Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.25


Jaap Mansfeld, Prolegomena: Questions to be Settled before the Study of an Author or a Text. Leiden: Brill, 1994. Pp. vii + 246. $57.25. ISBN 90-04-10084-9.


Reviewed by Brad Inwood, University of Toronto.

Brill has now reached volume 61 in its series Philosophia Antiqua with this learned and useful monograph by Jaap Mansfeld. Mansfeld's work in the field of later Greek philosophy and the doxographical tradition continues to make important contributions to our understanding of ancient thought. The present volume tackles aspects of a difficult preliminary question which ought in principle to precede any attempt to comprehend the philosophical texts which survive from antiquity: why are they in the form they are in, and how were they meant to be read in their own day. Without some view about the presuppositions which ancient readers brought to their philosophical texts, we cannot satisfactorily grasp how and why their authors wrote them as they did. Some understanding of literary hermeneutics, in at least this sense, is a necessary part of any reading of ancient philosophical texts. We are familiar with the importance of the dialogue form for interpreting Plato and with the vital role played by modern views about the nature of Aristotle's 'treatises' in our assessments of his work. The differences between the letters of Epicurus and his massive work On Nature affect our understanding of Epicureanism almost as much as does our appreciation of the difference between either of those works and Lucretius' philosophical poem.

Mansfeld's theme is more specific, and certainly less familiar to most students of antiquity: the ancient tradition of writing philosophical commentaries, and in particular the organized prefaces meant to be propaedeutic to the reading of difficult and important texts. This is, then, in large measure a study of later ancient philosophical pedagogy, for it is these late ancient texts which his study helps us to understand, rather than the earlier texts (Plato, Aristotle, and so forth) on which they comment. Mansfeld's theme and evidence range very widely indeed. In assembling his picture of the schema isagogicum he draws on at least the following blocks of material:

- Proclus' introductions and commentaries on Plato
- Proclus' commentaries on Euclid
- Proclus on Homer and Hesiod
- the anonymous Theaetetus commentator
- various commentaries on Aristotle
- Christian commentaries on scripture
- commentaries on Virgil
- commentaries on Aratus
- rhetorical and medical commentaries
From this fertile field, which he knows intimately, Mansfeld unearths and brings together an impressive amount of evidence in favour of the thesis that there eventually developed a more or less standard introductory scheme for use in schools as a preparation for the detailed study of texts of almost any genre with the aid of a specialized commentary. The fullest form of this scheme is that found in the school of Proclus, and Mansfeld identifies seven components (10-11):
- the theme of the work under study
- its position in the corpus
- its usefulness
- discussion of the title, if obscure
- authenticity
- its division into sections or chapters
- the branch of philosophy to which it belongs
The argument and exposition in chapter one are exhaustive. Mansfeld meticulously tracks down anticipations of these themes in commentary or introductory texts over a wide range of fields as early as the Hellenistic commentaries on Aratus. It is probably too much to suppose that a self-conscious tradition or genre of such writings goes back that far; after all, most of these questions would force themselves naturally onto almost any commentator dealing with 'ancient' texts, even without the benefit of a learnt tradition. (My one complaint about Mansfeld's technique is that he may be too ready to crystallize ancient scholarly comments into a schema or genre of commentary, when all we have is evidence that scattered authors asked similar questions; note the birth of a 'sub-genre' by p. 181.) But Mansfeld is surely right to emphasize (following the work of Neuschaefer and Hadot) the cardinal role of Origen, whose commentary on the Song of Songs is already structured by a schema which is a somewhat simpler predecessor of what we find in Proclus.

