Reviews of

From Stoicism to Platonism

In Cambridge University Press, Early Christianity, Early Judaism, Eric Covington, Platonism, Troels ENGBERG-PEDERSEN on July 31, 2017 at 11:25 am


2017.07.16 | Troels Engberg-Pedersen (ed.). From Stoicism to Platonism: The Development of Philosophy, 100BCE100 CE. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. ISBN: 9781107166196.

Reviewed by Eric Covington, Howard Payne University. 

From Stoicism to Platonism: The Development of Philosophy, 100BCE100CE, edited by Troels Engberg-Pedersen, contains papers that emerged from a conference held in August 2014 at the Danish Royal Academy of Sciences in Copenhagen.  The tome brings together a veritable “Who’s Who” of researchers in the area of ancient philosophy in the first-century BCE and CE world in order to examine, as the title suggests, the interaction between Stoicism and Platonism during the period of 100BCE–100 CE.  The combined effect of the collected essays is to challenge the oft-repeated characterization of this philosophical period as a time of “eclecticism.”  This work nuances this designation and provides further clarity concerning the different types of philosophical interaction during the period and the broad philosophical development during the time that eventually led to the dominance of imperial Platonism by the second century (p. 10). 

Editor Troels Engberg-Pedersen (University of Copenhagen) provides the first chapter, “Introduction: A Historiographical Essay,” which lays out an initial history of research concerning the “eclecticism” of first-century philosophy and the overarching hypothesis of the volume.  Engberg-Pedersen describes the aim of the collected essays as an examination of two interrelated themes: the development of philosophy “from Stoicism to Platonism” and the nature of the interaction between these two traditions. The chapter ends with Engberg-Pedersen’s own take of the overall contributions that the chapters make towards the guiding hypothesis.  This section (pp. 15–26) is quite helpful in tying together the overall contributions of each chapter, and it may be most profitable to readers to return to this section as a conclusion for the entire volume.

Following the introduction, the chapters proceed in chronological order.

Chapter 2, “Plato, Chrysippus and Posidonius’ Theory of Affective Movements” by A. G. Long (University of St Andrews), jumps into a comparison of early and late Stoic teachings on movement, suggesting that the later Stoic Posidonius would use Platonic traditions as an interlocutor only when his chief Stoic reference, Chrysippus, “had nothing to offer” on a particular subject (p. 46).

Chapter 3, “Cicero’s Plato” by Malcolm Schofield (University of Cambridge), examines how Cicero—who was neither Stoic nor a Platonist—interacted with these two philosophical traditions.  Schofield concludes that since Cicero approached philosophy a “guide to life” and an “art of living,” the figure of Plato, as a visionary writer and a thinker, was of great importance to Cicero.  Cicero’s personal relationship to Stoicism, though less significant than that to Plato, equally reflected this understanding of philosophy, causing him to value “the ambition of its aspirations for virtue and for law” (pg. 65).

Chapter 4, “Are We Nearly There Yet? Eudorus on Aristotle’s Categories” by George Boys-Stones (Durham University), argues that a strong identity of philosophical Platonism existed before the so-called “eclectic” period of post-Hellenistic philosophy.  Boys-Stones thus rejects the description of the period as “transitional” (a designation he contends is the result of derivation of the “Great Man Theory approach to philosophical history: the “Great School Theory”) and suggests that changes historians may perceive as a result of engagement with other philosophical schools “may as often be relatively superficial traces of a polemical move against them as a shift in theoretical commitment” (pg. 67).

Chapter 5, “Stoicism and Platonism in ‘Arius Didymus’” by Myrto Hatzimichali (University of Cambridge), examines the important but “shadowy” figure Arius Didymus as a “useful ‘spectator’ perspective” on the interaction between philosophical schools in this period.  Hatzimichali provides a helpful overview of the historical evidence concerning Arius Didymus and the doxographical writings attributed to him (pp. 81–86) that will be a valuable reference for anyone working with these writings.  The chapter concludes by suggesting that Didymus’ writings are particularly helpful for understanding philosophical developments during the time period both because they reflect the key debates that would be advanced by partisan authors and they describe “both the Platonists’ and the Stoics’ use of ideas originating in other schools in order to develop and process their own doctrines” (p 99).

