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Platonism, any philosophy that derives its ultimate inspiration from Plato. Though there was in antiquity a tradition about Plato’s “unwritten doctrines,” Platonism then and later was based primarily on a reading of the dialogues. But these can be read in many different ways, often very selectively, and it may be that all that the various kinds of Platonism can be said to have in common is an intense concern for the quality of human life—always ethical, often religious, and sometimes political, based on a belief in unchanging and eternal realities, which Plato called forms, independent of the changing things of the world perceived by the senses. Platonism sees these realities both as the causes of the existence of everything in the universe and as giving value and meaning to its contents in general and the life of its inhabitants in particular. It is this belief in absolute values rooted in an eternal world that distinguishes Platonism from the philosophies of Plato’s immediate predecessors and successors and from later philosophies inspired by them—from the immanentist naturalism of most of the pre-Socratics (who interpreted the world monistically in terms of nature as such), from the relativism of the Sophists, and from the correction of Platonism in a this-worldly direction carried out by Plato’s greatest pupil, Aristotle.
Table Of ContentsGreek Platonism from Aristotle through Middle Platonism: its nature and history
Since Plato refused to write his own metaphysics, knowledge of its final shape has to be derived from hints in the dialogues and statements by Aristotle and, to a far lesser extent, other ancient authorities. According to these, Plato’s doctrine of forms was, in its general character, highly mathematical, the forms being somehow identified with, or explained in terms of, numbers. Here may be seen the influence of the Pythagoreans, though, as Aristotle says, the details of Plato’s views on the mathematical constituents of being were not the same as theirs. In addition Aristotle states that Plato introduced a class of “mathematicals,” or “intermediates,” positioned between sensible objects and forms. These differ from sensible objects in being immaterial (e.g., the geometer’s triangles ABC and XYZ) and from the forms in being plural, unlike the Triangle itself.
Aristotle himself had little use for this sort of mathematical metaphysics and rejected Plato’s doctrine of transcendent eternal forms altogether. Something of Platonism, nonetheless, survived in Aristotle’s system in his beliefs that the reality of anything lay in a changeless (though wholly immanent) form or essence comprehensible and definable by reason and that the highest realities were eternal, immaterial, changeless self-sufficient intellects which caused the ordered movement of the universe. It was the desire to give expression to their transcendent perfection that kept the heavenly spheres rotating. Human intellect at its highest was akin to them. This Aristotelian doctrine of Intellect (nous) was easily recombined with Platonism in later antiquity.
Aristotle, however, was not reacting only against Plato but also against Plato’s associates and immediate successors as head of the Academy, namely Plato’s nephew Speusippus (c. 410–339 bce) and Xenocrates (396–314 bce). Speusippus, in particular, accented the mathematical tendencies of the late Plato and abolished forms in favour of numbers. He also posited different principles for different sorts of entities and so was accused by Aristotle of breaking the connections in reality. Xenocrates identified forms and numbers and began the long process of finding firm doctrines in Plato by laying down that forms were only of those things that exist in nature. Xenocrates was also the first, as far as is known, to turn his attention to what continued to be a subject of controversy throughout the history of Platonism, namely whether the account of creation offered in the Timaeus was to be taken as chronological or merely expository. He took the latter view, which turned out to be the most favoured one in antiquity; Aristotle was on the other side. Whether Xenocrates’ three successors as head of the Academy (Polemon, Crates, and Crantor) developed Platonism is uncertain. Crantor (c. 330–270 bce) was allegedly the first to write commentaries on Plato, particularly on the Timaeus. After Crantor the Academy was preoccupied for about two centuries with the serious questioning of human claims to knowledge. This began with Arcesilaus (316/315–c. 241 bce), who is described as the founder of the Middle Academy. There was a genuine desire to recover the critical, questioning, and agnostic attitude of the Socrates of Plato’s early dialogues as well as philosophical exasperation with the dogmatism of some of the contemporary Hellenistic philosophers, especially the Stoics. It is likely that Arcesilaus was influenced to some extent by Pyrrhon (c. 360–c. 272 bce), founder of the tradition to which the name Skeptic was applied in antiquity. The Skeptical Academics denied that certainty on any subject was possible and worked out a sophisticated theory of probability as a guide to practical decision making. Their critical dialectic and probability theory were best expounded by Carneades (214/213–129/128 bce). Though he wrote nothing, he was regarded as the founder of the New Academy. A return to dogmatic and positive philosophical teaching was effected by Philo of Larissa (died c. 79 bce) and his pupil Antiochus of Ascalon, who was head of the school in 79–78 bce.
The next important phase of Platonism, Middle Platonism or pre-Neoplatonism, was significant through the influence that it exerted in more than one direction. In the direction of Jewish culture (further described in a later section), it formed the Greek philosophical background of the efforts of Philo Judaeus (Philo of Alexandria) to create a philosophical system on the basis of the Hebrew Bible heritage. Though the origins of Middle Platonism are obscure, its main direction became clear in the 1st century ce. It seems to have been linked from the beginning with the closely related revival of Pythagoreanism (a philosophy holding that reality is number, and sometimes showing, after the revival, a tendency to superstitious occultism). The somewhat Platonized Stoicism of Poseidonius (c. 135–c. 51 bce), whose dualism of matter and reason enhanced the roles of emotion and will, may have influenced its beginnings, as did the Stoicized Platonism of Antiochus; and Stoic influence, especially in the ethical field, remained important in its later developments. There was also a strong Aristotelian influence— though a minority of 2nd-century Platonists, notably Atticus and, to a lesser extent, Gaius Calvenus Taurus, objected to certain Aristotelian doctrines. Atticus was particularly offended by Aristotle’s failure to provide for providence. The general characteristics of this revised Platonic philosophy (and the closely related Neo-Pythagoreanism) were the recognition of a hierarchy of divine principles with stress on the transcendence of the supreme principle, which was already occasionally called “the One”; the placing of the Platonic forms in the divine mind; a strongly otherworldly attitude demanding a “flight from the body,” an ascent of the mind to the divine and eternal; and a preoccupation with the problem of evil, attributed either to an evil world soul or to matter. The best known of the Middle Platonists is the biographer and essayist Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. 46–120 ce). More important philosophically were other 2nd-century figures: Gaius and two men possibly influenced by him, Albinus and Apuleius (better known as author of the prose narrative The Golden Ass); Atticus; and Numenius of Apamea. It was from the thought of these and other Middle Platonists, combined with his own reading of Alexander and other Peripatetic commentators on Aristotle, that the foremost Neoplatonist, Plotinus, started constructing his own interpretation of Platonism, which was both profoundly original and firmly rooted in an established school tradition.
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