Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2009.08.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.19

Aldo Brancacci, Studi storiografia filosofica antica. Accademia toscana di scienze e lettere. La Colombaria - Serie Studi 243.   Firenze:  Leo S. Olschki editore, 2008.  Pp. vi, 161.  ISBN 9788822257727.  €20.00.  

Reviewed by Daniel Hogg, University of St Andrews (

[Contents and correspondence with original publications are listed at the end of the review.]

The defining focus of Aldo Brancacci's broad and varied career has been the history of ancient philosophy.1 The key theme of this book is the methodology of the history of philosophy. In nine chapters, Brancacci combines studies of modern and late antique doxography, Italian scholarship in the late twentieth century, and discussions of method in classical philosophy. Throughout, Brancacci adopts the positions, sometimes polemically, that have been the keystone of his work over the last thirty years: that a sense of history is a crucial element of the study of ancient philosophy; and that to do the history of philosophy is to do philosophy.2 The work is extremely valuable for specialists, whether interested in philosophy or its historiography. I will not discuss each chapter, but will attempt to provide an overview, selecting examples for illustration.

Brancacci aims with this collection to make available a set of studies which are otherwise difficult to obtain. He has amplified and occasionally rewritten versions of articles he has published over the last three decades, and he has organised them into three triptychs. The first triptych is a retrospective of Italian historiography of philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century. Brancacci begins (Chapter 1, 1-18) with a conspectus of Italian scholarship. This is framed around a discussion of the usefulness of the terms Presocratic and Preplatonic. In Chapter 2 (19-44), Brancacci analyses the processes which underpinned the production of Mario Untersteiner's seminal and controversial work of 1949, I Sofisti. Untersteiner's approach was radical in its methodology and its conclusions, avoiding reliance on Plato where possible, and refusing the temptation to unify individual 'sophists' under an umbrella 'sophistic'. Brancacci argues that the seeds of this radicalism can be detected in Untersteiner's previous works, Le origini della tragedia (1942) and La fisiologia del mito (1946). The picture is vivid, though I felt that the arguments could have gone deeper at certain points. In particular, Untersteiner's correspondence is the subject of an extremely interesting footnote at pp. 42-43 on his arguments with Dupréel, but not much more, and the controversy that the book caused receives only brief comment at pp. 43-44. Nevertheless, Brancacci makes his case persuasively. More obviously personal is Brancacci's account of the career of Giannantoni (Chapter 3, pp. 45-59), with whom Brancacci began his career (pp. v-vi). The threads of Giannantoni's publishing, administrative and personal impact are here woven impressively together.

In the second triptych, Brancacci provides three case-studies of classical philosophy. Brancacci, who has a close relationship with French scholarship,3 engages critically with French work on Plato in chh. 4 & 5, and in Chapter 6 with an Italian article in French on Aristotle. Brancacci hereby playfully develops the Italocentrism of the first three chapters. In Chapter 4 (pp. 61-79), Brancacci expounds and criticises the structuralist argument of Rémi Brague's 1978 Le Restant. Through his discussion of the esoteric as a polarity between what is thought and what is spoken, Brague (says Brancacci) makes valuable advances, but this polarity forces Brague's interpretation to rely on what is 'implicit' in a given text (pp. 68-69). Brancacci objects that Brague's approach also risks conflating literary and philosophical interpretation (p. 67). Brancacci makes the case (with Brague) that the Meno contains a degradation of dialectic, but does not go as far as Brague, who argues that the dialogue provides a theorisation of the degradation of dialectic. In the following chapter (Chapter 5, pp. 81-96), Brancacci uses a sympathetic reading of Monique Dixsaut's 2001 Métamorphoses de la dialectique dans les Dialogues de Platon to expand the narrower interest of the previous chapter. He provides a very useful discussion of the nature of dialectic across the dialogues of Plato. Ch. 6 (pp. 97-104) explicates the issue of being and not being in Aristotle to which Brancacci had referred in passing in the previous chapter (p. 89).

The third triptych (pp. 105-145) considers the historiography of Cynic philosophy. Brancacci discusses ἄσκησις in chapter 7 (pp. 105-117), using as his foundation a serious (and seriously critical) engagement with Goulet-Cazé's 1986 commentary on Diog. Laert. 6.70-71. The article segues from a criticism of Goulet-Cazé's use of fragmentary sources and translation of πόνος (106-108) to a genuine contribution, namely Brancacci's proposal that logos is an important, though generally unacknowledged, aspect of Diogenes of Sinope's conception of ἄσκησις. The final two chapters form a pair. In Chapter 8 (pp. 119-130), Brancacci considers the historical value of Dio of Prusa's 'Diogenian orations', especially Orat. 6, as sources for the reconstruction of the philosophy of Diogenes of Sinope. Brancacci is positive, arguing that Dio can be shown to have known genuine writings of Diogenes. In Chapter 9 (pp. 131-145), Brancacci gives an annotated reading of Themistius' oration περὶ ἀρετῆς, preserved only in Syriac. He argues that Themistius is a much more useful source for Cynic philosophy than has been realised, ranking him alongside Dio of Prusa, Lucian, Epictetus and Julian (p. 133). Much of the latter half of the chapter is taken up by lengthy quotation, of the modern Latin translation and an Italian translation of Themistius, perhaps necessary for a text which is not well known. Both chapters are illuminating and authoritative, though some readers may be sceptical about Brancacci's willingness to name exact, common and lost texts to which Dio of Prusa, Themistius and Diogenes Laertius may have had access (pp. 129-130, p. 143).

