BMCR 2016.05.37

Philosophy and the Ancient Novel. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 20

, , Philosophy and the Ancient Novel. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 20. Groningen: Barkhuis: Groningen University Library, 2015. xiii, 179. ISBN 9789491431890. €80.00.

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This book contains ten articles selected from among various papers presented at the fourth International Conference on the Ancient Novel held in Lisbon in 2008. It belongs to the series Ancient Narrative Supplementa published by Barkhuis, which constitutes an on-going effort to further the scholarship on ancient novels. Philosophy and the Ancient Novel is the second book in this series devoted to the study of the role of philosophy in ancient fiction; the other, Philosophical Presences in the Ancient Novel, appeared in 2007. The two books can be regarded as somewhat complementary. The overarching goal of Philosophical Presences is to identify specific philosophical theories that appear, often in somewhat disguised forms, in some ancient novels. The main focus of Philosophy and the Ancient Novel is to determine why and how ancient novelists made use of particular philosophical theories in their works.

The book begins with a short introduction that offers useful summaries of the papers contained in the collection. These initial pages, however, fail to offer a clearly articulated account of the book’s rationale. The editor only makes the broad claim that the book explores “the relationship between an ostensibly non-philosophical genre [i.e., ancient novel] and philosophy.” The reader is thus left wondering about the specific aims and methodologies of the book. More importantly, the introduction does not offer an evaluation of how the different articles contained in this collection further our understanding of the complex relation between ancient fiction and philosophy. The book does offer significant insights on the topic at hand, yet its overall contribution is not explicitly discussed.

A further puzzling editorial feature of this book is that the papers in the collection do not seem to be ordered according to any obvious rationale. The main goal of some of the papers is to provide theoretical analyses of the relation between philosophy and ancient novels; other articles mostly focus on illustrating such a relation. If the editors had placed the former group of papers at the beginning of the collection, they would have given more cohesion to the book and made it easier for the reader to see how the different papers do in fact develop common threads. In this review I will not examine the papers in the order they appear in the book. Rather, I will first discuss the papers that formulate theoretical analyses of the relation between philosophy and ancient fiction and then study those that illustrate such a relation.

Richard Fletcher’s paper proposes a new interpretation of the role of philosophy in ancient fiction. He rejects the established views according to which philosophical allusions in ancient novels are allegorical popularizations of theories or erudite references designed to add prestige to a traditionally low genre. He argues that ancient novels employ fictional settings to subtly reinterpret particular philosophical views. Fletcher examines the specific case of the Golden Ass and shows how the medium of the novel permits Apuleius to ingeniously introduce an original interpretation of Socrates’ famously perplexing claim that he was guided by a daimonion. This paper has the merit of offering both a convincing model of the relation between philosophy and ancient fiction and an effective illustration of how such a relation actually plays out in a specific novel.

Vernon Provencal argues that the presence of philosophy in ancient novels should be understood against the backdrop of the Platonizing culture characteristic of the Roman elite during the period of the Second Sophistic. This intellectual context suggests that the goal of novels infused with philosophical ideas was not to educate their readers or lead them through a process of moral transformation, but simply to entertain them by depicting sophisticated fantasy worlds replete with Platonic suggestions. Provencal’s paper provides useful elements to think about the relation between philosophy and ancient novels by (i) pointing out the marked Platonic nature of many such novels and (ii) proposing a captivating hypothesis on the role of philosophy in ancient fiction. Yet, Provencal does not address one important consequence of his reading. This is the question of whether the philosophically colored escapism of ancient novels makes such texts only sophisticated entertainments or ends up also uncovering, perhaps unwittingly, surprising aspects of the philosophical ideas presented in these works.

Stephen D. Smith proposes yet a different way of understanding the relation between philosophy and ancient fiction. He examines how horrific and grotesque episodes in the novels of Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus are used to depict a fundamental challenge to Plato’s Socratic intellectualism. The works studied by Smith portray characters that, contrary to the Platonic view, willingly commit or partake in evil actions. On this analysis, the literary medium of the ancient novel has the ability to expose potential flaws in philosophical theories. In the case of the novels here considered, the depiction of people’s dark desires and behaviors reveals tensions within Plato’s account of the tripartite soul that purely theoretical analyses may overlook. Smith seems to imply that ancient novels are a necessary, corrective counterpart to non-fictional philosophical investigations; unfortunately, this fascinating idea is not fully articulated.

Walter Englert’s article takes us to the papers the main focus of which is the assessment of how specific novels illustrate the interplay between philosophy and ancient fiction. Englert’s overt goal is to address a long-standing exegetical problem in the scholarship on Apuleius’ Golden Ass. In book eleven Lucius, the protagonist of the novel, converts to the cult of Isis, yet his religious awakening comes across as very naïve. Scholars have struggled to explain why Apuleius downplays such a momentous episode. Englert offers the persuasive interpretation that Lucius’s conversion is only a “half conversion.” Lucius does detach from the material world but attains only a ritualistic understanding of religion. The full conversion would require Lucius to identify, through the guidance of Platonic philosophy, the truths that underlie religious beliefs and rituals. This is a convincing interpretation that offers a good alternative to the view, recently proposed by Kirichenko, that philosophical references in the Golden Ass have a comical aim.1 Englert’s reading could have been made even stronger, however, by considering Apuleius’ peculiar understanding of the Platonic account of the philosophical life.

