BMCR 2005.07.38

Knowledge, Nature, and the Good. Essays on Ancient Philosophy

, Knowledge, nature, and the good : essays on ancient philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (x, 410 pages). ISBN 9781400826445. $27.95 (pb).

Knowledge, Nature, and the Good is the second volume of John M. Cooper’s collected papers and follow-up to Reason and Emotion (Princeton, 1999). The three elements of the title correspond to three divisions of the book (on epistemology, metaphysics, and moral theory broadly construed). This volume conveniently collects several older papers (chapters 2, 5, 6, and 8) published in various journals, proceedings, and specialist collections. It also contains revised and expanded versions of a number of recent papers (chapters 1, 7, 9, and 11) and one paper (chapter 13) that appears for the first time.

Cooper’s thought and writing-style are often dense and difficult. A familiarity with the relevant philosophical issues and secondary literature is sometimes necessary and non-specialists may find some of the papers very challenging. Nevertheless, the content of the papers is nearly always worth the effort. Cooper usually helps out the reader by clearly summarizing the main points of each essay in its opening pages and offering clear ‘sign-posts’ at the major turning points of the argument. Extended commentary on the primary text and scholarly literature is usually relegated to the footnotes, which are often quite extensive and in some cases border on miniature essays in themselves.

The sections on epistemology and metaphysics contain several papers that have made key contributions to scholarly discussions. This is especially true of chapter 2, “Plato on Sense-Perception and Knowledge ( Theaetetus 184-186),” and chapter 8, “Metaphysics in Aristotle’s Embryology.” Chapter 5, “Aristotle on Natural Teleology,” is one of the clearest statements of this aspect of Aristotle’s metaphysics in the literature and an excellent read for anyone interested in ancient philosophy. Readers interested in ancient and modern rhetoric may find the arguments in chapter 3, “Plato, Isocrates, and Cicero on the Independence of Oratory from Philosophy,” provocative and interesting. Chapter 6, “Hypothetical Necessity,” and chapter 7, “Two Notes on Aristotle on Mixture,” on the other hand, are likely to be of interest only to those whose work touches on such detailed considerations.

As one might expect from Cooper’s other work, however, the papers on moral philosophy are the crowning achievements of this volume. The twin papers on moral theory and moral improvement in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius (chapters 12 and 13) are perhaps the least exciting, but are nonetheless important contributions to the literature in that they throw some cold water on the recent trend toward regarding the Roman Stoics as rigorous philosophers.

Perhaps the most interesting essay for non-specialists is chapter 10, “Two Theories of Justice.” This paper is an edited version of Cooper’s presidential address to the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 2000. The two theories in question are the accounts of justice put forward by Glaucon and Adeimantus at the beginning of book 2 of the Republic and the one defended at length by Socrates in the rest of the work. Cooper’s discussion focuses on the classic problem of the philosopher-kings’ motivation for ruling. He offers a version of what has become the standard answer, namely that they are ‘compelled’ to rule by their obligation to the city (owed for their education and the opportunity for contemplation) and, more importantly, their commitment to instantiating reason in the world. They fulfill the latter commitment by rationally ordering their own soul (through instantiating the moral and intellectual virtues) and through rationally ordering the polis through their virtuous governance. What makes Cooper’s discussion of this topic so interesting is the spirited comparison he makes to the obligations and commitments of the contemporary academic.

Rather than attempt to summarize the main arguments of each paper, I will focus my discussion on three of the newer papers, taking one from each section, which are representative of the broader themes in Cooper’s recent work.

In chapter 4, “Arcesilaus: Socratic and Skeptic,” Cooper asks whether there is a difference between Academic and Pyrrhonian skeptics. He notes a recent stream of scholarly commentary which claims there is no significant difference and indeed treats Pyrrhonian skepticism as if it were simply “the revival and continuation of Academic skepticism under another name” (103). Cooper points out, however, that only the Pyrrhonians called themselves “skeptics.” According to Sextus, a skeptic is one who constantly inquires or considers the questions of philosophy without coming to any conclusion either “(1) by deciding that some given answer or theory is correct, nor even (2) by judging that one or more given proposed answers are definitely incorrect, nor, yet again, (3) by concluding that on the matter at hand there is no correct answer at all, either in the nature of things or anyhow available to us” (84). The main question of the essay is whether Arcesilaus is a skeptic by these standards.

