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Ancient Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Post-Hellenistic Philosophy: A Study in Its Development from the Stoics to Origen by G. R. Boys-Stones (Oxford University Press) This book traces, for the first time, a revolution in philosophy which took place during the early centuries of our era. It reconstructs the philosophical basis of the Stoics' theory that fragments of an ancient and divine wisdom could be reconstructed from mythological traditions, and shows that Platonism was founded on an argument that Plato had himself achieved a full reconstruction of this wisdom, and that subsequent philosophies had only regressed once again in their attempts to 'improve' on his achievement. The significance of this development is highlighted through parallel studies of the Hellenistic debate over the status of Jewish culture; and of the philosophical beginnings of Christianity, where the notions of 'orthodoxy' and 'heresy' in particular are shown to be tools in the construction of a unified history of Christian philosophy stretching back to primitive antiquity.

  • Examines the Stoic influences on Jewish theology in the Hellenistic period

  • Gives parallel and mutually supporting studies of Platonism and Christian philosophy.

The title of this book may be confusing. It is really about the development of post-hellenistic philosophy, and in order to explain that development as Boys-Stones (henceforth BS) does, he must go back at least as far as the old Stoa. There is no suggestion that Stoicism is a post-hellenistic philosophy, though BS pays special attention to Posidonius, Cornutus, and Chaeremon. The concept of post-hellenistic philosophy emerges in the course of the study, so that the reader may be in doubt about how the subject is to be defined until well into the book. While Posidonius is seen as important, it is not until the first century AD, with Cornutus and Plutarch, that this 'philosophy' is perceived as being fully in place.

The earlier part of the book looks mainly at Stoic, Anti-Semitic, and Jewish apologetic. The principal starting point is Seneca Ep.90, where Seneca disagrees with Posidonius' attempt to make philosophers of an earlier age the discoverers of the arts (18-24). It is argued that Seneca's position, that the goodness of early humanity was prephilosophic, is the Old Stoic one. Since for orthodox stoicism error cannot arise without opinion, pre-reflective human would have been naturally good (25). Posidonius, with his complex psychology that postulated an inferior element within us, needed early humans to be properly ruled (46). [I suggest that the influence of Plato's Republic on Posidonius is again evident here, since the analogy between the soul in need of ruling reason and the community in need of ruling reason is present.] The Stoics were important for their notion that traces of early wisdom were available through early poets, in spite the poets' own deviation from it (26, 31-38). An intriguing discussion of the 'natural notions' in Stoicism occur in relation to the concept of early, uncorrupted humanity (38-42).

From p.49 we move to Cornutus, who is found to take an essentially Posidonian line on early humankind. It seems that they were reminded of their notions (ennoiai) by the gods, and subsequently expressed their wisdom in allegorical and symbolic form--a matter of considerable importance. This sets limits to the amount that the poets could corrupt its tradition (52-3), particular where names functioned in this symbolic way (54-56). Neoplatonist readers will be reminded that the symbolism of primitive names becomes a crucial issue in Proclus On the Cratylus. Cornutus introduces what BS regards as vital: the introduction of a method for finding out just what had been preserved intact, comparison between peoples with ancient traditions (58).

Chapters 4 and 5 relate to the Jews, the first to anti-semitic writers and their denial of cultural independence or of an ancient cultural identity for the Jews, and the second to the response of the apologists. These chapters serve to bolster and refine the thesis presented by BS. I was disappointed that he did not make more of Chaeremon's view that Moses was an Egyptian (given Philo's idealisation of Moses) (74) and am not entirely convinced where he strives to reconcile the fact that early apologists argued that Greeks borrowed from the Jews with his own denial that they argued for the antiquity of the Jews. It seems to me that the difference is merely one between relative and absolute antiquity. Issues of relative antiquity had been around since Herodotus (2.4) of course.

The arguments for cultural borrowing are rather interesting. One starts with the observation that people's A and B both have similar significant insights in their inherited culture, assumes that such insight must be due to a primitive revelation, assumes further that such a revelation comes only once, and draws the conclusion that one has borrowed from the other. The Jews of course attempt to show in response to their detractors that Greeks borrowed from Jews. It is important for the book that this can be seen (as in Aristobulus, pp. 82-5) as Greek philosophical borrowing, rather than religious borrowing.

Part two of the book begins with two chapters on Platonism: 6 on the nature of Plato's authority, and 7 on why Plato should prima facie be given more credence than later alternatives. At 102 Platonism is defined as 'the belief that Plato's philosophy was Dogmatic and authoritative.' In view of much recent work on what dogma means in this period the definition appears ambiguous, but the capital D suggests to me that the author is proposing a stronger definition than one should accept. I should not use the word 'Platonist' of any who denied that Plato had any doctrine, but I should certainly allow it of those who thought that Plato's philosophy could not be simply expounded or that it contained elements of doubt. However, I support the attempt by BS to explain the Platonist revival in terms of a new commitment to the authority of Plato. He prefers authority in the sense of 'unquestioned possession of truth' to the sense of 'the right to be taken seriously' (104). But BS is too 'black and white'. For most Platonists Plato had something more like unquestioned possession of insights that made his dialogues, properly understood, convey messages that were true in important senses. It is the discovery of the nature of this truth that was the challenge of the interpreter.

