DIOGENES LAERTIUS, LIFE OF ARCESILAUS
Anthony A. Long
DIOGENES LAERTIUS, LIFE OF ARCESILAUS

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No philosopher in the Hellenistic period is more intriguing than

Arcesilaus of Pitane, and none is of greater historical significance. His

interpretation of the Platonic tradition became the stance of the Aca-

demy down to the time of Philo of Larissa and Antiochus of Ascalon.

Thereafter in the refurbished Pyrrhonism of Aenesidemus, the dia-

lectical strategies of Arcesilaus and Carneades lived on among the

methods of that new school for inducing suspension of judgement

(ἐποχή). Arcesilaus in effect was the founder of Greek scepticism, as

a methodology for demonstrating that every claim to knowledge or

belief could be met with a counter-argument of equal strength. By his

rejoinders to Stoic theses, continued and developed by Carneades, Ar-

cesilaus ensured that Stoic philosophers must be constantly on the alert

against sceptical challenges. More than any other thinker of his time,

Arcesilaus deserves the credit for ensuring that Hellenistic philosophy

remained true to the classical tradition of argument, with no quarter

given to sloppy thinking or idle dogmatism.

From Cicero, Sextus Empiricus, and Plutarch we gain tantalizingly

brief glimpses of Arcesilaus’ dialectical virtuosity1. Yet the process by

which his arguments reached these later times is quite obscure. Were

they recorded in the Academy’s records? Did they filter down to Clito-

machus, who wrote out his teacher Carneades’ arguments, in an oral

form? Some traces of Arcesilaus, we may conjecture, were transmitted

in writing through the Academy’s Stoic opponents. But if, as seems

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certain, Arcesilaus published nothing under his own name2, we have

to reckon with the probability that even our meagre record of his

arguments in Cicero, Sextus and Plutarch is nothing like a first-hand

report of what he said.

This situation casts Diogenes Laertius’ life of Arcesilaus into a

prominence which seems not to have been appreciated. If, as I shall argue,

his life captures features of Arcesilaus which go back to the third

century B.C., we should ask whether, notwithstanding the low level

of Diogenes’ philosophical acumen, these features corroborate or throw

light on our more sophisticated but much later reporters. Apart from

this, Diogenes’ Life of Arcesilaus is one of the best examples we might

take if we are interested in a case-study of his collection at the highest

level it achieves. That level, to be sure, is a hill of very modest altitude.

But with Arcesilaus, it does at least avoid the flatness, not to say,

depths, evident in some of his lives.

Of his eighty-odd biographies, fourteen are longer than that of

Arcesilaus, which occupies 8 1/2 pages in the Oxford Classical Text.

However, such statistics fail to indicate the unusual amplitude of this

particular life in Diogenes’ collection as a whole. The longest lives

— those of Aristippus, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes of Sinope, Zeno of

Citium, Pythagoras, Pyrrho and Epicurus — are largely taken up with

summaries of doctrines, lists of works, sayings which supposedly illu-

strate the individual’s philosophical stance etc. What Diogenes

reports about the life of these philosophers in particularised detail,

or even in ethical terms, occupies only a small fraction of the total.

With the life of Arcesilaus it is different. Here, if anywhere in Dio-

genes, a philosopher is characterized with a degree of detail and colour

which has some claim to be called a life in a modern sense. The only

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figure in his collection which seems to be thoroughly comparable is

Menedemus of Eretria (II 125-144).

Both Arcesilaus and Menedemus, we have good reason to think,

were philosophers whose lives particularly interested the biographer

Antigonus of Carystus3. He probably knew Arcesilaus personally; and

if he was too young to have met Menedemus, he will have known

people who were acquainted with both philosophers. I shall assume

that Diogenes gleaned most of his biographical and anecdotal material

for these lives from Antigonus, or from writers strongly dependent on

him, and that it is Antigonus’ biographical style which accounts for

the similarity in tone, language and approach between these lives. As

Wilamowitz observed (note 3 above), Diogenes’ lives of Arcesilaus and

Menedemus also share distinctive features with those of Pyrrho and

Timon, the Peripatetic Lyco, and the lives of the earlier Academics,

Polemo, Crates and Crantor. But as biographies or vignettes in a mo-

dern sense, none of these challenges the lives of Arcesilaus and Mene-

demus in length, detail or complexity.

With this preamble I propose to make a further assumption: the

man Diogenes Laertius is of only marginal interest when it comes to

evaluating the material he has assembled for the life of Arcesilaus.

What will largely exercise me is this question: how, as historians of

philosophy, should we read and use this life as evidence for its fascinat-

ing subject? With one or two exceptions, which include the opening

lines (see below), the criteria for assessing the life of Arcesilaus are

highly particular — its internal coherence, such external corroborations

as it receives, and what we may discern with a little reading between

the lines. In all probability my subject is largely Arcesilaus as represen-

ted by Antigonus, filtered through Diogenes. Of course there is no

reason to think that Antigonus for his part had any proper understand-

ing of philosophy. But Arcesilaus was an unusual philosopher. He did

not have a set of doctrines which Antigonus or Diogenes has foreborne

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to relate; nor, I think, did Menedemus4. Hence anecdotes about what

these philosophers said may have a significance greater than their bio-

grapher himself realized. Inadvertently, the biographer’s anecdotal style

may in these cases be something more than a beguiling way of adorning

a tale.

