Monday, April 24, 2017


Sharon Weisser, Naly Thaler (ed.), Strategies of Polemics in Greek and Roman Philosophy. Jerusalem studies in religion and culture, 21. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. Pp. ix, 248. ISBN 9789004319646. $142.00.

Reviewed by Rodrigo Verano, Universidad de los Andes (

Version at BMCR home site

Online version
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume, edited by S. Weisser and N. Thaler, collects papers presented at the colloquium "Strategies of Polemics in Greek and Roman Philosophy" held at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in 2014, together with other contributions especially prepared for the book.

Polemic is essential to ancient philosophy. From Plato and Aristotle, and especially in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, philosophical trends flourished in a polemical context which helped shape thought and discourse, and surviving texts preserve evidence of these confrontations. Some of the papers in this book explore particular examples of this; but probably the main interest of the volume is its thematic approach: polemics becomes the lens through which the authors look at the problems of Greek and Roman philosophy, bringing together texts otherwise set apart, shedding new light on the interrelations between schools and discovering fresh perspectives. In my opinion, these approaches to a complex literature are always welcome, particularly if, as is the case here, the topic selected is so central.

After the introduction, André Laks' chapter effectively sets the agenda, offering a definition of polemic —later taken up in some of the other contributions— and a historical review of the relationship between polemics and philosophy. Laks focuses on the martial denotation of the word and explores the distinction between "war"—a private confrontation between enemies—, and philosophical "polemic", where the participation of a third party—the audience—seems to be required. Laks shows how polemic has served as an identity-making tool for schools and institutions and how it has been used differently through history.

Christopher Shields approaches the Socratic opposition between sophistry and philosophy in Plato and Aristotle. Starting from a passage in which Plato calls "young dogs" the young men who initiate themselves into eristic and cast philosophy aside, the author stresses the fact that sophistic and philosophy actually share common ground, yet differ essentially: one is truth-implicating and free of self-interest, the other is not. Thus, Socrates can act like a sophist, but will never be called such. Aristotle also understands the difference between the sophist and the philosopher in terms of attitude: discriminating the probable and the real can be an arduous task, but it is the mark of the philosopher to have the will to take it on.

Naly Thaler examines the refutation of Protagoras' man-measure doctrine in Plato's Theaetetus. In this dialogue, Socrates examines Protagoras' doctrine and finds two cases in which the doctrine seems to be sound: the judgments of perception and the judgments of value. After a digression (172c-177c), Socrates resumes his discussion of these problematic instances, but in fact only deals with the former judgments. Thaler considers that judgments of value are not treated because they have in effect been refuted in the dialectical parts that precede and follow the digression. Specifically, he points out the moment in which Socrates distinguishes the capacity of cities to assign the name 'just' to whatever they want to lay down as 'just'. According to Thaler, this refutation remains implicit because of the nature of the so-called litigious man, who is not at all interested in the search for the truth, and therefore is not in need of dialectical help to find it. Thaler provides a very subtle insight into this difficult and obscure passage, demonstrating that in Platonic dialogue every element, and not only what appears to be the main body of argumentation, must be considered.

Charlotte Murgier identifies a polemical background to Plato's and Aristotle's texts on pleasure. In Philebus, Plato refers to some "difficult people" and some "refined people" whose ideas and opinions are used as a starting point of the discussion. The first group can be identified as anti-hedonists (to them, pleasure is the mere absence of pain). The second group—the "refined people"—understands pleasure as a becoming (γένεσις) rather than a being (οὐσία). Murgier suggests that Socrates interacts differently with those two visions: while he rejects completely the first one, some ambiguity remains about the second one. In fact, the Platonic conception of pleasure relies on an idea of restoration or replenishment (πλήρωσις) not completely incompatible with the "genesis theory". Aristotle, on the other hand, reacts against it: in the Nicomachean Ethics, he defines pleasure as a perfect activity (ἐνέργεια) which does not fit the structure of γένεσις.

Josef Müller offers a new perspective on the controversial interpretation of Plato's ideal city to be found in Aristotle's Politics. Müller approaches Aristotle's criticism by pointing out that his aim is not to develop a thorough analysis of Plato's political system, but rather to address the problem of social cohesion and its possible foundations. Thus, Aristotle's attack targets communism and ignores other important aspects of Plato's political project not because of a misreading of the Republic, but because Plato establishes that the community of women and children will support φιλία among the guardians. Aristotle strongly disagrees with Plato, arguing that human beings feel a natural inclination to own property. Müller also points out the fact that Aristotle tries to undermine the beauty of Plato's system by resorting to rhetorical devices. It would be very interesting to go more deeply into the analysis of these stylistic factors, which can help us understand the complete strategy of the Aristotelian criticism of Plato.

Voula Tsouna enters Roman philosophy by studying the reception of the ancient rivalry between Cyrenaics and Epicureans in the works of Cicero and Plutarch (representatives of anti-Epicurean thought) and in those of Philodemus and Diogenes of Oinoanda (supporters of Epicureanism). Tsouna suggests that Cicero's striking praise of Cyrenaic hedonism is actually a strategy seeking to counteract the success of Epicurean philosophy. To the orator, the extreme hedonism claimed by the Cyrenaic philosophers was far from taking root in Roman soil, while the arguments they provided against the Garden could be helpful in the fight against the real threat of Epicureanism. On the other side of the reception, Tsouna studies how Philodemus attacks the radical presentism of Cyrenaic hedonism (i.e. the claim that pleasure only exists in the present), arguing that it implies absence of rationality in the making of decisions. She also shows traces of the polemic against the Cyrenaics in some fragments of Diogenes of Oenoanda—the first time that many of these texts are interpreted in this way.

