Sunday, October 7, 2007

Plato and Aristotle in Agreement?

Islamic philosophy in the classical period emerged from the late antique Neoplatonic consensus that confined philosophical authority to Aristotle and Plato and sought to reconcile their methods and doctrines. The review below engages with new insights on the formation of this tradition of rconciliation and addresses my interest in ancient and late antique philosophy and their Islamic calques.

Here is my review of a revised Oxford DPhil by George E. Karamanolis, Plato and Aristotle in Agreement? Platonists on Aristotle From Antiochus to Porphyry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). Here is another review by Lloyd Gerson. He has recently written a book arguing for a re-assessment of Aristotle as a Platonist.

The Neoplatonic project in Late Antiquity was defined by the attempt to harmonize the teachings and philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Inherited by early Muslim philosophers, harmonization was enthusiastically championed by al-Farabi in his Reconciliation of the Opinions of the Two Philosophers. (Neo)Platonic pseudo-epigraphica attributed to Aristotle such as the famous Theology of Aristotle further bolstered the harmonizing tendency that was carried through into Latin scholasticism. The modern academic study of ancient and late antique philosophy on the other hand has tended to be somewhat hostile to harmonization and assumed that it rested purely on historical accidents and mistakes. More recently, however, the interest in Neoplatonism has led to a reconsideration of the question of harmonization. Lloyd Gerson, one of the foremost champions and specialists on Neoplatonism has argued in a recent book Aristotle and Other Platonists (Cornell University Press, 2005) that the project of harmonization actually began with Aristotle who himself was a Platonist. The Middle Platonist and Neoplatonist thinkers who often wrote commentaries on Aristotle were not misguided. Karamanolis’s book, a revised version of his Oxford D.Phil, continues this tendency by considering the evidence in the thought of a number of Middle Platonists such as Antiochus of Ascalon (d. c. 68 BCE), Plutarch of Chaeronea (d. c. 125), Ammonius Saccas (3rd century, Plotinus’ teacher), Numenius (2nd century), and Atticus (2nd century), and Neoplatonists such as Porphyry (d. c. 305 C.E.) and Plotinus (d. 270) for and against harmonization. It is a useful companion piece that corroborates much of Gerson’s argument. The problem, however, is that often for many Middle Platonists, there is scant textual evidence to consider.

Karamanolis’ book is divided into seven chapters, one each on thinkers from Antiochus to Porphyry. The longest and most significant chapter in the study, unsurprising given the extensive textual evidence and significance of the figure articulated for example in the Eisagoge and in the commentary on the Categories, is on Porphyry. As he argues, extant commentaries on Aristotle after 300 are all Platonist (p. 1). The systematic writing on commentaries on the Stagirite is thus seen as evidence for the project of harmonization. The role of the works of Aristotle in the Neoplatonic curriculum confirms the view that he was seen as part of the Platonic school. What is more interesting, although it does not play a significant role in the argument, is the Peripatetic agreement on harmony; thinkers such as Aristocles of Messene were harmonists (pp. 36ff). But it seems that whereas later Platonists tended to see the study of Aristotle, particularly of the organon as a propaedeutic to the study of the ‘higher wisdom’ of Plato, Peripatetics reversed the order of study. Of course, all this begs the question: what does one understand by Platonism? Was it a coherent school? Could Aristotle have been a Platonist without adhering to the theory of Forms, for example? Did Plato and Aristotle both adhere to a coherent and systematic philosophy? For example, can the Platonic dialogues as a whole be considered as a corpus proposing a philosophical system? Platonists tended to read Plato’s dialogues as articulations of theory; Karamanolis, on the other hand, argues that, ‘Plato’s thought is elusive, if one confines oneself to the dialogues, since they do not offer us direct expressions of his views’ (p. 9).

Antiochus was the first important harmonizer. He was a pivotal figure for two reasons; as Karamanolis says, he was the last Platonist to continue the Hellenistic concern with ethics in particular, but also the first to insist upon the value of Aristotle as a means for accessing Plato. Antiochus’ project of harmonization is even more wide ranging because he considered the Stoic tradition to be broadly Platonic (p. 51ff).

The chapter on Plutarch shifts the interest to metaphysics. Plutarch’s emphasis on the aporetic nature of Plato’s philosophy was linked to elements of skepticism in Aristotelian dialectic. He considered Aristotle to be a communicator of Plato’s ideas. For example, Aristotelian hylomorphism proposes that knowledge pertains to forms, which at one level may be associated with Platonic forms; whether those forms are transcendent or not is a different matter that would not violate Platonism. Generations of philosophy students have wondered how Aristotle’s universals really differ from Platonic forms.

Three fairly short chapters follow on Numenius, Atticus and Ammonius Sacca, no doubt mainly because we know so little about them; very little has survived. The latter is important particularly as the teacher of Plotinus and seems to have been famous as an ‘arch-harmonizer’. This does not really put him at odds with Plotinus. The chapter that follows on Plotinus seems somewhat conflicted between the Peripatetic influence and material in the Enneads and Plotinus’ fluent and regular criticisms of Aristotle. One of the basic problems of the schemata of school traditions is that a school is not usually so much a body of doctrine but often more an interpretative community that coalesces around particular texts and textual hermeneutics.

The final chapter on Porphyry is the most extensive discussion of harmonization. Karamanolis begins with a discussion of the two texts that Porphyry is supposed to have written on the question of harmonization: On the Harmony of Plato and Aristotle, and On the Disagreement of Plato and Aristotle. Even the latter text seems to have been in a harmonizing vein; one thinks of the parallel with al-Farabi’s Reconciliation and his separate works on the Philosophy of Plato and on the Philosophy of Aristotle. Difference did not lead to hostility to Aristotle (p. 253). It merely indicated distinct perspectives defined by different aetiological approaches to events, for example. A classic example is the difference on the nature of the soul as the entelechy of the body. Later in the Muslim period, in the Theology of Aristotle, one encounters differing views on the nature of the soul as entelechy reflecting Platonic, Aristotelian and arguably Porphyrian perspectives especially in the first chapter (mimar). It was Porphyry’s harmonization that determined the project of late Neoplatonism.

Karamanolis’ book is a welcome and scholarly contribution that addresses the question of what one understands by Platonism. The textual argument is further supported by two appendices on Platonic works and extensive scholarly notes and textual discussions. While it is not as accessible or perhaps influential as Gerson’s book, it is remain an indispensable and useful complement to it.

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