To write an informative and concise introduction to Hellenistic ethics is not an easy task. To write such an introduction in fewer than a hundred pages of a small format is nearly impossible. Trevor Curnow (hereafter C.) thus narrows his topic to what he calls “practical dimensions of ancient philosophy” and manages to describe the way in which the main currents of Hellenistic philosophy dealt with several topics from practical philosophy.
His book discusses the four main Hellenistic schools (Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics) and focuses on their treatment of the following topics: death, diet and health, work, recreation, and personal relationships (ranging from friendship and love to sexual behaviour). The thin book begins with a short introduction to the general distinguishing patterns of Hellenistic philosophy (4-10) and ends with a brief conclusion (84-87) followed by an appendix containing several references for further reading about each school (88-93), bibliography (95) and index (96-98).
The introduction starts with the discussion of the very notion of school ( hairesis) used in the book (5-6) and the agenda of these schools (7-9). C. stresses the difference between the more or less institutional meaning the word “school” has today and its ancient counterpart. He points out that since hairesis could be translated as “choice” or even “sect” we should treat the term “school” as referring to something like way of life or world-view as well. Concerning the teaching of all the schools mentioned, C. is convinced that its heart was ethics supported by “logic” (including epistemology) and “physics” (studies of nature). Within the introduction he offers a brief explanation of the most important concepts of Hellenistic ethics: eudaimonia, arete and ataraxia.
All the four chapters devoted to the different schools have one and the same structure. Therefore, in the following brief summary I will only be specific concerning the differences between the particular sections. The first section in each chapter deals with the history of the school. Here C. uses a lot from his previous book The Philosophers of the Ancient World: an A to Z guide,1 and they are usually packed with a lot of names of the school proponents from several centuries. The “history” of Cynicism (11-14) is thus mainly a collection of names without any further sketch concerning philosophical development. This is, of course, conditioned by the fact that the Cynics (compared to all other currents of Hellenistic philosophy mentioned in the book) were furthest away from forming anything like a school in the institutional meaning of the word. On the other hand, the sections devoted to Stoics (26-28) and Sceptics (66-69) offer a useful overview of the periodization for each of the schools.2 After the section on history comes a general overview of the schools’ teachings, which mostly recapitulates the main topics from ethics and psychology. The section on Epicureans (47-50) is accompanied by a necessary minimum on atomism. Similarly, the section concerning Sceptics (69-77) has a brief introduction to epistemology and to the ten modes.
The next section in each chapter deals with the above-mentioned topics from the philosophy of everyday life (death, diet and health, work, recreation and personal relationships). Although these chapters address the main theme of the book, they are surprisingly short and rather sketchy in the same way as the rest of the book is. The section on Cynics (18-24) focuses on their ‘dissent with majority’ society and the existential character of their philosophies. When explaining the practical philosophy of the Stoics (36-45) C. shows how important a role the notion of appropriateness had. The Epicurean section (58-63) devotes some space to the discussion concerning the fear of death and pain. Then he proceeds with applying the distinctions natural/unnatural and necessary/unnecessary to the desires connected with the topics of work, recreation and personal relationship. The section on Sceptics (77-82) has to deal with the sceptical suspension of judgment ( epoche). C. mainly discuss what effects the suspension of judgment had or might have had on the different topics. Every chapter closes with a conclusion that not only summarizes the so-far discussed themes but sometimes also enlarges the scope of the chapter. For example, the conclusion to the chapter on Epicureans (63-65) opens a discussion on the “variation” of pleasure.
Since the account of each philosophy is rather general and sketchy there is not much space for an appropriate critique of C.’s argumentation or general conclusions. However, there are still some points to be mentioned. During his exposition of Epicurean ethics C. does not mention the crucial difference between what Epicurus called katastematic or (following Cicero’s Latin translation) “static” and “kinetic” pleasures. This is noticeably missing when C. discusses the nature of pleasure (52-3) and the variations of pleasure (64). Further, while interpreting Stoic views on work C. frequently mentions that politics was a dominant occupation of Roman Stoics especially (e.g. 42). In this respect I would expect some brief note concerning Stoic political philosophy and the conception of duty, which might shed some light on the issue.
However, the most serious deficiency I see in the book is its references. C. does not use the standard reference system according to which one can find the primary text or translation in any basic edition.3 He quotes from several translations and refers to the page of a given book; where the translation is his own (e.g. page 50) there is no reference at all. So, for example, under the famous quote of Epicurus that “Death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist,” reference is not made to the Letter to Menoeceus 125.5-7 but instead to Inwood and Gerson 1997, p. 29. Thus, if you do not possess exactly the same editions of translations of primary texts as C. does, you have almost no chance to find a less known quoted text in its context. When reading the book without a well-stocked library at your disposal, the references are completely useless.
C.’s book is a nice short sketch of the Hellenistic philosophy of everyday life. C. makes the book even more interesting by several remarks connecting ancient and current ethics or ancient and modern ways of life. Its readers will most probably be undergraduate students, who may find it a very useful introduction to a rather complicated subject matter. For some more experienced readers it might be refreshing reading; however, I think they will still rather use some of the older and more comprehensive introductions.4
[For a response to this review by Trevor Curnow, please see BMCR 2007.06.33.]
1. Curnow, T. (2006): The Philosophers of the Ancient World: an A to Z guide, London.
2. Possible quarrels of a historical character are avoided, since C. admits probability and uncertainty when the sources are unreliable or puzzling.
3. Both Long, A.A. and Sedley, D.S. (1987): The Hellenistic Philosophers, and Inwood, B. and Gerson, L. P. (1997, 2nd edition): Hellenistic Philosophy: introductory readings use their own reference system but always list the standard reference as well, and using the index of sources one can find any (part) text in the book.
4. E.g. Long, A. A. (1986): Hellenistic Philosophy, Berkeley; Sharples, R. W. (1994): Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics: an introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy, London; Furley, D. (ed.) (1999): Routledge History of Philosophy: II. From Aristotle to Augustine, London; or Algra, K., Barnes, J., Mansfeld, J. and Schofield, M. (eds) (1999): The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge.