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The New Academy's Appeals to the Presocratics

Author(s): Charles Brittain and John Palmer


Source: Phronesis, Vol. 46, No. 1, Problems of Matter and Evil in the (Neo)Platonic Tradition
(Feb., 2001), pp. 38-72
Published by: BRILL
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The New Academy's Appeals


to the Presocratics
CHARLES BRI1TAIN AND JOHN PALMER

ABSTRACT

Members of the New Academy presented their sceptical position as the culmination of a progressive development in the history of philosophy, which began
when certain Presocraticsstarted to reflect on the epistemic status of their theoretical claims concerning the natures of things. The Academics' dogmatic opponents accused them of misrepresentingthe early philosophers in an illegitimate
attempt to claim respectable precedents for their dangerous position. The ensuing debate over the extent to which some form of scepticism might properly
be attributed to the Presocratics is reflected in various passages in Cicero's
Academica. In this essay, we try to get clearer about the precise nature of the
Academics' historical claim and their view of the general lesson to be learned
from reflection on the history of philosophy down to their own time. The
Academics saw the Presocraticsas providing some kind of support for the thesis that things are non-cognitive, or, more specifically, that neither the senses nor
reason furnishes a criterion of truth. As this view is susceptible to both 'dialectical' and non-dialectical readings, we consider the prospects for each. We also
examine the evidence for the varied functions both of the Academics' specific
appeals to individual Presocratics and of their collections of the Presocratics'
divergent opinions. What emerges is a better understandingof why the Academics were concerned with claiming the Presocraticsas sceptical ancestors and
of the precise manner in which they advanced this claim.

Ever since philosophy attaineda measure of maturityas a discipline, philosophers have looked to the great figures of the past for inspiration and,
equally importantly, have reflected upon the lessons to be learned from
their discipline's history. The members of the New Academy were no
exception, and the past few decades have yielded a better understanding
of some of the ways in which they were able plausibly to present themselves as true defenders of their Academic inheritance.' But the Academics
Accepted September2000
' See W. Burkert,'Cicero als Platonikerund Skeptiker.Zum Platonsverstandnisder
Neuen Akademie', Gymnasium72 (1965), 175-200; H.-J. Kramer,Platonismus und
hellenistische Philosophie (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1971), 14-107; J. Glucker,
Antiochus and the Late Academy, Hypomnemata 56 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck &
Ruprecht, 1978), 31-64; G. Calogero, 'Socratismo e scetticismo nel pensiero antico',
( Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2001

Phronesis XLVIII

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

39

also presented their philosophy as the culmination of trends in epistemology that began as far back as Xenophanes. This claim deserves more
attention than it has received, not only because of its importance for
understanding the sceptical stance of the New Academy, but also because
it offers a particularly intriguing example of how Greek philosophy tended
to develop through reflection on its own history.2 The Academics' appeals
to the Presocratics also made for a lively debate with their dogmatic opponents over the extent to which some form of scepticism might properly be
attributed to the early Greek philosophers. This question continues to be
controversial even today; since it arises largely because the interest the
ancient sceptics took in these figures proved responsible for the preservation of a substantial portion of our evidence for Presocratic epistemology,
it seems worth asking what the sceptics' view of the question was. Modem
views on the legitimacy of attributing some form of scepticism to the
Presocratics of course vary, but there is general agreement that none of
the early Greek philosophers subscribed to the radical form of scepticism
promoted by Arcesilaus. The Academics also agreed about this, which
makes it all the more interesting that they should have used the Presocratics in articulating their own sceptical stance.

in G. Giannantoni(ed.), Lo scetticismo antico, vol. 1, Elenchos 6 (Naples: Bibliopolis,


1981), 35-46; P. Woodruff, 'The skeptical side of Plato's method', Revue Internationale de Philosophie 40 (1986), 22-37; A. A. Long, 'Socrates in Hellenistic philosophy', Classical Quarterly 38 (1988), 150-71, repr. with afterward in his Stoic
Studies(Cambridge:CambridgeUniversityPress, 1996), 1-34, at 11-16;J. Annas, 'Platon
le sceptique', Revue de metaphysiqueet de morale 95 (1990), 267-91; C. Ldvy, 'Platon,
Arce-silas, Carnmade - Reponse 'aJ. Annas', Revue de metaphysiqueet de morale 95
(1990), 293-306; J. Annas, 'Plato the sceptic', Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy,
suppl. vol. 1992, 43-72, repr. with afterward in P. A. Vander Waerdt (ed.), The
Socratic Movement(Ithaca,NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 309-40; C. J. Shields,
'Soc-rates among the Skeptics', in Vander Waerdt (1994), 341-66; A. M. loppolo,
'Socrate nelle tradizioni accademica e pirroniana', in G. Giannantoni (ed.), La
tradizione Socratica: seminario di studi (Naples: Bibliopolis, 1995), 89-123; and
J. Glucker, 'Socrates in the Academic books and other Ciceronian works', in
B. Inwood and J. Mansfeld (edd.), Assent and Argument:Studies in Cicero's Academic
Books (Leiden/New York/Koln: Brill, 1997), 58-88.
2 There has been no previous study devoted specifically to this topic. When the
more prominent,general works on ancient scepticism mention the subject, they do so
more or less incidentallyand tend towards paraphraseof Cicero or Plutarch.See, however, D. Sedley, 'The motivation of Greek skepticism', in M. F. Burnyeat (ed.), The
Skeptical Tradition(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 9-29, at 9-10 and
15-16; and M. F. Burnyeat, 'Antipater and self-refutation', in Inwood and Mansfeld
(1997), 277-310, at 295-7.

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40

CHARLES BRITTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

In trying to understand the Academics' appeals to the Presocratics, we


shall not be directly concerned with the modern question of whether some
variety of scepticism can properly be attributed to any of the early Greek
philosophers: we shall not be arguing that the Academics' engagement
with the Presocratics tells us something significant about the Presocratics
in their own right. Our concern is rather with sketching the main features
of a philosophically significant use of the Presocratics, regardless of its
historical accuracy, in the hope of furtheringour understandingof the New
Academy. Nor do we propose to discuss in any detail the important role
played by the Academics in the development of the sceptical strain within
the doxographical tradition,3 since a more precise understanding of the
philosophical use the Academics made of the Presocratics seems a necessary preliminary to any investigation into this complex subject.4 Our
attempt to understand this use concentrates on Cicero's Academica, as this
is the only source that provides detailed and direct information regarding
the Academics' appeals. Proper assessment of any further evidence in
other sources will have to depend on a fuller understandingof the Academics'
strategies as represented in this text. Perhaps the most notable case in
point is Plutarch's report that Arcesilaus was accused by certain contemporaries of attributing his own views regarding epoche and akatalepsia,
not only to Socrates and Plato, but to Parmenides and Heraclitus as well
(Col. 1121F- 122A). The more detailed evidence of the Academica suggests this report needs to be treated with a fair amount of caution.
The Academics' appeals to the Presocratics as represented in the
Academica are remnants of four broader contexts. What now passes as
Cicero's Academica are in fact lengthy fragments of two separate and
complete versions of the work (Academica II, or the Academica Priora,
is the second book of the two-volume first edition; Academica I, or the
Academica Posteriora, is about half of the first book of the four-volume
second edition). Behind these works lie the original debates between the
Stoics and Academics over the history of philosophy and their continuation by Antiochus and Philo (and their colleagues), which Cicero tried to
summarize for a Roman audience. Since so much of these original contexts is lost to us, our purpose in this essay is modest. We try to explain,

3 Lactantius informs us that Arcesilaus collected the renowned philosophers' confessions of ignorance as well as their mutual recriminations(Inst. 111.4.11 Brandt).
4 See, however, J. Mansfeld, 'Theophrastus and the Xenophanes doxography',
Mnemosyne 40 (1987), 286-312, at 295ff., repr. in his Studies in the Historiography
of Greek Philosophy (Assen/Maastricht:Van Gorcum, 1990), 147-73.

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

41

on the basis of the available evidence, why the Academics appealed


to the Presocratics by examining the general strategies underlying the
Academics' use of the Presocratics in the texts and by setting out something of the complexity of their specific appeals to individual philosophers.
Rather than relying on speculation about the sources of the various parts
of Cicero's work, or even assuming at the outset that the extant portions
of its two editions provide a single coherent picture, we examine separately the sketch of an Academic history of philosophy in the Academica
Posteriora (section I) and the evidence of the Academica Priora concerning the controversial Academic interpretationsof the Presocratics (section II) before attempting to draw some general conclusions.
I. The Academica Posteriora
The Presocratics' position in the Academics' general picture of the lesson
to be learned from the history of philosophical inquiry is perhaps clearest
in Cicero's response to Varro's invitation to explain Arcesilaus's 'defection' from the Old Academy (Acad. 1.43). Cicero begins with an account
of Arcesilaus's relation to his predecessors:
We hold that Arcesilaus's entire struggle with Zeno arose not from obstinacy or
rivalry ... in my view, at least - but from the obscurity of just those subjects
(rerum obscuritas) which had previously led Socrates to his confession of
ignorance (confessio ignorationis). Just as, even before Socrates, Democritus,
Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and practically all the ancients had said (A) that nothing could be apprehended,grasped, or known, (B) that the senses are limited, our
minds weak, our lives' period brief, and (C) that, as Democritus said, truth is
submerged in an abyss, everything is subject to opinions and customs, no truth
is left, and everything is surroundedby obscurity.5Therefore Arcesilaus used to
say that there was nothing that could be known - not even that claim itself, which
Socrates had allowed himself to know - so hidden in darkness did he consider
everything that nothing could be discerned or understood6(Acad. 1.44-5).

The successive pronouncements attributed to the ancients here fall naturally into three groups, marked (A), (B), and (C) above. (A) gives various formulations of the general thesis that all things are non-cognitive,

On the echoes of individual Presocraticshere, see Appendix.


