BMCR 2000.09.11

The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy

, The Cambridge history of Hellenistic philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xix, 916 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521250285. $135.00.

[Note: for ease of use, I have organized this review into two parts: a brief, general, and descriptive review that will be of interest to the great variety of readers (774 words), followed by a more in-depth critical discussion of selected contents (2 398 words).]

This encyclopedic reference-book is an excellent piece of work, sure to become indispensable. It should find a place not only on the shelves of every research library but equally in the private collection of every serious student of ancient philosophy . Or at any rate, every serious student who has recently won a lottery, or lost a wealthy relative. For the rest of our impoverished tribe, the only hope is that it may appear in paperback, since the hardback is appallingly expensive. It may at least b e said that the book’s mammoth price is matched by its mammoth scale — well over 900 pages, it is nearly twice the length of Zeller’s treatment of the same area.

The work in this volume represents, as nearly as is possible in a dynamic field, the state of the art in Hellenistic studies. It will be relied upon as a touchstone for discussion in specialist publications. It will also be consulted with profit by generalist readers who need more depth than is provided by e.g. the Oxford Classical Dictionary or the spate of handbooks for contemporary philosophers that has gushed forth in the last decade. It generally avoids, as is noted in the preface, the use of untranslated Greek or Latin in the main text. More germane for readers of this journal, it also generally avoids the use of untranslated philosophical jargon. Although it is hard for the present reviewer to judge the question, cooped up as he is in the pidgin of this very sub-discipline, I believe that all of the entries will be accessible and comprehensible to classicists at any level from undergraduate students on up.

To anyone familiar with the publications of the triennial Symposium Hellenisticum ( Doubt and Dogmatism, Norms of Nature, etc.) it will be apparent that the list of contributors largely overlaps with the contributors to those volum es; in a sense, this volume is a product of that ongoing Symposium series, and of the renaissance in Hellenistic studies that it has fostered. One mark of these origins is the relatively high proportion of contributors from the Continent, unusual when co mpared to that found in comparable volumes (e.g. the Cambridge Companions to Plato or Aristotle). Italian, French, German, and Dutch authors and editors mix comfortably with their Anglo and American colleagues, an ecumenism somehow fitting for students of the Hellenistic period.

The volume as a whole is divided into five parts which in turn collect twenty-two chapters, each in general the work of one author.(though see exceptions below) The organization is by topic in the first instance, then by school. Readers of this revie w will wish to know what topics are discussed and which authors discuss them. Since there is no more direct and economical way to convey this important information, I hereby abbreviate the volume’s table of contents (though I paraphrase rather than parro ting exact chapter titles):

Part I: “Introduction”

1: Mansfeld on sources and source criticism

2 & 3: Dorandi on Chronology and the Schools

Part II: “Logic and Language”

4: Barnes gives an Overview of Logic

5: Barnes, Bobzien, and Mignucci on details:

Barnes on Peripatetics

Bobzien on the Megarics and Stoics

Mignucci on Stoic treatments of Paradox

6: Schenkeveld (first half) and Barnes (second half) on Linguistics;

Schenkeveld on Rhetoric and Poetics

Part III: “Epistemology”

7: Brunschwig on the origins of Hellenistic Epistemology

8: Asmis on Epicureans

9: Frede on Stoics

10: Schofield on Academics

Part IV: “Physics and Metaphysics”

11: Sedley gives an Overview of Hellenistic Physics and Metaphysics

12: Furley on Cosmology

13: Mansfeld on Theology

14: Hankinson on Explanation and Causation

15: Hankinson on Determinism

16: Everson on Epicurean Psychology

17: Long on Stoic Psychology

18: Cambiano on Philosophy, Science, and Medicine

Part V: “Ethics and Politics”

19: Long on the Socratic origins of Hellenistic Ethics

20: Erler and Schofield on Epicurean Ethics

21: Inwood (first half) and Donini (second half) on Stoic Ethics

22: Schofield on Social and Political Thought

Bracketing these twenty-two chapters are a brief preface (presumably by the four editors, though the quill bears marks of Barnes’ plumage), and a substantial “Epilogue” by Frede, in which he discusses the transition from the Hellenistic era to the Imp erial schools and Neo-Platonism. The volume ends with another tabular presentation of major historical events, courtesy of Dorandi, followed by ample and satisfactory bibliographies and indices. I now turn to brief comments on selected chapters. Omissions, and the fullness or brevity of my comments, should not be taken to convey particular praise or reproach, and any criticisms should be understood against the background of uniform admiration fo r volume as a whole.

