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On the Harmony of Plato and Aristotle According to Neoplatonism

Lloyd P. Gerson
University of Toronto

1. The Idea of Harmony


Aristotle versus Plato. For a long time, that is the angle from which the tale has been
told. Aristotles philosophy, we are given to understand, was built up in fundamental
opposition to Platos. But it was not always thus in the history of philosophy. The
indispensable Diogenes Laertius (c. 200 C.E.), tells us, for example, that Aristotle was
Platos most genuine disciple. 1 Beginning perhaps in the 1st century B.C.E., we can
already see philosophers claiming the ultimate harmony of Academic and Peripatetic
thought. Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 130 c. 68 B.C.E.) is frequently identified as a
principal figure in this regard. 2 A similar view is clearly expressed by Cicero. 3 Later in
the 2nd century C.E., we can observe the Platonists Alcinous in his influential Handbook
of Platonism simply incorporating what we might call Aristotelian elements into his
account of Platonism. 4 Finally, and most importantly, for a period of about three hundred
years, from the middle of the 3rd century C.E. to the middle of the 6th, Aristotelianism and
Platonism were widely viewed and written about as being harmonious philosophical
systems. 5 The philosophers who held this view are today usually given the somewhat
unhelpful and artificial label Neoplatonists. This paper aims to sketch the basis for the
harmonists view and to give some indications of the extent to which it might be justified.
Harmony when used of two philosophical positions can of course mean many
things. Most innocuously, it can mean non-contradictory. There are countless
philosophical positions that are harmonious in this sense. Usually, there is little point
even in mentioning that As position does not in fact contradict Bs. Those who held
Aristotelianism to be in harmony with Platonism did not mean merely that their views
were not in contradiction with each other. Another somewhat more interesting sense of
harmony is employed when it is held that two philosophical systems share some
common principles, though, owing to a divergence in others, they reach opposite
conclusions. It is often illuminating to seek out at some level of generality or even
identities among ostensibly incompatible positions. For example, two materialist theories
of mind might well have contradictory or contrary accounts of mental events or
processes. Although this sort of harmony is not entirely absent from the thought
1

See Diogenes Laertius, 5 1, 6: .


See Dillon 1996, ch.2, on Antiochus of Ascalon. Cicero, De Finibus, 5 3, 7, says, as you have heard
Antiochus say, in the Old Academy are included not only those who are called Academicsbut even the
old Peripatetics, of whom Aristotle is the first and best.
3
See Cicero, Academica, I 4, 17: But on the authority of Plato, a thinker with a variety of complex and
fecund thoughts, a type of philosophy was initiated that was united and harmonious and known under two
names, the Academics and the Peripatetics, and they agreed substantially while differing in their names.
4
See Dillon 1993, especially the introduction and commentary.
5
The Greek term translated here as harmony and usually used by Neoplatonists to indicate agreement
between Plato and Aristotle is Plato, Symposium, 187B4, uses synonymously with
. The latter term tends to be reserved for a more technical use in scientific theory.
2

examined here, it is not the dominant theme. The idea of the harmony between Platonism
and Aristotelianism that drove the philosophy of our period was somewhat different.
Roughly, it was held that Plato was authoritative for the intelligible world and Aristotle
was authoritative for the sensible world. More than this, it was assumed or argued that
what Plato and Aristotle each had to say about the intelligible and sensible worlds were
mutually supporting. So, if one accepted most Aristotles views about the world, one
could do with a clear conscience as a Platonist.
At this point, an entirely reasonable response would be: if that is what was meant
by the harmony of Plato and Aristotle, then so much the worse for them! One might be
at a loss to understand how anyone, reading objectively the corpus of Aristotelian texts,
could suppose that Aristotle did not see himself as opposed to Plato. For example,
Richard Sorabji avers that the idea of harmony is a perfectly crazy proposition. 6 Part of
my task is to show that such a perception is less well founded than one might suppose.
Nevertheless, I aim to do more than this. I want to show that reading Aristotle as a
Platonist, far from being an exercise in historical perversity, does actually yield
interesting results, both exegetical and philosophical.
The view that the philosophy of Aristotle was in harmony with the philosophy of
Plato must be sharply distinguished from the view, held by no one in antiquity, that the
philosophy of Aristotle was identical with the philosophy of Plato. For example, in
Platos dialogue Parmenides Socrates suggests that Zenos book states the same
position as Parmenides differing only in that it focuses on an attack on Parmenides
opponents. Zeno acknowledges this identity. 7 The harmony of Aristotle and Plato was
not supposed to be like the identity of the philosophy of Zeno and Parmenides.
The claim that Aristotle and Plato belong to the same school, namely, the Old
Academic, should not be understood to entail the identity of the philosophies of Plato and
Aristotle for the simple reason that the Neoplatonists, who claimed adherence to this
school, differed widely among themselves without supposing that one was thereby an
opponent of the school. Porphyry differs from Plotinus on certain major points,
Iamblichus differs from Porphyry and Plotinus, Proclus differs from all three, and so on.
So, the claim that Plato and Aristotle belong to the same school or that their philosophies
are in harmony must be understood in a more nuanced manner.
The first concrete indication we possess that Neoplatonists were prepared to argue
for the harmony of Aristotle and Plato is contained in a reference in Photius
Bibliography to the Neoplatonist Hierocles statement that Ammonius of Alexandria, the
teacher of Plotinus, attempted to resolve the conflict between the disciples of Plato and
Aristotle, showing that they were in fact of one and the same mind (
). 8 The second indication of an effort to display harmony is found in the
Suda where it is stated that Porphyry, Plotinus disciple, produced a work in six books
titled On Plato and Aristotle Being Adherents of the Same School ( ). 9
We know nothing of this work apart from the title and what we can infer from what
6

See Richard Sorabjis general introduction to the series of translations of the Greek Aristotle
commentaries, Wildberg 1987, 7, where he refers to the idea of harmony as a perfectly crazy proposition
though he allows that it proved philosophically fruitful. One might well wonder why, if harmony is a
crazy idea, the attempt to show it should be other than philosophically fruitless.
7
See Parmenides 128A-E.
8
See Photius, Biblioteca, cod. 251, 461a24-39.
9
See Suda, 2098, 8-9 (= fr. 240T Smith).

