BMCR 2001.08.19

La filosofia in età imperiale. Le scuole e le tradizioni filosofiche

, La filosofia in età imperiale : le scuole e le tradizioni filosofiche : atti del colloquio, Roma, 17-19 giugno 1999. Elenchos ; 31. Napoli: Bibliopolis, 2000. 326 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 887088399X. L.60.000.

This volume collects eight essays presented at the First Symposium on the philosophy of the Imperial Age, held at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Rome. Among the contributors are some of the most eminent Italian scholars of the last four decades in the field of ancient philosophy. The papers are rich in suggestions and some of them will probably be required reading for future research on their topics.

As Brancacci points out, a considerable number of philosophical texts were transmitted during the Imperial Age and a significant amount of philosophical papyri were produced during the second century (9-10). This, along with the fact that many significant events took place—such as the convergence of philosophy and literature, the second Sophistic, the origin of the philosophical commentaries—is, as the editor reasonably suggests, a good reason for dealing with this period of the history of philosophy.

In reviewing a collection of essays, it is almost impossible to discuss all of them in detail. So I shall limit myself to summarizing the main theses of the articles and to pointing out their significance to scholarship.

Ioppollo’s contribution (” Decreta e praecepta in Seneca”) focuses on the debate concerning the role moral principles play in Stoic ethics. The author reminds us that, in attempting to overcome the opposition between the two traditional interpretations of the issue—the position considering moral rules as being merely empirical rules lacking normative force, and the thesis regarding such rules as principles endowed with normative power but lacking connections with the concrete situations of action—contemporary scholarship offers at least two accounts. The first maintains that concrete situations present objective characteristics which are repeatable, and that moral judgment is structured at every level by rules which are grasped by reason (Mitsis). The other holds that general principles are limited to indicating the modality of an action, but that they do not prescribe its content. Stoic ethics would not be so inflexible and unable to consider individual moral experience, and precepts are moral rules that are not universally applied and, therefore, can be broken (Inwood). In her discussion Ioppolo argues that precepts describe a behavior from the outside, but they do not explain how every officium is carried out. In this vein, she convincingly shows that Aristo admitted that theoretical instruction is not enough but that ongoing practice is required, so a moral rule must encompass all the particular cases in order to be valid (21-22). As a result, she opposes both to the interpretation that precepts are moral injunctions structuring principles at various levels and the position that they are more flexible rules applicable to concrete cases. So the link offered by precepts with the concrete situations is the same as what the examples offer since neither the principles nor the examples can prescribe the content of moral action. Thus, the normative power is concerned just with decreta or with knowledge of the rational law ruling the universe.1

Brancacci contributes an interesting paper (“Libertà e fato in Enomao di Gadara”) on Oenomaus of Gadara, the only Cynic philosopher of whom we can read an almost complete treatise (the Γοήτων φώρα). The author argues that Enomaos is the first Cynic who not only writes on cynicism but also is willing to reform it (43-52). In its most philosophical part the paper concentrates on the criticism Enomaos seems to have made against the Stoic notion of fate. Against it Enomaos maintained that we are absolutely masters of the most necessary things (52-53). Brancacci notices that the term used by Enomaos to refer to human freedom is not the typical Cynic one ( ἐλευθερία), but ἐξουσία, which expresses “the new concept of freedom in opposition to the already defunct and unhelpful ἐλευθερία” (55). The term means the act of wanting to do something and of being able to do something (55-56). So, the notion of ἐξουσία looks quite different both from τὸ ἐφ’ ἡμῖν and ἐλευθερία, and its term of opposition is not anymore, as in the classical cynicism, the inscrutable power of τύχη, but necessity or rather fate (56). Brancacci points out that Enomaos’ interest in recovering the theater metaphor asserts “the effective and real possibility of man playing a role in the stage of life” (59). This remark is, to some extent, unpersuasive since Chrysippus also thought of the agent as effectively playing a role on the stage of life; otherwise his compatibilist arguments would be absolutely pointless, but what they seem to prove is that Chrysippus was aware of the problem.2 The paper closes with a useful appendix containing the main Testimonia of Enomaos of Gadara.