With important, but not necessarily convincing, use of Plutarch fragments 157 and 190,1 BS is able to argue that 'Plutarch, like Celsus, and both like the Stoics, believed that the cultic practice and traditional theology of the Greek and ancient barabarian nations have their roots in an authoritative philosophy which derives from the earliest generations of men' (111-12). So far this is reasonable, but BS now argues that the combination of Plutarch and Celsus provides good grounds for attributing the theory to the Platonism of the period in general. This sweeping induction is quite unjustified, particularly bearing in mind that what we have in Plutarch is a few hints in a large corpus, and Middle Platonism is extremely heterogeneous. BS seems to think that the adoption of Stoic allegorical interpretation plus their comparative mythology confirms the importance of the primitive vision theory, but that need not be so. Allegories and myths have a special place in Platonism simply because it tends to deny the effectiveness of direct indoctrination and aims to gently stimulate the so-called 'natural notions' so important here for Middle Platonists as for Stoics. Indeed Cornutus' primitive vision theory has the gods triumphing over the inner savage by awakening their (ennoiai),2 and if this primitive vision was itself dependent on such (ennoiai) then anybody with ready access to them 3 had access to that same vision. Certainly traces of the primitive vision in Homer etc. might trigger their reawakening in more recent times, but that reawakening could (according to the theory of Phaedo73-74) be triggered by a variety of likenesses or symbols.

BS claims (115) that ancient Platonists considered the Platonic corpus 'a textbook of ancient wisdom, reconstructed, compiled, and explained': reconstructed 'in its entirety' in fact. Fragments of religious wisdom are seen as 'raw material' (117), gathered for the imposition of Platonic form. This gives Plato the look of an antiquarian researcher, carefully piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. But pieces of this puzzle had been lost or defaced beyond reconstruction by any empirical process, and Platonists never attached the greatest weight to such processes either. Rather Plato has been assisted by surviving fragments to recreate the vision from within: to relive it rather than reconstruct it. Now BS rightly rejects a simple 'divine inspiration' theory as being adequate to explain Plato's trustworthiness, thinking this the only alternative to his reconstructed wisdom, but what BS has forgotten is that in Platonism every individual has had primitive access to the truth.

In chapter 7 BS discusses how Platonists could justify belief in Plato's alleged primitive wisdom rather than in the wisdom of the other major schools, particularly in the face of Skeptic objections based on diaphonia. His strategy goes back to Antiochus of Ascalon, who regarded the Peripatetic and Stoic philosophies as developments of Platonism, so that Platonism precedes diaphonia. First, this seems an anachronistic explanation, and second it overestimates the importance of Skepticism for the Middle Platonists--they seldom display Galen's interest in anti-Skeptic polemic, and Sextus takes virtually no account of contemporary Platonism. The reason is that it is ignorance that needs explanation for the Platonist rather than correctness. In this it differs from other Hellenistic philosophies, giving it a strong emphasis on discovery within ourselves. Hence the discovery of a primitive vision in prehistoric philosophy is closely related to, and at times may even stand as a symbol of, the discovery of a pre-carnate vision within ourselves. Here it is not insignificant that Plato's own theory of inner knowledge in the Meno is introduced with an appeal to traditional wisdom (81a-c). Going back in time assists us to go back within.

With this emphasis on inner wisdom, much of the debate in the second century is conducted in terms of adherence to or deviation from the natural notions, a concept that could be shared between Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and Science. However, here Platonists had the distinct advantage that such notions could be seen as the target of Socratic definitions and the means by which the Platonic Ideas were accessed. In no philosophy, it could be argued, had the natural notions played such a part as in Platonism. Like the lover who has had a strong and undamaged vision of Beauty (Phaedrus 251a), Plato was under the influence of powerful forces that guided his life in accordance with the truth: no other philosopher had made primitive wisdom within us so important. Those with a great concern for chronologically primitive wisdom were more likely to end up, like Moderatus, Numenius, and (on one view) Philo, as Pythagoreans, with Plato highly regarded to the extent that he was held to follow Pythagorean material. In that case it was Plato who was mined for pieces of the primitive Pythagorean vision.

At 135-8 BS claims that Plutarch's polemical works were designed to show the results of diverging from the true philosophy. I should be wary of this in general, while accepting the general point that Plutarch is primarily interested in doctrines which conflict with Platonism; but in particular it seems odd to think that De Communibus Notitiis is not more concerned with divergence from the common notions. One should add that Plutarch is in general polite towards, and ready to learn from, other philosophers where possible--and wherever he thinks that Platonism receives polite treatment from them.

I read with interest the final two chapters on 'The Invention of Hebraeo-Christian Orthodoxy', with its reworking of the concept of hairesis, and 'The "Dependency Theme"', and in general my doubts about the handling of Platonism did not cause me to doubt the overall importance of the topic or of this book in particular, from which I have learned some things and been made to think harder about others. Bibliography, Index Locorum, and General Index complete a book whose scholarly presentation is commendable.

Clearly my main difficulties have been over Platonism. The preface (viii) stated the thesis that Platonism should not be defined mainly by its doctrines but rather by its methodologies, in the context of which doctrines are better understood. While it is hard to see how doctrines will not be the primary element of a definition of Platonism (for the methodologies discussed here are not the prerogative of a single school), I fully agree that the doxographic approach to the revived Platonism of the first and second centuries AD has not been especially satisfying and that Platonism in particular should be seen in terms of its practices and of the theory behind those practices. It is of importance that Platonism now shared with its rivals the belief in some primitive age in which humans had access to the truth and that the truth was seen to be embodied in the rather more recent corpus of Plato's writings. This should give rise to many further important topics that are not here discussed: How is it that Plato's philosophy itself can give him access the primitive vision? What were the means by which such a vision could be communicated by the Platonist to the pupil? What was the content of this vision? How far is the content reducible to a collection of doctrines? These are vital questions for Middle Platonism with which further studies of its methodologies could profitably engage.

Confining the study to the methodologies of apology and polemic makes it less a study in philosophy. It also narrows the range of sources to those who conducted polemic themselves or supplied the theory behind it. The priority of methodology over doctrine is used to justify neglect of figures like Albinus, Alcinous, and Apuleius, but there is much more method than doctrine in Albinus' extant Prologus, the methods of Alcinous certainly deserve attention, and Apuleius' methods of conveying the Platonic message would involve far more than a study of the De Platone et eius Dogmatis. Worryingly, it also has made us rather dependent on those polemicists whose works Christian authors have seen fit to preserve, notably Celsus' attack on Christianity, but also Numenius' attack on post-Platonic philosophy and Atticus' attack on Aristotle (both preserved by Eusebius), and Porphyry's attack on Christianity. Obviously when Christian writers engage with Middle Platonists there will be considerable attention to those who attack the Christians themselves. This in turn is likely to result in a corpus of Middle Platonists that gives too much weight to the polemicists. Perhaps a better idea of the balance between polemic and instructive discussion is to had from Plutarch, but here too caution is necessary because of the more Academic persona of Plutarch in his polemical works. Even his degree of allegiance to the New Academy is hard to match elsewhere in Middle Platonism.

Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity by Dominic J. O'Meara (Oxford University Press) Conventional wisdom suggests that the Platonist philosophers of Late Antiquity, from Plotinus (third century) to the sixth-century schools in Athens and Alexandria, neglected the political dimension of their Platonic heritage in their concentration on an otherworldly life. Dominic O'Meara presents a revelatory reappraisal of these thinkers, arguing that their otherworldliness involved rather than excluded political ideas, and he proposes for the first time a reconstruction of their political philosophy, their conception of the function, structure, and contents of political science, and its relation to political virtue and to the divinization of soul and state.

Among the topics discussed by O'Meara are: philosopher-kings and queens; political goals and levels of reform; law, constitutions, justice, and penology; the political function of religion; and the limits of political science and action. He also explores various reac­tions to these political ideas in the works of Christian and Islamic writers, in particular Eusebius, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, and al-Farabi.

Filling a major gap in our understanding, Platonopolis will be of substantial interest to scholars and students of ancient philosophy, classicists, and historians of political thought.

Review: The purpose of this study is to determine more clear­ly the particular place and function of political philosophy within Neoplatonic thought. This involves a reconstruction of Neoplatonic political philosophy, or rather a sketch of its main outlines, its principal articulations, and major themes by O'Meara. Such a sketch is unique to modern neoplatonic studies and  O'Meara realizes that this study is preliminary and requires further development. The main difficulty is how Neoplatonic political philosophy could be plausibly structured. For this effort O'Meara sought to better understand`of how Neoplatonists saw political theory in the context of their philoso­phy as a whole. Although this study is concerned with the recon­struction of a theory, this theory is elaborated in particular historical contexts that O'Meara usually notes. However, this study is not exactly historical in`that few claims are made about the concrete impact (or lack thereof) of the theories as reconstructed.

A reconstruction of Neoplatonic political philosophy is proposed by O'Meara as part of an argument suggesting a revision of the common view in modern studies that no such political philosophy can or does exist. Modernist and postmodernist have often infered that the otherworldly orientation of Neoplatonism has excluded sustained interest in political matters. O'Meara argues that this supposition is unsound and that a more exact view of the relation between divinization (as the goal of Neoplatonism) and political life leads to other results.

If in general in Greek philosophy, the human good, the goal of philosophy, can be described in some sense as divinization, this goal usually involves a collectivity. As Augustine rightly remarked, the philosophers saw human felicity as `social'. In this regard, if we follow the common view, Neoplatonists would have been exceptional in excluding political life from divinization. However, it has been shown that it is the case rather that political life, as the context in which `political' virtues may be developed, can have an important function as a preparatory and necessary stage for the transition of the human soul to a higher, transcendent divine life. The context in which the soul may acquire the `political' virtues requires reform, a divinization brought about by philosophers who have already reached divine life. These philosophers bring to bear a political science for the development of political structures allowing and promoting the `political' virtues other souls should acquire in order to reach the Good. O'Meara distinguishes two aspects of the relation between political life and divinization in Neoplatonism: the divinization of soul by means of the `political' virtues and the divinization of the state through political science as a means of promoting `political' virtue.

The divinization of soul through the `political' virtues concerns the soul as related to the body, using the body as instrument, according to a defini­tion of the human. Neoplatonists found in Plato. The `political' virtues are human virtues and involve the rational organization of desires and of whatever relates to the bodily condition. Once bodily affairs are put in order, reason is free to develop its own potentiality by attaining higher virtues ('purificatory', `theoretical') which lead it from human goodness to the divine Good. In speaking of `political' virtues, Plotinus had in mind the inner republic of the soul. However, later Neoplatonists, Porphyry, Macrobius, Damascius, for example, related them also to the political sphere where such virtues could and ought to be exercised. However, in many cases, we may assume, these virtues were cultivated primarily in the domestic world of the philosophical school, where the inner rational order of the soul (as related to the body) could show itself in relations with others. The school provided the best social context in which the `political' virtues would be developed, not only by promoting appropriate moral habituation, but also by providing instruction in practical philosophy, the wisdom required by reason in `political' virtue. This practical philosophy included ethics, `economics' (what we might call domestic ethics), and politics. Since, however, these three branches of practical philosophy merely applied the same practical wisdom on three scales (the soul, the household, and the state), the Neoplatonists preferred to distinguish between legisla­tive and judicial branches. `Political' virtue and wisdom, they felt, were taught primarily in Plato's dialogues, the Gorgias, Republic, and Laws, and it is consequently mainly by using their commentaries on these dialogues that O'Meara reconstructs their political philosophy. However, one can find this philosophy in other texts, Pseudo-Pythagorean and Aristotelian.

Having reached higher, more divine levels of life through the purificato­ry and theoretical virtues, the philosopher may wish to return to the political level to contribute to reforms which promote a life of `political' virtue for other souls. The return of the philosopher to political life can be approached in the light of Neoplatonic discussions of questions concern­ing the philosopher-kings of Plato's Republic. The return of the philosopher, for Neoplatonists, arises from participation in the transcendent Good. This Good is communicative of itself, as will be the philosopher who shares in it, who will seek to give political expression to the transcendent Good, in the form for example of legislation. More simply, the point is made by O'Meara that assim­ilation to god means not only attaining knowledge but also exercising a `providential', that is a political function. This function does not in principle affect the higher perfection of life, the happiness attained by the philoso­pher. Plato's conception of philosopher-queens is taken seriously and defended by Neoplatonists, a position which corresponds to the important place of women in their schools. However, in terms of what is humanly pos­sible in political reform, Proclus took a weaker position, justified also, he thought, by indications in Plato.

The philosopher who returns to political affairs, the `political philoso­pher' described by Hermias, will bring to bear `political science'. Political science, revealed, according to Iamblichus by Pythagoras to his followers, is defined by Olympiodorus as a ruling (architectonic) science concerned with moral improvement in actions in a consenting human community, a science depending on practical wisdom and seeking to achieve communal harmony and unity. The political goal is also defined elsewhere by Olympiodorus as `political happiness', itself subordinated to a higher good, that is higher levels`of divinization. The political goal is therefore that of a community organized for the purpose of a moral improvement (in the `political' virtues), which provides the conditions for the further divinization of human souls. Different levels could be conceived in the political reform to be attempted, levels going from the city of Plato's Republic to the second-best project of the Laws and to yet lower degrees of ambition. The project of the Republic was taken to be the city of gods to which Plato refers in the Laws, hardly therefore a realistic ambition for political science which, for Proclus, aims at the advantageous and the possible. The project of the Laws was thus more relevant, as were less ambi­tious ideals of reform. A consequence of this was a greater stress on the importance of law, as the expression of political science. The doubtful prospect of rulers being philosophers perfect in morals and knowledge meant that rulers such as Julian, advised by philosophers, should be guardians of laws which serve to express moral values and develop the `political' virtues of citizens.

The political science of the philosopher as ruler or adviser, depends on practical wisdom. This wisdom, as Iamblichus describes it, is inspired by divine sources. What this means, in the primary, legislative branch of polit­ical science, is that models of constitutional order are found in the order of the cosmos, in mathematical principles, or in the divine orders responsible for the making of the universe. These models show hierarchical structures in which the principle of geometrical equality applies, for example rank and function are determined by corresponding capacities. In political terms, this means a `monarchic' or `aristocratic' constitution, as understood in Platonic terms, that is the rule of those with the requisite moral and intellectual qualities. The Laws suggest, however, a less utopian structure for realizing geo­metrical equality, a mixed constitution of which O'Meara provides examples, in particular in the anonymous dialogue On Political Science.

The judicial branch of political science concerns the correction of transgression of the law and restitution of lawful order. Using Plato's eschato­logical myths as expressions of judicial science, Neoplatonists interpreted the myths as representing punishment as being therapeutic and reforma­tive, not as retributive: punishment should seek the moral reform of those who transgress. O'Meara  cites Sopatros' letter to Himerius  to suggest a flexible approach in the administration of human justice, an approach that takes account of individual characters. His letter is also an interesting document concerning the way in which an authority might seek the moral good of citizens while protecting them from the immoral requirements of an autocratic ruler to whom he is subject.

O'Meara  shows that religion has an important political function for Neoplatonists, as it had in Plato's Laws. Public cult develops the relation with transcendent divinities; it represents and consolidates the moral values of political life as a form of divinization. The importance both of political life and of public cult in the divinization of human nature emerged more clearly when, with Iamblichus, the relevance of soul's relation to body in the divinization of soul was emphasized, in criticism of Plotinus' relative neglect of the material aspects of the human condition. In Julian, O'Meara suggests, we can find an example of a later Neoplatonic use of religion as part of a political reform.

This sketch of Neoplatonic political philosophy that O'Meara  makes shows that it included reflection on aspects of the practical reasoning involved in political decisions, the deficiencies this reasoning entails, the heteronomy of actions that are undertaken, and the reasons for failure.

Next, O'Meara discusses various thinkers, Christian and Islamic, that were influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy and reacted to it in dif­ferent ways. Eusebius' theocratic ideology might be described as a Christian appropriation: the philosopher-king and the pagan divine hierarchy as replaced by Constantine and the Christian Trinity, but the state remains a school of virtue preparatory, under the Emperor's rule and teaching, to a higher existence. Augustine seems to have been impressed at first by Neoplatonic political ideas, but he eventually completely rejected them: the state (even a Christian state) was not a stage in a scale for the human divinization. Such a scale of divinization was to be found later in the ideal Church of the Pseudo-Dionysius, another example, O'Meara contents, of Christian appropriation of Neoplatonic political philosophy. In the fragments of the anonymous dialogue On Political Science of the Justinianic period, we read, O'Meara proposes, an important expression of Neoplatonic political thought.

Lastly, al-Farabi's Best State corresponds in many respects to the ideas of the later Greek Neoplatonists traced in this study, ideas which find in him an Islamic adaptation. This example suggests more broadly that political philosophy in the medieval Islamic world, contrary to what is often supposed, has roots in the philosophy of Late Antiquity.

In conclusion O'Meara mentions briefly here two more examples in the history of political thought where the possibility of a Neoplatonic influence could be further investigated. The first is that of George Gemistos Plethon (c.1360–1452), `the last of the Hellenes', who died the year before Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.

Plethon, while participating in the Council of Florence in 1439, much impressed Italian humanists and in particular Cosimo de' Medici. It is because of this meeting, Marsilio Ficino believed, that Cosimo came to his idea of a Florentine `Academy', sponsoring in particular Ficino's work in making available in Latin, through translations and commentaries, the texts of Plato, Plotinus, and other Neoplatonists. Second preliminary studies of Ficino's comments on Plato's Republic and Laws suggest that political life is seen as the context of moral reform leading to a higher more divine life and that a Neoplatonic metaphysical theology functions as the model of political reform. However, O'Meara  admits further research is required in order to establish to what extent and in what ways Ficino may have transmitted aspects of Neoplatonic political thought to Renaissance humanists.

O'Meara concludes by noticing the critique of Neoplatonic political theorists offered by one of the few scholars to have paid attention to the subject, Arnold Ehrhardt. Ehrhardt attributes a `complete failure' to Neoplatonism `in the political field'. He does not specify if the failure was in theory or in political praxis, but means probably the latter. The reason for the failure, he claims, was that Neoplatonism found no `valid relation between its metaphysical and its practical philosophy'. The Neoplatonists (erroneously) believed that pure reason had the supremacy over any ethical decisions. They held that the start­ing point was the study of the pure, unchanging and eternal law which was the centre of the utopian hope for a Golden Age ... the error lay in the assumption that there was an eternal law which was intelligible, and that it would influence human actions, if it was rightly understood.

Whatever the failure in real politics, it finds its roots, according to Ehrhardt, in theoretical errors. He mentions a number of points relating to such theoretical error, which O'Meara distinguishes and evaluates. Some of these points relate specifically to Neoplatonism, but others apply more broadly to Greek political philosophy in general.

Perhaps the major disagreements concern the particular metaphysical theory which the Neoplatonists used as a paradigm for polit­ical philosophy and their use of this theory as a normative foundation for political theory. Such disagreements also arise with regard to other ancient philosophers, in particular Plato and the Stoics. Modern views of political philosophy also tend to exclude essentially didactic views of political life such as those of the ancient Neoplatonists, views of political life as a school of virtue through which humans attain their good. But here also the difficulty is more general, applying beyond the Neoplatonic schools, to ancient philosophy in general. It is a difficulty which shows the distance between ancient and modern positions. Oy;Meara’s study  addresses an important lacuna in bridging the gap between ancient thought and modern political science. Highly recommended.

The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy edited by Keimpe Algra, Jonathan Barnes, Jaap Mansfeld, Malcolm Schofield (Cambridge University Press) (paperback) a full account of the philosophy of the Greek and Roman worlds from the last days of Aristotle (c. 320 BCE) until 100 BCE. Organized by subject, with sections on logic, epistemology, physics and metaphysics, ethics and politics, the volume is a source of reference for any student of ancient philosophy, classical antiquity or the philosophy of later periods. Greek and Latin are used sparingly and always translated in the main text. Designed as both reference and historical-thematic survey, this impressive volume has much to offer the educated reader in the depth and scope.

One disappointment, however: the editors seem to display the usual academic prejudices against the more "wayward" Hellenistic thinkers, such as those who considered astrology and magic. One would expect a fuller accounting of Hellenistic astronomy, at least, if the astrology were too much for them. The volume is also surprisingly neglectful (a mere five pages) toward mathematics and its relationship to the amply treated subjects of Logic, Ethics, and Physics. 

Characteristic of Hellenistic philosophy (i.e. from roughly 300 B.C.E. to about 125 B.C.E.) is its an Athenian situation. There were four schools of philosophy in Athens. Anyone who wanted to study philosophy or become accomplished in philosophy came to Athens and stayed. Epicurus and Zeno came to Athens and stayed. Right from the time of their first successors, there were attempts to persuade major philosophers to leave Athens to live at court. Nevertheless, they failed. For example, Zeno was invited to join Antigonus, but he sent Persaeus instead. When Ptolemy asked Cleanthes to come to Alexandria, he refused; so did Chrysippus, instead Sphaerus went.

Yet, with this general concentration of locality in Athens, still philosophy in this period became quite cosmopolitan. It is this paradox of Athens as the intellectual capital of the Hellenistic world, while remaining rather parochial in its civic practice. Most of the leading figures in the philosophical were not by birth Athenians. Zeno, Herillus, Chrysippus, and Clitomachus were not even of Greek origin. It seems that if one was serious about philosophy as a theoretical enterprise, there really was no alternative to going to Athens. Athens itself managed to retain considerable political significance and enough economic vitality to support a sizeable philosophical community. Indeed, overall it seems to have welcomed its philosophers. When in 155 B.C.E. Athens sent an embassy to Rome, this very fact indicated that times were changing. Athens had been pressed into a treaty with Rome that it violated, for which violation Rome demanded an exorbitant fine. Athens by now saw no alternative to sending an embassy to Rome to plead for a reduction or a cancellation of the fine. The embassy consisted of three scholarchs, the Academic Carneades, the Stoic Diogenes of Babylon, and the Peripatetic Critolaus. This is not only, on any count, a group of highly distinguished philosophers. No less important is that they clearly had no rivals anywhere else..

This History, though slightly abbreviated from the era usually identified as Hellenistic, manages to provide a useful survey and summery of much we are likely to know of the philosophies during this era. The Hellenistic period conventionally begins with the death of Alexander the Great and ends with the battle of Actium some three hundred years later. The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy has a somewhat more modest chronological scope: it starts from the last days of Aristotle (who died a year after Alexander) and ends in about 100 B.C.E.  Hence, it says nothing‑- save incidentally‑- about certain figures who standard count as Hellenistic philosophers: Posidonius is not among its heroes; Philodemus and the Epicureans of the first century B.C.E., do not appear in their own right; Aenesidemus and the revival of Pyrrhonism are not discussed. Also the stoicizing of Philo of Alexandria is underutilized to throw light on to a variety of philosophical subjects, especially the revival of Pythagorian studies. The reasons given have to with the political fortunes of Athens and Rome and this latter philosophers in the editorial opine of the editors belong to the imperial Roman period of philosophy, or at least are transitional to this new era.

Any division of any sort of history into chronological segments will be arbitrary, at least at the edges, and it would be absurd to pretend that philosophy changed, abruptly or essentially, in 320 B.C.E. and again in 100 B.C.E. 

The term `philosophy', too, is not without its vagaries ‑ what people have been content to name `philosophy' has changed from age to age (and place to place), and at the edges there has always been a pleasing penumbra. The History has, in effect, adopted something like the following rule of thumb: anything which both counted as philosophy for the Hellenistic Greeks and also counts as philosophy for us is admitted as philosophy for the purposes of the History; and in addition, a few other items which find themselves on the margins of the subject‑ the sciences, rhetoric and poetics ‑ have been considered, though less fully than they might have been in a history of the general intellectual achievements of the period. Other principles might have been followed: the editors claim that their rule of thumb is no worse than any other.

Then there is the question of order and arrangement. In effect, any historian of Hellenistic philosophy is confronted by a difficult choice: to write by school or to write by subject? Each choice has its advantages and its disadvantages. Writing by school ‑ Part 1: the Epicureans, Part II: the Stoa . . . ‑ allows for a systematic and coherent presentation of the main `philosophies' of the period; and since those philosophies were ‑ or at least purported to be ‑ systematic, such a presentation is in principle desirable. On the other hand, the Hellenistic period was also characterized by vigorous debate and discussion among the partisans of the different schools of thought: if systems were built, they were also attacked ‑ and defended, redesigned, attacked again . . . A history which proceeds school by school will find it relatively hard to bring out this dynamic aspect of its subject and hence it will tend to disguise the very aspect of Hellenistic philosophy which has contributed most to the revival of its fortunes.

Writing by subject has, evidently enough, the opposite features: the cut and thrust of debate is more readily exhibited and explained ‑ but the school systems will be presented in fragmented fashion. The editors decided, without great confidence, to prefer subjects to schools: readers who require an account of, say, Stoicism may, without great labor, construct one for themselves by studying a discontinuous selection of sections of the History.

If a history is to be written by subject, then how is philosophy best divided into its component subjects? It would have been possible to take one of the ancient `divisions' of philosophy, and to let it give the History its structure. Indeed there was, in later antiquity, a standard division, for most, and the most important, authors say that there are three parts of philosophy‑ ethical, physical, logical.'