The first section contains three utilitarian chapters about sources, chronology, and schools. Mansfeld’s discussion of genres is especially interesting, and Dorandi’s assemblage of a mass of names, dates and floruits is extremely useful, as are the ta bular presentations of the histories of the schools and their scholarchs.

The section on Logic is excellent. Bobzien’s coverage of the Megarics and Stoics is typically meticulous, elegant, and authoritative. Mignucci’s thoughts on the Liar and the Heap can be seen at greater length in two other articles; it was either need less modesty or editorial oversight that led to their omission from the bibliography.1 Barnes has some excellent things on the ontology of lekta; I was glad to see that both he (211) and later Sedley (401) argue for the mind-independence of lekta, dis missing the passages that have led to confusion on this point.

At the beginning of the third section, Brunschwig (Chapter 7) provides an excellent mise en scène, as well as good coverage of the minor schools; the suggestion that Pyrrho was not interested in epistemology is unorthodox but well-argued.

Epicurean epistemology is the subject of Chapter 8, in a fine survey provided by Asmis. Her discussions of the Epicurean theory of quasi-logical inference via “witnessing” and “counter-witnessing” are especially good. On questions of more elementary perception, I note that she opts for the view (269 fn.12) that what we perceive as single images of visible objects are “the result of a stream of eidola depositing eidolic parts in the eye.” This may be right, but it is hard to square with other parts of the theory. For our eyes, or our mind, to undertake the kind of elaborate reconstruction of a composite image from fragmentary images that she envisions here — rather like the CAT-scan’s synthesis of an image from millions of separate density-measure ments — would be to open the door to exactly the kind of corrupting additions on the part of the perceiving agent that Epicurus wants to avoid — and it would also render senseless the insistence that the eidolon carries information about the object exac tly by retaining the object’s form in flight. But I acknowledge that there are comparable problems with the option that she dismisses, according to which eidola “focus down” to the size of the observer’s iris during the course of their flight — no reaso n can be given why they should in general shrink in this way, nor for the convenient fact that my eye always finds itself at the vertex of a triangle whose base is the Eiffel Tower, no matter which arrondissement I am in.

And in fact, the most vivid impression that a clear exposition of Epicurean epistemology makes on the reader is the fact that it is extraordinarily flimsy and ill-supported at nearly every juncture and ill-equipped to address the philosophical difficu lties that beset it. Aristotle’s system provides an apparently limitless fund of philosophical possibilities for overcoming and maneuvering around objections; the resources of Stoic epistemology have not yet been plumbed; but after confronting Epicurus w ith a hard question one feels like Horatio speaking with Osric; “His purse is empty already/ all’s golden words are spent.”

Frede’s account of Stoic epistemology (Chapter 9) is the first of his two contributions to the volume. The reader of his earlier papers will recognize his views on the origins of Stoic epistemology, the doctrine of cognition (katalepsis) and cognitiv e (kataleptic) impressions, assent, the criteria, and so on. His original rejection of the traditional view that kataleptic impressions involved an introspectible token of infallibility, and his advocacy of an externalist causal account of the features t hat make an impression kataleptic, still stand as a turning-point in the recovery of Hellenistic epistemology. In my opinion, he is right to have stood firm against the various challenges raised to his view (even if one might like to hear him provide mor e explicit responses to them). In this chapter some development is visible, however, on the question of the scope of kataleptic impressions. In his earlier work, he had sided with Striker in claiming that kataleptic impressions could only come from perc eptible objects, and could only be perceptual in content. Presumably as a result of his reflections on the Stoic theory of reason, best studied in two recent articles,2 he now argues that kataleptic impressions in adults can come from true propositio ns as well as objects.3

This liberalization in the contents of kataleptic impressions constitutes a major improvement, and I agree that the key point is to note that the second clause of the definition does not mandate that the impression be caused by what it is an impressio n of. The proof-text for this, which Frede does not cite, is AM 8.409, which shows that the Stoics thought that we could have kataleptic impressions of the propositions that constitute a proof and that when we do so our mind is not acted on by them direc tly but rather shapes itself in conformity with them. The impression is not caused by the proposition, but the impression has the characteristics it has because the proposition has the characteristics it has — t he hegemonikon is like a good mime that can take on the exact posture of someone slouching against a wall even when there is no wall to slouch against.

