Sunday, December 18, 2011


Robert W. Sharples, Peripatetic Philosophy, 200 BC to AD 200: An Introduction and Collection of Sources in Translation. Cambridge Source Books in Post-Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xix, 309. ISBN 9780521711852. $36.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Han Baltussen, The University of Adelaide (

Version at BMCR home site


Robert Sharples (1949-2010) presents us here with the first collection of sources in translation on the Peripatos over the period which he rightly describes as "probably the least known in the English-speaking world" (vii). It is based on selected materials from an impressive range of texts to create a collection of passages which can give us a better insight into the poorly transmitted materials from the time after Aristotle's death (322 BCE) up to the great Peripatetic commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias (ca. 200 AD). Sharples' earlier work on Alexander of Aphrodisias and on the Peripatetic school ('Project Theophrastus') which led to many books on Alexander, scholarly commentaries (fragments for Theophrastus' Biology and Physics) and a plethora of articles, is here put to good use for students and teachers. This is a convenient sourcebook much in the style of Long and Sedley's pioneering The Hellenistic Philosophers (1987) (as acknowledged on p. vii). Arranged in clear chapters and sections, it is a typical example of Sharples' meticulous scholarship and mastery of the materials (and belies the degree of difficulty in handling the variety and difficulty of the texts used). This will open up a period of Peripatetic thought after Aristotle in which few complete texts survive and we often have to make do with florilegia or short passages and references in much later (though not necessarily unreliable) sources. Sharples' intricate ordering and numbering system will give some standardisation to work on this school.1 And with its footnotes and connecting comments this book produces a high standard of philological and philosophical discussion of this material.

The structure of the book into sections is sensible: it represents the division of philosophy as it had emerged under Aristotle and became standard in later times (see also p. 33, n.13): logic and ontology (Chs. 7-14), ethics (14-18), physics (19-27). Further subdivisions represent concerns and questions from the ancient curriculum. Thus "Logic and Ontology" deals with individual works (e.g., Categories) as well as questions asked in antiquity (e.g., Were there ten categories or two?).

In his Preface Sharples outlines how the renewed insight into the school's development over the past two decades has led to new questions about the attitudes to the founder of the school (orthodoxy?) and the ways in which his works were read.

The Introduction deftly sets out the main trends and developments of the period, and explains some of the difficulties with the source material. The standard account of Aristotle's school is that after his death a period of 'decline' or reduced activity occurred. But Sharples is right (in my view) to qualify this somewhat, because the limited evidence for this period gives us a skewed view. The shift in doing philosophy, noted by M. Frede (p. viii), happened in the first c. BCE: it brought textual exegesis on Aristotle's work as a more formal scholarly activity, probably in conjunction with the renewed engagement with the works after they were brought to Rome by Sulla after he had sacked Athens and thus put an end to the school as an institution.

Sharples only touches on the intriguing conundrum about the school as intellectual movement and how to identify its adherents (what does it means to be [called] a Peripatetic?). He notes (p. 3) that orthodoxy cannot simply be a criterion for being a Peripatetic; thus we can point to such individuals as Ariston and Cratippus who left the Academy and declared themselves Peripatetics. If it is that easy to 'switch schools', what do these labels mean? Sharples suggests that it was perhaps "a matter of a predominant interest in the views and writings of Aristotle" instead of orthodoxy that determined such allegiances.2 One can also point to disagreements in Theophrastus and Strato, the former developing new additional aspects (i.e., engaging with Aristotle's theory), the latter by coming up with a completely different kind of physical theory (i.e., moving away from Aristotle) or Boethus and Xenarchus, who criticized the school's founder. We can thus refer to the school as the Peripatos and its members as Peripatetics, but this does not mean we have defined Aristotelianism, as a coherent set of thoughts or system, which was actually still developing in the period covered in this source book (p. xi, cf. ix). One way in which such identity affirming activity took place can be seen from Critolaus, the "most distinguished head of the Peripatetic school between Strato [third head] and the apparent end of the school": he tried to distinguish himself from the Stoics (contrast Antiochus the Academic who declares them close to each other).

The selection of texts is generally sound and followed by comments intended to synthesize their content. As with all fragmentary remains of philosophical views, such a synthesis has its risks, for instance of glossing over minor problems, but Sharples steers clear of the easy generalisation.

The first few chapters introduce the main individuals who provide us with important source materials (e.g. Cicero, Seneca, Galen, Alexander), and the issue of the survival of the corpus. 3 Two important non-literary passages should be highlighted: an inscription from Aphrodisias set up by Alexander and dedicated to his father (discovered in 2004) and a marginal note from a manuscript of Simplicius. Any chronology for this period is difficult: one of the few fixed points is 155 BC, when a delegation of four philosophers came to Rome. Chapter 2 deals with the history of the corpus. The evidence of it being hidden away in Asia Minor and hence largely unavailable to the immediate successors is full of contradictions and thus inconclusive. Chapters 3-4 offer materials on the Hellenistic reception of Aristotle's philosophy, including an important account in Diogenes Laertius Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers book 5 (2nd c. CE). Diogenes compressed account is an attempt to offer a 'summary' from a Stoic perspective; there are also notable omissions (substance / ousia) and some confused statements. The status of philosophy and its relation to rhetoric (ch. 4) were of considerable interest to the Peripatetics. Our sources for the debate and the tendency to consider rhetoric inferior are –ironically– orators (Cicero, Quintilian). Ch. 5 raises the questions of where to start with the study of philosophy and what its parts should be; concern with curriculum and for the unity of Aristotle's works was rather late to develop—this is a Stoic pre-occupation rather than a Peripatetic one (the late sources in 5A-B, Elias and Philoponus, seem to confirm this). Ch. 6, 'commentaries', consists of a single fragment, which can be read as showing that detailed exegesis or 'critical discussion' was already found in the works of Andronicus and Boethus. The rise of 'commentary' had traditionally been placed in the 2nd century CE, some two centuries later.

