The Platonic dialogue Axiochus is not by Plato. Though included in the Platonic corpus, already in antiquity it was bastardized—that is, athetized (DL 3.62). In the dialogue, Socrates tries to console Axiochus who is overcome by the fear of death. Socrates offers a two main lines of argument: the soul is mortal and so does not experience death, and the soul is immortal and experiences a blessed afterlife. Axiochus is persuaded and is released from his fear of death. Scholars generally agree that the work is a product of the late Hellenistic era (circa 1st century BCE) based on its language and philosophical eclecticism (Chevalier, Souilhé, Männlein-Robert). Scholars also agree that the work is a riff on the traditional consolatory epistle, here put into dialogue form (Buresch, Souilhé, O’Keefe). But there is little consensus on the origins of the work, with some claiming the author is Stoic (Meister), others vaguely ‘Academic’ (Chevalier, Souilhé), others simply a philosophical consoler (O’Keefe).
I argue for another option: the Axiochus is the product of Academic skepticism (a view suggested but not pursued by Müller). The Academics practiced argument on both sides, arguing for opposing or incompatible theses without assenting to them as true. In Axiochus, Socrates persuades Axiochus to abandon his fear of death using this skeptical argumentative strategy. He proposes an exhaustive dilemma: either the soul is mortal (an Epicurean view) or immortal (a Platonic view). Either way, he concludes that death is not be an evil. The incompatibility of these views of the soul has garnered the Axiochus much reproach (see O’Keefe). But the conflict dissolves when we see this as part of the author’s Academic strategy: the Axiochus uses Academic argumentation for therapeutic and consolatory ends.
I defend this reading by drawing attention to an under-explored parallel: book 1 of Cicero’s Tusculan Diputations, whose topic is de contemnenda morte. Here, Cicero also argues against the fear of death by employing the same dilemma of incompatible theses on the (im)mortality of the soul. Cicero is a committed Academic skeptic, and TD 1 explicitly denies that the truth is attainable for mortals; we must instead aim only for the veri simile (TD 1.8, 17, 23, 99). The similarities in both argumentative structure and content suggest that Cicero and the author of Axiochus are writing within the same Academic milieu.
Yet a question remains: which flavor of Academic skepticism is on display in Axiochus? While all agree that secure knowledge is unattainable, Academic skeptics divide into two camps. The radical skeptics prohibit all assent and argue on both sides in order to lead to a total suspension of judgment (epochê). The moderate skeptics permit assent only to what is probable and can alter their beliefs in light of new evidence or arguments. While there is murky evidence that the radical skeptics did compose philosophical consolations (Jerome, Ep. 60.5), I believe the Axiochus fits best with the probabilist Academics.
By posing the contradictory theses about the soul in the form of a dilemma, the Academic is best able to attain their consolatory goal. It turns out that death is not an evil no matter which of the two views of the soul is true. While we may waver in our belief as to whether the soul is mortal or immortal, the exhaustiveness of the dichotomy makes it extremely probable that death is not an evil. The conclusion of an exhaustive dilemma leads to a view that is as secure as an Academic could hope for, and there is evidence that the probabilist Academics employed dilemmatic arguments elsewhere (Anon. Prol. in Plat. 10, p.205 Hermann). Thus, an analysis of the argumentative structure of the dialogue suggests that the Axiochus is a product of the final stage of Academic skepticism, and perhaps was composed by Cicero’s own Academic teacher, Philo of Larissa.
Plato and his Reception