Porphyry actually says in the extant works. It seems reasonably clear, however, that a
work of such length was attempting to provide a substantial argument, one which was
evidently in opposition to at least some prevailing views. It is also perhaps the case that
Porphyry is questioning the basis for the traditional division of the schools of ancient
philosophy, as found, for example, in Diogenes Laertius. 10
That Aristotle was at least to a certain extent an independent thinker and so not
simply categorized by adherence to a school, is hardly in doubt. But just as Plotinus
claim to be eschewing novelty may be met with some legitimate skepticism, so
Aristotles claim to be radically innovative may be met with the same skepticism. The
question of whether Aristotelianism is or is not in harmony with Platonism is certainly
not going to be answered decisively by anything Aristotle says suggesting it is not. We
should acknowledge that the Neoplatonists looked back at their great predecessors with
some critical distance, as we do. What may have appeared to Aristotle as a great chasm
between himself and his teacher may have justifiably appeared much less so to those
looking at both philosophers some 600 to 900 years later.
The sense in which the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato were held by
Neoplatonists to be in harmony is roughly the sense in which we might say that
Newtonian mechanics is in harmony with quantum mechanics or sentential logic is in
harmony with predicate logic. The principal point of these analogies lies in the relative
comprehensive of quantum mechanics and predicate logic. But the more comprehensive
theories are also better theories. Thus, in countless matters relating to physical nature,
Aristotles preeminence and authority was readily acknowledged. But Aristotle did not,
according to the Neoplatonists, possess the correct comprehensive view of all reality. In
particular, he misconceived the first principle of all reality. But in part because he did
recognize that there was a first principle and that it was separate from and prior to the
sensible world, he is legitimately counted as being fundamentally in harmony with Plato.
Aristotles own view of Plato philosophy is a notoriously vexed topic. 11 There
are scores of references to Platos views in Aristotles works. Most of these are
references to the dialogues; a few of these are references to Platos unwritten teachings.
There are also references to what can be loosely described as Academic positions such
as a belief in Forms that might well include Plato but probably also include others.
Insofar as Aristotles exposition and analysis of Platos views are based solely on the
dialogues, they can presumably be independently evaluated for accuracy, as Harold
Cherniss has does, in some cases with considerable deflationary force. Unfortunately,
however, even if we imagine we can isolate the putative unwritten teachings and so
refuse to let them contaminate our evaluation of Aristotles account of Platos views in
the dialogues, we must allow that Platos meaning is often hard to interpret.
The gap between what Plato says or, more accurately, what Platos characters say,
and what Plato means, is a potential bottomless pit from which there is no return. It is
possible to leap into the pit and never be heard from again. Most students of ancient
10

See Diogenes Laertius 1 19-20, where ten philosophical schools are listed. Diogenes also here refers to
another historian, Hippobotus, who gives a similar list. See Suda, s.v., as well. It is of course
possible that the division between the Peripatetic and Academic schools is sharper than that between
Aristotle and Plato.
11
See especially Cherniss 1944; Cherniss 1945 whose magisterial works may be said to have initiated a
new era in the critical analysis of Aristotles interpretation of Plato.

philosophy, however, suppose that there are ways to bridge the gap, that is, reasonable
assumptions that allow us to draw conclusions (modest or otherwise) about Platos
meaning on the basis of what is said in the dialogues. But to allow that there is a gap at
all is to admit that there is a philosophical position or doctrine that goes beyond just what
the dialogues say. For example, the theory of Forms or a theory of Forms may be
constructed from the dialogues, but no account of Forms that I know of does not attempt
at least to generalize from the words of the dialogues or draw out their implications.
The gap between the paraphrasing of the literal and the construction of the
doctrinal is the gap between what Plato said and Platonism.12 I think we must
recognize at the outset that Neoplatonists were interested in the former primarily because
it was the best (but not the only) means of arriving at the latter. 13 But it was not the only
means. There were, as noted above, Aristotles reports of the unwritten teachings. In
addition, there were Aristotles interpretations of the dialogues. These were assumed by
the Neoplatonists to be informed by Aristotles knowledge of the unwritten teachings as
well as his intimate contact with Plato over a period of many years. Since they were
more concerned with Platonism than with what Plato said, it was, accordingly, entirely
reasonable for them to rely on Aristotle here as it would perhaps not be if they were only
interested in what Plato said.
Inextricably bound up with Aristotles account or accounts of Platonism are issues
regarding Aristotles own philosophical positions. If, to put it simply, Aristotle was a
Platonist, why does he so relentlessly criticize Plato? On the other hand, if he was not a
Platonist, why does he say so very many things that seem to be so echt Platonic? To
begin to grasp this problem, we must realize that the picture is complicated by the
existence of Aristotles popular or exoteric writings, albeit largely now available to us
only in fragmentary form. These exoteric works do appear to express views that are both
easily identifiable as Platonic and that appear to contradict things that are said elsewhere
in the so-called esoteric or technical writings.
Such apparent contradictions naturally elicit various views about a supposed
development in Aristotles thinking. 14 So, we might hypothesize, as Werner Jaeger did,
that Aristotle started out as an authentic and loyal Platonist, but then as he grew
intellectually, he moved away from Platonism to a philosophical position that was more
or less explicitly anti-Platonic. This general developmentalist hypothesis has been
carried forward and applied in the major areas of Aristotles thought psychology,
ethics, and metaphysics. The basic hypothesis is seldom questioned, even when the
details are rejected. 15
12

