Monday, October 13, 2014


James Warren, Frisbee Sheffield (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Ancient Philosophy. Routledge philosophy companions. London; New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. 728. ISBN 9780415991261. $205.00.

Reviewed by Attila Németh, Eötvös Loránd University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This review was written with the support of the Hungarian Research Fund, OTKA, based on contract no. PD 100418.

If we take into account how much the disciplinary methodology of ancient philosophy has changed in the last century,1 it is clear why leading scholars in the field would want from time to time to produce a synthesis of our perception and conception of the subject. It is a lively and constantly widening discipline, which has grown not only by incorporating the methods of analytical philosophy, but by developing its sensitivity to an understanding of ancient thought in its argumentative context and against its intellectual background. This Companion showcases all the merits of these improvements and creates an exciting engagement in the self-aware and ongoing tradition of ancient philosophy and its modern reception. It lays great emphasis on presenting the ideas, arguments and disputes of a long period, of 1200 years or so, by combining material to help familiarize the reader with historical and interpretative issues; there is no detailed textual analysis, yet the reader is constantly made conscious of the primary evidence and its different possible interpretations.

The Companion consists of 47 papers, divided into five major sections arranged chronologically: 'Part I: Before Plato' (1-8); 'Part II: Plato' (9-17); 'Part III: Aristotle' (18-26); 'Part IV: Hellenistic Philosophy' (27-37); 'Part V: Philosophy in the Empire and Beyond' (38-47). Each section is introduced with an orienting paper. In Part I, John Palmer (1: 'The World of Early Greek Philosophy') draws attention to the dangers of accepting an overarching narrative of pre-Socratic philosophy often employed by scholars. Our evidence is very unbalanced, mainly stemming from Aristotle, who heavily influenced the historiographical tradition. As Palmer claims, it is not only uncertain that the issues Aristotle undertook to resolve were the period's defining problems, but it is also (if, for example, we consider the disagreements about Parmenides' position in the history of fifth- century thought) impossible to view Aristotle as giving a coherent narrative of the pre-Socratics as doing natural philosophy. Stephen Makin's paper (3: 'Parmenides, Zeno and Melissus') belongs to a group of interpretations which, following the lead of G. E. L. Owen,2 argue that Parmenides, led by purely logical considerations, advocated a strict monism and classed all phenomena as unreal. John E. Sisko, however (4: 'Anaxagoras and Empedocles in the Shadow of Elea') wishes to understand Parmenides' monism as a numerical monism not entirely incompatible with natural science: he contemplates an admittedly unorthodox and strained harmonization of Parmenides' Way of Truth with his Way of Opinion by attributing to Parmenides a kind of numerical monism which would concern only the initial state of the universe, followed by the numerical pluralism of its subsequent states – a kind of cosmic alteration which was then elaborated, according to Sisko, by Anaxagoras and Empedocles in response to Parmenidean thought (cf. p. 63). The influential Eleatic ideas, also apparent in atomism,3 are not emphasized by Pieter S. Hasper: instead he proposes and argues that the kind of argument for atomism we see later deployed by Epicurus (ad Hdt. 40-1) – which is more intuitive and far more rooted in physics than the one generally taken to be the foundation of atomism (cf. Aristotle, GC 1.2, 316a13-b34) – must have been available for Democritus. Overall, Part I is not only exciting because of its new directions but also because of its broad survey: it includes studies on the Pythagoreans and the Sophists, as well as on the historical figure of Socrates.

Part II is introduced with a discussion of the implications of Plato's chosen form of writing, the Socratic dialogue (9: 'Reading Plato'). As Alex Long shows, this has major implications for how we should conceive of Plato's philosophy and whether we should offer a developmental or a unitarian reading of his oeuvre – an issue which Long wishes to resolve by proposing a compromise between the two (cf. pp. 131-2).4 Raphael Woolf (10: 'Plato on Philosophical Method: Enquiry and Definition') highlights further the function of the dialogue form by considering it as the means for involving readers in doing philosophy by encouraging us to think through certain questions for ourselves. As becomes clear from the following papers on Plato's epistemology and psychology, these questions were to a large extent ethical. Plato thought that the pursuit of a good life requires the pursuit of knowledge, which is for the most part a reflective inquiry into how to live. James Doyle (12: 'Plato: Moral Psychology') maps the differences between Socrates' intellectualism and Plato's later acknowledgment of genuine intrapsychic conflict (contra his Protagoras), resulting in a structured, composite soul (contra his Phaedo). Frisbee C. C. Sheffield (13: 'Plato on Virtue and the Good Life') surveys in a concise and elucidatory way Plato's ethical thought, which was to become the cornerstone of ancient ethics, later explored with an analytical rigour by his student, Aristotle (cf. 24: 'Aristotle on the Good Life' by Dominic Scott). A journey into Plato's metaphysics or cosmology may be more circuitous than the journey taken by the soul to see the Forms on a crowded, barely controlled chariot-ride; yet the depth of understanding of the related issues surfacing from the pages of this Companion, along with the accounts of Plato's political philosophy and poetry, are as enlightening as going on such a ride.

