BMCR 2023.05.06

Peripatetic philosophy in context: knowledge, time, and soul from Theophrastus to Cratippus

, Peripatetic philosophy in context: knowledge, time, and soul from Theophrastus to Cratippus. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 403. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. xxxv, 217. ISBN 9783110772548



This book is a collection of seven papers (including the appendix), two of which are new and five of which depend at least in part on items published previously. The overall aim is to reconstruct certain aspects of Peripatetic thinking and, more importantly, to consider these doctrines from a comparative perspective within the more general context of Hellenistic philosophy. It also addresses the question of the availability of the Aristotelian corpus in the Hellenistic Peripatos. (There is a strong possibility, Verde argues, that many important treatises were read there, e.g., by Strato.) The work divides into three main sections.

The section on knowledge contains two papers. The first deals with the method of multiple explanation in Theophrastus and Epicurus. The method is restricted to the explanation of meteorological phenomena. Verde argues that Epicurus did not follow Theophrastus unconditionally, the root of the difference between them being their different views on sense-perception. Theophrastus admits cases where explanations cannot recur to sense-perception, whereas Epicurus always requires empirical confirmation and, when these conditions are fulfilled, he claims that each explanation is true because the sense-perceptions lying behind it are true. Theophrastus’ views are partly reconstructed from the Syrian-Arabic Meteorology, but Verde favours the hypothesis that in certain respects the work also depends on Epicurean theories.

The second paper starts from Speusippus’ notion of ‘scientific sense-perception’ (ἐπιστημονικὴ αἴσθησις in Sextus Empiricus, AM VII.145-6), which is the criterion of our knowledge of sensible things. It has a share in truth by way of reason, with the implication that sense-perception can play a relevant role in the acquisition of knowledge. This notion was taken over by Diogenes of Babylon in the context of musical studies (ap. Philodemus, Mus. IV col. 34.1-22), and Strato of Lampsacus also seems to argue that intellectual activity is directly involved in sense-perception (Sextus Empiricus, AM VII.350). Speusippus’ notion raises the important question of his dissent from Plato’s theory. He stresses that scientific sense-perception knows sensible objects and discriminates between them without producing true opinions. As Verde points out (p. 50), Plato makes no such suggestion. One might also raise the question of the possible role of recollection in Speusippus’ epistemology. Recollection is central to Plato’s epistemology, and its role is connected to the supposed weaknesses of sense-perceptions. If Speusippus places more trust in sense-perception, how does that position affect his view on recollection and, consequently, his mistrust of Plato’s theory of ideas?

The section on time starts with an inquiry into the fragments of Eudemus of Rhodes’ Physika on time. Besides offering a general discussion of Eudemus’ view on time, the essay sets out to show that the Physika is chiefly a didactic work, a kind of manual for lectures on Aristotle’s Physics. It divides into two sections, a discussion about theoretical issues such as the meaning of ὃ μέν ποτε ὄν and an analysis of the historical section of the work. The first makes it clear that the Eudemian explanation of the expression ὃ μέν ποτε ὄν stresses that it indicates the ὑποκείμενον, an interpretation shared or, better, approached by many modern interpreters, too. The historical section deals with the Pythagorean theory of temporal recurrence and raises the question whether it is the same time that recurs or not. As I see it, the genre of Eudemus’ work is still to be determined. In what sense can it be called a ‘guidebook’ (p. 81)? True, Eudemus does not develop a distinct doctrine of time, but in itself that lack does not compel us to say that it is nothing but a manual. It is certainly not an ἐπιτομή.

A second study is devoted to Strato of Lampsacus’ understanding of Aristotle’ notion of time, which is an interesting blend of atomistic and quantitative elements. Unlike Eudemus, Strato is taken to criticise the Aristotelian use of number in the definition of time and introduces a new definition saying that time is a quantity. At first sight, the force of Strato’s critique is not quite clear, but Verde shows that, while Aristotle insists that time is not a quantity but what measures quantity, Strato claims that time is itself the quantity involved in change or rest. The controversy between the two philosophers concerns the character of the measure: Strato denies the possibility of faster or slower time, for speed as such does not belong to quantity, which can only be more or less. For this reason, time cannot be movement either; rather it is the quantity in which movement or rest occurs. On this basis, Verde thinks there is a possibility of fruitful comparison between the theories of Strato and Epicurus.