Shorey 1933 provides an excellent example of a scholar who attempts to sail as close to land as possible
in his account of what is in the dialogues. But even Shorey again and again tries to tell us what Plato really
means when he says so and so. The term Platonism of course has a use in contemporary philosophy that
is only remotely connected with its use here.
13
Plotinus, for example, suggests, perhaps with some irony, that Plato was not the first Platonist nor
certainly the only one, but simply the one most divinely inspired.
14
See Jaeger 1948, whose seminal work still dominates Aristotle exegesis today.
15
See Rist 1989, who sets out to redo the work of Jaeger and arrive at a more accurate chronology of
Aristotles development. But Rist retains Jaegers Platonist/anti-Platonist hypothesis. See Wians 1996 for
a good summary of Jaegers position as well as a number of stimulating papers showing the dominance of
Jaeger, despite many objections and reservations. There is also a good bibliography that includes all the
major studies in this area. Wehrle 2001, 1-29, provides an acute critique of some forms of
developmentalism. But Wehrle is primarily interested in refuting developmentalism within Aristotles

Developmentalism draws much of its initial plausibility from an obvious and


unquestionable fact: of course Aristotles thought developed. No one I think supposes
that, say, Aristotles account of sensible substance in the central books of his Metaphysics
sprang full-grown from his head like Athena from the head of Zeus. Whether his
writings reflect a development is another matter. And even if they do, that is a long from
the conclusion that the development is from Platonism towards anti-Platonism as opposed
to a development within the mind of a Platonist or an anti-Platonist, a development that is
more a matter of deepening understanding rather than reorientation. 16
If one follows the Jaegerian hypothesis, then the embarrassing Platonic bits in the
works that are otherwise determined to belong to the late, anti-Platonic phase of
development have to be dealt with somehow. There is considerable opportunity here
for resourcefulness. For example, we discover that a Platonic passage is a remnant of
Aristotles discarded past, something like a permanent food stain on ones shirt that one
just has to endure. More typically, we find that such a passage simply indicates the
background of the discussion as if Aristotle were just acknowledging the air he was
forced to breathe. Sometimes, scholars just avert their embarrassed eyes. We also find
suggestions of sloppy scissors-and-paste jobs or even of nefarious tampering with the
texts by overzealous Platonists. All of these interpretative strategies arise from a
common assumption: since the mature Aristotle is, of course, opposed to Platonism, any
Platonism in the works of his maturity must be there under false pretenses. This
assumption is so widely and deeply held that it is seldom exposed to scrutiny. But it is
still just an assumption for all that.
Nevertheless, it will be insisted that the assumption is well grounded even if its
application is from time to time awkward. Aristotle does in fact truly and decisively
reject Platos theory of Forms and at least most of the ontological consequences of
accepting that theory, including the diminution of the reality of the sensible world. He
also rejects the immortality of the soul, arguably the central idea in Platos ethics and
psychology. In short, Aristotle is the determined opponent of what F.M. Cornford aptly
termed the twin pillars of Platonism. Given these facts, is it not reasonable to
understand Aristotles supposed Platonism in the homonymous mode? That is, some of
the things he says sound like Platonism, but they really are not. The words may be the
same, but the melody is different.
The Neoplatonists generally followed an opposing assumption: Aristotle was a
Platonist from first to last. In order to understand and evaluate this assumption, we shall
naturally have to have some idea of what Neoplatonists meant by the terms Platonist
and Platonism. That is the task to which I turn in a moment. Neoplatonism and
Neoplatonist are themselves unfortunate terms, artifacts of the efforts of early
nineteenth Germanic scholars to categorize the thought in antiquity in ways subtlety
metaphysics or ontology. He generally avoids dealing with the material relevant to the question of whether
the non-developed Aristotle is or is not a Platonist.
16
Owen 1965 tries to turn Jaegers position on its head, arguing that Aristotle started out as an antiPlatonist and moved towards Platonism. Irwin 1988, 11-13, tentatively follows Owen, although Irwin adds
I see no good reason to believe that [Aristotle] spent most of his time deciding whether to agree or
disagree with Plato, and hence I doubt if attention to debates with Plato or Platonism is likely to explain his
philosophical development. I am inclined to think the comments on Plato are an incidental result of
Aristotles reflexion on problems that arise for him apart from any Platonic context (12). The
extraordinary claim in the last sentence deserves further scrutiny. See infra.