In order to dispel any doubts about the propriety of shoving Dio-

genes himself into the background, we should next observe how the

lives of the Academics in Diogenes tally often verbatim with the Her-

culaneum Index Academicorum, generally attributed to Philodemus5.

Diog. Laert. IV 22 and the Index col. XV 3 ff. correspond almost

word for word in their account of Arcesilaus’ abandoning Theophrastus

for Polemo, and of his calling Polemo and his associates «gods or relics

of the Golden Age». The Index account is much the fuller, expanding

Diogenes’ τῶν ἐκ τοῦ χρυσοῦ γένους into τῶν ἀρχαίων ἐκε[ίνω]ν

καὶ τῶν ἐκ τοῦ χρυσοῦ γέν̣ους διαπεπλασμένων ̣ἀ[νθ]ρ̣ώπων.

Diog. Laert. IV 32 and the Index col. XVIII both report Arcesilaus’

take-over of the Academy presidency after Crates’ death, «when a

certain Socratides withdrew in his favour»; but what in Diogenes is

a mere four words, ἐκχωρήσαντος αὐτῷ Σωκρατίδου τινός, is reported

by the Index in the words, αὐ[τοῦ] καθ’ αὑτὸν ἐκχωρήσαντος αὐτῷ

τῆς διατριβῆς Σωκρατίδου τινὸς ἐκχωρήσαντος, which, if my conjec-

ture is right6, gives us the important information that Socratides’ with-

drawal was entirely voluntary. The Index also adds a detail entirely

omitted by Diogenes — that the collective body of students had pre-

ferred Socratides on account of his seniority (ὃν διὰ τὸ πρεσβύτατον

εἶναι προεστήσανθ’ ἑαυτῶν οἱ νεανίσκοι συνελθόντες). In place of

this observation Diogenes, inconsequentially, refers to the tradition that

Arcesilaus’ suspension of judgement about everything was his reason

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for refraining from writing. The Index, retaining a sense of temporal

continuity, passes from Arcesilaus’ election to an account of his philo-

sophical development: «At first he defended the position adopted by

the School from Plato and Speusippus up to Polemo (καὶ τὸ μὲν πρῶ-

τον εἰπε̣[ῖν] θέσιν ἐπεχείρει κατὰ τὴν ἀπὸ Πλ[ά]τωνός τε καὶ Σπευ-

σ[ί]ππου [δι]α̣μείνασαν ἕως Πολέμ[ωνο]ς αἵρε̣σιν)». This detail is

quite absent from Diogenes.

Diog. Laert. IV 28-9 and Index col. XVII give almost verbatim

accounts of Arcesilaus’ half-brothers. Diogenes interrupts this family

history with some lines describing Arcesilaus’ earliest teachers; only

after he has reached Crantor does he return to the family, observing

that Moireas, Arcesilaus’ elder half-brother on his father’s side, « inten-

ded him for rhetoric (ἦγεν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ ῥητορικήν)», adding, «But he

loved philosophy and Crantor was in love with him». The Index

col. xvii reports Moireas’ tutelage of Arcesilaus without digressing to

his teachers, and tells us that he was set on philosophy from his late

teens (εὐθὺς ἐξ ἐ[φή]βων ἐπ[ὶ φι]λ̣οσοφί[αν] ὁρμῆσα̣ι), omitting the

erotic attractions of Crantor.

Thanks to the Index Academicorum, then, we are in the rare

position of being able to check Diogenes against another text which

reports the same material in virtually the same words. Contrary to the

impression given by Wilamowitz in his monograph on Antigonus, the

Index is fuller on some details, where it is legible, than is Diogenes7.

He could have used the Index directly, but this is unlikely. Their

common ground is probably due to their common dependence on An-

tigonus. He may have given details Diogenes omits or rearranges; but

it is at least as likely that Antigonus is responsible for many of the

divergences in style or order between Diogenes and the Index. I would

credit the emphasis on sex in the Life of Arcesilaus (cfr. IV 29, 40-41)

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to Antigonus; likewise the anecdotal material, much of which the more

austere Index seems to have passed over.

What this comparison establishes is the tendency of Diogenes to

follow a source extremely closely; he was an excerptor rather than a

composer. His unobtrusiveness as a personality is confirmed by the remar-

kable similarity between the lives of Arcesilaus and Menedemus.

Both Arcesilaus and Menedemus encounter a follower of the Dia-

lectician Alexinus (II 125; IV 36). Both are described as being ἐπικόπ-

της and παρρησιαστής (II 127; IV 33). Neither of these words occurs

elsewhere in Diogenes’ narrative, though he cites Timon’s description

of Xenophanes as ἐπικόπτης (IX 18), which I conjecture was Anti-

gonus’ source of this word. Both Arcesilaus and Menedemus have

dealings with Hierocles, the commandant of the Piraeus, in contexts

to do with Antigonus Gonatas (II 117; IV 39). Menedemus is said to

have been φιλόδοξος (II 131) and the same criticism is reported con-

cerning Arcesilaus (IV 41); the adjective is found only here in Diogenes.