Each view Cicero attributesto Arcesilausechoes a view attributedto the Presocratics
earlier in the passage: negabat esse quidquam quod sciri posset (1.45) - nihil sciri
posse (1.44); sic omnia latere censebat in occulto (I.45) = rerum obscuritate, in profundo veritatem demersam, omnia tenebris circumfusa (1.44); neque esse quidquam
quod cerni aut intellegi posset (1.45) = nihil cognosci, nihil percipi (1.44).
6

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42

CHARLES BRITTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

while (B) and (C) reflect the two aspects of this thesis marked in the
earlier portion of the sentence as rerum obscuritas and confessio ignorationis. The principal conclusion, that the Presocratics support the akatalepsia thesis (A), is explicitly justified in this passage by pointing to their
discovery of the apparent inability of either reason or the senses to guarantee apprehension of the nature of things (B). This leads in turn to their
various characterizations of their epistemological predicament (C).
The passage is particularly valuable for its indication of how the
Academics presented their own refined variety of scepticism as the culmination of a progressive development in the history of philosophy going
back to the time when philosophers first began to reflect on the epistemic
status of their theoretical claims.7 Their view seems to have run more or
less as follows. As ambitious in their theorizing and as diverse in their
methods and views as the great philosophers prior to Socrates may have
been, they nonetheless appreciated their limited ability to grasp the true
natureof things. This recognition (A) manifested itself in various unqualified
assertions to the effect that all things are non-cognitive (B) and ultimately
in a dogmatically sceptical stance regarding our relation to truth (C).
Socrates's scepticism introduced a new stage in the history of philosophy,
which was at once more reflective and more moderate. His confession of
ignorance resulted not from any theoretical beliefs about either the nature
of things or our cognitive apparatus but from his own experience in the
elenctic examination of various self-styled experts. Socrates is represented
as dogmatic in that he claimed to know that he has no cognitive grasp of
anything, but he did not go so far as to assert that things themselves are
non-cognitive since he had no further views about why his elenctic experiments had turned out as they had. Arcesilaus's innovation introduces a
I

Although Cicero's immediate source for our passage may have been Philo, it
would be a mistaketo supposethatthe historicalview it presentsis doctrinally'Philonian'.
Acad. 1.44, 'ut accepimus', indicates that what follows is a view that has been passed
down within the Academy for some time; 'Cum Zenone... Arcesilas sibi omne certamen instituit' means that he did not, pace Varro (cf. Atad. 1.43), attack the members of the Old Academy, not that he only began to generate his philosophical ideas
when he locked horns with Zeno; 'ut quidem mihi vide'ur' is not an indication that
the historical sketch representsjust Cicero's (or Philo's) view but is merely a polite
aside as he voices disagreementwith the opposition's charge of pertinacia (cf. Acad.
11.18).Section II.1 below will show that both Lucullus and Cicero (in the Academica
Priora) take something very much like this to be the standard'Academic' history (i.e.,
one which does not depend on Philo - see Acad. 11.12);and Acad. 11.15 and 16 furnish good evidence for supposing that its origin stretches back to Arcesilaus himself
(cf. infra, n. 12).

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

43

still more moderate position, since he does not even claim to know that
he knows nothing. Rather than asserting, as Socrates had done, that he
has no cognitive grasp of anything, he merely reports that it appears that
none of his impressions are cognitive. For all he knows, however, some
of his impressions may be cognitive. He is just in no position to determine when this might be the case. His reaction to this situation - withholding assent or suspending judgement (epoche) - distinguishes his
sceptical stance from those of both Socrates (followed by Plato, Acad.
1.46) and the Presocratics. For despite their respectively qualified and dogmatic assertions of akatalepsia, they had nevertheless been willing to endorse various propositions they admittedly did not know to be true. Thus
the Academics' view of the history of philosophy is designed to present their
own advocacy of epoche both as something new and as the culmination
of a gradually more reflective turn.
At first sight, it may be tempting to dismiss this whole story and agree
with Lucullus (Antiochus's representative in the Academica Priora) that
the Academics are simply misrepresenting the Presocratics so as to manufacture respectable precedents for their own sceptical innovations. But
even if, in the end, one might want to side with Lucullus on the accuracy
of the Academics' interpretation of the Presocratics, their general view is
scarcely the implausible caricature he makes it out to be. After all, the
Presocratics cited by the Academics, engaged as they were in elaborating
the distinction between reality and appearance, took the real nature of
things to be quite different from how things appear to us in perception
and thus came to question the veracity of these appearances. Furthermore,
although they relied primarily upon reason in constructing their accounts
of the nature of things, at least some of them came to have certain doubts
about whether human reason is in fact capable of providing anything more
than plausible speculation about how things really are as opposed to how
they appear to us. (These doubts, of course, did not prevent them from
continuing to pursue their various physical and metaphysical inquiries.)
While important qualifications on this basic story would obviously be necessary for individual thinkers, it might still seem a plausible enough view
of the position of those Presocratics who reflected upon the epistemic
standing of their own theories.
What should we suppose to be the relation between Arcesilaus's view
of the Presocratics, as reflected here, and his own sceptical stance?
Accounts of the origins of Arcesilaus's scepticism tend to focus upon two
principal factors: his debate with Zeno over the cognitive impression and
his return to a Socratic style of philosophy. The conclusion Arcesilaus

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CHARLES BRI'TAIN AND JOHN PALMER

drew, on Cicero's account, from reflection on philosophy's history - namely,


that one should avoid maintaining, asserting, or assenting to anything
(Acad. 1.45) - is also, of course, the conclusion of the familiar Academic
argument: (i) everything is non-cognitive; (ii) where things are non-cognitive, one should suspend judgement; therefore (iii) one should suspend
judgement about everything. Arcesilaus's conclusion in Academica 1.45
clearly depends on the intermediate premise taken from the Stoics that the
sage will withhold assent in cases where no cognitive impression is available (cf. Acad. 11.77), and the arguments for the crucial first premise are
usually taken to be drawn from the Academic attacks upon the Stoic doctrine of the phantasia kataleptike. Academica 1.44-5, however, represents
Arcesilaus's reflection upon (Socrates's and) the Presocratics' epistemological quandary as having led him to advance the premise that things are
non-cognitive: 'Therefore (itaque) Arcesilaus used to say that there was
nothing that could be known'. Thus Cicero's reply to Varro indicates that
this initial premise in the familiar Academic argument was also secured
by appeal to the Presocratics, and it looks as if this second means of securing the initial premise was supposed to be as important for Arcesilaus as
the first.8 So it seems that Arcesilaus, rather than merely seeking to support his position by claiming that it was prefigured to some extent among
the earliest philosophers, may have actually developed his position in part
by a more active engagement with their views.
It is not yet clear, however, how Arcesilaus's appeal to the Presocratics
supports the akatalepsia premise because his appeal is susceptible to both
a 'dialectical' and a 'non-dialectical' reading. In the first place, it is possible to see the appeal as functioning within the context of debate with
the Stoics, in such a way that it is designed to rely upon his opponents'
respect for the ancients. 'Consider those thinkers whose venerable authority you yourselves acknowledge, and you will find them repeatedly declaring that neither the senses nor reason constitutes a criterion of truth.' Much
of the more extended debate in the Academica Priora over the lesson to
be learned from the Presocratics does, in fact, depend upon Antiochus's
(and hence, presumably, the Stoics') acknowledgement of their authority.
The non-dialectical reading, by contrast, rests on the fact that the Academics themselves seem to think more highly of the Presocratics than of
8 Premise (i), that everything is non-cognitive, is shorthand for the two distinct
claims to the effect that the criterion of truth is located neither in the senses nor in
reason. Section II.2-6 below shows that the specific appeals to the Presocraticsin the
Academica Priora were taken by the Academics to provide supportfor both claims.

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

45

any other thinkers apart from Socrates and Plato. This is not merely
because their arguments can be seen, in one way or another, to lend credence to the view that neither the senses nor reason furnishes a criterion
of truth. (If this were the case, then one might expect the Academics to
be less dismissive of, for instance, the Cyrenaics' restriction of the objects
of perception to the sensations of which one is immediately aware.)
Rather, the Academics seem to have respected the Presocratics because
they saw reflection on these early thinkers as having had a formative
influence on Socrates's confession of ignorance. Since the Academics
avowedly modeled themselves upon Socrates, they may have been willing to present the Presocratics' dogmatic scepticism, which they saw as
having influenced him, as also influencing their own somewhat different
position. 'When we consider those thinkers who speculated most aggressively about the nature of things, we find that even as they pursued these
speculations they were careful to qualify the epistemic status of their own
theories and to admit their inability to know the truth of their claims either
on the basis of the senses or reason. While we, like Socrates, do not
actively pursue such inquiries ourselves, our reflection on the experience
of those who have done so makes it seem reasonable to us to suppose that
everything is non-cognitive.' While it is not always obvious whether the
Academics' general appeal to the Presocratics is or is not supposed to be
merely dialectical, it is clear that the two readings are not incompatible.
On either interpretation, moreover, the appeal to the Presocratics in support of the akatalepsia premise would have served the Academics as one
way to secure the premise without endorsing it themselves (which would
obviously amount to a dogmatic form of scepticism). We can thus begin
to see how the Academics could have appealed to the Presocratics, who
were seen as manifesting a dogmatic variety of scepticism, without equating this earlier form of scepticism with their own.
II. The Academica Priora
1. Lucullus's Accusation and Cicero's Reply
In the lost first book of the Academica's first edition, Cicero presumably had Catulus explain the general nature of the Academics' appeal to
the Presocratics. What survives in the second book, however, is only
Lucullus's criticism of the appeal (Acad. 11.13-15) and Cicero's response
to that criticism (11.72-6). The latter is mainly taken up with detailing and
defending some of the Academics' specific appeals to individual Presocratics

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CHARLES BRITTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

rather than with explaining why the general appeal was made in the first
place. This loss of context raises two problems concerning the relation
between the exposition of the Academic view in the two editions. The first
is controversial but relatively straightforward:did both editions originally
offer the same general historical views? It will turn out to be fairly
straightforwardto show that there is good reason to think that the outlines
and detailed content of the historical views were quite similar (if not
absolutely identical). The second, more interesting, though generally
neglected, problem concerns the context or motivation for the general
appeal in the first edition. For even if we come to accept that both editions offered more or less the same historical picture, it is still possible,
if not likely, that it may have been deployed for somewhat different ends.
The history in the extant portion of the Academica Posteriora is presented
as a way of explaining Arcesilaus's motivation for his sceptical innovations (hence the inclination towards a 'non-dialectical' reading); yet it is
also a response to a critical question posed against the backgroundof Varro's
own Antiochian version of the history of philosophy (and hence allows
for a 'dialectical' reading). The lost general history of the first edition
might have been similarly ambiguous, but it may possibly have been more
clearly dialectical or more clearly non-dialectical. Our examination of the
appeals to specific Presocratics in the extant portion of the Academica Priora
(which are without analogue in the extant portion of the Academic a
Posteriora) will at least suggest that we should keep the dialectical option
open. At any rate, there seem to be sufficient reasons to evaluate the historical claims of the first edition separately.
The Antiochian Lucullus begins his discussion of Arcesilaus and
Carneades by criticizing the Academics' citation of the ancient philosophers as precedents for their own subversion of philosophy (Acad. II. 1315).9 Lucullus is willing to admit that the ancient natural philosophers
were liable, on occasion, when stuck over some difficult point, to give
vent to their frustration in various aporetic pronouncements (Acad. I.14).
Despite these occasional outbursts, however, the natural philosophers
were, on Lucullus's view, if anything too confident in their claims to
I He compares the Academics to seditious Romans (such as his contemporary,
Saturninus)who recall famous figures of the past with seemingly popular leanings so
as to claim that in their own efforts to throw the republic into turmoil they are following the established practice of their ancestors. The Academics are no better, he
charges, when they seek to overthrowa well-established system of philosophy and, in
so doing, compare their own audacity to the modesty (verecundia) of the famous
figures of antiquity.