reflecting their own world-view. I shall continue to use the terms in what I hope is an
entirely benign historical meaning to refer to the thought of the philosophers and
commentators whose work is the main subject of this paper. But I would like to insist
here once and for all that Neoplatonists just regarded themselves as loyal disciples of
Plato or, more precisely, as adherents of Platonism, the philosophy whose greatest
exponent was Plato. They did not regard themselves as innovators. This may be difficult
for some to believe. But if we keep Plato distinct from Platonism in the way I have
suggested, we can see the beginning of the justification for including the implications of
what Plato actually says within the ambit of Platonism.
The occasions for confusion, mischief, and frustration are frequent when trying to
say what Plato means rather than just what Plato says. The reaction of Harold Cherniss
to Aristotles efforts to say what Plato means is a good example. But, of course, Cherniss
took Aristotle to task largely because he failed accurately to grasp Plato's meaning. And
this is something that one could say only if one grasped that meaning oneself.
Inevitably, there were disputes about Platos meaning. Proclus and Simplicius, just to
take two examples, regularly offer long lists of contrary views held by their Neoplatonic
predecessors about this or that question. Therefore, one should not be overly surprised if
Neoplatonists can call Aristotle a Platonist with a straight face at the same time as they
note Aristotles criticisms of Plato.
But an obvious and important objection to this is that disagreements among
Neoplatonists are quite different from disagreements with Plato. Indeed, though Plotinus,
for example, will from time to time get a bit cranky about Platos obscurity on some
matter usually having to do with the soul he never actually criticizes Plato in the way
that he does Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and Skeptics. So, perhaps it is a bit
disingenuous of the Neoplatonists to take Aristotles criticism of Plato as just an other
family squabble.
This is a serious objection and it requires a serious answer. Here I shall only
sketch the elements of the answer. First, Neoplatonists were keenly aware of differing
views within the Old Academy, especially those of Speusippus and Xenocrates. On some
matters, and like Cherniss nearly fifteen hundred years later, they believed that Aristotles
criticisms were aimed at Academics other than Plato himself. It did not go unnoticed by
the Neoplatonists that Plato himself evidently criticizes both an inadequate theory of
Forms in the first part of Parmenides and the views of the friends of the Forms in
Sophist. Second, although they did not believe that Platos thought developed in the
sense that he held contrary positions and different times, they did believe that different
dialogues revealed his thought more or less fully. If, for example, one takes Plato au pied
de la lettre in Phaedrus, one will mistake his meaning, more accurately expressed in
Timaeus. This is no doubt a dangerous and contentious assumption, but at least if it is
justified, it serves to mitigate certain criticisms of Plato by the putative Platonist
Aristotle. Third, Neoplatonists took seriously Aristotles testimony regarding Platos
unwritten doctrines. They regarded Aristotle as an extremely valuable part of the bridge
across the gap between what Plato said and what Plato meant. If his criticisms of Plato
came down to the Neoplatonists without any countervailing evidence of Aristotles
commitment to Platonism, then I believe they would have concluded that those criticisms
meant that Aristotle was not a Platonist, as, say, Chrysippus or Epicurus were not. But
because there is such evidence, in fact, because there is such a considerable amount of

evidence, they were wont to take the criticisms of Plato as criticisms of unsuccessful
versions of Platonism, not of the Platonism that Plato himself endorsed. Finally, and
most importantly, since Aristotles Platonism actually was defective in certain crucial
respects, he would naturally be expected to criticize Plato. That is why, after all, his
philosophy was said to be in harmony with Platonism, not identical with it. Owing to the
fact that the defect was a serious one, having to do primarily with the nature of an
ultimate ontological principle, many other things were bound to be out of kilter. But
precisely because the defect was localizable one could say with what justification we
shall need to explore that if one were to imagine the defect removed, Aristotelianism
would indeed just be Platonism. In other words, the prodigal son was after all still an
inseparable member of the family.
2. Platonism From a Neoplatonic Perspective
So, let me turn to a very brief and schematic compendium of the elements of
Platonism according to those who believed that Aristotles writings were in harmony with
Platonism.
(1) Systematic. The dialogues of Plato can hardly be said to contain a
perspicuous philosophical system, although there are indications, both with
respect to methodology and to doctrine, of something like a comprehensive
view of the world. In any case, relying not only on the dialogues and letters
but on the testimony regarding the unwritten teachings as well, the
Neoplatonists strove to represent Platonism as a system. The term system
should be understood here in the sense in which it was also applied to the
other philosophical schools, including Stoicism and Epicureanism. The fact
that Aristotelianism was only infrequently regarded as an independent system
undoubtedly contributed to the presumption that what Aristotle did teach was
in harmony with Plato. 17
(2) Hierarchic. The Platonic view of the world the key to the system is that
the universe is to be seen in hierarchical manner. It is to be understood
uncompromisingly from the top-down. The hierarchy is ordered basically
according to two criteria. First, the simple precedes the complex and second
the intelligible precedes the sensible. The precedence in both cases is not
temporal, but ontological and conceptual. That is, understanding the complex
and the sensible depends on understanding the simple and the intelligible
because the latter are explanatory of the former. The ultimate explanatory
principle, therefore, must be unqualifiedly simple. Whether or to what extent
the unqualifiedly simple can also be intelligible or in some sense transcends
intelligibility is a deep question within Platonism.
(3) Theological. An essential part of the systematic hierarchy is a god adduced
first and foremost to explain the order of the sensible world or the world of
becoming. Platonism converges on the notion that the divine has complete
explanatory reach. That is, there is nothing that it cannot explain. Thus,
ontology and theology are inseparable. The Platonic notion of divinity
17

See Moraux 1973 and Wehrli 1974.