Another epithet that they and no others share in Diogenes is ἐλευθέριος

(II 132, 134; XV 38). They were both (though like several others in

Diogenes) lovers of Homer (II 133; IV 31). Their argumentative in-

ventiveness (εὑρεσιλογία) is singled out (II 133; IV 37), as is also

their “eristic” tendency (II 134; IV 28). Their formidable verbal powers

are contrasted with their personal mildness (II 136; IV 37). They are

both said to have been fond of dining well (XI 139; IV 40).

These parallels could be extended. No other pair of philosophers

in the collection is described in such similar ways, or indeed in just

these ways. If Diogenes himself were responsible for them, we should

expect similar indications elsewhere. At the same time, in spite of their

similarities, Arcesilaus and Menedemus are not represented as mere

clones of each other. Arcesilaus appears as bisexual and averse to

politics; Menedemus as heterosexual and strongly political8. The colour

of these lives, and their similar cast, reveal the interests of the bio-

grapher; which is not to say that his interests have no basis in fact.

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Arcesilaus and Menedemus were not far apart in age; as dialecticians

they doubtless had some common propensities, and they may have

shared other tastes and personal qualities. But of this we can be sure:

their biographer in the true sense was not Diogenes, but someone who

admired these men, wished them to be admired, and defended them

from calumny.

So much for Diogenes and his sources. I turn now to consider

how his life of Arcesilaus illuminates the philosopher’s career and

methods. The points that will chiefly concern us are: 1) Arcesilaus’ for-

mative years and relation to Stoics; and 2) his dialectical methods.

1. Arcesilaus’ formative years and relation to Stoics.

From the perspective of late antiquity, when Platonism had been

turned into a systematic body of doctrine, Arcesilaus’ scepticism cla-

moured for explanation, defence or condemnation. To the Platonist

Numenius, Arcesilaus was an Academic only nominally; in reality he

was a Pyrrhonist and sophist, delighting in exhibitionist and polemical

argument (Eusebius, PE XIV 6. 4-6). Numenius knew the tradition that

Arcesilaus engaged in controversy with Zeno; he claims that it was

the fame at Athens of Zeno’s «kataleptic impression» which first mo-

tivated Arcesilaus’ attack on the Stoics (Eusebius, PE XIV 6.12-13).

Augustine, in the Contra Academicos, also makes much of Arce-

silaus’ opposition to Zeno, but in contrast with Numenius, his judge-

ment on the Academic is sympathetic and laudatory. Faced with

such Stoic doctrines as complete materialism and the soul’s mortality,

Arcesilaus (says Augustine), in his great insight and humanity, dee-

med it prudent to conceal completely the Academy’s position and

to bury it like gold, for future generations to discover (III 38). Thence,

according to Augustine, arose all the features of the New Academy,

which its earlier members had not needed9.

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In Cicero’s Academica the antecedents of such divergent inter-

pretations can be seen in the Antiochean and Philonian assessments

of Arcesilaus. On the Antiochean view, Arcesilaus attacked Zeno out

of sheer obstructiveness — conatus est clarissimis rebus tenebras ob-

ducere
(II 16). This negative judgement contrasts with Cicero’s own

evaluation, which follows the Philonian line: Arcesilaus did not secede

from the Old Academy. «It was with Zeno, so we have heard, that

Arcesilaus began his entire struggle (Cum Zenone, ut accepimus, Arce-

silas sibi omne certamen instituit
)», and he was motivated by the

considerations that had led Socrates and many older thinkers to confess

ignorance (I 44 f.).

Cicero, and Augustine who worked from Cicero, have nothing to

say about any Pyrrhonian leanings by Arcesilaus, nor do they give us

any account of his education. Numenius, who knows the Stoic Aristo’s

famous Homeric parody of Arcesilaus, «Plato in front, Pyrrho behind,

Diodorus in the middle», and also some details about Zeno’s and Arce-

silaus’ education, builds these into a complex tissue of fabricated con-

nexions. Ignoring chronology, he makes Zeno and Arcesilaus rival

pupils of the Academic Polemo. He represents Arcesilaus as a hand-

some youth whom Theophrastus lost as a lover to Crantor. It was only

loyalty to Crantor, he says, that made Arcesilaus stick to being called

an Academic and not a Pyrrhonist (Eusebius, PE XIV 6. 4-6).

Numenius has created a travesty by selecting some of the bio-

graphical details also found in Diogenes, and embellishing them. Like

the other authors just mentioned, he starts from what he takes to be

Arcesilaus’ mature position, and looks for an explanation of it by refe-

rence to his relationship to other philosophers. Diogenes’ account, by

contrast, provides the data for reconstructing a less exciting but more

credible story of Arcesilaus’ intellectual development.

Item 1 (IV 29): as a youth, while still at Pitane, Arcesilaus studied

with the eminent astronomer Autolycus. Two of Autolycus’ works

survive, On the moving sphere and On risings and settings10. Autolycus

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was a defender of the Eudoxan system of concentric rotating spheres.

From him, on the evidence of his writings, Arcesilaus would have re-

ceived an excellent training in geometry, and on how to set out a

formal proof.

Item 2: his higher education was completed at Athens, in the

Academy under Crantor.

The intervening stages are harder to reconstruct. Diogenes says:

«Arcesilaus visited Sardis with Autolycus. Next he was a pupil of

Xanthias the Athenian musician; and after him, of Theophrastus. Later

he moved to the Academy, to Crantor» (IV 29).

In order to put all these details together in an intelligible way,

we need to take account of three further items.

