Transcript: 81 - Jan Opsomer on Middle Platonism

Jan Opsomer helps Peter to understand principles, Plato interpretation, and Plutarch in a wide-ranging discussion of Middle Platonism.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: To talk about Middle Platonism, which is a school of philosophy that seems to be marked by very extravagant metaphysical views, very strong, you might say dogmatic, metaphysical views, I guess the place to start would be to ask how we got here. So why is it that you start with this skeptical, academic version of Platonism. You have these philosophers who think that you can't know anything, and you wind up with people who have these very strong metaphysical views?

Jan Opsomer: Well, that's very hard to tell. Maybe it's even impossible to give an explanation why this is happening. What we see happening is that at the end of the Hellenistic period, thinkers were becoming more interested in the ancient wisdom tradition. One example of that is a number of texts by anonymous authors that were attributed to ancient Pythagoreans. We call them pseudepigraphic texts. Those people were interested in a theory of principles in a kind of dogmatic way. Other people were interested in Egyptian rites and mysteries or Phoenician mythology, and taking these texts to be authorities on the gods, on nature, on the world.

Peter Adamson: So did they think that Plato was sort of lumped in with that kind of tradition? So there's the Egyptians, there's the Phoenicians, and there's Plato. Same difference.

Jan Opsomer: Well, Plato has a very special place in this worldview because many people apparently were of the opinion that Plato somehow was a synthesis of most of these traditions and was the one who expressed most completely and most clearly the ancient wisdom found in different traditions. But it was basically seen as one single tradition, and with Plato as one of the main proponents. What you also see at the same time is a systemization of philosophy. So maybe as a result of the revival of Aristotelianism, but it's difficult to tell what is cause and effect, but maybe as a result of that, Platonists started to want to have a philosophy that was as systematic as Aristotle's philosophy seemed to be, or as Stoic philosophy certainly was, at least in the form given to it by Chrysippus. Platonists started then to develop systems of their own. You see various attempts, so maybe it's misleading to speak of a Middle Platonic schools. I see more divergent attempts to create systems, and that leads to very different systems in Middle Platonic times.

Peter Adamson: But before we get into the differences between them, what would you say if you look generally at all these so-called Middle Platonists, what would you say are the main areas of philosophy where they put forward their views? Obviously, they have views about principles, something you've already mentioned. So is that the main thing?

Jan Opsomer: I think the main thing is indeed to have a system, and a system has to start with principles. So you build your system starting from theory of principles that you trace back to ancient times to Plato, to reports on unwritten doctrines by Plato, doxographic reports from Plato, to what you think you know about ancient or old Pythagoreans, and then you build your system starting from those principles. An important area will be ontology and metaphysics. But since it is a system, also ethics will be included, logic will be included, so all the areas of philosophy that have been developed in classical and Hellenistic times.

Peter Adamson: Do they take their cue from Plato in this respect, would you say? I mean, are they trying to say something about every aspect of Plato's dialogues, in which case they would really cover the whole gamut of philosophical topics?

Jan Opsomer: They certainly try to. But they are also very aware of the tradition of philosophy since Plato. And then there is a curious phenomenon that they want to attribute all the discoveries that were made later to Plato himself, as if Plato had already the complete knowledge that was to be discovered only later.

Peter Adamson: He's a synthesis of all the wisdom before him and all the wisdom after him as well. Quite a good trick. Let's take as an example Eudorus of Alexandria, who flourished in the late first century BC or thereabouts. He seems to be maybe the first Platonist to have the kinds of doctrines we associate with middle Platonism. His predecessor Antiochus already seems to have adopted kind of dogmatic views, but not these Pythagoreanizing views that derive everything from mathematical or pseudo-mathematical principles. Is that right, first of all? Would you say that's fair?

Jan Opsomer: I think that is correct. Eudorus is the first one of whom we know that he developed a system based on theory of principles. Although probably contemporaneous with Eudorus you have all these pseudo-epigraphic texts. We don't know exactly when they were written, but maybe they were written before him.

Peter Adamson: So the advantage of Eudorus is we've got a name to put to the system.

Jan Opsomer: Exactly

Peter Adamson: And how does the system look? If you were to sketch it out in a few words, what is the basic idea? So if he's deriving everything from principles, what are the principles and how do things get derived from these principles?

Jan Opsomer: Well, we don't know that much about him. We know that he had a view that there was a monad and a diet. But there was also a principle above the monad. And he doesn't really explain how the monad is related to that higher principle. He just says it's there.

Peter Adamson: And this would be God, presumably?

Jan Opsomer: Well, all of these principles would be God, probably.

Peter Adamson: OK

Jan Opsomer: But you can then... He was starting to talk about a supreme God and other gods. And that's also an interesting feature in Middle Platonism.

Peter Adamson: Well, I guess what I was really curious about... I mean, if you have a supreme God, people probably have an idea what a supreme God would be like, roughly speaking.

Jan Opsomer: It would also be a creator.

Peter Adamson: Maybe the demiurge from the Plato's Timaeus could be associated with this entity. But I don't think people will find it very easy to think about the monad and the dyad as principles of everything, whatever that even means, monad and dyad. This is something I talked about a little bit in a previous episode, but can you sort of have a go at trying to explain how it would make sense to think about monad and dyad as two principles that would generate everything else?

Jan Opsomer: Yes, but let me first say that what you indeed see is that these principles, who then become identified with gods, become more and more abstract. And that you will find the traditional gods in different Middle Platonic systems at lower levels of the ontological hierarchy.

Peter Adamson: So monad and dyad are above Poseidon and Hera or whatever ?

Jan Opsomer: Absolutely. But you also see that those Middle Platonists who do not do this and who keep their god identical with the first principle were later much more popular with, for instance, Church Fathers. I'm thinking of Plutarch. Now how does the monad and the dyad work? If we forget about the very first principle, because apparently Eudorus also seems to have two systems, or refers that there are two ways of seeing this, one way is to say that the monad and the dyad are the first principles. Another way is to say there is even a higher principle. But let's just take monad and dyad. Monad is perfectly one and unitarian principle. It doesn't need anything. It is just what it is. And that's also why it is sterile. It's difficult to see how it could want to do anything, because it's perfect as it is. It's also difficult to imagine that it would be capable of doing anything else, because it has no relation to anything exterior to it. Unless you also accept a counter principle, the dyad. And the dyad is then the principle of indeterminacy that can be determined or limited by the action of the one or the monad on it. But these are also systems that we know from maybe from the old academy, or from Plato's unwritten doctrines, what we know of it. One thing that can be generated by monad and dyad are numbers. You have a principle of indeterminacy when the one makes, or the monad makes, cuts in this indeterminate something.

Peter Adamson: Like making cuts on a number line, let's say.

Jan Opsomer: For instance. The monad then will make cuts on this indeterminate line and thereby produce numbers. So the first entities produced by the monad and dyad would be thought of as numbers, naturally.

Peter Adamson: And those are forms, maybe? Platonic forms?

Jan Opsomer: Well, there are platonic systems where people indeed identify these numbers with forms. And there is some support for that in the reports on the unwritten doctrines.

Peter Adamson: That brings me on to the next thing I was going to ask, which is to what extent this is a distortion of Plato's dialogues? They're presenting themselves as Platonists explicitly, right? They say that they are followers of Plato. And yet, I mean, I devoted quite a few episodes of this podcast to Plato, and I didn't say anything like that. So where did this all come from? Is it really more going back to the old academy, the immediate followers of Plato, like Speusippus and Xenocrates? Or is it more something that can actually be found in Plato himself?

Jan Opsomer: This is a very difficult question. On the one hand, there are some indications in the dialogues, but you wouldn't get anything like these systems from the dialogues directly. If you didn't also have reports on unwritten doctrines in Aristotle, in some other authors, reports about these old academics, Speusippus and Xenocrates, mainly, Polemon to some extent, you put all of this together and you make a system out of it. That's what these people did. And they're not really faithful to Plato to the extent that they try to make a dogmatic system out of Plato.

Peter Adamson: I think you wrote somewhere, dogmatism doesn't seem to have been Plato's thing.

