Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.08

Charles Brittain, Philo of Larissa: The Last of the Academic Sceptics.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  Pp. xii, 406.  ISBN 0-19-815298-1.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Richard Bett
Word count: 2177 words

Philo of Larissa's name is not a household word among students of ancient Greek philosophy. The evidence on him is scant; and much of what we do have comes from that maddeningly confusing work, Cicero's Academica. Yet Philo played a key role in an important development in late Hellenistic philosophy -- the demise of the Academy as a hotbed of scepticism; this roughly coincided with the demise of the Academy itself as a formal institution, but also opened the way for the new, and decidedly non-sceptical, varieties of Platonism that culminated in what we call neo-Platonism a few centuries later. Charles Brittain offers a comprehensive picture of Philo's thought and its relation to that of both his Academic predecessors and his student-turned-rival Antiochus of Ascalon. As the subtitle suggests, Brittain understands Philo as recognizably a sceptic -- albeit of a milder sort than that prevalent in the Academy for the previous couple of centuries -- rather than as himself an incipient dogmatic Platonist, as some other scholars have supposed. The quality of the argument is uniformly high, and the resulting interpretation is, with rare exceptions, philosophically and historically satisfying; this book will undoubtedly be the standard work on Philo and his milieu for the foreseeable future.

A lengthy Introduction (37 pages) offers an initial overview of Philo's philosophy, of the specific interpretation to be pursued, and of the points on which that interpretation will take issue with previously proposed alternatives. The first main chapter plots the course of Philo's life, to the extent that it can be reconstructed from our meager sources of information. The main importance of this exercise is to fix as precisely as possible the chronological and other relations between Philo and certain older and younger contemporaries in the Academy -- primarily Clitomachus, Metrodorus of Stratonicea, Charmadas and Antiochus; there is also the question of the date and circumstances of Philo's move from Athens to Rome. This chapter ends with an excursus on Philo's writings; much of this is speculative -- Brittain proposes several works of which we have no direct evidence -- but the speculations are plausible.

The remainder of the work (leaving aside the end material) divides into three pairs of chapters. Chapters 2 and 3 examine Philo's epistemology, clearly the centerpoint of his philosophical outlook. Chapters 4 and 5 explore the context and significance of a claim advanced by Philo in what are known, from Cicero's reference to them (Acad. 2.11-12), as his "Roman books". We are told that in these books he maintained that the position he himself now held had been the position of the Academy from the beginning; we are also told that this historical thesis met with anger from Antiochus and incredulity from others. Chapters 6 and 7 look at Philo's activities in the areas of ethics and rhetoric and at their connections with the core outlook previously expounded.

Brittain argues that Philo's epistemology went through three distinct phases. At first he was a devotee of the rigorous scepticism of Carneades as interpreted by his pupil Clitomachus, which consisted of a universal suspension of judgement (epochê) -- or, in other words, a refusal to assent to any impressions. The direct evidence for this appears only in a passage of the not wholly trustworthy Numenius (fr. 28 Des Places), which credits Philo with this position at the time he became head of the Academy. However, there is no obvious reason to doubt this testimony; indeed, it is likely that such a position would at this period have been a necessary credential for election to this post. But at some later point (Brittain (pp. 54) suggests a period between 103 and 91 BC) Philo shifted from this position to a more moderate scepticism which allowed for qualified assent to certain impressions. One still does not, on this view, admit the possibility of the kind of secure grasp of things designated by the Stoic term katalêpsis, "apprehension"; and for this reason one does not assent unreservedly to the truth of any impressions. But one does allow oneself to assent provisionally and tentatively to those impressions that strike one as "probable" -- that is, subjectively persuasive; this will include a great many everyday perceptual impressions and even some theoretical or philosophical beliefs. Philo appears to have been preceded in this view by Metrodorus (who also promoted it as an interpretation of Carneades to rival that of Clitomachus) and by Charmadas. But Cicero's Academica and other sources make plain that Philo adopted it as well, and it soon became the Academic orthodoxy; chapter 2 reconstructs it in painstaking detail.

What has been less widely understood is that the epistemology of Philo's Roman books constitutes a distinct third phase of his philosophical development. One of the most significant achievements of this book is to make clear that this is so, and this is the task of chapter 3. The difference between this new position and the previous one lies in the acceptance, in certain cases, of katalêpsis; katalêpsis not as the Stoics understood it -- that is, as obtained by way of a certain class of impressions that could not possibly be false -- but as a grasp of things that nonetheless amounts to knowledge, in a less demanding and non-philosophical understanding of the term. Brittain suggests, indeed, that Philo did not presume to claim katalêpsis outside the domain of ordinary experience; he continued to be suspicious of any claims to knowledge (even of this less stringent variety) about philosophical matters. Brittain also proposes that this non-Stoic form of katalêpsis was arrived at simply by dropping the third clause in the Stoic definition of the kataleptic impression -- namely, the clause specifying that the impression is of a kind such that it could not be false. In both cases his reconstruction seems to me to outrun the available evidence; however, if we accept the idea of a new "Roman" epistemology, it clearly took something like the form here described. And what Brittain does succeed in showing, it seems to me, is that the evidence requires us to distinguish the epistemology of the Roman books from the epistemology that Philo had previously shared with Metrodorus and others; Sextus (PH 1.235) attributes to Philo a position that cannot be squared with the Metrodoran position, and Cicero's reports on the Roman books (Acad. 2.11-12) makes clear that the philosophical position contained therein, and not just the historical thesis of the unity of the Academy, constitutes a new departure for Philo.