Item 3: Moireas, Arcesilaus’ elder paternal half-brother and guar-

dian, wanted him to study rhetoric (see above).

Item 4 (IV 43): Arcesilaus left all his property to his elder ma-

ternal half-brother Pylades, «because Pylades eluded Moireas and got

Arcesilaus to Athens».

Item 5: the Index Academicorum, col. XVII, in a detail omitted

by Diogenes, says that Arcesilaus began philosophy «right after his

ephebate», i.e. at the age of twenty, «having completed all his se-

condary education (πάσης ἀ̣γωγῆς τυ[χ]ών)».

Presumably, then, Arcesilaus was in Athens by the age of se-

venteen to nineteen, and studying for some of this time with the

musician Xanthias. He was highly precocious, evidently, which will

account for his still earlier study with Autolycus. There had been some

dispute in the family concerning the right education for this brilliant

adolescent. Moireas perhaps had wanted him to study rhetoric in Pi-

tane; but Arcesilaus, with his other half-brother’s help, leaves the pro-

vinces for the intellectual Mecca, Athens11. Soon he attends Theo-

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phrastus’ lectures. Does this imply that he has now chosen philosophy

rather than rhetoric? By no means. Diogenes associates Arcesilaus’

move from Theophrastus to Crantor with Arcesilaus’ rejection of the

rhetorical career that Moireas had wanted for him. In the lines of Euri-

pides that Crantor and Arcesilaus exchange, «O maiden, if I save you,

will you be grateful to me?», and «Take me, stranger, whether you

want a maidservant or a wife», it is surely rhetoric and not just Theo-

phrastus from which Crantor rescues Arcesilaus (IV 29).

I conclude that Arcesilaus, before joining Crantor, attended Theo-

phrastus’ lectures on rhetoric. This conclusion gains support from Theo-

phrastus’ alleged disappointment at losing a pupil so «adept at argu-

ment» (εὐεπιχείρητος), and Diogenes’ ensuing comment on Arcesilaus’

being ἐν τοῖς λόγοις ἐμβριθέστατος καὶ φιλογράμματος (IV 30)12.

We should also recall the fact that the Peripatetics were the lea-

ding exponents of rhetoric at this time. It must have been Theo-

phrastus’ lectures on rhetoric, and not those on botany, which drew

such large audiences (Diog. Laert. V 37), and for which he supposedly

dressed so fastidiously and gesticulated (Athenaeus I 21 A-B). Crantor

too is said in Diogenes to have poked fun at Theophrastus’ θέσεις (V 27).

Of course, Arcesilaus’ choice of philosophy over rhetoric is mis-

leadingly expressed. Rhetoric, especially in the Peripatos, was a re-

cognized part of the philosophical curriculum. In opting for Crantor

and the Academy, Arcesilaus was expressing a philosophical preference.

He was also, it appears, gaining a lover and someone whose house he

could share (Diog. Laert. IV 22).

What else was it about Crantor and the Academy that attracted

Arcesilaus? My own guess — it can be no more — is the Academy’s

devotion to mathematics and to the Socratic aspect of Plato. Our

meagre evidence for Polemo, Crates and Crantor suggests that these

Academics were already stressing the Socratic side of Plato in contrast

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with the systematic and theoretical tendencies of Speusippus and Xeno-

crates13. The picture of Arcesilaus that we find in Cicero — and in

Diogenes, I think — is of someone who wanted to identify the Aca-

demy with its Socratic tradition; and I also conjecture that Arcesilaus,

who Diogenes says studied with a geometer at Athens, Hipponicus

(IV 32), found the Academy congenial for his mathematical interests 14.

If Diogenes can be trusted, there was the greatest rapport between

Polemo, Crates, Crantor and Arcesilaus (cfr. IV 15-23). We should

also remember that Arcesilaus won the headship of the Academy over

the older Socratides, who withdrew in his favour. As time went by,

Arcesilaus appeared to be someone who had introduced a revolution

in the Academy, and his originality should not be doubted. But there

may have been more continuity with his Academic colleagues than

appears from our record. At least, we can suppose that he seemed the

best man to carry the school forward in its Socratic guise.

This suggestion, largely based on Diogenes, also accords with the

Philonian interpretation in Cicero — but with one very significant

difference. Cicero, like Numenius and Augustine, emphasizes Arcesilaus’

controversies with the Stoic Zeno. But there is not a word in Diogenes’

Life of Arcesilaus on this, nor even a hint that his concern with

«suspension of judgement about everything» was in any respect an

anti-Stoic position. Equally, Diogenes’ Life of Zeno says nothing whate-

ver about Arcesilaus or Academic scepticism. One’s first instinct, on

noting these points, is to conclude that Diogenes, as often elsewhere,

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is a bad reporter. In fact, if he failed to give any indication in any

of his lives of Arcesilaus’ controversies with Stoics, we would surely

be justified in regarding him as outrageously defective. Every one of

the surviving arguments attributed to Arcesilaus by Cicero or Sextus

Empiricus is a refutation of a Stoic thesis with the help of Stoic pre-

mises15.

