Albert Joosse

Anchoring Hellenistic Philosophy: the Formative Role of the Pseudoplatonic Dialogues

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Anchoring Hellenistic Philosophy: the Formative Role of the Pseudoplatonic Dialogues

This project explores to what extent we can better understand the formation of Hellenistic schools if we turn to a neglected group of texts, the pseudoplatonic dialogues. These texts ‘anchored’ new ideas in Socrates and the Socratic dialogue. In so doing they contributed to the formation of an Academic school identity and set a pattern for similar anchoring mechanisms in other Hellenistic schools.

The project develops this approach in three directions. Each of these addresses a different kind of anchoring.

Anchoring a philosophical school in a ‘figurehead’

The pseudoplatonic dialogues anchor Academic school identity in the philosophical character of Socrates. Advancing Socrates as an anchor to fix school identity has a clear precedent in the genre of Sôkratikoi logoi in the early decades of the fourth century BCE. However, the use of Socrates by Plato, Xenophon, Aeschines, Antisthenes and others is a matter of genre, not of school identity. Furthermore, the writers of philosophical dialogues had moved away from using Socrates as their main character by the mid-fourth century (Plato’s late dialogues, Aristotle’s). In returning to Socrates as the main voice of their dialogues, therefore, the writers of pseudoplatonic dialogues innovate, especially because theirs is no longer only a generic use of Socrates, but one which expresses school allegiance.

Anchoring new ideas in order to create a continuity of tradition

Using the concept of ‘anchoring’ to study the pseudoplatonic dialogues can help us understand how, when new ideas are introduced in this school, these can be presented as a development from or an addition to a continuous tradition. Prominent anchors for this type of anchoring are, again, the genre of the Socratic dialogue and the figure of Socrates. These are used to anchor ideas about the right way to ‘do’ philosophy, as well as about the character and charisma of a ‘real’ philosopher. No less important as anchors, however, are specific texts of the Platonic corpus.

Anchoring innovations vis-à-vis competing schools

‘Anchoring’ is also a useful concept for understanding the way in which members of the Academy deal with innovations of other schools. Here, ‘anchoring’ is a double-edged sword. Some innovations are such that members of the Academy find them worth adopting. They can do so by attributing them to Socrates. In so doing, they lend authoritative backing to these new ideas, contribute to their diffusion and underline their persuasive or philosophical power. At the same time, they claim these innovations for themselves by suggesting that they were already present, more or less explicitly, in the philosophy of Socrates. Other innovations are such that members of the Academy find reason to resist them. One way of doing this is by not anchoring them, or even by having Socrates refute these ideas avant la lettre. One could call these attempted unmoorings of innovative ideas. In so doing, Academics make a powerful case that these ideas do not belong with their school. In both these ways—diffusion and polemic—anchoring is a discursive strategy on the part of the Academics and their texts to embed, update, delineate and strengthen their philosophical school in the competitive environment of Hellenistic philosophy.