Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Myrto Hatzimichali, Potamo of Alexandria and the Emergence of Eclecticism in Late Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 198. ISBN 9780521197281. £55.00.

Reviewed by Thomas R. Keith (kmeister16@hotmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site


Any serious scholarly inquiry into the history of ancient philosophy after the early Hellenistic period must inevitably become, to one degree or another, a detective story, puzzling out a coherent narrative from scattered and often conflicting scraps of textual information. Success in such an undertaking demands great patience, a keen eye for detail, and an arsenal of background knowledge that can be deployed to fill in the gaps that will surely remain. Fortunately, Myrto Hatzimichali is more than up to the task. Her excellent monograph on the enigmatic Potamo of Alexandria, the first of its kind in English, constitutes a contribution to the study of ancient eclecticism, and the field of intellectual history more broadly, out of all proportion to its relatively brief length.

Hatzimichali begins Chapter 1 with the important insight that while philosophical eclecticism is an inherently thorny concept, eclecticism in antiquity is doubly so, because explicit references to it in ancient authors are few and far between. As a result, modern scholars have largely been free to project the ideas and preconceptions of their own time onto their source material. As Hatzimichali demonstrates, both the Enlightenment view of eclecticism as conducive to free thought and the nineteenth- and twentieth-century attitude that "grab-bag" eclecticism reflects a lack of intellectual discipline have left their mark on attempts to understand the evolution of ancient philosophy. She stresses that, among ancient thinkers known to us, the shadowy figure of Potamo appears unique: the project he pursued differed fundamentally from that of the better-attested Antiochus of Ascalon, who, in Hatzimichali's view, is best termed a syncretist, seeking to unite the Academy, Peripatos and Stoa within a (constructed) "Platonic tradition". Potamo had no such driving agenda, instead choosing freely from the key doctrines of the various sects and judging his choices against his own criteria of logical soundness.1 The result was something profoundly new, such that even Diogenes Laertios is uncertain where to place Potamo within his schema of chains of influence, and ultimately relegates him to an awkwardly inserted paragraph in Book I.2

The lengthy Chapter 2, "Eclecticism and Alexandria in the first century BC," is a model of intellectual history, and justifies the book's purchase price in and of itself. Hatzimichali reconstructs in painstaking detail the intellectual milieu within which an Alexandrian philosopher at the close of the Hellenistic period would have operated, touching not only upon philosophical activity as such but upon the (considerably fuller) evidence for medicine, textual criticism, historiography, and doxography, driven by the twin intellectual engines of the Library and Museum. The foremost philosophers associated with the city, from Antiochus and his circle to Arius Didymus, are treated in succession, their key doctrines and influence on the development of Alexandrian intellectual life laid out succinctly and intelligently. Even those who reject Hatzimichali's attempt to place the Eclectic Potamo in this chronological milieu (see below) will find this chapter valuable as a mine of information on a key period in ancient intellectual history.

In Chapter 3, Hatzimichali pulls together such evidence as exists for Potamo's career, coping admirably with the many difficulties and obscurities surrounding this little-understood figure. Not the least of these is his date: Diogenes Laertios' ambiguous reference to the Eclectic philosopher from Alexandria as "recent" (πρὸ ὀλίγου) has been taken by some previous scholars to mean that this Potamo was active in the late second century CE.; Hatzimichali, however, argues persuasively for an earlier date for the Eclectic Potamo's floruit, one that makes it possible to identify him with the late first century BCE thinker of the same name whom the Suda3 credits with a commentary on Plato's Republic. Hatzimichali suggests that the work entitled Στοιχείωσις that is attributed to Potamo by our ancient sources was intended to lay out, in straightforward fashion, the nascent Eclectic sect's core positions in logic, physics, and ethics, making clear the distinctions Potamo sought to draw between his school and the predominant sects of the time. The figure who emerges from Hatzimichali's analysis is a popularizer of philosophy, who, much like Epicurus before him, is keenly interested in making his core teachings accessible and winning converts – a welcome challenge to the picture sometimes drawn of Late Hellenistic philosophical thought as introverted and abstruse. In the last analysis, Hatzimichali's conclusions cannot be definitely proven, a fact of which she is fully cognizant; but in future the burden of proof will lie with those who seek to challenge her thoughtful analysis.

