BMCR 2005.07.44

Retrieving the Ancients: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy

, Retrieving the ancients : an introduction to Greek philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004. vii, 238 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 1405108614 $22.95 (pb).

1 Responses

Retrieving the Ancients is, as the subtitle suggests, an introductory work, intended both for the general reader and as a supplementary text for classroom use. Roochnik’s purpose is not so much to offer a comprehensive introduction to ancient Greek philosophy as to provide a historical introduction to Plato and Aristotle, a kind of commentary for new readers on some of the principal passages where Plato and Aristotle relate themselves explicitly to other figures. While Roochnik has extensive discussions of the so-called pre-Socratics, the Sophists, and the historical Socrates, he treats them as if what is important in them is what influenced Plato or Aristotle or what Plato or Aristotle chose to contradict. The book, however, is forthright about its limited purpose and the consequent biases.

It would be difficult, in any case, to introduce ancient Greek philosophy, since the very category of “ancient Greek philosophy” reflects only the fact that we use the tools of the Greek philologist to attack a certain textual corpus. It is a corpus unified only in language, not in ideas, as Roochnik himself demonstrates through his accounts of atomism and materialism and the critique of these views by Aristotle. Nor is the corpus unified in literary form, as we all know, nor even in its understanding of the nature of philosophizing, since Epicurean therapeutic philosophy seeks not understanding but relief from fear.1 Roochnik doesn’t tackle the vicissitudes of the term φιλοσοφία, however, and gives only about a page to Epicurus.

The book consists of an introduction, setting forth Roochnik’s method and his philosophic approach, and four chapters, on the Presocratics, on the Sophists and Socrates, on Plato, and on Aristotle. Roochnik presents a unified pre-Socratic aspiration to seek out principles or ἀρχαί that supposedly subsist beneath appearances. Such projects include, Roochnik argues, Thales’ claim that all is water, Parmenides’ claim that only the one is, Empedocles’ claim that the apparent differentiation of living things into species reflects merely the consequences of random flux and the extinction of unfit creatures, and Democritean atomism. In keeping with the rhetoric of early moderns like Gassendi and Galileo, Roochnik treats ancient atomism as fundamentally equivalent to the world view of modern natural science. The chapter on the Presocratics is the most tendentious, given the amount of beating into shape these texts require to make them into the historical background for Roochnik’s account of Plato and Aristotle.

The discussion of the Sophists is somewhat confusing because Roochnik is trying to expound Gorgias and Protagoras while simultaneously attacking their self-appointed 20th century heirs Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty. In the discussion of Socrates, as is typical of contemporary scholarship and despite Roochnik’s own caveats, the Socrates that appears as “the historical Socrates” is Aristotle’s Socrates, with passages selected from Plato according to whether they are compatible with Aristotle’s account. In the chapter on Plato, Roochnik offers a perspicuous version of the familiar Straussian reading of the Phaedo, Meno, Symposium, and the ontological parts of the Republic. The Aristotle chapter is largely devoted to presentation of arguments from the Physics, the works on life including the De Anima, the Nicomachean Ethics, and Book I of the Politics. Roochnik claims that Aristotle’s project is to articulate the way the world appears to human beings, arguing against the Presocratic (and modern natural-scientific) determination to find the hidden ἀρχαί.

The story Roochnik tells in Retrieving the Ancients is derived in great part from his former teacher and now colleague, Stanley Rosen.2 Rosen’s work, in turn, is principally an attempt to ground and expand upon the interpretations of Plato and Aristotle offered by Leo Strauss, who was Rosen’s teacher.