The absence from Diogenes’ life of any explicit reference to argu-

ment with Stoics is certainly a prima facie indictment of its value as

evidence. But Arcesilaus is mentioned in Diogenes’ lives of the Stoics

Aristo, Cleanthes (cfr. VII 171) and Chrysippus (cfr. VII 183). The

passage in the life of Aristo (VII 162-3) runs as follows: «He [Aristo]

was principally attached to the Stoic doctrine that the wise man is free

from opinion (μάλιστα δὲ προσεῖχε Στωικῷ δόγματι τῷ τὸν σοφὸν

ἀδόξαστον εἶναι)»16.

There follows an anecdote about the Stoic Persaeus refuting Aristo

on this point, by getting him to misidentify one of a pair of twins.

Diogenes then continues:

«He [Aristo] would get involved in lengthy arguments with Ar-

cesilaus [ἀπετείνετο, imperfect tense]. Once when he saw a monstrous

bull with a uterus, he said, “Oh dear, Arcesilaus has been given an

argument against self-evidence (ἐνάργεια)”. And to an Academic who

said that he grasped nothing, he said: “Don’t you even see the person

sitting next to you?” The man said “No”, and Aristo retorted: “Who

has blinded you? Who has removed your eyesight?”»17.

This passage disturbs me. First, Diogenes attaches to Aristo the

controversy with Arcesilaus over κατάληψις that Cicero credits to

Zeno. Secondly, in Cicero it is Zeno, not Aristo, who agrees with

Arcesilaus that the wise man is free from opinion (acad. ΙΙ 77). Thirdly,

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Diogenes makes out that Aristo was constantly having arguments with

Arcesilaus. Let us also recall that it was Aristo who parodied Homer’s

description of the Chimaera in calling Arcesilaus, «Plato in front,

Pyrrho behind, Diodorus in the middle»18. The alarming suspicion

dawns that perhaps Diogenes’ reticence on Arcesilaus’ debates with

Zeno is to be explained by the fact that, in reality, it was Aristo that

Arcesilaus principally engaged in anti-Stoic argument. Actually, Cicero

is a bit guarded in his reports of Arcesilaus and Zeno. At acad. I 44

he says: cum Zenone, ut accepimus, Arcesilas sibi omne certamen ins-

tituit·,
and in reporting their argument at acad. ΙΙ 77 his qualifications

are very evident — fortasse, credo (twice).

For Cicero, Aristo was a deviant Stoic of the distant past19. Chry-

sippean orthodoxy had utterly supplanted him. But for Eratosthenes,

a contemporary of Arcesilaus and Aristo, they were the two outstand-

ing philosophers of the time20. Anna Maria Ioppolo (above note 16),

in her excellent study of Aristo, has helped to set the record straight

by making us aware of his importance in the formative phase of Stoi-

cism. By the time of Cicero, it would be natural to regard Zeno, the

school’s founder, as Arcesilaus’ principal opponent rather than the ob-

scure and discredited Aristo.

Nothing of course excludes Arcesilaus from having had arguments

with Zeno, or anyone else that he encountered. But Diogenes’ evidence

on Aristo, with its probable source so much nearer to the actual events,

should make us reflect that his omission of any reference to Arcesilaus’

controversies with Zeno may, after all, be historically sound. By the time

that Arcesilaus came to prominence, Zeno was an éminence grise who

may well have left it to younger followers to defend his doctrines

against Academic challenges. Possibly too the Stoics in general did not

loom quite as large in Arcesilaus’ concerns as the evidence of later

authors suggests. A difference should be noted in this connexion bet-

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ween Diogenes’ initial characterizations of Arcesilaus and Carneades.

The first thing he reports about Carneades, after giving his patronymic

and birthplace, is his careful study of books by Stoics and the fame

he acquired by his effective opposition to them (iv 62). Admittedly

this is little more than an expansion of the famous tag about Carneades

that he goes on to quote: «If there had been no Chrysippus, there

would have been no me». But the fact remains that Diogenes says

nothing about the Stoics in his opening remarks on Arcesilaus.

2. Arcesilaus’ dialectical methods.

This omission is all the more noteworthy because Diogenes’ initial

characterization of Arcesilaus (IV 28, οὑτος-ἐροστικώτερον) cannot be

derived from a source as early as Antigonus. A contemporary or near-

contemporary biographer would not have described Arcesilaus as the

«founder of the Middle Academy» (IV 28). That expression can only

have come into vogue after the distinction between Old and New Aca-

demies had been made. For Diogenes, it was Lacydes who originated

the New Academy (IV 59); but I do not think Antigonus of Carystus

would have so described him. The differentiation of phases in the Aca-

demy’s history is unlikely to be earlier than the time of Carneades, and

probably coincides with Philo and Antiochus. Cicero, who never men-

tions a Middle Academy, treats Arcesilaus himself as the founder of

the New Academy. The expression Middle Academy must have been

introduced at a time when the school’s position under Arcesilaus

appeared unstable and not yet firmly attached to the stance it acquired

under Lacydes and Carneades. Thus, in the earliest reference to the

Middle Academy, in the Index Academicorum col. XXI 37, Lacydes is

said to have « stabilized the Middle Academy which had been as no-

madic as the Skythian lifestyle (τῆν μέσην Ἀ[καδήμει]α[ν] καὶ πλα-

νῆτιν οὐδὲν ἧττον τῆς Σκυθικῆς ζωιῆς στή[σ]αι)»21.

445

Contemporaries, as Aristo’s famous verse indicates, found Arce-

silaus a very difficult philosopher to assess. It was probably this un-

certainty, combined witht a rather vague belief that Arcesilaus was

transitional between the early Platonists and Carneades, that accounted

for the eventual contrast between Middle and New Academies. Notice

that even though the contrast exists by the time of Cicero (on the

strength of the Index Academicorum) it seems to be of no interest to

any of his Academic spokesmen. The nearest any speaker in his Acade-

mica
comes to saying anything similar is Lucullus’ brief history of the

school at acad. ΙΙ 16: there he says that Arcesilaus’ ratio was not much

accepted at first, but that it was kept going next only by Lacydes, and

afterwards perfected by Carneades.

Diogenes’ mention of the Middle Academy is not the only indica-

tion that his opening characterization of Arcesilaus derives from fairly

late sources. He says that Arcesilaus was the first to «suspend his as-

sertions owing to the contrarieties of arguments (πρῶτος ἐπισχὼν τὰς

ἀποφάσεις διὰ τὰς ἐναντιότητας τῶν λόγων)» (IV 28). This state-

ment would hardly be made before a time when there were other philo-

sophers who might be so described, and who might contest Arcesilaus’

priority. It is conceivable that during Arcesilaus’ lifetime the term

ἐποχή came to be attached to Pyrrho, as Diogenes himself reports

(IX 61)22. But everything of any historical value that we think we

know about Pyrrho’s freedom from opining detaches that mental state

from the practice of formal argument. Only with Aenesidemus

does Pyrrhonism acquire, as its instrument for suspending judgement,

the dialectical method attributed by Diogenes to Arcesilaus. I conclude,

then, that Arcesilaus’ originality in this respect is unlikely to have been

singled out until there were other philosophers, neo-Pyrrhonists, who

juxtaposed opposing arguments as a means of producing ἰσοσθένεια

and ἐποχή.

446

Next Diogenes says that Arcesilaus was the first to argue both

sides of a thesis (πρῶτος δὲ καὶ εἰς ἐκάτερον ἐπεχείρησε). This claim

is false in one respect, and probably misleading in another. Argument

pro and contra the same thesis had a history which went back at least

as far as Protagoras. Diogenes himself says: «Protagoras was the first

to say there are two arguments, opposed to one another, on every

matter; and he argued thus, being the first to do so» (ix 51). Apart

from this misattribution of originality to Arcesilaus, was it really his

trademark to argue pro and contra the same thesis? Certainly, that

procedure is regularly attributed to the New Academy in general, and

it was famously practised by Carneades. But arguing pro and contra

the same thesis (εἰς ἐκάτερον) must be carefully distinguished from

«arguing on the opposite side» (εἰς ἐναντία), whereby one opposes

a thesis stated by someone else. It is this latter procedure which is

explicitly attributed to Arcesilaus by Cicero in a context where he

likens him to Socrates: «Arcesilaus prescribed that those who wanted

to listen to him should not ask him questions but state their own opi-

nions. When they had done so, he argued against them. But his listeners,

so far as they could, would defend their own opinions» (de fin. II 2).

By the time of Cicero, the distinction between argument pro and contra,

and argument only contra, is often obscured; and it would be unwise

to suppose that Arcesilaus never took both sides himself23. None the

less, all of his surviving arguments in Cicero and Sextus are rejoinders

to the theses stated by his opponents. And it seems highly probable

that this was his recommended method for inducing suspension of jud-

gement24. He could claim Socratic support for a procedure which laid

on the interlocutor the responsibility for saying what he believed, and

447

for using the interlocutor’s beliefs as material to produce an elenchus25.

By taking over his opponents’ premises for his rejoinder, Arcesilaus

could remain uncommitted to the truth of his own argument, and at

the same time induce suspension of judgement in his interlocutor by

showing him that his own premises could support a conclusion opposed

to that which he had defended.

I have been arguing that Diogenes’ opening remarks about Arce-

silaus do not derive from a contemporary source like Antigonus, and

are more misleading than informative about Arcesilaus’ dialectical me-

thods. I want now to suggest that material within the main body of

the life, probably derived from Antigonus, tends to support the idea

that Arcesilaus’ characteristic method was to respond to an interlocutor

and not to state both sides himself.

In sections 34-7 Diogenes purports to illustrate by example ge-

neral characteristics which he has attributed to Arcesilaus — his ex-

cellence at stating propositions and deriving conclusions from them

(ἀξιωματικώτατος καὶ συνηγμένος), his concern for linguistic precision

in conversation (καὶ ἐν τῇ λαλιᾷ διαστατικὸς τῶν ὁνομάτων), and

his hard-hitting rejoinders and frankness (ἐπικόπτης καὶ παρρησιασ-

τής), two qualities also credited, as we saw, to Menedemus. In each of

the examples which now follow, Arcesilaus is represented as responding

to what someone else has said to him: «to a young man who was

discoursing too boldly» «to a homosexual who expressed the opinion

that two things [i.e. male sexual organs] do not differ in size» «to

an ugly man who thought himself handsome and expressed the opinion

that the wise man would not be a lover». After giving three similar

examples, which include a follower of the Dialectician Alexinus, Dio-

genes says: «Arcesilaus would not even reply to some people (τισὶ

δὲ οὐδὲ ἀπεκρίνετο)» (IV 35).

