Tuesday, May 28, 2019


Christoph Riedweg, Christoph Horn, Dietmar Wyrwa (ed.), Philosophie der Kaiserzeit und der Spätantike. Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie. Die Philosophie der Antike 5/3. Basel Schweiz: Schwabe Verlag, 2018. Pp. xxv, 750 (pp. 1859-2599). ISBN 9783796537004. €135,00. ISBN 9783796537189. ebook.

Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto ((lloyd.gerson@utoronto.ca)

Version at BMCR home site

The present volume is the last of eight in a series that was initiated in 1994. Die Philosophie der Antike is a successor to the original history of ancient philosophy conceived and executed by Friedrich Ueberweg as Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie vol. 1, the 12th edition of which appeared in 1926, under the editorial direction of Karl Praechter. The present revision consists of seven previous volumes and, now, the concluding one. These volumes are a worthy successor to Ueberweg's great work, renowned for its accuracy, comprehensiveness, and studious impartiality. The volumes in the new history are: Frühgriechische Philosophie 1/1-2 (2013), eds. Dieter Bremer, Hellmut Flashar, Georg Rechenauer; Sophistik. Sokrates. Sokratik. Mathematik. Medizin 2/1 (1998), eds. Hellmut Flashar, Klaus Döring, George B. Kerferd, Caroline Oser-Grote, Hans-Joachim Waschkies; Platon 2/2 (2007), by Michael Erler; Ältere Akademie. Aristoteles. Peripatos 3 (2004), eds. Hellmut Flashar, Leonid Zhmud, Hans-Joachim Krämer, Fritz Wehrli, George Wöhrle; Die hellenistische Philosophie 4 (1994), eds. Michael Erler, Hellmut Flashar, Günter Gawlick. Waldemar Görler, Peter Steinmetz; Philosophie der Kaiserzeit 5/1 (2018) and 5/2 (2018), eds. Christoph Riedweg, Christoph Horn, Dietmar Wyrwa; and the present volume 5/3 (2018). The total amount of material in the eight volumes is nearly 7,000 pages, with about 1,000 pages of that devoted to bibliography. The three volumes that comprise 5 (/1, /2, and /3) include 58 authors and run to some 2,600 pages.

The vast sweep of the material covered is unprecedented in a work on the history of ancient philosophy. In 5/1, there is a lengthy general introduction, setting forth the principles of selection, the particular philosophical characteristics of the period, the sources, and an all-important essay on the relation between Greek and Roman philosophy on the one hand, and Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian theology on the other. The authors, wisely in my view, have applied a capacious understanding of philosophy to the selection of material in the period in focus, arguing that contemporary categories do not accurately reflect the way philosophy was actually practiced or written about at that time. But a bit more of this below. I shall here focus on 5/3, with some references to the earlier works.

Parts 5/1 and 5/2 cover late Hellenistic philosophy from the 1st century BCE up until, roughly, Neoplatonism in the middle of the 4th century CE. The scope of these volumes is actually much wider than this indicates, since in addition to the canonical topics of Middle Platonism, Peripateticism, Neopythagoreanism, late Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptical philosophy, it includes early Christian theology, Gnosticism, Hellenistic Judaism, Hermetic and Orphic literature, in both Greek and Latin. It is well known that philosophers such as Iamblichus, Hierocles of Alexandria, and Proclus, for example, not only appealed to "religious" literature in support of their philosophical positions, but that they found in this literature, properly interpreted, fresh insights. It is, therefore, of considerable value to have a clear exposition of this material.

Part 5/3 takes up at the end of the 4th century CE and goes well into the 7th century CE. Beginning with the Athenian Neoplatonist Plutarch of Athens and ending with Byzantine, Latin Christian, Rabbinical Judaic, and Syriac Christian authors. In the three volumes together, there are 198 sections, each focused on an individual topic or figure. 5/3 alone contains 5 lengthy chapters with a total of 53 sections. Each chapter concludes with its own extensive bibliography.

One might raise the question of whether the authors are too liberal in their understanding of ancient philosophy, judging especially by previous works, especially in English. Although some Christian and Jewish authors do typically make an appearance in histories of (late) ancient philosophy—Origen, Augustine, Boethius and Philo among a few others are obvious inclusions—this present volume goes far beyond the tentative selecting of philosophical nuggets. As the authors indicate in their introduction, the boundaries between philosophy, theology, the theory of religious practices, and literature are not so clearly fixed in antiquity. It is a modern prejudice to suppose that a divergence of principles or starting-points somehow precludes philosophical commensuration, as it were. It seems undeniable that, while the irreducibly historical orientation of the Abrahamic religions itself stands outside the essentially non-historical framework of philosophy, there were many Jews, Christians and, later, Muslims, who were conversant with ancient Greek "pagan" philosophy and who were substantial contributors to the ongoing thousand-year long conversation that occurred primarily around the Mediterranean basin. It should be added that we possess so little of the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers—about 10% by some rough calculations—that there is no need to press the point about the desirability of inclusiveness. It is understandable that this conclusion would be reached with some trepidation by some, looking especially at 7,000 large and dense pages of material in German. But once one gets over the humbling realization that ancient philosophy is actually a very big subject, one might find some comfort in knowing that all eight volumes, including the one under review, can now claim something that no earlier work can similarly do, that is, comprehensiveness. This work is doxography of the highest order.

