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  • The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347–274 B.C.)
  • David Robertson
John Dillon. The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347–274 B.C.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Pp. x, 252. $104.50 (hb.). ISBN 978-0-19-823766-2; $62.50 (pb.). ISBN: 978-0-19-927946-3.

Dillon’s reconstruction of the Early Platonists provides a helpful overview of the leading lights of the Old Academy (Speusippus, Xenocrates, [End Page 85] and Polemo), plus a few minor figures (Philippus of Opus, Hermodorus of Syracuse, Heraclides of Pontus, and Crantor of Soli). Eudoxus of Cnidus, Hestiaeus of Perinthus, Theudius of Magnesia, and Euphraeus of Oreus are not featured, although they are adduced on occasion. This book provides an interesting complement to Dillon’s early work on the “Middle Platonists,” although the Old Academy is a recurring leitmotif in his personal bibliography. The “unwritten doctrines” of Plato (and related matters) are presented as an introduction to the philosophy of the Old Academy (16–29), while there is a charming account of the physical and intellectual environment of the Early Academy (1–16). Most of the rest of the book is occupied with the heirs of Plato in their order of succession.

A broad philosophical terrain is surveyed in the book, and some matters invite more discussion. For one, there is the difficult issue of Speusippus and the practice of diairesis (79–82), a focus of some recent controversy; see A. Falcon, “Aristotle, Speusippus, and the Method of Division,” CQ 50 (2000) 402–14. (Dillon addresses division in the Old Academy several times: 28–9, 150–3, 203–4.) In particular, I am not convinced that Speusippus’ argument regarding the possibility of definition simply reflects concern with the purification of the soul, or the inherent limitations of studying the physical world as in the Timaeus (82). I suspect that the argument reflects more serious epistemological and metaphysical concerns than this.

On another note, I have questions about Dillon’s portrait of Xenocrates as the most philosophically faithful of the early successors of Plato (107, 154–55). For example, is this picture compatible with the unorthodoxy of his atomistic development of the theory of basic triangles from the Timaeus? Dillon argues that atomist Platonism could be philosophically workable, valid for the intelligible as well as the sensible world (111–118). Certainly, the theory of basic triangles does not merit Aristotle’s polemical treatment in the De Caelo. Perhaps Xenocrates’ atomism, including its sonic and visual implications, emerges as one of the most remarkable developments in the Old Academy. In any case, as Dillon points out (98–155), Xenocrates seems to have positioned himself beyond his peers as the touchstone for Platonist posterity, a figure to be revived in the years after the Academy watered down its skepticism.

Finally, one might question the nature of Polemo’s stimulus to early Stoic ethics. It is not easy for Dillon (among others) to bring these connections to light (159–66); Dillon concedes that his case is a tentative one (176–77). According to Dillon, Polemo strongly anticipates the ethics of Zeno and his successors on several points, including the first principles of ethics, the theory of oikeiôsis, philosophical love, and the role of goods (health, bodily integrity, etc.) that are not as central as virtue to attaining happiness. I cannot address points of detail in Dillon’s case here, but it is clear that much depends on the reliability of material in Cicero’s Academica Posteriora for purposes of defining Polemo, as well as the possible influence of other philosophers such as Theophrastus and Epicurus. Dillon may have spotlighted Polemo too heavily. Hopefully, still more elucidation of these difficult issues will come amid the ongoing profusion of studies in Hellenistic ethics.

Few readers of The Heirs of Plato will deny that it is a welcome contribution, addressing a critical juncture in the study of ancient philosophy. The Early Platonists, like the Socratics of Plato’s own generation, certainly deserve more attention. Readers will also appreciate Dillon’s work on the origins of the Hellenistic schools of philosophy. Some readers may wish for a richer...


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