The handbooks of Platonic philosophy and related texts of the first centuries of the Common Era occupied a backwater in the history of philosophy from late antiquity until the third quarter of the twentieth century. Their emergence as accounts of interest in their own right was a function of increased understanding of the Platonisms of the Roman Empire and of the problems specific to the period between the decline of the sceptical Academy and the great synthesis of Plotinus in the late third century, which in turn ushered in the long dominance of what we call Neoplatonism. This increased interest can be traced in large part to the work of John Dillon, who mapped the territory in The Middle Platonists (1977) and edited and translated the most important of the handbooks in Alcinous. The Handbook of Platonism (1993). What for centuries had been regarded as rather dull, belated summaries of Plato’s thought became a hunting ground for the emergence of the ideas that shaped the new tradition consolidated in the work of Plotinus. That tradition, along with that of Aristotle, was to set the priorities of philosophic thought throughout the Middle Ages and beyond; its influence was felt from Baghdad to al-Andaluz, Florence, and Chartres.
If these handbooks have seemed, at least to some readers, dull, it is largely because of the stark contrast between their presentation of Plato’s thought and the dialogues of Plato himself, the master of rhetoric and mimesis. The three texts that Ryan Fowler selects in his sample of this literature offer a range of rhetorical strategies for communicating what their authors considered the essentials of the thought of Plato. As Fowler emphasizes, his selection is rather arbitrary (1-3), but as a sampling it does communicate, first of all, what seemed to three experts, all roughly contemporaries, the important information for a novice to have at his disposal as he undertook the reading of Plato, and secondly, three strategies for conveying that information. As such, Fowler’s collection is an unusual and welcome contribution to intellectual history in general as well as to the history of Platonism.
The three texts probably all date to the second half of the second century and range widely in length. The two Greek texts, by Albinus and Maximus of Tyre are fairly short (ca. 1500 and 2500 words) while Apuleius’ De Platone runs to nearly 9000 words. Albinus’ text, variously labeled Εἰσαγωγή, Πρόλογος, and Περὶ τῆς τάξεως βίβλων τοῦ Πλάτωνος is limited to a discussion of the nature of the dialogue and of the classification of those of Plato, including observations on the best order for reading them. It is the only surviving work of this Albinus (now that the longer handbook of Alcinous, once attributed to him, has been convincingly shown to be the work of another author) but a few shreds of information make it possible to identify him with a student of Gaius whom Galen heard lecture about 150 CE at Smyrna, and the author of other works knows only by title. The text has some interest for the development of the Platonic curriculum: Albinus recommends against reading the dialogues in the dramatic order represented by the Thrasyllan tetralogies and opts for the Alcibiades, followed by the Phaedo, the Republic, and the Timaeus. His further observations on the pedagogic virtues of the different sorts of dialogues do not constitute a reading list, focusing rather on those that equip the student for testing and refuting false arguments and offer an education in θεωρία and πρᾶξις, with a reminder that the overall goal is τὸ ὁμοιοθῆναι θεῷ (ch. vi), a theme repeatedly emphasized in these texts by Fowler.
The essay Τίς ὁ θεὸς κατὰ Πλάτωνα (Lecture 11) of Maximus of Tyre is a very different kettle of fish, as flowery and attractive as Albinus is dry and editorial. It is one of the 41 surviving pieces of display oratory of Maximus (plausibly delivered in Rome during the reign of Commodus, 180-92), in which he explores various themes, often literary and often Homeric or Platonic (or both). As Fowler notes (1, n. 1), there are other pieces among the Lectures (Διαλέξεις) that might equally have been chosen for this collection of ancillary texts on Plato, but this one is clearly in line with the editor’s interest in the accretion of religion to Platonism in the period (2, 8, 21, passim) and the attribution of religious authority to Plato as founder of the tradition.
The last and the longest of the three texts is in some ways the most problematic. As if the relationship of the two largely independent books of Apuleius’ De Platone were not puzzling enough, a third book has recently been tacked onto them, though the attribution to Apuleius, much less to this work, is not universally accepted (see BMCR 2017.03.31).1 The work as presented here constitutes a summary, first, of Plato’s life, followed by an account of his δόγματα relating to physics and metaphysics (with a surprisingly extensive catalogue of Plato’s supposed teachings on human physiology, largely derived from the Timaeus). The second book, addressed to one Faustinus, is a summary of Plato’s “beliefs” (185) (more neutrally in the original: quae de hoc…senserit, 262) on ethics, rhetoric, and politics. The style here is rather flat — given that this is a professional rhetor and the author of The Golden Ass —, perhaps one reason why its attribution to Apuleius has been doubted.
What Fowler gives us in this volume is Greek or Latin texts of the three pieces, his own translations (generously annotated but unfortunately not printed facing the originals, making comparison difficult), a 21-page general introduction and a very brief note (“Overview and Synopsis”) on each piece, 23 photographs of pages of manuscripts, an extensive bibliography (unfortunately riddled with typos and larger errors) and nearly 50 pages of indices. The resulting package is attractive but I found it difficult to imagine just what audience is envisioned for it. Since it presents itself as a sample of a larger body of literature, one can imagine using it in a class on, say, the history of Platonism or of philosophy in the Roman empire, but its price and the relative obscurity of the texts it contains would limit its appeal in that context. As Fowler points out, the Albinus and Apuleius texts have not been translated into English since the nineteenth century, but good recent translations into other scholarly languages certainly exist, and Maximus of Tyre is well served by Michael Trapp’s 1997 English translation. 2 One might ask a similar question — Whom are they intended to serve? — with regard to Fowler’s translations and annotation. These are certainly not translations that read smoothly and the annotation is voluminous but sometimes lacking in focus. Fowler’s inclination is to leave problematic passages problematic. All too often, a long, difficult sentence is translated in a way that leaves numerous questions in the reader’s mind, while the notes provide several alternative versions from earlier translators, without ever coming to terms with the specific grammatical problems or other obstacles to a clear rendering. Some of the annotation, however, is very valuable, pointing out comparanda (often from Dillon’s work on Alcinous and Jean Beaujeu’s recent Budé of Apuleius’ text3) and fleshing out the account of second-century Platonic handbooks to be gained from this collection. At the same time, some of the discussion of vocabulary in the notes is so elementary and inconclusive that one is again left wondering just what the imagined audience for these notes is.
These, though, are problems of detail and should not obscure the fact that Fowler has given us a valuable book that in fact has no real precedents, laying before us a selection of texts written to present the thought of Plato to second-century CE readers and creating for those texts and for second-century Platonism a cultural context that is not easily appreciated. It is a glimpse into the prehistory of Neoplatonism that cannot be had elsewhere.
1. Justin A. Stover, A New Work by Apuleius: The Lost Third Book of the ‘De Platone’. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
2. Michael B. Trapp, ed. and trans. Maximus of Tyre. The Philosophical Orations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
3. Jean Beaujeu, ed. and trans., Apulée. Opuscules philosophiques. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2002.