includes an irremovable personal element, though this is frequently


attenuated. This attenuation in part follows along the diverse efforts to
employ both the intelligible and the simple, as well as the divine, to explain
everything else. The residual personhood of the divine agent of transient
order is retained in part owing to the fundamental Platonic exhortation to
person to become like god (see #5 below). Additionally, benevolence and
providence are viewed as essential features of the divine.
(4) Psychological Irreducibility. For Platonism, the universe is itself alive and
filled with living things. Soul is the principle of life. Life is not viewed as
epiphenomenal or supervenient on what is non-living. On the contrary, soul
has an explanatory role in the systematic hierarchy. Though soul is
fundamentally an explanatory principle, individual souls are fitted into the
overall hierarchy in a subordinate manner. One of the central issues facing the
Neoplatonists was the relation between intellect, intellection, and the
intelligibles, on the one hand, and soul on the other. Just as the psychical was
thought to be irreducible to the material, so the intelligible was held to be
irreducible to the psychical. All striving by anything capable of striving is to
be understood as in a way the reverse of the derivation of the complex from
the simple, the sensible from the intelligible.
(5) Personal Immortality. All Platonists accepted the view that in some sense
the person was the soul and the soul was immortal. Since perhaps the most
important feature of the divine was immortality, the goal or of
embodied personal existence was viewed as becoming like god. But
obviously one does not have to strive to become what one already is. The task
of becoming like god is typically situated within the fundamental polarity in
the general Greek concept of nature or between what is and what
ought to be. Thus, normativity is woven into the account of what is
objectively real. We are exhorted to become what we really or truly or ideally
are. Failing to achieve immortality in this sense is connected to various
doctrines of reincarnation and post-mortem punishment. One might say that
the first principle of Platonic ethics is that one must become like god.
One familiar with Platonism strictly through the dialogues will note that a number
of things are missing from this list. First, as noted above, anything that might be termed
Socratic ethics is missing. The ethics of Platonism as the Neoplatonists understood it
flowed from the combination of the ontology, theology, and psychology as represented
largely in what have come to be known as the middle and late dialogues. The exhortation
to become like god is embedded in the technical metaphysical and cosmological views
of Theaetetus and Timaeus. 18 Accordingly, there was for them nothing uniquely edifying
in the so-called Socratic paradoxes, found principally in the so-called early dialogues.
Second, the theory of Forms is not explicitly mentioned. Partly, this is owing to
the Neoplatonic assumption that the account of Forms in the dialogues needed to be
supplemented with the theory of ultimate principles as this was described by Aristotle. In
addition, Aristotles evident criticism of that theory, especially in On the Ideas and
Metaphysics, did give some commentators pause about the status of Forms in Platos own
18

See Theaetetus, 176B and Timaeus, 90A-D.

thinking. What was beyond dispute, however, is that Platonism is committed to the
existence of an intelligible, that is, immaterial realm, that is ontologically prior to the
sensible realm. The precise status of the elements of the intelligible realm was a legitimate topic of dispute within the Platonic community. Thus, a question such
as what is the range of Forms? was widely debated. What is most crucial to appreciate
in this regard is that all discussion about Forms was carried out on the assumption that
Forms are not themselves ultimate ontological principles, both owing to their plurality
and internal complexity. The textual justification for this assumption, wholly
independent of reliance on Aristotles account of first principles, was the Republic
passage referring to the Idea of the Good.
Third, there is no mention of politics narrowly construed, whether this be the ideal
state of Republic or the somewhat different views of Statesman and Laws. No doubt, all
sorts of extra-philosophical explanations can be adduced to explain the indifference of
Neoplatonists between the 3rd and 6th centuries C.E. to political philosophy. More to the
point, however, is that their understanding of Platonism as such simply did not include a
political or social dimension, which is not to say that these philosophers did not have
views related to these matters drawn from elsewhere. One might compare in this regard
Martin Luthers pointed assertion that Christianity has nothing to do with virtue.
One can I think appreciate more fully what is included and what is excluded from
the above account of Platonism if one reflects on the systematic unity of its various
features. As in Stoicism, in the Platonism of our period everything is connected with
everything else. The difference of course is that while Stoicism is more or less
consistently materialistic, Platonism maintains an non-materialistic and hierarchical
explanatory framework. Specific problems relating to the natural world in general, that
is, problems about living and non-living physical entities, cognition, language, and
morality, are all addressed within this framework. For Platonism, the sensible properties
of things are never the starting-points for explanations, though they may well be the
starting-points for arriving at explanations. The sensible world is always understood as
the product of the intelligible world. Specifically, as product it is an image. There is
nothing self-explanatory about an image. Its real inner workings are to be sought in that
of which it is an image. Because there is an all-encompassing hierarchy ordered in terms
of complexity and intelligibility, the orientation of investigation is thoroughly vertical
and almost never horizontal. Thus, there is little room for political philosophy. For
political philosophy must start with irreducible political principles. But there cannot be
such in Platonism. All principles for Platonism are to be located among that which is
relatively simple and intelligible. The intrinsic social aspect of politics precludes these. 19
The systematic unity of Platonism can be seen most clearly in its treatment of all
matters of cognition. For Platonism, cognition is to be understood, again, hierarchically,
with the highest form of cognition, or intellection as the paradigm for all
inferior forms, including those which involve the sensible world. The representationalist
aspect of all the images of this paradigm is a central focus of Neoplatonic interest. In
addition, cognition is what most closely identifies souls or persons, with possession of the
highest form of cognition constituting the ideal state. Since the highest form of cognition
19

Interestingly, the Neoplatonists lack of interest in politics contributed to the task of the harmonization of
Aristotle and Plato, since Aristotles manifest insistence on the irreducibility of political principles was in
conflict with Platonism.