Cooper initially rejects the account of Arcesilaus’ views presented by Cicero at Academica. 1.43-46 and 2.72-78 as being unduly influenced by Philo. To be more precise, what he rejects is the notion that Arcesilaus held his skeptical views on the basis of the reasons attributed to him by Cicero (e.g. certain Presocratic arguments about the unknowability of things). Cooper does, however, take certain elements of Cicero’s account to be historically accurate. Most importantly, he accepts (a) that Arcesilaus is imitating Socrates, (b) that he arrived at his skeptical position by reading Plato’s dialogues, and (c) that he believed it to be disgraceful to assent to something that is not known. Cooper argues that Arcesilaus does not arrive at (b) through reasoned argumentation, but rather as “a deep foreboding and suspicion that no one has ever turned up, or will ever, who can pass Socrates’ test [for authentic knowledge]” — not even Socrates himself (93). Such a sense of foreboding (or “heuristic principle” as Cooper also calls it) does not amount to assent to a proposition and so does not land Arcesilaus in the plainly self-contradictory bind that Cicero’s account suggests. Indeed, Cooper suggests, should some upstart student assert this proposition as being the case, there is little doubt that Arcesilaus would vehemently argue against it. So it looks as if Arcesilaus is a skeptic after all.

Before deciding upon this conclusion, however, closer examination must be given to (c). What is the source of this belief? Cooper suggests that it also comes from Arcesilaus’ reading of Socrates. From Plato’s dialogues it is clear that, despite his disavowal of knowledge, Socrates is passionately committed to the ideal of knowledge as the perfection of reason. Cooper writes: “His refusal to announce anything as his own opinion is plausibly thought to reflect his feeling that to do that is to betray your commitment to this goal and to settle for something less than knowledge as your guide in life — mere opinion…. In short, Socrates show himself to be a committed devotee of the life led according to reason: he withholds assent because reason itself demands him to withhold” (95-96). This, at any rate, seems to have been Arcesilaus’ reading of Socrates. Arcesilaus suspends assent not because he has previously decided that knowledge is impossible and that assent must always be withheld. Rather, he is passionately committed to following reason wherever it may lead. ” It leads to suspension, so he suspends — because reason says one ought to — and that is why he encourages others to do the same.” (96, author’s italics) Should reason lead him to assent he would follow obediently — although he suspects (but does not assert) that this may never be the case.

In contrast to (b), Arcesilaus is fully committed to (c). It does not function at the level of suspicion or heuristic principle. And this is the key difference between Arcesilaus’ philosophy and Pyrrhonian skepticism. Even here, however, Cooper does not wish to place Arcesilaus’ commitment in the realm of philosophical doctrine or assent proper. He writes: “On my account, Arcesilaus is a Socratic in that like Socrates he is passionately devoted to reason; reason, he thinks, is our highest faculty, the one and only thing in us with which we should in the strongest and deepest sense identify ourselves. This is not a philosophical doctrine for Arcesilaus, in that he will never announce it as his opinion, and he does not hold it in a way that places a burden on him to defend it with arguments of his own or with rebuttals against its denial by anyone. Nonetheless this is a very deep conviction of his” (100-101).

Cooper concludes that Arcesilaus is a skeptic in Sextus’ sense. Nevertheless, this similarity should not lead us to overlook the importance differences in their motivations for skepticism. Arcesilaus holds that his acts of suspension are morally good acts since they are expressions of his commitment and obedience to reason. There is no parallel to this in Pyrrhonian skepticism. Ironically, the motivations for Arcesilaus’ skepticism bear a much closer resemblance to the motivations for Zeno of Citium’s commitment to knowledge. Both are grounded in an imitation of Socrates. Indeed, Cooper’s paper belongs to a number of recent works that emphasize the lasting and variable importance of Socrates in Hellenistic philosophy.1

In chapter 9, “Stoic Autonomy,” Cooper sets out an initial opposition between the classical and Kantian conceptions of autonomy. The classical conception was applied almost exclusively in a political context to civic communities possessing the power of independent legislation and self-government. Kant, on the other hand, conceives of individual persons (indeed of all rational beings) as law-givers unto themselves. Self-legislation consists of the power to set one’s own personal ends and subject that selection to a universal principle — captured in the categorical imperative — requiring that such ends be set within a framework that warrants acceptance by all other rational beings. This notion of autonomy extends from Kant’s notion of rationality and does not depend upon any particular political circumstances or notion of community. Cooper’s purpose in this essay is to discuss what he takes to be the interestingly different, although related, notion of autonomy in ancient Stoicism.

Dio Chrysostom in his eightieth oration, “On Freedom,” seems to be the only ancient writer who uses the term ‘autonomy’ in something approaching the Kantian meaning. Dio insists that only the ideal philosopher (or wise person) is autonomous — i.e. living under his own law. The idea is that, in contrast to other people whose actions are dictated by outside forces, the philosopher’s actions are guided by reason’s recognition of natural law. Since this natural law is identical with the perfect rationality of Zeus, a rationality which the wise person shares, the philosopher’s determination to live by this law is a kind of self-legislation. Dio’s use of the term ‘autonomous’ does not reflect standard Stoic terminology. Indeed, Cooper suggests that this use of the term may have been Dio’s own invention, transferred it from the political to the moral sphere by way of the common Stoic adage that only the wise person is free whereas all others are slaves. Nevertheless, Cooper suggests that the Stoics did conceive of the wise person as autonomous in precisely this way even if they did not use the term ‘autonomous’ itself.

This delineation of various notions of autonomy is itself a valuable contribution. But the real value of the essay is the general framework for Stoic theory that Cooper constructs in the course of his discussion. Specifically, he provides important chapters on Stoic rationality and the relation between human action and the providential ordering of the universe by Zeus. The former draws on Michael Frede’s work on difference between classical and modern conceptions of reason.2 According to the Stoics, reason consists of the possession of a set of natural conceptions that are crude, basic versions of those on the basis of which Zeus has crafted the universe. The articulation and systematization of these conceptions allows humans to understanding the rule-governed way in which Zeus’ thought rationally organizes the history of the world.

Cooper’s analysis is full of wonderful insights about the very core issues in Stoicism. For example, he offers an original account of Zeus as corporeal, but not material (because his body is not composed of the four elements; rather, pneuma is quintessential). More importantly, he correctly points out that the order and beauty that Zeus constantly pursues is not that of the resulting material world, but rather the orderliness and consistency of his own thoughts in constituting this world.

Cooper’s single most important insight is that human minds are portions of Zeus. In the closing pages of the essay he applies this insight to the problem of compatibilism. Since human minds are portions of Zeus’ own mind there is no question of Fate (= Zeus’ providential will) eliminating their own power of choice. Rather, Zeus allows each to choose its own course of action and accommodates these choices to create the most rational and orderly system. Cooper also suggests an application of this analysis to Stoic cosmopolitanism: humans are citizens of the world (as opposed to slaves) to the degree that they willingly cooperate in Zeus’ government of the universe.

I think it is fair to say that the framework for Stoic ethics that Cooper presents in this essay is the result of his debate with Julia Annas concerning the role of the appeal to natural providence in Stoicism.3 This appeal to natural providence, and the importantly different notions of reason in classical and post-Renaissance thought, is the source of difference between Stoic and Kantian versions of autonomy. The Stoic notion of self-imposed law of reason is more comprehensive than the Kantian categorical imperative, extending to every aspect of life, and for the Stoics rational agents are not authoritative setters of ends with the limits of the categorical imperative. Despite the undeniable influence of these Stoic doctrines on later political philosophy Cooper’s essay points out that the Stoics and later authors have importantly different starting-points.

