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If one had to provide a formal account of what ‘being a Platonist’ means, it would be tempting to refer to the broad idea that a Platonist is, in general, a follower of Plato, which implies a commitment to Plato’s authority. After all, this would be a reasonable description for all heirs of Plato, from the Academics – the scholarchs of the Academy were in any case the successors of Plato, and claimed for themselves the privilege of this relationship – to late-antique Platonists, who regarded themselves as exegetes and interpreters of Plato’s thought. Things are not that easy, however, for once one examines such a general account in detail a series of serious questions emerge. A first – and clearer – puzzle is related to the discontinuity of the tradition: while on the one hand one can say that there is a continuous stream of heirs of Plato from the Early Academy to late Neoplatonism, on the other it is quite obvious that, even admitting a strong continuity between Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism, the philosophical history of the ‘Platonist tradition’ from the Early Academy to the early Imperial Age hardly constitutes a unified whole. As a consequence, just stating that all followers of Plato were committed to his authority would amount to an empty and uninformative statement: the more one generalises the notion in order to make it comprehensive, the less it is specific and able to really include the distinguishing features of each stage of the tradition.
All disciplines can count on a noble founder, and the representation of this founder as an authority is key in order to construe a discipline's identity. This book sheds light on how Plato and other authorities were represented in one of the most long-lasting traditions of all time. It leads the reader through exegesis and polemics, recovery of the past and construction of a philosophical identity. From Xenocrates to Proclus, from the sceptical shift to the re-establishment of dogmatism, from the Mosaic of the Philosophers to the Neoplatonist Commentaries, the construction of authority emerges as a way of access to the core of the Platonist tradition.
Ancient criticism of Epicureanism was characterized by a paradox. Some opponents reproached Epicurus' zeal for originality, which, they emphasized, was actually intended to cover up his own dependence on his predecessors, and so was self-contradictory. On the other hand, opponents complained about the lack of originality and rigid dogmatism of later Epicureans, who allegedly advanced no positions of their own but instead endeavoured to refer everything back to their master, Epicurus: referre ad unum, as Seneca puts it. Similar criticisms of Epicurus and the Epicurean tradition are to be found in many modern commentators, though this tendency has been somewhat mitigated in certain recent discussions. It has been acknowledged, for example, that the Epicurean tradition allowed for flexibility and individual emphases. There have also been attempts to qualify Epicurus' claims to originality by noting that such pronouncements are largely restricted to contexts involving his own critical engagements with specific educational figures, as for example his dispute with his schoolteacher over Hesiod's Chaos, while elsewhere Epicurus is perfectly open about his familiarity with his predecessors' doctrines. Whatever the weight of such considerations, however, they fail to eliminate the impression that Epicurus' claims to independence were somehow extraordinary. Both his general attitude and the magnitude of his self-confidence are evidenced by the passage from a letter to Eurylochus in which Epicurus, in the context of criticizing his own teacher Nausiphanes, proclaims himself to have been ‘his own pupil’ (ἀκοῦσαι…ἑαυτοῦ).
Descriptions of Epicureanism in Rome often end with Lucretius in the first century BC. No innovations are expected of Epicureanism under the Principate and, in fact, anyone expecting to widen our knowledge of Epicureanism through the study of Imperial sources will often be disappointed, since Epicureans in this period mostly pronounce the familiar doctrines, while anti-Epicurean polemics, from pagan and Christian camps, are content to draw on the arsenal of well-rehearsed arguments, almost always aimed at Epicurus' materialism, his rejection of providence, his denial of the immortality of the soul and his hedonism. Certainly, Epicurus' teachings were not particularly favoured under the Principate. Throughout the first two centuries down to the time of Marcus Aurelius, Hellenistic philosophy, by comparison with resurgent Platonism and Christianity, was indeed favourably viewed; but even then Epicurus' teachings stayed in the background in comparison with Stoicism. His philosophy was eventually to lose all significant influence when, in Late Antiquity, Platonism and Christianity became dominant. One reason for the growing neglect might have been the alleged atheism of Epicurean doctrines.
On a goblet found in Boscoreale two philosophers are depicted as skeletons: Zeno the Stoic, and Epicurus. According to the inscription on the goblet they are engaged in discussion as to whether pleasure is the goal of all actions (telos). It is clear from Zeno's attitude that he is eagerly trying to persuade Epicurus. Epicurus is depicted in a rather more casual pose. His attention is concentrated less on the person opposite him than on a piece of cake lying on a table in front of him. This scene encapsulates the popular image of the two schools in a mixture of true insight and false understanding. The contrasting attitudes of the two philosophers in fact symbolize a fundamental distinction between Stoa and Garden: Zeno's tense bearing is appropriate as a representation of the Stoic school, whilst the casual pose suited the Epicureans. The Epicureans believed it was folly to dwell in the mind on evils which might possibly occur or have already occurred. In their view this leads to aggravation of our distress. Alleviation will result if as well as taking our minds off what troubles us (avocatio a cogitanda molestia) we give our attention to what brings pleasure (revocatio ad contemplandas voluptates) (Cic. Tusculanae disputationes III.32–3). But it is equally interesting to consider the misconception of Epicurean ethics which is suggested by the scene on the goblet. Epicurus allows himself to be distracted by a piece of cake; he is thus presented as honouring physical pleasures. As if to confirm this interpretation, at his feet a piglet is depicted, reminiscent of Horace's ironic description of himself as ‘a true hog of Epicurus’ herd’ (Hor. Ep. I.4.16).