BMCR 2019.09.53

Antiochus and Peripatetic Ethics. Cambridge Classical Studies

, Antiochus and Peripatetic Ethics. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xi, 233. ISBN 9781108420587. $105.00.


This most useful monograph is, as is frequently the case with Cambridge Classical Studies, a revised version of the author’s doctoral thesis, in this case under the expert guidance of David Sedley, with whom she also cooperated on the organisation of a major conference on Antiochus of Ascalon, resulting in the collective volume, The Philosophy of Antiochus, in 2012.

The present volume offers an analysis of key aspects of the philosophical activity of Antiochus of Ascalon, with a focus on his prowess as an historian of philosophy, and in particular his engagement with the Peripatetic tradition in ethics—primarily the position of Aristotle himself, but also that of Theophrastus. After an introduction, the book falls into two (unequal) parts. The first, entitled ‘Antiochus in Rome and Old Academic History of Philosophy’, comprises two chapters, each covering one half of this composite title. First, Tsouni gives us a survey of the historical and social context within which Antiochus is operating—both his personal situation, as a philosophical refugee from Athens in Rome in the early 1 st century BCE, and the broader context of the desire of Roman intellectuals, not least Cicero, for an ‘authoritative’ tradition in philosophy (though Cicero likes to claim loyalty to the New Academic position, at least for literary purposes!). After this, she gives a persuasive account of Antiochus’ views on the history of philosophy, centering on his position that the truth reposes in the joint heritage of the Old Academic and Peripatetic traditions (the latter at least down to Theophrastus, with even Theophrastus being criticized as somewhat unsound on the status of the ‘lower’ goods!), while the Stoics, though borrowing a lot of truth from this source, introduce a number of untoward innovations, in particular the unrealistic downgrading of the lower goods to the status of ‘indifferents’.

The second section, ‘The Ethics of the Old Academy’, comprising seven chapters, turns to a study of the ethical aspect of Antiochus’ philosophical position, analyzing the main themes that emerge from Cicero’s De Finibus book 5, where M. Pupius Piso serves as a spokesman for Antiochus. Indeed, her work largely constitutes a protracted exegesis of the book.

One of the chief features of Academic/Peripatetic ethics discerned by Antiochus is a version of the oikeiosis argument normally credited to the Stoics, and ch. 3 is devoted to the reconstruction of that. Certainly, Antiochus feels that he has ample warrant for attributing the doctrine of the inherent desire of human nature to fulfill its bodily and psychic capacities as the metaphysical foundation of eudaimonia to a combination of Aristotle and the Academics Xenocrates and Polemon (though Tsouni contrives largely to suppress the latter pair in this work!). She proceeds, in Ch. 4, to offer an analysis of Antiochus’ arguments for self-love as the main psychological argument for self-appropriation, along with discussion of Aristotelian passages which might serve to justify such views, such as Politics 2. 5, 1263a40-b5 or Eth. Nic. 9, 1168b28-1169a6—though one must also consider the possibility that Antiochus is drawing on lost ‘exoteric’ works, as well as Old Academic sources.

Ch. 5 turns to the topic of ‘cradle arguments’ and the objects of oikeiosis. It would seem to have been the Epicureans who first used the behaviour of human babies and young animals to buttress their claims of the natural impulse to pleasure, but, if so, later Stoics, and Antiochus himself, took such arguments over to good effect, taking children to possess in effect ‘the seeds of virtue’. Tsouni sets the story out very well here.

In chs. 6 and 7, ‘ Oikeiosis towards Theoretical Virtue’ and ‘Social Oikeiosis ’, Tsouni continues the story with an analysis of our natural appropriation towards the perfection of our psychic capacities, showing Antiochus’ commitment to theoretical virtue as the highest kind of excellence. Here she discerns some influence from Aristotle’s Protrepticus ’, and she may well be right. In the case of social oikeiosis, she shows how our appropriation towards justice is structured around a multiplicity of personal relationships ( philiai), the most general of these encompassing humanity as whole, as philanthropia.

In ch. 8, ‘The Antiochian Conception of the Happy Life’, Tsouni turns to an examination of Antiochus’ distinctive take on the sufficiency of virtue for the happy life ( vita beata). This he grants, but with the (notorious) proviso that for ‘the supremely happy life’ ( vita beatissima) one requires a modicum of the ‘lower’ goods as well. She regards this as a ‘Peripatetic’ qualification, whereas I would see it as most closely reflecting the position of Polemon, last head of the Old Academy. Either way, however, it is an important modification of the Stoic position.

The final chapter (‘Animals and Plants in the Antiochian-Peripatetic Account’), most interestingly, suggests links between Antiochus’ (sc. Piso’s) remarks in De Finibus 5 and Aristotelian and Theophrastean natural science. Emphasizing the recognition of cognitive features in animal behaviour and also to the botanical example of the vine, Tsouni highlights the interaction between nature and techne in living organisms, showing how Antiochus places ethics within a wider naturalistic context.

All in all, this book is a fine piece of scholarship, providing as it does an accurate analysis of Antiochus’ distinctive position in ethics, and specifically his reclaiming oikeiosis -theory for Aristotle and the Peripatetic tradition. My only quibble, as I have said, is that I would lodge a claim for the Old Academic tradition as well—as indeed does Antiochus himself!