Daniel Marković focuses on Lucretius' treatment of Epicurus in De Rerum Natura. Marković notices that Lucretius presents the intellectual achievement of his master in terms of a military triumph. A look at the structure of Lucretius' exposition of Epicurean ideas reveals that the Roman poet follows a regular pattern: he first introduces the Epicurean arguments, then provides evidence, and finally comes to the refutation of other doctrines—argumentatio, probatio and refutatio—, contrariwise to Aristotelian disposition. As regards the refutation, Marković notes that Lucretius never mentions by name contemporary opponents addressed in the poem. These attacks take multiple forms and make use of many rhetorical strategies, such as parody, reductio ad absurdum, amplification, etc. The combination of these rhetorical devices, the military lexical apparatus and the fact that, as happened with enemy generals after being defeated, the opponents are made to lose their name, leads Marković to suggest that Lucretius is actually writing Epicurus' res gestae.

In his chapter, Mauro Bonazzi approaches the establishment and development of Platonism in the post-Hellenistic context, and its confrontation with the mainstream philosophical trends of the time: the Garden, the Stoa and the Academy. Bonazzi reminds us that the many words related to other philosophical traditions that can be found in the first Platonist texts are usually explained by turning to a lingua franca, a jargon made up of technical terms from all schools of thought. Although this is true, Bonazzi suggests the possibility that some of the first Platonist authors actually try to appropriate some of the achievements of their rivals (hence the "perfidious" strategy that gives name to the paper) in order to strengthen their own position. Bonazzi studies the concept of ἔννοια and its migration from Stoic doctrine to some Platonist texts which take advantage of the term and provide it with a new definition, not based on an understanding of its use in Stoic theory, but framed in terms of the theory of Ideas. Bonazzi's work challenges our understanding of post-hellenistic Platonism and invites a new reading of these texts which sheds light on the mutual relations between the schools of this period.

Carlos Lévy explores the concept of vehementia in Roman philosophy and rhetoric. The first part of the chapter consists of a study of the uses of the term in textual sources related to rhetoric and examines thoroughly the meaning of the word in every context. According to Lévy, Roman rhetoricians did not pay much attention to vehementia and the vehemens: they are linked to types of speech characterized by repetition and emphasis. Lévy's analysis proves how this way of speaking is not consistent with the Roman ideal of gravitas, unless the orator is speaking for virtue. The concept becomes philosophical only from Cicero and, above all, Seneca, who approved its use in philosophical disputations, but always subordinate to the gentle mode of conversation that is more appropriate to philosophy. The chapter is a wonderful portrait of vehementia—as the author says, a notion more than a concept, a tool more than a framework—within Roman culture.

Sharon Weisser studies Plutarchean (On Stoic Self-Contradictions) and Galenic texts (On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato) against Chrysippus. Weisser analyses carefully the methodology of self-refutation used by Plutarch and distinguishes different strategies designed for this aim. She focuses particularly on the use of literal quotations of the opponent as a way to achieve a more persuasive effect (in Plutarch), or, sometimes, to hide beneath literalness some non-strictly correct interpretation of his opponent's words (in Galen).

Robert Lamberton's inspiring last chapter reflects on Proclus' relationship with Christianity and suggests that his commentary on the Republic of Plato is actually addressed against Christians and the Christian misinterpretation of Platonic doctrine. Lamberton exposes Proclus' model of explanation of poetry, a threefold model that entails different levels of reading a text and that is also applicable to his own text. The model contains the instructions that allow for decoding a message hidden in the commentary: that "the few" to whom he addresses are the chosen ones, and the allusions to "the many" (and to "giants") actually refer to Christians.

The volume prepared by Weisser and Thaler has extraordinary coherence, something remarkable when it comes to collective volumes. Its pages approach Greek and Roman philosophy in an original way, revisit many unresolved problems, and are an invitation for future research.

Authors and Titles

Notes on Contributors
Introduction by Sharon Weisser and Naly Thaler.
The Continuation of Philosophy by Other Means? by André Laks
The Young Dogs of Eristic: Dialectic and Eristic in the Early Academy by Christopher Shields
A Hidden Argument in Plato's Theaetetus by Naly Thaler
Polemical Arguments about Pleasure: The Controversy within and around the Academy by Charlotte Murgier
The Politics of Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic by Jozef Müller
Cyrenaics and Epicureans on Pleasure and the Good Life: The Original Debate and Its Later Revivals by Voula Tsouna
Polemics in Translation: Lucretius by Daniel Marković
The Perfidious Strategy; or, the Platonists against Stoicism by Mauro Bonazzi
Vehementia: A Rhetorical Basis of Polemics in Roman Philosophy by Carlos Lévy
The Art of Quotation: Plutarch and Galen against Chrysippus by Sharon Weisser
The Invisible Adversary: Anti-Christian Polemic in Proclus's Commentary on the Republic of Plato by Robert Lamberton

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