In his book Image, Word and God in the Early Christian Centuries, Mark Edwards makes the following observation about Philo:

Philo is counted among the middle Platonists—he is indeed the author of more than half the extant writings which fall under this description—but he was also a Jew and a sedulously observant one, the legatee of a wisdom centuries older than the oldest traditions of Greece. Commentarie on the first five books of the Septuagint make up the greater part of his work, and the few surviving texts that are not exegetic are celebrations of peculiarly austere modes of discipleship or vindications of the Jewish people in the teeth of oppression and mockery. ‘Platonist’ is therefore not the best term for him if a Platonist is one who professes to navigate by resaons alone with Plato as his lodestar.”

That last line is particularly interesting. Is that a sufficient definition of what is means to be a ‘platonist’? I’ve been wondering about how to identify platonists for a while now and still am undecided. Besides Edwards’s, I’ve come up with the following options:

  1. School Adherence: This would mean that one is a Platonist if and only if one is associated with a Platonic school. This has the benefit of clear boundary markers but requires a type of “apostolic” succession to succeed. This would mean that there have been no platonists anymore after the closing of the school by Justinian (or maybe even earlier with the death of Philo of Larissa).
  2. Doctrinal Aggregate: By this I mean one determines what a “true” Platonist believes—perhaps identified with Plato himself—and judge everyone else according to this standard. Again, this seems to make it easy for establishing clear boundary markers, but there are problems. First, if “everything Plato believed” is the standard then, historically, Plato was the only Platonists. However, there are many who not only call themselves Platonists but hold to many of the same beliefs as Plato. Must one hold to everything Plato believed? If not, then at what point would one cease to be a platonist? Must one hold to at least three-quarters of Platonic doctrine? One-half? Three-eighths? Is one shared doctrine enough to establish one’s platonism? Platonism on this account then seems to become a vague concept (like baldness): everyone knows it when they see it but there is no clear marker of when one goes from not-platonist to platonist. If one wants to use platonism as an adjective to map out various thinkers, I think one would have a very confused map on this account.
  3. Conceptual Convergence: By convergence, I mean that two people could hold similar beliefs for different reasons and never know anything about the other person. There is much to this that I like. Individuals are allowed the freedom to articulate their own beliefs without needing to have some genealogy of influence. Even if we know, for example, that Philo knew the doctrines of Plato, it does not mean that he merely passively received beliefs. I’ve actually experienced something like this myself in the past. I was working on a paper for a class only to find—after the whole thing was over—that another author whom I did not read ended up saying what I was trying to say all along (and did a better job of it, too!).
  4. Ur-Platonism: Ur-Platonism is the term coined by Lloyd Gerson in his book From Plato to Platonism. Here he argues that all Platonists can be subsumed under this category that is marked by a commitment to anti-materialism, anti-mechanism, anti-nominalism, anti-relativism, and anti-skepticism. This is also an idea I find attractive but haven’t gotten into Gerson’s book so it’s hard for me to evaluate here. Some of the reviews I’ve read suggested that it may not fit nicely into the actual history of Platonism, but if there are only a few exceptions to his rule it could still be a profitable heuristic.

Are there any other options that I’m missing?


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