Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.33

D.L. Blank (trans.), Sextus Empiricus, Against the Grammarians (Adversos Mathematicos I). Clarendon Later Ancient Philosophy.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1998.  Pp. lvi, 436.  ISBN 0-19-824470-3.  $105.00.  

Reviewed by Wayne J. Hankey, Dalhousie University and King's College, Halifax (
Word count: 1436 words

In 1933 the Clarendon Press published the first edition of E.R. Dodds' edition and translation of and commentary on Proclus, Elements of Theology. The publication of this masterpiece of scholarship by the most distinguished of presses was crucial to the revival of Neoplatonic studies beyond Plotinus, who was then the last even moderately respectable subject of philosophical attention in antiquity. These studies were interrupted by the Second World War but have flourished since, especially in France, and the revival has now become international and as much philosophical, religious and theological as historical. But more than the press was significant. It was at least equally important that the author was the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford and was self-consciously endeavoring to shift English Classical studies away from the reiterated elevation of the norms of a supposed Classical rationality -- even if his own judgments of the culture of Late Antiquity depended upon and tended to reassert those norms. Dodds' Neoplatonic researches have not found a continuation at Oxbridge either among Classicists or philosophers. However, the volume under review illustrates that interest in and the commitment of resources to Hellenistic philosophy generally is now well established in English scholarly publishing. Blank in his Preface rightly asserts a "recent revival of philosophical interest in ancient scepticism" (p.v), a revival which extends well beyond the growing appreciation of the role of Scepticism in the foundations of Platonism both Plotinian and Augustinian.

The aims of the Clarendon Later Ancient Philosophy series in which Professor Blank's volume appears are worth noting. It is not enough to produce a faithful translation; it is also to be readable. Moreover, the translated work, accompanied by a lengthy introduction (43 pages), a very extensive commentary (283 pages) and "Glossary of Ancient and Medieval Authors" (16 pages) attempts to be intelligible not only to those without Greek or Latin (an explicit purpose) but also to readers with the most minimal knowledge of the history of philosophy. The Commentary begins by telling us who the μαθηματικοί are, and Aristotle and Plato are in the Glossary (even if Plotinus is omitted!). The lavishness of the efforts to render the text comprehensible is indicated by the fact that the translation itself occupies only 66 of the 492 pages of the volume. John Dillon's translation of Alcinous, The Handbook of Platonism (reviewed BMCR 94.10.14), Richard Bett's translation of Sextus Empiricus, Against the Ethicists (BMCR 97.11.08) and R.J. Hankinson's translation of Galen, On the Therapeutic Method have appeared in the same series. For area, aims and format the Clarendon series may be compared with Richard Sorabji's series of translations, The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle, whose volumes coming out of the Cornell University Press are now numbered by the dozens.1 Recently an editor of a national Canadian newspaper phoned to ask for help with an article on Stoicism for which he claimed there is a wide public following. Evidently we have not only a revival of interest in Hellenistic philosophy but an effort to make it accessible to more than specialists, an effort which has met with considerable success.

Blank's volume deserves to have its aims succeed even if the extreme dryness of the treatise itself makes a wide readership unlikely. The quality of the production is worthy of the Clarendon Press. The translation is clear and straightforward, even if nothing can render the argument exciting. The commentary is, at the same time, thoroughly learned and exhaustively explanatory of the smallest details and of problems which might create misunderstandings. Blank's introduction is aware of and engages the best and latest scholarship on the questions involved and his solutions to the fine questions current are exact, painstaking and judicious.