In chapter 2 Mansfeld focusses more narrowly on the Platonic tradition, and in particular on the complex relations between Diogenes Laertius' Life of Plato and middle Platonic writers such as Dercyllides and Albinus (author of the Prologos; Mansfeld follows Whittaker in recognizing that Alcinous wrote the Didascalicos). Historians of Platonism will find a great deal to debate here, but the most important theme is the relationship between the Thrasyllan 'recension' of Plato's works and Diogenes' account. This entire field has been the focus of lively debate, and Mansfeld takes account of contributions as recent as Harold Tarrant's 1993 book Thrasyllan Platonism. Mansfeld argues that the ordering by trilogies precedes the tetralogic plan used by Thrasyllus (though there was also a pre-Thrasyllan tetralogic order). The principles used by Thrasyllus can, according to Mansfeld, be partially discerned. Pythagorean numerology plays a role (if only so that a numerically tidy canon might be more stable in transmission). The effect of Hellenistic schematizations of philosophy is evident, but "it would seem that most of the time Thrasyllus still applies literary rather than philosophical criteria, just as Aristophanes had done before him" (70). In the rest of the chapter a very detailed discussion of the classifications of Platonic dialogues used by middle Platonic writers brings out the differences between what Mansfeld calls the "tetralogic canon" (91) stemming from Thrasyllus and the systematic ordering designed to support a distinctly middle Platonic teaching programme which developed by the time of Albinus.

The interconnection of literary and philosophical considerations also marks chapter 3, a short study of Porphyry's Vita Plotini as an example of the introductory essay in the genre under consideration. Comparison is made with Arrian's treatment of Epictetus' corpus; the frequently studied Vita Plotini benefits from this perhaps unexpected juxtaposition. Mansfeld's broad generic approach to philosophical introductions is justified in this chapter by his successful treatment of Porphyry's puzzling invocation of the scholar Apollodorus alongside Andronicus as a model for the systematic rather than the chronological ordering of texts (V. Plot. 24). Apollodorus was responsible for the standard edition of the comic poet Epicharmus, just as Andronicus was for Aristotle and Theophrastus. Porphyry's sense of his task in writing the introduction to his edition of the Enneads is clearly revealed; he treats the philosophical text according to the canons applicable to all literary corpora.

The chapter on the Vita Plotini makes a small but important contribution to the understanding of Plotinus' corpus. Chapters four and five deal at length with Galen: the autobiographical treatments of his corpus, his practice as a commentator on Hippocrates, and his practice of textual exegesis. Galen is portrayed convincingly as working within the exegetical tradition under study, but not following its conventions too closely. Mansfeld is here breaking new ground. While a great deal remains to be done, it is clear that these chapters form an indispensable starting point for future attempts to grapple with the exegetical practice of this most prolific of ancient authors. Historians of ancient medicine will find this an important discussion, and historians of Stoicism can now develop a better understanding of Galen's The Doctrines of Plato and Hippocrates, a crucial text for understanding Stoic ethics.

In his final chapter Mansfeld explores the exegetical importance of biography. How, and why, should biographical data about an author be used in understanding his text? The question is still current, though the ancient assumption that biography matters crucially is now out of fashion. Mansfeld begins, somewhat surprisingly, with a short passage from Cicero's De Inventione (2.117) to which Schaeublin has drawn attention. Contentious or ambiguous written texts, especially legal documents, are to be interpreted in the light of the writer's life and character as well as the rest of his corpus and the full context of the document under discussion. The relevance of the whole document is obvious; that we should strive to harmonize our reading with the whole corpus is rather more surprising to us (what if the author changed his mind over time?). But it is the importance of biography to the interpretation of texts which really stands out. Modern students of ancient literature are more familiar with the notion that the biographies of ancient writers are tainted by retrojection of 'facts' both large and small from the works. Using the biographies to interpret texts would then be circular.

Mansfeld sets aside such worries (180) and explores the historical implications of this practice, which he shows to be widespread in later antiquity. Biography and doxography play themselves out side by side, interacting in complex ways with each other and with the formal commentary tradition. Specialists in ancient philosophy are prone to rather inconsistent uses of Diogenes' biographical material, neglecting it, accepting it uncritically, or exploiting it inconsistently. Mansfeld gives us here an important tool to use in the task of helping us to make more critical use of Diogenes' evidence.

Prolegomena is a breathtakingly learned book, from the introduction through to the series of lengthy 'complementary notes' which examine points of detail too bulky to be accommodated in the already dense footnotes. The bibliography is thorough and up-to-date and the Indices Locorum and Nominum et Rerum are professional and thorough. The wealth of material may make the argument hard to follow at some points, and many readers will no doubt flag at the volume of detail. But the weary traveller should be sustained by the knowledge that Mansfeld's labours have helped us along a very important road towards the understanding of the history of ancient philosophy and scholarship. We are nowhere near the end of that road, but the way forward will be much clearer after one absorbs what Mansfeld given us in this splendid book.