Vegetti provides a stimulating article on Galen as an interpreter of Plato (” De caelo in terram Il Timeo in Galeno ( De placitis, quod animi)”). Vegetti suggests that Galen’s approach to Plato’s Timaeus is free from school commitments, so he is able to provide a rich interpretation of Plato’s dialogue, discussing those points that seem to him disputable, useless, or simply mistaken (some of “Plato’s mistakes” according to Galen are meticulously listed by Vegetti; 74-75). Thus Galen’s effort consists in interpreting the Platonic theory of the soul and its soul-body relation. Vegetti starts by pointing out that Galen realized that the Platonic psychic system is articulated in three different motivational centers; however, Plato had not conclusively demonstrated that they represented three parts ( μόρια) or forms ( εἴδη) of the soul (76). Galen argues that the fact that one of the psychic eide can subsist separately from the others proves that it is not one of the functions of a substance but is an autonomous part. Vegetti concludes that Galen was sure that the tripartite model should be understood as a full separation among the three different “parts” or “forms” of the soul, each one located in a bodily place: brain, heart, and liver. Besides, Galen is quite certain of the fact that Plato’s assertion that the two inferior parts (see Timaeus, 69c-d) are mortal should be taken literally (80). This also suggests, in Galen’s view, that such a presumption can be applied even to the rational part. As Vegetti shows in his careful analysis of Galen’s passages, if the rational soul—as Plato himself recognizes—can be influenced by wine (or some other material factors), why shouldn’t it be thought of as being a certain kind of mixture with the material brain and, therefore, mortal? So, Galen’s critical examination of the Timaeus, looks like a very dangerous weapon against Plato’s thesis of the immortality of the soul or, at least, of its rational part.

Perilli’s paper focuses on the explanation of the commentarius in initium libri Galeni de elementis secundum Hippocratem (“La fortuna di Galeno filosofo. Un nuovo testimonie dei commentari neoplatonici ( Scholia Yalensia) al De elementis.”) (At the end of the paper 128-135 the initial section of the text, with a critical apparatus and the different lectiones the codex Marcianus gives, is offered.) Perilli attempts “to formulate a plausible hypothesis concerning the origin and the specific formal nature of these materials, to clarify the chronological position and the philosophical environment they belong to, and to inquire what the to related materials” (92). This is done especially in the second part of the paper, where the author analyses the formal characteristics and contents of the text at issue (92-116). The codex consists of a miscellany of many fascicles written by different hands and the commentary pursues a didactic objective. Unlike the usual practice of the commentators Ammonius and Elias, it has not one σκοπός but three, so this is a sign, Perilli conjectures, that there are three distinct arguments, presumably belonging to three different authors (93-94; 99). In order to account for the lemmata, he also suggests that passages by Galen are cited, whether explicitly or implicitly, and so Galen’s passages are more numerous than what Moraux thought (100). Another subtle point is that in those cases where it is not possible to identify the specific passage in Galen, the commentary gives some clue about a lost work of Galen or some other authors who cannot otherwise be identified (108). The reader will find some stimulating passages of the Commentarius on Melissus’, Diogenes’, Aristotle’s, Xenophanes’, and the atomists’ theory of elements (117-127).

