BMCR 2005.07.06

Philosophy in the Ancient World. An Introduction

, Philosophy in the ancient world : an introduction. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005. xxiii, 386 pages : illustrations, 1 map ; 25 cm. ISBN 074253328X $28.95 (pb).

The majority of introductions, textbooks and source books about ancient Greek thought either stop at the Hellenistic Age, or focus at length on Plato and Aristotle. Both approaches are thematically incomplete, and tend to disregard the continuation and contribution of the ancient Greeks (and to a lesser extent the Romans) to the history of philosophy. ‘Ancient Greek Philosophy’ is the academic discipline that studies the philosophical activities of the Greco-Roman thinkers. It starts with Thales and the innovative thinking of the Presocratics, continues with Socratic arguments in the fifth century BC, Plato and Aristotle in the fourth century, the post-Socratic movements of the Hellenistic Age, especially those of the Sceptics, Stoics and Epicureans, and extends to the philosophy of the Middle Platonic, Neoplatonic and Aristotelian commentators of the sixth century AD. The end of ancient philosophy is usually marked by the closure of Plato’s Academy in Athens by the emperor Justinian in 529 AD, while its influence extended to Christianity, Medieval, Arabic and modern philosophy.

James A. Arieti in his introductory book on Philosophy in the Ancient World successfully includes in a single volume the whole intellectual history of the ancient Greek world — from the eighth century BC with the mythological, political and cultural ancestors of ancient philosophy, including Homer and Hesiod, to the philosophy of late pagan antiquity and early Christian thought in the fifth century AD. Within this framework, the aim of Arieti’s introduction is to offer a companion to the theories of the philosophers in a description and evaluation that complement the study of the primary texts. As the author himself sets out at the Preface of his book, ‘reading their work, or what remains of them, in translation is the next best way to understanding their thought’ (p. xvii).

Arieti places ancient philosophy in an anthropological setting, an effective framework that vividly involves the cultural, historical, political and mythological elements of the Greek tradition. This enlightened method provides the readers with as complete a picture as possible of the life and thought of each philosopher, and helps them to decode their original meaning not only in terms of each philosopher’s individual approach but within the context of the whole period and its relevant circumstances. In accordance with this perspective, Arieti stresses the need to read ancient philosophers not merely as authors ‘of obscure pronouncements or knotty argument or enchanting dialogues but as human beings who suffered, as we all do, from complex psyches and traumatic historical circumstances’ (p. xviii).

In order to succeed in his aims, Arieti refers extensively to the primary and secondary philosophical sources and provides the reader with a select bibliography at the end of each chapter. With the chapter bibliographies are relevant questions for additional discussion as well as notes by the author. There is also a map of ancient Greece at the opening of the book and an excellent Time Line of the ancient thinkers and a Glossary of Terms at the end of the work. Here the non-professional will find useful definitions of central terms in ancient philosophy. As the author points out (p. 359), these definitions are not accurate for all periods of Greek thought, but they are nonetheless a good preliminary guide for the reader. The book is also supplemented by seventeen original illustrations by David M. Gibson including various themes inspired by ancient Greek culture, such as the statue of Nike and the temple of Sounion as well as the Acropolis of Athens and the patterns of Epicycles. In some cases, for example Zeno’s Paradoxes, the illustrations (figures 9 and 10) are really helpful in understating the philosopher’s position (p. 77). The language of the book is simple, clear, thought-provoking and in many cases entertaining, which makes for pleasant reading, and, as with all good introductions, is an incentive to study the subject further.

Arieti’s book is divided into eighteen chapters, and his presentation follows a historical line of exposition, presenting the major ancient thinkers in due order. He gives a detailed description of each philosopher and an evaluation of his thought in a well-presented exposition, with an awareness, in most cases, of modern scholarship and recent interpretations. The structure of each chapter is designed to cover the intellectual personae of the philosophers and bring to light their main theoretical contributions.

After an introductory chapter on the mythological forerunners of ancient philosophy, Homer and Hesiod in particular, and other cultural and political factors that affected the birth of philosophy in Greece, the author proceeds, in the second chapter, to the Presocratic pioneers of Greek philosophy, the three Milesian thinkers: Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. The third chapter explores the philosophical development of Presocratic thought in Italy, including Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans and Xenophanes, followed, in the fourth chapter, by a discussion of Heraclitus and the Eleatics which focuses on the conflict of theory between Heraclitus and Parmenides. Chapters five and six include an interesting account of the relevance of the Persian Wars, the Sophistic movement and the significance of medicine, tragedy and politics in the development of the late Presocratic Pluralists: Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Democritus, who are then effectively treated in their turn in chapter seven. In chapter eight Arieti describes Socrates and his radical thought in relation to other eminent Athenians of the fifth century such as Thucydides and Euripides, while in chapter nine he presents the interrelationship between rhetoric and philosophy with special reference to Isocrates. The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle are the subjects of chapters ten and eleven respectively. Chapter twelve links the intellectual developments of the third century with the Hellenistic movements of Epicureanism and Stoicism; these are treated in detail, along with the relevant movements of Skepticism and Cynicism, in the following sections. The importance of Stoicism is further discussed in chapter fifteen where the author focuses on Cicero and the early Roman Empire. Chapters sixteen and seventeen highlight the intellectual affiliation between Greek philosophy and Christianity, with special attention to Philo of Alexandria, Minucius Felix and Basil of Caesarea. The final chapter is devoted to Plotinus and the rivals of Neoplatonism as well as the influence of these on the development of Christian philosophy by St. Augustine and Boethius.

On the whole the chapters are well-structured and balanced, while some bridge central areas of Greek thinking; chapters eight and nine, for example, on the importance of the Peloponnesian War, Tragedy and Rhetoric, effectively link the philosophy of the Presocratic Pluralists with the central thinking of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. However, perhaps because of the extended approach that Arieti offers in his book, less coverage is given to the later movements of ancient philosophy. He devotes fewer than ten pages to Plotinus and Neoplatonism (pp. 332-337), while some eminent late Neoplatonic figures such as Iamblichus, Proclus, and Damascius are not mentioned. In addition, Arieti’s analysis of Plotinus’ theory of emanation presents an older interpretation of the theory that is currently queried by modern scholars (pp. 335ff.). Scant attention is paid to other contemporary movements of the imperial period such as those of the Middle Platonists, Neopythagoreans and Aristotelians. The author shows greater interest and devotes more space to Christian philosophy than to the later Greek philosophical development, and from this perspective the last part of the book is somewhat unbalanced. So Arieti’s introduction to ancient Greek philosophy is generally well-structured and informative. His thoughtful, vivid and comprehensive approach to ancient philosophy makes the book suitable for students and the interested non-expert. The simple and entertaining language of the work motivates the reader to further study in ancient theories and arguments, and the author’s presentation of the diverse philosophical figures colors the original texts and brings the subject to life. The supplementary material, such as the time line, the glossary definitions and the discussion questions, add to the value of the book for the intended readership. Even more significant is the author’s contribution to the extension of ancient thought. His method of exposition from the Presocratic thinkers to late antiquity writers such as Basil, Posidonius and Boethius makes the textbook more complete and contributes to a broader perspective. Arieti’s work can be recommended both as an admirable introduction to Greek philosophy and as an excellent companion to the ancient texts.