Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.01.29

Mark Morford, The Roman Philosophers: from the time of Cato the Censor to the death of Marcus Aurelius.   London and New York:  Routledge, 2002.  Pp. xii + 292.  ISBN 0-415-18851-2.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Brad Inwood, University of Toronto (
Word count: 2114 words

Mark Morford's new survey of philosophy in the Roman world states its purpose clearly at the outset. The preface begins with a tribute to the two volumes on Philosophia Togata edited by Griffin and Barnes (Oxford University Press, 1989 and 1997), and the conception of Roman philosophy as something essentially Greek wrapped up in the dress of the Roman cultural elite dominates the book. The first chapter takes the phrase as its title. Morford, best known for his work in Roman literature, declares his aims frankly (ix-x):

I am not a professional philosopher, and I have not attempted to discuss matters of interest primarily to professional philosophers in any detail. I have written as a classicist and historian of ideas, with the aim of providing a concise, but not superficial survey of the writings and ideas of the principal philosophers in the Roman world from the middle of the second century BCE down to the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE.

Classicists, like this reviewer, who regard the intellectual content of ancient philosophical works as essential to any understanding of them, might be disappointed by this aim. There is a large and growing audience for studies of Latin philosophical writing carried out as part of the history of philosophy rather than the history of ideas. But it is also true that there is a great need for a book which outlines the development of philosophical writing in Roman culture from an extra-philosophical standpoint. A more up-to-date historical survey than Gregor Maurach's useful Geschichte der römischen Philosophie: eine Einführung (Darmstadt 1997), and one in English, would be very welcome if well executed. Despite some signal merits, though, Morford's book does not fully satisfy this need.

The main body of the book is organized on chronological principles, though there are many minor exceptions to allow for thematic connections (not all of which seem warranted). After a 14 page introductory chapter, Morford devotes about 20 pages (chapter 2) to the important developments which brought Greek philosophy to Rome in the second century BC, beginning with the famous embassy of 155. The legends about Pythagorean influence in Rome's earliest years and an account of the history of Greek cultural influence on Rome are handled deftly in the introduction.

Cicero and his immediate intellectual context get almost 65 pages (chapter 3), though Lucretius is excluded from this discussion. He and the Epicureans are segregated in chapter 4, just over 30 pages -- a chapter which breaks more seriously with the chronological plan of the book by considering Epicureanism from the founder to Diogenes of Oenoanda. This makes it very hard to gain a clear picture of larger historical developments in various periods. (The Imperial period in which Diogenes worked is treated on its own in chapter 8, solely from the point of view of Stoicism and Platonism.) It is clear that Morford regards Epicureanism as an unimportant phenomenon in philosophy, of interest mostly for its reception in Latin literature. Even so, it is disappointing that he should have absorbed the ideological reaction of some Romans to the school (marginalization) without seriously considering its deeper role in Roman intellectual life outside of its impact on Horace and other poets.

Morford's view of what counts in Roman philosophy is also reflected in the fact that chapter 5, on philosophers and poets in the Augustan age, is nearly as long as the entire treatment of Epicureanism. The periodization here perhaps makes some literary sense, but it is certainly less than ideal for the history of ideas -- we may note how Varro, for example, winds up divided between the Cicero chapter and the Augustan chapter in such a way that one cannot easily get a clear picture of what this grand intellectual was all about. The best parts of this chapter are on Horace, Virgil, and the sub-philosophical Manilius. The chapter tells us a bit about Sextius and his followers, and provides an out-of-date sketch of what we used to think we knew about Arius Didymus (a philosopher at Augustus' court) along with a word or two about other familiar figures. But nowhere do we find a general account of philosophical developments in the late Republic and Augustan period which depend on Rome's cultural and political dominance. Yet these issues should be part of Roman philosophy on Morford's own announced principles.

Seneca and (some of) his contemporaries (chapter 6) are surveyed in even fewer pages (27) than are devoted to the literary themes of the Augustan age. The large theme of Stoicism in the Neronian and Flavian eras (chapter 7) gets even less room (20 pages) and the book concludes with a chapter of 30 pages (chapter 8) on Epictetus, Plutarch, Apuleius, Marcus Aurelius and some minor contemporaries (including a paragraph for each of Galen and Sextus Empiricus).

Throughout the book one gets the sense that important opportunities have been missed and confusion generated, even though there are many places where the discussion is enlightening and the historical survey useful. All too often the reader's grasp of the subject will be disrupted by Morford's frequent failures to understand adequately the subjects about which he writes and by the inconsistent principles determining whom to include. The clearest example of this is certainly Plutarch. At pp. 221-222 this important later Platonist has his philosophical credentials challenged on silly grounds (and then his inclusion is not defended), his status as a Roman philosopher cast quite sensibly into doubt (and then never redeemed). His inclusion in a book on Roman philosophy could be justified on some conceptions of what Roman philosophy is, but then we would expect to see a number of other Greek philosophers who worked in Greek under Roman dominance as well. After reading this one-dimensional and limited discussion I found it hard to escape the conviction that Plutarch is included because of his importance as a literary figure. It is revealing that in his preface (x) Morford confesses without shame that he has not bothered to read the Moralia straight through before discussing Plutarch as a philosopher.