I will now consider the collection as a whole. The links between triptychs are effective: chapter 3 ends with dialectic, the subject of chapter 4, and chapter 7 carries on the engagement with Francophone scholarship which characterised chh. 4-6. All of the chapters have a formal similarity, in that their point of departure is an analysis of the modern status quaestionis combined, in six cases (chh. 2-7), with a direct engagement with another scholar's arguments. There is a brief preface, but no introduction or conclusion, so the reader is left to make connections and draw an overall picture.

The nine chapters are not mere reprints of earlier publications. Take Chapter 8, which purports to reprise in an amplified form a section of Brancacci's article produced in pp. 141-171 of Giannantoni's Scuole socratici minori e filosofia ellenistica of 1977. This indeed reprises verbatim parts of the second half of the older article, but it also clarifies ambiguities and shifts Brancacci's position slightly. For example, the Brancacci of 1977 stated that the typically Cynic technical terms of Dio of Prusa's sixth oration demonstrated that passage's Cynic character (pp. 164-5), before using other evidence to argue that Diogenes of Sinope is the Cynic influence in question. In 2007, Brancacci has made his argument more efficient, taking all the Cynic traces in the passage to argue that Dio uses Diogenes as a foundation for this passage (pp. 124-125).

The bibliography has been updated, though not fully. Indeed, Brancacci suggests at one point that it would be fuori luogo to undertake such a task (p. 63). Supplements naturally comprise Brancacci's recent output, though Brancacci also refers to fresh work by other scholars (e.g. pp. 107 n. 5, 128 n. 26). This can sometimes feel selective. In particular, I felt that there was room for a consistent approach when indicating where his interlocutors had updated their position. He does this with Rémi Brague (p. 63 n. 2), but not with Goulet-Cazé.4 Thus the collection cannot quite be considered a one-stop shop for those making their first foray into this literature. Furthermore, while there are indices locorum and nominum, there is no cumulative bibliography. This would have been very useful.

My chief reservation about this book is whether a series of case-studies on a wide range of themes can really stand quite as unsupported, without introduction or conclusion, as these chapters are. In covering such a variety of material in just 145 pages, Brancacci has also given the work an allusive quality which can frustrate. Nevertheless, this collection possesses a clear, if rather implicit, organising framework. Brancacci's style is very enjoyable to read. He stands as a persuasive exponent of the importance of studying the past, whether ancient or modern.5 6


Ch. 1: Presocratici/preplatonici. Contributo a un bilancio di cinquant'anni di storiografia filosofica in Italia [Omaggio a Carlo Augusto Viano edd. E. Donaggio & E. Pasini, Bologna: Il Mulino 2000: 43-55]
Ch. 2: I sofisti di Mario Untersteiner. [L'etica della ragione. Ricordo di Mario Untersteiner edd. A.M. Battegazzore & F. Decleva Caizzi, Milano: Cisaplino: 97-123]
Ch. 3: Gli studi di filosofia antica di Gabriele Giannantoni. [Elenchos 21 (2000): 39-55]
Ch. 4: A proposito del Menone platonico. [Elenchos 2 (1981): 193-210]
Ch. 5: Monique Dixsaut. Interprete della dialettica di Platone. [Elenchos 26 (2005): 403-419]
Ch. 6: L'opposizione tra essere e non essere in Aristotele. [from 'Studi recenti sulla Metafisica di Aristotele', Elenchos 6 (1985): 163-179]
Ch. 7: Askesis e logos nella tradizione cinica. [Elenchos 8 (1987): 439-447]
Ch. 8: Le orazioni diogeniane di Dione Crisostomo. [from an article in Scuole socratici minori e filosofia ellenistica, ed. G. Giannantoni, Bologna: Il Mulino: 141-171]
Ch. 9: Temistio e il cinismo. [Elenchos 21 (2000): 381-296]


1.   E.g. (recently) Aldo Brancacci and Pierre-Marie Morel (eds.), Democritus: Science, the Arts, and the Care of the Soul, Brill, 2007; Aldo Brancacci, Musica e filosofia da Damone a Filodemo: sette studi. Accademia toscana di scienze e lettere La Colombaria - Serie Studi 245. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki editore, 2008.
2.   Brancacci, A. (ed.) Philosophy and Doxography in the Imperial Age. Accademia toscana di scienze e lettere La Colombaria - Studi 228. Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2005, p. vii.
3.   See e.g. Aldo Brancacci, Antisthène. Le discours propre, Vrin, Paris 2005 and his contribution in M.-O. Goulet-Cazé & R. Goulet (eds.) Le cynicisme ancien et ses prolongements, Actes du colloque international du CNRS (Paris, 22-25 juillet 1991), Paris: PUF, 1993: pp. 35-55.
4.   Ch. 7 might have made brief reference to, for example, Goulet-Caz's edition in 1997 of The Cynics. The Cynic Movement and its Legacy with Bracht Branham.
5.   Typically for the Leo Olschki publishing house, the book is attractively produced and competitively priced. However, translation of longer Greek passages varies within and between articles. Older articles keep the Greek, and sometimes translate it too (e.g. Chapter 4); newer articles, such as Chapter 5, sometimes include passages of Italian in place of Greek (e.g. 84, 84-85). There are only a few minor typographical errors, normally clustered together (e.g. pp. 30-32, 89-90, 110-111).
6.   I would like to thank Stephen Halliwell, Alex Long and Julietta Steinhauer for reading and commenting on earlier drafts. All inaccuracies, ambiguities and errors are mine.

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