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For most of his career the Greek philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon, a pupil of Philo of Larissa, was an orthodox ‘sceptical' Academic. He then changed his philosophy: some called him a Stoic, but he himself claimed to be returning to the Old Academy of Plato and his immediate successors. He took a generous view of his new home, urging that the Peripatetics and the Stoics were not new schools of thought but mere modifications of Platonism, and the philosophical position which he advocated was a ‘syncretism' - an amalgam of ideas and doctrines and arguments taken from several sources. To philosophy itself he contributed little, but he was a figure of considerable importance in the larger world, where he presented Greek philosophy to an educated Roman public.
Antiochus (c.130-68 BC) For most of his career the Greek philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon, a pupil of Philo of Larissa, was an
orthodox ‘sceptical' Academic.
He then changed his philosophy: some called him a Stoic, but he himself claimed to be returning to the Old Academy of Plato and his immediate successors.
He took a generous view of his new home, urging that the Peripatetics and the Stoics were not new schools of thought but mere modifications of Platonism, and the philosophical position which he advocated was a ‘syncretism' - an amalgam of ideas and doctrines and arguments taken from several sources.
To philosophy itself he contributed little, but he was a figure of considerable importance in the larger world, where he presented Greek philosophy to an educated Roman public. 1 Life Antiochus came from Ascalon in Syria.
Circumstantial evidence places his birth c.130 BC.
At some point he went to Athens, where he studied philosophy with Philo of Larissa and perhaps also with the Stoic Mnesarchus.
The Academy won his heart (see Academy): he remained under Philo's wing for an unusually long period and wrote books in defence of Academic scepticism.
After years of fidelity he defected - perhaps in the 90s BC.
He abandoned scepticism, claiming to restore the true Academy of Plato.
The autumn of 87 BC found him in Alexandria in the entourage of the Roman statesman Lucullus.
There he was scandalized by Philo's ‘Roman books' (see Philo of Larissa §2) and wrote his own version of the story.
He may have stayed in Lucullus' company for some years.
By 79 BC he was back in Athens, where Cicero (§1, 3) listened to his lectures for six months.
A few years later he returned to the East, again in the company of Lucullus.
He died, in Mesopotamia, in 68 BC.
Antiochus is referred to as head of a school, perhaps the Academy or perhaps a school of his own.
Academic scholarch or not, he was a popular and an influential figure.
He had a gentle and attractive personality, and a beguiling eloquence.
He charmed Cicero, whom he did not convince, but who described him as ‘the most accomplished and the most acute of all the philosophers I have known' (Academics II 113).
He charmed - and convinced - the scholar Varro.
He was the house-philosopher of Lucullus.
He also had other friends among the eminent of Rome.
He wrote copiously: we know of certain sceptical books (written before 95 BC); of the Sosus, written against Philo in 86 BC; of a work on the agreement between the Stoics and the Peripatetics, dating from c.80 BC; of a late essay On the Gods; and of a work on epistemology called Canonics, the date of which is uncertain.
All of these writings are lost; but the speech which Cicero attributes to Lucullus in Academics II is described by him as ‘Antiochean', and the account of Academico-Peripatetic ethics in Cicero's On Ends is said to represent the views of Antiochus and of the Peripatetic Staseas.
From these two Ciceronian works we can thus gain an idea of some of the general lines of Antiochus' thought.
But Cicero is not translating, or even paraphrasing, Antiochus.
Some scholars have supposed that Antiochus ghosted many or most of Cicero's philosophical works, and that he lies behind various other later philosophical texts.
There is nothing to be said for these suppositions.
2 Thought When, in 87 BC, Philo gave up scepticism and the Stoic definition of knowledge (see Philo of larissa §2; Stoicism §12), Antiochus was upset.
Not because Philo had become a dogmatist, but because he had rejected the definition: when Philo weakens and destroys this, he does away with any criterion for what is known and unknown; hence it follows that nothing can be apprehended and he foolishly finds himself in the position he least wished.
(Cicero, Academics II 18) The criticism of Philo is weak, but Antiochus' own position emerges with clarity: he is a dogmatist, not a sceptic; and he believes that the Stoic definition of knowledge must be upheld.
