Friday, February 4, 2011


Hermann Diels, Griechische Philosophie: Vorlesungsmitschrift aus dem Wintersemester 1897/98 (herausgegeben von Johannes Saltzwedel). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010. Pp. xxi, 99. ISBN 9783515096096. €23.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Aaron P. Tate, Cornell University (

Version at BMCR home site


Table of Contents

In late February of 2009, Johannes Saltzwedel, the editor of the volume under review, acquired a cloth-bound collection of three handwritten lecture transcriptions from the antiquarian book dealer Thomas Rezek. Two words, "Diels Collegien," were written on the spine. Privately bound and in excellent condition, the manuscripts came from the estate of Uvo Hölscher (1914-1996) and his wife, Dorothea Hölscher-Lohmeyer (1913-2008). Though undated, Saltzwedel was able to identify the manuscripts' authorship and origin by means of careful work comparing university schedules, appended documents, and a "Lebenslauf" from a University of Munich archive written in the original transcriber's hand. As it turns out, the transcriber was Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing (1873-1956), a young Egyptologist who would later join the NSDAP, and the lecturer was none other than Hermann Diels.

What we have in this volume then is the lecture course on Greek philosophy given by Diels in Berlin during the winter semester of 1897/8. (Two more given by Diels, one from the summer semester of 1895 on Greek lyric poetry, and a second from the winter semester of 1895/1896 on Herodotus, were also in the bundle, but are not included here.) Nearly twenty years after the monumental Doxographi Graeci (1879) and only a handful shy of the Poetarum philosophorum fragmenta (1901) and the first edition of the Vorsokratiker (1903), and more or less contemporaneous with the publication of his Parmenides book (1897), this course provides a succinct but illuminating presentation of Diels' views on the history of Greek philosophy from the epic poets to Aristotle. Thanks to Saltzwedel's careful expansion of editions and commentaries copied out in von Bissing's margins, and by similar expansion of editions discussed by Diels within the body of the lectures themselves, we also have an account of the scholarly works, both philological and philosophical, that Diels found essential for providing a "Lehrbuch" of Greek philosophy during the years under discussion. That Saltzwedel was able to bring the volume to press with such celerity—the book was published by April of 2010—strikes one as an occasion for some gratitude. His informative introduction provides the essential facts of the discovery, editing, and publication of the volume, while the Index Nominum accomplishes well its purpose, guiding us through a thicket of ancient authors and modern commentators, among whom the reader will find references as diverse as Dilthey, Goethe, Kant, Hegel, Natorp, Nietzsche, and Schleiermacher, among numerous others. What remains are ninety pages of Diels' condensed but magisterial (and highly entertaining) survey of Greek philosophy.

Prior to this edition, Saltzwedel tells us, one mention of Diels' Berlin course had been made in Rudolf Borchardt's Eranos¬-Brief, an essay written in 1924 for a Festschrift in honor of Hugo von Hofmannstahl. In it, Borchardt, a poet and essayist renowned also for his public speeches, claimed that Hermann Diels had once opened a course on Greek philosophy in Berlin by speaking of philosophy's displacement by the technical sciences, in particular by psychology and the history of philosophy. Though Borchardt confused the source (it was Seneca, not Cicero), we now know, thanks to this publication, that Diels did indeed adduce Seneca's line, "Quae philosophia fuit, philologia facta est," from letter 108, although with considerably more subtlety than Borchardt had claimed. Saltzwedel opens the edition with the anecdote. Though perhaps a minor aside for those unconcerned with German literary history at the beginning of the 20th century, the inclusion nonetheless presages what the volume in fact proves to be: a careful publication that not only helps to situate Diels' thinking in relation to the ancients but ours to him.

Saltzwedel's introduction provides a clear explanation of his editorial principles and gathers together a density of essential information. In the section addressing the manuscript, for example, Saltzwedel gives the full details of pagination, ink used, bibliographic matters, and documents included. He further discusses the provenance of the manuscript. How the volume came into the hands of Uvo Hölscher is impossible to determine, Saltzwedel writes. The item was not named in the auction catalog for von Bissing's library, though Saltzwedel surmises that it could have been buried in the 1,451 pieces collected in von Bissing's Reste-Konvolut 2713, entitled "Hellas und Rom." A second possibility is that the Collegien came to Hölscher through Karl Reinhardt, since Hölscher had acquired Reinhardt's library, and since both Hölscher and Reinhardt shared a marked interest in the Presocratics, especially Parmenides. Or perhaps von Bissing gave the bundle as a gift to someone who later passed it on, and so it eventually made its way to Reinhardt or to Hölscher. Inquiries with the Hölscher family made by Saltzwedel failed to provide an answer, he tells us.

As for the edition itself, the editor chose to keep a text as close as possible to the original, which seems to have been a manageable enterprise, given the considerable precision by which von Bissing made his original record (which is confirmed by a photograph, included by Saltzwedel, of von Bissing's manuscript). One of the most useful aspects of the volume, apart from Diels' views themselves, are Saltzwedel's bibliographic supplements and expansions: specific textual references in the lecture have been filled out with references to Diels-Kranz (using the sixth edition of 1951/2), the Ritter-Preller Historia Philosophiae Graecae (seventh edition), and numerous other editions and works cited by Diels (resulting in 463 footnotes of bibliography).

