Philo of Larissa and Platonism

  • David Glidden
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 145)


No ancient philosophic claim on nature, knowing, or human conduct survived sceptic argument intact. Yet, philosophy did not perish. In particular, philosophies associated with Platonism persevered, despite centuries of scepticism within Plato’s own Academy and the legacy of Socrates himself as sceptic.1


True Belief Pure Reason Sceptic Argument Phenomenal World Ancient Philosophy 
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  1. 1.
    Hellenistic perception of Socrates as sceptic is not to be confused with Socrates’s perception of himself or Plato’s perception of him. As Paul Woodruff argues, the requisite epistemic pre-conditions for the existence of scepticism did not exist back then: cf. “Plato’s Early Theory of Knowledge,” in Stephen Everson (ed). Epistemology, Companions to Ancient Thought, vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 60–62; cf. also Gregory Vlastos, “Socrates’ Disavowal of Knowledge,” Philosophical Quarterly 3 (1985): 1–31. A longer version of this paper was given at a Pan-American dialogue on scepticism held in Riverside in February, 1991. I am grateful to the audience for comments and to subsequent written criticisms by assorted readers.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Cf., for example, the discussion in J. M. Rist, Stoic Philosophy ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969 ), pp. 205–213.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Cf. Plutarch Proc. An. 1013B. Eudorus’s alleged Platonism is discussed by John Dillon The Middle Platonists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 115–135. Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Cf. Dillon, 139–183, although Dillon’s specific attribution of Philo’s debt to Alexandrian Platonism is not without controversy. In my view little can be gleaned worrying over such details of philosophical influence. It is hard enough answering such questions of contemporaries, not to mention ancients. Yet, general trends are worth following, such as the rise of Middle Platonism after the demise of Academic scepticism. On the history of later Platonism, cf. H. Dorrie, Der Platonismus in der Antike, vol. I (Stuttgart: 1987 ).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    On the application of the term “eclecticism”, cf. Pierluigi Donini, “The History of the Concept of Eclecticism,” in J. M. Dillon and A. A. Long (eds), The Question of “Electicism” (Berkeley: Unversity of California Press, 1988), pp. 15–33. Eclecticism need not be capricious. Borrowing from distinctly different philosophies is supposed to serve the higher purpose of articulating collective insights, albeit taken variously from others.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Cf. R. S. Bluck’s introduction to Plato’s Meno (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), pp. 7, 33; also Alexander Nehamas, introduction to Plato’s Meno (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), pp. 7, 33; also Alexander Nehamas, “Meno’s Paradox and Socrates as a Teacher,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 3 (1985): 1–30.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Cf. Gail Fine, “Knowledge and Belief in Repubic V—VII,” in Everson’s Epistemology,op. cit., pp. 112–113.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    8. Cf. J. M. E. Moravcsik, “Understanding and Knowledge in Plato’s Philosophy,” Neue Hefte für Philosophie 15/16 (1979): 337–348. Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Cf. Bertrand Russell, “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description,” in Mysticism and Logic (London: Allen & Unwin, 1917), pp. 152–167; also “On Denoting,” in Logic and Knowledge, ed. R. C. Marsh ( London: Allen & Unwin, 1956 ), pp. 41–56.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Cf. Jerry A. Fodor, “Imagistic Representation,” ed. Ned Block, Imagery (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), pp. 63–86, also two essays by Daniel C. Dennett in that same collection: “The Nature of Images and the Introspective Trap,” pp. 51–61 and “Two Approaches to Mental Images,” pp. 87–107.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    On the difference between Russellian acquaintance and Fregean description see Howard Wettstein, “Frege-Russell Semantics?” Dialectica 44 (1990): 113–135.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    There are other passages in Plato that cover this same territory, most notably at Theaetetus 200d-201c, well discussed by M. F. Burnyeat and J. Barnes, “Socrates and the Jury,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society,Supp. vol. 54 (1980): 173–206. But that passage is open to questioning whether Plato is speaking there on his own behalf: Cf. James S. Samuel, “A New Verdict on the `Jury Passage’ Theaetetus 201a-c,” Ancient Philosophy 9 (1989): 1–14. For my purposes here I prefer to use the Meno as my benchmark, with its doctrine of recollection, as opposed to the Theaetetus,where the doctrine is conspicuously missing.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Cf. Euthyphro 15b, Aristotle Pol. 1253b33ff. Bluck discusses what is known of Daedalus’s sculpture at pp. 408–411 of his Meno commentary, op. cit. Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Michael Frede, “Being and Becoming in Plato,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy Supplementary Volume (1988), pp. 37–52, followed by a reply by Alan Code, pp. 53–60. Frede: “It is the assumption that the objects of experience lack a nature so as to be anything, properly speaking, that they just have the look or appearance of being something and hence have to be understood in terms of, or rather in contrast with, those things which really are something because they have a nature so as to be this way, and not just give the appearance of being this way. Without an adequate understanding of this view about objects of experience one will not understand why Plato ever came to postulate ideas of the kind he did postulate” (p. 52). As a consequence for Plato, when we form an opinion concerning our phenomenal impressions that x appears F, it follows that x cannot be F, since nothing that appears F can, properly speaking, be the F it appears to be. This, I agree with Frede, is the claim made in this passage from the Timaeus. Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Cf. A. E. Taylor, A Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928 ), pp. 337–341.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    David Sedley’s summary of Cicero provides a useful propaedeutic to those uninitiated in the history of this controversy: “In 87B. C. the upheavals of the First Mithridatic War had driven Philo of Larissa, scholarch of the Athenian Academy, to exile in Rome. Meanwhile, his pupils Antiochus of Ascalon and Heraclitus of Tyre were to be found in the East Mediterranean with the entourage of the quaestor L. Lucullus. It was while the party was at Alexandria that there occurred the celebrated furore described by Cicero at Ac. 2.11–12. Antiochus received from Rome a copy of Philo’s latest work, the contents of which so outraged him that he pretended to doubt their authenticity. Heraclitus when challenged on this could cite no Academic precedent for them. Yet the work’s authenticity was confirmed by two witnesses who had recently been with Philo in Rome.” “The End of the Academy,” Phronesis 26 (1981): 69; This episode led to a rejoinder by Antiochus in his dialogue Sosus which might have been the documentary foundation for Cicero’s Academica. And this alleged connection has recently led to considerable scholarship concerning what Philo might have written. Cf. John Glucker, Antiochus and the Late Academy (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978); Harold Tarrant, Scepticism or Platonism? The Philosophy of the Fourth Academy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Jonathan Barnes provides a much needed element of caution in “Antiochus of Ascalon,” Philosophia Togata,ed. Miriam Griffin and Jonathan Barnes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 51–96, though Barnes casts aspersions widely. For example, he disputes the credit Augustine gives to Philo: “Everything about the story must be suspect” (p. 92). Barnes characteristically overcompenstates his case.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Cf. H. Tarrant, “Agreement and the Self-Evident in Philo of Larissa,” Dionysius 5 (1981): 66–97.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    The connection between Philo of Larissa and the unknown author of an extant commentary on the Theaetetus is alleged at length by Tarrant (1985), pp. 66–88. The concept of “simple knowledge” alluded to by the commentor (cf. 15.2–26. 2.20) figures instrumentally in Tarrant’s account. For my purposes here, I shall accept Tarrant’s speculation with a grain of salt; that the author of the commentary was sympathetic to the Fourth Academy.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Cf. Tarrant (1985), pp. 49–53, Glucker, pp. 64–90.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    So Gisela Striker argues, among others: “Suppose one thinks that although no impression, however plausible, consistent and tested, can be guaranteed to be true, it is still quite likely that most of those impressions will in fact be true. In assenting to such an impression, one would then have grasped the truth, although of course one could not be certain that one had done so…. Why not say, then, that some things can indeed be known, though not in the strict sense demanded by Stoic theory? This seems to have been the line of argument developed by Philo of Larissa in a set of books he wrote in Rome towards the end of his life.” From “The Problem of the Criterion,” in Everson’s Epistemology (op. cit. n. 1 above), p. 157.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Glucker, pp. 88–90. One of the pleasures of reading Glucker’s weighty, scholarly tome is his partisan enthusiasm, but on this point, as well as others, he is mistaken.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Cf. Lawrence P. Schrenk, “A Middle Platonic Reading of Plato’s Theory of Recollection,” Ancient Philosophy 11 (1991): 103–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Cf. 53.3–8, 31–36; 57.26–42, discussed by Tarrant (1985), p. 83.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Cf. Tarrant (1985), pp. 66–88, esp. 84–86.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Cf. Gisela Striker’s review of Tarrant in Ancient Philosophy 11 (1991): 202–206.Google Scholar
