In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • What is Platonism?
  • Lloyd P. Gerson (bio)

1. The Problem

The question posed in the title of this paper is an historical one. I am not, for example, primarily interested in the term 'Platonism' as used by modern philosophers to stand for a particular theory under discussion—a theory, which it is typically acknowledged, no one may have actually held.1 I am rather concerned to understand and articulate on an historical basis the core position of that "school" of thought prominent in antiquity from the time of the "founder" up until at least the middle of the 6th century C.E.2 Platonism was unquestionably the dominant philosophical position in the ancient world over a period of more than 800 years. Epicureanism is perhaps the sole major exception to the rule that in the ancient world all philosophers took Platonism as the starting-point for speculation, including those who thought their first task was to refute Platonism. Basically, Platonism set the ancient philosophical agenda. Given this fact, understanding with some precision the nature of Platonism is obviously a desirable thing for the historian of ancient philosophy.

One might suppose that the task of determining the nature of Platonism can be handled in a relatively straightforward and perspicuous manner if one stipulates that Platonism is the view or collection of views held by all those who called themselves Platonists or followers of Plato. Thus, we could take a purely phenomonological approach: Platonism is just whatever anyone in the relevant [End Page 253] period identifies as Platonism.3 A similar approach could be made in determining who is a Platonist. As a strictly historical method, this is not an unreasonable way to proceed.4 Nevertheless, it have several drawbacks.

First, the fact that philosophers did not self-identify as Platonists until sometime in the 2nd century C.E. means that we would have to exclude from our construction of Platonism, on the basis of a technicality, as it were, the contributions of many philosophers who were quite evidently in some sense followers of Plato and of his philosophy. The list of the philosophers thus excluded would be quite impressive. It includes members of the Old Academy such as Speusippus (c. 410-339 B.C.E.) and Xenocrates (396/5-314/313 B.C.E.) as well as numerous significant figures of what is anachronistically called Middle Platonism such as Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 130-c. 68 B.C.E.) and Numenius (2nd century C.E.). I single out these philosophers from among many others because the remains of their writings—in some cases extensive and in others exiguous—surely have some role to play in giving an historical answer to my question. In this regard, the skeptical philosophers of the New Academy, Arcesilaus (316/315-241/340 B.C.E.), Carneades (214-129/8 B.C.E.), Clitomachus (187/6-110/09 B.C.E.), and Philo of Larissa (158-84 B.C.E.) are especially interesting.5 For there is a serious and complex question of whether skepticism does or does not represent an authentic [End Page 254] element of Platonism.6 It would seem to be needlessly scholastic to dismiss the question out of hand just because New Academics did not actually call themselves Platonists.

Second, among self-described Platonists as well as among de facto ones, there were serious and substantial disagreements about various doctrines understood to comprise Platonism. If we move forward to the end of our period, those of undoubtedly Platonic pedigree such as Proclus (412-85 C.E.) and Simplicius (c. 490-560 C.E.) preserve for us extensive doxographies of disputed positions among Platonists across many centuries. These disputes focus on matters small and large. A scholar such as Dörrie, deeply conversant with these disputes, and committed to the phenomological approach, would insist that the recognition of contradictions within Platonism should occasion no unease. For example, according to Dörrie, it belongs to authentic Platonism to argue either that our entire soul is immortal or only that one part of it is; to argue either that Forms are within a divine intellect or that they are not; to argue either...