is a non-representational state, one in which the immaterial cognizer is in a sense


identified with the objects of cognition, psychology and epistemology are inseparable
from the ontological and theological principles. In short, to understand fully a matter
relating to language or belief or rational desire is ultimately to relate those embodied
phenomena to the simple and intelligible first principles.
What is most distinctive about Platonism, especially as it is presented by the
Neoplatonists, is that it is resolutely and irreducibly top-down rather than bottom-up.
A top-down approach to philosophical problems rejects and a bottom-up approach
accepts the claim that the most important and puzzling phenomena we encounter in this
world can be explained by seeking the simplest elements out of which these are made.
The top-down approach appeals to first or higher or irreducible principles to account for
these phenomena. Among these are human personhood, and the personal attribute of
freedom, higher cognition, the presence of evil, and the very existence of a world. The
top-down approach holds that answers to questions about these phenomena are never
going to be satisfactorily given in terms of elementary physical particles from which
things evolve or upon which the phenomena supervene. According to Neoplatonism,
Platonism is basic top-downism and its only true opponent is bottom-upism
represented, for example, by Atomists of various sorts.
3. Neoplatonisms Critique of Aristotle

Let me next turn to the Neoplatonists account of the crucial defect in Aristotles
version of Platonism. I focus primarily on Plotinus argument that, though Aristotle
recognized the need for an absolutely first principle, he was mistaken in identifying that
principle with thinking or a mind. 20 The reason why the first principle of all cannot be so
identified is that thinking is an essentially complex activity whereas the first principle
must be absolutely simple. Aristotle in fact recognized the requirement of the absolute
simplicity of the first principle, but he erred in holding that this could be instantiated by a
mind or, even more strictly, by the activity of a mind. A minds activity is, however,
essentially intentional. Hence, the basic complexity of thought.
Although thinking cannot be identified with an absolutely first principle,
nevertheless thinking is, according to the Neoplatonists, an immaterial principle. Part of
Aristotles mistake was that he could not accept the possibility of a complex immaterial
principle. He believed that immateriality entailed simplicity. So, the argument that led
him to identify the unmoved mover with thinking also led him to conclude that the
unmoved mover is the absolutely first principle.
4. Aristotles Platonism According to Neoplatonism
Now, I want to survey some of the central features of Aristotles philosophy and
try to show why the Neoplatonists thought that these were in harmony with Platonism.
The reason I am aiming for a survey of what is admittedly a vast amount of material
rather than concentrating on one or two features, is that part of the strength of the
Neoplatonists case is cumulative.
20

See Plotinus, Enneads, V 6, 1.1-14, 22-5; V 3, 11 for the main criticism.

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Much, though by no means all, of the material I shall be canvassing is contained


in Neoplatonic commentaries on Aristotelian texts. Virtually all the commentaries on
Aristotle were aimed at understanding how Aristotles philosophy was subsumable into
Platonism. In the Neoplatonic curriculum the study of Aristotle preceded and prepared
the way for the study of Plato. So, though the commentators are often remarkably
resourceful and erudite as commentators, there is no tension between their Platonism and
their reading of Aristotle. Understanding the harmony of Plato and Aristotle according to
Neoplatonism is served by mining both the commentaries and the personal writings.
First, I return to Aristotles exoteric writings which both in antiquity and in
modern times are widely recognized to contain many straightforwardly Platonic claims.
This fact, as we have seen, is the main engine driving developmentalism. My aim here is
to identify these Platonic elements and to evaluate some of the devices that have been
employed to remove their Platonic sting. The Neoplatonic attitude to these writings was
sophisticated and quite possibly correct. They viewed them as popular, that is, nontechnical, expressions of Platonism, not as the doomed to be repudiated juvenilia of a
future anti-Platonist.
If, however, this was their only point, it could perhaps be dismissed as fancy. In
fact, the exoteric writings were of crucial importance because what is said there of a
Platonic nature is mirrored, sometimes with notable precision, in the esoteric works.
Naturally, the esoteric works are more nuanced and more difficult to interpret. But as we
shall see, the Neoplatonic use of the admittedly Platonic exoterica to document the
harmony of Aristotle and Plato has a magnifying effect when joined with an unbiased
reading of many passages in the esoterica.
Three features of the fragments of the exoterica deserve our attention. First, in
Eudemus, Aristotle unambiguously assumes the immortality of the soul. 21 Second, in the
exhortation to philosophy called Protrepticus, Aristotle identifies the person with the
highest part of the human soul, the rational faculty. 22 And in his work On Philosophy, he
identifies wisdom with the knowledge of divine and eternal intelligibles. 23 I mention
these fragments in particular, omitting an ocean of scholarship that surrounds their
authentication, in order to try to arrive expeditiously at my goal. These fragments pertain
to the twin pillars of Platonism to which I earlier alluded. If, however, these fragments
were not decisively echoed in the esoteric works the works officially employed to
show that Aristotle is an anti-Platonist then they would no doubt be dismissed as
juvenilia and of no count. But the echoes are there for all to see.
Let us then consider the charge that Aristotle is an anti-Platonist because he
denies the immortality of the soul.
I am going to focus on Aristotle doctrine of intellect (), especially as this
is found in De Anima. The evidence for the view that Aristotle is committed to the

21

See Elias, Commentary on Aristotles Categories, 114, 15-115, 12 (= Ross, fr. 3).
See Iamblichus, Protrepticus, 41, 15-42, 4 Pistelli (= Ross, fr. 6, Dring, frs. B59-62). See also
Iamblichus, Protrepticus, 48, 9-21 (= Ross, fr. 10c, Dring, frs. B108-110) on the divinity of reason in us.
23
John Philoponus, Commentary on Nicomachus Introduction to Arithmetic, I, 1 (= Ross, fr. 8). On the
authenticity of the fragment see Untersteiner 1963, 121-3. I have omitted a portion of the fragment dealing
with different senses of the terms wisdom and wise man that may be not genuine and in any case is not
relevant to my theme.
22

