Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.01.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.11

Victor Caston (ed.), Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Volume 50, Summer 2016.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. 308.  ISBN 9780198778226.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Ilaria Ramelli, Catholic University; Angelicum; Princeton / CEU Institute for Advanced Study (

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This is a collection of exciting essays. Due to space constraints, I shall linger only on some of them, touching briefly upon the others. The first one, by Thomas Kjeller Johansen, “Parmenides’ Likely Story”, refers in the title to Plato’s Timaeus. Indeed, Johansen follows the path suggested by Proclus, In Tim. 1.345.12-24, who, commenting on Plato, Tim. 29C, remarked that Parmenides had said the same things as Plato there, although in an obscure way, because through poetry. Johansen argues that for Parmenides the cosmos (a διάκοσμος, an ordering of many things in motion) relates to Being as likeness to a model; this yields it some degree of being and intelligibility. Hence also Plato’s description in Tim. 29BD of the cosmos as a movable image (εἰκών) of eternity—αἰών, a terminological and conceptual novelty of Plato’s, denoting atemporal, adiastematic eternity and directly connected to the level of transcendence.1 Plato’s own contribution is the creation of the cosmos by a Demiurge—I would add: on the basis of the Ideas as models. Johansen’s argument is grounded in the interpretation of Parmenides, B1.31-2, ὡς τὰ δοκοῦντα χρῆν δοκίμως εἶναι, in the sense that it is necessary for things to be believed acceptably. Both the exegesis of this expression and the general argument concerning Parmenides’ influence on Plato in this respect make a lot of sense, and indeed made sense to Proclus already. In this connection, a nuanced appraisal of Parmenides’ monism by John Sisko and Yale Weiss might have been worth citing.2

Franco Trivigno studies “The Moral and Literary Character of Hippias in Plato’s Hippias Major.” He argues that Hippias is presented in this dialogue as an ἀλαζών, a comic impostor, similar to such characters in Aristophanes. Using literary devices borrowed from comedy, Plato highlights self-ignorance as the main trait of this comic impostor—a Socratic theme that fits very well within this ultimately aporetic dialogue. Plato (Trivigno argues for the authenticity of the dialogue) intended to warn readers not to make the same mistakes as Hippias.

David Charles and Michael Peramatzis investigate “Aristotle on Truth-Bearers,” establishing that for Aristotle primary truth-bearers are statements, beliefs, judgments, and thoughts, which alone can be characterized by the disjunctive phrase “true or false,” which applies exclusively to propositional items. Their truth or falsity appears to be independent of human thought.

Orna Harari, “Alexander against Galen on Motion: A Mere Logical Debate?” focuses on Alexander of Aphrodisias’ Refutation of Galen concerning the thesis that anything that moves is moved by something. Harari argues that the debate was not merely logical, i.e. confined to the validity of Aristotle’s argument, but bore on the doctrine of causes.

Klaus Corcilius offers a detailed criticism of Anna Marmodoro’s very interesting book, Aristotle on Perceiving Objects. Corcilius focuses on the description of powers (δυνάμεις) as causal properties—powers for change—and the building blocks of physical realities according to Marmodoro’s interpretation (according to which physical properties are powers). He notes that for Aristotle all powers are not only powers for change, but also for being, and points to the difficulties raised by intermediate stages in the process of perception. Corcilius finally concentrates on the interpretation of Aristotle’s common sense (κοινὴ αἴσθησις) as having a different principle of individuation from that used by the special senses, and on the “metaphysically robust” interpretation of it by Marmodoro, especially concerning perception of 3D objects: the common sense, she argues, bestows unity on the diverse input from the special senses and can perceive the common sensibles to their full extent. Corcilius also objects to an interpretation of De anima and Parva Naturalia as basically disorganized, but finds points of strength in the monograph as well, especially concerning modally specific perception. Some of the questions and objections raised by this review are addressed by Marmodoro at

Catherine Rowett, “Why the Philosopher Kings Will Believe the Noble Lie,” investigates the myth about autochthony and the metals in Plato’s Republic, 414d-415c. She offers an account of this myth that, if not totally uncontroversial, is definitely noble—one that should work as a model for states, and universities, today as well. For she interprets it as designed to prevent privilege arising from nobility of birth, wealth, strategic friendships, and other unfair advantages, and to facilitate social mobility based uniquely on merit. Rowett compellingly offers a reading of the Noble Lie in light of the Cave—both read as processes for giving birth to full citizen life and to true knowledge. Plato intended to deracinate corruption from society (which “rules by deception,” 97) and promote “the novel meritocracy that was his pride and joy” (94). The assignment of classes and roles within society must be determined according to each person’s capabilities. Rowett resists Popper’s interpretation of the Noble Lie as meaning that class for Plato is based on inherited social characteristics; she also opposes a misogynistic exegesis according to which the myth devalues the contribution of mothers by making the earth the common mother of all citizens. In fact, in Plato’s State “all gender roles are removed, replaced by equality of opportunity for all, maximum social mobility, and gender-neuter career structures” (85). In Theaet. 174e-175b, Socrates depicts the philosopher as indifferent to claims to superiority by birth, wealth, and prestige by belonging to privileged groups—something that, I note, was taken over especially by “the Roman Socrates,” Musonius. Plato’s ideal of “equality of opportunities for all, combined with distribution of responsibilities according to ability” (86) fits well—I think—with his claim in the Myth of Er that ἀρετή is ἀδέσποτον, a claim that will resonate later in Origen’s and Gregory of Nyssa’s Christian Platonism. The rulers must stop corruption by sorting “the citizens according to their metals [i.e. deserts and attitudes] rather than by any system of privileges that would advance an unqualified citizen or demote one who was more able” (87). I wonder whether Paul, who described ethnic, gender, and social differences as indifferent/inexistent in Christ (Gal. 3:28), and used metals as metaphors for human deserts, had Plato at the back of his mind. Rowett’s reading maximizes Plato’s distance from Aristotle, who accepted and theorized the “natural” superiority of people privileged from the viewpoint of ethnic, gender, and social status3—the same categories of superiority that Gal. 3:28, like Plato and the Stoics, debunked.

Jacob Klein, “The Stoic Argument from Oikeiôsis,” interestingly tries to unify the Stoic accounts of οἰκείωσις (‘appropriation’), without a divide between oikeiôsis as self-appropriation (personal oikeiôsis) and social oikeiôsis (directed towards other people), and to explain how the Stoics could draw normative ethical principles from a description of animal psychology and their self-preservation behaviours—as Hierocles the Stoic does. Other important sources are Diogenes Laertius (based on Chrysippus) and Cicero. Diogenes clarifies that, for humans, behaving in accordance with nature is behaving in accordance with logos (an idea for which I find roots in Plato, who inspired the Stoics in so many respects).4 On the basis of an accurate analysis of sources such as Seneca, Alexander of Aphrodisias, and Chrysippus (who is quoted by Posidonius as stating that we have by nature a relation of oikeiôsis to the fine/noble/καλόν alone: F169 E-K), Klein observes that the Stoic accounts of oikeiôsis focus on the role of self-perception in the preservation of one’s own constitution, in animals and humans alike: preserving one’s hêgêmonikon in a condition in conformity with nature. This is fully consistent with the Stoic concept of virtue as cognitive condition. The continuity lies in the fact that what animals do on the basis of non-rational perception, humans do on the basis of rational perception and cognition; the same conditions of teleological success obtain at every level of the scala naturae. Accurate cognition is the sole basis of teleologically appropriate behaviour. In this way, the theory of oikeiôsis supports the core tenet of Stoic ethics: virtue is a cognitive grasp of the natural order which, if perfected, is sufficient to achieve happiness, the human telos (149). Appropriate actions (καθήκοντα) are directed both towards oneself and towards others. “An animal’s impulse to preserve itself is not a first-order motivation in competition with oikeiosis towards other things . . . but is rather the psychological basis of its recognition and appropriation of them as oikeion” (178). Indeed, Hierocles, I note, in his famous image of concentric circles, which is rightly taken as a representation of oikeiôsis, posits the circle of one’s self in direct sequence with the circles representing καθήκοντα towards other people; there is not a change of direction (inwards or outwards), but the same direction crosses all circles. Virtue for the Stoics consists in a perfected state of the hêgêmonikon and the activities that are its consequence—thus it must be the primary object of oikeiôsis for rational agents (162). I observe that virtue is the πρῶτον οἰκεῖον for Origen and Gregory of Nyssa as well, who remarkably imported Stoic oikeiôsis into Christian thought.5