Centrone provides a rich study on Pythagoreanism (“Cosa significa essere pitagorico in età imperiale. Per una riconsiderazione della categoria storiografica del neopitagorismo”) where he maintains that, despite the presence of some Pythagorean literature in the Hellenistic Age, there were not “real Pythagoreans” during that period. Against the standard interpretation, he notes how difficult it is to establish reliable criteria to identify a Pythagorean in the Imperial Age (141). His proposal is to reconsider the criteria by which a Pythagorean is usually identified. Centrone focuses on the attribution of the name “Pythagorean” to philosophers, and observes that, for the ancients, the criteria to define someone as Pythagorean are basically two: at the institutional level, belonging to a community or to a school which can be defined as “Pythagorean”, and at the individual level, the explicit recognition of a philosophical doctrine or the choice of a βίος that fits in with the norms of the Pythagorean discipline. But these criteria are hardly applicable to Pythagoreanism, first because there was not in this period an institutionalized Pythagorean hairesis; second (and more importantly) because of the lack of writings attributable to Pythagoras. If it is certain that no Pythagorean philosophical school existed either in the Hellenistic or in the Imperial Age, it is less clear whether there were associations, confraternities, or Pythagorean based on a philosophical doctrine but the adhesion to a bios that could assure its followers salvation. If such communities existed, the criterion of affiliation would remain valid to identify a Pythagorean (143-145). Centrone concludes that it is not certain that in Hellenistic Age there were communities (where their adherents intended to make a revival of the Pythagorean bios) (160). Finally, he emphasizes that, with regard to the issue what it meant to be a Pythagorean in the Imperial Age, bios and the philosophy are different enough to admit distinct answers. Although at the “way of life” level some figures can be regarded the “Pythagoreans”, at the philosophical level this acute awareness is much less visible. So the existence of “Pythagorean communities” during the first centuries of the Empire looks much less certain than previously believed.

By reinforcing the traditional thesis that Plato’s Timaeus contains the summa of Platonic thought (172-74), Ferrari (“I commentari specialistici alle sezioni matematiche del Timeo“) intends to show that the exegetic works devoted to the Timaeus —produced during the first centuries of the Imperial Age—”followed a tradition begun by the immediate successors of Plato” (178) and that such writings display obvious affinities with Middle Platonic commentaries (regarding both their form and their goal). Ferrari concentrates on some “formal analogies” in Plutarch’s, Adrastus’ and Aelian’s writings (186). Adrastus’ exegetical procedure, for instance, has three stages: first, he provides some possible renderings of λόγος, individualizing the sense to be taken in the interpreted passage. Second, an exhaustive classification of the main types of logoi is presented and, finally, the single cases of relation indicated by Plato are subsumed within the whole classificatory system (192-193). As Ferrari emphasizes, Adrastus’ procedure is significant since it displays a feature common to many Spezialkommentare of the Imperial period: to encompass the Platonic assertions within the knowledge system related to such knowledge (193). Another typical procedure of the specialized commentaries was that of “filling the gaps” left by Plato. A paradigmatic case here is the discussion related to the effects of the planetary movements. On this point Ferrari emphasizes that the specialized commentaries endeavor to be more accurate on matters that were more or less ambiguous in Plato’s wording. So in his commentary Adrastus replaces ἐπίπροσθεν ( Tim., 40c7) with ἐπιπρόσθησις, a more technical term taken from astronomy (197-99). Thus Ferrari interestingly shows how Adrastus in his “specialized commentary”, not only applies the results and demonstrations by the astronomers to the understanding of Plato’s text (199), but even “corrects” or makes some of Plato’s passages more precise (221).

Berti is concerned with the unsolved issue regarding the way in which heaven and the First Mover are related (“Il movimento del cielo in Alessandro di Afrodisia”). The author focuses on examining the more or less traditional interpretations maintaining that heaven is moved due to its desire for imitating the Unmoved Mover. Alexander agrees with this view but, when commenting on Aristotle’s text, he seems hesitant, which shows, Berti suggests, that this doctrine is not found again in the text. Alexander’ commentary on Met. XII was lost, but some fragments were preserved in Averroes’ commentary (229). Berti cites the controversial lines where two meanings of “end” are distinguished ( Met., 1072b1-3>), and rejects the traditional account3 because, he argues, it doesn’t correspond to the text and appears to regard just the τινός sense of end. If the end at issue is, e.g., health, whether it is an end for something or an end of something, in both cases the end is not included among the unmovable realities since health is a quality that must be achieved (229-230). Berti finds highly attractive the Arabic translation of Averroes that seems to presuppose a Greek text like this: ἔστι γὰρ τινὶ τὸ οὗ ἕνεκα καί τι, ὧν τὸ μὲν ἔστι τὸ δ’ οὐκ ἔστι, which Berti renders: “The end, in fact, exists for something and is something, of which the one exists [among the unmovable realities] and the other one does not exist”. According to this reading, the end can be understood either as an end of something, i.e. as a relative to something else, or as something existing in itself and not depending on something else. This clarifies in which sense the end can be included among the unmovable things (this interpretation is endorsed by Alexander’s comment, such as it is reported by Averroes; 230-31). The second part of Berti’s contribution concentrates on the discussion of the notion of imitation and tries to show the influence of Alexander to establish the so-called “traditional interpretation”, according to which heaven is moved due to the desire for imitating—through circular movement—the unmovable mover’s immobility (234-242). This paper will help to stimulate the discussion of the (unsolved) relation between Aristotle’s First Mover and the world.

In her study “Alessandro d’ Afrodisia e il περὶ τἀγαθοῦ di Aristotele” Isnardi Parente explores again Aristotle’s περὶ τἀγαθοῦ, an issue that she has already studied vastly (see 247, n. 1). She starts by analyzing Alexander’s view that for Plato the principle of all things is number (what for mathematicians are points, for him are unities). Plato would have identified Forms with numbers; principles of Forms, therefore, are the same as principles of numbers, the unity being prior to the other things (250). But Alexander also informs us that, according to Aristotle, Plato took Unity and the Indefinite Dyad to be principles, insofar as they both are principles of numbers and Forms. Every number is determined by Unity, but not every number is constituted from Unity and Duality. Isnardi Parente remarks that, according to Alexander, Aristotle sometimes reproaches Plato for having used just two types of causality (formal and material), but in On the Good Aristotle complains about the fact that Plato lacks the efficient and the final cause. In doing so, Alexander notes that Plato was the first to speak of an “incorporeal matter”: the Dyad that can be found in the Ideas (251-252). The author interestingly shows how Alexander presents Aristotle as holding two different positions: on the one hand, Plato would have defended a systematic doctrine different from the Pythagoreans’ just in name but the same in substance: ideas and points—the ultimate elements of reality—are the same thing. On the other hand, Plato held the doctrine that the Idea is the ultimate form of being, and of such a nature that it cannot be derived from another thing. Anyone can recognize the latter view as being the “true Platonic doctrine”. Alexander himself warns us that in his On the Good Aristotle attributes the theory of Ideas to Plato, which shows that both testimonies were written in a nearby period. Nevertheless, Alexander does not notice the alleged contradiction between the two versions of the doctrine (261-62). Isnardi Parente also shows that the ancients made use of Aristotle in order to reconstruct Plato and that, as a result, Alexander has reconstructed a “systematic” Plato that is not present in Aristotle (269). This is a Plato unknown to us, readers of the dialogues, and should be taken into consideration for a better understanding of Plato himself.

The book is furnished with a bibliography—both of the primary sources and of the secondary literature cited—and with indices. It is also worth pointing out that this volume is impeccably produced (I found only two minor misprints: one on page 204: πρώτον instead of πρῶτον; the other one on page 259, and on the same page, n.21 ἐκλογῆ instead of ἐκλογὴ). The contributions contain solid information and are argued with sophistication (both at the philological and philosophical levels). They also are highly technical, so the Greekless reader faces complicated hurdles.


1. For recent controversy on this issue see B. Inwood, “Goal and Target in Stoicism”, Journal of Philosophy, 83 [1986], 547-56, and P. Mitsis, “Moral Rules and the Aims of Stoic Ethics: Reply to Inwood”, Journal of Philosophy, 83 [1986], 556-57). For a fresh discussion of the topic see now P. Donini, “Moral Education and the Problem of the Passions”, in K. Algra, J. Barnes, J. Mansfeld, M. Schofield (eds.), The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge 1999, especially 709ff.

2. On this issue, see S. Bobzien, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy, Oxford 1998, chap. 6 (not quoted by Brancacci, but listed in the bibliography).

3. The end in the sense of τινὶ is a good for the benefit of something or someone and—insofar as it is that which is benefited as the result of change—involves change, while the end in the sense of τινός —insofar as it is the point the change is aimed at—is among the unmovable things.