The sections are clearly structured: life, works, then, where known, teachings or doctrines, and finally influences on later thinkers (Nachwirkung). A particularly welcome feature of these essays are the lavish bibliographical references, both to primary and secondary sources, intercalated with the text itself. They range from a half page to one-and-a-half pages for Heliodorus of Alexandria (5th century CE) and Hypatios of Ephesus (6th century CE), where only scraps of information about their lives and works are available, to 60 pages for Proclus, a concise monograph in itself. The brief chapter on Hypatios illustrates well the effective strategy that this volume follows. Hypatios was the bishop of Ephesus in the early part of the 6th century. He took the "orthodox" side in the Monophysite controversy carried out in and around the court of Justinian. Why is this of interest to historians of philosophy? Because Hypatios, who was probably a near contemporary of the author known as Dionysius the Areopagite, suspected that the latter's works were not, in fact, those of the disciple of Paul, but rather a Monophysite-leaning version of Proclean metaphysics. He thought this because he found no references to the self-named Dionysius' writings in earlier Christian authors. Dionysius was the most influential Greek Church Father in the West at least until his presumed status as a "founding" theologian was proven false by Lorenzo Valla in the middle of the 15th century. Thomas Aquinas was immensely impressed by Dionysius, even writing a commentary on one of his works, the deeply Platonic In Librum Beati Dionysii De Divinis Nominibus. It is, I think, profitable for historians of philosophy to focus on the way Christian theology, especially in its employment in a doctrinal controversy, is inserted within the purely philosophical tradition that goes back to Plato.

In addition to substantial essays on the obvious Neoplatonic philosophers, there is also a chapter on the so-called School of Gaza of the late 5th and early 6th century, whose most prominent members included Aeneas, Procopius, and Zacharias. Aeneas is of some interest to philosophers as a pagan student of the illustrious Hierocles of Alexandria who converted to Christianity but retained his Platonism, though he tailored it to what he understood the requirements of Christian theology to be. There is also a facet of this school in particular to be noted, namely, its adherence to the Hellenistic ideal of philosophy as a way of life, re-imagined in Gaza as monasticism. The notion of philosophy as bios is one major point of contact between Christianity and ancient Greek philosophy that is variously explored throughout all three volumes. There is also a concise but illuminating chapter on the anonymous Prolegomena to Plato's Philosophy, probably belonging to the middle of the 6th century CE and providing the last summary statement of how Neoplatonists read Plato, what they held to be his most important doctrines, why he wrote dialogues, and how his philosophy was superior to that of all the rival schools. In this work is recorded what came to be the standard reading order of the dialogues among Neoplatonists, probably going back to Iamblichus.

A further valuable feature of the work is that for major authors for whom we do in fact have some of their writings, the chapters give concise and accurate summaries of these works, some of which are quite obscure and not easily available in translation. For example, there is an exemplary and detailed 30 page account of the writings of Boethius, along with an even-handed exposition of the problems surrounding the relation of Boethius' philosophy and his Christian theology.

An unexpected (to me) nice addition to the book is a final chapter on philosophy in Syriac Christianity from the end of the 5th century CE to the Muslim conquest in 639. Centered around Edessa (present day Urfa in southeast Turkey), Syriac Christians, who had obviously been educated within a Hellenic environment, undertook the translation, especially of Aristotle, and especially of his logical works, for the edification of their brethren and for their own theological development. Prior to this time and place, it was mainly Plato who, among the ancient Hellenes, had been put to the service of Christianity. As is amply demonstrated in 5/2, after Alexander of Aphrodisias (late 2nd-early 3rd century CE), Peripatetic philosophy was mostly overwhelmed by Platonism. Although Platonists read and wrote about Aristotle—Plotinus made extensive use of Aristotelian distinctions and arguments and Iamblichus, for example, wrote a commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics— Christians, especially in the east, made little use of him, until the rise of the Syriac churches coincident with the beginnings of Christianity. It is owing to the Syriac Christian philosophers that there existed translations of Aristotle which themselves were translated into Arabic after the Muslim conquest. And with Latin translations of Arabic translations of Syriac translations of Greek texts, Aristotle became available for appropriation in Scholastic philosophy.

The present reviewer is the editor of a work, The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity (2010), which covers very roughly the same ground as Die Philosophie der Antike 5/1-3, is only two volumes, and is about one half the number of pages in total. The Cambridge History was itself a successor to The Cambridge History of Late Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1967), edited by Hilary Armstrong, which is comprised of only one volume, and clocks in at a mere 711 pages. I would like to think that all three works can serve those with differing levels of interest in the period under discussion. I cannot imagine, though, any future work of this sort exceeding the present work according to the criteria set down and magnificently met first by Friedrich Ueberweg. But perhaps in a century or so from now, if some of the other 90% of lost material is recovered, another reconfiguring of the body of ancient philosophy will be in order.

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