Jan Opsomer: Well, there is a dogmatic side to Plato, but at heart, Plato wasn't a dogmatist, I think. He writes dialogues. He doesn't speak in his own voice. There are interlocutors, and the way of writing is also to some extent aporetic. Some of the dialogues are called aporetic dialogues, but even in the dialogues, in those dialogues that seem to give you more substantial teaching or content, there is always a caution on Plato's side.

Peter Adamson: And do you think that someone like Eudorus or Alcinous, author of the Didaskalikos, do you think that they actually were close readers of Plato? Were they sort of fishing out ideas that they could fit into a system, or do you imagine them actually carefully reading a dialogue? We do have this early text, which is a commentary on the Theaetetus, which maybe represents some kind of Middle Platonist teaching. This is something that's always kind of puzzled me about the Middle Platonists, whether they were just trying to set out systems that they could say were anchored in the dialogues in some way, or that they actually were carefully reading through each dialogue. And I guess the question reoccurs for the Neoplatonists, but what would you say about the Middle Platonists?

Jan Opsomer: Well, it's very hard to treat them as one consistent group. If you're talking about the commentator on the Theaetetus, by the way, we don't know exactly when this commentary was written, but in post Hellenistic times, let's say, there are certain aspects of the text to which he pays great attention, and he's very careful in looking at various terminologies used by Plato. A text like Alcinous, in my view, is itself more of a summary. It's not the text of an author who in that text himself looks carefully at a text, but he gathers information probably mostly from other authors, and some of them really looked at the text of Plato. But what you see is they have a rather small selection of key passages that they're interested in, and they are studied very closely. So what most authors in Middle Platonic times forgot about was the dialogical nature of Plato's philosophy. The exceptions may be Plutarch, his teacher Ammonius, and maybe also Numenius. We have reasons to believe that he also wrote in dialogical form. But at least for Plutarch it is clear that he took dialogue to be essential to doing philosophy.

Peter Adamson: That's great, because he's exactly the next person I wanted to ask you about, and I think we could maybe spend the rest of our time talking about him.

Jan Opsomer: What me?

Peter Adamson: I bet. This is one of your favorite authors. Plutarch is a very important figure in this tradition, not least because we have lots of text from him, and we have a wide variety of text ranging from these kind of metaphysical issues all the way down to something that is almost more comparable to advice columns, so something that's been called practical ethical work. Do you think that Plutarch is an unusual person in this tradition? I mean, he's obviously unusual in the sense that we have a lot of text, whereas we usually have just fragments for the others, but is he fairly representative of the so-called Middle Platonism beyond that fact?

Jan Opsomer: It's again very hard to tell. Exactly because we don't have many texts by these other authors. One could even think we have just gaps without philosophy in many cases.

Peter Adamson: Good

Jan Opsomer: But one could think that Plutarch has an exceptional position, because he is one of the few people who, as I said before, pays attention to this aporetic, dialogical aspect of Plato's philosophy, at the same time develops a dogmatic system and a system that somehow underlies his more practical ethical writings. So with him we have an author of whom we have many texts, not all of them, but a large amount of texts, and they show a great philosophical consistency, I would say, and pay attention to all these different aspects. So the Pythagorean tradition is part of it, the academic, in the sense of skeptical academic tradition, so the Hellenistic tradition of Arcesilaus and Carneades and Philo of Larissa is part of this. He also knew a lot about other schools, about Peripatetics and about the Stoics especially, about Epicureans, and somehow all of these traditions come together in his work and he does something interesting with it.

Peter Adamson: He is obviously a very complicated author and someone for whom we have a lot of evidence, so I guess it's not going to be easy to sum him up in just a few words, but what would you say are the most distinctive aspects, starting with the metaphysics of his philosophy? He obviously also has a monad and a dyad theory, but I guess what's most famous about him, to the extent that there's anything famous here, is his so-called dualism. So he seems to have the idea that the world is an arena in which goodness and evil are kind of duking it out for mastery. Can you say something about that?

