Middle Platonist Commentary

Transfiguring Exegesis: Middle Platonist Commentary, Philology and Ideology in Context

Federico Petrucci

In the last years, I have been dealing with several aspects of ancient thought, but my main interest has been Plato and the Platonist tradition. The most recent outcome of this research path is a monograph on the philosophy of the Middle Platonist Taurus of Beirut (forthcoming for Routledge in 2018), also containing the first English translation of that extant sources on this much understudied author.

Several important issues of Middle Platonist, however, still deserve closer examination, and for this reason I shall devote my research period in Durham to some of them. In particular, my project proposes a fresh analysis to Middle Platonist commentary in the light of prior tradition, an analysis intertwining different strands of ancient thought (from philology to ancient science) and based on the genre-expectations of its readership: only in this way we can appreciate the techniques and subtleties of the Middle Platonists’ approach, and ultimately find a philosophical purpose in what existing scholarship regards as mere ‘scholasticism’. The fact that scholars have almost never enquired into the origins of Middle Platonists’ exegetical methods and tend to represent their interest in Plato’s texts as a totally endogenous fact is not astonishing, since a long tradition of studies regards Platonism as a whole as a sort of closed path (a continuous and self-contained tradition), scarcely influenced by other philosophies or fields of thought. My research aims to tear down such traditional barriers and to show to what extent Platonist methods were indebted to the intellectual context in which they developed, by considering not only rival philosophical schools, but also literary approaches and issues related to the history of science.

My main goal is to shed light on the aims, reasons, and methods, determining the Platonists’ recovery and reshaping of previous and/or contemporary ‘languages’ as employed in different fields of thought. Such appropriation, for instance, already concerns the very idea of classifying Plato’s dialogues: Middle Platonists felt the ideological need to produce thematic classifications of Plato’s writings, and in order to do so they recovered methods applied by Alexandrian scholars in the field of literature. But the appropriation of Alexandrian scholarship went even further, for also the practice of analysing authoritative texts within the framework of suitable and codified literary genres was already typical of Alexandrian scholarship. But here a further element of complexity enters the stage, for Peripatetics started producing commentaries on Aristotle’s writings in parallel to the Platonists. This raises the problem of precisely determining the extent to which Middle Platonist commentaries were indebted to previous philological experiences and contemporary methods, and what ideological reasons shaped such a debt. A similar puzzle emerges with respect to the use of textual criticism and philology: Platonists dealt with Plato’s text by also applying a strict philological approach, and drew upon both Alexandrian and Epicurean methods (the latter best exemplified by Demetrius Laco’s Textual Apories) while putting them to the service of new philosophical requirements. All this given, a last barrier to be broken down remains: it is the alleged compartmentalisation between philosophy and science. This fictitious artifact impedes to detect the fascinating way in which Middle Platonists recovered elements of scientific works (especially arithmetical, musical, and astronomical) and put them at the service of the interpretation of Plato.

The overall result of such research will take the form of a new narrative for Middle Platonism, a narrative having wide-reaching implications for our understanding of philosophy and philosophical practice in the post-Hellenistic period: a complex analysis of the intellectual perception and treatment of texts (especially philosophical ones) from the Hellenistic era to the first centuries of the Imperial age, avoiding all compartmentalisation among fields of thought. Indeed, the intertwining of approaches in the fields of literature, science and philosophy, that intertwining which is so dangerously disregarded nowadays, will be a fundamental asset.

Federico M. Petrucci is a COFUND Junior Research Fellow based in the Department of Classics.