Part III starts with a lesson on how to read texts by Aristotle in translation, and Michael Pakaluk's piece (18: 'Reading Aristotle') could be utilized in any class on ancient philosophy, as could the demanding but crystal clear papers by E. V. Di Lascio and Hendrik Lorenz on Aristotle's logic and conception of scientific understanding, respectively. Giles Pearson approaches Aristotle's psychology rather too emphatically through differences in modern interpretations,5 and attempts to sketch an alternative solution which takes a middle way through them.6 Part III, thus, begins with a mixture of restricted investigations and broader, systematic narratives, and it continues in this vein throughout. Christopher Shields primarily focuses on the differences between contemporary metaphysics and that of Aristotle, and demonstrates them by discussing a perplexing question from Metaphysics III. 2, while David K. O'Connor concentrates (naturally) on Aristotle's Poetics when outlining his aesthetics. Aristotle's philosophy of nature, ethics and politics are treated from broader perspectives, offering the reader reflective and organized discussions of these manifold accounts and their diverse interpretations.

Part IV transports us to Hellenistic times and explores the dogmatic schools of the Stoics and the Epicureans, along with various smaller philosophical movements like the Cynics and Cyrenaics, as well as the remnants of Plato's Academy and the Peripatetics. Thomas Bénatouil not only argues convincingly against the majority of scholars7 that Diogenes Laertius' division (7.84) of Chrysippus' ethics is reliable, but he manages to draw a clear-cut account of why the contents of the division should be considered and related in the particular order presented by Diogenes. Katerina Ierodiakonou spells out the essential ideas of Stoic epistemology and logic, while Tim O'Keefe runs through the basic building blocks of Epicurean physics and epistemology. Pierre-Marie Morel's approach to Epicurus' ethics and politics is very fresh and sheds some new light on Epicurus' intellectual hedonism. The general insights we are provided with in this section regarding the philosophical ideas of the major schools and their differences are contextualized and deepened by discussions like James Warren's very philosophically-driven treatment of the Cyrenaics, hedonists who were contemporary with the Epicureans; and by the introduction of another alternative way of life, that of the Cynics (cf. 28: 'Cynics', by Eric Brown). But there is also a lot to learn about scepticism as represented in the Hellenistic phase of the Academy or by early Pyrrhonism. Luca Castagnoli's paper on the latter subject is an important demonstration of the possible use and misuse of the Principle of Charity, which reminds us not to apply our methodological principles unreflectively. Han Baltussen's piece on the post-Aristotelian Peripatetics introduces the major figures. With Tobias Reinhardt's paper we arrive in Rome: he takes into account the influence of the Greeks and, from Ennius, we soon arrive at Cicero – and look out even further into the future of that past which is discussed in the following and last part of the Companion.

Part V covers the history of philosophy during the Roman Empire and beyond. After a thorough lesson in Stoic ontology, Ricardo Salles narrows the contrast between early and Roman Stoic theology by pointing out the different ways in which the early and later Stoics conceived of god's power as limited. Mauro Bonazzi demonstrates how the so-called "middle Platonists" occupied the centre of philosophical debates, and pictures them as the motor of major philosophical changes in the period. The last part of the Companion offers a lot of further excitement by featuring figures not normally scrutinized in their own right, such as Galen or Sextus Empiricus, and even the major figures of the last phase of Platonism, Syrianus, Proclus and Damascius – obviously only after dealing with Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus. It also addresses topics not normally considered to be in the scope of such compendiums: after a historical overview of the ancient commentators on Aristotle, James Wilberding offers a case study in the metaphysics of celestial light and heat taking into account the positions of Alexander of Aphrodisias, Philoponus and Olympiodorus; Mark Edwards investigates the Christian sources for ancient philosophy; and finally Peter Adamson provides an excellent account of a topic which is often just barely mentioned – the Arabic reception of Greek philosophy.

This is not a companion on an introductory level: experts or those with some acquaintance with the ancient texts and their contemporary reception are more likely to appreciate the subtleties of the work done by everyone contributing to this volume. However, this is not to say that it could not and should not be used by students new to any of the subjects addressed: each article is written without footnotes, and with 'Harvard' references, which gives focus to the presentation. Bibliography is given at the end of each paper, with a section of suggested further reading. Connections between articles within the Companion are indicated, making it easily accessible for those who do not wish to explore it from the beginning to the end. The two editors, James Warren and Frisbee Sheffield, like two excellent conductors, have orchestrated a huge wealth of expertise and established a milestone in the written history of ancient philosophy, a starting-point for new departures.


1.   Cf. J. Annas, 'Ancient philosophy for the twentieth century', B. Leiter (ed.) The Future for Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 25-43.
2.   G. E. L. Owen, 'Eleatic Questions', Classical Quarterly 10 (1960), 84-102.
3.   Cf. J. Warren, Presocratics: Natural Philosophers before Socrates (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007).
4.   Developmental, e.g. G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); unitarian, e.g. C. H. Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
5.   Cf. R. Sorabji, 'Body and Soul in Aristotle', Philosophy 29 (1974), 63-89, vs. M. Burnyeat, 'Is an Aristotelian Philosophy of Mind Still Credible?' in M. Nussbaum and A. Rorty (eds.), Essays on Aristotle's De Anima (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 15-26.
6.   Cf. V. Caston, 'The Spirit and the Letter: Aristotle on Perception' in R. Salles (ed.), Metaphysics, Soul, and Ethics in Ancient Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 245-320.
7.   Cf. e.g. M. Schofield, 'Stoic Ethics' in B. Inwood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 233-56.

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