Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.09

Cinzia Arruzza, Dmitri Nikulin (ed.), Philosophy and Political Power in Antiquity. Studies in Moral Philosophy, 10.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. viii, 183.  ISBN 9789004324619.  $131.00.  

Reviewed by Katarzyna Jazdzewska, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The reviewed volume is the result of a conference organized at the New School for Social Research in New York in 2013 and was published in Brill’s Studies in Moral Philosophy series, which features books “in all areas of normative philosophy”, and therefore does not focus solely on ancient philosophy or literature. The book investigates the relationship between philosophy and political power in antiquity. Though the collection does not aim to systematically cover the field, its scope is broad, ranging from the sophists and Plato to Aristotle, Diogenes the Cynic, the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Neoplatonists.

Giovanni Giorgini’s “The Power of Speech: the Influence of the Sophists on Greek Politics” discusses the education offered by the sophists and their participation in politics, and attempts to reconstruct their political views. In this interesting, though somewhat meandering paper, Giorgini identifies fields in which the sophists influenced political life (education, the courts, assemblies) and lists their main intellectual achievements (the “democratic” ideal of education, the distinction between nomos and physis, the concept of natural law, cultural relativism, questioning the idea of truth); he then devotes short sections to Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon, and Critias. Giorgini relies on Plato, who he believes truthfully represented the sophists’ teachings, as well as on later sources – Plutarch, Philostratus, and the ps.- Plutarchan Lives of Ten Orators. The trust in anecdotes preserved in the imperial period texts may be problematic for more critical scholars, as may be some general statements abstracted from historical realities (e.g. p. 17: as a consequence of the sophists’ influence on the courts “the oldfashioned instruments to ascertain the truth – witnesses, oaths, torture – were replaced with conclusions from logical reasoning”) and some imprecisions (p. 36 n. 77: Herodotus’ account of ‘divine providence’ is perhaps “inspired by Protagoras’ Great Speech” – what is meant, I suppose, is that resemblances between Herodotus and the statements of Plato’s Protagoras may indicate, as some scholars have argued, that Herodotus was inspired by Protagoras).

The next two papers focus on Plato’s Republic; both are lucid and tightly argued. Arruzza’s “Philosophical Dogs and Tyrannical Wolves in Plato’s Republic” focuses on philosophers-kings and tyrants in the Republic. Starting with Plato’s imagery of dogs and wolves, Arruzza argues that Plato’s account of the tyrant in Books 8 and 9 should be read within the context of the discussion of the corruption of the philosophical nature in Book 6; a tyrant is a philosopher who has been corrupted by society and by the lack of a proper education. While the overall argument is not new (cf. for instance, Saxonhouse 1978,1 which for some reason is absent from the paper), the author persuasively and in a detailed manner investigates similarities and differences between the philosopher and the tyrant, as well as the conditions leading to the latter’s degeneration. Chris Bobonich’s well-argued “What’s the Good of Knowing the Forms?”, on the other hand, asks why a knowledge of the Forms is necessary for philosopher-rulers, what it is necessary for, and what the relationship is between this knowledge and the making of good laws and political decisions. He argues that a knowledge of the Forms is not necessary for non-philosophers in Kallipolis to make correct choices, but is necessary for philosophers who establish laws. However, a knowledge of Forms is not sufficient for ruling: Plato recognized the need for recognitional abilities, which make it possible for one to recognize likenesses of the Forms.

Christoph Horn’s focused and incisive chapter investigates two seemingly incongruent assertions in Aristotle’s Politics: that a cognitively superior individual should rule (the “leadership principle”) and that a group of people is capable of better political judgments than an individual, even an excellent one (the “accumulation argument”). Horn’s investigation leads him to the conclusion that the two principles refer to different situations: Aristotle is a proponent of a government based on a stable legal order, in which questions not covered by the law are decided by the multitude; therefore, the “accumulation argument” is compatible with Aristotle’s criticism of non-legalist democracy. The “leadership principle”, on the other hand, relates to an exceptional situation in which there emerges an absolutely extraordinary person.

