Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.32

R. W. Sharples, Perspectives on Greek Philosophy: S.V. Keeling Memorial Lectures in Ancient Philosophy 1992-2002.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2017.  Pp. 176.  ISBN 9781138707856.  $115.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Adamson, LMU München (


Part of the “Routledge Revivals” series, this book is a reprint of a volume that first appeared in 2003, under the editorship of the late Bob Sharples. The pieces included were Keeling lectures, given in London between 1992 and 2002 by a stellar line-up of specialists in ancient philosophy. In alphabetical order, these are Sarah Broadie, Jacques Brunschwig, David Charles, John Cooper, David Furley, Terry Irwin, and Martha Nussbaum, Günther Patzig, and Bernard Williams. Given the stature of the contributors it is unsurprising that much excellent material is to be found in the volume. The papers deal more or less exclusively with Plato and Aristotle, but make up for this somewhat narrow scope by varying widely in approach.

At the most “philological” end is Brunschwig’s “Do We Need New Editions of Ancient Philosophy?” The answer, unsurprisingly, turns out to be “yes,” as established through a series of concrete examples having to do with the Topics. While instructive, these will be of little interest to the general reader, who will profit more from the opening pages, which explain the rationale for continuing to edit texts that have already been edited by expert classicists in the past. Particularly well taken is Brunschwig’s point that the indirect tradition can help establish the text, and has often not been taken into account in earlier editions. He makes the point with reference to the late ancient commentators, to which one could add that medieval translations into languages like Arabic or Armenian can be an important resource, representing as they do an otherwise lost recension of the Greek text.

The remaining papers are devoted to philosophical themes, with the main areas of inquiry being ethics and physics. Of the pieces on ethics, Patzig’s seems rather incidental, being more breezy in tone than the others and no doubt intended more as popular lecture than serious scholarship. He basically limits himself to making the point (which I suppose must already have been rather familiar in 1992, when this lecture was given) that “quality of life” in Plato and Aristotle means something more like objective flourishing than a subjective feeling of well-being. The other contributions often seek to bring the ancient texts into contact with later discussions. Thus Williams considers whether Christine Korsgaard’s notion of “intrinsic goodness” resonates with Plato’s aims in the Republic, concluding that the Form of the Good alone has this feature, yet has little explanatory force in the development of Plato’s ethics. Irwin’s paper is as much (or even more) about Cudworth as Plato, and suggests that Cudworth was reviving the Euthyphro dilemma to cast doubt on positivism and theological voluntarism in ethics. While this is instructive, the connection to the Euthyphro seems to rest on the rather shaky assumption that Plato was centrally concerned with counterfactual situations where the gods’ preferences change (23). But in fact Plato has Socrates pose a problem that could not have arisen in the theological tradition to which Cudworth was responding: in a polytheistic culture, the gods might disagree with one another. Once this is ruled out by stipulating that the pious is what all the gods love (Euthyphro 9d), the remaining problem is still nothing to do with counterfactuals but is rather about the direction of explanation: from piety to the gods’ preferences, or vice-versa?

Moving on to practical philosophy in Aristotle, we have Cooper’s piece on emotions in Aristotle. Famously the topic is most extensively taken up in the Rhetoric, which is rather problematic since, as Cooper notes, this text is not intended to provide anything on the order of a moral psychology. He takes it as a preparatory work for a “positive philosophical theory of the nature of emotions” that Aristotle may never have written (86). I would hesitate to go even that far, since the treatment of emotions here is strictly subordinated to the speaker’s need to manipulate his audience effectively.

Regarding physics, Furley’s piece is an investigation of final causation in Aristotle and emphasizes the fact that, in a biological context, the formal and final causes are identical. This is hardly news, but the point is put to good use here, since it allows Furley to explain how, for Aristotle, final causes can be genuinely explanations of physical processes and thus underwrite “ontological connections” rather than mere heuristic accounts (78).1 Final causation is also central to the offering from Broadie, who breathes some life into the apparently sophistical “lazy argument” used by Aristotle in the famous passage on the “sea battle” in On Interpretation 9, and then aimed at the Stoics by their adversaries. According to the argument, if determinism is true then there is no reason to deliberate about our actions, since the determined events will come about no matter what. Broadie allows that Chrysippus offered a good first response to the argument (128), namely that the actions we take to bring about a desirable outcome are co-fated along with that outcome, so that it does make a (causally explanatory) difference what we do. However, Broadie argues, determinism gives us reason to be fatalists nonetheless, if we add the “Aristotelian” assumption that past events are teleologically arranged: they happen “because they lead up to an end that comes about later.” If this is so, then the human inability to change what has happened in the past means that the human cannot do anything to change the future either.

As I hope to have conveyed so far, the contributions retain their interest despite the lapse of about two decades since most of them were written. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to consider what the volume shows about changing fashions in ancient philosophy. Really only two papers seem to some extent “dated,” though no less interesting for that. David Charles shows that the concerns of British scholars of ancient philosophy at that time were still unapologetically shaped by Wittgenstein, which I tend to think is not so much the case now.2 Charles explores the question of whether Aristotle could respond to the Wittgensteinian thought that linguistic meaning is shaped entirely by use (as argued – if “argued” is the right word – in the famous “slab” passage at Philosophical Investigations §2). Aristotle could, Charles thinks, make a persuasive case that the expert craftsman’s language-use is indeed formed by practice, yet also responsive to the way the world really is. The craftsman “can vindicate certain of our rules and practices by reference to the nature of the wood, and can recommend setting up others” (119). Much as Irwin’s paper is more about Cudworth than Plato, this is more about Wittgenstein than Aristotle, but it is always welcome to see that the ancients provide resources for responding to philosophical concerns of our own time.

Such is also the ambition of the final essay by Nussbaum. Written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and explicitly framed as a response to that event, her piece takes its inspiration from ancient ethics and Greek tragedy. Nussbaum identifies limits to the notion of human “dignity,” pointing out that a commitment to universal dignity may give us reason to treat everyone equally, but also threatens to undermine our interest in what happens to them. After all, if dignity belongs irreducibly to every human, then no suffering or other calamity can remove it. As others have worried, Stoic ethics seems prone to this problem since, as Nussbaum puts it, it may lead us to “respect all human beings and view all as our partners in a common project whose terms don’t seem to matter very much” (155), because only inner virtue counts and virtue is invulnerable to harm from external forces. A better approach, then, would be to educate people so as to cultivate their compassion. Writing in 2002, Nussbaum looked forward hopefully to the prospect that the experience of terror attacks might provoke “a culture of critical compassion” in American society. That this did not in fact happen (to put it mildly) doesn’t show she was wrong.


1.   I was slightly surprised that Furley does not cite the classic study of Michael Frede, “The Original Notion of Cause,” in J. Barnes, M. F. Burnyeat, M. Schofield (eds.), Doubt and Dogmatism: Studies in Hellenistic Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 1980), 217-49, which seems obviously relevant to his concerns (for instance at Furley p. 74). But annotation throughout the whole volume is on the sparse side, presumably because the articles began their lives as lectures.
2.   His paper is actually from 2001, so a rather late entry in this genre, which includes such classic papers as M. Burnyeat, “Wittgenstein and Augustine De Magistro,” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 61 (1987), 1-24.

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