Rosen’s fundamental philosophic claim is that the world is given to us in natural kinds, as instantiations of ideas. I see a dog pissing on a telephone pole, not buzzing, blooming, swarms of molecules. The philosophic quest, Rosen and Roochnik claim, is the attempt to give an account of the manner of that givenness in “ordinary language.” In the face of the technical achievements of modern natural science, this attempt to save the phenomena of natural kinds must be defended primarily from modern scientific realism. In other words, Roochnik, following Rosen, wants to save the phenomena of dogs, cats, men, women, the kindly, and the cruel, from the claim that all that exists is atoms and void. Rosen’s work has had less impact than it might have, in part because, despite repeated efforts, he and his students have yet to communicate effectively their views on the relation between being and language either to the students of Quine or to the followers of Wittgenstein. Rosen, who has written very fine things on philosophical discipleship, tells us in Metaphysics in Ordinary Language that “Strauss used to endorse Nietzsche’s remark that the student’s duty to his teacher is to kill him.”3 Rosen is still alive, well, and professionally active, but if he were to be intellectually poleaxed, Roochnik would not be a suspect.

What Roochnik gives us in Retrieving the Ancients is a kind of television miniseries presentation of Rosen’s ideas in the form of a historical introduction to Plato and Aristotle. The book before us is indeed derived from a set of recorded lectures “produced for the Teaching Company” (10 n1). Roochnik’s book is plot-driven, rather than technique-driven, and it gives us a lecture-style digest of ideas, without much attempt to tell where his debts lie. Nor does he introduce the reader to the scholarly tools required to wrench these ideas out of the Greek texts.4 Roochnik is open with his readers that he is telling only one possible story about the movement of thought from Thales to Aristotle, but apart from occasional bibliographic references, he doesn’t give his reader much sense as to what those other stories might be. Most of his citations of non-Straussians such as Sarah Monoson, Martha Nussbaum, Jonathan Lear, and G.E.L. Owen, bring them up only as supporting fire for his argument rather than as tellers of alternative tales.

Roochnik’s exposition of Greek texts is interlaced with lecture hall illustrations drawn from the American political and cultural context. Some of these asides are helpful and some of them distracting, either because they are questionable in accuracy, or because Roochnik misses the chance to relate them to relevant and striking passages from the authors he discusses. In illustrating the seeming relativity of moral judgments, Roochnik writes that “in eighteenth century America, slavery was widely considered to be morally defensible as a social good” (39). Yet it was in the 19th century and not the 18th, with the replacement among educated elites of Christian egalitarianism by racial science — which in its turn was founded not only in biology but more certainly in philology — that slavery came to be defended as a “positive good.” And while Roochnik illustrates another point about moral relativism by bringing up the contemporary abortion debates (71-2), one would not know from his book that in the Republic Plato’s Socrates takes a position on abortion and infanticide, for example, a position which might make even the most ardent defenders of Roe v. Wade a little queasy.

If anything substantial is missing from Roochnik’s story it is logic, the third field of Aristotelian philosophy alongside physics and ethics, since he does not give a systematic account of the views on λόγος of his subjects. Though Roochnik does tell his readers that “what a philosopher means by logos goes a long way toward characterizing him in general” (45) he does not give such a characterization. By pointing repeatedly to the fundamental problems of logic without ever tackling them systematically, Roochnik does his greatest service. He introduces his readers not just to the ideas of a bunch of Dead White European Males, but to thinking, that is, to philosophy.

[[For an addendum to this review by Michael S. Kochin, please see BMCR 2005.08.03.]]


1. See Martha C. Nussbaum, “Epicurean Surgery: Argument and Empty Desire,” in The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

2. Students of ancient philosophy may find that the place to start reading Rosen is with Plato’s Statesman: The Web of Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); students of philosophy might want to start with The Limits of Analysis (New York: Basic Books, 1980).

3. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, p. 258.

4. See e.g. p. 17, where Roochnik, discussing Thales, cites a “statement of Aristotle, listed by Diels as an A fragment,” though Roochnik nowhere in Retrieving the Ancients explains who Diels is or the distinction between A and B fragments. For a model account of these tools and the philosophical commitments embodied in them, see the beginning of Heidegger’s essay on Anaximander, translated in Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, ed. and tr. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Heidegger’s account would not, I think, require much reworking to be presented to an American popular audience.