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

47

knowledge. So Arcesilaus was disingenuous and deceitful when 'he hid


behind the authority of those who had denied that anything could be
known or grasped (in eorum auctoritate delitisceret, qui negavissent quidquam sciri aut percipi posse)' (Acad. 11.15).
Lucullus's remarks in this section indicate that the Presocratics appealed to by the Academics included (at least) Empedocles, Anaxagoras,
Democritus, Parmenides, and Xenophanes. His summary of the content of
the Academic appeal to these figures is given in the remark cited above:
the Academics claimed that these Presocratics were sceptical of the possibility of achieving knowledge (i.e. they supported the Academic thesis
of akatalepsia). But Lucullus also ascribes to them four more specific
'sceptical' theses: 'all things are hidden, we perceive nothing, we discern
nothing with the intellect,'" we can discover the character of nothing at
all (abstrusa esse omnia, nihil nos sentire, nihil cernere, nihil omnino
quale sit posse reperire)' (Acad. 11.14). Although one might trace the first
and fourth of these formulations to specific source-statements by individual Presocratics, neither is a direct paraphrase," and the generality of the
second and third theses suggests that we have here a set of claims intended
to represent the kind of scepticism manifested among these Presocratics
collectively. Taken together, these four theses outline a sceptical-sounding
argument: because all things are concealed from us (first thesis), we are
" Although the verb 'cernere' does often have the sense of 'to discern with the
eyes' or even 'to perceive with the senses', it also often has the sense of 'to discem
with the intellect'. In the Academica, the verb is more often used in this latter sense;
see 1.21, 30, 45 (where 'cerni' is used synonymously with 'intellegi'), II.20, 22 bis,
54, 129. J. S. Reid, M. Tulli Ciceronis Academica (London: Macmillan, 1885: repr.
Hildesheim: Olms, 1966), 188 ad loc., notes that 'cernere' in the present passage
'probably refers to the mind, as sentire to the senses'. Although it remains possible
that the use of 'cernere' alongside 'sentire' is simply a case of rhetoricalvariatio on
Cicero's part, we follow Reid in supposing it more likely that Cicero draws a distinction with his use of the two verbs, a distinction which is perfectly appropriateand
even to be expected in this context.
11The first thesis may seem an echo of Democritus's declarationthat truthis in the
abyss (Democr. ap. D.L. IX.72 = 68B117 DK: iT?r4

?e

oU&v '16'8rv ?v V06

y'ap

'i

&XkOeita).
Contrast,however, the actual paraphraseof Democritus B 117 at Acad. II.32:
naturam accusa, quae in profundo veritatem ut ait Democritus penitus abstruserit.
Xenophanes's famous 'sceptical' fragment(Xenoph. ap. S.E. M. VII.110 = 21B34 DK)
might likewise appear to lie behind the final thesis, with its emphasis on the impossibility of discovering the natureof things. But 'nihil omnino quale sit posse reperire'
is clearly not a direct paraphraseof Xenophanes's pronouncement.Thus in each case,
the echo, if there is one, is not meant to be distinct (contrast the echoes at Acad. 1.44,
discussed in the appendix).

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CHARLES BRITTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

in no position to apprehend the nature of things by either perception or


reason (second and third theses). Since these two options exhaust our criteria for apprehension, we are unable to discover by any means the true
character of anything whatsoever (fourth thesis). As an ordered set, then,
these four theses constitute an argument for the conclusion that all things
are non-cognitive (akatalepsia). However, this will not be a straightforwardly Academic argument, since its first premise depends on a dogmatic
claim about the nature of things.
Cicero's eventual response to Lucullus's criticism of the Academics'
appeal to the Presocratics is to deny that it is disingenuous: 'we Academics say that we hold the same views that you yourselves admit were held
by the most noble philosophers' (Acad. 11.72). It is natural to suppose that
Cicero is referring specifically to the fourfold thesis Lucullus attributedto
the Academics at 11.14. In the event, however, it becomes clear that he
takes the Academics and Presocratics to hold the same views only with
respect to the conclusion that everything is non-cognitive (even though
what it means for each group to 'hold' the view may well be different).
For the specific claims Cicero goes on to make about individual Presocratics show that he takes the Academics and Presocratics to agree about
little else. One general reason will turn out to be precisely because he
takes the Presocratics' views to rely on dogmatic theories about the real
nature of things. But Lucullus's criticism has already indicated a second
crucial difference (agreed by all parties in the Academica): whether or
not the Presocratics can be seen as subscribing to some form of the
akatalepsia thesis, they plainly did not conclude, as the Academics did,
that given the incognizability of things the best course is to suspend judgement universally. The significance of these two general differences will be
clearer if we make a short detour into Academic history of philosophy as
presented in this edition of the Academica.
Although the historical understanding from which Cicero's claims
spring is not pellucid in the Academica Priora, there is sufficient evidence
to discern the general picture. We can begin with two obvious points.
First, it is clear that Lucullus's criticisms are motivated by the familiar
Antiochian view of the history of philosophy. On this view, Plato's establishment of a 'discipline' of philosophy, a systematic set of philosophical
doctrines, marks the division between 'ancient' and 'modern' philosophy.
Hence Lucullus distinguishes the 'veteres' in Academica 11.13-15 - the
subjects of the Academics' appeal, including the Presocratics as well as
Socrates and Plato - from the 'moderns' in IL.16-18 - those belonging to
the period from Zeno and Arcesilaus to Philo and Antiochus. Two of

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

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Lucullus's criticisms of the Academic appeal rely on further distinctions


of sub-periods within these major divisions. For in II.15 he criticizes
Arcesilaus's appeal, in particular, for ignoring the fact that philosophy had
moved on since the hesitant first steps of the natural philosophers: Plato
had subsequently established a 'discipline' of philosophy, that is, the systematic doctrines of the Old Academy and Peripatos. Then, in 11.16-18,
he criticizes Cicero's use of the Academic appeal for ignoring the further developments since Arcesilaus fought Zeno, presumably the subsequent defense of the Stoa by Chrysippus followed by Antipater and later
Antiochus's own 'Academic' recension of Stoicism.'2 Thus Lucullus's presentation of the Academic appeal is situated within his own view of the
history of philosophy, which sees a progression from its hesitant birth with
the Presocratics (11.14-15), its development by (Socrates and) Plato (11.15),
and its maturity,beginning with Zeno (11.16) and culminating with Antiochus
(11.17-18). On this view, the Academics' appeal to the Presocratics is quite
perverse (even if they were occasionally 'sceptical' in some sense).
Cicero's historical claims in Academica 11.72-8 are a direct response
not just to Lucullus's charge of disingenuousness but also to his view of
the history of philosophy. His reply to Lucullus's criticism of Arcesilaus
shows that the Academic position in this edition of the Academica also
relied on a developmental view of history. For in 11.76-7, after the review
of the Presocratics' sceptical tendencies that comprises the bulk of his
reply to Lucullus's initial charge, he responds to the particular criticism
by noting that it is unclear how much philosophical progress has actually
been made, except in one vital respect: Zeno, unlike all his predecessors,
had correctly seen that the wise cannot hold opinions.'3 Furthermore, as
2 Acad. 11.15:nonne cum iam philosophorumdisciplinae gravissimae constitissent
tum exortus est. . . Arcesilas qui constitutamphilosophiam everteret et in eorum auctoritate delitisceret qui negavissent quicquamsciri aut percipi posse. 11.16: Sed fuerint
illa vetera si voltis incognita: nihilne est igitur actum, quod investigata sunt, postea
quam Arcesilas Zenoni ut putatur obtrectans ... conatus est clarissimis rebus tenebras
obducere. These passages show, moreover, that there is solid evidence for taking
Arcesilaus himself to have introducedthe appeal to the Presocratics(i.e., his name is
not just a metonym for 'the Academics').
1' Acad. II.77:nemo umquamsuperiorumnon modo expresserat sed ne dixerat quidem posse hominemnihil opinari, nec solum posse sed ita necesse esse sapienti. visa
est Arcesilae cum vera sententia tum honesta et digna sapienti. Holding no opinions
implies suspendingjudgement universally for Arcesilaus and Cicero, of course, since
they maintainakatalepsia. Cf. the discussion of Acad. 1.44-5 above and also Cicero's
morePhiloniantake on 'the most ancientand learnedthinkers'at Acad. II.7:etsi enimomnis cognitio multis est obstructa difficultatibuseaque est et in ipsis rebus obscuritas

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50

CHARLES BRIT7AIN AND JOHN PALMER

Cicero's reply to the second criticism (of his own use of the Presocratics,
II.16-18) shows, on the Academic view, the progress in the history of philosophy culminates with Arcesilaus.'4 The claim that the Academic view
of the history of philosophy centers on the radical change which occurred
at the time of Arcesilaus (a distinction equivalent to Lucullus's between
the ancients and moderns) does not, of course, get us very far. It does not
seem to be stretching the evidence, however, to suggest that the Academics saw Socrates and Plato (cf. II.74) as marking a major division
within the earlier period. If so, the historical picture in the background of
the Academica Priora had three stages, involving the Presocratics, then
Socrates and Plato, and finally the modem period from Arcesilaus. It now
seems likely that we can identify the point of this philosophical history
by combining the notion of a progressionculminatingin Arcesilaus's embrace
of the suspension of judgement (on the basis of the akatalepsia thesis and
Zeno's novel thesis that the wise cannot hold opinions) with the philosophical interpretation of the Presocratics as dogmatic sceptics (whose
support for akatalepsia relies on theories about the nature of things). For
we can now discern a progression from dogmatic scepticism, through the
more reflective (and methodological) scepticism of Socrates and Plato, to
the radical scepticism of Arcesilaus. This allows us to make better sense
of the general claim involved in the Academics' appeal to the Presocratics:
far from being an implausible claim of identity, it is the measured and
respectable view of the history of philosophy given explicitly in Aeademica 1.44-5.
Can we now be more precise about why the Academics made their general appeal to the Presocratics in the first place, especially if they did not
claim that those philosophers furnished a direct precedent for their own
views? Not immediately, since, as for the history at 1.44-5, both dialectical and non-dialectical readings of the general appeal are available. But
in the case of the Academica Priora we have some context against which
to situate the general appeal: the Academics' specific appeals to individual Presocratics. Since these appeals show that the Academics' understanding of the Presocratics is more complex than the general claim
et in iudiciis nostris infirmitas,ut fsine
non
causa antiquissimi et doctissiml invenire
se posse quod cuperentdiffisisint, tamennec illi defeceruntnequenos studiumexquirendi
defatigati relinquemus.
14 In Acad. 11.78,Cicero points out that, although some sceptical Academics thought
that there had been a significant change since Arcesilaus over the question of suspension of judgement, the basic controversywith the Stoics remainedthe same: it was
still about akatalepsia.

