Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Decline and End of the Platonic Academy

Carneades of Cyrene
In Richard Bett’s The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Scepticism, there are three essays which analyze the skeptical period of the Platonic Academy. The first essay (chapter 3), “Arcesilaus and Carneades,” is by Harald Thorsrud; the second essay (chapter 4), “The sceptical Academy: decline and afterlife,” is by Carlos Levy; and the third essay (chapter 5), “Aenesidemus and the rebirth of Pyrrhonism,” is by R. J. Hankinson.

The Platonic Academy became a fountainhead of sceptic ideas in the ancient world when Arcesilaus became its head in 268 BCE. By his innovative reading of the Platonic dialogues, it appears, Arcesilaus discovered the arguments which show that knowledge is not possible. It is also possible that he was impressed by the fact that various interlocutors of Socrates were unable to justify their beliefs. However, Zeno of Citium, the founder of the stoic school, had found a different Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. Arcesilaus probably saw Zeno’s stoicism as a threat to his own sceptic interpretation of Plato and Socrates, and throughout his life he made considerable efforts for refuting the ideas of the Stoic School.

Academic skeptic thought started making lot of progress after Carneades of Cyrene became the head of the Platonic Academy. He was sent to Rome in 156-155 BCE where he caused consternation among the politicians by his way of lecturing on a certain conception of justice on one day and refuting his own arguments the next day. He believed that justice is impossible to achieve. The Roman politician, Cato the Elder, was appalled by Carneades’s skepticism. He thought that Carneades would have a corrupting influence on the youth, and he requested the Roman senate to send him back to Athens. Carneades returned to Athens and resumed his work as the head of the Platonic Academy. He dedicated his life to refuting the stoic doctrines and also argued against epicureanism.

Clitomachus, who had studied philosophy under Carneades and was a skeptic, became the head of the Academy after Carneades left voluntarily in 137 BCE. There are no written records of Clitomachus teachings. According to Cicero, Clitomachus's life was dedicated to preaching the views of Carneades. Philo of Larissa, the pupil of Clitomachus, was the next head of the Academy. Initially, Philo was an ardent defender of skepticism and a staunch opponent of stoicism, but his views evolved after he left Athens at the time of the war against Mithradates and arrived in Rome (around 88 BC). He was soon teaching a moderate view of skepticism, and was permitting provisional beliefs without certainty.

The process of decline of the Platonic Academy began after the departure of Carneades. Carlos Levy, in his essay, “The sceptical Academy: decline and afterlife,” notes that the decline of the Academy may have something to do with the method that Arcesilaus and Carneades used for preaching their ideas. Neither of them wrote any philosophical work. But the thing is that oral teachings are susceptible to contradictory interpretations, which can fuel differences and schisms. The problem was worsened by the fact that Carneades, as is befitting for a good skeptic, would not allow the skeptic Academic thought to be elevated into a doctrine.

The contrasting interpretations of the utterances of Platonic masters led to acrimonious debate among the Platonic academics. After the death of Philo of Larissa, the Academy broke into several factions which eventually sank into oblivion. Carlos Levy points out in his essay that “the demise of the institution allowed the autonomous development of two modes of thought that were undoubtedly already present in Philo’s Roman books. Fidelity to Plato became Middle Platonism, mitigated skepticism was radicalized into neoPyrrhonism. Aspects of the new academy survived in both of them, to the considerable enrichment of Western thought.”

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