I conclude with what is perhaps the most difficult, but also most important, paper in the collection: chapter 11, “Plato and Aristotle on ‘Finality’ and ‘(Self)-Sufficiency.'”

On the surface the essay is about the relation between Nichomachean Ethics 1.7 and Philebus 20b-23b. At Nichomachean Ethics 1.7 Aristotle proposes two criteria for specification of the good: (1) finality and (2) self-sufficiency. He goes on to argue that eudaimonia should be identified with “the exercise or activity of the soul that derives from and expresses that soul’s excellence or virtue” (270).

Cooper notes that in proposing these criteria Aristotle is in some way following Socrates’ discussion with Protarchus in Plato’s Philebus 20b-23b. In this dialogue Socrates and Protarchus conclude that neither pleasure nor reason is itself the good; rather, the good is some appropriate mixture of these two elements in a life. In the course of arguing for this conclusion Socrates proposes three criteria for the good. It must be (1) final, (2) sufficient, and (3) that which makes all other things choiceworthy.

Cooper interprets Aristotle’s NE 1.7 as an extended commentary on this Platonic passage. His explanation for Aristotle’s change in terminology from “sufficient” (hikanon) to “self-sufficient” (autarkes) and the reduction of three criteria to two — he interprets “choice-worthiness” at NE 1097b16-20 as a further explication of what is meant by self-sufficiency and not as a third criterion (290) — is quite subtle and compelling, but too detailed to be recounted here. The crucial point to note is that Plato and Aristotle arrive at opposite conclusions from these same starting points. For Plato, the good is neither pleasure nor reason nor any other individual ingredient of the good life. Rather, the good is the beauty, harmony, and proportionality of the mixture of pleasure and reasoning in the good life. Aristotle, on the other hand, identifies the good with a particular element in the good life — namely the exercise of virtue. Cooper sets himself the task of determining “how Aristotle intends (and manages) to reach that conclusion from (essentially) the very criteria that Socrates in the Philebus used to deny it” (279).

This analysis sets up the most important section of the paper: Cooper’s discussion of what eudaimonia is for Aristotle. He argues that eudaimonia is not the happy life itself, but rather something in it that is responsible for it being happy (289). In other words, Aristotle is asking the same question NE 1.7 as Plato asks the Philebus : what is the good?

At NE 1098a16-18 Aristotle famously claims that, if there is a plurality of virtues, eudaimonia is the activity in accordance with the best and most final of them. It is clear from his discussion of the life of contemplation in Nichomachean Ethics book X that the best and most final virtue of the soul is theoretical thinking or contemplation of the fundamental principles of the universe. This suggests that contemplation is eudaimonia or the unqualifiedly final and self-sufficient good. It is the single activity that makes all other subordinate activities choiceworthy and which, in and of itself, secures the goodness of the happy life.

This is a conclusion that Cooper has resisted in his previous work because he thought that its acceptance would throw Aristotle’s ethical theory into disarray.4 He now holds that there is sufficient evidence that this is in fact Aristotle’s position. In this remainder of the essay he attempts to show how the previous analysis of the criteria for eudaimonia might be used to reconcile this interpretation with other elements of his moral theory. The major influence in Cooper’s change of position is the work of Gabriel Richardson Lear whose Princeton dissertation (directed by Cooper) is now available from Princeton University Press.5

What is involved in the claim that contemplation is the good? First, given the criterion of finality, contemplation is “the end that is somehow ultimately in view whenever those living a good human life do anything at all that they choose to do: it organizes and gives structure to the whole of their active, practical life” (296). Second, given the criterion of self-sufficiency, contemplation is the single activity the presence of which makes a life happy and choiceworthy. Since it is primarily the first claim that threatens to throw Aristotle’s ethical theory into disarray, Cooper gives it the most attention.