Ethics comprehended political theory as well as moral philosophy; physics included most of what we should call metaphysics, as well as philosophy of science and philosophical psychology; and logic embraced not only logic in the broadest of its contemporary senses but also epistemology ‑ and sometimes even rhetoric.

Numerous texts acknowledge the tripartition as a feature of Hellenistic philosophy. Thus according to Sextus Empiricus, there has been much dispute among the Dogmatists about the parts of philosophy, some saying that it has one part, some two, some three; it would not be appropriate to deal with this in more detail here, and we shall set down impartially the opinion of those who seem to have dwelt upon the matter more fully . . . The Stoics and some others say that there are three parts of philosophy ‑ logic, physics, ethics ‑ and they begin their exposition with logic (although there has indeed been much dissension even about where one should begin). Elsewhere Sextus goes into the details; and he reports that `implicitly, Plato was the originator' of the tripartition, although Xenocrates and the Peripatetics introduced it most explicitly ‑ and the Stoics too stand by this division.

The reference to Plato is a matter of piety rather than of history; and most scholars are content to ascribe the formal origin of the division to Xenocrates. The Peripatetics acknowledged a three‑fold division, but not a literal tripartition; for they preferred to split philosophy itself into two parts, theoretical and practical (which corresponded roughly to physics and ethics), and to deem logic to be not a part but a tool or instrument of philosophy. As for the Stoics, Zeno and Chrysippus and many of their followers did indeed subscribe to the tripartition; but Cleanthes says that there are six parts ‑ dialectic, rhetoric, ethics, politics, physics, theology ‑ although others, among them Zeno of Tarsus, say that these are not parts of philosophical discourse but rather parts of philosophy itself. (D.L. vn.41)

Other Schools, and individuals, might acknowledge three parts in principle while in practice `rejecting' one or another of them ‑ usually logic. Thus the Epicureans `rejected logical theory', in the sense that they thought that it was somehow superfluous or useless (S.E. M vli.l4). Nonetheless, they studied what they called `canonics', a subject that covers much of what their rivals subsumed under logic, and which they chose to regard as a part of physics.

Sextus decided to follow the order: logic, physics, ethics. And this was the usual practice. But, as Sextus insists, there was dissent on this matter too, and most of the possible permutations had their advocates. To be sure, it is not clear what the dissension was about. Sometimes the question at issue seems to be pedagogical: in which order should a student of philosophy be taught the three parts of the subject? Sometimes it is rather systematical: what are the logical relations among the parts, which presuppose which? Sometimes, again, it appears to have had a normative coloring: which part is the culmination, the summit, of the philosophical ascent? Connected to these issues were certain similes or analogies. Thus philosophy was likened to an orchard: the trees are physics, the fruit is ethics, and the fencing is set up by logic. Or to an egg: ethics the yolk, physics the white, logic the shell. Or to an animal: physics the flesh and blood, logic the bones, ethics the soul.

What was the importance, inside Hellenistic philosophy, of this tripartition? It might be thought, first, to have had a certain negative significance, inasmuch as it served to exclude various intellectual disciplines from the study of `things human and divine' and hence to determine the bounds of philosophy proper. Thus the tripartition might seem to leave no place for mathematics, say, or for medicine; or for astronomy, music, rhetoric, grammatical theory . . . But this is not so. Some philosophers, to be sure, would have no truck with rhetoric; but the Stoics treated it as a philosophical discipline ‑ and they had no difficulty in subsuming it under logic, as the companion to dialectic. Again, astronomy was usually taken to be a technical discipline to which philosophers had no professional access; but the cosmological parts of physics in fact brought philosophers into contact with the heavens ‑ and the Epicureans found much to say on the matter. In truth, the tripartite scheme was a fairly elastic sausage‑skin: you might stuff it with what you would.

Secondly, and more obviously, the tripartition might be thought to have given a structure to the enquiries of the Hellenistic philosophers. No doubt the subject‑ like a well planted orchard or a good egg‑ had a unity and an internal coherence; but it also had its compartments, and you might research here rather than there, write or teach on this aspect rather than on that. This, to be sure, is true; the ancient `doxographies' reveal it in its most jejune form; and the titles of numerous Hellenistic works offer a meatier indication. But it would be a mistake to insist on the point. Readers of Plato sometimes ask themselves: What is this dialogue ‑ the Republic, the Phaedrus ‑ about? to what part or branch of philosophy does it pertain? And they quickly see that the question has no answer: the dialogue advances whithersoever reason leads it, unconstrained by school‑masterly notions of syllabus and timetable. And the same, it is reasonable to think, was often the case in Hellenistic texts. Read the surviving fragments of Chrysippus, and guess from which works they derive: where the answer is known (which, to be sure, is not often), you will be wrong as often as right.