The fundamental questions addressed by the work are crucial to all those who have made the first beginnings of the study of ancient philosophy, i.e. all those who have read the first book of Plato's Republic. In the current academic year alone these must be legion. There the suppositions of that work fateful for philosophy, politics, religion, theology, ethics, social structure, aesthetics, and myth are dialectically established. At the heart of this foundation is the connecting of τέχνη with justice, power and happiness. The context of Socrates' discussion in book one and his engagement with Thrasymachus in the Republic indicates that the questions about τέχνη were important to philosophy before Plato. They had been raised already not only by the poets but also by the Sophists and Ionians and were crucial to reflection about medicine which develops along with philosophy. The aim of the arguments of Sextus Empiricus (whom Blank locates "sometime between AD 100 and the early third century" [p.xv]) in this treatise is to uncouple the connection made by Socrates in the Republic.

Part of the important work done by Blank in this volume is to locate the argument of Sextus not only in relation to the Epicureans, Cynics and Stoics, but to place all four schools in relation to medical theory and practice. Blank maintains that Sextus is a physician (p.xv). Appropriately he accounts for the difference between Sextus' own statement that a Pyrrhonist would be most properly a member of the Methodical school and his description by ancient authors as an Empiricist, by suggesting that Sextus was trained as an Empiricist and continued to function within that practice after ceasing to regard the tenents of the school as true.

The Against the Learned (μαθηματικοί) comes down to us in eleven books, of which the last five comprise Against the Logicians (books seven and eight); Against the Physicists (books nine and ten); and Against the Ethicists (book eleven). The last was translated by Richard Bett and published in this Clarendon series in 1997. The first six books "clearly formed a separate work ... probably the latest of the preserved work of Sextus" (p.xvi) and are devoted to a Sceptical attack on Grammar, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astrology and Music. Blank's volume contains the first of these and has the introductory general attack on the arts as well as the particular assault on Grammarians. He shows how it "follows the structure of a grammatical treatise: definition of grammar, division into parts, discussion of each of the parts in turn" (p.xlv). But this does not mean that Sextus is working directly from writings of the grammarians. His source is often the Epicurean works which he attacks along with the grammarians from the beginning of the treatise. The Epicureans also oppose the grammarians, but the aim of the Epicurean attack was to show the inutility of grammar for happiness. The Sceptical attack is more radical. It attempts to demonstrate that the most important tenents -- definitions, theorems, hypotheses -- of each of the arts including grammar are incoherent or non-existent. The result of the whole assault on the Learned is intended to be that there is nothing which is taught and so also no such thing as a teacher or learner (p.xlix). Such an argument contains the Epicurean attack on the utility of these sciences for happiness. However, we are forced to ask whether it goes too far to remain Pyrrhonian. By proving non-existence has Sextus abandoned giving counter-arguments whose only purpose is to show equipollence and which do not destroy or disprove?

Blank confronts this crucial question and considers it relative to the current literature. In the end he adopts the position of Jonathan Barnes (one of the General Editors of this Clarendon series). The Sceptical arguments against the existence of a technical theorem or τέχνη are to be taken as the equipollent counterpoint to the technicians' arguments. Blank supplements Barnes with an argument of Stefania Fortuna that the use of non-Sceptical arguments occurs within a Sceptical framework in which Sextus not only attacks the ἀπορίαι resulting from the arts but also the fact that the arts do not allow the Sceptic his "use of everyday life" (p.lii). This indicates how closely drawn the difference between Pyrrhonian and Epicurean is. The Sceptic claims to be able even to use dogmatic arguments to non-existence in order to achieve equipollence, i.e. for a Sceptical end (p.liv).

This question of the exact character of the subjectivity established in the Sceptical attack brings us back to Neoplatonism. The Plotinian departure is from Scepticism because the self of equipollent poise is the self which models the One even if as the product of reflection it is also noetic. If Neoplatonism be the synthetic result of ancient philosophy from which the other schools can be understood, Blank has drawn his interpretive lines correctly.

It goes without saying that this book will be essential to every library that seriously collects ancient philosophy.


1.   For reviews of Cornell productions see BMCR 2.6.23, 3.6.6, 4.5.10, 94.3.2, 94.10.2, 94.10.17, 95.5.5, 97.7.1, 97.9.24, 98.3.19.

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