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374Review of: John M. Dillon, 'The Heirs of Plato' in BMCR 2003.12.24

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  • Cosmin I. Andron
    Jan 2, 2004
      John M. Dillon, The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347-274
      BC). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. 304. ISBN
      0-19-823766-9. $65.00.

      Reviewed by David C. Noe, Patrick Henry College (dcnoe@...)
      Word count: 2066 words

      In The Heirs of Plato, John Dillon (Regius Professor of Greek at
      Trinity College, Dublin) has done students of Platonism everywhere a
      keen favor by illuminating with notable lucidity and clarity a
      particularly vexing era in the history of Platonic studies, namely the
      years 347-274 B.C. Indeed, as the book's tailgate teaser proclaims,
      Dillon is the first to devote an entire volume to the contours of the
      Old Academy. That no one has done so before is not completely
      surprising, given the abysmal state of the evidence from this period.
      The work's six chapters follow an intuitive progression chronologically
      and by theme, beginning with Speusippus, Plato's immediate successor,
      continuing through Xenocrates and Polemo, and ending with an assortment
      of lesser lights like Philippus of Opus and Crantor of Soli.
      Thematically, it moves from questions of structure and system in
      chapters 1-2 to more nuanced questions concerning the application of
      particular Platonic doctrines in 3-5. The Epilogue of Chapter 6 is a
      brief but indispensable excursus on the transition to the sceptical New
      Academy of Arcesilaus.

      The course and tone that the book will take are decided very early on,
      when Dillon presents in chapter 1 what Harold Cherniss called the
      Riddle of the Academy. Though acknowledging a debt to Cherniss' work,
      Dillon opts for a much different treatment. Rather than confine himself
      to "the evidence of the dialogues" (p. 1) and therefore discount
      Aristotle as guilty of misinterpretation, Dillon examines every
      available piece of textual data contemporary and subsequent. The
      advantage gained by this is that Dillon is enabled to look more
      carefully at the "true dynamics of the Academy as institution, and into
      the relation of the doctrines of Plato's disciples and successors as to
      what they conceived to be his teachings" (p. 1). The work thus does not
      aim to be philosophy proper, though careful and challenging arguments
      break out everywhere and on a wide variety of topics, but rather to
      illuminate a neglected period in the history of philosophy.

      In chapter 1 Dillon sets himself a twofold task, both to explain the
      "nature and structure of the Academy" and the "nature of the basic
      doctrines that he [Plato] arrived at before his death." These themes
      are treated in two sections. The first, entitled "The Physical
      Structure of the Academy", adduces evidence primarily from Diogenes
      Laertius as to the "nature of the physical plant" (p. 5). Dillon
      organizes and evaluates this data, offering insight on the location and
      appearance of the school and its apparently communal life and
      arrangements for meals and sleeping quarters. The section is enlivened
      by well-chosen anecdotes whose plausibility Dillon also weighs.
      Carefully canvassed are the opinions of Wilamowitz, Guthrie, Glucker
      and others.

      The second section is ambitiously titled "Plato's Intellectual Legacy."
      At the start, the author states his assumption that "... despite
      Plato's strong view on many subjects, it was not his purpose to leave
      to his successors a fixed body of doctrine which they were to defend
      against all comers" (p. 16). Instead, Dillon believes that Plato was
      promoting a "method of inquiry" (p. 16) like that which he had himself
      received from Socrates. Under this assumption Dillon discusses the
      Platonic inheritance on two main points: cosmology, which concerns
      above all the implications of Pythagoreanism and the mathematical
      understanding of the universe, and the World-Soul in its relation to
      the Forms. Throughout, special attention is given quite reasonably to
      Timaeus; Aristotle's Metaphysics is used as an important secondary
      source. Later Platonists Iamblichus and Proclus are also quarried. Much
      less attention is given in this section to ethics and logic, though
      each is discussed briefly on pp. 26-8.

      Chapter 2, entitled "Speusippus and the Search for an Adequate System
      of Principles" deals with the leadership of Plato's nephew within the
      Academy. The chapter contains two main sections, "Life and Works," and
      "Philosophy," with the latter divided into "First Principles,"
      "Ethics," "Epistemology and Logic," and a brief conclusion. Dillon
      emphasizes Aristotle's influence on Speusippus and the controversies
      between them as well as the significance of Pythagoreanism. In the
      realm of ethics, Dillon describes Speusippus' acknowledgement of the
      importance of pleasure and its necessary subordination to "freedom from
      disturbance" (p. 65). This position is helpfully compared to the Stoic
      and Epicurean teachings. The central issue of the section on
      epistemology and logic is Speusippus' claim that "knowledge of any
      given physical object requires knowledge of its differentiae in respect
      of everything else" (p. 79). Aristotle's criticism of this and other
      notions of Speusippus are prominently featured, and for the most part
      Dillon finds them persuasive. The conclusion to chapter 2 summarizes
      Speusippus as a thinker with "some idiosyncrasy of viewpoint, but by no
      means lacking in coherence or breadth of vision" (p. 88).