The section on "Logic and Ontology" deals with the placement, title, content, and number of the Categories (chapters 7-10); On Interpretation (11), logic (12), ontology (13), and theory of knowledge (14), mostly in late sources. The close connection between language and fundamental philosophical issues is featured in this section and provides a compact survey of the evidence. Again debates about Aristotle's positions included criticism (Boethus). These chapters highlight how we rely almost exclusively on the later commentators (Alexander to Simplicius) for our information on these topics. A crucial issues is how to disentangle the thought of the earlier Peripatetics from their sources. The chapter on "Ontology" (12) shows how the issue of form and matter became part of the debate about the categories (sources from the late commentators, but also Seneca, Philo, and Arius Didymus), while in Aristotle this is mostly found in his metaphysical notes. It is notable that the sources point to a slightly different strand of transmission for epistemology: Aristocles (via Eusebius), Galen, Sextus Empiricus, and Stobaeus. Aristotle's primary concern with first principles was re-considered within a new framework of a scientific and sceptical debates over the criterion of truth and the possibility of knowledge, "an issue concerning which he seems remarkably sanguine" (105).

In "Ethics" (Ch. 14-18), the first section offers the long summary of Peripatetic ethics found in Stobaeus. Important themes are then covered in subsequent sections: emotions (fear, anger), affinity to primary natural things (oikeiosis), and bodily and external goods and happiness. Here Alexander of Aphrodisias plays an important role as many of the selected passages come from his discussions and commentaries. The key difficulties here concern the terminology (Peripatetic thought in Stoic terms which may signal adopted views), and the context of the claims made (for instance, Cicero is more polemical and 'broad brush' than Alexander). With Alexander we are at least on firmer ground.

In "Physics" (Ch. 19-27) we follow roughly Aristotle's organisation of science (except for intellect): first cosmology and theology (19: time and place; 20: eternity of the world; 21 and 22: God and providence; 23: fate, choice and what is up to us), then psychology (24) and physiology (25: generation; 26: sensation; 27: intellect). These show the continuation of important topics influenced by Hellenistic debates. For instance, the debate over the eternity of the world (Ch. 20), which became a crucial point of debate between pagan and Christian thinkers (the late commentators Simplicius and Philoponus in the sixth c.), resonated across the ages, with Peripatetics, Stoics and Academics all engaging in polemic. Or the discussion of time, which in some cases starts with Aristotle (Phys. 4.11), e.g., on whether motion can be counted in itself or only when counted by souls (19B, C), but also goes beyond his ideas (ps. Archytas = 19B). The dissenting voice of Xenarchus is reported in Simplicius' elaborate discussions (commentary on On the Heaven, pp. 20-24 = 21D-H; p. 379). 4 Sharples' commentary provide several pages of clear exposition on the astronomical ideas (with helpful diagrams). Xenarchus was especially critical of the fifth substance, on which he wrote a separate work (title in 21D).

Finally, a few minor points on presentation. I would have liked there to be chapter numbers in the page header alongside the title, which would have made navigating the book and its short sections quicker and easier; also, a clearer distinction between comments and texts would have been convenient, even if they are mostly placed at the end of the chapters/ sections. It is odd that Wehrli's Critolaus volume is not in the bibliography (several of his other editions are), given its importance. The Indices are all selective and thus not complete guides for those who want to consult the book for individual sources via the Index. Lastly, I found one clear lapsus calami: on p.132, n. 66 the editor of the Cambridge History of Philosophy of Late Antiquity should be Lloyd Gerson (not Stephen Gersh).

Despite the brevity of the comment sections (indicating that much more could and should be done), Sharples offers an important first step to revisit Peripatetic philosophy in one handy volume. One can only feel saddened by his early death, which has prevented him from experiencing the impact of this work or finishing his many plans, including writing a fuller history of the Peripatos.


1.   The recent text editions and essays on several of the early Peripatetics are not cross-referenced, but that would have complicated the matter. Those interested can turn to the series found in Rutgers Studies in the Classical Humanities, edited by W.W. Fortenbaugh et al. and published by Transaction Books 1992- (Theophrastus 1992; Eudemus 1997; Aristo 2005; Hieronymus and Lyco 2007; Strato 2011).
2.   Sharples refers to a paper by Andrea Falcon in Laval Théologique et Philosophic 64, 2008). See also S. Schorn, 'Wer wurde in der Antike als Peripatetiker bezeichnet?', Würzburger Jahrbücher für die Altertumswissenschaft 27 (2003) 39-69 [not in Sharples]; and D. Sedley, 'Philosophical Allegiance in the Greco- Roman World', in Miriam T. Griffin & Jonathan Barnes (eds.), Philosophia Togata: Essays on Philosophy and Roman Society. Oxford University Press, 1989.
3.   Sharples has dealt with some of the problematic aspects of the sources of the Hellenistic period in "The Problem of Sources", Ch. 22 in A Companion to Ancient Philosophy, ed. by Mary-Lousie Gill and Pierre Pellegrin (Blackwell, 2006) 430-47.
4.   Recently Xenarchus has received considerable attention for his criticism of Aristotle: see, e.g., R.J. Hankinson, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 46.1 (2003) 19-42 (not mentioned in Sharples).

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