Category: Works of Plato

Ancient introductory handbooks for the study of Plato’s dialogues

Introductory works for the study of Plato’s dialogues written during the periods of Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism.


The systematic teaching of Platonic philosophy necessitated the composition of works that would introduce the study of Plato’s dialogues. There are five extant works of this kind that date from the 2nd to the 6th century AD: Albinus’ Introduction to Plato’s Dialogues, Alcinus’ The Handbook of Platonism, Apuleius’ On Plato and his Doctrine, Diogenes Laertius’ third book from his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, and the anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy. The works of Apuleius and Diogenes Laertius are discussed in the relevant entries. Here we are dealing with the remaining three works.

Albinus’ Introduction

This short work numbering less than five pages in its modern edition (Hermann 1853, 147-151) serves the very limited purpose of familiarizing students with the dialogue as a literary genre and classifying the Platonic dialogues into distinct categories.

Its author, who taught Platonic philosophy in Smyrna around the middle of the 2nd century AD, defines the dialogue as “discourse composed of question and answer upon some political or philosophical matter, combined with a becoming delineation of the manners of the characters introduced, and the arrangement as regards their diction” (trans. George Burges) (ch. 1). Then, on chapter 3, he distinguishes the dialogues into explanatory [ὑφηγηματικοί] and exploratory [ζητητικοί]. The first category includes the dialogues that present a positive teaching, what today we would call ‘doctrinal’. The dialogues that in current parlance would be designated as ‘aporetic’ include the above second category and derive from Plato’s early or ‘Socratic’ period. In this case the writer is more keen to offer readers a proper training in logical reasoning and critically examine widespread false beliefs than state what is true.

Albinus did not accept Thrasyllus’ division of Platonic dialogues into tetralogies as pedagogically correct (ch. 4) and recommended to all interested students that they focus on Alcibiades during their initial involvement with Plato’s works and then methodically move on to Phaedo, the Republic and the Timaeus (ch. 5); a fact which clearly shows the educative ends that the Introduction serves.

Alcinous’ Didaskalikos

Of all the extant handbooks on Platonism, the Didaskalikos is perhaps the most important. An otherwise unknown writer, Alcinous, seems to be its author. He must have lived somewhere between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD – with his probable floruit dated to c. 150 AD.

In contrast to the two other works examined here, the Didascalica does not deal with the dialogue genre but presents a comprehensive outline of Platonic teaching drawing on discourses and views expressed by Socrates and other Platonic characters in various dialogues. The presupposition behind such an extensive and comprehensive overview of Plato’s philosophy is that the latter constitutes a self-enclosed and integral philosophical system. The author shares this view with other adherents to middle-Platonism and therefore his work can be seen as representative of a broader tendency to a systematic interpretation of Plato developed during the Imperial era.

The Didaskalikos aptly illustrates the drive to harmonize Plato with Aristotle that informs Middle Platonism, and the introduction of certain Stoic concepts in the interpretation of Platonic thought, already evinced in Antiochus of Ascalon. In the 36 chapters of his work, Alcinous examines all branches of Platonic philosophy.

Alcinous divides Plato’s philosophy into theoretical (pertaining to the knowledge of beings), practical (connected with acting in an upright manner), and dialectical (studying the various modes in which knowledge can be acquired), subdividing those three categories as follows (ch. 3):

1. Theoretical Knowledge                 2. Practical knowledge        3. Dialectical knowledge           

1.1 Theological                                   2.1 Moral                              3.1. Divisive

1.2 Natural                                         2.2 Economic                        3.2. Definitional

1.3 Mathematical                                 2.3 Political                           3.3. Analytical

                                                                                                   3.4. Inductive

                                                                                                   3.5. Syllogistic

                                                                                                   3.5.1 Demonstrative

                                                                                                   3.5.2 Argumentative

                                                                                                   3.5.3 Rhetorical

Starting with the presentation of Platonic dialectic (ch. 4-6), whose systematization includes concepts drawn from the treatises comprising Aristotle’s Organon, Alcinous proceeds with explaining the importance of mathematics (ch. 7), and then suggests a tripartite (drawn from the Timaeus) division of Plato’s principles as Matter, Paradigm-Forms, and God-Demiurge (ch. 8-10).

Although Alcinous’ overall style is didactic, precise and unencumbered by rhetorical flourishes, when he turns to discussing Platonic God as Aristotelian Intellect, the author’s lyrical vein becomes apparent (ch. 10, 164.18-36):

Since the intellect is better than the soul, and the active intellect, which always thinks everything at once, is better than the potential intellect, and since the cause of the active intellect and whatever stands even higher than these things is even better than the active intellect, the first god should be placed here; for he is the cause of the eternal activity of the entire universe’s intellect. He acts on the intellect though he himself remains unmoved much as the sun acts on eyesight when one turn one’s gaze to it and much as the desirable object moves desire though it itslef remains unmoved. In the same manner this intellect moves the intellect of the entire universe. And since the first intellect is most beautiful we have to suppose that the object of his thought is most beautiful too; but nothing is more beautiful than himself; he must then think himself and his own thoughts; and this activity of his is the Form. Moreover, this first god is eternal, ineffable, self-perfect, i.e. without wants, ever-perfect, i.e. always perfect, all-perfect, i.e. wholly perfect, divinity, substantiality, truth, symmetry, goodness; and I mean these traits not as separate attributes but as a single thing being thought in all of them.

The anonymous Prolegomena

The anonymous author of this work, preserved by Arethas of Caesarea, belonged to the School of Alexandria (6th century AD), and some modern scholars have identified him with Olympiodorus. The work includes, apart from a half-fictional, half-historical biography of Plato (see Ancient biographies of Plato), general information on the nature of Platonic philosophy (7-12), and an enumeration of the multiple ways in which Plato instructs his readers (27).

In the main section of the work, the author focuses on the dialogue genre, which he defines in a manner similar to Albinus (14.4-6); divides Plato’s works into explanatory, exploratory, and “mixed” dialogues (17.19-29); claims that each dialogue should be subdivided into parts not on the basis of the characters involved, nor of the arguments adduced, but according to the substance of the doctrine (19); argues, just like Iamblichus, that each dialogue has a single aim or purpose [σκοπός] (21-23); classifies Plato’s dialogues according to their date of composition and their dramatic chronology; comments on their arrangement in tetralogies; distinguishes between authentic and spurious dialogues; and, finally, determines the appropriate order for their study (24-26). The order he suggests can be found in the table of the relevant entry on the Neoplatonic curriculum.

Author: Spyridon Rangos
  • Trouillard, J., Westerink, L. G. Prolégomènes à la philosophie de Platon. Παρίσι, 1990.
  • Dillon, J. The Middle Platonists: 80 B.C. to A.D 220. Ithaka, 1996.
  • Hermann, C.F. ed. Platonis dialogi secundum Thrasylli tetralogias dispositi,τόμος VI. Λειψία, 1907 [1853].
  • Louis, P., Whittaker, J, Alcinoos: Enseignement des doctrines de Platon. Paris, 1990.
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