But Brittain also insists, again to my mind successfully, that it was specifically Philo's historical thesis, according to which the position he was now promoting had always been the position of the Academy, that outraged his contemporaries. The unity of the Academy is the topic of the next two chapters. Chapter 4 seeks to buttress this interpretation of the Roman books, and of the contemporary reaction to them, by examining the views of earlier Academics concerning the unity, or otherwise, of their school; it very ingeniously narrows down what the innovation in the Roman books (which caused such a stir) might be, given prior conceptions of the development of the Academy. What it does not do is explain why Philo (or anyone) would have been attracted to such a seemingly wild historical thesis. However, an explanation for this mysterious occurrence is perhaps too much to ask.

Chapter 5 addresses a number of alternative accounts (ancient and modern) that see the Academy as unified by a continuing adherence to some set of Platonic tenets. First, as noted earlier, a number of scholars have interpreted Philo's own unity thesis in the Roman books as following this kind of Platonist line. Brittain briefly offers a direct counterargument (pp.221-2), pointing out that, if this had been so, several ancient authors who discuss developments in the Academy would have had good reason to draw attention to this fact but that none of them ever does. But the bulk of the chapter has to do with a variety of Platonizing theses of the unity of the Academy advanced by Plutarch, the Anonymous commentary on the Theaetetus, and Augustine. Brittain argues that these unity theses are all distinct from one another, and that one can plot a historical development of gradual movement away from an understanding of Plato, and of the Academy, as wedded to any form of scepticism. Given this trend, he suggests, there is no reason to attribute a (dogmatic) Platonist unity thesis to Philo; on the contrary, the development from somewhat sceptical to highly unsceptical unity theses makes much better sense if Brittain is correct that the Roman books advocated, and attributed to the Academy as a whole, a severely mitigated form of scepticism.

Brittain's developmental account depends on the Anonymous commentary on the Theaetetus not being dated a century or so earlier than Plutarch, as Tarrant and (for different reasons) Sedley have proposed; chapter 5 ends with an excursus arguing for a date of around 100 AD. Some of the considerations offered here are stronger than others. The notion that a Platonizing thesis of the unity of the Academy could not have been taken seriously in the first century BC (pp.249-50) begs the question. Philosophers are routinely attracted to patently implausible theses; and the fact that no one else at the time could or did take them seriously is often no impediment to their authors -- Philo's own unity thesis, as Brittain reconstructs it, is an excellent example. And the Anonymous' use of Pyrrhonist materials (see pp. 251-2) has no tendency to favor a later date rather than an earlier one; Pyrrhonist materials existed in a systematic form, available for borrowing, from Aenesidemus onwards -- that is, surely by 50 BC.

Chapter 6 concentrates on a passage of Stobaeus (2.39,20-41,25) which summarizes what appears to be a systematic ethical outlook expounded by Philo. Brittain makes subtle use of the slender and often confused testimony provided by this summary, along with indications of earlier Academic ethical discussion, to reconstruct a Philonian ethics. The emphasis is on common-sense ethical reflection, with no attempt to provide philosophical grounding for such reflection; Philo is proposing a method for improving one's life -- that is, for achieving or approaching happiness -- that is not guaranteed to succeed (that too would be a flight of philosophical fancy) but that has a reasonable chance of doing one some good. Since this ethics does appear to offer definite prescriptions, Brittain inclines to place it along with the epistemology of the Roman books, according to which (non-Stoic) katalêpsis is possible; however, he concedes that most of what appears in Stobaeus' summary is equally compatible with the epistemology of Philo's earlier "probabilist" phase. Chapter 7 examines Philo's teaching and practice of rhetoric, an unusual phenomenon in the Academy. Again the historical background is important here; Brittain analyzes developments in rhetoric, and in Academic and other philosophical attitudes towards rhetoric, in the immediately preceding period; Charmadas, whose main claim to fame seems to have been in the area of rhetoric, is a key figure on whose work Philo builds, but there is much more to the story than that. Connections are also traced between Philo's own rhetorical theory and practice and both his ethics and his epistemology.

The book ends with an Appendix containing what are, as far as Brittain is aware (and this reviewer is certainly not able to fault him), all the ancient texts that mention Philo, together with English translations. This is an extremely valuable addition. However, it might have been helpful if these texts had been regularly cross-referenced in the main body of the work; portions of these texts are amply quoted (and always translated) in the course of the argument, but we are rarely informed that they also appear (frequently in more complete form) in the Appendix. As a result, I fear that the Appendix may receive less attention than it in fact deserves. Following the Appendix are a Bibliography, Index Locorum and Subject Index.

This is not an easy book to read; the arguments are often intricate and depend on minute analysis of very incomplete evidence. The style and approach occasionally (though only occasionally) betray the book's origin as a doctoral dissertation, in which satisfying a few experts of one's own expertise, rather than communicating with a wider scholarly audience, is the overriding aim. But it is well worth the effort for anyone who has reason to be interested in the history of the Academy -- and that should cover a sizeable percentage of scholars of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Suitably to the state of the evidence, but also to the ideas that are the subject-matter, Brittain professes an undogmatic caution about the status of his own conclusions (pp.36-7); and every reader (and every reviewer) will no doubt find some aspects of his interpretation more convincing than others. However, the work as a whole is a remarkable exercise in the reconstruction of a philosophy whose original expression (spoken or written) is lost -- something that is all too often necessary in our field.

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