Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.7.15


André Laks and Malcolm Schofield (edd.), Justice and Generosity. Studies in Hellenistic Social and Political Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. $64.95. ISBN 0-521-45293-7.


Reviewed by Dirk t. D. Held, Classics, Connecticut College, dthel@conncoll.edu.

Justice and Generosity, proceedings of the sixth Symposium Hellenisticum, is devoted to political and social philosophy. Political theory of this period has been substantially neglected when compared to the interest evoked by Hellenistic ethics in recent years. The Stoics are a good example; it took nearly forty years after Margaret Reesor's 1951 monograph The Political Theory of the Old and Middle Stoa for another book in English to be devoted exclusively to the subject. Reasons for this include the lack of complete works of Hellenistic political theory and modern assumptions regarding the diminished significance of political thought in an age of kingdoms accompanied by the Privatisierung of Hellenistic life.

The essays under review approach the topic from several perspectives including attention to Roman experience. Texts of Cicero and Seneca are presented not simply as fertile fields for running the plough of Quellenkritik but as creative responses which deployed Greek sources to address contemporary political and social conditions. The essays confront the need to explain how the theorizing of political experience was affected by ethical issues arising out of the Hellenistic oikoumene and the Roman imperium and they avoid a simplistic separation of politics and ethics.

The first and longest essay is David Hahm's "Polybius' applied political theory" which examines the twin aims of Book VI of the History, to explain how Rome succeeded in imposing its rule on the world, and secondly to provide a foundation for proper choice (tou beltionos hairesis) through knowledge of the causes (he ton aition theoria) which illuminate how constitutions affect communities. Polybius therefore claims both analytical understanding and predictive power. Now it is generally the case that theories under-describe facts, and a schematized theory of cyclical constitutional development seems particularly ill suited to the vagaries and specificities of historical events. Hahm addresses this gap. He notes Polybius' double presentation of the cycle of constitutional change. An initial brief version (VI.4.7-10) offers a formal taxonomy of constitutions based on a generic biological model of growth, acme, and decline. This is followed by a longer and more detailed analysis (VI.5.4.-9.9) where Polybius introduces causal mechanisms for change and outlines what is in effect a genealogy of morality. The underlying psychological dynamic is "reciprocity of benefit" secured via instincts for "self-aggrandizement" and "co-operation for self-preservation." Polybius is not a reductivist, nor are such psychologizing explanations comprehensive since historical contingencies temper what might otherwise be a rigid cycle of constitutional change. Reading Hahm's rich essay we realize that Polybius provided causal explanation though he did not circumscribe future events by ineluctable necessitation.

Jean-Louis Ferray's "The statesman and the law in the political philosophy of Cicero" is methodologically the most traditional of the essays here. Having both the virtues and textual grind of Quellenkritik it is not a particularly easy read. Surviving books of De legibus and De re publica provide ample discussion of the best state but little of what constitutes the best citizen. Clearly the optimus civis was a subject of great interest to Cicero, and Ferray attempts to reconstruct what Cicero probably said about him. He concludes that essentially he is the statesman possessing prudentia, whose reason rules his passions. Analogously in the mixed constitution the statesman knows how to constrain natural tendencies towards destabilization, and his greatest achievement is bringing about concord among discordant groups within the community.

A more philosophical stance characterizes Julia Annas' "Aristotelian political theory in the Hellenistic period." The problem she addresses was previously presented in great depth in her Morality of Happiness (reviewed BMCR 5, 1994), specifically how Greek eudaimonistic moral theory, centering happiness on the agent's well-being, is adapted to accommodate concern for others. This "other-concern" was a new expectation of morality brought by the Stoics, and her essay explores the confrontation of Aristotelian political theory with these Stoic expectations. It is a political issue because Aristotle tightly links ethical agency to active participation in polis life, the necessary activity for exercising phronesis. By contrast, no such privileging of the polis holds for the Stoics. Consequent to their well-known doctrine of oikeiosis, the polis would be an utterly arbitrary limitation to place on concern for others since rationality imposes no more obligation towards one's family and fellow citizens than it does towards any human at all. Annas explores this confrontation in the writings of Antiochus and Arius Didymus. Both were committed to Aristotelian ethics which they endeavored to reconcile with Stoic theory. In accommodating Aristotelian theory to the comprehensive "other-concern" of Stoic oikeiosis they each subsume the political within the larger notion of human sociability. They do so by retaining the old language of "politikon" but in such a way that its original, particularist association with a specific community has been displaced in favor of an "impartial" and universalist obligation to the far wider community of humankind. (It is tempting to compare the debate between contemporary communitarians with their particularist focus and liberal supporters of the universalist ideals of the Enlightenment project.)

