Theophrastus on Platonic and 'Pythagorean' Imitation

Classical Quarterly 63 (2):686-712 (2013)
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In the twenty-fourth aporia of Theophrastus' Metaphysics, there appears an important, if ‘bafflingly elliptical’, ascription to Plato and the ‘Pythagoreans’ of a theory of reduction to the first principles via ‘imitation’. Very little attention has been paid to the idea of Platonic and ‘Pythagorean’ reduction through the operation of ‘imitation’ as presented by Theophrastus in his Metaphysics. This article interrogates the concepts of ‘reduction’ and ‘imitation’ as described in the extant fragments of Theophrastus’ writings – with special attention to his Metaphysics – in an attempt to make sense of how, precisely, Theophrastus characterizes the metaphysical systems of Plato and the ‘Pythagoreans’. A fuller examination of Aporia 24 produces important new understandings of the nature of the Early Academy in the mid fourth century B.C.E. Specifically, by ascribing the concept of reduction via ‘imitation’ to Plato and the ‘Pythagoreans’, Theophrastus is actually describing theories about the structure of the universe held by an important Platonist competitor and the contemporary head of the Academy in Athens, Xenocrates of Chalcedon (396/5–314/13 B.C.E.), who (a) took it upon himself to establish a Platonic doctrine that could be associated with his master’s writings and (b) coordinated that doctrine with the philosophical precepts of the Pythagoreans. As a consequence, we are prompted to question Aristotle’s famous ascription of a theory of ‘imitation’ to the metaphysics of the genuine contemporary or recently deceased Pythagoreans (such as Philolaus of Croton or Archytas of Tarentum) and consider how Xenocrates’ writings on Plato and the ‘Pythagoreans’ might be informing both Theophrastus’ and Aristotle’s descriptions of the Platonic and Pythagorean philosophical system(s).

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Phillip Sidney Horky
Durham University


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