Ursula Coope’s illuminating essay, “Rational Assent and Self-Reversion: A Neoplatonic Response to the Stoics,” concentrates on the Stoic account of responsibility based on human capacity for rational assent (συγκατάθεσις / adsensio). This is described as active and depending on us (ἐφ’ ἡμῖν), unlike passive impressions. Coope shows the relation of this tenet to Stoic ethical intellectualism and helpfully uses Origen (246) to assess Stoic thought, given the huge impact of Stoic ethics on Origen’s own ethics (and logic, and even hermeneutics)—including its ethical intellectualism. Already Epictetus suggested that reason, which assesses impressions, can also assess itself and is self-reflective; assent is self-reflective while impression is not: this is why accountability is based on assent, not impressions. But it was ps.-Simplicius’ sixth-century commentary on Aristotle’s De anima that used the Neoplatonic category of self-reversion (ἐπιστροφή) to explain human accountability based on assent—notwithstanding discrepancies between Simplicius’ Neoplatonism and Stoic materialism. Assent depends on the rational soul, which alone is capable of self-reversion; the irrational faculties of the soul are not. Ps.-Simplicius’ account explains why we can assent for a reason but cannot have an impression for a reason. Assenting implies accountability because one can assent for reasons, and this depends on the self-reflexive nature of the assent. I note that self-reversion was sometimes conflated with apokatastasis by both “pagan” and Christian Neoplatonists, from Origen to Proclus, ps.-Dionysius, and Eriugena, and this conflation adds a new dimension to the study of responsibility, self-reflection, and restoration—which still needs systematic research in late antique philosophy. Origen built his own doctrine of apokatastasis in response to Stoic apokatastasis, used both ἐπιστροφή and ἀποκατάστασις terminology, and was well known to later “pagan” and Christian theorizers of self-reversion and apokatastasis. ​


1.   Thorough argument in I. Ramelli and D. Konstan, Terms for Eternity: Αἰώνιος and ἀίδιος in Classical and Christian Authors, Piscataway: Gorgias, 2007; new edition 2013, 22-38.
2.   J. E. Sisko and Y. Weiss, “A Fourth Alternative in Interpreting Parmenides,” Phronesis 60 (2015), 40-59.
3.   Analysis in I. Ramelli, Social Justice and the Legitimacy of Slavery: The Role of Philosophical Asceticism from Ancient Judaism to Late Antiquity, Oxford: OUP, 2016. On Plato’s “egalitarian” views on women see also C. Addey, “Plato’s Women Readers”, in H. Tarrant, D.A. Layne, D. Baltzly, and F. Renaud (eds.), Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Plato in Antiquity, Leiden: Brill, 2017, 411-432 at 411-12.
4.   Il βασιλεύς come νόμος ἔμψυχος tra diritto naturale e diritto divino: spunti platonici del concetto e sviluppi di età imperiale e tardoantica, Naples: Bibliopolis, 2006.
5.   Argument in my “The Stoic Doctrine of Oikeiosis and its Transformation in Christian Platonism,” Apeiron 47 (2014), 116-40. For the relationship between oikeiôsis and kathêkonta in Hierocles see my Hierocles the Stoic, Leiden: Brill - Atlanta: SBL, 2009, repeatedly cited by Klein, and further arguments in “Hiéroclès: extraits du traité ‘Sur le mariage’ de Stobée’ in J.-B. Gourinat (ed.), L’éthique du stoïcien Hiéroclès, Hors-Série, Lille: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2016, 157-67 (see BMCR 2016.11.05). ​

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