448

The content of Arcesilaus’ responses need not detain us. They

are amusing, but of small philosophical interest. If a philosophical

message can be extracted from them, it would be Arcesilaus’ interest

in dispelling baseless opinions, rather than in inducing suspension of

judgement quite generally. (All that points to this latter characteristic

of Arcesilaus is the remark that he found himself «naturally somehow»

(φυσικῶς πως) using assertion and denial in his conversation (IV 36),

a comment even recorded in the Suda article on φημί and hich implies

that suspending judgement was the attitude consistently expected of

him.) Diogenes then observes that Arcesilaus was very inventive in his

rejoinders (IV 37), and at bringing the discussion back to the thesis

being examined.

For what it is worth, this material confirms the impression that

Arcesilaus did not deliver arguments for and against the same thesis

himself. But how much is it worth? Other lives in Diogenes, especially

that of Menedemus, represent the philosopher’s remarks principally as

rejoinders to another speaker, or as replies to questions. Minimally we

can say that Arcesilaus is characterized here in a manner typical of

third-century dialecticians. That presumably was the way he struck

many of his contemporaries. But I think we can say a little more.

The persons Arcesilaus is described as conversing with — like Socra-

tes — include more than philosophers, presumably anyone who came

to the Academy whom he deemed it worth talking to. From Cicero

and Sextus we may be led to think that Arcesilaus was largely involved

in inter-school disputes. Clearly these were an important part of his

activities. But the anecdotes in Diogenes, trivial though they are, suggest

that Arcesilaus regarded philosophy as an activity which should be used

to subject anyone’s opinions to critical scrutiny; and to this extent,

they ring true.

There is more to Diogenes’ life of Arcesilaus than I will attempt

to describe here. There are his two poems, on which Marcello Gigante

has written an interesting paper26, an the information about Arce-

449

silaus’ relations with Eumenes of Pergamum and Antigonus Gonatas,

which throw light on the economic history of the third century Aca-

demy27. I have confined my attention to showing how this life may

be used as evidence for Arcesilaus’ philosophical background and me-

thods. We have seen that it provokes an interesting question about his

relations with Zeno, and material, which needs careful dissection, on

his procedures as the first Academic sceptic. If Diogenes’ initial remarks

are anachronistic and misleading, something of historical value can still

be gleaned from parts of the life which probably go back to Antigonus.

For Arcesilaus’ early career, this life is the best we have, though

inferior, where it can be compared, to the extremely similar Index

Academicorum.
Without Diogenes we would know nothing about Ar-

cesilaus’ mathematical training. If I am right in associating Theo-

phrastus with Arcesilaus’ education in rhetoric, that too is useful in-

formation. We did not need it in order to be aware of Arcesilaus’

argumentative inventiveness, but it provides a credible source of refine-

ment for the persuasiveness which Diogenes and all our evidence at-

tribute to him. Looking back at the New Academy, Cicero said that

a budding orator must try to seize the power of either a Carneades

or an Aristotle (De oratore III 71). Arcesilaus and Carneades were not

rhetoricians, but their techniques of argument contra, or pro and contra,

contributed to and must have owed something to the rhetorical tradi-

tion. In spite of its banality, Diogenes’ life of Arcesilaus lends credence

to Eratosthenes’ remark (note 20 above) that this was one of the

outstanding philosophers of the age.

1.
Cic. acad. ΙΙ 67, 76-78; Sext. Emp. adv. math. VII 150-58. Context and

chronology make it virtually certain that Plut. adv. Col. 1122 A-F, can also be

attributed to Arcesilaus; cfr. R. Westman, Plutarch gegen Kolotes, (Acta Philo-

sophica Fennica VIII) Helsinki 1955, pp. 294-5.
2.
Cfr. Plut. Alex. fort. 328 A; Diog. Laert. IV 32. The puzzling reference

in Diog. Laert. ad loc. to the tradition of Arcesilaus’ being ‘caught out’ (ἐφωράθη)

correcting some works, which he published or burned, is illuminated by Index

Acad.
, col. XVIII 34-6: ...[λε]ιφ[θέ]ντα ὑπ̣ὸ Κράντορος [ὑπο]μνήματα[...]ι διὰ

χερὸς ἔχειν καὶ μετατιθέναι. The works in question were unpublished memoirs

left by Crantor, some of which, we can infer, were edited and published by

Arcesilaus.
3.
Cfr. U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Antigonos von Karystos, (Philo-

logische Untersuchungen 4) Berlin 1881. Antigonus is not named by Diogenes in

his Life of Arcesilaus, but cfr. IV 17,22 and Wilamowitz, pp. 45-77. For Mene-

demus, cfr. Diog. Laert. II 136 (cfr. note 4 below) and Wilamowitz, pp. 86-102.
4.
Cfr. Diog. Laert. ΙΙ 136, φηςὶ δ’ ’Αντίγονος ὁ Καρύστιος γράψαι αὐτὸν

