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The Skopos Assumption: Its Justification and Function in the Neoplatonic Commentaries on Plato

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This paper examines the role of the theme (prothesis or skopos) in Neoplatonic interpretive practice, particularly with respect to Platonic dialogues. The belief that every dialogue has a single skopos and that every aspect of the dialogue can be seen as subserving that skopos is one of the most distinctive of the Neoplatonists’ intepretive principles.1 It is also the one that is most directly responsible for the forced and artificial character of their readings of Plato. The arguments offered in support of this principle are manifestly inadequate to justify the role that it plays. This is so even if we evaluate those arguments by the Neoplatonists’ own lights. If we want to understand how this practice seemed rational to them, we need to consider more than their texts and Plato’s. We need to consider the role that the shared act of reading a Platonic dialogue with the teacher had in transforming the souls of the students and in the self-understanding of Neoplatonic teachers. I. Hadot, among others, has argued that the continuous commentary was a kind of spiritual exercise.2 I largely agree with her conclusion, though I believe her analysis of the sense in which these were spiritual exercises needs to be deepened. I argue that the justification for the assumption that each dialogue has a single skopos is best understood by reference to the manner in which the practice of commentary functioned within the internal economy of their schools considered as textual communities.3

Affiliations: 1: School of Humanities, University of Tasmania Hobart tas 7001AUSTRALIA


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15. Westerink L.G. 1962 Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy Amsterdam North-Holland

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