3. Cynics, Stoics, Sceptics, Neo-Platonists (b).
So let’s begin with the name: skepsis in Greek means enquiry or investigation or even trial, if you’ll take the irony. Again this is essentially Socratic. It’s what he claimed he was up to – initiating, conducting enquiry. Secondly, Skepticism becomes for a time the dominant form of philosophy in the Academy, with the ascension of Arcesilaus about 120 years after Plato’s death. There is another strand outside the Academy associated with Phyro who was around a bit earlier than Arcesilaus. The two strands develop together but also in a sort of competition that sustains them both.
One ancient writer considered both strands to be united in these three terms: skeptikoi (those who investigate), epfiektikoi (those who suspend judgment), and tiporetikoi (those who are puzzled). And their differences he describes as: ‘the Academics apprehend (in some sense) the very fact that nothing can be apprehended, and they determine (in some sense) that nothing can be determined, whereas the Pyrrhonists assert that not even that seems to be true, since nothing seems to be true.’
The history of Ancient skepticism, then, is the oscillation or competition between these positions. But let’s note that the Academics, being the Platonic school after all, offer some final knowledge of the impossibility of knowledge which is not, finally, Platonic; the Pyrrhonists prefer not to know, which is also not Platonic.
Essentially, Skepticism is really a radical sophistry and so in essence it is anti-Platonic, let alone in its consequence. In exemplary fashion, its very name is not then the name for a process but the name of that which is only a process or the only process as such. To enquire, for the Skeptics, is not to do so for some end or to get at the truth, which would suppose that the enquirer holds to the existence or actuality of such a thing. Rather the enquiry is always one among many such enquiries into whatever it may be that is considered worthy of it.
Thus from the sophist, the skeptics learn all the techniques of rhetoric and argument such that one can argue any point from all sides and be convincing in each. The skeptics don't just practice this essentially limitless to and fro but assume that is all there is to thought or in other words that there is nothing else to knowledge: in the jargon, they would seem to hold to ‘a negative dogmatic conclusion that knowledge is impossible’.
This would be a contradictory position to hold as a premise even if it would have to be the natural conclusion of skepticisms own set of practices. That’s to say, if anything could be argued from any perspective without conclusion it would logically seem that no knowledge is possible by definition. But what if it’s not a premise but only what happens over and again in enquiry. Thus this non-knowledge is not a conviction but an experience. This leaves the necessary wriggle room for the skeptic to be him who suspends judgment rather than he who knows there is no knowledge – for if he knows it then there must be some knowledge.
I have argued that this last form of knowledge is really Sophistic knowledge – that there is that which cannot be known and which is then the limit or horizon of what can be thought and yet is also the very potential of all knowledge itself. It licenses two things: that all that exists is subject to this type of knowledge and that all knowledge is essentially relative – better or worse in relation to some other. There is no truth of knowledge, in other words, that we can come to know as such – which also means no discourse exists except the mode of enquiry subject to such horizon. It relativises discourse as well. Sophistic is anti-metaphysical. The skeptic, while learning technique from sophistry, suspends himself in the process itself, as all that is knowable without thereby positing some knowledge of what is impossible for it.
In short, if there was some end the skeptic would have nothing left to do and given what he has to do is what he knows as knowledge there must be something left to do or knowledge itself comes to an end. So this is why the Skeptic can be seen to let others bring the premises, which they then enquire into. This is certainly Socratic (in the received sense) but again it’s not Platonic insofar as for Plato this suspension of enquiry to what enquiry itself determines as the matter for it, is not all we can know or all there is. Clearly, Plato presumes and then seeks to enquire into the possibility that we can have knowledge in truth and thus this requires some conception of what we know as Forms – a form of knowledge which accounts for what we know as knowledge, so to speak. And enquiry must be oriented as such.
For the Skeptics and similarly with every other ancient conception of philosophy, enquiry is a matter of ‘how to live’, which of course presumes there is some knowledge of it which can be put into practice or at least some practicable relation to knowledge. A good idea of how the Skeptics see this is from Pyrro. As Thorsrud puts it: ‘ Pyrrho, makes the revolutionary move of substituting the question "What must I know to live well?" with the sceptical question "How can I still live well in the absence of knowledge?" You see it's a notion of final knowledge that he is talking of – that it is absent – which is not to say, finally, that there is none, more like, when considered as a practice, that there is no other way to live than in the face of its impossibility for us.
Indeed to put this in a Lacanian way, the skeptic is essentially saying and sort of positively we can add, that the human being is the type of creature who must get along very well without truth. It's the task of the skeptic as philosopher to maintain this impossibility. And so of course in the Platonic sense this is not a philosopher at all, given that for Plato the philosopher is uniquely tasked with not giving up on knowledge. One thing though, on the side of all these ancients – it's the Socratic example to be sure but it also predates him; Thales was the same – was that they had to live out these orientations to the question of knowledge, not simply treat them from within language alone. One didn’t pontificate about the rigours of truth or knowledge at some conference in Hawaii and then go home to the groovy warehouse conversion to live out the bourgeois fantasy of the good life. Not even the Epicureans were offering to make that contradiction consistent.
As Thosrudi puts it: ‘None of the ancient Sceptics start out with the view that scepticism is an awful, if rarefied, condition that must be overcome. Ancient Scepticism is not so much a problem or set of objections as an argumentative practice situated in a philosophical way of life. And, at least for Pyrrhonian Sceptics, epoche [suspension of judgment about what is] is an accomplishment and the means to tranquility.’
Hence this way virtue lay – that it lay this way is all the skeptics know – given what it is, is impossible to know. And so again, this non-knowledge is what is best. Let’s finish this with this recounting by Eusabious of Aristocles account of Timon, Pyrrho’s student, recounting, Pyrrho’s argument against the accusation that in skepticism there is no point in enquiry at all.
It is supremely necessary to investigate our own capacity for knowledge. For if we are so constituted that we know nothing, there is no need to continue inquiry into other things. Among the ancients too there have been people who made this pronouncement, and Aristotle has argued against them. Pyrrho of Elis was also a powerful advocate of such a position. He himself has left nothing in writing, but his disciple Timon says that whoever wants to be happy must consider these three questions: first, how are things by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude? According to Timon,
[M] Pyrrho‘s [metaphysical argument] declared that things are equally undifferentiated and unstable and indeterminate; for this reason neither our sensations nor our opinions tell us truths or falsehoods.
[E] Pyrrho’s [epistemological argument] declared that things are equally indifferentiable and immeasurable and undecidable, [since] neither our sensations nor our opinions [consistently] tell us truths or falsehoods.
Therefore, for this reason we should not put our trust in them one bit, but we should be un-opinionated, uncommitted and unwavering, saying concerning each individual thing that it no more is than is not, or it both is and is not, or it neither is nor is not. The outcome for those who actually adopt this attitude, says Timon, will be first speechlessness, and then freedom from disturbance (Praep. Ev. 14.18.1-4 [LS IF]).
Today we might call this ‘passive nihilism’? Thus not a belief or a knowledge, but a being in the world that accepts it’s being impotent as an honest orientation to what there is. Something like this. The difference with the Ancients again is that this is some sort of project for the Skeptics, one rooted in experience admittedly and not in what we might call scientific enquiry, rather than a ‘giving in’ as it is today. Less reactionary in this sense but nevertheless positive.
To summarise, then, very reductively, and paraphrasing from Thorsrud, but in terms of the basics problem of Skepticism as an anti-Platonism: if things were intrinsically indeterminate – which is what the suspension of belief supposes – it would be futile to think ‘we could explain any perceived regularities by revealing some underlying structure’. Hence the skeptic is certain no way of thinking indeterminacy can be found qua indeterminacy. Thus ‘it would just have to be a brute, inexplicable fact that metaphysical indeterminacy [– what has to be assumed qua suspension as proper practice of enquiry –] is compatible with perceived regularities’: A fact – given the way of the world as subject to our experience of it – and never a truth.
Ok, finally, Neo-Platonism, which is not a determined anti-Platonism or a Socratism, but in emphasising as its orientation a Platonism of the One, let’s call it, it could be argued to have that effect. What the Neo-Platonist assumes is that the One is both origin and end and that what appears or is manifest – what is its emanation in some sense – must be properly understood, as subject to the order of this One itself. The One is clearly divine – the influence of Neo-Platonism on theology is pronounced and well documented less so perhaps is its influence on or reception into continental thought – Deleuze comes to mind. But you’ll have to wait till week 8 for that claim to be elaborated.