Chapter 6, “Oikeiōsis in Stoicism, Antiochus and Arius Didymus” by Christopher Gil (University of Exeter), examines the interaction between philosophical schools around the comparison of one specific philosophical element: the doctrine of oikeiōsis.  Gil concludes that Stoicism was the source of the key formulation for the doctrine of oikeiōsis, which spurred on subsequent debate between different schools who would accept “a number of key Stoic ideas and the basic structure of the theory, though with salient modifications” appropriate to their school (p. 118).

Chapter 7, “The Platonist Appropriation of Stoic Epistemology” by Mario Bonazzi (University of Milan), argues that, along with an exegesis and defense of Plato’s dialogues, a core component of Platonism is its polemic interaction with other philosophical schools.  Bonazzi suggests that the strategy of Platonic confrontation with other schools was to demonstrate how Plato’s philosophy could solve the problems of other philosophical schools—a scheme that meant Platonists had to accept “the agenda, the problems, and the terminology of the Hellenistic schools” (p. 121).

Chapter 8, “‘Becoming like God’ in Platonism and Stoicism” by Gretchen Reydams-Schils (University of Notre Dame), examines the relationship between Platonism and Stoicism through the philosophical dictum that human beings are to become like god as much as possible.  By querying “which god?” and “which aspect of this god humans are to emulate?,” Reydams-Schils reveals “a cross-over of Platonic and Stoic themes in Middle Platonism” (p. 142).

Chapter 9, “From Stoicism to Platonism: The Difficult Case of Philo of Alexandria’s De Providentia I” by David T. Runia (University of Melbourne) is the first chapter to substantially focus on the parallel fields of early Judaism and early Christianity within the volume. Runia’s excellent chapter analyzes Philo of Alexandria’s De Providentia and illuminates how even when Philo uses aspects of both Stoicism and Platonism, “it is Philo’s Judaism that subtextually” drives his main philosophical arguments (p. 178).

Chapter 10, “From Cicero to Philo of Alexandria: Ascending and Descending Axes in the Interpretation of Platonism and Stoicism” by Carlos Lévy (Univeristé de Paris-Sorbonne – Paris IV), also features an analysis of Philo of Alexandria in comparison with Platonic and Stoic schools.  Focusing particularly on Philo’s De aeternitate mundi, Lévy concludes in consonance with Runia that Philo’s writings, though not “philosophical” in the strictest sense of systematic philosophy, are a “resonance chamber of the main philosophical currents of his time” which he uses and absorbs for his own philosophical and theological purposes (pp. 193 and 197).

Chapter 11, “The Love of Wisdom: Middle Platonism and Stoicism in the Wisdom of Solomon” by Gregory E. Sterling (Yale University), is another excellent chapter that analyzes the early Jewish text Wisdom of Solomon.  Sterling demonstrates that like Philo, Wisdom of Solomon “knew and appropriated Hellenistic philosophical concepts” but did so by modifying them “to fit a Jewish framework” (p. 211 – emphasis original).  Sterling goes a step further in his conclusions, maintaining that while Wisdom’s interaction with philosophical concepts subordinates them to Judaism, the interaction also ultimately transforms the framework of Judaism (particularly in the area of cosmology) by including discussions of philosophical tropes like the immortality of the soul and the cosmic elements.  The shifts that come about from Wisdom’s philosophical appropriation occur in both directions.

Chapter 12, “Seneca and Epictetus on Body, Mind and Dualism” by A. A. Long (University of California, Berkeley), examines the interaction between Stoicism and Platonism by analyzing the presence of certain aspects of body-mind dualism in the writings of Stoic philosophers Seneca and Epictetus.  Long concludes that “Seneca and Epictetus loved their Plato, as we have seen, but their philosophy was quite symmetrical with the Stoic school tradition that they cherished” (p. 230).

Chapter 13, “The Dilemma of Paul’s Physics: Features Stoic-Platonist or Platonist-Stoic?” by Stanley Stowers (Brown University), examines the Pauline letters of the early Christian New Testament.  Stowers focuses particularly on Paul’s understanding of the pneuma as an aspect of his broader conception of physics (philosophically defined).  Stowers concludes by suggesting that Paul’s use of Stoic and Platonic doctrines serve “his intellectually and textually based practical project of recruiting, ‘educating,’ and training a select group of non-Jews to become Christ-like beings representing the ‘nations’ who will join their Lord to play some crucial role in bringing about a new cosmic order” (p. 252).

