Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.2.06


M. B. Trapp (ed. and trans.), Maximus of Tyre. The Philosophical Orations. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Pp. xcviii, 359. $95. ISBN 0-19-814989-1.


Reviewed by John Bussanich, Philosophy, University of New Mexico.

During the Second Sophistic using oratory in the service of philosophy was unremarkable, even for Platonists. One wonders what the author of the Gorgias would have made of this. In Maximus we have someone who, like his contemporary Apuleius, was more a sophist than a philosopher. Nevertheless, his writings have more than a purely literary interest. John Dillon put it well: "although he is primarily concerned with the artistic embellishment of platitudes, Maximus contains much of interest for the general background of second-century Platonism." True if only because so much of our knowledge of Middle Platonism is fragmentary and piecemeal. Not surprising, then, that Maximus' orations were useful as sourcebooks for Florentine humanists as well as for seventeenth-century readers like Robert Burton, Hugo Grotius, Jeremy Taylor Richard Byfield, and Ralph Cudworth.

Trapp provides a fluid and accurate translation of his recent Teubner edition of the Greek text (1994), with extensive annotations, in combination with a lengthy introduction which comprises the best accessible entrance point into the study of this often overlooked writer. These forty-one short discourses range from ninety-nine to 317 lines of Teubner text. In genre they are perhaps closest to Plutarch's Platonic Questions or Dinner-Party Problems, though Maximus is considerably less sophisticated as a philosopher than Plutarch. His perspective is primarily hortatory as indicated in these words: "The summit of philosophy and the road that leads to it demand a teacher who can rouse young men's souls and guide their ambitions" (Or. 1.8). Maximus' intended audience was the neoi who had to choose a philosophy to live by in the second-century intellectual supermarket. The intellectual training of these young men was of course literary, that is to say rhetorical. Hence, these orations are not systematic, comprehensive, or critically sophisticated; indeed, they lack formal argumentation throughout. Trapp sensibly observes: "This is philosophy for the nervous, in need of encouragement, and for those who are as concerned for their image as cultivated Greeks as for the pure (and possibly subversive) light of reason. It is also philosophy for those who are liable to be deterred by anything too technical by way of terminology of or formal argumentation." Interestingly, Maximus does not see himself just as a popularizer. He even appeals to Plato himself for avoiding the use of technical terms (Or. 21.4).

What philosophical topics occupy Maximus' attention? Within the three dominant categories of contemporary philosophical thought -- logic, physics, and ethics -- Maximus' Orations ignore logic and focus on physics to some extent, specifically theology and psychology, but his primary interest is ethics: the nature of the Good, practical topics like friendship and political topics like the role of poets and philosophers in society. Trapp notes that like many of his contemporaries Maximus, though more of a Platonist than anything else, is not a doctrinaire Platonist, but one who espouses beliefs in theology and ethics acceptable to Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics alike (xxiv). (Of course, this tolerant attitude draws the line at the atheistic and materialist Epicureans.) This broad-minded view is a form of what Pierre Hadot has called "naive concordism," which continues to evolve while dominating Greek and Roman religious philosophy into the fifth century. It should be noted that one aspect of the contemporary intellectual scene lacking in M. is any interest in Oriental wisdom, e.g., of Brahmins, Chaldeans, Egyptians et al. as is found in Numenius and Lucian.

A sense of the Orations themselves can be gained from a sampling of their contents. Orations 8 and 9 present a comprehensive theory of daemons analogous to that of Apuleius in De Deo Socratis. Oration 11 is particularly important for its useful survey of Middle Platonic formulations of the divine nature. Oration 2, "Whether images should be set up in honour of the gods," surveys the use of divine images in various cultures and religious traditions and culminates, Platonically, in the assertion of an ineffable divinity who is the transcendent source of all: "For, God Father and Creator of all that exists, is greater than the Sun and the heavens, mightier than time and eternity and the whole flux of Nature; legislators cannot name him, tongues cannot speak of him, and eyes cannot see him" (Or. 2.10). Similar views are espoused by Alcinous and Apuleius, but they are important nonetheless for expressing the henotheism of the intellectual elite.

In several orations Socrates is a departure point for exploring aspects of Platonic philosophy. But Oration 3 "Socrates on Trial" focuses on Socrates himself and argues for the view that Socrates made no defence at his trial. Orations 39-40 center on the debate whether virtue is the only good or whether the end for man comprises a mixture of moral and external goods. Trapp skilfully articulates the Stoic and Peripatetic version of the controversy and the later debate between Stoicizing and Peripateticizing Platonists and dryly observes: "Maximus' bland and schematic treatment obscures this background entirely" (307). For readers innocent of the philosophical faultlines of late antiquity Trapp is a reliable guide. He is resourceful and judicious in sorting out Maximus' often muddled adaptations of the doctrines he inherited. For example, in Oration 41 "On God and the Sources of Evil," Maximus borrows the imagery of chariot and horses from the Phaedrus myth, but doubles the number of horses to four "one of them licentious and gluttonous and lustful, another spirited and manic and impulsive, another lazy and sluggish, another mean and humble and pusillanimous" (330). Trapp notes that these are neither the four basic Stoic pathe nor do they neatly constitute Peripatetic pairs and that Maximus presents a basically Platonic picture. In Orations 18-21, "What Was Socrates' Art of Love," Maximus employs the Phaedrus to explain Socratic eroticism in the early dialogues. Remarkably, he also adduces Anacreon and Sappho as parallels. Quotation of Homer abounds since he too is "philosophical" from the vantage point of this late antique sophist. In this respect, as in many others, Maximus' attitudes are like those of later thinkers like Iamblichus and Proclus despite his lack of philosophical acumen.