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

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(expressed in Cicero's initial response to Lucullus) suggests, it will be best


to return to the question of which reading of that claim is preferable after
examining its context. For it turns out that the Academic appeals were not
always offered in terms of a collective interpretation of the Presocratics,
that their appeals may not have even been based on general interpretations of the individual figures, that they did not always make the same
appeal to each figure, and that they did not even claim that all of them
were sceptical in any sense. We shall follow Cicero's order in Academica
I1.72-4 and treat in turn Anaxagoras, Democritus, Empedocles, and
Xenophanes and Parmenides.
2. Anaxagoras
'Anaxagoras said snow is black. Would you tolerate me if I were to say
the same thing? You would not if I were even to wonder whether it is so.
Yet who is this man? Surely no sophist (this is what people who practiced philosophy for the sake of show or profit used to be called). He was
a man with the greatest reputation for seriousness and intellectual ability'
(Acad. II.72). Cicero clearly does not mean to identify Anaxagoras's assertion that snow is in reality black (given that water, from which snow is
formed, is black) as something the Academics themselves endorse. It is
not clear that Anaxagoras is represented as 'sceptical' in any sense here:
if he doubts the reliability of the senses, it is only because he has certain
beliefs about how things are in reality. Cicero's point is that his Antiochian opponent will not tolerate an appeal to a universally recognized authority like Anaxagoras's to call into doubt whether snow is in fact white.
The strategy here is similar to that of Sextus Empiricus when he cites
Anaxagoras's argument (that since snow is frozen water, and water is
black, snow is therefore black) as something the sceptic may appeal to in
opposing nooumena to phainomena (PH 1.33). Cicero reports that, when
asked whether snow is white (something which might seem quite obviously the case), the Academic will not go so far as Anaxagoras and deny
the phainomena. The Academic is willing, however, to point out how
Anaxagoras's dogmatic theory about the nature of things led him to deny
the phainomena, and the Academic takes this to support his own unwillingness to make any positive assertion regarding the actual character of
things on the basis of how they appear. We might call this a defensive

'5 Cf. De orat. III.138, Clazomenius ille Anaxagoras, vir summus in maximarum
rerum scientia.

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52

CHARLES BRITTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

appeal to Anaxagoras: when confronted by his opponents with the purported absurdity of withholding assent on the most obvious matters, the
Academic introduces a figure whose authority his opponents acknowledge
and who goes even farther than he himself is willing to in opposing what
is supposedly so obvious. The appeal thus serves in a somewhat indirect
way the Academics' general position that the senses do not furnish a criterion of truth.
With the subsequent appeal to Anaxagoras at Academica 11.100 the
Academics go on the offensive against their dogmatic opponents. The context is the Academic response to the Stoic apraxia argument. Cicero says
at 11.98-9 that he will draw upon the first of Clitomachus's four books on
the means of withholding assent (de sustinendis adsensionibus) to clarify
Carneades's view of the differenttypes of impressions. Carneades is reported
to have identified two ways of classifying impressions: (i) as either cognitive or non-cognitive (quae percipi possint & quae percipi non possint =
and (ii) as either plausible or implausible
& &KCTaUqxirot),
KOxtaXlnnllrKaCi
(probabilia & non probahilia = m0avai & ai9Oavot). The former represents the basic Stoic classification, while the latter is Carneades's alternative. He rejected the existence of cognitive impressions on the grounds
that, contrary to the claims of the Stoics, there is no impression of such
a character that it is impossible for there to be a qualitatively identical
impression that is nevertheless false. However, this does not mean that the
sage will have no impressions to rely upon for guidance in the course of
his life, for he is perfectly able to employ plausible impressions as a guide
for living as long as nothing contradicts them. Cicero is likely still drawing upon Clitomachus"6 when he introduces Anaxagoras to clarify the
sense in which Carneades held that the sage would be able to rely upon
such impressions as a guide: 'he will draw his deliberations regarding both
action and inaction from impressions of this type, and he will be more
amenable to accepting that snow is white than was Anaxagoras, who said
not only that it was not white, but that it did not even appear to him to
be white, because he knew that the water out of which it was solidified
was black' (Acad. 11.100).

Reid (1885), 295, supposes that in Acad. 11.99 Cicero is actually quoting from
Clitomachus and that the quotation breaks off with Etenim contra nlaturamesset...,
where Cicero resumes speaking in his own voice. It is not as clear as Reid supposes,
however, that Cicero's use of Clitomachus amounts to simple quotation; and there
seems no good reason to deny that what follows regarding the use Carneades made
of the distinction between types of impressionscontinues to depend upon Clitomachus.
16

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

53

The Academic, that is, does not claim to know whether snow is really
white or black, but he does grant that it appears white and claims that
plausible impressions of this type furnish him with a reliable enough criterion for action. Although 'he does not endorse Anaxagoras's argument
for its being in reality black, he is nevertheless willing to appeal to this
argument to call into question whether snow really is as it appears to us
or perhaps has some other, non-apparent character. So much is already
implied in the initial citation of Anaxagoras at 11.72. The renewed appeal
at 11.100, however, goes farther than this so as to present a special challenge to the Stoic (or any other dogmatist) who is prepared to allow
his dogmatic, theoretical beliefs to undermine his reliance upon appearances. Here the Academics assimilate the dogmatic Stoics to the dogmatic
Anaxagoras in such a way that their apraxia argument redounds against
them. In allowing his theoretical beliefs to undermine his reliance upon
appearances, Anaxagoras left himself without a viable criterion of action
in many cases, both in so far as he would have fallen into apparent error
if he had attempted to rely upon his dogmatic view of things as a guide
and in so far as he would have had no guide at all in cases where he
admitted his inability to access the real nature of things. This seems clear
enough in the case of Anaxagoras's declaration that because he knows
that snow is really black, it no longer even appears to him white. But such
also seems to be the point being made against the equally dogmatic Stoics
when Carneades argues that even the Stoic sage will have to rely in many
cases upon probabilia when cataleptic impressions are unavailable (Acad.
11.99). Thus the first thinker on Cicero's list is a Presocratic predecessor
who is not in fact presented as a direct ancestor. It is not entirely clear
that Anaxagoras is supposed to be a sceptical ancestor at all. At least when
we come to the second passage which makes use of his denial that snow
is white, his view seems to serve more as an embarrassing parallel to the
unreasonable dogmatism of the Stoics than as a sceptical precedent.
3. Democritus
Cicero turns next to Democritus: 'What should I say about Democritus?
Whom can we compare, for magnitude of spirit as well as intellect, with
this man who was bold enough to commence with the words, "These
things I declare concerning the universe"?'7 He exempts no subject from

1"

ptto;

Haec loquor de universis.Cf. Democr. ap. S.E. M. VII.265 = 68B 165 DK: AfljO6KI kXyOv Tcz8E nEpi TdV 4tugaVTOwV....
&bE?j TA 6p;wvj
o
;
itap&tKaC6pvoa

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54

CHARLES BRIUIAIN AND JOHN PALMER

discussion,for whatcan therebe outsidethe universe?Who does not place


this philosopherabove Cleanthes,Chrysippus,and the othersof the later
age, who seem to me to belong to the fifth class when comparedwith
him? And yet he does not say what we do, who do not deny that thereis
any truthbut do deny that it can be apprehended.He denies outrightthat
there is anything true, and he does not say that the senses are dim
(obscuros) but dark (tenebricosos) - for so he calls them' (Acad. I1.73).18

With Democritus,as with Anaxagoras,partof the Academics'strategyis


to appealto a figurewhose philosophicalseriousnessis acknowledgedby
their Stoic opponents.Democritusis representedas more radicallysceptical than the Academics themselves,and the particularappeal to him is
in the first place a defensive manoeuverdesignedto force theiropponents
to admit that their own more moderateposition is also respectable.The
appeal to authority,therefore,has a largely dialecticalforce.
It also provides the Academics an opportunityto clarify their own
stance by contrastingit with a dogmaticbrandof scepticismwith which
it was in dangerof being confused. Ratherthan introducingDemocritus
as a direct precursor,Cicero states plainly that 'he does not say what we
do'. What exactly, then, is the position ascribedto Democritusand on
what basis? Here one needs to compareAcademica11.73with the appeal
to Democritusreportedby Lucullusat 11.32.Lucullussays that different
Academicsgive differentresponsesto the objectionthatif theirarguments
are true,then all thingswill be uncertain(omniaincerta= irrzvta
&18ka).)9
To this charge,he says, some membersof the Academyreply, 'Whatdoes
thatmatterto us? Is it our fault?Blame nature,which, as Democritussays,
has completely hidden truth in an abyss'. He proceeds to contrastthis
responsewith the more refinedresponseof other Academicswho introduce a distinctionbetween what is incertumor nonevidentand what is
non-cognitive.The identificationof the figuresalludedto here has proved
Given thatLucullushimself has said thathe
unnecessarilycontroversial.20
18 Cf. the passage from Democritus's Canons contrastingthe 'genuine' cognition of
reasonwith the omcoiulor 'dark' cognitionof the senses (Democr.ap. S.E. M. VII.138-9
-68Bl1 DK).
19 Cf. Acad. 11.54:Ea dico incerta, quae oar5xaGraeci.
20
For a review of the various positions on the problem, see J. Allen, 'Carneadean
argument in Cicero's Academic Books', in Inwood and Mansfeld (1997), 217-56, at
238-9 n. 21. A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vols.
(Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1987), ii, 441, incline towards identifying
this first group of 'hard-line Academics' with 'philosophers like Aenesidemus'. But
Cicero nowhere mentions Aenesidemus or shows any familiarity with the Pyrrhonian

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

55

will deal with the scepticismof Arcesilausand Carneades(Acad.11.11-12),


the most straightforward
option is to attributethe appealto Democritusto
Arcesilaus and the more refined response to Carneades.A parallel passage in Numenius,drawingvirtuallythe samedistinctionbetweenArcesilaus
and Carneadesas Lucullusdrawsbetween the two classes of Academics,
'Afterthese[sc. LacydesandEuander]Carneades
confirmsthisidentification:
inheritedthe school and establishedthe ThirdAcademy.He employedthe
mannerof argumentationthat Arcesilaushad, for he too used to practice
dialectical reasoningand demolish the statementsof others. He differed
from him only in his account concerningsuspensionof judgement,saying that it is impossiblefor a humanbeing to suspendjudgementabout
everything,butthatthereis a differencebetweenwhatis non-evident(a`kXov)
and what is non-cognitive (docatacXnrVov),and that all things are non-cog-

nitive, but not all thingsare non-evident'(Numen.ap. Eus. PE XIV.7.15).