The third section is concerned with the various views on issues concerning the soul. The first study deals with two distinct conceptions of sleep, those of Clearchus of Soli and of Strato. The former, Verde suggests, might have had a definite predilection for the early works of Aristotle, despite their Platonizing tendencies. The testimonies of Clearchus’ On Sleep may witness just such influence. They support the assumption that he believed in the separability of the soul – it is able to leave the body temporarily – and its immortality. Most interestingly, Verde also suggests that the Clearchus-fragment in the Ai Khanoum stele (102-104 Dorandi-White) and the papyrus fragment (also from Ai Khanoum) attributed, possibly falsely, to Xenocrates (Xenocr. F 186 dub. Isnardi Parente) are somehow linked. The controversial fragments from Strato’s On Sleep and On Dreams indicate a different theory. The thesis according to which sleep is a relaxation of sensory pneuma is much closer to the position we know from the mature works of Aristotle (De caelo II.1, 284a34), even if Aristotle did not connect sleep to the separation of the connate pneuma. But the terminology does not require us to claim that the Peripatetic philosopher was indebted to Stoic doctrines in this matter. As for the generation of dreams, one of the surviving two testimonies (pseudo-Plutarch, Plac. V.2, 904E-F, M-R 1772 = 68 Sharples) attributes it to the irrational nature of mind (διάνοια); it becomes in a way more perceptive in sleep and for this reason is affected by a cognitive power.[1] Clearly, the two accounts display two different attitudes towards Aristotle’s teaching in the early Peripatos.

A second essay deals with the psychology of Cratippus of Pergamum. The main source for its reconstruction is his contemporary, Cicero, who in De divinatione I preserves some of Cratippus’ views on the status of the soul. As is well-known, Cratippus thinks that the rational part of the human soul is separable from the body; it comes from outside, from a divine soul (Div. I.70-71). This explains the possibility of natural divination. By contrast, the part of our soul responsible for sense-perception, desire, and motion is tied to the body. For a Peripatetic philosopher, this is a strange doctrine. Verde makes it clear that it cannot be derived from Aristotle’s De philosophia since it is not concerned with the general separability of soul from body but with the temporary separation of the two in sleeping and with the origin of our rational faculty. Cratippus does not talk about the fate of the soul after death. If we are to look for an antecedent, we are better off referring to Clearchus’ conception. True, Verde admits, there is no evidence for Cratippus’ reading Clearchus’ book, although it seems to have been in circulation at the time; but if we feel the need for some kind of Quellenforschung, with sources so painfully scarce, the most reasonable option is Clearchus’ On Sleep. Let me register a theoretical difficulty here. Even if Cratippus does not talk about the afterlife of the soul, it may be hard to see what else can be inferred from a view stating that the rational soul has an external origin and is capable of leaving the body in sleep than that its life can go on after the death of the human being as a composite. If so, Aristotle’s De philosophia comes back into the picture.

The last paper is a kind of cuckoo’s egg; it is an appendix discussing Asclepiades of Bithynia’s medical physics and its relation to Epicurus and Strato of Lampsacus. On the basis of Caelius Aurelianus’ testimony (Celeres passiones I.14, 105, p. 80 Bendz), Verde argues that Asclepiades’ theory shifted from an Epicurean atomism towards a corpuscular hypothesis according to which the fragments stemming from the collision of corpuscles are made up of infinite parts. On the other hand, Asclepiades’ theory on pores and void can be connected to Strato’s views on the subject. As a testimony in Simplicius’ in Phys. 693.9-17 (= 30A Sharples) shows, the Aristotelian thesis against void as a necessary condition for motion did not force Strato to argue against the existence of microvoids: the transmission of light in water requires imperceptible interstices of void. At this point it is reasonable to ask whether Asclepiades was influenced by Strato’s position even if our textual evidence gives no explicit support for such an assumption.

The book is furnished with extensive bibliographies arranged after each paper and indices of passages and authors, ancient and modern alike. There are a few slips (e.g., ‘reffered’ on p. 90 or, on p. 123, the missing year of publication of E. G. Schmidt’s paper), but they do not affect the quality of the arguments. To my mind, this book is an excellent contribution to the study of Peripatetic philosophy in the Hellenistic age; it is carefully argued and abounds with fine analyses of the sources. Furthermore, because the issues discussed were central for other philosophers of the age as well as those in the Peripatos, it can be fruitful reading for scholars  who are interested in Hellenistic philosophy in general.



[1] The character of this irrational part of διάνοια is fairly unclear. At any rate, I am not sure I can agree with Verde that (p.146) “the irrational διάνοια could be identified with the part directly responsible for the perception” because in sleep the senses are shut down in the standard Aristotelian view. This nature becomes more perceptive in sleep, which may imply that it is not so when we are awake and perceiving the world around us. Although Strato may have a unitary account of thinking and perceiving (see D. K. W. Modrak, ‘Physicalism in Strato’s psychology’, in M.-L. Desclos and W. W. Fortenbaugh (eds.), Strato of Lampsacus, London / New York: Routledge, 2011, 383-397, esp. 390), this part of the mind cannot be equated with the genuine perceptual capacity.