauro Bonazzi stays on more modest ground in discussing his achievement. Eudorus’ Academic affiliation may mean that he regarded himself as a successor of Plato, specifically as a follower of Antiochus, not as a sceptic, which the term ‘Academic’ started to signify in the early imperial period. He was unique, however, in many ways, most importantly in his deep interest in Pythagoreanism. His allegiance to the Old Academy is manifest in the interpretation of the creation story of the Timaeus. Along with Xenocrates and Crantor, he held that Plato’s account was constructed for ‘purposes of instruction’. Interestingly enough, it seems that an important source for his ‘Pythagorean’ theory of first principles (Monad and Dyad) is Aristotle, Metaphysics Λ.4-5, De gen. et corr. 2.9, and the De philosophia. His comments on the Categories show, not that he criticized the Aristotelian notion of substance in a Plotinian manner (i.e. on the ground that it fails to include intelligible substances), but that he treated the Platonic category of the per se on a par, somehow, with Aristotelian ‘substance’.

David Sedley describes the circumstances of Cicero’s enterprise to translate the Timaeus. Relying on a gloss specifying the meaning of globus (meaning not just any kind of round mass, but a sphere) which occurs both in the extant portion of the translation of Plato’s text and in De nat. deor. 2.47, he thinks that Cicero intended to write a dialogue which was to include the passage translated. Cicero gave up the project but later on used some of the material in other works. The protagonists of the dialogue originally planned were Nigidius Figulus, a well known Pythagorean, and Cratippus the Peripatetic. The subject-matter was the eternity of the world.7 It can be inferred (1) that the Timaeus was supposed to contain a Pythagorean theory (which was in fact a common opinion) and (2) that Nigidius insisted on a literalist interpretation according to which the cosmos has a beginning. The Timaeus provided also a principle of likelihood which enabled Cicero to deal appropriately with the irresolvability of the conflict between the two protagonists.

Julia Annas concentrates on some points in the De legibus where Cicero follows the lead of Plato’s Laws, but in his own way. Just like Plato, Cicero makes the claim that the laws of the best state promote a virtuous life, which is a life of happiness. This is why people can be persuaded to obey laws rather than simply doing what the law commands in order to avoid punishment. Of course, Cicero was supported by the Stoic idea of natural law according to which it holds together the community of rational beings. He dissented from Plato in two main points: Cicero’s system of law is for all good and stable communities, not just for a single polis; and this system with universal ethical validity actually exists, in the form of the Roman law.

Ingo Gildenhard gives a substantial analysis of Cicero’s engagement with Plato, particularly with the various applications of his theory of Forms. In the three dialogues written in the 50s, that is the De oratore, the De re publica and the De legibus (where Gildenhard’s interpretation differs from Annas’ in interesting points), Cicero stresses Plato’s heuristic devices such as the thought experiment in the Republic. By contrast, in the treatises written in the 40s, most notably the Orator and the De officiis, he pays greater attention to the theory of Forms as well. The shift can be explained partly by the more doxographical character of the later treatises, but more importantly by the political changes in the life of the Roman res publica : in the 50s it experienced an existential crisis, in the 40s it was gone. With the disappearance of the res publica Cicero no longer faced the challenge of reforming its political structure: rather, the task was to revive it. For these purposes Cicero turned to Plato’s Forms as an ultimate foundation on which the res publica could be reconstructed.


1. The first volume is David Sedley (ed.), The Philosophy of Antiochus (Cambridge: CUP, 2012).

2. J. Barnes, ‘Roman Aristotle’ in J. Barnes and M. Griffin (eds.), Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle at Rome (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 1-69.

3. By ‘deontic’ predication he means that form is the subject and the matter is what the form needs to have in order to exist as a form. The term might be somewhat misleading since deontic logic has other applications as well.

4. A. Falcon, Aristotelianism in the First Century BCE: Xenarchus of Seleucia (Cambridge: CUP, 2011).

5. Polito mentions (121) Strato of Lampsacus, who also had a kind of corpuscular theory. One may also add another Peripatetic, Hieronymus of Rhodes (Plutarch, Quaest. Conv. 1.8, 626A-B = fr. 4 White = fr. 53 Wehrli). In that case, this kind of corpuscular theory cannot be ascribed to Platonists exclusively, and consequently Asclepiades’ intention might not have been to dissent from Platonists only.

6. One can always be puzzled on how to make a distinction between νοῦς and φρένες (D.L. 8.29). Along with θύμος they are the ways in which human soul can be divided. Whereas θύμος refers to the spirit residing in the heart, the other two are located in the brain. Other animals have νοῦς, but in addition humans are endowed with φρένες. Long’s suggestion is that the Pythagorean extension of rationality to beasts leaves Alexander’s Pythagoreans needing a term for specifically human rationality. Given the nature of metempsychosis, however, distinctive human rationality is not a matter of an additional capacity of the soul (since it passes from one body to another in its entirety). One might ask why Alexander (or his source) uses plural here. Is it because he refers to a bundle of activities of the same type?

7. If we think that the tentative title was De universalitate, standing for περὶ τοῦ πάντος (199), then we have to bear in mind that cosmos is the ordered state of the universe. Thus the debate is not about the eternity of the universe primarily.