The Stoics claim that the Academics' argumentsagainst the criterion
make life unlivableand rob us of the naturalactivity of our mind (Acad.
I1.31). When faced with the charge that this renderseverythingnon-evident, Arcesilaus makes what again appears to be a largely dialectical
appeal to Democritus.Arcesilaus finds himself in the position of being
unableto judge whetherthe impressionshe has of things are trueor false.
The Stoics, by contrast,feel that they are in a position to make such
judgements,and they providean elaborateaccountof how we are put in
contact with the truth of things. Arcesilaus himself has no particular
account to give of why he finds himself in the position he does. He is
willing, however, to introduceDemocritusas someone who appears to
agree with him about things being non-evidentand who does have some
explanationof why this should be the case. Arcesilaus appearsto take
Democritus'sdeclarationthat 'we in reality know nothing,for truthis in
an abyss' (68B117 DK) as indicatingthat there is such a great distance,
if not necessarilytotal separation,between our impressionsof things and
their real naturethat we can never rely upon our ordinaryexperienceof
things to put us in contact with the truth.Democritusthus has positive
views (howeverqualified)aboutthe real natureof things which lead him

revival. (He does once mention 'Pyrrhonei' at De orat. III.62, but there he classes
them together with the Eretrians,Erillians, and Megarians as now extinct schools that
once claimed to be upholdingthe Socratic legacy.) Long and Sedley also identify Philo
and his followers as the Academics with the more refined response. Allen, 218-19 and
237ff., tentatively suggests that all the views espoused in Acad. 11.32-4 should be attributedto Carneadeshimself.

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56

CHARLES BRITTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

to adopta dogmaticscepticismregardingappearances.Arcesilausis willing to appealto Democritusas if to say to the Stoics, 'Don't ask me why
things are like this - ask Democritus';and yet he wants to maintainthe
requisitedistancebetween his own non-dogmaticand Democritus'sdogmatic scepticism. This distinction is not as apparentas it might be in
Academica 11.32,perhapsbecause the hostile Lucullus is not especially
interestedin keeping it clear; but, as noted, care is taken to preservethe
distinctionin 11.73.
Comparingthe two passagespresentsa problem,however,since on the
face of it they creditDemocrituswith ratherdifferentpositions:Academica
11.32attributesto him the view that naturehas hiddenthe truthfrom us,
whereasin 11.73he is creditedwith what seems the strongerpositionthat
there is nothing true (ille verum plane negat esse). A number of possible

ways of dealingwith this apparentcontradictionsuggest themselves.One


optionwould be to supposethatDemocritushimselfsaid conflictingthings
on the subjectand that differentpronouncementsare reflectedin our two
passages. This would not be surprising,given how difficultit has often
seemedto bringhis variousremarkson epistemologyintoa coherentwhole.2'
Alternatively,the two passagesmight possibly reflectappealsby different
membersof the Academy.22It seems more likely, however, that the differencebetweenthe positionsattributedto Democritusin the two passages
is merely superficial.Here we need to get clearerabout the Academics'
view regardingthe extent of Democritus'sscepticism.Did they see it as
extendingmerely to the reportsof the senses or to both reason and the
21 Although we seem to have no fragment in which he goes so far as to declare
that there is no truth, one should compare our two passages with one of Aristotle's
remarkson Democritusin Metaphysicsr.5. There Aristotle reportsthree types of argument that certainthinkersemployed to demonstratethe impossibilityof deciding which
among conflicting appearances should be judged true (1009a38-bl1). From its being
unclear which of such appearancesare true and which false, these thinkersconclude
that the one is no more true than the other but that both are equally true. Democritus
is cited by Aristotle as having drawn the ratherdifferentconclusion that 'either nothing is true, or it is unclear to us (6to ATlgo.tptto6q
ye pnlaivi`-ot ouOcv?ivai &xnloe; il
11gtvy' a`81Xov)'(1009bl 1-12). On this disjunction, see, e.g., J. Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers2(London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), 556-7. If this report
is based upon something Democritusactually said (as the use of YpT1av
appearsto indicate), then there may well have been some genuine basis for the two theses attributed
to him in the Academica.
22 The contradictionbetween the two representationsof Democritus's position could
be due either to the different Academics having had in mind different statements
(which would be consistent with our first option), or it may have been that they
adopted different interpretationsof the same statement, namely 68B 117 DK.

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

57

senses? If one considers a fragment such as 'by convention sweet, by


convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention
colour, but in reality atoms and void' (Democr. ap. S.E. M. VII.135 =
68B9 DK) together with his contrast in the Canons between the yvllotll or
'genuine' cognition of reason and the alCoTirIor 'dark' cognition of the
senses (Democr. ap. S.E. M. VII.138-9 = 68BIl DK), the former might
seem more likely. That is, while he can reasonably enough be seen as
sceptical about the truth of perception, he nevertheless seems to think that
we have an alternative means of access to the truth, namely the genuine
cognition of reason which puts us in touch with the real nature of things
as atoms and void. On this 'weak' reading of Democritus's scepticism,
the point of his declarations that nature has hidden the truth from us and
that truth is in the depths is that, although the true character of things is
not immediately apparent to us, we are nevertheless capable of discovering it by relying upon reason rather than the senses.
The Academics, however, seem to opt for a stronger reading, according
to which the true character of things is in principle, not just temporarily, hidden from us. Note that Sextus's collection of Democritean
apothegms at Adversus Mathematicos VII. 136-7 suggests a more all-embracing scepticism: 'in actuality we apprehend nothing certain but only what
changes according to the disposition of the body and of the things which
impinge upon and resist it' (68B9 DK); 'it has been made clear by numerous means that in reality we do not grasp of what character each thing is
or is not' (68B10 DK); 'man must understand by this measure that he is
separated from reality' (68B6 DK); 'this account should indeed make it
clear that in actuality we know nothing about anything, but there is a
reshaping for each individual, opinion' (68B7 DK); 'it will be clear that
to know how each thing is in reality is fraught with difficulty' (68B8 DK).
Statements such as these, which Lucullus would view as just occasional
outbursts of frustration, underlie the Academics' strong reading of Democritus's scepticism, according to which the only possible means of apprehending the true character of each thing, which the senses fail to inform us about, is through the employment of reason, and yet there are
severe or even insurmountable barriers to the proper exercise of reason in
trying to discover the true, non-evident character of each thing. Thus
Democritus's statement that nature has hidden truth in the depths is equivalent for the Academics to the declaration that there is nothing true, that
is, no truth available to us (not that things themselves are somehow indeterminate). While the best available conjecture may be that things are constituted by a mixture of atoms and void, this tells us little or nothing about
the true character of each individual thing.

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58

CHARLES BRIlTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

Cicero's citation from Democritus'spupil Metrodorus,introducedas


'the one who admiredhim most especially', is offeredas confirmationof
the strong interpretation.Metrodorusis not brought in as yet another
of the reputableancient thinkers.He appearson neitherof the lists of
scepticalancestorsat Academica1.44-5 and 11.14.The quotationfrom the
beginningof his book on nature- 'I deny thatwe know whetherwe know
anythingor we know nothing, and I deny that we even know that very
thing, whetherwe do not know or know, or altogetherwhetheranything
is or nothing is' (Acad. II.73)23 - is simply evidence that Democritus's
own pupil understoodhim in much the same way as the Academicsdo.
Lucullus,recall,has suggestedthatDemocritusand the otherphysici were
generally dogmatic philosopherswhose sceptical pronouncementshad
only a restrictedscope. Cicero's accountof Democritusaims to show that
his scepticism was much more general so as to defend the Academics
in theircitationof him as a scepagainstthe chargeof misrepresentation
tical ancestor(cf. II.75), thatis, as someonewho lends supportto the view
that neitherthe senses nor reason constitutesa criterionof truthor simply that all things are non-cognitive. The quotation from Metrodorus
serves this purpose.24
4. Empedocles

Cicero now turns briefly to Empedocles:'Empedoclesseems to you to


rave, yet to me he seems to strike a note perfectlysuited to the subjects
of which he speaks;surelythen he does not blind us or depriveus of our
23

For an attempt to assess the accuracy of the numerous reported versions of


Metrodorus'sstatement, see J. Brunschwig, 'Le fragment DK 70B1 de Mdtrodorede
Chio', in K. A. Algra, P. W. van der Horst, and D. T. Runia (edd.), Polyhistor:Studies
in the History and Historiographyof Ancient Philosophy, Presented to Jaap Mansfeld
on his Sixtieth Birthday (Leiden/New York/Koln: Brill, 1996), 21-38.
24 That more is not made of his statementhere seems to confirmthat the Academics
are interested in preserving the distinction between ancient scepticism and their own
particularstance. For Metrodoruseliminates precisely the exception to his confession
of ignorance which the Academics say Socrates allowed and which for them distinguishes his position from their own (cf. Acad. II.74, 1.45). If the Academics had been
concemed with isolating direct antecedents of their own position among the earlier
thinkers,then we should have expected to find more said about Metrodorus.It is worth
noting that Sextus, too, who devotes so much space to showing how Pyrrhonismdiffers from earlier manifestations of scepticism stretching from Xenophanes to the
Academics, has very little to say about Metrodorus.He merely mentions him at M.
VII.48 as one of those who rejected the criterionand then at M. VII.87-8 paraphrases
his famous pronouncementas evidence for why some have taken this view of him.

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

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senses if he believes that they have insufficientpower to judge the things


broughtbefore them' (Acad. 11.74).This is not much to go on. The very
specific and somewhatsurprisingnatureof the previousappeals to Anaxagoras and Democritusshould make us less optimistic than we might
otherwisehave been aboutour ability to reconstructthe precisecharacter
of the Academics' use of Empedocles.It is suggestive in this connection
to find Plutarchin the AdversusColotemrespondingto Colotes's charge
thatEmpedoclesmakeslife impossible,on thegroundsthat,like Democritus,
he takes the perceptiblecharactersof thingsto be merelyconventionaland
thus robs us of the criterionof truth(Col. Ill IF-1 12A). In supportof
this reading,Colotes cited Empedocles31B8 DK:
And another thing I shall tell you: there is no generation (p1')at;) of any
mortal thing, nor any end in accursed death,
but only mixture and separationof what has been mixed
is there, though these are called 'generation' by humans.

It is possible that Colotes singled out these lines because his main target
Arcesilaus had done so. At any rate, the passage provides a roughly contemporary view of Empedocles as denying that the criterion of truth is in
the senses. The fact that Colotes fixes on lines not overtly concerned with
epistemology should make one wary about trying to track down in Sextus
or Diogenes Laertius the passages upon which the Academics based their
claims concerning Empedocles's proto-scepticism.
Some speculation may nevertheless be in order, for fragments preserved by Sextus and Diogenes do show that, whatever the precise
manner of their appeals may have been, there was an adequate enough
basis for the Academics to attribute a general scepticism to Empedocles.
Moreover, although Cicero's brief remarks on Empedocles in the present
passage are focused on his scepticism regarding the senses, there is no
reason to suppose that the Academics did not also see him as equally sceptical about reason. It is perhaps no coincidence that the crucial lines are
preserved by both Sextus and Diogenes, in contexts where Empedocles's
sceptical credentials are under discussion. As Sextus's treatment of
Empedocles in Adversus Mathematicos VII. 120-5 shows, he thinks it
wrong to understand him as having rejected the reliability of the senses.
He does nevertheless mention the contrary view of certain thinkers who
interpreted Empedocles as sceptical of the senses and as locating the
criterion in opOo; Xoyo; instead, 'right reason' being represented by the
divinity who guides his words. Sextus quotes 31B2 DK as appearing to
support this view:

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60

CHARLES BRITTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

For narrow are the instrumentsspread amidst the limbs,


and many the miseries bursting in that blunt the thought.
Once they have in their lives observed a small portion of life,
then swift to die they fly off carried away like smoke,
persuadedof only that which each one has encountered
5
while driven all around. Who then boasts of having found the whole?
Thus these things are not to be seen or heard by men
nor grasped by the understanding.But since you have turned aside here,
you will learn: no furthercan mortal intelligence reach.