His answer involves making a categorical distinction between two types of goodness that can belong to any object or activity. For Aristotle, many things are good independently of any orientation to the highest good. They are good because they satisfy human needs and capacities. Where orientation to the highest good becomes relevant is in our choosing instances of such goods. Moreover, they become choiceworthy through orientation to the highest good in two stages. First, the value of such independent goods is subordinated to the value encapsulated in correct choice as such (i.e. the timing and manner of the selection and use of these independent goods deriving from the art of choice). Moral virtue is the consistent selection of these independent goods with an eye toward “the higher value of rationality itself.” (304). On the current reading, however, “moral virtue itself is oriented toward excellent contemplative activity as to an end.” (304) How contemplation can serve as an end for moral action is the initially troubling aspect of this interpretation.

The first thing to note is that moral action is not subordinated to contemplation as a means to an end. Rather, Cooper notes that moral virtue and contemplation are both excellences of the reasoning part of the soul. The proper selection of independent goods is undertaken with an eye to the perfection of this expression of our rationality. Contemplation, however, is the highest and most perfect expression of our rationality and moral virtue merely aims at the same good as contemplation via lower instantiation. Thus Cooper concludes: “One would, as a result, be fairly described as pursuing even in one’s moral actions the ultimate end of excellent theoretical thinking” (305).

Cooper notes that this is only an outline of a solution and much remains to be said. He concludes the essay by examining and rejecting several immediate objections. Most importantly, he considers how one might reconcile the limitations that political and moral action places on opportunities for excellent contemplation. Cooper asserts that excellent contemplation is sufficient in and of itself to insure the choice-worthiness of a life. Carrying on such an activity over a greater period does not make the life thereby more choiceworthy than it would have been otherwise. On the contrary, to disregard one’s moral duty for the sake of a greater extension of contemplation “would entail the loss of the value not only of the omitted moral action, but of all the ‘moral’ actions one had done while harboring the misunderstanding of morality that allowing such ‘exceptions’ would imply.” (308). Thus, what is required is first to satisfy all the demands of morality including those that might take one away from contemplative activity, and then to give oneself over to such contemplation as the circumstances permit. In this way the appreciation of moral virtue as a fundamental human value is not undermined by the recognition that contemplation is the highest human good and the final end of human life.

Several overarching themes emerge from the essays in this volume. One is Cooper’s recent interest in Stoicism. A second is the value of rationality itself. These themes are, of course, closely intertwined in the essays on which I have focused. Cooper sees the passionate commitment to reason exhibited by Arcesilaus, Chrysippus, and Aristotle as the essential unifying element of what he calls the “mainstream” of ancient philosophy. A third theme that comes through in nearly every essay is Cooper’s own passionate commitment to the rationality of ancient philosophy. He has no patience for either condescension or shallow eulogizing of the ancients. In each paper he takes his chosen authors seriously as philosophers whose works are still relevant and challenging. Even in places where we may disagree with their conclusions (e.g. Aristotle on natural teleology) Cooper argues that these philosophers took the most rational position available at the time.


1. The seminal work here is A. A. Long, “Socrates in Hellenistic Philosophy” ( Stoic Studies, University of California Press, 1996, 1-34). More recently, cf. A. A. Long, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Malcolm Schofield, “Stoic Ethics” ( The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, ed. B. Inwood, Cambridge University Press, 2003, 233-56).

2. Cf. “The Stoic Conception of Reason” in Hellenistic Philosophy, vol. 2 (ed. K. J. Boudouris, Athens, 1994, 50-63).

3. Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford University Press), 159-79. J. M. Cooper “Eudaimonism and the Appeal to Nature in The Morality of Happiness : Comments on Julia Annas The Morality of Happiness ( Philosophy and Phenomenological Research LV (1995), 587-98). Julia Annas, “Reply to Cooper” ( Philosophy and Phenomenological Research LV (1995), 599-610). J. M. Cooper, “Eudaimonism, the Appeal to Nature, and ‘Moral Duty’ in Stoicism” ( Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics: Rethinking Happiness and Duty, eds. S. Engstrom and J. Whiting, Cambridge University Press, 1996, 261-84).

4. cf. Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Harvard, 1975, 91-115) and “Contemplation and Happiness: A Reconsideration” in Reason and Emotion (Princeton, 1999, 212-36).

5. Gabriel Richarson Lear, Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics” (Princeton, 2004).