Saturday, September 22, 2012


Thomas Bénatouïl, Mauro Bonazzi (ed.), Theoria, Praxis, and the Contemplative Life after Plato and Aristotle. Philosophia Antiqua, 131. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012. Pp. ix, 295. ISBN 9789004225329. $171.00.

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This volume represents the proceedings of the fifth in the series of Diatribai di Gargagno conferences, organised by a group of mainly younger European scholars, on topics in later Greek philosophy, with most of which Mauro Bonazzi has had a good deal to do, co-editing the first three, and now this one, on a subject on which his co- editor Thomas Bénatouil has already done useful work, that of the theory of ways of life in ancient thought. Here they have gathered together twelve papers, from a distinguished cast of contributors, including Michael Erler, Carlos Lévy, Emidio Spinelli, David Sedley, and Carlos Steel, on the ever-lively issue of the comparison and tension between the theoretical, practical and 'mixed' life.

The volume is divided into three sections, (1) The Hellenistic and Post-Hellenistic Debate, comprising five papers; (2) Early Imperial Platonism and Neoplatonism, also comprising five; and (3) The Christian Reception, comprising two. These are preceded by an introductory essay from the editors, presenting an overview of the topic and the subsequent discussions, and followed by a most useful bibliography and indices.

We begin with a fine essay from Bénatouïl himself, on Theophrastus' definition and defence of the life of theoria, and his dispute with his colleague Dicaearchus, who championed praxis. This is followed by a contribution from Michael Erler, analyzing Epicurus' concept of the βίος θεωρητικός, and noting, contrary to what one might expect, interesting areas of dependence on Plato, particularly the Timaeus. Both these essays inevitably make some use of works of Cicero, and in the third paper Carlos Lévy focuses explicitly on Cicero himself, and his struggle with the rival claims of the practical and theoretical lives, showing entertainingly how the theoretical life functions for Cicero as an ideal, but also as a refuge when politics becomes too hot to handle (as under the dictatorship of Caesar). Margaret Graver presents a good account of Seneca's attitude to theoria, first through a detailed study of the incompletely preserved essay De Otio, and then from a selection of the letters to Lucilius (particularly Epp. 64-68), in the latter dwelling on the tension between the study of ethics (which concerns praxis), and that of 'physical' questions, which would tend to pure theoria a tension which Seneca, like Cicero, finds it hard to resolve. Lastly, turning to Sextus Empiricus, Emidio Spinelli provides a most stimulating study of, first, Sextus' sceptical demolition of the pretensions of dogmatic, particularly Stoic, theoria, and then his attempt to delineate an acceptable Pyrrhonist version, which dispenses with the illusion of certainty, but attains to a dispassionate outlook on the world, based on a recognition of contingency.

The second section begins with a useful study by Valéry Laurand of Philo of Alexandria's treatment of both concepts. Philo, though naturally privileging theoria, accepts a Platonist view of the mixed life, rather than adopting a Stoic position. Laurand makes good use of the De vita contemplativa, and then of De Somniis I, in developing his argument. Next, Mauro Bonazzi contributes an insightful study of Plutarch's position. Partly by reason of his opposition to Stoic and Epicurean rejection of participation in politics, Plutarch is much more favourable to praxis than might be expected from a Platonist, though settling for a mixed life. It is interesting here how far Plutarch sees himself as a public figure, within the economy of the Roman Empire.

David Sedley contributes next an excellent close study of the position of Alcinous, author of the Didaskalikos, particularly in ch. 2, where he is discussing the choice of lives. Here he shows well how Alcinous is concerned to project back onto Plato Aristotle's theory of theoria in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, and finds texts to support this, notably Rep. VI 500CD (as well as Tht. 176A). Like Plutarch, Alcinous wishes to give proper weight to the practical life as well. In this connection, though, I would demur at Sedley's translation of ἀκώλυτος, as a characterization of the theoretical life, as 'unpreventable' (175). What it surely means, rather, is 'not subject to constraints' or 'hindrances', as is the practical life.

Next, we have two studies devoted to the Neoplatonic period, both most useful: Alessandro Linguiti on Plotinus and Porphyry, and Gerd van Riel on Damascius. Linguiti lays emphasis on the complication created, in respect of the theoretic life, by Plotinus' postulation of an undescended, 'higher' soul, which is always in a state of theoria, while 'we' are only intermittently so. Porphyry's position is more ambiguous; Linguiti focuses on De Abst. ch. 28 onwards and Sent. 32 as particularly interesting texts. Van Riel takes on Iamblichus and, in particular, Damascius in his Commentary on the Philebus, where Damascius is being actually most acute in his analysis of the role of pleasure in the theoretic life.

Lastly, we have two essays on reflections of theoria and praxis in Christian writers, notably Augustine and Maximus the Confessor. In the case of Augustine, Giovanni Catapano contributes a most interesting study of Augustine's allegorization of Leah and Rachel in the Jacob story of Gen. 29-30 as praxis and theoria respectively, particularly in the treatise Contra Faustum Manichaeum chs 51-8. In the case of Maximus, Carlos Steel expounds his remarkable take on the relation between praxis (given the peculiar meaning that it acquires in the tradition emanating from Evagrius Ponticus) and theoria in ch. 6 of his Ambigua ad Johannem. This is difficult text, and Steel elucidates it most admirably.

All in all, this is a fine volume, which throws much light on the ways in which the claims of the practical, the theoretical and the mixed life were addressed in the post-Aristotelian period of ancient philosophy.

Table of Contents

θεωρία and βίος θεωπητικός from the Presocratics to the End of Antiquity: An Overview
T. Bénatouil and M. Bonazzi
Part I: The Hellenistic and Post-Hellenistic Debate
Théophraste: les limites éthiques, psychologiques et cosmologiques de la contemplation.
Thomas Bénatouil
ἀπλανὴς θεωρία. Einige Aspekte der epikureischen Vorstellung vom βίος θεωπητικός
Michael Erler
Cicéron et le problème des genres de vie: une problématique de la Voluntas
Carlos Lévy
Seneca and the Contemplatio veri. De Otio and Epistulae morales
Margaret Graver
Beyond the Theoretikos Bios: Philosophy and Praxis in Sextus Empiricus
Emidio Spinelli
Part Two: Early Imperial Platonism and Neoplatonism
La contemplation chez Philon d'Alexandrie
Valéry Laurand
Theoria and Praxis: On Plutarch's Platonism
Mauro Bonazzi
The Theoretikos Bios in Alcinous
David Sedley
Plotinus and Porphyry on the Contemplative Life
Alessandro Linguiti
Damascius on the Contemplative Life
Gerd Van Riel
Part Three: The Christian Reception
Leah and Rachel as Figures of the Active and the Contemplative Life in Augustine's Contra Faustum Manichaeum
Giovanni Catapano
Maximus Confessor on Theory and Praxis. A Commentary on Ambigua ad Johannem VI (10) 1-19
Carlos Steel

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