Schofield’s discussion of Academic Epistemology (Chapter 10) is the first of his three contributions to the volume, in addition to his role as an editor. It is often noted — e.g. on the back of this volume’s dust-jacket — that Hellenistic philosophy was marked by “vigorous debate and dissension”.4 We owe this fact (as well as many of the best jokes from the period) in large part to the two pillars of the skeptical Academy, Arcesilaus and Carneades. Schofield provides an excellent introduction to their views, including the question whether they had any.

Schofield resists the ad hominem interpretation of Arcesilaus’ appeal to the eulogon in AM 7.158, arguing that on that reading Arcesilaus crucially botches the orthodox Stoic formulation and so fails to pin the Stoics in their own corner. Arcesilaus argued that the eulogon is sufficient for happiness inasmuch as it is sufficient for katorthomata — but for the Stoics to accept this, Schofield counters, would be for them to “give up their ordinary definition of katorthoma” (333). Instead, they would dismiss Arcesilaus’ maneuvering with the ready response that the eulogon is sufficient only for the kathekon, not for the katorthoma, and thus it cannot be sufficient for happiness. Schofield suggests that it “might therefore seem better to accept that A rcesilaus is replying … on his own account”, rather than to saddle him with a transparently inadequate argument ad hominem.

This is an insightful challenge to the ad hominem interpretation, but as someone who has gone on record in its favor, I hope I may be allowed to reply. I agree that Arcesilaus has collapsed the distinction between the kathekon and the katorthoma, and thus invited the charge of misrepresentation, but I think this is part of his strategy for baiting the Stoics. The katorthoma can be said to differ from the kathekon by “possessing all the numbers”, whatever that means, but the distinction between the tw o can also be characterized in terms of the impulse from which the agent acts: all katorthomata are performed by Sages and thus stem from impulses that are strong assents to kataleptic impulsive impressions. Non-katorthotic kathekonta are all performed by fools and thus stem from impulses that are opinions. (Note that the fixity, stability, and so on that the advanced progressor’s actions are said to lack exactly the fixity, stability, and so on that his impulses lack because they are still opinions in stead of knowledge.) When the Stoics respond to Arcesilaus’ gambit by insisting on the distinction between kathekon and katorthoma, he will respond that they can help themselves to katorthomata distinct from general kathekonta if and only if they can sho w that there are kataleptic impressions distinct from other impressions. Thus the Stoics’ ability to defuse Arcesilaus’ booby-trap is reduced, once again, to their ability to demonstrate the existence of kataleptic impressions — and this is ground on wh ich Arcesilaus will be happy to fight.

The fourth section, on physics, contains a number of excellent chapters, e.g. Furley’s overview of cosmology. Mansfeld gives a nice sense of the theological climate, when all the major schools were resolutely godly, and arguments for existence outnum bered atheists. One small quibble: some critics have suggested that an argument of the Stoic Diogenes prefigured Anselm’s, and Mansfeld presents it as though the field were still divided. But isostheneia no longer reigns; the proposal has been complete ly exploded by Brunschwig, who showed its real structure.5

Hankinson’s chapter on explanation and causation is related to his book of like title.6 A recent review suggested that his thoughts on the topic are banal and unventuresome; the review was rather good fun, at least as a specimen of odium philologi cum, but there is not much to the charge. A reading of this chapter alone will show that there is much that is novel and controversial in his views, especially concerning the details of Stoic causal theory. His handling of the Epicurean notion of “multi ple explanations” is also a welcome departure from the extraordinary flights this topic usually inspires. The key, as he notes (506), is to see that their form is merely a disjunction of possible explanations; the point could be strengthened by reflectin g that the actual reference in DL 10.86 does not mention multiple ” αἰτίαι“, plural, but a ” πλεοναχὴν αἰτίαν“, i.e. a single explanation with a complex, manifold structure. This is why the a ssertion of the whole disjunction is safe but the isolated assertion of any one disjunct is not (DL 10.87). Confusion on this point seems to have arisen early; alongside the correct interpretation in Lucretius 6.703 et seq. we can already see a muddled a ttempt at Lucretius 5.526-533 to claim that each of the disjuncts is not merely possible but true — which then necessitates the importation of the other cosmoi to make them true, a move nowhere in evidence in Epicurus, and one bound to fail in any case.