Antiochus himself had converted from scepticism to dogmatism some ten years earlier.
(Since Cicero did not know why he changed his opinion, we will never uncover his reasons.) In his own view, he removed from the New Academy to the Old.
Others seemed to see matters differently: Antiochus led the Stoa into the Academy, so that it was actually said of him that he practised Stoic philosophy in the Academy for he tried to show that the Stoic doctrines are found in Plato.
Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism I 235) The accusation of Stoicism is not a Sextan absurdity: Cicero remarks that ‘although he called
himself an Academic, he was - if you changed a few items - a full-blooded Stoic' (Academics II 132).
How so? And if so, why did not Antiochus simply convert to Stoicism (as Cicero himself pertinently asked)? Cicero observes that the Old Academy and Zeno the Stoic ‘disagree on one point only and agree wonderfully in everything else' ( Laws I 53-4) - and he ascribes the observation to Antiochus. According to Antiochus, the Stoics were at one with the Old Academy; and in addition, ‘the Stoics agree with Peripatetics in substance and dispute only over terminology' (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods I 16).
Thus Stoicism and Peripateticism are essentially forms of Platonism, so that a move to the Old Academy was by that very token an acceptance of Stoic and Peripatetic philosophy.
Granted this conglomerative or syncretistic account of Old Academic philosophy, Antiochus' ‘Stoicism' ceases to amaze.
But the syncretism itself may seem bizarre.
None the less, it was not a crude fantasy: Antiochus knew something about the history of philosophy and based his syncretic claim on putative historical fact; nor did he pretend that Zeno and Aristotle swallowed Platonism whole and agreed perfectly with one another.
Moreover, certain features which to us seem essential to Platonism - notably the theory of Forms - had no place in Antiochus' scheme of things; and other early Platonists had made a contribution to the philosophy of the Old Academy - Antiochus ‘especially approved of Polemo' (Cicero, Academics II 131).
In any event, the syncretism is far from idiotic.
One dogmatic school is omitted from it: Epicureanism.
Antiochus realized that the cleft in dogmatic philosophy divided the Epicureans from everyone else.
On the main questions, Old Academics, Peripatetics and Stoics were indeed in broad agreement: they were for knowledge and against scepticism, for virtue and against voluptuarism, for teleology and against mechanism, they were for continuity and against atomism. Antiochus' syncretistic philosophy dealt with all three of the traditional ‘parts' of the subject (logic, physics and ethics); but he urged that there are two things of the greatest importance in philosophy: the judgment of truth and the determination of the good.
For no-one can be wise unless he is aware both of the beginning of knowledge and of the end of desire, unless he knows whence he is to begin and whither he is to journey.
(Cicero, Academics II 29) For the beginnings of knowledge, Antiochus sketched a standard empiricist account of the development of science from sense-perception; he defended the Stoic definition of knowledge; and he argued that attacks by sceptics all failed.
For ‘the end of desire', Antiochus used the ‘Carneadean division' (see Carneades §2) and urged that the ‘end' or telos consists in the primary goods of nature together with virtue.
He managed to marry this rudely Stoic thought to the Aristotelian idea that the telos is intellectual activity or theōria.
He was also exercised by the question of whether ‘external' goods such as riches and beauty are necessary for happiness (see Eudamonia).
He answered with engaging good sense that you can be happy if you are poor and ugly but that to be very happy you need to be wealthy and handsome.
3 Influence Antiochus had some professional pupils, but most of them deserted his doctrines.
His syncretism was not welcomed by the Stoa.
Indeed, there is no evidence that his new version of the Old Academy was taken seriously by any of his colleagues.
(There is nothing in the old theory that it was Antiochus who inaugurated what we now call ‘Middle Platonism' (see Platonism, Early and Middle).) But he was not an insignificant figure.
He was writing primarily for a lay public - a public of educated and intelligent Romans.
For such a public, technical treatises and professional pedantries were inappropriate, and the rough syncretism which Antiochus offered made sound sense. Antiochus succeeded in impressing Cicero, and Cicero was no slouch in philosophy.. »
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