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Socrates and Plato's Socrates in Cicero's Academica

Matthew R Watton

University of Toronto

            In the first century BCE, the philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon revived a dogmatic version of Platonic philosophy against the skeptical New Academy. Cicero’s Academica depicts the debates between skeptical and dogmatic Academics. To defend his claim to be Plato’s true philosophical heir, Antiochus offered an interpretation of the history of the Academy. Cicero’s two Antiochian advocates, Lucullus in the first, unpublished edition (the Lucullus) and Varro in the second and final version (Academica Priora), argue that Plato was a dogmatist. But unexpectedly, each presents a different and apparently incompatible view concerning Socrates. The crux is that old Socratic chestnut: how to interpret Socrates’ disavowal of knowledge. While Lucullus claims that Socrates is an ironist (Luc. 15), Varro presents Socrates as a sincere proto-skeptic (Ac. Pr. 15-16). In this paper, I argue that this apparent inconsistency is merely apparent, and offer a new solution to this Ciceronian Socratic problem.

          Scholars have long been troubled by this supposed incompatibility (Reid, Long, Iopollo, Burnyeat, Brittain, Karamanolis, Sedley). How are we to explain it? (i) Some (Reid, Brittain) hold that Cicero chose to modify the Antiochian account between the first and second editions in order to cohere with Varro’s own views. But, despite Cicero’s expressed concern about his depiction Varro (ad Att. XIII.12; 19), there is no evidence for this solution. (ii) Perhaps Antiochus himself offered two different histories of philosophy at different stages of his career (Sedley). This solution seems to me ad hoc and unsupported, especially if we reject Antiochus as the source of Sextus Empiricus Ad. Math. 7.144-260 (cf. Barnes). (iii) We might deny any real difference altogether. For example, Burnyeat argues that Varro’s Socrates is as much an ironist as Lucullus’ Socrates. But this is to paper over the details and reduce one account to the other.

            I offer a different solution. I argue that Lucullus and Varro represent two different but compatible modes of interpreting Plato’s Socratic dialogues. First, Lucullus offers a literary interpretation of Plato by appealing to the concept of irony (ea dissimulatione quam Graeci εἰρωνείαν vocant [Luc. 15]) and focusing on the Socratic elenchus. He simultaneously defends the idea that Plato’s Socrates advocates Platonic beliefs, while also highlighting that the skeptics misunderstand Plato because they fail to interpret his texts correctly. Varro on the other hand offers an historical interpretation of Socrates. He presents Socrates as a proto-skeptic by distinguishing between the historical Socrates and Plato’s Socrates. That the historical Socrates was a proto-skeptic is attested by the dialogues written by various Socratics (qui illum audierunt perscripti varie copioseque sunt; e Socraticorum libris [Ac. Pr. 16]), and Varro even alludes to Xenophon’s Apology. By singling out the position of the historical Socrates, Varro can identify the true Platonic dogma within the dialogues and show that the skeptical interpretation of Plato conflates Plato’s and the historical Socrates.

            These two mode of interpretation—literary and historical—are compatible, differing mainly in interpretive emphasis. One could appeal to the historical Socrates in offering an ironic interpretation (as at Cic. Brutus 292). Or one could interpret the dialogues by appealing to both Socrates’ and Plato’s historical circumstances (as at Cic. de Rep. I.15-16). Thus, not only does my argument absolve Antiochus and Cicero of inconsistency; it also brings to light underexplored details of how Plato’s Socratic dialogues were interpreted for a philosophical purpose in the late Hellenistic era.

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Ethics and Morality in Latin Philosophy

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