      By far the longest chapter, at 66 pages or more than one-fifth of the
      whole, is Chapter 3: "Xenocrates and the Systematization of Platonism."
      Consistent with Chapters 2 and 4 this shows the same divisions of "Life
      and Works" and "Philosophy." The section on philosophy contains four
      subdivisions, namely "First Principles, Physics"; "Ethics"; "Logic";
      and "Pythagorism and Allegorizing".[[1]] The biography of Xenocrates
      which Dillon provides is more complete than the ones he gives for
      Speusippus and Polemo, as dictated by the source material, and the
      discussion of his philosophy more thorough. The number of works
      attested for Xenocrates is fairly large, seventy-six according to
      Diogenes (p. 96). Xenocrates' position on the supreme principles of the
      Monad and the Dyad as well as his importance as a religious thinker are
      emphasized: "[Xenocrates'] Monad exercises a far more providential role
      in the universe than Aristotle's God...We see here, as elsewhere,
      Xenocrates exhibiting far more concern than Speusippus to remain true
      to what he conceives to be the doctrine of Plato" (p. 107). The same
      judgment is evident in Xenocrates' positions regarding the Forms and
      the World-Soul, though there are noticeable developments and subtle
      modifications (pp. 129 ff.) The next section, on ethics, shows
      Xenocrates' primary ethical contribution as placing due emphasis on the
      importance of the body for virtue and happiness. This conclusion is
      read through Cicero (Fin.) and the hurly-burly of Stoic entanglements
      regarding the <greek>te/los</greek> of nature. Generally, Dillon finds
      a fair amount of common ground between Xenocrates and the Stoics,
      though tangible differences remain (pp. 148 ff.). Dillon's discussion
      of the Xenocratean importance for logic concerns broadly the question
      of the diairesis of divine and human knowledge and more narrowly
      whether the genus or species is primary in a definition, with
      Xenocrates maintaining the latter against Aristotle. The final section
      in chapter 3 explains the supposed connection between Xenocrates and
      Pythagoras as well as his penchant for allegorizing. The claim for the
      former is based upon one work entitled Pythagoreia of "unknown
      contents" (p. 153) and anecdotal evidence of his vegetarianism and
      dislike for oaths. For allegorizing, Dillon cites Aetius' remark that
      the tendency to treat the Olympians as natural forces was passed from
      Xenocrates to the Stoics (p. 154). The chapter concludes with the
      assessment that Xenocrates was lacking in stylistic merit (according to
      Diogenes Laertius), conceded much to Aristotle, yet still exercised
      more influence over subsequent Platonists than his predecessor.

      The briefest portion of the book is Chapter 4, entitled "Polemo,
      Champion of Ethical Praxis". The biographical portion is lamentably
      slim, but Dillon had almost nothing to work with. With Polemo, obvious
      signs of the ascendancy of Stoicism in the philosophical environment
      are beginning to show. His one surviving title, On the Life According
      to Nature seems to have anticipated the ensuing conflict between Stoics
      and Epicureans as to what was properly basic, what nature forbids and
      what she requires. Another possible contribution by Polemo that Dillon
      investigates is the question whether P. prefigured Stoic oikeio^sis.
      Dillon concludes that it is likely (p. 165). Additionally, based on a
      remark of Plutarch, Polemo is credited with furthering the notion of
      philosophical love (pp. 167-8). Dillon argues that the most significant
      addition by Polemo was "an increase in the austerity of Academic
      doctrine" (p. 166), thereby anticipating Zeno and other Stoics. The
      discussion transitions here from ethics to religious and metaphysical
      items, but this chapter shows no subdivisions as do the others.
      Apparently this is because there is so very little to go on for Polemo.
      Dillon concludes with an apparent endorsement of the notion that Polemo
      was "an important bridge figure between Platonism and Stoicism" (p.

      Chapter 5, "Minor Figures", discusses Plato's secretary Philippus of
      Opus, Hermodorus of Syracuse, Heraclides of Pontus, and Crantor of
      Soli. A short and patchy biography is given for each and notable, if
      woefully under-documented, accomplishments. For Philippus it is the
      authorship of the dialogue Epinomis and the concept of a five-tiered
      universe (p. 193). For Hermodorus, it is to have written a Life of
      Plato, in which he seems to have connected the master with Zoroaster
      and other eastern antecedents, and to have marketed his books in Sicily
      (which strangely earned him criticism). Dillon concludes regarding
      Heraclides that he furthered the Platonic biography tradition, helped
      to refine the dialogue format (p. 207), and vigorously attacked
      Democritean atomism (p. 211). Lastly, Crantor, arguably the most
      interesting, is presented as an associate of Arcesilaus who helped
      begin the turn toward scepticism, likely in reaction to the Stoic
      threat (p. 217). In addition, Dillon argues that he seems to be the
      first to have conceived of the notion of writing commentaries on
      Plato's dialogues (p. 218).

      The Epilogue "Arcesilaus and the Turn to Scepticism" concludes the
      book. Here Dillon is at his best, explaining how Zeno's successful
      adoption and adaptation of the theories of Xenocrates and Polemo
      brought incredible pressure to bear on the Academy and its dogmatism:

      "For a Platonist, it was a case of either throwing in the towel, and
      admitting that Stoicism was the logical development and true
      intellectual heir of Platonism (a conclusion that commended itself to
      Antiochus of Ascalon two centuries later), or of going back to the
      drawing board, returning to the roots of one's tradition, and launching
      a radical attack on the whole concept of dogmatic certainty. It was
      this course that Arcesilaus decided to take" (p. 236).

      With that brief but incisive discussion of Arcesilaus, Dillon concludes
      his book.

      Although not intended as such, the work would serve as a good
      introduction to many of the interpretive questions in Platonic studies,
      specifically those surrounding the metaphysics of Timaeus and its
      reception. Many of the ongoing controversies that perplexed the
      Neoplatonists, like the Monad-Dyad conflict and the proper way to
      understand the role of the Demiurge, as well as exactly what Plato
      meant by the Forms, had their origin in the Old Academy.

      Observable everywhere is Dillon's marked restraint. Though much is
      known of this era and its protagonists, precious little is known
      directly from the authors themselves.[[2]] For example, when relating
      the surviving stories about Speusippus in Chapter 2, Dillon prefaces
      his remarks with a commiseration on the "farrago of unreliably attested
      anecdotes" (p. 31). In case the enthusiastic reader has missed this
      important caution, Dillon reiterates it at least twice more in
      subsequent pages. Likewise, when providing Polemo's biography, Dillon
      candidly acknowledges that it is nothing more than a "complex of
      anecdotes" (p. 158).

      As for weaknesses, the book has few. The very occasional typographical
      errors (e.g. p. 159, "speakingly [sic] scathingly" and p. 222, "as a
      principles [sic] of motion and rest") are a minor annoyance at worst.
      Dillon's style is engaging and as readable as can be expected given the
      obtuseness of some of the material and its, once again, tattered and
      fragmentary state. The author helpfully summarizes and restate his
      conclusions in more than one place, and the indices are clean and

      In conclusion, Prof. Dillon provides a sensible, candid approach to a
      difficult subject, avoiding an excess of speculation and yet not
      refusing to walk down a few beckoning paths to see where the argument
      may lead.[[3]] When that argument is one only suggested rather than
      dictated by the text, as is usually the case with members of the Old
      Academy, Dillon is careful to note that he offers what he believes is
      the likely flow of the argument, not the received gospel.[[4]] The
      difficulty in writing such a book, i.e. one that is honest about the
      meagerness of the primary sources and yet manages to provide a
      connected and interesting account, cannot be overestimated. Dillon has


      1. Even at this early stage the reduction of philosophical topics to
      the Hellenistic trio of ethics, logic, and physics, was beginning to be
      felt, Dillon, p. 98. Dillon employs the term "Pythagorism" (rather than
      the more familiar Pythagoreanism), stipulating its definition as "a
      more than objective interest in the thought and personality of
      Pythagoras, and a tendency to try to reconstruct his teachings,
      fathering the theories of later men, including one's own, on him in the
      process" (153).

      2. In fact, for Speusippus we have verbatim fragments for only two
      works, as Dillon explains (39). A quick glance at the Index of Passages
      Quoted, however, demonstrates that Aristotle, Cicero, Diogenes
      Laertius, and Plutarch are the primary sources for this era.

      3. This tension occasionally gives rise to some odd expressions, as
      at p. 57 where Dillon, when discussing the ontological interpretation
      "of the hypotheses of the Parmenides" calls this possibility
      "dangerously radical."

      4. Note such intellectually sober and responsible statements as "With
      some difficulty, then, and a good deal of speculation, our exiguous
      information on Polemo's philosophical position can be fleshed out
      somewhat" (p. 176).

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