BMCR 2019.07.19

Hellenistic Philosophy

, Hellenistic Philosophy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xii, 260. ISBN 9780199674121 $24.95 (pb).


John Sellars lays out his goals clearly at the start of the preface. He thinks of his audience as “those new to the subject,” and he aims “to introduce some of the central philosophical preoccupations of Hellenistic philosophers…with an eye towards topics that remain of interest to philosophers today” (p. ix). Sellars writes clearly and engagingly, he covers a wide range of philosophical topics and schools. In addition, he generally avoids two dangers that threaten all introductory books: Sellars does not simplify the material so much that it becomes bland, and he does not overwhelm novices with too much detail or too many qualifications. In sum, Sellars accomplishes his stated goals.

This new volume compares very well with similar introductions. Because Sellars covers only Hellenistic philosophy, he discusses far more detail about this period than Terence Irwin’s Classical Thought (OUP 1989), Julia Annas’s Ancient Philosophy (OUP 2000), Christopher Shield’s Ancient Philosophy (Routledge, 2012), or William Prior’s Ancient Philosophy. (Oneworld, 2016). On the other hand, the two mainstay introductions to Hellenistic philosophy are relatively old. A. A. Long’s Hellenistic Philosophy was published (by Duckworth) in 1974,1 and R. W. Sharples’s Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics (Routledge) in 1996. Sellars capitalizes on research done since those two books, and he also includes more discussion than Long or Sharples of Hellenistic Aristotelians and Cynics. Peter Adamson’s Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (OUP 2018) is a contemporary introduction on many of the same topics, but Sellars and Adamson largely complement each other rather than compete for the same readers. Adamson offers reliably bite-sized chapters on narrow topics, and he makes much greater use of humor—often deliberately groan-worthy puns—and references to pop culture. Sellars takes a more sober tone, and the material is organized in a more challenging manner. As a result, Adamson should suit younger students and readers who are completely new to philosophy while Sellars should suit older students, graduate students, philosophers new to Hellenistic thought, or scholars from other fields.

The book consists of a short introduction, nine main chapters, and several useful supplements. The first chapter introduces the world and main figures of Hellenistic philosophy. Sellars then digs into the philosophical topics that he finds most relevant to contemporary interests: knowledge, nature, the self, the good, free will, finitude, and community. He concludes the main text by considering the claim that Hellenistic philosophy was particularly therapeutic, and he adds an appendix that looks at possible connections between Hellenistic philosophy and ancient Buddhism and Indian philosophy. 2 (I wish Oxford University Press had not printed the Appendix in a smaller font: they literally diminished the importance of this material.)

The book has many strengths. As I mentioned above, Sellars includes significant discussion of schools other than the Epicureans, skeptics, and Stoics, and thus he gives a rich picture of the range of Hellenistic views and their interrelations. He organizes chapters around themes rather than schools, and the themes he employs are far more innovative and should be far more appealing to contemporary readers than the standard ancient trio of logic, physics, and ethics. The chapters on nature and the self make especially interesting connections between different aspects of Hellenistic philosophy. Finally, as an expert on Stoic philosophy, Sellars is especially insightful and charitable when he discusses Stoic views. For example, Sellars carefully guides novices through the difficulties and subtleties of the Stoic account of the good, and he illuminates early Stoic ethics by comparing it with the views of Cynics and Aristotelians.

I also think the book has some flaws. First, Sellars insists on a narrow definition of “Hellenistic” taken from history, according to which Hellenistic philosophy ends around 30 BCE.3 As a result, Sellars largely ignores later Stoics such as Epictetus and Seneca and, even worse, he does not include the Pyrrhonism of Sextus Empiricus in the chapter on knowledge. This is a shame since these later authors were challenging and highly influential thinkers in recognizably Hellenistic schools of thought.4 Second, Sellars does not always succeed at his innovative organization. Chapter 7 is unfortunately a grab-bag of ideas only weakly tied together by the word “finitude.”5 Finally, Sellars is not always as precise or charitable concerning Epicureans or skeptics as he is concerning Stoics. For example, according to Sellars, Theodosius argued that “because Pyrrho literally did not believe anything, it was impossible to become a Pyrrhonian at the level of doctrine” (196).6 The text (Diogenes Laertius 9.70) does not support this claim. Instead, Theodosius argues that we should not call skepticism “Pyrrhonian” because if we cannot know what another person thinks, we will not know what Pyrrho thinks. This appears to be a very early skeptical argument against knowledge of other minds generally,7 and Theodosius neither says nor implies that Pyrrho did not believe anything. This brief and obscure testimony does not support such a controversial claim. As a second example, Sellars does not much bother to defend Epicureans against the perennial charge of atheism and his discussion of Epicurean theology is uncharitable at best. As a final example, Sellars illuminates Stoic views by frequently comparing them with Cynics or Aristotelians, but he mentions the Cyrenaics on pleasure only glancingly. The Cyrenaics offer a far more intuitive style of hedonism than the Epicureans, and they were arguably the only serious anti-eudaimonists in antiquity. Thus, if Sellars had discussed the Cyrenaics more thoroughly, he would have given readers a better understanding of Epicurean hedonism, which is unusual even in its own cultural context, and he would have shed light on a very unusual corner of ancient ethics.8

Although I have listed several minor flaws or disagreements, I repeat that Sellars has written an excellent introduction to Hellenistic philosophy. I will certainly use it in my teaching, and I recommend it very strongly to other teachers. The book is well produced and reasonably priced for an academic press. I noticed only two small typos and one significant mistake. 9


1. There is a second edition from 1984, but Long added only a twelve-page bibliographical postscript. The main text remains unchanged from the first edition.

2. In addition to this appendix, Sellars fills out the book with a chronology, a glossary-like guide to Hellenistic philosophers, a guide to further reading, a bibliography, an index of passages, and a general index.

3. For teachers or readers seeking a fuller picture of post-Aristotelian philosophy in antiquity, I recommend Peter Adamson’s Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). Adamson includes pagan philosophy in the Roman empire as well as Christian philosophy up to Boethius. Adamson earns his subtitle, “a history of philosophy without any gaps.”

4. Sellars violates his own rule in the book’s final chapter by including Sextus in the discussion of philosophy as therapy. Sextus certainly deserves attention in this context, but I wish Sellars had made a similar exception in the chapter on knowledge.

5. The topics, in order, are these: Cleanthes on fate, Stoic preparation for future evils, Epicureans on death, Academic skeptics on the limits of knowledge, and Aristotelians on the limits of self-sufficiency. Even after reading the chapter, I am not convinced that there is any unity here.

6. Sellars likes this story so much that he offers it twice: first on p. 26 and again on p. 196.

7. There is not much discussion of Theodosius or this argument in the literature, but Sellars should have cited the two excellent articles by Voula Tsouna: “Doubts about Other Minds and the Science of Physiognomics,” Classical Quarterly 48 (1998), 175-86, and “Remarks about Other Minds in Greek Philosophy,” Phronesis 43 (1998), 245-63.

8. For the Cyrenaics as anti-eudaimonists and the possible philosophical connections between their hedonism and anti-eudaimonism, see T. Irwin, “Aristippus Against Happiness,” Monist 74 (1991), 55-82.

9. On p. 39, in a quotation from Lucretius, “Seem so be seen” should be “Seem to be seen.” On p. 199, pusikos should be phusikos. Finally, on p. 40, Sellars turns the valid Stoic second demonstrable (namely modus tollens : if p, then q; not q; therefore, not p) into the fallacy of denying the antecedent when he writes: “If the first, then the second; not the first; therefore not the second.”