Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.40

Peter Scholz, Der Philosoph und die Politik. Die Ausbildung der philosophischen Lebensform und die Entwicklung des Verhältnisses von Philosophie und Politik im 4. und 3. Jh. v. Chr. Frankfurter althistorische Beiträge herausgegeben von Klaus Bringmann und Manfred Clauss, Band 2.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998.  ISBN 3-515-07054-0.  DM 136.  

Reviewed by Margalit Finkelberg, Tel Aviv University (
Word count: 2184 words

The execution of Socrates signalled a radical break between the philosopher and his community. Having realized that the open teaching of philosophy on the streets and squares of Athens was no longer possible, Socrates' pupil Plato turned his back on city-state politics; his founding of the Academy, an autonomous community of philosophers isolated from the larger community of Athenian citizens, meant that, for the first time in the ancient world, philosophy was institutionalized as an autonomous sphere having nothing to do with the world of political action in which every citizen of the Greek city-state had until then been involved. This main thesis of Peter Scholz's (henceforth, S.) book, based on his Frankfurt doctoral dissertation of 1996, is expounded in five separate studies dealing both with individual philosophers, viz. Plato and Aristotle, and with Hellenistic philosophical schools in general. The introductory and concluding chapters offer more general perspectives on the subject.

In the introductory chapter, "Die soziale Etablierung der Philosophen in Athen," S. gives a valuable overview of the peculiarities of the philosophers' way of life, such as residing in special places of their own, observing various kinds of ascetic discipline, ignoring the social conventions of the community and even its traditional religion, and so on. All these not only drew a dividing line between the Lebensform of the philosophers and that of the ordinary citizens of Athens but also marked philosophers as social outsiders hostile to the way of life characteristic of the Greek city-state. As distinct from the Sophists, whose goal was to assist their pupils to achieve more success in their performance as full-scale members of their community, the philosophers aimed at their students' spiritual transformation, which, if accomplished, would make them leave the community behind in favour of a more perfect form of existence. Small wonder, therefore, that the philosopher's activity was more often than not interpreted as corruption of the young. That many philosophers were metics who in any case had no share in the political life of Athens was an additional factor which marked them as social outsiders.

Chapter One, "Die Entdeckung der philosophischen Lebensform als der wahren Politik," is devoted to Plato. "The death of Socrates caused Plato to call into question not only the restored democratic regime but the entire moral basis of contemporary politics. From then on, the inadequacy of traditional political and moral concepts became the central object of his philosophical thought" (79). The antagonism between the public life, δημοσιεύειν, and the private life, ἰδιωτεύειν, which runs as a leitmotif though this chapter and the entire book, was first set forth in Socrates' words in Ap. 31c: "It may seem curious that I should go round giving advice like this and busying myself in people's private affairs (ἰδίᾳ), and yet never venture publicly (δημοσίᾳ) to address you as a whole and advise on matters of state" (tr. H. Tredennick). Rather than the body of citizens, Socrates and after him Plato address each citizen as an individual, trying to persuade him to take care of his soul rather than of the affairs of the polis. "Giving advice" (συμβουλεύειν, παραινεῖν and "persuading" (πείθειν are the key-words of this ambitious project whose final goal is the education (παιδεία of a new kind of man, which is an alternative to the traditional education of the polis. The new men brought up in this way are the only true statesmen and their society is the only true state because it is based on the principles of philosophy. Accordingly, cultivation of the alternative philosophical παιδεία as represented especially in the Republic became the practical goal of Platonic philosophy. Founding the Academy was a natural outcome of this process.

The focus of Chapter Two, "Die Vermittlung zwischen philosophischer und politischer Lebensform," is the relationship between the philosophical and the political life in Aristotle. Distinct from Plato, who took these two kinds of life to be antagonistic to each other, Aristotle proceeds from the assumption that, although the philosophical life is undeniably the highest form, these are nevertheless two alternative ways of living coexisting within the same political framework. And, as far as the political, or practical, life is recognized as a legitimate form of human existence, those who lead it are also allowed a measure of happiness, eudaimonia, which is of course the highest state of perfection attainable to man. This legitimisation of conventional political life, which acted as a counterpart to its delegitimization by Plato, allowed the philosopher under his aspect of political theoretician to make his philosophical knowledge useful to the entire community by means of political advice and legislation.

In view of these conclusions, it is difficult to see what, besides his determination to pursue his overall argument of the mutual incompatibility of philosophy and politics, underlies S.'s contention, which emerges suddenly in the concluding section of this chapter (179-81), that Aristotle in fact brought to accomplishment Plato's project of total separation between the two spheres. As is well-known, the relationship between Aristotle's concept of the theoretical or contemplative life on the one hand and the practical or political life, on the other, is one of the major problems in his ethics. Whether one concludes that Aristotle believed that only the theoretical life is to be recognized as the highest form of human existence or that he saw the theoretical and the practical life as two equally legitimate alternatives or that he treated one of them as subordinate to the other, the tension is still there, mainly because the issue seems not to have been explicitly resolved by Aristotle himself. But one cannot have it more than one way at the same time, and this is what S. seems to be trying to do here.

In this chapter S. also discusses at length the political biography of Aristotle himself, from his friendship with Hermias, tyrant of Atarneus, through his connections with the Macedonian court, to the complicated history of his relations with democratic Athens. Whether or not S. is correct in arguing that the tradition concerning Aristotle's part in the education of Alexander is of a purely legendary character (156-65), it is hard to shake off the impression that his interpretation of this specific issue suffers from the same bias that can be occasionally observed in his general treatment of Aristotle's attitude to politics.

Chapter Three, "Theophrast, der Peripatos und die Akademie: Politische Theorie und philosophischer Humanismus," starts by quoting Plutarch's praise of the Academics and the Peripatetics in adv. Col. 32, 1126a-f because, as distinct from the Epicureans, they turned their philosophical doctrines into political action and thus made themselves useful to society (185). S. disagrees with Plutarch, arguing that, in so far as they usually did not take part in the political life of the community but were satisfied with assuming the role of advisers, educators, or legislators, neither the Academics nor the Peripatetics can count as politically active members of their society. Here appears what I regard as the main methodological weakness of this book, namely, its lack of a working definition of the "political." Should educational and legislative activities like those traditionally ascribed to the Seven Sages be regarded as lack of political involvement? It is surely much less than the active form of citizenship demanded by Athenian democracy, but much more than the complete abstinence from even a shadow of political activity prescribed by the Epicureans. It should also be kept in mind that most of the philosophers S. refers to in this chapter were in any case prevented from being actively involved in the political life of Athens by their status as metics, so that legislation, education, and political advice were the only forms of involvement in the life of the polis that were open to them. All in all, it seems that Plutarch was correct in drawing a distinction between philosophers, like the Academics and the Peripatetics, who chose to be involved in education and legislation and thus acted intentionally for the benefit of society, and those, like the Epicureans, who avoided both this and any other form of social and political involvement.

In "Die Antipolitik der früher Epikureer" (Chapter Four) S. argues that the definitions "non-political," "apolitical," or "quietist" adopted in other scholars' analyses of the Epicurean attitude to politics are inadequate, and proposes the term "antipolitical" instead. However that may be, there can be no doubt that both the theory and practice of the Epicureans fit very well into his thesis. In the doctrine of Epicurus, "man appears as a private person who passively participates in the political system, no longer as a citizen who actualizes his freedom while exercising his political rights" (265). The Epicurean philosopher can be nothing but philosopher and therefore should not aspire also to become a politician. Thus the Epicurean separation of philosophy from politics leads to recognition of the autonomous status of either sphere. The famous Epicurean slogan "λάθε βιώσα" is a natural corollary of the situation thus created. The philosopher's only interest is to reach the state of the highest eudaimonia, and this can only be achieved if he looks after his soul while leading the life of philosophical contemplation. Life in Epicurean communities fully conformed to these prescriptions.

Like the preceding chapter, "Die frühen Stoiker: Tugendlehre statt politischer Theorie" suits S.'s thesis fairly well. Although the Stoics allowed the philosopher to take part in politics, they were in fact no less "antipolitical" than the Epicureans. As far as the philosopher is virtuous, i.e. lives in harmony with reason, any form of life, including the political one, will do equally well in virtue of its being equally indifferent to him. This is why the Stoics had no need to develop a doctrine of autonomous philosophical life. Again, although both Zeno and Chrysippus wrote a Politeia, rather than addressing a real polis they created a political Utopia possessed of strongly antipolitical tendencies. Their ideal state made no provision for such hallmark characteristics of the Greek city-state as the law-court, gymnasium, currency, or even for shrines and temples of the gods. Zeno "gave up the idea of the polis as both material and ideal homeland of man and replaced it with the idea of the cosmopolis as a 'natural' and 'real' homeland of humanity" (343). This new homeland embraced both freeborn and slaves, men and women, Greeks and barbarians. This is why the old question "who is a good citizen?" was transformed by the Stoics into the question "who is a good man?", which went far beyond the restricted boundaries of the Greek city-state.

The concluding chapter, "Philosophie und philosophische Lebensform im Urteil der athenischen Öffentlichkeit," encapsulates both the strong and the weak aspects of the book. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that an unresolvable tension existed between the ideal of the political life as practised in the Greek city-state and that of the life of philosophical contemplation, and S. has made an important contribution in illuminating it. On the other hand, this does not necessarily mean, as he tries to persuade us, that each philosopher or each philosophical school unambiguously solved this tension in favour of the philosopher's total abstinence from political life. As his own material shows, a clear division can be made in this respect between Plato, Aristotle, and their followers on the one hand, and the Epicureans and the Stoics on the other (it is a pity that S. did not include the Cynics in his study). Surely a subtler gradation is needed in order to do justice to the philosophers' attitudes to politics.

My second reservation concerns the chronological limits of the phenomenon in question. According to S.'s thesis, the antagonism between philosophy and politics began at the beginning of the fourth century B.C. as a direct outcome of Socrates' execution, and ended in the second half of the third century, when philosophy became a universally recognized vehicle of liberal education. It seems, however, that S. has failed to take into account some broader historical continuities pertinent to his thesis. To take only two examples, it cannot be denied that both the Orphics, whose activities long preceded the death of Socrates, and the Stoic Epictetus (c. A.D. 55-135), to whom S. refers as an exception rather than the rule (13), much more fully conform to his model of philosopher as ascetic and social outsider than, say, Aristotle and his followers. This would seem to indicate that the antagonism between philosophy and politics should not be treated as a unique cultural phenomenon. The roots of this antagonism should rather be sought within the broader context of individual striving for personal salvation, expressed in various religious and semi-religious groups throughout antiquity. When confronted with the communitarian demands of the polis, the activities of these groups inevitably created some kind of tension, but it was the specific circumstances of each individual case that determined whether this tension would result in compromise or in open conflict. That is to say, what is being dealt with here is too fundamental a phenomenon to be exhausted within the narrow chronological limits imposed on it in this otherwise rich and interesting study.

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