Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.33

M. F. Burnyeat, Explorations in Ancient and Modern Philosophy. (2 vols.).   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. x, 382; x, 356.  ISBN 9781107400061.  $235.00.  

Reviewed by Brad Inwood, University of Toronto (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The book under review is an extensive collection of articles and essays by Myles Burnyeat (formerly Laurence Professor Ancient Philosophy in the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge University); there are twenty-nine items published between 1971 and 1998, arranged thematically (the Table of Contents is given at the end of this review). Volume I covers ‘Logic and Dialectic’ and ‘Scepticism Ancient and Modern’. Volume II deals with ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Philosophy and the Good Life’. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Burnyeat’s work; he is one of a small number of intellectuals whose study of ancient philosophy owes as much to the discipline of Classics as it does to Philosophy and has given back equally to both. Burnyeat is an original, creative philosopher and a perspicacious, scrupulous historian. His works routinely revolutionized a topic (if they didn’t create a new one) when first published and they continue to be deeply influential and widely cited. These essays have appeared in a wide variety of locations (from Philologus to Philosophical Review, from Isis to Polis, from the New York Review of Books to the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society and Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volumes). It is a great service to have them brought together in one collection.

The topics of these essays are enormously varied, yet all share some basic characteristics that are more readily appreciated in the context of the collection. As Burnyeat says in his preface, three elements are common to all: philosophy, argument, and history: “each chapter, long or short, whether written for a professional audience or for a more general readership, contains all three.” And each chapter is written with precision and eloquence, characteristics too often absent in other authors. The collection as a whole reveals the historical and philosophical power of a truly extraordinary mind, one whose influence has been almost as great through his teaching as through his books and the papers collected here. The festschrift published for his retirement in 2007 (Maieusis, ed. Dominic Scott, reviewed for BMCR by John Dillon: 2009.04.78) contains papers by students and colleagues of breathtaking variety and quality, a fitting tribute to the merits of the honorand.

Burnyeat contributed significantly to the stabilization, over the last forty years, of ‘ancient philosophy’ as a discipline in its own right, making the study of Greek and Roman philosophy something more than just a branch of philosophy or a component of Classics, more than the incidental and contingent intersection of two powerful disciplines. The fusion of “historical, philological, literary and, above all, philosophical perspectives” (as Scott put it in his preface to Maieusis) that characterizes Burnyeat’s work is clearly present in these essays, and it constitutes a challenge to us all, whether philologist, historian or philosopher, to break out of our parochial scholarly environments.

It would be foolish to pick out one or two of these papers for discussion. Every reader will have his or her favourites. Many would be drawn to one of the many papers on scepticism and epistemology (such as ‘Can the sceptic live his scepticism?’). Others would be drawn to logic and dialectic (‘The origins of non-deductive inference’ or the brilliant ‘Enthymeme: Aristotle on the logic of persuasion’). Those with interests outside the ancient world will be drawn to topics like ‘Examples in epistemology: Socrates, Theaetetus and G.E. Moore’ with its important reflections on Wittgenstein’s method and its pungent critique of some regrettable fads in twentieth-century philosophical method (that remain with us even now); or to the profound ‘Wittgenstein and Augustine, De magistro’ in which two non-classical philosophers are subjected to scrupulous literary and philosophical analysis in order to bring out a central feature of Platonic epistemology. And though Burnyeat’s persistent epistemological interests often draw him to Plato or to Pyrrhonists, Aristotelians too would be hard put to pick a favourite among these essays, though ‘Aristotle on understanding knowledge’ would surely be near the top of any short list. Nor do those with a taste for philosophical and academic controversy of a more vigorous character have to do without. In ‘Sphinx without a secret’ Burnyeat provides a sharply argued critique of one entire tradition of twentieth-century philosophical and political teaching. It was in 1985 that he put the cat among the pigeons by writing this in the New York Review of Books:

I submit in all seriousness that surrender of the critical intellect is the price of initiation into the world of Leo Strauss’s ideas. As to why, in recent decades, increasingly many puppies [Burnyeat uses Strauss’s own term here] should have opted for the joys of surrender, and how the muting of one’s own power of judgement fits into the psychology of conservatism – these are questions for the social scientists whom Strauss despised and abused. My task here is to tell readers who are interested in the past, but who do not wish simply to retreat from the present, what happens in the thought-world that Strauss’s writings fashion from his favourite old books. (p. 292 of volume II.)

These were fighting words when written over a quarter of a century ago, but they are still important and worth fighting over today, both inside and outside the confines of the university.

Readers who have come this far will already know what to do – buy this book or make sure that their library does so as soon as possible. But though it would be foolish to pick a favourite, I do want to close by paying a little more attention to one paper in particular, in part because I had never come across it before and in part because I was so surprised at Burnyeat’s interest in the topic. In ‘Message from Heraclitus’ (chapter 9 of volume II), in what is formally a review of Charles Kahn’s The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, we see Burnyeat’s literary and philosophical sensibilities working together in an exquisite harmony. At the outset we are invited to imagine what it would have been like to hear a recitation of the baffling new book by Heraclitus – and the scene is set with all the historical plausibility a student of archaic Greece could want. Heraclitus’ puzzling and stimulating prose, its self-referential mystery offering the audience intellectual challenge as well as a brusque affront, force the ancient listener and the modern reader to dig deep into his or her own self-awareness simply to follow along. Kahn was among the first (and Burnyeat emphasizes this in his review) to stress properly how essentially literary Heraclitus’ methods were and that a modern philosophical understanding of his work demands a literary sensibility, a sophisticated poetical hermeneutic, and a rich philosophical imagination. Burnyeat appreciates the way Kahn avoids the kind of interpretation which “the guardians of our classical heritage” have deployed in order “to make Heraclitus dull and prosaic”. Burnyeat and Kahn also emphasize that the use of “literary techniques of elucidation” does not draw us into “arbitrary subjectivity” but rather involves “objective historical enquiry” – again, “contrary to some of the more extravagant voices on our own literary scene”. For Burnyeat, then, “interpreting Heraclitus is “like elucidating a complex philosophical poem” – it is an act of literary insight, dependent on sound philology and careful history; but it leads (and this is where in his boldness Burnyeat goes beyond Kahn) to a profound meditation on the limitations of human experience. We learn from Heraclitus’ puzzling aphorisms that there is in fact a god’s eye view to be had – but that mere humans cannot hope to achieve it. “The question is, can we stand outside language in its entirety, outside everything that makes human experience human, so as to view ourselves in this godlike perspective? I believe [says Burnyeat] that Heraclitus’ most profound contribution to philosophy is the realization that we cannot.... Heraclitus thrusts us into the thought of a godlike perspective, by images and paradoxes which suggest alternatives to the boundaries of sameness and difference marked out by our language, in order that we may become aware that the particularity and partiality of the human perspective condition everything we say and do. This is what it means to become awake to the words and works of everyday life. It is a highly philosophical rendering of the Delphic maxim, ‘Know thyself’.”

At the end of this review, as at the end of so many of the essays collected here, the reader has been brought to deeper insights in a way that is as much literary and historical as it is philosophical. The moral of the story is that, at least in Burnyeat’s hands, serious progress cannot be made in any of these areas on its own. Philosophical, literary and historical methods work together in Burnyeat’s essays in an exemplary manner. On any of his topics (and they are often quite central to the concerns of any classicist) he sets the bar high and then shows us how the job is to be done. Would that more of us had the capacity to follow his lead.

Table of Contents

Volume 1: Preface
Part I. Logic and Dialectic:
1. Protagoras and self-refutation in later Greek philosophy
2. Protagoras and self-refutation in Plato's Theaetetus
3. The upside-down back-to-front sceptic of Lucretius IV.472
4. Antipater and self-refutation: elusive arguments in Cicero's Academica
5. Gods and heaps
6. The origins of non-deductive inference
7. Enthymeme: Aristotle on the logic of persuasion
Part II. Scepticism Ancient and Modern:
8. Can the sceptic live his scepticism?
9. Tranquillity without a stop: Timon, frag. 68
10. Idealism and Greek philosophy: what Descartes saw and Berkeley missed
11. Conflicting appearances
12. The sceptic in his place and time
13. Dissoi logoi

Volume 2:
Part I. Knowledge:
1. Examples in epistemology: Socrates, Theaetetus and G. E. Moore
2. Socratic midwifery, Platonic inspiration
3. The philosophical sense of Theaetetus' mathematics
4. Plato on the grammar of perceiving
5. Socrates and the jury: paradoxes in Plato's distinction between knowledge and true belief
6. Aristotle on understanding knowledge
7. Platonism and mathematics: a prelude to discussion
8. Wittgenstein and Augustine, De magistro
Part II. Philosophy and the Good Life:
9. Message from Heraclitus
10. Virtues in action
11. The impiety of Socrates
12. The passion of reason in Plato's Phaedrus
13. Aristotle on learning to be good
14. Did the ancient Greeks have the concept of human rights?
15. Sphinx without a secret
16. First words
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