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immortality of the intellect is in fact very considerable. 24 But though widely


acknowledged, the evidence is then frequently made to experience a deflationary assault.
Thus, although intellect is immortal, intellect is not identical with the person. And
because intellect is not identical with the person, the interpretation of Aristotles
psychology as hylomorphic should be retained. In line with this hylomorphism and
deflating of intellect, is a generally empiricist account of Aristotles epistemology, such
that the presence and activity of intellect in shorn of any putative Platonic implications.
From the Neoplatonic perspective, the anti-Platonic reading of De Anima is
nothing short of bizarre. Leaving aside the need either to ignore what is said about
intellect in the exoteric works or to discount that according to some developmentalist
hypothesis, that reading systematically confuses intellect with the biological conditions
for embodied intellection. In short, it refuses to acknowledge both that intellect is denied
by Aristotle to be the form of a hylomorphic composite and also shown by Aristotle to be
immaterial, and not in the anodyne sense in which any form is immaterial.
But if we agree that intellect is immortal, surely, this is not equivalent to personal
immortality. In fact, it is so as far as Plato is concerned. For in Republic and Timaeus, at
a minimum, Plato argues that only the highest part of the soul is immortal, that is, only
the intellect. And if, as Neoplatonists thought, intellect is shorn of idiosyncratic
attributes, then what this means is not that Aristotle and Plato were in disagreement, but
that ones own account of what personal means should not be foisted on either Aristotle
or Plato.
In order to see how Neoplatonists respond to the charge that Aristotles rejection
of the theory of Forms shows that he is an anti-Platonist, I need to say a bit about the
Neoplatonic interpretation of Aristotles Metaphysics in general. Not surprisingly, that
interpretation rests heavily on the identification of metaphysics not only with a science of
first causes and principles and a science of being qua being, but also with a science of
theology. That is, in fact, what Aristotle himself explicitly does both in books and .
Once we see that metaphysics is, for Aristotle, the study of how the first or
highest principle is related to everything else, we can see that the study of sensible
substance is not understood by him to be independent of that upon which the entire
sensible world depends for its being. In short, the theological interpretation of his
metaphysics coheres very nicely with Platos two-world metaphysics, according to
which the sensible world owes its being to the prior intelligible realm.
More importantly for our present purposes, Aristotle argues that the first principle
of all, god, is thinking thinking about thinking. I shall not here go into the details of
why the interpretation of this thinking as Narcissus-like is most probably mistaken. I
shall only point out that if god is eternally thinking all that is thinkable or intelligible,
then there is, after all, a very strong resemblance between Aristotles god and his work
and Platos Demiurge and the eternal Forms he is eternally contemplating.
If we suppose that there is some good reason to believe that Aristotles god is not
thinking of nothing but rather thinking of everything that is thinkable, then this certainly
24

See De Anima, 1, 413a2-5. On separability, see 4, 429b5. Kahn 1992, 362, would prefer to admit to a
lack of unity in Aristotles analysis of intellect to conceding that that analysis is dualist in any way. Also,
5, 430a10-25; 4, impassive (429a5)unmixed (429a18), separate (429b5).

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puts Aristotles criticism of the theory of Forms in a new light. Not surprisingly,
committed harmonists were sometimes puzzled by Aristotles relentless criticisms of
what might be aptly regarded as the center piece of Platos philosophy, the theory of
Forms. But taking a relatively large view of Platonism, Forms were never understood by
Neoplatonists as ultimate principles. So, although the Forms were understood to be
separable from (1) the sensible world, they were not separable either from (2) other
Forms; (3) a divine intellect; and (4) the ultimate principle. Accordingly, criticisms that
assumed separation in the senses (2)-(4) was regarded as misplaced, explicable either as
applying to Academics other than Plato or as a function of Aristotles defective
understanding of the ultimate principle of all.
Nevertheless, if Aristotle still rejects separate Forms how can his philosophy still
be said to be in harmony with Platos? The argument here depends on showing that since
Aristotle shares with Plato a realists account of sameness and difference in the sensible
world, namely, a rejection of nominalism, Aristotle is committed to the ontological
priority of intelligible natures to their sensible instances. The very fact that Aristotle
recognizes the possibility of knowing things universally obliges him to accept some
account of the possibility of universal knowledge, an account which of course the
universality of thought itself does not provide. Forms are not universals and universals
do not do the job that Forms must do to make universal knowledge possible.
The Neoplatonists take Aristotles rejection of Forms to be a rejection of entities
supposedly separate in senses (2)-(4) as well as (1). They can accept this with
equanimity because Plato agrees that Forms are not separate in these three senses.
According to their understanding of Aristotle, what he has done is rejected the term
Form or Idea as impossibly tainted and instead substituted the term intelligible
(, ). This is in fact what is found present eternally to intellect, both
the intellect of every person and the divine intellect. Thus is harmony restored.
Let me briefly mention some other facets of the harmonists program. There are
more Neoplatonic commentaries on Aristotles Categories than on any other work of
Aristotle. This is in part because from Porphyry onward the study of Categories was
placed at the beginning of the Aristotelian portion of the Neoplatonic curriculum. Every
Platonic aspirant needed to understand this work which was supposed to orient pupils in
the right direction. And because of the study of Categories came first, the commentaries
contain a great deal of extremely important information on how the Neoplatonists viewed
the larger task of representing the harmony of Aristotle and Plato.
Since many contemporary scholars take a contrasting view and assume that
Categories is the starting-point for Aristotles anti-Platonism or, more particularly, for his
alternative ontology, it is important to see exactly how this work could be understood to
be one over which a Platonist could be enthusiastic. Briefly, they took the categories to
apply only to the sensible world, not to the intelligible world. This is in itself a fairly
obvious point. But somewhat more contentiously, they also held that an Aristotelian
account of the sensible world cohered with Platonism. That is, Aristotelian categories
were appropriate for understanding a world diminished in reality owing to its being an
image of the intelligible world. So, substance and accident, species and genus were
legitimate categories of the non-ultimate. According to Neoplatonists, Aristotle himself
was not committed to the view that a sensible substance such as a man or a horse was an
unqualifiedly ultimate component of the world. The relative ultimacy of sensible