Following Pauliina Remes account, let’s give some basic history to begin. So it begins with Plotinus, an Alexandrian, when he moves to Rome – 6 centuries after Plato note. Let’s note in passing that Rome in the 3rd century is a very different city to Plato’s Athens. Plotinus teaches his Platonism, attracts followers and gains a very important pupil, Porphyry and later it produces Iamblichus, Proclus and Simplicius to name the key figures. This coalesces a school in its own right but before we go too far, let’s just note that while they considered themselves Platonist, albeit with the twist that comes from 500 years of the variety of Platonism – referred to as middle Platonism – and non-Platonism that precedes them, the name Neo-Platonist is a 19th century assignation by German scholars.
Plotinus and his mates were wont to do only what ancient schools did; prove the founder right – less than posit some originality. Of course, this very modality of proof is enough to warrant the differentiation ‘neo’ brings. And Plotinus, for example, takes advantage of this, considering Plato’s views as hitting the truth but obscurely expressed. This left him plenty of room for their interpretation, which is necessarily the construction of something other than Plato. Thus Plotinus’ view of Plato is absolutely both post-Aristotelian and post-Stoic and, as Remes, notes, owes something to the neo-Pythagorean Syrian Platonist, Numenius, with whom Plotinus seems to have shared among other things, ‘a layered understanding of metaphysics, the distinction between the irrational and rational soul, as well as the doctrine of matter as evil.’
By the time Justinian shuts down the Academy in 529 the Neo-platonic manner of philosophising had spread to Syria, Asia Minor and Alexandria, and back to Athens. In the meantime Neo-Platonism had coexisted quite well with Christianity and also, unsurprisingly, with Gnosticism too for whom the material world was the work of the lower god. But as a school of philosophy, finally, it presented to much of a challenge to Christianity’s own version of the One – once Christianity had sovereign power we can say, no other One, despite its affirming a One-ness was tolerable. There is only One One after all. But this closing of the school, and the death of Hypatia, later, in Alexandria, was not the end of the christian-neo-platonism concord and you can certainly see that this concord gives fuel to Nietzsche’s well known polemic that the scourge of Christianity is just Platonism for the people – an influential piece of reportage even if Nietzsche himself, unlike others, was really too sophisticated a reader to accept his own terms.
Here is an abridged summary around this point, drawn again from Paulina Remes and with my commentary:
‘Neo-platonism concentrates on revealing the order of the universe – thus then assuming that such a thing inheres to it – working on the assumption that although this order is not directly perceivable (so note this, an assumption as to what cannot be known as the orientation of its knowledge) and thus a correct combination of gathering information through perception and theorising about it will reveal its basic nature to human reason.’
You can see the circularity here – a bit teleological, like Aristotle – that the end is in the beginning, differently manifest. And like Aristotle, there is necessarily a hierarchy in what appears relevant to the understanding. Neoplatonism postulates levels of being on which different entities and different characteristics appear, all of them explanatory of this very same world we see and live in. ‘Some of these levels and entities are more speculative than others and as such these levels are hierarchically ordered, each level functioning as an explanatory level proper for certain phenomena, having a complex relation to the levels and entities above and below … the subtleties of the cross-level relations are as, or even more, problematic than the study of the levels themselves and the entities they consist of.’
So the One is manifest in every entity though not equally and this inequality effects a distinct position in the hierarchy at the level of the kind of entity it is. But the hierarchy needs its reason and this is in turn effected in terms of the relation of one set or series of entities – somehow grasped at a level – to those somehow grasped as being at another. So it’s necessary to note that the relations of order relate to the levels and not to entities of the different levels. In other words the entities of, say, level 3 and 4 have no immediate relation, in fact they are different levels of being as entities, but between levels there is a relation of hierarchy: an entity is assigned to a level vis a vis a perceived quality inherent to it and not in relation to another entity as such. As with Aristotle, it's the order, if you like, that comes first. Know the order; know the entity. It’s sort of logico-structural, we might say?
For Neo-Platonism, what ‘is basic and most truly existing is pure order, not qualities of matter nor even the realization of order in matter’. Even though the Neo-Platonists, like everyone, really, have to start with what exists, with entities in time and space let’s say, ‘it is the theoretical considerations which hold sway’, which is to say, here, ‘how the principles of intelligibility are realisable beyond these entities.’
In serial form then (paraphrasing Remes):
a) a commitment to a first principle, One (hen), as above the Aristotelian notion of intellect (nous), and from which everything is derived. This is accompanied by analysis of the technicalities of this hierarchical derivation or “emanation”. Thus as noted: ‘the derivative entities are accessible to intellection and reason but the first principle is, ultimately, ineffable.’