Dmitri Nikulin’s paper focuses on Diogenes the Cynic, called anachronistically an “illegal immigrant from Paphlagonia” (p. 115). The author emphasizes that, as the historical Diogenes is elusive, we are left with the figure of Diogenes as preserved in the “collective memory” of later generations. The paper discusses the philosopher’s relation to the polis and nature (Nikulin rightly problematizes Diogenes’ seeming dissociation from the polis), his liberation from the conventions of society and the “positive” freedom of parrhesia, and the relation of Diogenes’ “performance” to comedy. He next compares the relationship of a slave and a master to that of a thinker and a ruler, specifically to that of Diogenes and Alexander the Great. The paper offers little close reading of ancient sources, and focuses rather on the “figure of Diogenes”, abstracted both from the historical circumstances of the 4th c. BCE and from the literary contexts of the ancient works in which Diogenes appears; I find this methodologically problematic. I was also perplexed by some of Nikulin’s statements. For instance, he implies, if I understand correctly, that Diogenes the Cynic was the model for the figure of the clever slave in the New Comedy (p. 126: Diogenes “appears implicitly in New Comedy, becoming the prototype for the comic figure of the smart slave who appears a fool yet outsmarts everyone else . . . Growing up in Athens, Menander certainly could not miss such a colorful figure as Diogenes who is therefore an evident candidate for the stock figure of the crafty slave”). Yet, we know that Menander’s servus callidus developed from earlier comic slave-figures; and I am not persuaded that there is enough resemblance between the clever slave character and Diogenes to speculate about the latter’s influence on the formation of the former (that philosophers, Cynics included, were ridiculed in comedies, is another issue). Elsewhere the author writes: “In antiquity the public/private distinction has a different meaning than in modernity: their mutual border is established by the house wall, which serves as an analogue to the city wall that separates the polis from the ‘non-political’ of nature. The private, then, is the inside, that which lies within the house – and the outside is public” (p. 115). In the context of nuanced research on domestic space and the private/public divide in Greek and Roman antiquity, developed during the last twenty years or so, the statement seems overly one-dimensional. It is also confusing when the author, talking about iambus understood as mocking, ribald poetry, suddenly adduces the traditional characteristics of iambic metre (“conversational character and colloquial simplicity”, “suitable for the depiction of dramatic interaction”) and labels Diogenes a comic dramatist (p. 125). Such statements distract from the argument and make one wish that the author demonstrated more philological akribeia.

Gretchen Reydams-Schils discusses later Stoicism and its relation to politics, focusing on Dio Chrysostom, who, she believes, can offer meaningful insight into Stoic political thought. The paper aims to shift the emphasis away from the Roman “Stoic martyrs” and, generally, Stoic attitudes, towards monarchical rule, and focus instead on other sorts of political engagement. Reydams-Schils examines Dio’s thoughts on political responsibility towards the community, his awareness of the frustrations and challenges of political engagement, and his recommendations for determined perseverance in spite of them (she refers to relatively rarely quoted texts – Or. 47, 73, 74, 77/78 – which I find of great merit); next she finds instantiations of such determination in Musonius Rufus and Marcus Aurelius. Some discussion of Dio’s own engagement in local politics would be welcome; otherwise I found the paper a stimulating read.

Emidio Spinelli’s “Stoic Utopia Reconsidered: Pyrrhonism, Ethics, and Politics” develops, as the author explains, ideas presented in his earlier paper on the topic.2 Based on several passages of Sextus Empiricus, Spinelli argues that there is a coherent Skeptic position regarding engagement in political life. The life of a skeptic – including his political actions – is to be regulated by four main principles: the guidance of nature; primary affects and basic needs; tradition embodied in laws and customs; and the teaching of the arts. Relying on empirical rather than dogmatic norms, a skeptic has sufficient decisional resources to guide him in his political actions.