  27. 27. “visum igitur impressum effictumque ex eo, unde esset, quale esse non posset, ex eo, unde non esset, id nos a Zenone definitum rectissime dicimus: qui enim potest quicquam comprehendi, ut plane confidas perceptum id cognitumque esse, quod est tale, quale vel falsum esse possit?” (Reid) Cf. Cicero Ac. 2.18 with Tarrant (1985), pp. 53–62.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Ibid. Barnes argues (pp. 71–75) that “Philo’s epistemological breakthrough” consisted of this: “It is no part of the concept of knowledge that I could not have been misled - it is enough that I have not been misled” (p. 73). So Barnes has Philo abandoning the characteristic commitment of Stoic Katearryttq that “were it not the case that P, then it would not seem to X that P.” But it is this exact same formal commitment which is precisely part and parcel of Plato’s theory of understanding, as portrayed in the Meno, Timaeus, Republic,and elsewhere. What Plato did not aver was that appearances are subject to such adamant apprehension. Philo, I take it, retained the strong view of knowledge but rejected the view that phenomena were strongly known. This allowed Philo to mitigate his scepticism toward phenomena (Barnes may be right about that), while keeping the commitment to Katti rlvLS as characteristic of genuine understanding (Barnes is wrong about that). This division between the fallibility of phenomena and the invulnerability of understanding, I take it, had been Plato’s position all along.Google Scholar
  29. 29. “Hoc cum infirmat tollitque Philo, iudicium tollit incogniti et cogniti, ex quo efficitur nihil posse comprehendi…” (Reid) Ac. 2.18. The “iudicium” I take to be the visum. Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Cf. Sextus M 7.141–144 and Tarrant (1981), pp. 78–83; (1985), pp. 89–94. Many other scholars, from Hirzel to Sedley, claim that Antiochus’s Canonica is Sextus’s source book. Barnes (p. 65) for one denies this, though the reasons he gives are not compelling. Even so, he may be right. Such speculative attributions do tend to be whimsical. For my purposes here, it is enough to claim that Antiochus might himself be the source of the extraordinarily biased account of Platonism found in Sextus’s history. Indeed, there is a thematic parallel in the argument employed in that passage on Plato (7.141–144) and one found in an ensuing passage on the Cyrenaics, which Sextus explicitly attributes to Antiochus: M 7. 201–202.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Antiochus’s spokesman, Lucullus, uses a similar argument in Cicero. Compare oύ γαρ έι τι kατ’ τvdτρyεLav ΦOaίvεtaι, ιoûιo Kai Kat’ αλŋθειαv vπâρxει at 7.143 with Ac. 2.34: Quo enim modo perspicue dixeris album esse aliquid cum possit accidere ut id quod nigrum sit album esse videatur, aut quo modo ista aut perspicua dicemus aut impressa subtiliter cum sit incertum vere inaniterne moveatur? Although Lucullus later says at Ac. 2.38 & 45 that the mind cannot resist something evident, it is also his position, judging from 2.34, that reason has a role to play in testing whether something is really evident or only seems so.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Cf. Tarrant (1985), pp. 53–55. Metrodorus of Stratonicea, that renegade Epicurean who fled to the Academy, may have been partially responsible for Philo’s conversion to Platonism. There is a striking affinity between Plato’s mental realism and Epicurus’s perceptual realism. The Epicureans had historically resisted the assimilation of a’aOtloLS into Só ct, insisting that the infallible mechanism of recognition be limited to sensory discrimination alone and not to claims we might make about the world on the basis of perception. Similarly for Plato, the mind itself can directly understand when free from all distractions of appearances and guesses we make about them. Metrodorus had later become sceptical of perceptual realism and so abandoned Epicurus altogether. Philo possibly adopted another form of realism, after Metrodorus, demonstrating scepticism concerning opinions we might form about the way the world appears to be, while invoking realism about the way the world really is, when apprehended by pure reason instead of by the senses. In this way, Philo might have shown the way to Middle Platonism and the return to metaphysics, inspired by Metrodorus.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Cf. Cicero, Ac. 1. 13.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Contra, Barnes, p. 74, Glucker, p. 74, and V. Brochard, Les Sceptiques grecs ( Paris: Vrin, 1969 ), pp. 192–205.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Notwithstanding Barnes’s denigration of Augustine’s peculiar history of the Academy, the credit Augustine gives to Philo reflects a shared conviction in the autonomy of noumenal understanding. Both Augustine and Philo share an interest in what Myles Burnyeat calls the “synoptic grasp” that comes with “first-hand appreciation” yielding “a moment of illumination” — cf. “Wittgenstein and Augustine De Magistro,” The Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 61 (1987): 19–22.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

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