Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.12.52

William W. Fortenbaugh, Theophrastus of Eresus, Commentary 6.1: Sources on Ethics (with contribution on the Arabic material by Dimitri Gutas).   Leiden:  Brill, 2011.  Pp. xi, 879.  ISBN 9789004194229.  $278.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Mayhew, Seton Hall University (

A watershed in the study of Theophrastus was the publication in 1992 of the two-volume collection of his ‘fragments’: W.W. Fortenbaugh et al. (eds.), Theophrastus of Eresus, Sources for his Life, Writings, Thought & Influence (Leiden: Brill). The inside flap of the dust-cover promised nine volumes of commentaries on these texts to follow: 1. Life; 2. Logic; 3. Physics; 4. Metaphysics, Theology, Mathematics, Psychology; 5. Human Physiology, Living Creatures, Botany; 6. Ethics, Religion; 7. Politics; 8. Rhetoric, Poetics; 9. Music, Miscellaneous, Indexes. These volumes have been appearing ever since, at irregular intervals, and with some variations on the original plan, beginning with Robert Sharples’ commentary on the biological texts.1 The volume under review, covering texts nos. 436-579, is the most recent in this series.2

For those who know the details of Fortenbaugh’s scholarly work on Theophrastus (and especially his practical philosophy), it should be noted that this commentary on the ethical texts is not a revision and translation of Fortenbaugh’s earlier work on the same subject (as he explains in the preface, pp. ix-x).3 For one thing, the present book is much longer. It is also quite different in format from the only other volume in this series with which I have a great deal of familiarity: the one by Sharples mentioned in the previous paragraph. Whereas Sharples’ (very useful) volume on the biological texts consists of a five-page introduction and 210 pages of commentary, Fortenbaugh’s —weighing in at nearly 900 pages—consists of the following ‘chapters’ (so-called): I. Introduction (pp. 1-7); II. The Sources (pp. 9-120); III. Titles of Books (pp. 121-234); IV. The Texts (pp. 235-737); V. Summary (pp. 739-49); VI. Bibliography of Modern Literature (pp. 751-67); VII. Indices to the Titles and Texts (pp. 769-803); VIII. Indices to the Commentary (pp. 805-74); IX. Corrigenda and Addenda in the Text-Translation Volumes (pp. 875-79). 4

I cannot, in a brief review, do justice to this massive and magisterial piece of scholarship. What I shall do instead is briefly describe the content of ‘chapters’ II & IV, and then indicate how one might best make use of this work.

One drawback of any collection of ‘fragments’ that aims to be comprehensive (rather than selective), especially one not accompanied by a commentary, is that a reader is often at a loss as to just what value any particular text has. Most scholars of ancient philosophy will have some familiarity with, and estimate of, sources like Athenaeus and Diogenes Laertius; but what should one think when encountering a Theophrastean text the source of which is Libanius or St. Jerome (not to mention al-Fārābī or Bartholomew of Bruges)? The second chapter of the book under review is a superb mini-encyclopedia (in effect) of the sources for Theophrastus on ethics. It begins with a table of contents for the chapter, in which the material is divided as follows: 1. Authors Including Pseudonymi and Anonymi Arranged Chronologically (by far the lengthiest section); 2. Greek, Latin and Italian Anthologies, Gnomologies and Other Collections; 3. Lexicographers; 4. Scholia; 5. Catalogue of Books; 6. Arabic Sources.5 To give one indication of the importance of this chapter, Text 486 (from Jerome, Against Jovinian 1.47-8) is supposed to contain a very long quote from “a little golden book On Marriage by Theophrastus.” It is an unexpectedly harsh attack on the institution of marriage (for wise men, at any rate) and on women, one which St. Jerome uses as pagan ammunition in defense of his own (early Christian) views on the subject. It would be unwise either to accept or reject this material without argument.6 So what to make of it? In the relevant entry (pp. 78-82), Fortenbaugh argues that Jerome did not have first-hand knowledge of a Theophrastean work called On Marriage and that the text is contaminated—but perhaps not “so contaminated that it offers no clue as to what Theophrastus may have written in some lost work” (p. 81).

The account of Jerome as a source should of course be read in conjunction with Fortenbaugh’s commentary on Text 486 and related texts, in ch. IV (pp. 408-18). (Moving back and forth between chs. II and IV, and between this book and the 1992 volume, should be standard practice when using this commentary.) Here are the contents of ch. IV (the bulk of the work), which mirrors the contents of the 1992 collection: 1. Writings on Ethics;7 2. Emotions; 3. Virtue and Vice; 4. Education, Exhortation and Censure; 5. Happiness; 6. The Wise Man and Marriage; 7. Fortune and Goods and Evils Outside the Soul; 8. Fate, Nature and the Death of Callisthenes; 9. Wealth; 10. Kindness, Honor and Vengeance; 11. Justice; 12. Natural Relationship; 13. Friendship; 14. Flattery; 15. Pleasure; 16. Eros; 17. Wine. Each section reads very much like an essay on its subject, reflecting the breadth and depth of the author’s understanding of this material and the secondary literature on it.8 The sections each begin with a broad summary of the subject and Theophrastus’ views on it, followed by individual accounts of each of the relevant texts (or in some cases, a set of texts). Each subsection usefully begins with a list of secondary literature on the text under consideration. Although Fortenbaugh discusses philological and even codicological issues where necessary, the primary focus is on Theophrastus’ ideas—and the extent to which they can be drawn from the sources (that seem to) contain them.9

I suspect that—reviewers aside—few readers will open the book and read it from cover to cover. How one approaches the book will instead depend on one’s scholarly interests. For instance, in the case of scholars of Theophrastus, this volume should of course be a constant companion while working on the ethical texts. For scholars of Aristotle’s ethics who are interested (and they should be) in the ethical thought of his immediate successor, I recommend first reading the brief but excellent summary at the end of the volume (pp. 739-49), before turning to sections 2. (Emotions), 3. (Virtue and Vice), and 5. (Happiness), with the relevant material from the 1992 text and translation volume. Then they should go wherever their particular interests lead (e.g., to section 13. Friendship).


1.   Theophrastus of Eresus, Commentary Volume 5: Sources on Biology (Human Physiology, Living Creatures, Botany: Texts 328-435) (Leiden: Brill, 1994).
2.   The idea of having one volume devoted to ethics and religion has been abandoned, hence the ‘6.1’ in the title. As Fortenbaugh explains (p. 1), there will be a separate commentary (vol. 6.2) by Stefan Schorn on the texts on religion (nos. 580-88).
3.   W. W. Fortenbaugh, Quellen zur Ethik Theophrasts (Amsterdam: Grüner, 1984).
4.   The difference in length between these two volumes cannot be explained by the amount of material they comment on, as they both cover around 150 pages in the second volume of the Text-Translation collection: Sharples, pp. 106-253 (Texts 328-435); Fortenbaugh, pp. 254-399 (Texts 436-579).
5.   As the cover of the book includes the comment “with contribution on the Arabic material by Dimitri Gutas,” I assume that (the bulk of) this last section is the work of Gutas. As for al-Fārābī, he “is a source for our purposes in this volume only inadvertently, due to a scribal error” (p. 118).
6.   Will Deming, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 62-4, is an example of the former.
7.   Chapter III deals with the titles of Theophrastus’ works on ethics. The first section of ch. IV (‘Writings on Ethics’) focuses on one text (no. #437, from Athenaeus), and concerns “historical matter and style or mode of expression” (p. 235). I think this section might have worked better at the end of Chapter III.
8.   The commentary also reflects Fortenbaugh’s conviction that the subjects under consideration are (in most cases, at least) of perennial importance (not mere historical curiosities), and that Peripatetic philosophy has something valuable to contribute to the discussion of these issues. (I hope I have not mischaracterized the author here.) Further, although Fortenbaugh’s style, especially at the opening of each section, might come across to some as unusual for a scholarly commentary, I found it charming (and evidence of a Peripatetic concern for endoxa). For example, the section on Emotions begins: “Most people, almost all, would agree that the emotions are central to our lives” (245). And here is the opening to the section on The Wise Man and Marriage: “Marriage has taken something of a beating in the last half-century” (408). One last example, from Fortune and Goods and Evils outside the Soul: “Most of us think that personal happiness depends partly, even in large part, on an individual’s character” (418).
9.   I should add that in ch. IV, Fortenbaugh discusses two “new” ethical texts: Bartholomew of Bruges, Questions Concerning Aristotle’s book on Household Management (19.ix.7-12 Heylbut) (Text 486.5, see pp. 415-18); and, a scholium on Euripides’ Hippolytus 265 (Text 738.5, see pp. 316-19). They are “new” in the sense that they were not included in the original 1992 text and translation volume. The “.5” indicates that Fortenbaugh believes Text 486.5 should be placed between Texts 486 and 487, and Text 738.5 between Texts 738 and 739.

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