Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.11.29

Jon Miller, Brad Inwood, Hellenistic and Early Modern Philosophy.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. xii, 330.  ISBN 0-521-82385-4.  $60.00.  

Contributors: J. B. Schneewind, A. A. Long, Margaret J. Osler, Phillip Mitsis, Donald Rutherford, Catherine Wilson, Jon Miller, Stephen Menn, Gail Fine, Steven Nadler, Donald C. Ainslie, Terence Irwin

Reviewed by James E. G. Zetzel, Columbia University (
Word count: 1591 words

If the later Middle Ages may reasonably be considered the high point of Aristotelianism in western Europe, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high point of the renewal of Hellenistic philosophy. Scepticism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism all make powerful appearances, and indeed debates between the adherents of the modern variations on these schools echo and mirror the debates that took place in the third and second centuries BCE. Not surprisingly, the ancient philosophies (to the extent that they were stable in any case) did not remain unchanged: Stoic natural law, Epicurean atomism, and Pyrrhonist doubt all are employed in new and different ways, and the arguments are often strengthened, or at least changed. Comparison of the old and new versions is often illuminating: to see the Christian Epicureanism of Gassendi can improve one's understanding of the original form; to see how Hume deals with Academic scepticism makes the process of sceptical doubt clearer on both sides.

The eleven essays in this volume (I set aside for the moment the introduction by J. B. Schneewind) derive from a conference held at Toronto in 2000. Miller and Inwood in the preface describe the invitation to speakers as permitting them "to explore various aspects of the relationship between these two periods" (xi) -- and various, indeed, they are. One may define, in a crude way, three different types of approach to the question: to describe and explain the historical context in which a philosophy is revived and adapted to new circumstances; to look at the ways in which one philosopher tries to improve upon the arguments of a predecessor; or to compare and contrast the ways in which two philosophers approach the same problem. The historical study of philosophy is a broad umbrella, and incorporates not only what most of us would think of as intellectual history but also close philosophical argumentation with, and about, the historical texts studied. This volume is written by philosophers; and hence the majority of the articles are decidedly on the philosophical end of the spectrum. Thus, Stephen Nadler in "Spinoza and Philo: The Alleged Mysticism in the Ethics" compares two ways of assessing the capacity of human reason to understand the essence of God without claiming (indeed, explicitly denying) that there is a direct relationship between Philo's writings and Spinoza's. Gail Fine in "Subjectivity, Ancient and Modern: The Cyrenaics, Sextus, and Descartes" focuses on the extent to which Descartes' understanding of subjectivity is new, while abjuring any interest in the historical relation between Descartes and Sextus. She seems less interested in writing about Hellenistic and early modern philosophers, than in determining what present-day scholars, notably Burnyeat and McDowell, mean by such terms as "subjectivity" and "transparency." This approach is somewhat undermined by the fact that she chose to ignore the explanations of Burnyeat, who was present and offered his own opinion about what he meant.

Most of the articles are not so firm in refusing to examine the relationship between ancient and early modern arguments. Although the primary concern of Terence Irwin, in "Stoic Naturalism in Butler" and Donald Ainslie in "Hume's Scepticism and Ancient Scepticisms" is to analyze the philosophical arguments of their modern subjects, they both give good accounts of the ancient arguments as well and discuss the genuine relationships between ancient and modern texts. Donald Rutherford in "Patience sans Espérance: Leibniz's Critique of Stoicism" and Catherine Wilson in "Epicureanism in Early Modern Philosophy: Leibniz and His Contemporaries" are more historical, and each explains not only an aspect of Leibniz, but provides excellent discussions of the relevant aspects of Stoicism and Epicureanism with some explanation of how these particular arguments were understood in the seventeenth century. That kind of explanation is less present in Jon Miller's "The Stoics, Grotius, and Spinoza on Moral Deliberation," but his discussion of Stoic natural law theory and its various interpretations, modern and early-modern, is extraordinarily helpful in understanding the theory itself. Margaret Osler's "Early Modern Uses of Hellenistic Philosophy: Gassendi's Epicurean Project" is a close and detailed analysis of Gassendi's creation of (what would seem to be a contradiction in terms) a Christian Epicureanism.

All these articles are very successful on their own terms; two others are less so. A. A. Long's "Stoicism in the Philosophical Tradition: Spinoza, Lipsius, Butler" reads like what it in fact is, a chapter from a handbook (it also appears in Inwood's Cambridge Companion to Stoicism); it offers a relatively flat and very introductory approach to three authors, two of whom are far better handled elsewhere in the volume. Phillip Mitsis's "Locke's Offices" is a valiant -- but failed -- attempt to show the importance of Cicero's De officiis to Locke: as he says himself (59), Locke never managed to integrate Cicero's moral guidance with his own moral ideas, and Mitsis does not succeed in making his case.