Just note this principal of ‘ineffability’ survives right through Kant and is a staple of post-Kantianism too, which is basically still everyone today and note too the question of ineffability resonates in the mathematical thought of the constructivists and intuitionists who reject the Cantorian discovery of the actual infinite. I’ll return to this in week 12 when I speak about Platonism today but this is in a sense our orientation.
b) ‘… a proliferation of metaphysical layers and entities levels of being’. Thus they interpret Plato as positing a material, perceptible, temporal and changing level – this is what Aristotle called his Heracliteanism and distinctly, ‘an immaterial, intelligible, eternal and permanent level’. It’s critical to note this coupling of immateriality and thinkability. As I noted, for a mathematician that's pretty weird, really, but again it does inform a whole prolific area of mathematical Platonism right up into the 20th century, which treats the things of mathematics as immaterial objects – which, it’s arguable, Plato never does.
And of course these objects pertaining to the intelligible level are understood as the true reality that explains the former, while the former is actually only an imitation of the latter.
‘The Neo-Platonists take this layered understanding of reality to be correct, and build upon it positing other levels as well, within the intelligible at least’. It’s part of their will to classification we might say. But it turns on a reductionist orientation – the striving to reduce everything, ultimately, to the first principle, One.
c) So just like in the assumptions of Platonism we are familiar with, ‘the metaphysically prior is always more powerful, better and more simple or unified than the lower.’ And thus we get the need of hierarchy or demarcation – from this intelligible higher, better, almost Good, to the lower which manifests its discernible difference from it and its evil the closer it comes to base matter.
d) ‘This metaphysical real is then essentially connected to – or, as in Plotinus, internal to – the human soul.’ So they are realists with soul. The realist is sure that reality is distinct from human experience – it’s not our projection, or knowledge of it etc. But this is why the real aligns with the soul because the soul is a real entity in this sense and so of course if real then higher and if higher then closer to the good. The body, of course, is tending toward evil.
Neo-Platonism emphasises the points of contact between cognition and what really exists. Hence, and note the Parmenidean inflection here, with an Aristotelian twist: ‘the complexity of thinking must coincide with the complexity of being. And as these are on the same level, metaphysically speaking, mind through its reason should be able to approach the intelligibility of the real.’
But of course not every body will function this way even if anybody can – their own life experiences and conditions will all have their effect on this capacity – so a hierarchy in experience corresponds to a hierarchy in intellect: ‘A human being, and especially his or her experience and cognition, forms a layered hierarchy, the main lines of which correspond to the central features of the hierarchy existing in the universe.’
e) ‘When it speaks of organic or natural or non-intellectual life it details it as a striving or desire for wholeness, perfection or completeness, and continuation. This is because despite it being an essential form of preservation it is the lived imitation of the higher striving of the intellect – which is a vertical striving rather than the horizontal of merely living.’ And this because, as we know, the perfect and eternal are at the top, toward the One. Thus ‘all life desiring is a manifestation of a more universal striving of the generated and lower layer towards its source and origin, and ultimately towards the absolute unity at the top of the hierarchy. Cosmic creation and its entities thereby also convey psychological notions. For example, creation is contemplative (Gatti 1982) in that the created always turns to contemplate its origin. This return or reversal towards the first principle is essential to and distinctive of Neo-Platonist thinking.’
So that's the meat and bones of it I think, and gives us a good general picture. However, Remes says something further of interest. She says, ‘what is shared by Neo-Platonists and some modern physicists is a speculative effort and readiness to postulate theoretical entities that form a layered reality inaccessible to perception.’
It’s an interesting link she is making – maybe more an analogy than a comparison. But what it does reveal is that mathematical core that insists in Plato, which really comes down to arguing that we can think something, which is not a matter of ‘bodies and languages’ – means and limits of ‘experience’ and thus (our) ‘knowledge’.
Now, in Plato, mathematics is exemplary for showing us this what is not ‘bodies and languages’ but it is not the be all and end all of course. But that some thought in excess of the everyday present of experience and thus some thought that exceeds our past and future while being absolutely inscribed within it exists, becomes for Plato, a matter of thought or philosophy itself. And as thought mathematically it is materialist: a materialist metaphysics. Is it too soon to argue for this?
Now the thing is, is this thought itself considered in Plato in terms of a One or Whole whose immanent force recuperates all entities vis a vis its essence, as in some sense beyond being as beings very guarantee? Does the thought of what mathematics thinks – that there is a thought not reducible to perception or sense – lead Plato in this direction, to the imperceptible?
On the one hand it’s stupid because mathematics, you’d think, is the proof God does not exist but maybe it was too early to tell in Plato’s day. But on the other hand it does lead to this because what mathematics or physics today, perhaps, can think about is what is not perceptible. The crucial thing here is that this is what it thinks, really thinks through such that it assumes all is thinkable and so not, then, that there IS necessarily that which it cannot think. It’s not saying we know everything just that a discourse exists, which does not posit a priori that the unknowable exists that we cannot or must not know whose existence we must suspend.
So my argument is that Neo-Platonism certainly takes this lead from Plato – that there is that which is imperceptible – but it makes this mistake: It posits the existence of that which cannot be known which mathematics itself does not and, moreover, like but also unlike those other ancient philosophers, this unknown serves as orientation for the elaborate ways of knowing this un-knowability.
What I mean here is that every entity is known only insofar as its quality of unknowability is revealed, which is to say, its place in the divine order. Whereas the other ancients reject the metaphysical speculation concerning what is imperceptible – this being the core of their anti-Platonism – the Neo-Platonists affirm this imperceptible, making them Platonists but they radicalise this imperceptible into a One as such, separate from its very thinkability as such and make it the unthinkable cause of all knowledge of sensible appearing – or of what is.
You can see that what is at stake in all these ancients is the status of what is not perceptible, what is not reducible to sense, experience, language or the imperium of order or even the constructions of a logic – which would be after all another form of its impossible to finally know. The neo-platonists certainly, then, establish a preference of order and formation over matter but of what this order and formation is order and formation of or for remains the possibility of intelligibility and is not itself intelligible being One.
In the crudest formulation, which is not to say inaccurate, what we really have in Neo-Platonism is the merging of Plato and Aristotle into a whole, preserving, as I noted, Plato’s metaphysical and spiritual intuitions in combination with Aristotle classificatory work on the sensible and as such imposing clarity and precision upon terms and concepts. The logical next step, which positivists re-inscribe in the 20th C is the eradication in the name of classification, clarity and precision, of metaphysical speculation itself.
Of course supposing that this equates to philosophy is itself an unquestioned disavowal and their own brand of conceit. And after all, it is the now classical accusation against continental philosophy itself that it is obscure, speculative, imprecise in its concepts and so on; thus being un-philosophical. You can see it's a virtuous circle jerk. Not because clarity, categories and precision are not goods but because technique is not exhaustive of thought.
The distinction I just drew between mathematics qua metaphysics and a metaphysics of the One is, I’d argue, exactly what Plato was wrestling with. Was the latter the consequence of the former or was it fundamentally divided from it? To put it more ontologically, is being thinkable. And if being is thinkable does this make it One, and if it’s One, does it always already exist? And if it exists, how do we account for its existence given it’s not a matter of sense? And if it’s not a matter of sense, in what way can it affect what is? And if its not one, thus many, then how is it not simply another sensible particular – thus a one of many – given it – what mathematics thinks – is imperceptible precisely. Thus, if being is not one, but being nevertheless, how is this being-many not the same as the many of existence or perception? Can there be two different types of multiplicity, which would mean precisely different types of infinity?
This, i reckon, is Plato’s concern. It is not a problem he solved but an aporia he bequeathed. The many different relations to Plato in a way come down to deciding in one way or another that he came down on these question in one way or another. And as Remes, thinking of Neo-Platonism but in terms we can generalise, notes with great understatement, ‘Plato might well have thought they had missed some of the core ideas of his own thinking.’
* Where possible I have referenced by authors name works quoted. Otherwise, works consulted:
H. D. Rankin, Sophists, Socratics and Cynics.
Harald Thorsrud, Ancient Scepticism
William Desmond, Cynics
Pauliina Remes, Neoplatonism
Mauro Bonazzi & Christoph Helmig (eds) Platonic Stoicism – Stoic Platonism: The Dialogue between Platonism and Stoicism in Antiquity
John Sellars, Stoicism
David Sedley, The School, from Zenoto Arius Didymus
Jacques Brunschwig, ‘Stoic Metaphysics,’ Cambridge Companion to the Stoics
Christophr Gill, The School in the Roman Imperial Period, Cambridge Companion to the Stoics.