I recently finished reading through John Dillon’s excellent book, The Middle Platonists: 80 B.C. to A.D. 220. It’s an excellent introduction to a still often under-appreciated period in the history of Philosophy. One of the features of Middle Platonism (a unfortunate but descriptive term invented my modern thinkers) is the diversity within the Platonic tradition. This may be due to the lack of a central dogmatic school in Athens (which fell in 88 B.C.) and to the engagement and polemicizing between the rival Peripatetic and Stoic schools (with a dash of Pythagoreanism thrown in for good measure). This makes it difficult to pin down exactly what constitutes a platonist during this period, and consequently all too easy to make almost anyone a platonist (i.e., Origen of Alexandria).One of the interesting variances in beliefs is on the creation of the world. While most Platonists of this period take Plato’s myth of the Demiurge in the Timaeus to be symbolic, there were a few (i.e., Plutarch of Chaeroneia, Atticus, Harpocration of Argos, and Severus, that is, those in the “Athenian” school) who held that Plato taught that the material world had a point at which it began to exist. But what does it mean for something to come into existence, or more importantly, how did or could it be understood ? (note: In Greek the term under dispute is γίγνομαι [gignomai], specifically it’s form in Timaeus 28B, γέγονεν [gegonen]). We are fortunate to have an extensive passage from Calvenus Taurus’ (c. 150) Commentary on the Timaeus in John Philoponus’ (6th century Christian platonist philosopher) work On the Eternity of the World. In this passage, Taurus outlines four different ways in which “created” can be understood and, consequently, to argue that Plato really did hold to the eternity of the world. This will be a long quote, but worth the time to go through.
‘Created’, then, can have the following meanings: (1) That is said to be ‘created’ which is not in fact created, but is of the same genus as things that are created. Thus we describe something as ‘visible’ which has never in fact been seen, nor is now being seen, nor will ever be seen, but which is of the same genus as things that are visible, as if for instance there were a body at the centre of the earth.
(2) That is also called ‘created’ which is in the theory composite, even if it has not in fact been combined. Thus the mesê (in music) is a ‘combination’ of the nêtê and the hypatê; for even if it has not been combined from these two, its value is seen to be an equal proportion between the one and the other; and the same things goes for flowers and animals. In the cosmos, then, there is seen to be combination and mixture, so that we can by (mentally) subtracting and separating off from it the various qualities analyse it into its primary substratum.
(3) The cosmos is said to be ‘created’ as being always in process of generation, even as Proteus is always in the process of changing into different shapes. And in the case of the cosmos, the earth and everything up tot he Moon is continuously changing from one form into another, whereas those things above the Moon, while remaining more or less the same, with very little change as regards their substance, yet change their relative positions, even as a dancer, while remaining the same in substance, changes into many positions by means of gesticulations. Even so the heavenly bodies change, and different configurations of them come about as a result of the movements of the planets in respect of the fixed stars and of the fixed stars in respect of the planets.
(4) One might also call it ‘created’ by virtue of the fact that it is dependent for its existence on an outside source, to wit, God, by whom it has been brought into order. Thus even according to those for whom the cosmos is eternal, the Moon possesses ‘created’ light from the Sun, although there was never a time when she was not illuminated by him.
-Quoted in John Dillon, The Middle Platonists, p. 243.
For those familiar with the Christian debates about the nature of Jesus Christ (the Son) to God (the Father) that began to swell up in the 3rd to 4th century, this excerpt is particularly helpful. First, the adjectival form of the verb is γένητος [genêtos: created], a term often and easily conflated with γέννητος [gennêtos: begotten] (for a good summary of the confusion, cf. R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 203-206, which I briefly summarize in a paragraph here).
Secondly, this also helps make clear why passages such as Proverbs 8:22 LXX weren’t as clear cut for ancient readers of Scripture as it is (or is thought to be) by modern readers. I remember first reading Athanasius explain why Proverbs 8:22 doesn’t really say what it says and thinking he needed to take a good hermeneutics class and be set straight. Reading this excerpt by Taurus helps me see that it was much more complicated than I assumed. (edit: the word for “created” in Prov. 8:22 LXX is ἔκτισέν, so this makes my second point slightly irrelevant at the textual level. Nonetheless, it may still be relevant conceptually for how one processes what it means for something to be created or to come into existence).
For more on Middle Platonism, check out Dillon’s book, or these podcasts from The History of Philosophy without Any Gaps by Peter Adamson:
- 78 – Middle Men: the Platonic Revival
- 79 – To the Lighthouse: Philo of Alexandria
- 80 – Delphic Utterances: Plutarch
- 81 – Jan Opsomer on Middle Platonism