Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.12.09

Therese Fuhrer, Michael Erler, Zur Rezeption der hellenistischen Philosophie im Spätantike. Philosophie der Antike, 9.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 1999.  Pp. 316.  ISBN 3-515-07442-2.  DM 134.  

Reviewed by Peter Lautner, Hungarian Academy of Sciences (
Word count: 2268 words

The volume contains 15 papers (1 in Italian, 2 in English and 12 in German), originally contributions to a conference held in Trier on the impact of Hellenistic philosophy on pagan Neoplatonism and Patristic thought. The purpose of the volume is to show that the influence of Hellenistic philosophy on late antique thought was much greater than hitherto assumed. Although explicit references to the Stoics and Epicureans are sparse and sometimes disappointingly inaccurate, it is now well established that many authors in late antiquity owed much more to these predecessors than they were willing to reveal.

S. Föllinger discusses how Arnobius reflected on previous philosophical theories in his Adversus Nationes. She shows that he borrowed both from the Epicureans and from the Stoics. For instance, he tries to refute pagan arguments against Christianity which are based on the novelty of that religion by relying on Lucretius' theory of the origin of culture. He transforms the Epicurean theory by introducing the notion of ascent, which is alien to Lucretius (Christianity is better because it is newer). His attitude towards Stoic theories is exemplified by the rejection of the Stoic notion of reason. Consequently, perhaps, he does not draw a sharp line between humans and beasts, which is against Stoic assumptions. Nevertheless, we can add here that according to Sextus Empiricus (PH 1.69) and Plutarch (De Sollertia Animalium 969A-B) Chrysippus toyed with the idea of a dog using a syllogism. Although this does not prove that the dog has reason, it does show that it must do something analogous to reasoning.1

J. Althoff investigates the reception of Epicurus' ideas by Lactantius. In Divinae Institutiones 3.17 he attacks Epicurus for the notion of voluptas, interpreted as sheer pleasure of the flesh, as well as for the lack of providentia. Lactantius' procedure shows that he drew on Latin authors (Lucretius and Cicero) and had no access to Greek texts. Here, as elsewhere in the criticism of atomism, we do not find genuine arguments. Instead, Lactantius simply introduces Christian views and the procedure leads to petitio principii. But there is also another application of Epicurus' views as well, namely in the De Ira, where he efficiently uses such arguments without acknowledging their Epicurean origin.

C. Riedweg highlights the other side of the debate. He focuses on the Stoic and Platonic arguments used by Julian in his Contra Galilaeos to refute Christian theories. The emperor applies διαφωνία arguments against the Christians, and many other arguments used by the Christians were also turned against them. Furthermore, the basic elements of Julian's theology come from Plato's Laws and the Stoics. But sometimes, e.g., on discussing the nature of heavenly bodies, he preferred Aristotle to the Stoics; it would be interesting to see why. Furthermore, his criticism of the Christians is based primarily on the Stoic notion of πρόνοια. He also uses the notion of ἀπάθεια to show the contradiction inherent in the Christian concept of God. Just one note: I think that on comparing God and the human soul Julian did not have to dissent from Plato, since we read in the Timaeus that human soul and world-soul are made of the same ingredients and both were mixed in the same mixing bowl.

D. J. O'Meara deals with the reception of Epicurean ideas by pagan Neoplatonists. On the whole, they rejected Epicurean philosophy, but their overall goal of integrating the philosophies of their predecessors into a single body of knowledge moved them to endorse certain of their ideas. Such tendencies are seen in Plotinus, Damascius and Simplicius. The notion of pleasure was especially suitable for development and adoption. The division of static and kinetic pleasures served to underline the primacy of the pleasures which accompany the activity of reason. The only objection I could make to this expertly drawn picture is that it may be a matter of dispute whether Epicurus distinguished static and kinetic pleasures along the line of psychic and bodily pleasures (p. 87). For both ἀπονία (absence of bodily pain) and ἀταπαξία were regarded as static pleasure; see Cicero, De finibus II 16. But Damascius also discounted ἀταπαξία (see the list on p. 90).

R. Thiel discusses the role of Stoic ethics in Simplicius' in Ench. He points out that for the last generation of pagan Neoplatonists the study of Epictetus' work was a preparation for philosophy. As Epictetus stressed that human beings are nothing but soul using body, the role of his work was comparable to the function of Alcibiades I in the curriculum established by Iamblichus. To get a sense of the background we are also given a survey of the division of virtues in Plotinus and Porphyry. Unlike Aristotle's moral philosophy, Epictetus' ethical outlook as a whole was then easily reconciled with the late Neoplatonic notions. But it may not be at Athens only where Epictetus was so highly regarded, but also in Alexandria. After all Theosebius was a disciple of Hierocles, and there is a distinct possibility that Simplicius wrote the in Ench. in Alexandria. Moreover, the status of Epictetus does not seem to affect the low esteem of ethics as a philosophical discipline.

M. Erler discusses a similar issue: the role of Hellenistic philosophy as a preparation for Platonic studies in Boethius' Consolatio. He proves that Boethius took over the methods of right conduct which were elaborated by Hellenistic philosophers. But it might be an exaggeration to say that (p.122) Hellenistic philosophy in general had such a function. The Prolegomena in Platonis philosophiam, dated to the early sixth century, does not refer to Hellenistic doctrines, and the vast amount of Stoic material in Simplicius' commentary on the Categories is not preparatory at all.

M. Bettetini discusses the background of Augustine's De musica. On the whole, Augustine too seems to have relied on Platonic notions which concern the problem of matter. Cicero expounds similar views, which allows us to assess the advances Augustine made. This is a learned paper, but it does not have much to do with the subject announced in the title of the volume.

K. Schlapbach examines the Ciceronian and Neoplatonic elements in the introductions to Augustine's Contra Academicos I-II. The claim that fortuna is a manifestation of hidden or unknown causes can be traced back to the Stoics. This is also the case with the claim that seemingly bad turns of fortune are to be explained on basis of the overall scheme of divine providence. Although in Tusc. V 5 Cicero alludes to the paradox that virtue cannot do anything against fortune, it is Augustine who exploits it in full: without divine interference virtue cannot match fortune. The notion and function of virtue also reflect Stoic theories, but by distinguishing two stages Augustine draws on the Platonic and Plotinian distinction between civic and purely theoretical virtues.

Augustine is also discussed in S. Harwardt's paper. She focuses on De beata vita to find Stoic schemes in Augustine's uses of argument. There are two levels which indicate Stoic influences: notions that serve as starting points and schemes of argumentation. Particularly interesting is the application of the notion of the progressor (προκόπτων) to the problem of the person who seeks god (deum quaerens). Strictly speaking, for the Stoics the προκόπτων is merely one of the fools, since there is no middle state between wisdom and foolishness. (It is, however, possible that Panaetius modified the scheme.)

In a very well argued paper, C. Horn criticizes the view that as early as De moribus ecclesiae catholicae Augustine's notion of virtue goes far beyond any Hellenistic antecedents and is decisively characterized by Christian assumptions. Instead, Horn argues, Augustine adopts a Neoplatonic concept of virtue that also preserves earlier doctrines, and it does not contradict his later views that human beings can turn towards God only by the aid of divine grace: the two views are complementary. My only objection is to Horn's treatment of the Cyrenaics (186-187). More evidence is needed to support the claim that the irrational part of the soul is without rational control and can be treated as unconscious (are our emotions unconscious?). One can also raise some doubts about Posidonius' full adherence to the Platonic concept of tripartite soul.2

T. Fuhrer tracks down the epistemological ground of Augustine's notion of faith. The basis is Stoic. Just as we can say that συγκατάθεσις can lead to κατάληψις and then to ἐπιστήμη on the one hand and to δόξα on the other, in Augustine we can find credere, scire and opinari. The difference is that credere constitutes the other two. Faith can also take over the role of assent. In this way, faith gains a central position because it refers to the intelligible world. This signals the Platonic inheritance in Augustine's thought, although the status of credere is a very far cry from the position DO/CA occupies in Plato.

C. Oser-Grote deals with the way Prudentius used the notion of the four cardinal virtues (iustitia, fortitudo, prudentia and temperantia) and the conflict between virtues and vices. The emphasis on patientia as a virtue underlying the cardinal virtues in Prudentius is important, but one could challenge the claim that it comes from the Stoics (227). The only passage quoted to support it, Seneca's Epist. 67.10, says only that patience is more enduring than the cardinal virtues, not that it would be needed for us to acquire any of the cardinal virtues. And the dichotomy of a rational and an irrational part in the soul cannot be traced back to Plato's Phaedrus directly. Prudentius' views on the three concurring parts of the soul might be more complex than Oser-Grote thinks.