Jan Opsomer: Yes. He has two principles from which he starts, the one on the dyad, though they don't seem to play a central role in his system. And, at the level of principles, they do not stand for good and evil. It's only in this world that we get the battle between good and evil, not on the level of principles. For Plutarch, what is really central is theology, the reverence you should have for the gods, the piety you should have, and he believes there is a first god who is at the same time the demiurge and who created the world. The first thing created by the demiurge is the world soul. And soul, in a sense, both world soul and individual human souls, is what is central to Plutarch's philosophy, I would say. The gods are important. We know a few things about the gods. We don't know many theoretical things about them, but we know that they are good and that they are providential and that they have created the world and that they are stronger than evil. What we don't find in Plutarch is extensive speculation on how God is related to the forms, what the forms really are, what role they play in creating the world, except for the very general idea that the world is created after their image.

Peter Adamson: But if the world is created after the image of these good gods, then where does evil come from?

Jan Opsomer: Well, that's a very good question. God may have created the world, according to Plutarch, but he didn't create the ingredients from which he started. And this is a theory that is particular to Plutarch, I think. Plutarch believes that not only is there a pre-cosmic material substrate for the world, he also thinks there is a pre-cosmic psychic substrate for the world. So there is a pre-cosmic soul that receives order from the demiurge. It becomes a well-ordered soul, and that is what Plutarch calls the creation of a cosmic soul. But the influence of this ancient, in itself irrational soul, is still there in this world, and this is what creates disorder and evil.

Peter Adamson: Does that have any connection to the things he says when he talks about ethical topics, I mean, even down to these very practical works? Is there some kind of echo of this dualistic question?

Jan Opsomer: Very much so, very much so. Because it is essential for Plutarch's practical works that we should think of our souls as having a dual nature. We have on the one part the residue of this irrational soul, which at the same time is also the vital principle and the principle that gives us energy, and on the other hand the rationality bestowed upon the soul by the demiurge as part or image of the demiurge himself. And it's very important for Plutarch to be aware and to remain aware of that fact, of that duality in ourselves. So most of his ethical works insist exactly on this, that we should be aware of the irrational, inherently evil aspect of our nature.

Peter Adamson: And here I suppose there really is a connection to something Plato genuinely says in some of his dialogues. For example, in the Republic you do definitely have the idea that there's a rational part of the soul and that the goal of ethics is for the rational part of the soul to be in charge of the irrational part and to control.

Jan Opsomer: Exactly, and in this respect, Plutarch's great opponents are the Stoics, who thought that the virtue of the soul consists in it being entirely rational, apathos without apathe, and according to Plutarch it is completely unrealistic to have that as a goal, because human souls cannot get rid of their irrational part. So the best you can do is to keep it under control, to check it. And that's what he tries to show in his ethical works, how you do that.

Peter Adamson: Can you give me an example of how Plutarch's ethical thought works in practice?

Jan Opsomer: Let's take one of my favorite works, How to Tell the Flatterer from the Friend. In the society Plutarch was living in, rich people had the problem that they were surrounded by flatterers. They played to the irrational part of their souls. So it is very important for those people to remain aware of the fact that they have this irrational soul, and if they don't they're lost, because they will always listen to the flatterers. Because, as Plutarch says, everyone is its own greatest flatterer. He takes this quote from Plato actually.

Peter Adamson: You've already mentioned a couple of times that the Platonists appropriated ideas from other schools. For example, let's concentrate on the Aristotelians. You mentioned that Aristotelianism was also undergoing a revival at around this time, and it's something that strikes me a lot about these guys. So for example, in the Didaskalikos, they say things like, oh, Aristotle's logic is already there in the Platonic dialogues. They seem to have had this real tendency to father on Plato everything that they didn't actually want to reject. Do you think that's a fair characterization of what they're all doing, even people like Plutarch?

Jan Opsomer: Indeed. It's also interesting to ask the question, what enabled Plutarch to do this? And I think the new academic legacy plays an important role in this. The skeptical legacy, especially in the kind of fallibilism that we find in the last phase of the new academy, the one of Philo of Larissa. Because it allows you, if you accept that your knowledge is fallible, it allows you to provisionally accept theories, to regard them as true, while knowing that they could be false, and while you have to keep an open mind and be willing to revise your doctrines when it's necessary. But this attitude allows them to accept, for instance, peripatetic doctrine, and even stoic doctrine in some cases.


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