Chapter 4, "The Eclectic System of Potamo's Elementary Teaching," forms the core of Hatzimichali's monograph, clocking in at an impressive 60 pages, fully one-third of the book. It is a tour de force of textual exegesis, expanding upon the meager evidence of Diogenes Laertios I.21 in an attempt to reconstruct Potamo's opinions on three key issues of Hellenistic philosophy, corresponding to the traditional tripartite division of philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics: the criterion of truth (κριτήριον τῆς ἀληθείας), the "first principles" (ἀρχαί) of the universe, and the nature of the end (τέλος) for man. In the realms of both logic and physics, Hatzimichali elucidates, through a careful philological analysis, Potamo's systematizing skill and adroit use of prepositions. Potamo divides the criterion into that "by whose agency" (ὑϕ' οὗ) judgment is made, namely the "ruling faculty" or ἡγεμονικόν, and that through which (δι' οὗ) judgment is made, the "most accurate impression" or ἀκριβεστάτη φαντασία. Hatzimichali effectively refutes past attempts to force Potamo's epistemology into a Stoic mold; as she demonstrates, the use of Stoic terminology such as the ἡγεμονικόν need not mean that Potamo is appealing to a specifically Stoic criterion, and, in fact, one can just as well detect the influence of the Theaetetus and Epicurus in his formulations. Similarly, where the Stoics divide reality into "active" and "passive" principles, τὸ ποιοῦν and τὸ πάσχον respectively, Potamo proposes a fourfold division, encompassing not only matter (ὕλη) and τὸ ποιοῦν, but quality (ποιότης) and place (τόπος), all of which he then defines in prepositional or adjectival terms – respectively, ἐξ οὗ, ὑϕ' οὗ, ποίῳ (or ποιῷ), and ἐν ᾧ. Here Hatzimichali detects influence from the Timaeus, the Peripatos, and (once again) Epicurus, as well as the Stoa. Insofar as ethics are concerned, Hatzimichali argues that Potamo navigated the Scylla and Charybdis of the Stoa's insistence upon the indifference of all things save virtue and vice and the Aristotelian conception of multiple categories of goods by specifying a τέλος that granted virtue the foremost place, while still leaving room for Potamo's followers to give weight to the "goods" of the body through the usefully vague formulation οὒκ ἄνευ. The Potamo who emerges from the compelling portrait painted in these pages is an independently minded and creative thinker, working within an intellectual milieu whose terms were largely framed by the Stoa, but not beholden to that or any other school in his formulation of key doctrines. At the same time, as Hatzimichali rightly notes, the interest in linguistic refinements Potamo shows can best be explained through the influence of Alexandrian philological scholarship; in that sense, he was very much a child of his time.

Chapters 5 and 6 add little to Hatzimichali's central argument, but are of considerable intrinsic interest nonetheless. In them Hatzimichali collects the remaining evidence for Potamo's scholarly career. Chapter 5 focuses upon his mathematical, and specifically geometrical, interests as a commentator on Aristotle's De Caelo, perhaps influenced by Pythagoreanism, while 6 discusses the problem of disambiguation between our Potamo and the orator of that name from Lesbos. Hatzimichali tentatively suggests a passage from the synonym-lexicon of Pseudo- Ammonius dealing with the difference between "questions" and "inquiries" may be the work of our Potamo, in which case we can add theoretical linguistics to his known areas of interest. Be that as it may, Hatzimichali makes a strong case for Potamo as, if not a polymath, certainly a much richer and more rounded intellectual figure than the skeletal account of Diogenes Laertios might suggest.

If there is any criticism that can be made of the work, it is that Hatzimichali tries rather too hard in her conclusion to defend her biographical subject. While it is conceivable that, as Hatzimichali contends, the ambiguities in Potamo's core doctrines were meant to encourage independent thinking on the part of his students, it is nonetheless difficult to avoid the impression that Potamo in fact sought to be "all things to all men". This would certainly help to account for his near-complete disappearance from the historiographical record; unlike the syncretist Antiochus, Potamo the Eclectic, it might seem, stretched so far attempting to satisfy everyone that he left no concrete foundations upon which to build a lasting sect. Still, it is only thanks to Hatzimichali's work that we know enough about Potamo even to formulate this counter-interpretation.

The book is handsomely produced, in keeping with Cambridge's characteristic high standards. Errata are few and of no consequence for the comprehension of the text. In short, the volume will be well worth the purchase price for all specialists in Hellenistic philosophy.


1.   Hatzimichali states this most succinctly in her conclusion, p. 180: "…Potamo did not choose elements that command cross-school agreement in order to bring in followers by 'accommodating' erstwhile Stoics, Academics, or Peripatetics. I would suggest that his reason for choosing ideas that represent a consensus was that they have the highest likelihood of being true (or correct, or 'accurate')."
2.   D.L. I.21.
3.   Suda π 2126.

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