Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.13

Julius Rocca (ed.), Teleology in the Ancient World. Philosophical and Medical Approaches.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. xv, 331.  ISBN 9781107036635.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by Aiste Celkyte, Utrecht University (

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

Teleological arguments are undoubtedly an important part of ancient philosophical thought and, therefore, they are familiar to students of ancient philosophy. These arguments tend to be associated primarily with the Aristotelian tradition and specific problems within that tradition. This volume, arising from a conference held at the University of Exeter in 2009, challenges this assumption by showing how diversely these arguments were used in antiquity and how pervasive and influential this type of argumentation was thereafter. The volume is divided into four parts: ‘The Socratic Foundations of Teleology’, ‘Plato and the Platonist Tradition’, ‘Aristotle and the Aristotelian Tradition’, and ‘Teleology in Medicine.’

The first part contains only one entry, David Sedley’s paper ‘Socrates, Darwin, and Teleology’, which, as the title suggests, focuses on the figures of Socrates and Darwin. Socrates, Sedley argues on the basis of the evidence from Xenophon’s Memorabilia, was the inventor of the ‘argument from design’ (p. 28). The arrival of Darwin’s work posed a substantial challenge to such arguments and, implicitly, the teleological notions used to make them. Sedley notes, however, that, while Darwin’s theory aptly accounts for human attractiveness, it struggles to explain the beauty of nature. According to Sedley, Socrates theorizes beauty and function as irreducible yet interchangeable values (p. 38-9) and this theoretical device then helps to explain the beauty of nature. This is an ambitious and interesting claim, despite the fact that certain aspects of the relation between functionality and beauty sketched out in this paper remain tantalizingly unclear, including the question of how the interchangeability of beauty and usefulness entail the explanatory power necessary to answer Darwin’s challenge.

The second part of the volume is dedicated to Plato’s works and the Platonic tradition in general. Samuel Scolnicov’s ‘Atemporal Teleology in Plato’, the first paper, focuses on giving an account of atemporal Platonic teleology, which is rather distinct from temporal Aristotelian teleology. Scolnicov analyses the four kinds of objects described in a teleological way in Plato’s dialogues: rational action, living organisms in the Timaeus, numbers, and the Ideas. The unifying ground and the driving force for all of these phenomena is “pure, atemporal, unidirectional organization, aiming at nothing other than itself” (p. 52). This interpretation reveals the normative value of teleology and raises the question of how it can be promoted. The eschatological myths in the Republic and the Laws portraying instrumental teleology are meant to be an educational step towards motivating normative teleology. This is, however, a leap rather than a step, as Scolnicov rightly notes while adding that Plato himself is pessimistic about making it (p. 56).

In his paper ‘Teleology and Names in the Platonic and Anaxagorean Traditions’, Harold Tarrant shows that one can find diverse approaches to etymology within the Platonic tradition. The arguments about the intelligently created and governed universe serve as the basis for ancient etymological investigations. The tradition of arguing that, in a purposefully designed universe, language and names must also have a purposeful meaning is exemplified by the pupils of Anaxagoras, by Orphic poetry in the Derveni Papyrus, and by Plato’s Cratylus. The important question, however, is how far these texts take the claim that within an intelligently created universe the names have intentional meaning. Tarrant’s reading not only of the Derveni Papyrus and the Cratylus but also of a number of other Platonic and Neoplatonic sources paints a compelling picture of diverse engagements with etymology. Interestingly, Tarrant shows that later Platonists might have been more enthusiastic about etymology than Plato himself was.

Jan Opsomer’s paper ‘Why Doesn’t the Moon Crash into the Earth? Platonist and Stoic Teleologies in Plutarch’s Concerning the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon’ contains an analysis of this incomplete and rarely discussed treatise with a number of notable insights. The central part of the treatise is the Platonist attack on the Stoic claim that the moon is a mixture of air and fire and, even more importantly, the Stoic doctrine of natural places. The Aristotelian position is also discussed, but it is not the main target. The attack on the Stoic position consists of the claim that such a position eliminates providence from the universe (p. 87). The Platonic teleology which maintains that the whole determines the function of the parts, meanwhile, fixes this problem. Although the Platonist claims in the dialogue are, by and large, familiarly Platonic, they are made using an array of techniques developed during the Hellenistic period and are present in a fallibilistic mode. This shows, Opsomer argues, that it is the position of ‘Academic Platonists’ (p.90) that we find in this text.

John Dillon’s ‘Signs and Tokens: Do the Gods of Neoplatonism Really Care?’ explores the question of the role of teleological providence in the Neoplatonic universe. Given that there is no such thing as grace (in the Augustinian sense) in the Plotinian universe (especially in its highest levels), there appears to be no room for providential design in the Neoplatonic universe. Dillon shows that the Neoplatonist tradition is somewhat split on this issue. According to Plotinus, the world exhibits order which might have come from good planning, but no such planning took place in fact. The texts of Iamblichus, however, show stronger commitments to the existence of providence. Dillon convincingly concludes that one ought to distinguish the purely philosophical plane of Neoplatonic discourse (which accepts teleological ordering of the world but rejects providence) from the religious plane which emerged after Plotinus and allowed for the existence of providence in some ways.

The third part of the volume, dedicated to Aristotle and Aristotelian tradition, opens with Mariska Leunissen’s paper ‘Biology and Teleology in Aristotle’s Account of the City.’ This paper addresses the question of whether the city is a product of nature or art. Leunissen’s detailed analysis of Aristotle’s Politics and some pertinent passages from the works of Aristotle leads to the conclusion that two types of goal (and thus of teleological explanation) are present during the creation of the city. Thus Leunissen concludes that, to the extent that a city is created for the sake of living, it is a natural entity. To the extent that it is created for the sake of its male citizens’ living well, however, it is a product of a political art.

In his paper ‘Aristotelian Mechanistic Explanation’, Monte Ransome Johnson provides an extensive and rather technical discussion of mechanical (and mechanistic) explanations, Aristotelian scientific method, and the argument that teleological and mechanistic explanations are not mutually exclusive. Johnson argues that Aristotle’s mechanistic (biomechanical) explanations are no less mechanistic than those of Lucretius or even of modern scientists; then, importantly, that Aristotle’s scientific method and teleology do not rule out such a mode of explanation. This is a thought-provoking paper and one of the more notable and innovative engagements with teleological arguments.

R. W. Sharples’ ‘The Purpose of the Natural World: Aristotle’s Followers and Interpreters’ presents a careful reading of three groups of texts: those by Aristotle, those by Peripatetics before the first century BC, and those by later Peripatetics. Sharples’ reading shows that teleological arguments within the Peripatetic tradition are extremely diverse and nuanced and often more subtle than those proposed by either the Platonists or the Stoics.

J. G. Lennox’ paper ‘William Harvey: Enigmatic Aristotelian of the Seventeenth Century’ shows that William Harvey’s epistemology and methodology are strongly influenced by his study of the Aristotelian corpus. The fact that Harvey managed to combine Aristotelian ideas with what Lennox calls ‘Baconian experimentalism’ challenges the standard narrative claiming that the Scientific Revolution was primarily aimed at discarding Aristotelian natural philosophy.

The fourth and the final part of the volume is dedicated to medicine, although, as Elizabeth Craik aptly notes in her paper entitled ‘Teleology in Hippocratic Texts: Clues to the Future?’, the distinction between medicine and philosophy in antiquity can be blurry and, in certain cases, non-existent (pp. 203-4). Craik presents a very careful study of the teleological language in Hippocratic texts and shows that some elements of the teleological mode of reasoning can be found even in the earliest Hippocratic treatises, which suggests that the interaction between philosophy and medicine existed as early as the fifth century BC. Various later Hippocratic treatises show diverse affinities with Platonic teleological concepts and Aristotle’s biology, although the anti-teleological claims about certain organs having no function are also notable.

Philip van der Eijk’s ‘The Place of Disease in a Teleological World-view: Plato, Aristotle, Galen’ explores medical theodicy, that is, the question of how can one account for the existence of diseases in a providentially ordered world. The paper discusses a number of ways of accounting for a disease. In the Hippocratic On the Sacred Disease, the claim that diseases are sent by god is criticised as blasphemous. Plato’s Timaeus treats diseases as arising from necessity and the instability of the elements but not as a part of the divine plan. Aristotle’s account of the hierarchy of the natural world allows him to account for weakness and the lack of functionality, including disease. Although Galen’s conception of the causes of disease broadly echoes those of Plato and Aristotle, he also introduces the notion of ‘acts of nature’, which are involuntary processes that preserve the functioning of the body and thus enable health and recovery from disease.

The final paper, R. J. Hankinson’s ‘Teleology and Necessity in Greek Embryology’, is primarily concerned with the ways in which ancient embryological accounts employ the end state of the developmental process as a device to explain the nature of that process. The paper covers embryological accounts by Presocratics and Hippocratic treatises, Aristotle, and Galen. Notably, Hankinson shows the polemics that connect all of these accounts. The embryology found in Hippocratic treatises is much more sophisticated than that in Presocratic accounts, yet Aristotle finds Hippocratic pangenetic theories problematic. Instead, Aristotle posits an account in which the final cause plays a crucial role as the structuring principle. Galen, however, finds trouble with Aristotle’s teleological account because it pushes the explanation further rather than providing a proper account. The emerging picture reveals a fascinating ancient debate on what answers teleology can and cannot give.

The volume is impressive both in terms of the range of texts it covers and the scope of the issues it addresses. Although the articles in the volume are very diverse in their themes and scopes, one point emerges from all of these studies, namely, that teleology in ancient thought was not nearly as straightforward or clear-cut as one might be tempted to assume. The volume shows that it is a multifaceted concept that plays a role not only in arguments from design but also in mechanical explanations. For this reason, the volume is a very welcome addition to the scholarship on ancient philosophy and medicine and it will undoubtedly be of great interest and use to a wide variety of scholars.

Authors and titles

1. D. Sedley ‘Socrates, Darwin, and Teleology.’
2. S. Scolnicov ‘Atemporal Teleology in Plato.’
3. H. Tarrant ‘Teleology and Names in the Platonic and Anaxagorean Traditions.’
4. J. Opsomer ‘Why Doesn’t the Moon Crash into the Earth? Platonist and Stoic Teleologies in Plutarch’s Concerning the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon.’
5. J. Dillon ‘Signs and Tokens: Do the Gods of Neoplatonism Really Care?’
6. M. Leunissen ‘Biology and Teleology in Aristotle’s Account of the City.’
7. M. R. Johnson ‘Aristotelian Mechanistic Explanation.’
8. R. W. Sharples ‘The Purpose of the Natural World: Aristotle’s Followers and Interpreters.’
9. J. G. Lennox ‘William Harvey: Enigmatic Aristotelian of the Seventeenth Century.’
10. E. Craik ‘Teleology in Hippocratic Texts: Clues to the Future?’
11. P. van der Eijk ‘The Place of Disease in a Teleological World-view: Plato,
Aristotle, Galen.’
12. R. J. Hankinson ‘Teleology and Necessity in Greek Embryology.’
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