It is no slight on Hankinson’s economical twenty-nine page chapter on determinism and indeterminism to say that its material on Stoicism should now be supplemented by Bobzien’s monumental 400+ page monograph on the subject.7 The student whose appe tite is whetted by H’s overview will have much to enjoy in that longer work and will also learn much from their disagreements. It is worth noting, incidentally, that both agree that we should be extremely wary of the text that is most commonly taken by n on-specialists to typify the Stoic attitude towards fate. H. (540-541) and B. (345-357 of B. 1998) both argue that the simile of the dog tied to the cart, which follows will-it nill-it, is deeply unrepresentative of the main lines of Stoic thought on fat e and determinism. Together with Cleanthes’ trimeters, it has often been taken to show that the Stoics believed in a sort of causal fire-wall between the external world and our mind, allowing us to think what we like even as the actions unfold beyond our control. But no such distinction between outer fate and inner freedom could have formed any part of Chrysippus’ views, and it probably is a mistake to import it into Epictetus, as well.

The fifth section contains another fine chapter by Long, as well as exceptionally clear expositions of Stoic ethics by Inwood and Donini and of Epicurean ethics by Schofield and Erler. I am still not convinced that Epicurus was “in modern parlance” (a s fn. 31 charmingly puts it) a psychological hedonist. It is not clear that Ep. Men.127-129 is a purely descriptive account of universal psychology; some parts seem more naturally read as quasi-normative accounts of how an Epicurean Sage thinks about nat ural desires. And if the hedonism is psychological, then what is empty about “empty desires” must be restricted to their implicit causal claims — apparently Aristotle’s desire for theoretical contemplation was misguided only in that he thought theoretic al contemplation would bring him pleasure. That sounds wrong; we should allow Epicurus to recognize and diagnose deeper confusions, desires that are empty “all the way down.” People can be so confused about their good, that they mistakenly think it consi sts in contemplation, rather than pleasure. But the topic is large, and the issues involved complex; and I should make it clear that the view taken in this chapter is by far the more widely endorsed.

The burden of Frede’s second contribution (Epilogue) is to justify the chronological scope of the volume, by detailing how and why the Hellenistic period in ancient philosophy, considered as a unified intellectual episode, may be said to have ended in roughly 100 B.C., rather than seventy years later at Actium. Frede details how the revivals of Aristotle and Plato can be seen to emerge already in the time of Posidonius with a growing reverence for the figures that antedate the Hellenistic schools, an d a growing willingness to stress the continuity with the past rather than novel departures from it. In addition to these factors, Frede hints at a shift in zeitgeist, a dissatisfaction with the limited practical accomplishments of the Hellenistic school s, and a growing desire for otherworldly consolations. Is there a whiff of Gibbon here and the view that the Christian era spelled the end of something finer? One looks forward to hearing in more detail how he thinks such extra-philosophical trends may have influenced the reception of philosophical ideas.

It is worth repeating in closing that this volume is a treasury of solid information, clearly presented. The production is also uncommonly good, and the rate of typos lower than usual (a page-break seems to have slid over on to p. 54; an iota seems t o have gone missing from “antikeimena” on p. 101, and is “late edition” in the ninth line of p. 502 meant to be “late addition”?). I should like to commend Cambridge on the results, but given how bone-idle most publishing houses are nowadays I suspect th at the praise should rather be distributed among the authors and editors themselves, as well as their assistants Hans Baltussen and Henri van de Laar.


1. “The Liar Paradox and the Stoics” pp. 54-70 of Topics in Stoic Philosophy, K. Ierodiakonou ed., (Oxford, 1999); “The Stoic Analysis of the Sorites”, PAS 1993; 93, 231-245.

2. “The Stoic Conception of Reason” pp. 50-63 of K.J. Boudouris Hellenistic Philosophy, Volume II (Athens 1994) and “On the Stoic Conception of the Good”, pp. 71-94 of Ierodiakonou 1999.

3. It may be that he thinks in adults they come, properly speaking, only from true facts, and from objects only for children and irrational animals — I could not discern his position.

4. How does one cite a dust-jacket?

5. “Did Diogenes of Babylon invent the Ontological Argument?” in Papers in Hellenistic Philosophy, Jacques Brunschwig (Cambridge, 1994). It is a pretty thing even without Anselm’s blessing and to my mind resembles, if anything, a tense-logical version of the popular S5 modal argument for god’s existence.

6. Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought, (Oxford, 1998).

7. Freedom and Determinism in Stoic Philosophy, (Oxford, 1998).