Yet if the ancient tripartition was not universally recognized, if the contents of its constituent parts were not uniformly determined, and if ordinary philosophical practice allowed a fair amount of seepage from one part to another, nonetheless ‑ to return to Seneca ‑ `most, and the most important, philosophers' accepted it. And we might have based this History upon it. In fact, we decided to prefer a modern to an ancient division. To be sure, the standard tripartition Seneca refers to is reflected in the general structure we have imposed on the material. But its detailed articulation does not purport to follow an ancient pattern, and some of our topics and subtopics were not known to the Hellenistic world. (Epistemology, for example, was not a branch, nor yet a sub‑branch, of ancient philosophy.)

The choice of a modern rather than an ancient principle of division was determined by a prior choice of the same nature. In general, we may look at a past period of thought from our own point of view or we may try to look at it from the point of view of the thinkers of the period itself; that is to say, we may consider it as an earlier part of the history to which we ourselves now belong, or we may consider it as it appeared at the time. The two approaches will produce, as a rule, two rather different histories; for what then seemed ‑ and was ‑ central and important may, with hindsight, seem and be peripheral, and what was once peripheral may assume, as the subject develops and changes, a central importance. Each approach is valuable. The two cannot always be followed simultaneously. Most contemporary historians of philosophy, for reasons that are both various and more or less evident, have adopted the former approach. The History is, in this respect, orthodox. But it is a mitigated orthodoxy: several of the contributors have followed ‑ or hugged ‑ the ancient contours of their subject; and the faculty of hindsight is a subjective thing ‑some readers of the History will doubtless find it antiquated rather than contemporary in its implicit assessment of the center and the periphery of philosophy.

A pendant to these remarks. It would be satisfying were the number of pages allotted to a subject a rough measure of its weight or importance. The History does not distribute its pages according to such a principle; for the nature of the evidence imposes certain constraints. Where the evidence is relatively extensive, a longer discussion is possible; and where the evidence is relatively sparse, a longer discussion is desirable. A topic for which we have only a handful of summary reports focused on what the ancients thought, not why they thought what they thought, can hardly be given a generous allowance of space, however important it may seem to us (or have seemed to them). The exigencies of the evidence have not determined the distribution of pages among subjects; but they have powerfully and inevitably influenced it.

Excerpt: The History has been written by specialists: it has not been written for specialists. Nor, to be sure, has it been written for that mythical personage, General Reader. The editors imagine that any serious student, amateur or professional, of ancient philosophy might find a history of Hellenistic philosophy useful and interesting; and they have supposed that a similar, if less direct, interest and utility might attract students of classical antiquity who have no special concern for philosophy and students of philosophy who have no special concern for classical antiquity.

Such hopes have determined the degree of technical expertise that the History expects of its readers ‑ expertise in the three pertinent disciplines of philosophy, history, and philology. From a philosophical point of view, some of the issues discussed in the History are intrinsically difficult and dense. No account of them can be easy, nor have the contributors been urged to smooth and butter their subjects. But in principle the History does not presuppose any advanced philosophical training: it tries to avoid jargon, and it tries to avoid knowing allusions to contemporary issues. For quite different reasons, the history of the period ‑ its intellectual history ‑ is not easy either. Here too the History in principle offers a text that supposes no prior expertise in the chronicles and events of the Hellenistic period. Those historical facts (or conjectures) that are pertinent to an understanding of the discussion are, for the most part, set down in the Introduction; and in general, the History itself purports to supply whatever historical information it demands.

As to philology, the nature of the evidence makes a certain amount of scholarship indispensable: as far as possible, this has been confined to the footnotes. on a more basic level, there is the question of the ancient languages. In the footnotes there will be found a certain amount of untranslated Greek and Latin; but the body of the History is designed to be intelligible to readers whose only language is English. Any passage from an ancient author which is cited is cited in English translation. (Ifa Greek or Latin word appears in the main text, it serves only to indicate what lies behind the English translation.) Technical terms ‑ and technical terms were common enough in Hellenistic philosophy ‑ form a problem apart.

In most cases a technical term has been given a rough and ready translation; in a few cases a Latin word or a transliterated Greek word has been treated as a piece of honorary English: every technical term is introduced by a word or two of paraphrase or explication when first it enters the discussion.

Principles of this sort are easy to state, difficult to follow with consistency. There are, no doubt, certain pages where a piece of philosophical jargon has insinuated itself, where an historical allusion has not been explained, where a morsel of ancient terminology remains unglossed. The editors hope that there are few such pages.

The several chapters of the History are largely independent ofone another; the History will, we imagine, sometimes be used as a work of reference; and it is not necessary to begin at page i in order to understand what is said on page 301. Occasional cross‑references signal interconnections among the chapters, so that a reader of page 301 might find it helpful (but not mandatory) to turn back or forward in the volume. The requirement of independence leads to a small amount of repetition: the odd overlappings among the chapters may detract from the elegance of the History but they add to its utility.

The footnotes serve three main functions: they quote, and sometimes discuss, ancient texts ‑ in particular, esoteric or knotty texts; they provide references to ancient passages which are not explicitly quoted; and they contain information, for the most part sparing, about the pertinent modern literature on the subject. The Bibliography serves to collect those modern works to which the footnotes refer: it is not a systematic bibliography, let alone a comprehensive bibliography, of Hellenistic philosophy. Printed bibliographies are out of date before they are published; and any reader who wants a comprehensive list of books and articles on Hellenistic philosophy may readily construct one from the bibliographical journals.

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