The surprisingly extensive semantic range of oikonomia is set out in Carlo Natali's "Oikonomia in Hellenistic Political Thought." It is an especially helpful essay since it covers poorly known ancient writings on economics after Aristotle, and proclaims the need for a new theoretical basis in studying ancient economics. Natali illustrates how the term oikonomia covers not only household management but the management of any complex situation or materials, from a community's political affairs or wealth, to the division of spoils, religious festivals, parts of a speech, and even the ingredients in a dish. In these instances oikonomia comprises a techne, but Natali examines Neopythagorean, Epicurean, and Stoic writers to reveal another conceptualization introduced by the philosophers. This model does not address the master (of household, city, etc.) needing empirical advice, but rather the wise man. Ethical questions now directly intervene, first as to whether wealth even should be sought, and if so, what are its proper acquisition and use, and how true wealth is measured by the philosopher. The concatenation of economic and ethical questions left the conceptual status of oikonomia unclear, a fact Natali underlines by showing its instability between being thought a techne, a subjective disposition (hexis) or even phronesis (Arius Didymus).

A less satisfying survey is J.L. Mole's "The Cynics and politics," for two reasons. The state of the evidence is poor, necessitating protracted discussions of doxography. And further, construing Cynics as political writers courts incoherence due to their apparent rejection of conventional political identity in favor of cosmopolitanism. Initially at least, politics in the conventional Greek sense had no coherent connection with Cynicism. As Mole states, "the Cynic 'state' is nothing other than the 'state' of being a Cynic," and the early Cynics took their bearings from the cosmos not the polis. The story, traced through the Roman period, changed over time when some Cynics later engaged in military and political affairs. Obviously being a Cynic meant different things, a fact Mole resolves by differentiating "hard" Cynics who rejected politics from "soft" Cynics who compromised with their world.

The final four papers address ethics explicitly. Antonia Alberti, trying to understand how the Epicureans conceptually dissolved the Platonic and Aristotelian identification of law and justice, opens the section with a highly productive examination of "The Epicurean theory of law and justice." She first analyzes the Epicurean notion of utility, rooted in the natural desire for self-preservation which in turn demanded preservation of community. This behavior became institutionalized in law with its twin functions of making the right rules of conduct "both explicit and obligatory." Utility in the form of justice comes to life contractually, but while justice is contractual it is not conventional. Finding support in Epicurean ontology, Alberti shows that utility and justice are "real," and a "real state of the world," as are other relative existents. Relations though objectively real remain context dependent, and so justice can be mutable and localized even while it has the same objective character as would natural justice.

Malcolm Schofield also explores arguments about justice. In "Two Stoic approaches to justice" he isolates a theological and an ethical approach, the latter based on Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis. Schofield studies the relationship between the two approaches, and after doxographic spadework shows that oikeiosis provided the origin of justice but that this ethical approach is dependent on theological premises.

"Cicero's politics in De Officiis" by A.A. Long advances the thesis that Cicero sets out to reform the ideology of the Roman value system of virtus, honestas, splendor, laus and gloria among others. When gloria properly served the interests of the political community it was both utile for the individual and honorable (honestum) within the state. Ciceronian revisionism was motivated by the degradation of gloria to personal lionization, achieved moreover at the price of debasing the body politic. Since it was unlikely that glory would ever be denied its utilitarian value in advancing a Roman's political career, Cicero needed to reconcile glory with honestum. For the reintegration of utile with honestum, the solution was glory based on justice. Cicero held that justly pursued glory brought benefits to individual and community alike. This, says Long, established a "normative concept of glory," the "composite of three conditions -- the affection, confidence and admiration of the populace" which can only be secured by justice. The closing section of Long's essay -- on private property -- is connected by the somewhat tenuous thread of justice which in the case of property Cicero saw to be little more than its regulated use, and he never raised deeper questions about the just distribution of property throughout the ranks of society.

The final essay in the volume, by Brad Inwood, turns to Seneca. "Politics and paradox in Seneca's De Beneficiis" addresses a topic central to Greek and especially Roman society, namely benefaction or service to others. As any student of ancient society knows, this was not disinterested altruism but the coin of the realm as it were, that with its attained or anticipated reciprocations maintained the myriad nodes binding together the social fabric. The Stoics frequently explored ethical questions on such things as good deeds to others via paradoxes contrived from the opposing responses of the sage and fool. Seneca could hardly avoid discussing either the topic of beneficia or Stoic writings on the topic. Yet Seneca is less a philosopher who indulges in the rigors of precise argument than a moralist wanting to accommodate ethical values to his world. He was not interested in the logical and ethical absoluteness observed by the sage but in offering practical guidance. Inwood admits his doubts as to whether De Beneficiis should be considered an ethical treatise and near the end of the essay acknowledges Seneca's "generally social purpose" and his desire to defuse paradox in favor of "effective social comment" and advice. Perhaps rigorous analysis of the Stoic paradoxes was necessary to show this, but the overall effect is that Inwood's adroit philosophical analysis of the paradoxes rather eclipses the text of Seneca.