When Diogenes at IX.71-3 presents a review of the purportedforerunners


of Pyrrhonism, he quotes in turn lines 7-8a and line 5 of this same fragment. Lines 7-8a (oI5to; oUT'eSRI6EpKT0'
Tn6' CxvCpatoIv
o0t' EaKIox)Grn I oeTt
vOWnrEpIXiTiai)would seem a straightforwardenough declaration that neither the senses nor reason can grasp the true nature of things, and line 5
might look like claiming that our knowledge of things extends only to how
they appear to each one of us. These verses may ultimately lie behind
Cicero's report of the Academic view that Empedocles denied that the
senses can serve as reliable criteria for judging the truth of the things he
speaks of in his poem; they might also support the claim that he likewise
rejected reason as a criterion.
5. Xenophanes and Parmenides
The Academica's list of the New Academy's Presocratic predecessors concludes with Xenophanes and Parmenides. Cicero says they 'thunder as if
enraged against the arrogance of those who dare to say that they know
when nothing can be known' (Acad. II.74). The two key points in this
description, the criticism of other thinkers and the dogmatically sceptical
thesis that nothing can be known, have an obvious enough basis in the
case of Xenophanes, given his biting criticisms of Homer, Hesiod, and
popular conceptions of divinity (21131.21-4, BIO-12, B14-16 DK) and his
famous 'sceptical' pronouncement (21B34 DK). His declaration there that
no one has seen or will ever know the clear truth regarding the gods and
all the other things of which he speaks, since even if one were by chance
to say what is in fact the case, one would nevertheless not know it, cou-

pled with his final assertion,6o0;

8' uiaCri
&'i

TE'TI)KtX,

could easily have

been taken by the Academics as equivalent to the thesis here in Cicero


that nothing can be known (sciri nihil possit). Sextus introduces his first
quotation of these lines by commenting that according to some (KaTa
tltva;) Xenophanes declared all things to be non-cognitive (inrvTxa&caKatXTnta, M. VII.49). Xenophanes in fact seems to come quite close to the

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

61

Academics' own position, as contrasted by Cicero with that of Democritus


when he says that we [sc. the Academics] 'do not deny that there is any
truth, but we do deny that it can be apprehended'. For Xenophanes likewise seems to hold out the possibility that some of our views may, for all
we know, be true even though we are not in a position to recognize when
this is the case (cf. S.E. M. VII.51-2). Note also that Xenophanes's scepticism extends to all the subjects he discusses and is not, as Lucullus
would have it, restricted to particularly difficult points.
How the description here is supposed to apply to Parmenides is less
obvious. For although he targets mortals for criticism generally, it is less
clear how he might have been understood as holding that 'nothing can
be known'. Perhaps his reliance upon divine revelation for his account
of the real nature of things, coupled with his criticism of the reliability of
the senses in 28B7.3-5 DK and his implication in 28B16 DK regarding
the instability and uncertainty of human voo; given its close dependence
on 'the mixture of the much-wandering limbs', could have been taken to
indicate that genuine knowledge lies beyond the capacity of mere
humans.25 One would like to know more about the Academics' use of
Parmenides. Unfortunately, the present passage is as informative as Cicero
gets; and we should perhaps not press it too strongly in the case of
Parmenides, for it may be that its account stems mainly from reflection
on Xenophanes, whose views are then rather casually fathered upon his
supposed pupil (cf. Acad. 11.129). What is clear, in the end, is that attributing the thesis that nothing can be known (sciri nihil possit) to Xenophanes
and Parmenides involves representing them as dogmatic sceptics whose
stance is again to be distinguished from the Academics'.
One might suppose that furtherlight on the Academics' use of Parmenides
is provided by Plutarch's indirect report that Arcesilaus himself attributed
his views on epoche and akatalpsia to Parmenides along with Heraclitus,
Socrates, and Plato: 'Arcesilaus was so far from desiring any reputation
for innovation and from ascribing to himself anything belonging to the
ancients that the sophists of his time accused him of attributing to Socrates
and Plato, and to Parmenides and Heraclitus, the views on epoche and
akatalepsia though they had no need of this; but in fact he was, so to
speak, making restitution and giving security for these views to men of
good reputation26'(Col. 1121F-1 122A). It would, however, probably be a
25

Xao;
26

Cf. Epiphanius,AdversusHaereses II.508 Holl = Arcesilaus F15 Mette: 'Apiceait


E(paO?CE OCXX
E?Puc1tV

aXX'oiov avayomv

ElV(Xt tOV) TO &XTIOF;,&vOpzitw & oV.


Kia pkzioxlv
aiTWv it; &v6pac EV60401o;nOtOIO(>EVO;.

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62

CHARLES BRITTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

mistake to take this passage as further evidence for the nature of the
Academics' appeal to Parmenides. When one compares it with the
Academica, a number of things seem quite odd. In the first place, we have
already seen that whereas in the Academica the Presocratics are constantly
credited with the view that all things are non-cognitive, nowhere in this
work are they represented as having taken the further step of inferring
from this the need to suspend judgement. Yet Plutarch's 'sophists' report
that Arcesilaus attributed his own views regarding epoche to Parmenides
and Heraclitus.27It is also odd that Parmenides and Heraclitus are the only
Presocratics mentioned in Plutarch, when we know from the Academica
that the Academics - and specifically Arcesilaus himself - also appealed
to Xenophanes, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus (Acad. 11.1415). The Plutarchan passage, conversely, highlights an apparent oddity in
the Academica, namely the total absence of any mention of Heraclitus
apart from two words in the doxographical survey of Presocratic Prinzipienlehre at IL.118: Heraclitus ignem. His absence from the Academica is
all the more surprising since his importance for the Stoics would have
made an Academic representation of him as a proto-sceptic particularly
embarrassing.
That Heraclitus together with Parmenides feature more prominently in
Plato's own dialogues than any of the other Presocratics appealed to in
the Academica might seem to make their relative absence from this work
seem even more strange. Actually, however, this fact suggests how we
might best resolve the apparentdiscrepancies between the evidence in Cicero
and Plutarch's report: precisely because of their prominence in Plato,
when Arcesilaus appealed to Parmenides and Heraclitus, he likely based
his appeals on their representations in the dialogues. Thus when Plutarch
says that Arcesilaus saw in Socrates, Plato, Parmenides and Heraclitus
precedents for his own views regarding akatalepsia and epoche, he has
in mind the Parmenides and Heraclitus of Plato's dialogues, just as he
does with Socrates. The Academics as represented in the Academica, by
For the idiom &vayc'v noteiaOat, cf. P1. Leg. XI.916a-b; for OF-PaioGtV ioteio;oal,
cf. Aeschin. Orat. 111.249.Plutarch's legal metaphorseems to have escaped some of
his English translators. Einarson and DeLacy's Loeb edition renders the phrase in
question as: 'but Arcesilaus wished to certify his views, as it were, by this appeal to
highly respected names'; cf. Long and Sedley (1987), i, 68H: 'whereas he attributed
them as it were, by way of confirmation,to famous men'.
27 Plutarch'sown view of this claim is non-committal:he ironically thanks Colotes
for supportingthe antiquity of the 'New' Academic view without himself confirming
the veracity of Colotes' or the 'sophists" report (I 122A).

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

63

contrast,are obviously concernedwith the actual Presocratics.Since in


this essay we are concerned with the Academics' appeals to the Presocraticsthemselves,we shall pass over the difficultthoughrelatedquestion of exactly how Arcesilausmight have found some precedentfor his
views in Plato's representations
of Parmenidesand Heraclitus.The important points for us are that Cicero on behalf of the Academicsattributesto
Xenophanesand Parmenidesthe dogmaticallysceptical thesis that nothing can be knownand that thereis a reasonableenoughbasis for attributing to each of them the view thatneitherthe senses nor reasonconstitutes
a criterionof truth.
6. Reprehensiones omnium inter se

Even if the Presocraticsseem somewhatless scepticalaboutreason'sability to discoverthetruenaturesof thingsthanaboutthesenses',theAcademics


could point to the fact that their reliance on reason resulted in wildly
divergentviews, which one might suppose would not have happenedif
reason were in fact a reliable guide to discovery of the truth.Lactantius
reportsthat Arcesilauscollected not only the confessionsof ignoranceby
the famous philosophersbut also the philosophers'mutualrecriminations:
'If, then, individualschools are convictedof foolishnessby the judgement
of many schools, all are thereforefound vain and empty:in this way philosophyconsumesand destroysitself. WhenArcesilaus,the founderof the
Academy,came to appreciatethis, he collected all of theirmutualrecriminationsand the confessionsof ignorancemade by the renownedphilosophers,and he armedhimself againstthem all. Thus he establisheda new
philosophy of not philosophizing' (Lact. Inst. 111.4.10-11).28 Although it

may seem that Lactantiusis merely extrapolatingfrom portions of the


Academicaknown to us, the fact that he, like most authorsof late antiquity, knew the revised Academica Posteriora rather than the Catulus and
Lucullus,29 leaves Academica 1.44-5 as the most likely extant source.

However, the direct manner in which Lactantiusdraws upon 1.44-5 in

28 Si ergo singulae sectae multarumsectarum iudicio stultitiae convincuntur,omnes


igitur vanae atque inanes reperiuntur: ita se ipsa philosophia consumit et conficit.
Quod cum intellegeret Arcesilas Academiae conditor, reprehensiones inter se omnium
collegit confessionemqueignorantiae clarorumphilosophorumarmavitquese adversus
omnes: ita constituit novam non philosophandi philosophiam.
29 See R. M. Ogilvie, The Library of Lactantius (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978),
58-60; T. J. Hunt,A TextualHistoryof Cicero's AcademiciLibri,MnemosyneSupplement
181 (Leiden/Boston/Koln:Brill, 1998), 18-25.