[scil. Menedemus] μηδὲν μηδὲ συντάξαι, ὥστε μηδ’ ἐπὶ δόγματός τίνος στηρίζειν.
5.
My reports of the Index Academicorum are based upon my own readings of

the papyrus. I gratefully acknowledge the support I was given for a visit in 1978

to the “Centro internazionale per lo studio dei papiri ercolanesi” by Marcello Gigante

and by a grant from the British Academy.
6.
αὐ[τοῦ] scripsi: ἀ[λλὰ] Mekler: αυ Ο: α P
7.
U. von Wilamowitz, op. cit., pp. 70-1, included only Ind. Acad. col XVII in

his comparison with Diog. Laert., and his version of the last lines of this passage is

based on a defective and inaccurate copy of the papyrus. His general comment on

the Index material for the life of Arcesilaus (p. 57), e.g. «hier ist es recht deutlich,

wie stark Philodem kürtz», must be charitably ascribed to ignorance of the texts

cited above.
8.
For Arcesilaus, cfr. Diog. Laert. IV 29, 39-40, and for Menedemus, II 138,

140-44.
9.
There seems to be no good reason for thinking that Augustine drew on

anything more for his account of the Academics than Cicero’s Academica, which

he would have known in its complete form, and his own imagination.
10.
Autolycus is the author of the earliest complete Greek astronomical texts,

Περὶ κινουμένης σφαῖρας and Περὶ ἐπιτολῶν καὶ δύσεων, which probably date

from the last two decades of the 4th century (cfr. J. Mogenet, Autolycus de Pitane,

8, Louvain 1950). The texts are edited by G. Aujac (Paris 1979).
11.
U. von Wilamowitz, Antigonos cit., pp. 57-8, presumes that Antigonus

of Carystus had intimate acquaintance with affairs in Pitane, as evidenced by

Diogenes’ citation of Arcesilaus’ letter to Thaumasias, Diog. Laert. IV 44.
12.
Εὐεπιχείρητος, which is not otherwise attested in the active sense, should

mean ‘good at arguing’, not ‘readily attempting’ (LSJ). Note that Theophrastus

wrote many books of ἐπιχειρήματα, Diog. Laert. V 43, 49. A rhetorical sense for

ἐμβριθής is supported by Philod. rhet. I 46 Sudhaus.
13.
Cfr. my Hellenistic Philosophy, London 1974, pp. 5-6. I take the virtual

absence of any record of books written by Polemo, Crates and Crantor to point

in this direction.
14.
I have let this point stand in spite of the reservations expressed in the

discussion by Geoffrey Lloyd. We do know that Crantor, probably the most

formative of all Arcesilaus’ teachers, was extremely interested in the mathematics

of Plato’s Timaeus, cfr. Plut. an. procr. 1020 C-D etc. with comm, by H. Cherniss

in the Loeb ed. of Plut, moral. XIII part. II. This, together, with our other evidence

for Arcesilaus’ mathematical studies, seems sufficient for my claim. I am not

suggesting that Arcesilaus, as a mature philosopher, did mathematical work, but

that the training he had in mathematics, and his early interests in the subject,

should be noted when we are accounting for his intellectual development.
15.
The same holds good for the argument recorded by Plutarch (note 1 above).
16.
This thesis is crucial to the argument Zeno is said to have had with

Arcesilaus in Cic. acad. ΙΙ 77. Cfr. also A. M. Ioppolo, Aristone di Chio e lo

stoicismo antico
, Napoli 1980, pp. 188 ff.
17.
See further, A. M. Ioppolo, op. cit., (note 16 above) pp. 28-9.
18.
Diog. Laert. IV 33, Sext. Emp. PH I 234, Euseb. PE XIV 5.13; cfr.

A. M. Ioppolo, op. cit., p. 26 ff.
19.
See for instance de fin. II 43, V 23; tusc. V 85.
20.
Strab. I 15, 6 [Eratosthenes] δὲ Ἀρκεσίλαον καὶ Ἀρίστωνα τῶν καθ’

αὑτὸν ἀνθησάντων κορυφαίους τίθησιν.
21.
I have found no reference to this evidence in J. Glucker, Antiochus and

the Late Academy,
Göttingen 1978, who claims that «the whole idea of a “Middle

Academy” as well as a “New Academy” is later than the age of Cicero», p. 235

note 26; cfr. also his pp. 344-5.
22.
F. Decleva Caizzi, Pirrone. Testimonianze, Napoli 1981, p. 136, rightly

notes that Diog. Laert.’s testimony need imply only that Pyrrho, from a post-

Arcesilaan perspective, could be regarded as the originator of scepticism.
23.
But note also Cic. acad. I 45, contra omnium sententias disserens.
24.
Further support for this suggestion can be gleaned from Plut. st. rep.

1035 F-1037 C, where Chrysippus is quoted for a judgement on πρὸς τἀναντία

διαλέγεσθαι as practised by «those who suspend judgement about everything ».

At the end of this section Plutarch himself characterizes the Academics as philo-

sophers who εἰς ἐκάτερον ἐπιχείρουσιν, 1037 F, but this is his own comment,

and not derived from Chrysippus.
25.
Cfr. G. Vlastos, The Socratic elenchus, «Oxford Studies in Ancient Phi-

losophy», I (1983) p. 30: «Socratic elenchus is a search for moral truth by

adversary argument in which a thesis is debated only if asserted as the answerer’s

own belief, who is regarded as refuted if and only if the negation of his thesis

is deduced from his own beliefs».
26.
Poesia e critica letteraria in Arcesilao, in Ricerche Barbagallo I, Napoli

1970, p. 431 ff.
27.
See E. V. Hansen, The Attalids of Pergamum (ed. 2, Ithaca and London)

pp. 396-9, and W. W. Tarn, Antigonus Gonatas, Oxford 1913, pp. 332-5.


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