- From Plato to Platonism by Lloyd P. Gerson
From Plato to Platonism is a fascinating and ambitious attempt to provide a systematic account of what Lloyd P. Gerson calls “Ur-Platonism” (UP), which he understands to be “an ahistorical or theoretical framework for analysis” of Platonist philosophy that “arises from the conjunction of the negations of the philosophical positions explicitly rejected in the [Platonic] dialogues” (10). As a via negativa to Plato’s philosophy (9), UP is constituted of five “anti-” elements: antimaterialism, antimechanism, antinominalism, antirelativism, and antiskepticism (11-13). For Gerson, Platonism is understood to be the hypothetical superstructure, which has at its apex a first principle of all (variously treated as the Good or the One), built upon the foundation of UP. Platonisms, historically understood, are the constructs that employ various principles to address philosophical problems on the assumption that UP is correct. Fundamentally, UP informs the “doctrinal nature of Plato’s philosophy” (183n13) and generates the panoply of debates among Platonists from the Old Academy, through Academic Skepticism and Middle Platonism, to Plotinus. An evaluation of UP as a hermeneutic apparatus for explaining the variety of post-Platonic debates about philosophy in its many parts thus depends on its success in providing an integrated framework for explanation of its own later historical developments.
Hence, in part 1, Plato and his Readers, Gerson tests the success of UP by working through its initial “creation” (131) in the writings of Plato and of Aristotle. In chapter 1, Gerson sets out to develop a methodologically defensible description of Plato’s Platonism that will not fall prey to question-begging. Platonism, understood as it is by Gerson, is not a simple dogmatism, but rather something more like “a big tent [within which] are found parties disputing numerous issues” (23). Who is in the tent? For example, does it include the Plato who wrote Socratic dialogues? In chapters 2-3, Gerson takes on the “Socratic Problem” and related issues of unitarianism and developmentalism in grasping Plato’s Platonism (39). Certain dialogues of Plato lend themselves to the “antis-” that constitute UP: Republic, Theaetetus, Philebus, Parmenides, Epistles (whose authenticity Gerson does not commit to), and above all else Timaeus. UP helps to explain how Plato could appear both to be a unitarian and a developmentalist throughout his corpus: the former in terms of systematizing UP as an “unchanging foundation,” and the latter in terms of the continuous “construction” of new positions generated by “intra-Academic” disputes (80-81). Hence, in chapter 4, Gerson turns to Aristotle’s criticisms of Plato’s Platonism, and in the process confirms Plato’s antinominalist and antimechanist commitments. Throughout the first third of this book, the arguments are thorough, the challenges to other scholarly positions often incontrovertible, and the philosophical payoff of UP—understood as a foundation from which to stage intra-Academic debates—patent. It has, in effect, fundamentally altered the way I think about Plato and Aristotle. [End Page 542]
The second third of this work, The Continuing Creation of Platonism, turns to the further iterations of Platonism in the philosophy of Speusippus and Xenocrates; Arcesilaus and Philo of Larissa; Antiochus, Plutarch, and Alcinous; and Numenius (chapters 5-8). Part 3 is devoted to Plotinus: “Exegete of the Platonic Revelation.” As is to be expected, Gerson’s treatment of Plotinian Platonism, with its elaborate systematization, is exemplary, and confirms the substructure implied by UP. The success of the application of UP to the other figures discussed in part 2, however, is less clear: one might imagine that Plato’s immediate successors in the Academy, Speusippus and Xenocrates, not to mention Hermodorus, would emerge as Platonists deeply committed to the tenets of UP, but such commitments do not quite salvage them from looking like metaphysical hair-splitters; whether and how they reacted to antirelativism, for example, is treated somewhat by the way. Antiochus is put to the test, wavering between Stoic materialism and Platonist antiskepticism, which produces a “tentative reconstruction of Platonism on the foundation of UP” (187; italics original) that, to my...