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64

CHARLES BRITTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

Divinae Institutiones III.28 suggests that here in 111.4he is more likely to


have been drawing upon a portion of the Academica Posteriora no longer
preserved.The first prong of Arcesilaus's doxographic enterpriseas identified
by Lactantius is reflected, directly or indirectly, in the doxography of
Academica II.116-46. The Presocratics themselves figure most prominently
in the review of opinions on nature at II. 118, where Cicero briefly sets
out the views of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Leucippus, Democritus, Empedocles, Heraclitus,
Melissus, Plato, and the Pythagoreans concerning the first principles or
elements of the universe (de principiis rerum, 11.117). The details and provenance of this passage have been thoroughly discussed by Jaap Mansfeld,
who follows Diels in supposing that Cicero's immediate source must be
an Academic, presumably one of Carneades's pupils, though he takes
issue with Diels's identification of Theophrastus's Physikon Doxai as the
passage's ultimate source.30 Whatever Cicero's immediate source may
have been, there is little reason to doubt the evidence of Lactantius's
report that Arcesilaus inaugurated the Academic enterprise of collecting
the divergent opinions of earlier philosophers.3'
Unfortunately, Cicero does not directly indicate what use the Academics made of their collection of the Presocratics' divergent opinions on
first principles. Cicero himself seems to find at least two distinct uses for
his doxography (both perhaps reflected in his summary at Acad. 11.147).
First, he asks Lucullus what view or system one who is not yet a wise
man himself will approve when there is such manifest disagreement (dissensio = Gr. 8tatpwvia) among all the great men (Acad. 11.117). If the
Antiochian wise man does single out one of these figures to follow, he
ends up rejecting and condemning all the remaining distinguished philosophers (Acad. II. 118). In Cicero's rhetorical and ad hominem deployment
3" J. Mansfeld, 'Gibt es Spuren von TheophrastsPhys. Op. bei Cicero?' in W. W.
Fortenbaughand P. Steinmetz (edd.), Cicero's Knowledge of the Peripatos, Rutgers
Studiesin ClassicalHumanitiesIV (New Brunswick,N.J./London:TransactionPublishers,
1989), 133-58; repr. in Mansfeld (1990), 238-63.
3' It is unclear, however, whether Arcesilaus's collection of 'reprehensiones'would
have taken the form of the kind of full-blown dissensio-doxographywe find in Cicero,
for we can only guess at what exactly lies behind Lactantius's 'reprehensiones inter
se omnium collegit'.

Perhaps this means that he collected the philosophers' specific

criticisms of other thinkers such as we find in, for example, Heraclitusap. D.L. IX. I
= 22B40 DK, in which case it would have provided a foundation for his successors'
subsequent construction of dissensio-doxographies. Or it may have been that what
Lactantiusdescribes as his collection of the philosophers' mutual recriminationstook
the form of a more elaborate demonstrationof their divergent opinions.

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

65

of this argument,it seems that the acknowledgedauthorityof these earlier thinkers is supposed to make this an unpalatableoption. It seems
likely that this is a distorted,rhetoricalvariantof a more extendedargument on the notion of 'authority'and its role in our ordinaryacceptance
of beliefs (a scepticaltheme attestedmost clearly in Sextus' development
of the argumentsagainstthe 'criterionby whom (i.e. man)').32
At any rate, in the Academicait seems to be subordinateto the second
use Cicero alludes to: an appealto the generalphilosophicalargumentor
tropefromdissensio (cf., e.g., I1.122-4,11.141).This tropeis perhapsmost
clearly deployed in the prefaceto the De NaturaDeorum.Cicero begins
that work by noting that the inquiryinto the natureof the gods is full of
difficulty and obscurity (perdifficilis. . . et perobscura, ND I.1). The fact

that the most learnedmen have advancedsuch a wide variety of incompatible views on the subject, he says, is itself reason to think that the
Academics were quite sensible in withholding assent from matters so
uncertain.It was standardpracticein the New Academy to argue against
all opinions so that, when reasons of equal weight were found on opposite sides of a question,it would be easier to withholdassent from both.33
In some cases, the Academics no doubt employed their own skills as
dialecticiansin constructingopposing arguments.When it came to questions such as the natureof the gods or the ultimateprinciplesof the universe, however, they bolsteredthese efforts by systematicallycollecting
the divergentopinions of previousphilosophers.The resultingcollections
had a partlydialecticalpurpose,as Cicerorecordsat the conclusionof his
preface:'Certainlysuch disagreement(dissensio)amongthe most learned
men concerninga matterof the greatestimportanceshould compel even
those who suppose they are in possession of somethingcertainto begin
to have doubts'(ND I. 14) They were also employedas one means of justifying the Academics' own refusal to commit themselvesto the truthof
any particularview on these questions (ND I.1). A curious, though not
unwelcome,result of this trope is that withholdingassent turnsout to be
32 Cf. S.E. PH II.37-46, M VII.314-42. There are residual signs of a serious
Academic argumentabout authorityand the sources of persuasion - which is somewhat obscuredby Sextus's jocular approachto this topos - at, for example, Cic. Acad.
II.60. Unfortunately,the clearest evidence for the presence of this argument in the
Academica is anotherjocular variant in Augustine's Contra Academicos 111.15-17.
33 Cf., e.g., Acad. I.45 (re. Arcesilaus): huic rationi quod erat consentaneum
faciebat, ut contra omniumsententias disserens de sua plerosque deduceret, ut cum in
eadem re paria contrariis in partibus momenta rationum invenirenturfacilius ab
utraqueparte assensio sustineretur.

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66

CHARLES BRITAIN AND JOHN PALMER

the best way to avoid impugningthe greatnessof earlier philosophers,


since it involves an acknowledgementthat, for all one knows, any one of
them may be correct.
The collection of the reputablephilosophers'diverse opinionson various questionswould also have furnishedthe Academicswith a store of
material to deploy against their opponents, as we see them doing, for
instance,in theirappealto Democritusin the midstof arguingagainstthe
Stoic criterion.The Academics'centralargument,as reportedby Lucullus
(Acad. II.40) and recalled by Cicero at various points, is as follows: (i)
Some impressionsare true, othersfalse; (ii) a false impressioncannotbe
cognitive;(iii) a trueimpressionwhich can be matchedby a false impression of exactly the same charactercannot be cognitive; (iv) any true
impressioncan be matchedby a false impressionof exactly the same character;therefore(v) nothingcan be known. The entiredebatebetweenthe
Stoics and Academicsover the criterionfocused on (iv), as Cicero himself indicates(Acad.II.83, cf. 11.41).One type of argumentthe Academics
employedin supportof this premisedrew attentionto the supposedexistence of indiscerniblysimilaror identicalthings, such as two twins, two
eggs, two grains of sand, etc. (Acad. II.54-8, 84-6; cf. S.E. M. VII.408I 1). The Stoics repliedby denyingthatany two objectsare in fact exactly
alike. As Lucullus says, his Academic opponentwants the twins, eggs,
etc., to be not merely similar but completelyidentical,which he says is
impossible(Acad. II.54). Thus two twins, two eggs, or any two objects,
no matterhow alike they may seem, will differ from each other at least
minimally. But this response, of course, rests upon a substantiveand
potentiallycontroversialmetaphysicalclaim, namelya versionof the identity of indiscerniblesdoctrineaccordingto which no two individualsare
qualitativelyidentical. The Academics oppose this controversialtheory
with an equally controversialone, namely Democritus'stheorythat there
exist infinitelymany worlds, some of which are not merely alike but, as
Lucullusputs it in describingthe appeal, 'in every aspect complete and
absolute counterpartssuch that there is precisely no differencebetween
them' (Acad. I1.55, cf. 125). Thus on Democritus'satomic theory, there
can be two individualsthat are qualitativelyidentical,either in two different worlds or within our own world. Now the argumentmay at first
strikeoneas quitestrange,forneitherpartyto thedebateacceptsDemocritus's
theory. How can the Academicshave supposedthat an argumentrooted
in a theorytheir opponentsflatly rejectcan do any damageto theirposition? Why, in otherwords, is Democritusintroducedat all? Lucullushimself complainsabout being summonedbefore someone whose theory he

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

67

rejects(Acad. 11.56).The point of this particularappealmay have been to


point out a certaincircularityin the Stoics' responseto the twins objection, namely that they claim to have a cognitive grasp of one of the very
principlesthey introducein defendingthe existence of cognitive impressions, or, perhapsmore simply, that they seek to establishsomethingnonapparenton the basis of somethingeven more non-apparent.Neither the
Stoics nor the Academicsneed to accept Democritus'stheoryfor this particularappeal to work.34
It does not seem extravagantto concludethat Lactantius'ssummaryof
the purposeof suchcollectionsby theAcademics(111.4.
10-11, quotedabove)
was substantiallycorrect.The trope of dissensio seems to tell againstthe
reliabilityof reason itself. More specifically,the divergentand incompatible resultsof the Presocratics'(and other dogmatists')rationalisttheorybuilding undermine the enterprise of dogmatic philosophy for three
reasons.First,if humanreasonwere a sure guide to the discoveryof truth
in such matters,one might expect there to have been far less disagreement among the greatestphilosophers.Secondly, the fact of basic philosophical disagreementspoints to the absence of any acceptable'criterion
of knowledge'on the basis of which progresscould be made. Finally, the
existenceof unresolvedbasic disagreementshighlightsthe irrationalmotivations which underliethe acceptanceof any one view by its adherents.
III. Conclusion

Cicero concludeshis responseto Lucullus'scriticismsof the Academics'


historicalappeal by repeatinghis initial denial that it is disingenuous:'I
presumeyou see that I do not just cite the names of famous people, as
Saturninusdid, but that I only take as my model (imitari)renownedand
admirablepeople' (Acad. 11.75). The claim that the Academics model
themselvesupon the Presocratics(in additionto Socratesand Plato) looks
somewhatmisleading,given the variety and the subtle nuances apparent
even in Cicero's brief survey of the Academics' specific appeals to the
Presocraticsand, in particular,given that examination of the specific
appeals in the AcademicaPriora shows them to have functionedlargely
within the context of debate with their dogmatic opponents.When confronted with the charge that their scepticism makes life unlivable, the
Academics pointedout that their position is more moderatethan that of
3 For more on how the appeal to Democritus functions in the overall argument,
see Allen (1997), 224 and 246-52.