J. Opsomer and C. Steel discuss Proclus' notion of evil and its preliminaries in Hellenistic philosophy. They demonstrate that Proclus' notion of evil as by-product (παρυπόστασις) owes much to the discussion of contingency in Alexander of Aphrodisias. The problem of how evil comes to be in a providentially arranged world originates with the Stoics. As a preliminary, they also invoke Cicero and argue that he was inclined to mediate between two contrasting views. But I do not think the clause, mihi Balbi ad veritatis similitudinem videretur esse propensior (De Natura Deorum III 40.95, p. 160.28-29 Ax), refers to a mediating attitude. It simply says that if he had to choose between two positions then he would go for the one of them that is more plausible. The survey of the Stoic position is brief and emphasizes their deterministic tendencies. But it might be sensible to talk about the reality of moral evil within such a framework as well. And one could also refer to Galen's remark (PHP) V 5, 14 that for Chrysippus evil has two reasons: social environment and the very nature of the things. The reference to Alexander's De Fato is very rewarding, but one might say that 'uncaused motion' in Alexander is primarily a motion that lacks appropriate intention. Our intention to go to the market is not to get our money back, neither do we begin digging with a view of finding a treasure. So far, Alexander's analysis remains firmly within an Aristotelian framework. The unpredictability of getting the money back at the market lies in the fact that we are unable to forecast where and when two causal chains coincide. But it does not say that the two acts, that of the debtor and the borrower, are entirely uncaused in terms of Aristotle's explanatory factors. The analysis of the term παρυπόστασις is exemplary and supersedes earlier approaches.

K. Pollmann examines two concepts of fiction in Hellenistic philosophy and its influence in late antiquity. Fictions can either be μῦθος (completely unable to occur) or πλάσμα (possible, but not in fact occurring). If a story is considered πλάσμα then it can be interpreted as an allegory. In Christian antiquity the Bible must have been explained as an allegory, not as a book containing fictitious tales. This picture was further characterized by two accounts of poetry elaborated by philosophers: poetry -- and art in general -- as μίμησις and as a significative activity. The latter concentrates on the reception and understanding of the texts. The Stoic concept made room for a more flexible interpretation and was employed by Latin fathers such as Marius Victorinus and Augustine.

U. Eigler examines the way Christian authors adopted pagan philosophical views. The emphasis is on Latin authors, such as Lactantius and Hieronymus whose main source for this knowledge was Cicero and, occasionally, Vergil. On the whole, this is doubtless true. But one could say that up to the early fourth century, knowledge of Hellenistic philosophy was accessible directly from the philosophical schools; see Eusebius, Praep. Ev. X 3,1 on Callietes the Peripatetic and Prosenes the Stoic, as well as Himerius, Orationes XIV 24 on Hermogenes who was in Constantine's court and received proper education in pagan philosophy. Of course, this implied a knowledge of Greek which not every Latin author possessed.

My general impression is that the present volume has shown that the influence of Hellenistic philosophy in this age was fairly limited and in many cases superficial. One could also remark that the investigations do not extend to the texts which may contain the most abundant material on Hellenistic philosophy: Simplicius' commentaries on the Categories and the Physics and John Philoponus' commentary on the Physics. These Neoplatonist commentators seem to have been far better versed in Stoic and Epicurean theories than the average philosophical writer in their age, even if their knowledge was not always first hand. The book is furnished with a list of contributors and an index locorum. It offers pathbreaking studies in the Hellenistic influence on late antique thought.


1.   For the complexities of the issue, see R. Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals (London-Ithaca NY 1993), 20-29.
2.   It is tied to the reliability of the testimonies in Galen, see J. Cooper, 'Posidonius on emotions', T. Engberg-Pedersen & J. Sihvola (eds.), The Emotions in Hellenistic Thought (Dordrecht-Boston-London 1998), 71-111, reprinted in Cooper, Reason and Emotion (Princeton 1999), 449-485.

Read Latest
Index for 2000
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:07, Friday, 03 April 2009