You are here

Academic Ends of Interpretation: Plato the Sceptic in Cic. Luc. 74

Peter Osorio

Cornell University

            This paper reconsiders what the New Academy take themselves to be doing when they offer sceptical interpretations of Plato. The New Academy had several arguments that Plato was a sceptic (Cic. Luc. 74, Cic. Ac. 1.46; anon. ad Tht. 150c4-7; SE PH 1.222-23; anon. Proleg. 10-11), but we cannot judge from these arguments alone their interpretive ends. We may distinguish between interpretations about authors that have historical ends—which aim to discover what is true about the author (e.g. Why did the author write? To whom is the author responding? What is the author’s view?)—and those with practical ends—which aim to use texts other than as historical evidence about their authors. There are prima facie reasons to suppose the New Academy offered sceptical interpretations of Plato not for historical ends alone. For instance, from antiquity to today, with the possible exception of the New Academy itself, the view that Plato supported the impossibility of knowledge has never garnered much support (and this suggests either the New Academy, or everyone else, are absurdly bad historical readers). It seems more correct to think that the New Academy upheld a sceptical interpretation of Plato for practical ends as well. Through practical ends we can explain what appears to be absurd solely as an answer to a historical question about Plato’s views.

            Still, there are two opposed ways they may have practically interpreted Plato as a sceptic, and I argue critics have misidentified which of the two. Among contemporary scholars of the Hellenistic Academy, there is strong agreement that their end was to persuade others of the impossibility of knowledge (Ioppolo 1986; Lévy 1992; Annas 1992; Glucker 1997; Bonazzi 2003). The story told is that the Academy sought to highlight its Platonic and Socratic provenance due to a perceived threat from competing appeals to Socratic/Platonic authority. If the Academy had persuasion as their end, they are inconsistent and irresponsible in the application of their sceptical and pedagogical practice. One of the pillars of their criticism of dogmatists is the toleration or even outright support of belief on authoritative testimony.

            I propose the New Academy had option-giving, rather than persuasion, in mind. By arguing for a sceptical interpretation, the Academic creates an option that was not earlier on the table. If others give consideration to it, they will have to examine competing interpretations and decide which to support. To the Academic, one is better equipped to discover what is true about a topic when one examines opposing arguments. The truth or verisimilitude about that topic may be neither of the options on the table, but may nevertheless only come to light by considering the opposing options. This was the Academics’ practice, and it serves just as well in an inquiry into Plato’s dialogues as into other matters.

            I test my proposal against the earliest source for a sceptical interpretation of Plato, Cic. Luc. 74. Unlike all other sources, we have the full dialectical context of Cicero’s Lucullus. This allows us to consider Cicero’s sceptical interpretation as a refutation of Lucullus’ ironic interpretation of Socrates as portrayed in Plato and his interpretation of Plato based on evidence outside the dialogues themselves (Luc. 15-17). Cicero opposes each of these interpretive moves. While Cicero’s mouthpiece interpretation of a sceptical Plato may look unconvincing when considered in isolation, it efficiently responds to the hermeneutical strategy of those who attribute dogmatic views to Plato.

Session/Panel Title


Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy