Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Stephen R. L. Clark, Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: An Introduction. Bloomsbury history of philosophy. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Pp. xi, 245. ISBN 9781441123596. $27.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Jenny Bryan, University College London (jenny.bryan@ucl.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


This engaging introductory work is original in several respects. First, it is presented as an introduction not to ancient 'Greek' or even 'Classical' philosophy, but to 'Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy'. This quite deliberate choice to venture beyond Greece and Rome to Egypt, Israel and beyond enables Stephen Clark to offer a richer and rather more provocative account than one would generally expect from such a book. It is worth noting, however, that the traditional canon of Greek philosophy provides the work's central focus. The basic structure is chronological: after two chapters discussing methodology ('Beginnings', 1-22) and significant cultural influences ('Influence from outside', 23-54), Clark moves through Early Greek Philosophy to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and then from Hellenistic Philosophy into Late Antiquity. This chronological structure is refined into thematic chapters, so that the pre-Platonic period is treated in two chapters on 'Inspired thinkers' (55-80) and 'Travellers and stay-at-homes' (81-101), whilst post-Aristotelian philosophy is discussed in 'Living the philosophical life' (143-55) and 'Ordinary and supernatural lives' (157-84, followed by 'Late Antiquity', 185-201). Plato and Aristotle are both afforded their own chapters. Overall, the book is perhaps rather more challenging than clarifying. At some points, the breadth of sources cited and the connections made are almost dizzying. This is not an introduction offering students a clear and straightforward summary of standard interpretations of ancient philosophical works. In fact, I think that students without a fair degree of familiarity with ancient philosophy may find it a struggle to follow Clark's allusive and fast-moving exposition, not least because part of Clark's purpose is to challenge dominant modern characterizations of ancient thought. However, those students who are familiar with this area, or who have already read a more straightforward introduction, could only benefit from being asked to engage with this text too. Those who are willing to follow up Clark's allusions and to try to keep pace with his train of thought will find themselves returning to the original texts with a challenging and rewarding new perspective. The volume's brief section of 'Recommended Reading' (217-19) provides starting points for further thinking in a range of directions and disciplines.

Clark's refreshingly open-minded and original approach is also reflected in his characterization of philosophy within the Ancient Mediterranean. From the outset, Clark resists the relatively common desire to repackage ancient thought as a story of the triumph of rationality. This is set out most clearly in his opening chapter, which challenges, among others, the 'Whiggish' (20) narrative of a progression from mythos to logos, pointing out along the way that the birth and development of 'Greek Science' was neither particularly Greek nor particularly scientific. In the end, the story that Clark tells is one with a recurrent interest in man's thinking about his relationship with god. This is reflected both in the themes to which he dedicates chapters (the chapter on Plato bears the Plotinian title 'Divine Plato'), and particularly in the points of connection he finds between different cultures. Perhaps as a result, his discussion seems to have more of a focus on ethics and theology than, say, metaphysics or logic, or even physics (which is not to say that such topics are ignored). This is a focus which Clark presents good reasons for thinking both reflects the preoccupations of ancient thinkers and addresses questions relevant to a modern reader.

Another important question considered by Clark in his first chapter is what we can really claim to know about ancient thought. He points out the necessity of reminding ourselves not to be deceived into thinking that the texts available to us represent the totality of ancient thought. This emphasis on the dangers of treating sources as authoritative is partnered by a willingness on Clark's part to build his exposition of any given point around evidence from an immensely broad chronological and thematic range of texts. The twenty-one pages of his chapter on Plato include quotations from Xenophon and Plato, as one might expect (although one would not necessarily expect the Laws to be the most dominant dialogue), alongside Valerius Maximus, Diogenes Laertius, Plotinus, Augustine, William James, Gödel and Stephen Hawking. In one paragraph on the relative importance of form and matter, we move swiftly from Herodotus to Isaiah to Augustine (83). Elsewhere, a quotation from Wordsworth is used to illustrate a point about the similarity of the Stoic and Hebrew attitudes towards the causal role of god (173). These connections are a testament to Clark's breadth of knowledge and set genuinely thought-provoking challenges for his reader. For some the challenge may prove too great, but those willing and able to engage with Clark's suggestions will find themselves satisfyingly provoked.

Throughout the book, Clark sets up intriguing parallels and contrasts between different schools of thought and cultures. Some illustrative section-headings include 'Philosophers and Jews', 'Hebrews and Zoroastrians' and 'Epicureans and Buddhists'. Clark sometimes stresses the possibility of direct and significant cross-cultural influences. Elsewhere he asks us simply to consider what such similarities or differences may indicate about human nature in general. Such parallels may well serve to stimulate those already familiar with ancient philosophy (as it is commonly categorized) to look beyond the canon and, indeed, beyond traditional geographical and cultural boundaries. I think they will also give students more confidence to propose their own potential parallels and thus to consider the relevance of these ideas to their own experience.

This is an original and, at times, challenging introduction, which provokes as much as it elucidates, if not more. In combination with its extensive breadth and ambition, its relative brevity means that it offers less depth of analysis than some introductions. Nevertheless, it is certainly worthy of a place on introductory bibliographies for courses on ancient philosophy, where it will provide a fresh and hugely knowledgeable perspective.

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