The last paper, by Dominic J. O’Meara (“Plato’s Tyrant in Neoplatonic Philosophy”), starts with investigation of Proclus’ treatment of Plato’s tyrant in the Commentary on Plato’s Republic. O’Meara examines Proclus’ discussions of the tyrannical soul and the tyrannical political regime, as well as his investigation into why some souls become tyrants. Later, he focuses on the Neoplatonists’ employment of the Platonic tyrant-figure in their criticism of contemporary political regimes – here passages from Proclus, Damascius and Simplicius are included. I am a bit skeptical about seeing Plato’s tyrant-figure behind Simplicius’ reference to “tyrannical circumstances” at the end of the Commentary on Epictetus’ Encheiridion; in any case, it seems to me that discussion of Simplicius’ words would benefit from reading them together with another passage from the Commentary: “the impious deeds performed by some human beings on others – the sacking of cities, taking prisoners of war, unjust killings, piracy, kidnapping, licentiousness, and tyrannical force, culminating in compelled acts of impiety” of which, the philosopher later adds, “there has been an excess in our own lifetime” (35.31-45; trans. Brittain and Brennan).

Despite some unevenness of the contributions, the volume as a whole offers interesting insights into philosophers’ approaches to political power throughout antiquity. The quality of the editing is inconsistent. Nikulin’s paper in particular suffers from poor copy-editing: e.g. p. 114 n. 3, “Cohon” instead of “Cohoon”; p. 116, “walless” for “wall- less”, “poltical” for “political”; p. 120 n. 16, „ἐω παντὶ τῷ βίῳ” instead of “ἐν παντὶ τῷ βίῳ”; p. 126 n. 29 should refer to Lanza 1997, not 1977; p. 132 and 133, “Branman” instead of “Branham”, etc. There are two indices at the end of the volume, a general index and an index of ancient sources; unfortunately, their quality is poor. The general index, for some reason, does not always maintain alphabetical order (e.g. “Pericles” appears before “parrhesia”), and there seems to be no consistent rule for inclusion of entries. Some scholars’ names appearing in the footnotes are included, some are not; more worryingly, some important authors discussed in the volume are missing (there is no listing for Musonius Rufus or Seneca, though Epictetus is present). The index of ancient sources is not comprehensive and includes only some references to primary texts (e.g. Letters of Diogenes are referred to not only on pages 115-16, 118, 121, but also on pages 124 and 129; Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are quoted not only on page 146, but also on page 145, etc.).

Authors and titles

Introduction. Cinzia Arruzza and Dmitri Nikulin
1. Giovanni Giorgini, The Power of Speech. The Influence of the Sophists on Greek Politics
2. Cinzia Arruzza, Philosophical Dogs and Tyrannical Wolves in Plato’s Republic
3. Chris Bobonich, What’s the Good of Knowing the Forms?
4. Christoph Horn, Individual Competence and Collective Deliberation in Aristotle’s Politics
5. Dmitri Nikulin, Diogenes the Comic, or How to Tell the Truth in the Face of a Tyrant
6. Gretchen Reydams-Schils, Dio of Prusa and the Roman Stoics on How to Speak the Truth to Oneself and to Power
7. Emidio Spinelli, Stoic Utopia Reconsidered: Pyrrhonism, Ethics, and Politics
8. Dominic J. O’Meara, Plato’s Tyrant in Neoplatonic Philosophy


1.   Arlene W. Saxonhouse, “Comedy in Callipolis: Animal Imagery in the Republic”, American Political Science Review 72 (1978), 888-901.
2.   Emidio Spinelli, “Neither Philosophy nor Politics? The Ancient Pyrrhonian Approach to Everyday Life” in ed. J.C. Laursen and G. Paganini (eds.), Skepticism and Political Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Toronto 2015), 17-35.

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