As for the course itself, the semester began on October 26, 1897 and concluded March 15, 1898. Near the end of it, von Bissing was called to Cairo and so became unable to finish. Diels opens his course with a brief discussion of the "reversal" or "transition" ("Umschwung") experienced by philosophy "in the past 50 years." Philosophy was once the "center" and "light" of the technical sciences, but now is influenced by them. We must follow this history's development, he states, and hear the individual philosophers, but we must also remember that the history of philosophy is a philological science as well, and that the tradition must be investigated and learned. Comments follow on the first appearances of the word "philosophy" and related terms.

The next section, "Die Überlieferung," will leap out at the reader conversant with Diels' Doxographi Graeci and the important work done on it by Mansfeld and Runia in recent years.1 The chapter here contains a diagram of the branches and directions of transmission that Diels traced, famously, in his 263-page Latin preface to the Doxographi Graeci. At eight pages, this is also one of the longest sections, discussing as it does the tradition's transmission through Roman and Byzantine sources down to Hegel, Zeller, and Burnet.

The last of Diels' introductory preliminaries is given over to a brief classification of the material according to chronology, and features an organic metaphor. The epoch of natural investigation is philosophy's "childhood." The period of the Sophists are "the teenage years." "Adulthood" comes with the maturation of conceptual philosophy: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The arrival of practical philosophy, in the form of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics, is "grey old age."

Diels begins his history proper with summary remarks on epic and cosmogonic poetry. The style preserved by the text is one of short, declarative, summarizing sentences. Views are presented in few words, occasional questions are posed, editions are cited and sometimes judged, and brief interpretive comments are offered. The Homeric singer remained distant from any sort of philosophical speculation, he says. "Folk singers only reproduce; there is no system." "All theogonies after Hesiod are dependent on him, but are not very meaningful." Paul Robert Schuster's book on Orphic theogony is dispatched in one word: "wunderlich."

The first thinker to have his own section is Pherecydes of Syros, who receives two pages and a photograph of Diels' handwritten text of Pherecydes' Greek. Next is a page on "Die Gnomik," followed by two on Thales. Anaximander gets four, including Diels' handwritten diagram of Anaximander's cosmos, again reproduced photographically. Anaximenes, Pythagoras, the Pythagoreans, and then Xenophanes, all receive short sections, with citations of fragments and comments on views, biography, and the reliability of the tradition. Next come six lively pages on Heracleitus, where Nietzsche, Hamann, Meister Eckhardt, and Goethe all appear, usually to exemplify philosophical or prose style. After one page on Alcmaeon, Diels turns to Parmenides, and here one will find sentences similar to those he wrote in the Parmenides book of the same year. The section is nevertheless riveting. Parmenides has newly grounded an ontological doctrine of unity, says Diels, and one that is furthermore "transcendent." According to Diels, Parmenides' ontology "ist auf dem Weg zu Plato, zur Idealphilosophie, zu Kant."

Zeno, Melissus, Leucippos, and Democritus come next, the latter receiving a six page discussion. Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and the Sophists follow, as do Gorgias, Hippias von Elis (in six sentences), Prodicus of Ceos (in three), Critias, the younger Sophists, and finally Socrates. The "Older Socratics," the Cynics, and the Cyrenians follow, before Diels arrives at Plato and Aristotle, where the course concludes.

The historical importance of the edition is beyond question. We have for the first time a compendium of Hermann Diels' views, however abridged, on the history of Greek philosophy from its origins to Aristotle. We also have more pages by him on doxography. Finally, we get a thorough and eye-opening account of the key editions and studies of his day. Though I will not pretend to have checked for accuracy every one of the bibliographic references in the 463 footnotes attached to the lecture course itself, I can report that repeated usage turned up no errors. Saltzwedel's edition is elegant, clear, and easy to use, and an intellectual pleasure to consult, not the least of the reasons being Hermann Diels' encyclopedic knowledge, imposing erudition, and considerable wit.


1.   An exhaustive analysis of the doxographic tradition and Diels' reconstruction of it has been undertaken by Mansfeld and Runia; see their Aëtiana, The Method and Intellectual Context of a Doxographer, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997), the first of a multi-volume study. Vol. I's opening chapters provide an extremely thorough examination of Diels' theories and methods regarding the Doxographi Graeci and shed much light on Diels' early career. Mansfeld's article, "Doxographi Graeci," in Hermann Diels (1848-1922) et la Science de l'Antiquité, eds. Calder and Mansfeld (Genève: Fondations Hardt, 1999), is another place to obtain a useful introduction to Diels' doxographical work.

1 comment:

  1. Stephen Menn ( 5, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    In the summer of 1996 I found in the Goettingen philosophy seminar library a bound volume of someone's handwritten notes from a lecture-course by Diels, I think from Sommersemester 1912, on a philosophical work of Cicero, I think it was the De natura deorum. I don't think the volume had any markings on the outside--you had to pull it out and probably open it to see what it was; but maybe it's listed in the library catalogue. Anyway it was in there with the other books on ancient philosophy, and it's probably still there, in case anyone wants to edit it.


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