Even more worrisome, unfortunately, is the amount of outdated scholarship served up to the reader without warning and the volume of sheer misunderstanding which Morford displays in many parts of the book. That he should inflict error on his audience is of course bad enough, but often the confusions have an effect even on the external and biographical account which he (quite reasonably) set out to provide. A full catalogue of problems would be tedious -- and unfair as well, since it would tend to mask the fact that there is valuable material in the book. But unfortunately most readers will not be able to distinguish the good from the bad without an independent guide, so a few illustrations of where things go wrong need to be given.

On p. 21 Morford mistranslates Aristotle (rhetoric is not the "answering voice" to dialectic; antistrophos means "counterpart"). Later (pp. 24 ff.) Panaetius' important work peri kathêkontos is discussed as though the De Officiis is the only source for it; there is no sign of any awareness of work by van Straaten, let alone Alesse. This is puzzling, since, on the principles which Morford apparently uses to include Plutarch, Panaetius and Posidonius might well have been considered major Roman philosophers in their own rights and so worthy of some basic research. The banality of Morford's handling of Panaetius is indicated by his statement (p. 26) that it "is significant that he focused on the responsibility of human beings for their moral choices, a doctrine in keeping with the traditional emphasis on individual initiative among the Roman senatorial class". This is no doubt true, but with whose views and values does this significant idea stand in contrast? It cannot be very significant that Roman aristocrats would agree with Panaetius' focus on responsibility if virtually everyone else did too.

A similar insensitivity turns up on p. 37, where we are told that Cicero's "association with Diodotus meant that, despite being an Academic, he was sympathetic to Stoic ethics, with their emphasis on virtue and reason." The presupposition seems to be that Academics weren't much inclined to emphasize virtue and reason -- which would come as a surprise to almost anyone who has read Plato, not just the professional philosophers whose interests Morford isn't catering to. Possibly Morford meant something less misguided, but this is all he says on the matter. This sloppiness is perhaps matched by what we read on p. 58: "Cicero's discussion of the pathos of love is thin [in Tusculans book 4], but he does consider the question of the Greek attitude towards homosexual love (sections 70-72), once again proposing reason as an alternative." Given that the actual content of Tusculans 4 isn't discussed, it is hard to know where to start in making sense of this seemingly homophobic muddle.

There is much more of this sort. For no particularly good reason Cicero's De Republica is discussed out of its chronological order, seriously disrupting the picture of Cicero's philosophical career. Throughout his discussion (pp. 69 ff.), which is full of approving paraphrase, Morford clearly fails to understand the differences and similarities between Platonic and Stoic ideas, which renders his account of influences on this complex and important work useless. On p. 81 Cotta is referred to as the principal speaker of the De Natura Deorum rather than a principal speaker (Torquatus may be a trivial Epicurean, but Balbus in book 2 certainly deserves to be remembered.) I should conclude my perhaps uncharitable litany of complaints with an allusion to two passages which will do damage to inexperienced readers. The first is Morford's discussion of a suitable translation of officium in the De Officiis (p. 89). It is astonishing to me that he can recognize the seriousness of the question, cite Dyck's thorough and sensible discussion and his recommended translation ("appropriate action"), and then decide to keep the misleading and old-fashioned term "duty" because it is "more familiar and less cumbersome." This borders on open contempt for good scholarship. The second passage is the discussion of Lucretius' arguments about the fear of death, which plainly expresses open contempt for the value of philosophical argument. On p. 119 Morford applauds the "ringing affirmation" nil igitur mors est ad nos and then says that the rest of book 3 of De Rerum Natura, which he admits contains the proofs for this important proposition, is "hardly necessary." Morford's book is not just one where the narrow interests of professional philosophers are set aside in the interests of a biographical and external account of Roman philosophy; it seems at times to be a forum for the author's active dislike for ideas and argument.

Morford too frequently relies on out-of-date scholarship. Hence we find Varro relying on the chimerical vetusta placita (p. 134) which, if it ever did exist, certainly was not written by Aetius. Two decades of serious research on the development of doxography and the influence of Carneadean divisiones on Roman thinkers have somehow escaped Morford. Significant parts of Seneca are unapologetically described as "diatribes" long after the use of this pseudo-genre has become at least problematic. Only someone who had never read the De Beneficiis could say (p. 178) that much of its seven books is summarized in Letter 81. Most astonishing, perhaps, given Morford's determination to see Roman philosophy through its impact on literary works, especially poetry, Rosenmeyer's Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmogony (Berkeley 1989), which deals with Seneca's tragedies and their relationship to his Stoicism is missing from the bibliography.

I have focussed on the negatives to support my general criticism. The reader should not conclude that there is not a good deal of value in this book; let me just point to the argument on pp. 109-110 for the incompleteness of De Rerum Natura. Those who turn to this book already familiar with the subjects treated and with the relevant scholarship will find the good bits easily enough; the main risk is that the errors, anachronisms, and confusions might not stand out clearly enough to help less expert readers to navigate around them. Hence it can only be recommended for the experienced and independent reader accustomed to sifting the wheat from the chaff. This is very unfortunate, for the aim of the book is important and English-speaking readers need a book with the aims and scope of Roman Philosophy. Perhaps the saddest reflection I am left with is that, given the economic realities of popular scholarly publishing, the existence of this book makes it less likely that a really good treatment in English of the theme will be published any time soon. I hope I am wrong.

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