Chapter 14, “The Legacy of Musonius Rufus” by Brad Inwood (Yale University), focuses specifically on Musonius Rufus.  Inwood concludes that Musonius Rufus cannot be considered “a canonical Stoic” but is rather an example of a rather general philosophical tradition who drew “on themes and doctrines from a wide range of philosophical sources” (p. 275).

Chapter 15, “Stoic and Platonic Reflections on Naming in Early Christian Circles: Or, What’s in a Name?” by Harold W. Attridge (Yale University), examines the Platonically-influenced tradition of the inability to fully name and, thus, comprehend a transcendent divinity in early Jewish (Philo) and early Christian (Gospel of John and the Gospel of Truth) traditions. Attridge concludes that “it is the Platonic framework, positing a sharp distinction between God and creation, that frames the problem of divine knowability and sets the stage for the distinctive Christian solution to that problem, that God has made his name, and therefore his essence, known in Jesus” (p. 295).

Chapter 16, “Is Plutarch Really Hostile to the Stoics?” by Jan Opsomer (KU Leuven), examines Plutarch’s polemics against Stoic philosophy.  Opsomer concludes that though Plutarch’s arguments against Stoicism are often hostile, they are significantly less so than those against Epicureanism.  This suggests that Plutarch can occasionally “point to a common ground” with Stoicism, though he ultimately contends that the tenets of Platonism can correct what he regards as Stoic errors in ethics and theology.

Chapter 17, “Peripatetic Appropriations of Oikeiōsis: Alexander, Mantissa Chapter 17” by Charles Brittain (Cornell University), is the final chapter of the volume, and it examines the Peripatetic reception of the Stoic doctrine of oikeiōsis present in Alexander’s Mantissa 17.  Brittain concludes that Alexander exhibits a case of “subordinating appropriation” in which he interprets the Stoic framework of oikeiōsis through the Aristotelian tradition of which he was part (p. 347).

Overall, From Stoicism to Platonism is a substantial addition to the continuing discussion of the character of post-Hellenistic philosophy.  Perhaps the most significant, and distinguishing, aspect of the volume is the inclusion of early Judaism and Christianity within the discussion of philosophical development during these two centuries.  The volume places early Judaism and early Christianity firmly within the Greco-Roman philosophical milieu. In addition to the benefit of examining these traditions within their contemporary philosophical context, the chapters that examine early Jewish and Christian texts provide examples of “how an author who is fundamentally committed somewhere else relates” to the various strands of Greco-Roman philosophy in the era (p. 14).  For most readers of RBECS, Chapters 8–15 will be the most significant as they are the most directly related to early Jewish and Christian interaction with ancient philosophical traditions.

Particularly for students of early Judaism and early Christianity, the volume is a welcome point of entry into what can seem an overwhelmingly diverse field of study both in terms of primary and secondary sources.  The volume includes discussions of essential individuals, texts, and concepts of the period. The chapter’s authors also provide an entrée to some of the most influential modern voices in the field, and there is an admirable geographic spread of contributors (there are seven authors from five different U.S. institutions, five authors from four different U.K. institutions, and five authors from five different European and Australian institutions).

In a way that can often be difficult for volumes of collected essays to accomplish, From Stoicism to Platonism works both as a collection of reference articles for specific subjects and as a coherent whole that develops a particular argument.  Not every chapter will have broad appeal – chapters on Arius Didymus, Musonius Rufus, and Alexander, for example, are quite specific in examining their subject area.  Such chapters will remain important works in their specific area, but each article also contributes to the overall task of the volume to specify aspects of the relationship between different philosophical traditions in the first-century BCE and first-century CE world.

This volume definitively puts to rest any notion that the label of “eclecticism” makes this period any less philosophically significant.  The essays gathered here demonstrate that there was significant philosophical development that extended beyond the traditional boundaries of philosophical “schools,” and they provide new categories for discussing the various types of appropriation.  These essays demonstrate that such appropriations resulted in significant influence on each other and on the broader philosophical context of the ancient world, as seen in their influence on traditions like early Judaism and early Christianity that existed outside traditional philosophical schools.  The picture that emerges in From Stoicism to Platonism is of a complex philosophical milieu in which specific traditions were cognizant of and would readily utilize developments in competing traditions.  It is a picture that should lead to a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the interrelated fields of historical philosophy, early Judaism, and early Christianity.

Eric Covington
Howard Payne University
ericcovington [ at ]

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