Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.02.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.13

Brad Inwood, Ethics after Aristotle.   Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press, 2014.  Pp. x, 166.  ISBN 9780674731257.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (

Brad Inwood has chosen, perhaps, an apparently rather bland and general title for what is in fact a most stimulating and sharply focused book. Based on a set of lectures delivered in Harvard in 2011, he has here turned to a tradition of philosophy closely connected with, but distinct from, his more usual haunts among the Stoics, and embarked on a study of the developments in ethics pursued by Aristotle’s successors in the Hellenistic era and beyond — though even here the Stoics are never far away!

Aristotle, like Plato – and as is the privilege of great philosophers – leaves to his successors a plethora of loose ends, for lesser minds to tidy up, or, conversely, to accentuate the contradictions of. In the case of Aristotle, in the sphere of ethics, there are differences of emphasis, between the Nicomachean and the Eudemian Ethics, and even within each of them, which can be developed in various directions. Aristotle propounds a ‘virtue ethics’ (in modern terms), but also holds to a form of ‘naturalism’ — sc. human beings, like other animals, have natural functions, the fulfillment of which leads to the telos of ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia) — and it is this latter aspect of his ethics which Inwood sees as becoming most prominent in the Hellenistic period. In his first chapter, ‘Working in the Wake of Genius’, he first gives an illuminating account of these tensions, and then considers how the first generation of Aristotelians, Theophrastus and the author of the Magna Moralia — whom he rather whimsically resolves to nickname ‘Magnus’ –, deal with these.

Theophrastus is prepared to take independent stands on such issues as the role of the passions, the relationship of the practical and the theoretical in the composition of the good life, the role of external goods in securing happiness, and even the vulnerability of virtue to chance. ‘Magnus’, in turn, seems to play down both the ‘activity’ (energeia) aspect of Aristotle’s ethics, and the theoretical, in favour of the practical. He also begins the upgrading of the status of pleasure which is to become quite a feature of the Hellenistic Peripatetics.

This strays into the second chapter, ‘Flirting with Hedonism’. Following on ‘Magnus’ (the analysis of the MM is most valuable), Inwood deals in turn with the scholarchs Strato of Lampsacus and Lycon, and that somewhat rumbunctious member of the school, Hieronymus of Rhodes (probably not a scholarch), of all of whom we have, alas, only minimal reports – of which, however, Inwood makes the most that can be made.

What becomes increasingly important in this period, as Inwood shows, is the struggle with the Stoics over what one might call ‘the nature of human nature’, and the role of pleasure as an accompaniment to the achievement of our proper human excellences. Here I would venture to support Stephen White (as reported on p. 39), as against Inwood in seeing Lycon’s definition of the telos as “joy (khara) of the soul at fine things (epi tois kalois)” as a deliberate adoption of the Stoics’ term for the rational equivalent of pleasure. Inwood is skeptical of this, but appropriating one’s opponents’ terminology is a pretty widespread strategy in this period, and later. As Inwood remarks himself a little later (p. 46): “There seem to be two main drivers of change in Aristotelian ethics after Aristotle. First and foremost is surely the open-ended, sometimes incomplete condition in which Aristotle left much of his theorizing in the area. And second is the competitive pressure of philosophical debate, in particular with the Stoics.” Quite so!

In the next chapter (‘The Turning Point: From Critolaus to Cicero’), Inwood addresses the period from the mid-second to the mid-first centuries BCE, in which he discerns important developments, led by Critolaus, head of the Peripatos contemporary with Carneades in the Academy. He is surely right to see Critolaus as a major influence on Antiochus of Ascalon, and his project of reconciliation of Platonism with Aristotelianism and Stoicism. He firms up the distinction between three classes of good, those of the soul, those of the body, and external goods, and sees eudaimonia as the perfection of all of them, though of course goods of the soul have a primary status.

However, Inwood discerns something else as happening early in the next century. The speech of M. Calpurnius Piso in Book V of Cicero’s De Finibus reveals an interesting return to Aristotle’s emphasis on ‘activity/actualisation’ (energeia in the definition of happiness that had been largely downplayed during the Hellenistic era. Inwood acutely proposes the influence of a shadowy figure called Staseas of Naples, who was a Peripatetic and the house philosopher of Piso, and I would entertain that suggestion, simply adding that a significant stimulus to such a shift might be the renewed access to Aristotle’s own writings resulting from Sulla’s transferral to Rome from Athens of the library of Tyrannio, which contained a fine collection of Aristotle’s works (subsequently ‘edited’ – in some way — by Andronicus of Rhodes).

At any rate, in the fourth chapter (‘Bridging the Gap: Aristotelian Ethics in the Early Roman Empire’), he turns to an analysis of an anonymous doxographer, author of the so-called ‘Doxography C’ in Stobaeus’ Anthology, to whom he gives the nickname ‘Harry’, in whom he discerns further distinctive features, specifically in the remodelling of the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis. He also devotes stimulating discussions to Cicero (in Tusculan Disputations 4) and Seneca (in his De Ira) on Peripatetic theories of the passions.

Lastly, in Chapter 5, Inwood focuses primarily on Alexander of Aphrodisias (who in turn makes some mention of his predecessors Boethus and Xenarchus), particularly in his short essay, from the Mantissa on the proton oikeion, or ‘primary object of attachment’, of which Inwood gives a full translation, and to which he devotes a good discussion.

This, despite its relative brevity, is a book of great richness, to which one cannot do full justice in a review of this sort. I would warmly commend it, however, to anyone interested in later Greek ethical theories.

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