- Il Platonismo by Mauro Bonazzi
It is doubtful whether the famous adagium that Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato counts among Alfred North Whitehead’s most profound ideas (for criticism, see e.g. Richard Kraut’s introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Plato, 1992, 32n4). This sentence, however, captures a flourishing trend in recent scholarship. During the last two decades, studies on ancient Platonism and its posterity have been impressive for both their number and their quality. I would recall Matthias Baltes’s collection of sources Der Platonismus in der Antike (1987–2002), which aims to reconstruct the basic tenets of ancient Platonism by providing a translated edition with commentary on its fundamental texts (the Bausteine), and Lloyd Gerson’s contributions on ancient Platonism and its invariant philosophical agenda. Which criteria or fundamental features make it possible for us to regard an ancient philosopher as a follower of Plato? How did ancient Platonists represent their own allegiance? Do their fundamental views set out an agenda that is still philosophically interesting (or rather invariably interesting and commendable, as if Platonism were a kind of philosophia perennis)? These questions are raising an increasing interest among specialists.
Mauro Bonazzi’s monograph is deeply indebted to the above-mentioned works (duly recorded in the extensive bibliography). There is, however, a crucial difference. This book, a succinct survey of ancient Platonism from Plato’s Academy down to the sixth century, focuses less on basic tenets and fundamental features than it does on historical transformations and the plurality of views expressed by Platonists. Bonazzi’s statement is as clear as it is highly plausible (at least in the reviewer’s view): non esiste nell’antichità un platonismo unico, singolare e incontrovertibile, da accettare o rifiutare, ma una serie di platonismi, in competizione non solo, come è ovvio, con le altre scuole filosofiche, ma anche tra di loro (“in antiquity there was no unique, individual, and incontrovertible Platonism to accept or refute, but a series of Platonisms that competed not only with other philosophical schools, as is obvious, but also among themselves”) (4). Unfortunately, the title of the book does not convey this approach clearly enough and can be misleading. Rather than Il platonismo, the title Platonismi antichi (Ancient Platonisms) would have been more appropriate. The idea that there are different and competing kinds of Platonism(s) is certainly not new: suffice it to recall Ernst Cassirer’s and Alexandre Koyré’s classic studies on the role played by different Platonisms in Renaissance and early modern philosophy. Scholars in the field of ancient philosophy, however, are currently inclined to follow the opposite path. Defining Platonism or a Platonic allegiance is seen as a primary task; following the various kinds of Platonisms across their history is a less prominent concern. Bonazzi’s monograph, where he takes over and summarizes his many previous research contributions, can be seen as providing an interesting alternative to this approach.
The first chapter offers a survey of the controversies within the Old Academy: the debates over the status of ideas and principles, the controversies on the genesis of the cosmos, the position of Aristotle, and the “practical turn” with Polemo. Very interestingly, Bonazzi fully includes the Hellenistic Academy in his history of Platonism. Academic scepticism is not only institutionally connected to Plato but can also be seen as the development of (part of) Plato’s philosophical legacy. So, as Bonazzi argues, Arcesilaus and Carneades [End Page 671] are “Platonists” insofar as they take over and develop what Victor Brochard (Les sceptiques grecs , 97) called the “germes de scepticisme” already present in Socrates and Plato (63–64). Their interpretation is, indeed, partial; but this does not mean that Arcesilaus and Carneades should be expelled from ancient Platonism. So we cannot take “anti-scepticism” as a defining feature of ancient Platonism (160n207). Bonazzi makes a strong case that we should not take the polemics addressed against academic scepticism by post-Hellenistic and late antique Platonists as providing a criterion to distinguish between what is genuinely “Platonist” and what is not.