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substance was to be fitted into a Platonic framework. And, most importantly for
contemporary students, Aristotelian universals were not substituted for Platonic Forms.
These universals were never intended to do what Forms were intended to do, that is,
explain the intelligible aspect of the sensible world. Since universals are abstracted from
our encounters with that world, they do not explain anything about what is out there.
They only serve to categorize or enable us to understand generally.
A similar point can be made about Aristotles account of nature and natural
science. Platonism views nature, like the categories that are applied to it, as relatively
ultimate. Therefore, an account of a nature or of nature generally cannot be a complete
account. Accordingly, Aristotles fourfold schema of causal analysis is a fragment of a
larger Platonic schema that includes the paradigmatic cause as well as ultimate or
transcendent efficient and final causes. Generally, there was thought to be little conflict
between Aristotles Physics and Platos Timaeus.
As mentioned above, Aristotle was recognized to be authoritative in matters
relating to the study of nature. One consequence of this view was that Neoplatonists
were willing and eager to adopt the Aristotelian conceptual framework in the science of
nature. Thus, we find Plotinus and later Neoplatonists using the concepts of form/matter,
act/potency, and the fourfold schema of causes as part of the exposition and defense of
Platonism. Adopting Aristotelian concepts even in commentaries on Platonic texts
undoubtedly served the interests of the harmonists. However, the important question that
we need to ask is whether Platonism can bear Aristotelian coloration, whether, for
example, the concept of a receptacle of becoming in Timaeus is legitimately used by
Neoplatonists to prove that a material principle belongs in the larger Platonic picture.
Finally, I turn to ethics. There is not much Neoplatonic commentary material on
Aristotles ethical writings. Still, it is possible to piece together something like a
Neoplatonic reading of Nicomachean Ethics and to show how the view of happiness and
virtue there is in harmony with the central idea of Neoplatonic ethics, namely,
assimilation to the divine.
One of the central exegetical problems in Nicomachean Ethics is how the
definition of happiness in as virtuous activity in book 1 is to be reconciled with the
argument in book that the best life is the contemplative life. Contemporary scholars
have often, somewhat ruefully, acknowledged that the latter is deeply Platonic, usually
following this by saying that it is an aberration. Neoplatonists, by contrast, identify the
contemplative life with the highest stage reachable by an embodied person in the process
of assimilation to the divine. Accordingly, although the practice of ethical virtue is never
dismissed as being anything other than desirable, it is recognized as inferior and
belonging to a life of secondary value. Ethical value is both intrinsically good and
instrumental to a higher stage along the path of identification with the divine in us. A
careful reading of Nicomachean Ethics show I think that in fact Aristotle does not think
otherwise.
Let me now step back a moment and ask the question of whether we should
conclude that Aristotle is a Platonism in spite of himself. I mean that if we look at
Aristotle entirely in Aristotelian terms is he led to embrace principles that make him,
even if reluctantly, a Platonist. I say reluctantly because no Neoplatonic spin can erase
the fact that Aristotle is constantly bucking against the Platonic bridle. I do not discount
entirely personality differences here. But as philosophers, open to learning from the

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history of ancient philosophy, we would I think like to know whether an anti-nominalist,


as Aristotle surely is, can consistently avoid succumbing to Platonism. And we would
also like to know whether a realist theory of knowledge could attain a defensible basis
other than with a immaterialist account of thought. And finally we would like to know
whether hylomorphism, even suitably nuanced in a way that is acceptable to materialism,
is capable of giving an adequate account of the human person. If the answer to all these
questions is no, then we should accept the harmony of Aristotle and Plato, even if
finally we are inclined to say so much the worse for Aristotle.
One of the central and overarching tasks of my project is to contribute to the
recovery of what is, to borrow a felicitous phrase from Benedetto Croce, living and
dead in both Plato and Aristotle. Of course, many others are engaged in a similar task.
But I think something can be added if we look back to the 4th century B.C.E. through the
prism of the Neoplatonic harmony principle. I think we can see facets of Platonism that
deserve serious contemporary consideration if we look precisely at those places where
Aristotle has been assumed to have said no when in fact he was really saying yes. If
we can recover Aristotles Platonism, we shall be better placed, or so I will argue, to
appropriate what is genuinely vital in what is for better or worse the dominant tradition in
the entire history of philosophy. I also strongly suspect that confrontation with genuine,
not faux, Platonism, even when it does or should result in rejection, can only be counted a
plus.
The contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty notes that most of what he has
written over the past decade stems from his antagonism to Platonism. Rorty is quick to
add that by Platonism he means something more than the thoughts of the author of the
Dialogues. He understands Platonism, broadly conceived, to embody sets of distinctions
or polarities appearance/reality; matter/mind; made/found; sensible/intellectual; etc
that he wishes in the firmest possible way to reject. I am sympathetic at least to Rortys
broad conception of Platonism. So conceived, it is perhaps more easy to see why the socalled Neoplatonists viewed Aristotles philosophy as being in harmony with the
philosophy of Plato. My goal is in part to achieve a richer understanding of Platonism by
showing why Neoplatonists took Aristotle to be a collaborator in its development and
explication.

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