The remaining article, Stephen Menn's "The Discourse on the Method and the Tradition of Intellectual Autobiography" is the one piece in the volume that takes a truly historical approach, in trying to determine sources and models and in describing with some precision the relationship between an early modern text and its ancient sources. As a result, it offers stunning insight into the background of the first sections of Descartes' Discourse: by exploring the similarities between Descartes' autobiographical statements and those of al-Ghazali in Deliverance from Error (which have long seemed inexplicable), he shows how both derive from Galen's autobiographical statements, particularly those in On his Own Books. It is a complex argument, but thoroughly satisfying, and leads to the important conclusion that Descartes' famous sceptical crisis may have had literary sources as well as psychological ones.

The fact that I have said more about the one article in the volume that is more historical and less analytic in its approach to early modern philosophy -- despite the fact that the other papers are generally of high quality and considerable interest, even to a classicist -- will, I suspect, say more about me than about the volume. My own interest in this material is historical, and I approached this volume with expectations of more history and less analysis, and perhaps more social and political theory and less ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. In that respect, I found the volume, despite its obvious merits, somewhat disappointing -- and so, indeed, did J. B. Schneewind in his surprising introduction (which can serve, I should note, as a far better review than mine of the philosophical arguments of the contributors). He too deplores the absence in most papers of historical context; he too feels that too many of the papers fail to ask the historical questions that the uses of Hellenistic philosophy in the seventeenth century pose: why these arguments, why then, and for what purpose? As Schneewind notes, the volume draws attention to its own failure to address the historical questions the absence of which is so immediately apparent.

In that regard, it is perhaps ungrateful but not inappropriate to point out a few other gaps. The name of Hobbes -- despite the fact that his deployment of Epicurean-materialist arguments in the opening chapters of Leviathan is crucial for his argument -- is not in the index (he is named in passing perhaps four times in the volume), nor is that of Marin Mersenne, the influential correspondent of Descartes, Hobbes, Gassendi and Galileo.1 Galileo himself is missing, despite the fact that the philosophical revolutions of the seventeenth century are part and parcel of the changes in science which we associate with Galileo. In another direction, the name of Machiavelli is equally absent, despite the fact that (as Quentin Skinner has shown in detail) The Prince is hugely indebted to De Officiis. Miller strangely comments (136, n.19) that Grotius "has been all but ignored in recent decades"; perhaps by students of ethics, but scarcely by students of political philosophy: there is a superb and important discussion of him by Richard Tuck.2

When I first received Hellenistic and Early Modern Philosophy, the fact that its introduction was by Schneewind, whose The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge, 1998) is now the standard history of early modern ethics, and that it was published by Cambridge, which has published many important books in the history of ideas -- some of them in the "Ideas in Context" series, of which Schneewind is, along with Quentin Skinner, an editor -- led me to expect a far more historical approach than the volume in fact displays. That does not detract from its obvious value for philosophers but makes it considerably less useful for historians, even historians of philosophy. The close examination of philosophic arguments, and the attempt in some of these articles to do philosophy as well as to study its history, is obviously worthwhile; the analyses here of Grotius and Spinoza, of Leibniz, Butler and Hume will in fact be useful to students of their Hellenistic predecessors. But the comparison of two philosophic worlds in different historical periods is strangely a-historical; and the fact that in other areas of intellectual history -- notably political thought -- so much has been done in the last few decades to explore the ancient sources of early modern arguments makes this volume useful to a narrower group of readers than might otherwise have been the case. The attempt to build a bridge between ancient and early modern philosophy is very welcome; but the gap between politics and ethics that this volume reveals is the history of ethics that this volume reveals is a clear indication that there are more bridges remaining to be built.3


1.   On Mersenne, "one of the most important figures in the history of modern thought," see Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza, ed. 2 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979) 130-141. On the links among Hobbes, Mersenne, and Descartes see particularly Richard Tuck, "Hobbes and Descartes" in G. A. J. Rogers and Alan Ryan eds., Perspectives on Thomas Hobbes (Oxford, 1988) 11-41.
2.   Philosophy and Government, 1572-1651 (Cambridge, 1993) 154-201. One should also mention the work of Knud Haakonssen: Natural Law and Moral Philosophy: from Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1996).
3.   I am grateful to BMCR's reader for improving some of my unnecessarily murky prose.

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