Stefano Jedrkiewicz argues that the illustration of the tension between true knowledge and what society regards as knowledge contained in the Vita Aesopi bears telling similarities with the way this issue is tackled by Dio of Prusa on a theoretical level. The Vita Aesopi amounts to a series of episodes in which the supposedly ignorant slave Aesop turns out to be wiser than the renowned philosopher and teacher Xanthos. Jedrkiewicz shows, very convincingly, how different episodes in the novel convey an assessment of what counts as real knowledge that closely recalls the more abstract analyses of the same topic formulated by Dio of Prusa. Yet Jedrkiewicz does not tackle what is perhaps the most important issue implied by his analysis. That is, whether ancient novels simply translate philosophical theories into a different, more accessible, language or have the added value of capturing aspects of such theories that abstract analyses are unable to grasp. For example, one could argue that the scenarios described in the Vita Aesopi constitute a more effective way of exploring the challenges of leading a philosophical life than theoretical analyses.

The papers by Peter von Möllendorff and Richard Stoneman both examine utopian novels. The latter identifies revealing similarities between the utopian projects of some Cynics and those of some early Christian writers, while the former argues, very persuasively, that the basic philosophical inspiration of Iambulus’ Islands of the Sun is Stoic. Stoneman’s contribution relates only tangentially to the main theme of the book. Möllendorff makes a compelling case for the view that (some) ancient novels were vehicles to popularize philosophical ideas by fictionalizing them. His demonstration of the marked philosophical nature of Islands of the Sun may be taken to suggest that Iambulus’ novel is a modern utopian novel ante litteram. However, Möllendorff does not pursue this captivating hypothesis.

Ursula Bittrich and Ourania Molyviati offer sophisticated examinations of the presence of Platonic doctrines in ancient novels. Bittrich argues that various episodes in Longus’ novel Daphnis and Chloe should be understood as illustrations of the Platonic account of divine pronoia. This “philosophical” interpretation of Longus’ novel constitutes a persuasive challenge to Winkler’s reading of Daphnis and Chloe as an account of “the pain of sexual acculturation.”2 Molyviati formulates an original interpretation of the Cena Trimalchionis by showing how Plato’s analysis of the proper use of names developed in the Cratylus looms large over this notoriously puzzling section of Petronius’ work.

Finally, Gary Reger examines The Life of Apollonios. He argues, very convincingly, that Philostratos’ geographical account of Apollonios’ travels through Upper Egypt is deliberately inaccurate since it aims to suggest that the philosopher’s journey is not a real one but a symbolic quest for wisdom. Apollonios’ journey toward enlightenment should be understood as the counterpart of Alexander the Great’s lesser journey through the same territories, in search for power. Reger’s focus on the contemplative dimension of Apollonios’ travels offers a compelling alternative to the reading of The Life of Apollonios as a celebration of the vita activa proposed by Flinterman.3

The papers in this collection examine the relation between philosophy and ancient fiction from a variety of perspectives, yet they tend to agree that what makes these novels “philosophical” is that they contain philosophical theories that can be clearly ascribed to a particular school or thinker. In a nutshell, the papers may be taken to reach the following conclusions: 1. Ancient novels provide convincing ways of exploring the challenge of conducting a philosophical life (Englert, Jedrkiewicz, Smith).
2. Ancient novels offer necessary (Smith) or effective (Fletcher) ways to identify tensions within philosophical theories that abstract analyses may overlook.
3. Ancient novels show that in the Greco-Roman world assessments of philosophical theories often extended beyond the limited confines of philosophical works (Jedrkiewicz, Stoneman, Reger).
4. The literary genre of the ancient novel is an excellent vehicle to convey philosophical ideas in more accessible or entertaining ways (Bittrich, Möllendorff, Molyviati, Provencal).

Philosophy and the Ancient Novel constitutes a distinct scholarly contribution. Some papers address on-going exegetical issues concerning particular novels in original ways (Bittrich, Englert, Möllendorff, Molyviati, Reger); others offer excellent models to conceptualize the relation between philosophy and ancient fiction (Fletcher, Provencal, Smith). The editors should be commended for the quality of the papers selected as well as for the methodological diversity and broad scope of the contributions. The book does not aim to examine all the ancient novels relevant to the topic at hand, but it does offer a very good selection of some of the most representative ones. Both Greek and Roman novels are studied with a clear preference for the former. Scholars of Greco-Roman literature will welcome a book that explores in depth an aspect of ancient novels (i.e., the relation between philosophy and ancient fiction) that is mostly overlooked in the most comprehensive works on this literary genre.4 Specialists of ancient philosophy will find the theoretical discussions of the role of philosophy in ancient fiction contained in this collection very useful. Scholars who investigate Hadot’s controversial thesis that ancient philosophy was a way of life are likely to befit from those papers in this collection that show how ancient novels depict the challenges of embodying philosophical theories. ​


1. A. Kirichenko, “ Asinus Philosophans : Platonic Philosophy and the Prologue to Apuleius’ Golden Ass ”, Mnemosyne 16 (2008): 89-107.

2. J. J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire. (New York, 1990), 101-128.

3. J. J. Flinterman, Power, Paideia & Pythagoreanism. (Leiden, 1995).

4. G. L. Schmeling (ed.), The Novel in the Ancient World. (Leiden, 1996); T. Whitmarsh (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel. (Cambridge, 2008); E. P. Cueva, S. N. Byrne (ed.), A Companion to the Ancient Novel. (Oxford, 2014).