Category: Persons

Antiochus of Ascalon

Platonist philosopher (ca. 130-68 BCE), pupil of the Academic sceptic, Philo of Larissa, from whom he departed rejecting Philo’s skepticism as unfitting to Plato’s philosophy.

Antiochus was born in Ascalon of today’s Israel around 130 BCE and must be dead by 68 BCE. When he was young, he moved to Athens and studied in the Academy under the direction of Philo of Larissa (110-83 BCE). Antiochus, however, abandoned the Academy and Philo’s skepticism, because he came to consider it an aberration of Plato’s philosophy. As a result, Antiochus used to name the skeptical Academy from Arcesilaus to Philo ‘New Academy’ (Cicero, Acad. I.46, II.15), while he saw himself as representing the original Platonic Academy, that is, the ‘Ancient Academy’ (Acad. II.70, 136). There is evidence to suggest that Antiochus had also studied with Stoic philosophers such as Mnesarchus and Dardanus (Acad. II.69) and also Sosus (after whom he named one of his works). Antiochus’ mature work clearly testifies to his good knowledge of Stoic philosophy.

Antiochus distanced gradually from Philo’s skepticism, and this process reflects internal disagreements within the Academy. Initially Philo adhered to Carneades’ skepticism, or at least a version of it, according to which the Stoic apprehension (katalêpsis), an intermediate cognitive state between secure knowledge (epistêmê) and opinion (doxa), is impossible (akatalêpsia), and for that reason suspension of judgement (epochê) about the truth of sense-impressions is recommended (Acad. II.11, 66-8, 108). This view, however, allows for the acceptance of some sense impressions as more convincing (pithanôn) than others, though without any warrant for truth. Philo shifted from this position at some point and claimed that some sense impressions are convincing in the sense that they are more likely to be true than others, while he also claimed that about views that do not result from sense impressions (Acad. II.78, 148). We do not know whether Antiochus challenged Philo’s original skepticism, but he did challenge Philo’s revised view, presumably because this requires a criterion for distinguishing potentially true impressions, and Philo did not provide such a criterion (Acad. II.111).

In reaction to Antiochus’ criticisms, Philo revised his position anew. He now argued that someone can attain true knowledge from sense perception, that is, katalêpsis, yet not kind of katalêpsis defined by the Stoics, i.e. infallible knowledge. Antiochus criticized this view too as self-contradictory on the grounds that true knowledge cannot but be also secure (Acad. II.18). If true knowledge is secure, however, then, according to Antiochus, a criterion like that of the Stoics is required (Acad. II.34). Antiochus rejected Philo’s final theory in his work Sosus, which he published in 87/86 BCE. His break with the Academy, however, must have been started earlier.

Philo’s mitigated scepticism was rejected not only by Antiochus, who adopted a dogmatic epistemology (see below), but also by Aenesidemus, who embraced instead Pyrrhonean scepticism. Antiochus most probably outlined his epistemology in his no longer extant work Kanonika (from kanôn meaning ‘criterion’). It is still not entirely clear whether Antiochus served as scholarch of the Academy after Philo. Certainly, however, he had his own students, such as Aristo of Alexandria and Cratippus of Pergamon (who was the teacher of Cicero’s son –De officiis I.1). Both of them, though, turned to Peripatos (Index Academicus col. 35.2-17 Dorandi).

Philosophical views

The two most crucial philosophical issues for Antiochus were that of the criterion between true and false impressions and of the human final end, that is of human happiness (Acad. II.29). In his view, disagreement on these issues amounts to different philosophical affiliation. It was on the basis of this view that Antiochus considered Aristotle as essentially Platonist whereas the Stoics as deviators from Plato’s philosophy.

Since Antiochus’ main aim was the reconstruction of Plato’s philosophy, which in his view made a system of doctrines elaborated by the ancient Academy and the ancient Peripatos (Acad. I.17-18), it was of paramount importance for him to address the question of who qualifies as a Platonist philosopher. In order to reconstruct the alleged system of Plato’s doctrines, Antiochus relied on Platonist tradition before the adoption of skepticism in the Academy. On his view, this Platonist tradition was unified by a common stand to ethics. On such a criterion Aristotle was deemed Platonist and his ethics was regarded as the source for the reconstruction of Plato’s ethics (De finibus V.7-12). Antiochus maintained that Plato and Aristotle had espoused a common view about the human nature, according to which man consists of body and soul, with the latter being more important than the body, which entails that the virtue of soul is more crucial for the attainment of happiness (De finibus V.34-5). This view, however, Antiochus suggested, did not imply negligence of the body, which is what in his view the Stoics maintained. Antiochus actually adopted the Stoic view that happiness consists in a life in accordance with nature (oikeiôsis), he argued, however, that the Stoics were not faithful to that view to the extent that they did not appreciate the non-rational part of man (De finibus V.88-89). Antiochus actually distinguished two degrees of happiness, vita beata and vita beatissima (De finibus V.71, 81, Acad. I.22). The former is achieved through virtue, while the latter requires also the presence of the so-called external goods, which according to Antiochus the Stoics neglected, and to the extent they did so, they departed from Plato’s ethics.

On Antiochus’ view the Stoics do justice to Plato’s philosophy to the extent they acknowledge the human capacity to obtain true knowledge and determine the relevant criterion. Such a knowledge is achieved with the mediation of concepts, which they give propositional content to sense impressions (Acad. II.22, 30-31). This means that perceptual knowledge takes place in the mind, not in the senses, as is claimed already in Plato’s Theaetetus. Antiochus adopts the Stoic epistemology concerning sense impressions and he claims that this constitutes an improvement (correctio) on the epistemology of the ancient Academy rather than a new theory (Acad. I.43). He maintains that the human capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood is much greater than that of distinguishing the corresponding sense impressions, as is the case with distinguishing the right action, for instance (De finibus V.58-60). If we do not have the former and relatively simple capacity, then we are not in a position to choose the right thing in practical life, let alone do that systematically, as is required in order to achieve happiness. According to Antiochus, we cannot understand and develop our capacity of distinguishing right and wrong in ethics without espousing an epistemology like that of the Stoics (Acad. II.33).

Antiochus’ Importance

Antiochus was of crucial importance for the subsequent history of Platonism. Although skepticism was not entirely abandoned in later Platonism, Antiochus was instrumental in the turn of Platonists to a more dogmatic conception of Platonist philosophy. In the centuries to come Platonists engage themselves with the reconstruction of the alleged doctrines of Plato and quarrel about the potential contribution of Aristotle and the Stoics in this task.

Author: George Karamanolis
  • Brittain, Ch. Philo of Larissa. Oxford, 2001.
  • Allen, J. "Antiochus of Ascalon." Zalta, E.N ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy URL http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/antiochus-ascalon/. 2011.
  • Glucker, J. Antiochus and the Late Academy. Göttingen, 1978.
  • Karamanolis, G. Plato and Aristotle in Agreement? Platonists on Aristotle from Antiochus to Porphyry. Oxford, 2006.
  • Sedley, D ed. Τhe Philosophy of Antiochus . Cambridge, 2012.
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