BMCR 2007.08.19

A Companion to Ancient Philosophy. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy

, , A Companion to Ancient Philosophy. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. xxxvi, 791. $149.95.

Table of Contents

In this Companion to Ancient Philosophy, Gill and Pellegrin have done an excellent job of bringing together scholars from the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan for the purpose of presenting the field’s current understanding of ancient philosophy. The Companion consists of six parts. The first five parts contain papers that discuss central issues in the history of philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, following the chronological order of the ancient philosophers and their schools (I: Early Greek Philosophy; II: Socrates, the Socratics, and Plato; III: Aristotle; IV: Philosophy in the Hellenistic Age; and V: Middle and Late Platonism). The final part contains papers that discuss the relationship between philosophy and the sciences, and the cultural setting in which they arose (VI: Culture, Philosophy, and the Sciences). Each of the thirty-five chapters comes with its own bibliography, which includes not only the works cited but also suggestions for further reading, and sometimes also references to text editions, translations, and commentaries. In addition, the Companion offers an instructive chronology presenting philosophical developments in the context of historical and cultural/scientific ones, three maps of the Greek world in different periods, and both an Index Locorum and a general index. On the whole, the Ccompanion is well-edited and the papers — all of excellent quality — contain much of interest to both novices and specialists in the field. My only complaint is that part V on Middle and Late Platonism is relatively meager for its subject, with only three papers on the middle Platonists, Plotinus, and the ancient commentary.1

By way of justifying the production of this new Companion to Ancient Philosophy, the editors point out that it is their goal to demonstrate that it is philosophically important to study the history of ancient philosophy. The justification for the present Companion is thus more ambitious and more philosophical in outlook than that of its counterpart in the Cambridge series,2 which mainly aimed to fulfill a pedagogical goal in providing a textbook for survey courses in ancient philosophy. As Gill and Pellegrin explain in the introduction, the philosophical importance of the history of ancient philosophy has not always been evident—from ancient times onward, there have been different approaches to it. Many of these approaches ignore the fact that ancient philosophy is a historical object (for instance, the most predominant of these approaches, the ‘teleological’ approach, treats the ancients as more or less successful forerunners of our current philosophical theories), or deny that its study requires philological as well as philosophical expertise (as sometimes happens in the analytical philosophical tradition). Awareness of the specific nature of the history of ancient philosophy did not arise until the development of a rigorously historical approach to classical texts at the end of the nineteenth century. However, it is not until the late 1970s and 1980s that scholars started to examine the ancient sources in their own historical and cultural contexts, and for their own philosophical importance, while using both philosophical tools (such as logic and conceptual analysis) and interpretative methods from the classical and social sciences. By taking these new approaches and insights into account, the present collection of papers hopes to reflect this important shift in the study of ancient philosophy and thereby show how it contributes to our present understanding of philosophical problems.

The thirty-five papers presented in this Companion certainly reflect the standards set out in the introduction. Most of the contributors make an effort to explain the relevance of their topic to our understanding of current problems, either in philosophy or science. In addition, much attention is paid to methodological issues involved in the interpretation of ancient texts and the use of sources. For instance, the opening chapter by Hussey ‘The Beginnings of Science and Philosophy in Archaic Greece,’ provides an overview of ancient thought about the nature of the world and the gods from 800 BCE to 500 BCE. He starts with the poems of Homer and Hesiod, and ends with the first origins of Greek science and philosophy in the Milesians and Xenophanes. Intertwined with this overview, Hussey discusses the methodological problems such a study of early Greek philosophy entails. In particular, attention is paid to the question of how we may speak about ‘the beginnings of science and philosophy’ without falling into the trap of a crude teleological approach towards history and without overemphasizing either continuity or discontinuity in human history.

A similarly strong focus on questions of methodology and interpretation can be found in several other contributions: Christopher Gill (chapter 8: ‘The Platonic Dialogue’) discusses various styles of reading Plato within different philosophical traditions before setting out his own line of interpretation. Pellegrin (chapter 13: ‘The Aristotelian Way’) explains why some of the problems in Aristotelian scholarship (e.g. the degree of convergence between Plato and Aristotle, Aristotle’s doctrinal development, and the extent to which our views of Aristotle have been informed by tradition) do not yield easy answers. Sharples (chapter 22: ‘The Problem of Sources’) warns his readers about the problems that arise from being as dependent as we are on secondary sources in studying the Hellenistic philosophers. He does so first in a more or less theoretical manner, setting out the nature of the sources and the dangers of interpreting reports of philosophers who have their own philosophical agenda, and then illustrates these ‘traps for the interpreter’ with a series of case studies of problems, contradictions, mistakes, textual corruptions, and misrepresentations found in actual secondary sources of the Hellenistic period. These papers in particular would serve very well in introductory courses to ancient philosophy.

Most papers presented in this Companion offer comprehensive and critical overviews of the current scholarship on issues in ancient philosophy. The papers are clearly written; the language is not too technical; the sources are presented in English translation; and Greek words are transliterated. However, because of their density the present reviewer believes that some of these papers might still be difficult for novices in the field.

Naturally, there is some occasional overlap between chapters on connected subjects (e.g. chapters 9 and 10 on Plato’s ethics and politics cover some of the same material as Plato’s Republic, and some small incongruities. For example, whereas Gill in chapter 8 raises problems concerning the division of Platonic dialogues into three chronological periods, Penner opens chapter 9 by contrasting the ‘tone and method’ in Plato’s early dialogues with what is found in ‘that great ethical masterpiece of Plato’s middle period, the Republic (151). But, these are minor flaws and probably unavoidable.

Among the many excellent ‘overview-chapters’, let me single out Caston’s contribution on Aristotle’s psychology (chapter 17) as an example of a particularly helpful entry for novices in the field. In a well-organized and clearly written paper, Caston tackles three central concerns in the massive scholarship on Aristotle’s De Anima,3 namely the mind-body problem, the nature of perception, and Aristotle’s account of thought. Caston explains why each of these topics is problematic (which is not necessarily self-evident to students first exploring Aristotle’s psychology), discusses different approaches to their solution, and shows how some of these approaches are inspired by contemporary developments in philosophy of mind. He is especially clear on what is to be learned from those developments. The footnotes will also be useful for students: Caston provides comprehensive references to both primary and secondary sources on every topic he touches upon, thus guiding the student directly to the relevant literature.

Specialists may find those papers that develop new ideas, or cover topics not typically found in companions, most interesting. Let me point to some excellent examples. In an elegantly written paper, Mourelatos offers new insights on the ‘pre-history’ of the concept of the universal among the Pre-Socratics (chapter 4: ‘The Concept of the Universal in Some Later Pre-Platonic Cosmologists’). Traditionally, the history of the concept of the universal goes back only to the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle. However, as Mourelatos explains, this is because the grasp of the concept of the universal in earlier periods was probably blocked or delayed because of the very nature of Pre-Socratic cosmology. For instance, the material monism propagated by early Pre-Socratics such as Anaximander and Anaximenes prevented the recognition of the type-token distinction necessary for a minimalist specification of the concept of the universal, since in this view everything is a manifestation of the same ‘stuff’. Nevertheless, following Aristotle, Mourelatos identifies three Pre-Socratic antecedents for the concept of the universal: a classificatory use of eidos and related terms in Empedocles’ biology; the genus-species distinction in Philolaus’ theory of number; and the type-token distinction in Democritus’ theory of atoms. In the last case, Mourelatos argues that Democritus not only used the concept of the universal but also explicitly brought it up for philosophical discussion.

Equally interesting for their development of new ideas are the contributions by Brown (chapter 28: ‘Hellenistic Cosmopolitanism’), who succinctly discusses the Stoic and Epicurean versions of cosmopolitanism and brings out how their idea of a positive commitment to all other human beings is still relevant to us, and the papers in part VI. These papers raise issues that are of general importance for the understanding of ancient philosophy, namely the ancient philosophers’ attitude towards traditional religiosity (chapter 32: ‘Greek Philosophy and Religion’), which Betegh characterizes as ‘a mixture of innovation, criticism, and conservativism’ (625); ancient conceptions of meaning, truth, and reference (chapter 33: ‘Philosophy of Language’); the interplay between ancient medicine and philosophy (chapter 34: ‘Ancient Medicine and its Contribution to the Philosophical Tradition’); and a history of selected topics in Greek mathematics (chapter 35: ‘Greek Mathematics (Arithmetic, Geometry, Proportion Theory) to the Time of Euclid’).

In sum, the Companion draws together a wealth of material, presented in accordance with the most recent scholarly standards for the interpretation of ancient philosophical texts. The Companion will be an excellent source-book for students interested in the study of ancient philosophy,4 as well as for scholars who are rethinking their views on well-known problems by considering the new perspectives offered.


1. I noted very few errors; let me mention two that concern references: p. 277 ‘Phys. II.3, 198a24-27’ must be ‘Phys. II.7, 198a24-27’; p. 306n.19 ‘in the Balme (1990)’ must be ‘in Balme (1992)’.

2. David Sedley (editor), The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

3. Pages 341-346. Caston provides by far the largest bibliography in the companion.

4. A (cheaper) paperback version would be most welcome.