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68

CHARLES BRIfTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

numerous of the ancients whom their opponents admit were serious


philosophers.In some cases discussion of the physici was also designed
to impressupon the Stoics the fact thatcertaindogmaticphilosophersnot
unlike themselveshad been honest enough to admit the epistemological
problemsattendantupon their efforts to determinethe natureof things.
And finally, discussingtheir predecessorsallowed the Academicsto clarify theirown positionby contrastingit with dogmaticscepticismto which
All these aspects of the Academics'
it was often wrongly assimilated.35
appeals function primarilywithin the dialectical context. Nowhere have
we seen the Academics claiming that the Presocraticsare direct precursors of their own position.Yet, if it is not clear that the Academicstook
the Presocraticsas a model for their own position, Cicero nevertheless
strikesan importantnote when he says that they appealonly to renowned
and celebratedthinkers.For howeverdiverse in their strategythe specific
appeals may be, they all rely on their opponents'respect for the figures
appealedto. This is one reason we do not find the Academicsappealing
to thinkerswho otherwisemight be thoughtcapable of furnishingsome
kindof supportfortheirposition,whetherancient(sophistssuchas Protagoras
and Gorgias, cf. Acad. 11.72, 142) or modern (the dialecticiansStilpo,
Diodorus, and Alexinus, and the membersof the Cyrenaicschool, dismissed by Cicero at II.75-6).36
All this may seem to supporta consistentlydialecticalreadingof the
Academics' use of the Presocratics.As alreadyindicated,however, such
a readingneed not be incompatiblewith the kind of non-dialecticalinterpretationof the general appeal apparentlyoffered in Academica1.44-6.
What are the prospectsfor this type of reading?Is Cicero simply being
careless when he says that the Academics take the Presocratics(among
others) as their models (II.75)? The impressionthat he is may be partly
due to context, of course: Cicero's purposein II.72-4 was to defend the
plausibilityof the historicalcontentof the appealratherthan to make the
appeal or explain its strategicfunctionsfor the Academy.But, while we
can now more or less discern how the Academicswould have filled out
their general claim that the Presocraticsfurnishsupportfor the thesis of
akatalepsia(i.e. that neitherreasonnor the senses constitutethe criterion
1s Compare how Sextus in PH 1.210-41 clarifies the natureof Pyrrhonismby contrasting it with the sceptical tendencies of Heraclitus, Democritus, the Cyrenaics,
Protagoras,the New Academy, and the Empirical school.
' It is instructiveto compare Cic. Acad. 11.75-6on the dialecticians and Cyrenaics
with the evidence in Plu. Col. for Colotes's (and thus possibly Arcesilaus's) treatment
of the same figures.

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

69

of truth), it may seem that we are not much closer to an understanding of


the strategic function even of that claim. For although Cicero's formulation might look like a direct appeal to precedents to confirm the Academic
thesis of akatalepsia, it is still not clear either that it is or in what sense
it might be taken to do so. One needs to be careful here. The Academics
can not have intended to present the various pronouncements by the
Presocratics to the effect that neither reason nor the senses furnish a
means for determining the true character of things as in any way establishing the akatalepsia thesis outside the dialectical context of their arguments with the Stoics. Within that context, the general appeal to venerable
figures of the past would have functioned as one means of securing the
initial premise in the basic argument: (i) everything is non-cognitive; (ii)
where things are non-cognitive, one should suspend judgement; therefore
(iii) one should suspend judgement about everything. But outside the
dialectical context, the Academics have no interest in seeking to confirm
the truth of the akatalepsia thesis, either by a general appeal to the
Presocratics or by any other means, since this thesis is not something they
are actually committed to themselves. They in fact are concerned to avoid
any appearance of being positively committed to this thesis since that
would constitute a lapse into the dogmatic variety of scepticism which
they are careful to distinguish from their own stance. Thus in considering the
prospects for a non-dialectical reading of the Academics' appeals to the
Presocratics, we should not be asking whether they found any confirmation of the truth of the akatalepsia thesis among the early philosophers.
Cicero's use of the verb 'imitari' at 11.75need not imply that the Academics
adopted any specific doctrines from the Presocratics, not even the akatalpsia thesis itself. Whatever appeals to authority in support of this thesis
they made will have functioned strictly within the dialectical context. The
assertion that the Academics take these respected philosophers as their
models seems instead a claim that they stand in a tradition that stretches
all the way back to the earliest philosophers. Cicero's argument amounts
to a defense of the Academic view of the history of philosophy, and the
lesson to be learned from it, against the rival Antiochian picture. Even
here, however, it might be going too far to say that the Academics were
concerned with defending a definite view of the progressive development
of philosophy, for this might itself constitute a lapse into dogmatism. Instead,
as Cicero presents it, the Academic view of the development of philosophy
down to Arcesilaus is meant to be a plausible alternative to the Antiochian
story, a history of inquiries by successive philosophers attended by their
honest expressions of doubt about the possibility of properly attaining the

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70

CHARLES BRI'TAIN AND JOHN PALMER

goal of those inquiries,as opposedto a historyof dogmatictheorizingand


overly ambitious claims to knowledge. As with any other matter, the
Academicsare concernedwith reportinghow thingsappearto them,rather
than with defendinga definiteview; and here it seems plausibleto them
to see the Presocratics,despite their aggressive speculationsabout the
natureof things, as having seriouslydoubtedtheir ability to discoverthe
true characterof things on the basis of eitherthe senses or reason,and as
having accordinglyplaced certain sceptical qualificationson the claims
they were neverthelesswilling to advance.Indeed,the Academicsfound
this view of the characterof Presocraticspeculationplausibleenoughthat
they were concernedto gain theiropponents'admissionthatit seems plausible to them as well. (So Cicerosays at AcademicaII.72, 'we Academics
say that we hold the same views' - namely, that neitherreason nor perception providesa secure path to any cognitive grasp of the real character of things - 'that you yourselves admit were held by the most noble

philosophers'.)Perhapstheirs is not the answerwe would give to the old


questionof whethersome form of scepticismcan properlybe attributed
to the Presocratics.Nevertheless,we hope that closer examinationof the
case the Academics made for presenting the Presocraticsas sceptical
ancestorshas shown that it is both plausibleand significantfor the insight
it providesinto the Academics' own sceptical methodsand position.37
Appendix

At Acad.1.44,Cicerocharacterizes
thePresocratics
in thefollowingterms:...
veteres, qui nihil cognosci nihil percipi nihil sciri posse dixerunt, angustos sensus imbecillos animos brevia curricula vitae et ut Democritus in
profundo veritatem esse demersam, opinionibus et institutis omnia teneri,
nihil veritati relinqui, deinceps omnia tenebris circumfusa esse dixerunt.

The explicit attributionto Democritusof the pronouncement


thattruthhas
been submergedin an abyss, which would have been easily recognizable
even had his name not been mentioned,suggests that the remainingfor-

37 We are grateful to the Society for Humanities at Cornell University for providing a grant for collaborative research that made possible the initial discussions out of
which the present essay developed. A version of the essay was presented at the
University of Pittsburghin February2000; we would like to thank the membersof the
audience on that occasion, in particularJames Allen, for their questions and comments.
Finally, we would like to thank Tad Brennan for his comments on the penultimate

version.

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THE NEW ACADEMY'S APPEALS TO THE PRESOCRATICS

71

mulae here might also be meant to be recognizable paraphrases of the


Presocratics' own words. Lactantius, at any rate, in two passages where
he draws upon Acad. 1.44, attributes Cicero's formulae 'angustos sensus'
and 'deinceps omnia tenebris circumfusa' to Empedocles and Anaxagoras,
respectively. Lact. Inst. 111.28.10-13: et quisquam nobis invidiam facit,
quia philosophos negamus esse sapientes, cum ipsi nec scire se quicquam
nec sapere fateantur? nam si quando ita defecerint, ut ne adfingere quidem quicquam possint, quod faciunt in rebus ceteris, tum vero admonentur ignorantiae et quasi furibundi exiliunt et exclamant caecos esse se et
excordes. Anaxagoras pronuntiat circumfusa esse tenebris omnia; Empedocles angustas esse sensuum semitas queritur, tamquam illi ad cogitandum reda et quadrigis opus esset; Democritus quasi in puteo quodam sic
alto, ut fundus nullus sit, veritatem iacere demersam: nimirum stulte, ut
cetera ('Who is irritated by us when we deny that the philosophers are
wise, given that they themselves aver that they don't know anything and
aren't wise? For whenever they have failed - i.e. are unable even to think
anything up (which is what they do elsewhere) - they are reminded of
their ignorance and flare up furiously, shouting out that they are blind and
hopeless. So Anaxagoras declares that everything is surrounded by darkness; Empedocles complains that the paths of his senses are narrow, as if
he needed a carriage and team for thinking; Democritus that the truth lies
submerged in a kind of well so deep that it has no bottom - which is just
as stupid as the rest of their remarks'). Lact. Inst. 111.30.6: an expectabimus, donec Socrates aliquid sciat aut Anaxagoras in tenebris lumen
inveniat aut Democritus veritatem de puteo extrahat aut Empedocles
dilatet animi sui semitas aut Arcesilas et Carneades videant sentiant percipiant? ('Or are we supposed to wait until Socrates knows something,
Anaxagoras finds a light in the darkness, Democritus drags the truth out
of its well, Empedocles dilates the paths of his mind, or Arcesilaus and
Cameades start to see, perceive and know?'). Since Lactantius knew the
complete revised edition of the Academica, it may be that these two attributions reflect additional information he found in portions of Cicero's
work no longer extant. Or it may be that Lactantius is simply extrapolating from the content of Acad. 1.44. Cicero's phrase, 'angustos sensus',
which Lactantius associates with Empedocles, does look like a paraphrase
of acTtvonolt... nai6agat in Emped. 31B2.1 DK , while 'brevia curricula
vitae' captures the point of what follows in the same fragment. Likewise,
'opinionibus et institutis omnia teneri' looks like a combination of
Xenophanes's 66ico;6' Eni'nacFtcE'TUKat(28B34.4b DK) and Democritus's
vOgp y4XVu, vo6jii ltKpov, KtX. (68B9 DK). 'nihil veritati relinqui' mirrors

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72

CHARLES BRIlTAIN AND JOHN PALMER

what is said of Democritus at Acad. 11.73: 'ille verum plane negat esse'.
It would be natural enough to connect 'deinceps omnia tenebris circumfusa' with the rest of what Cicero says about Democritus at II.73: sensusque idem non obscuros dicit sed tenebricosos. Lactantius, however,
attributes this to Anaxagoras. Whether he did so because it was unclear
which statement on the list at Acad. 1.44 to connect him with, or because
Cicero elsewhere said something that made him make this connection, is
perhaps impossible to decide. Sextus, at any rate, appears to preserve the
relevant quotation. In the course of his discussion of the origins of the problem of the criterion and the natural philosophers' general condemnation
of the senses as untrustworthy, he says: 'Hence Anaxagoras, the greatest
natural philosopher, criticizing the senses as weak, says: "On account of

theirweaknesswe are unableto discernthe truth(no6&q(paxp0tiT7o;auLov


vatoi ?aJrV KpiVEptvt&Xn0;)"` (S.E. M. VII.90 = 59B21 DK). As
proof of this, according to Sextus, Anaxagoras discussed our inability
to distinguish miniscule gradations of colour. This statement would be
enough to gain Anaxagoras a place alongside Empedocles and Democritus
on Arcesilaus's list of sceptical predecessors, and it provides a better
entree for Anaxagoras than Aristotle's comments on him in Metaphysics
F4 and 5, suggested by Long and Sedley (1987), ii, 433. It may of course
be that Arcesilaus included Anaxagoras because of remarksno longer extant,
in which he perhaps, as Lactantius indicates, used the metaphor of everything being covered in shadows to describe our inability to make out the
truth of things. Sextus's quotation, even if it does not lie behind any of
Cicero's formulae, is an invaluable indication that Anaxagoras was in fact
prone to say such things.
o8ij

Dept. of Classics, Cornell Universityl


Dept. of Philosophy, University of Florida

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