Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vol. II
by Peter Adamson
oxford university press, 428 pages
Peter Adamson’s Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds accepts a noble challenge announced in the book’s subtitle: A History of Philosophy without any gaps. It’s an impossible objective, of course. Adamson knows this, but admirably proceeds to outline three areas of philosophy that are often overlooked in the hustle of contemporary academic discourse: “Hellenistic philosophy” (the inheritance of Plato and Aristotle), “late antique philosophy among pagans, and ancient Christian philosophy.” As he notes, “one could easily get through a philosophy degree at most universities without being required to learn anything about” these three periods.
Adamson begins by reestablishing the significance of Plato and Aristotle (featured in his first volume), then moves to investigate well over half a millennium, demonstrating historic command and rendering complex ideas accessible to a wider audience. Unfortunately his desire to foster accessibility does lead to unnecessarily ingratiating innuendos, turns of phrase and chapter titles (i.e. “We Didn’t Start the Fire: The Stoics on Nature,” or “Papa Don’t Teach: Augustine on Language”). But such antics can be forgiven when considering Adamson’s detailed account of the historic accomplishments of late antique and Christian philosophy, placed in conversation with the Cynics, Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans that define the Hellenistic era. This reconstruction reveals the palpable tension between the widely accepted materialism of the (mostly anti-Platonic) Hellenists and the transitional mysticism of Middle Platonists such as Plotinus.
If Heraclitus and Parmenides paved the way for Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus’s revival of their work in the third century A.D. anticipates the development of Christian, Islamic and Jewish thought. According to Adamson, the case that Plotinus is the third most important thinker in western philosophy goes like this: “He fused together the doctrines he claimed to find in Plato with many of Aristotle’s ideas, along with a healthy dose of Stoicism,” which was so appealing that it could be “embraced by pagans in the Roman Empire, by Christians in Byzantium and Western Europe, and Christians, Jews, and Muslims who lived in the Islamic Empire and wrote in Syriac, Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew.” Not surprisingly, one of those Christians was Augustine, whose debt to Plotinus is hard to overstate.
Where Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman World is strongest is in mapping out the historical development from hedonism (inherited through Epicurean thought) to the eventual triumph of Christian philosophy, theology, and politics. The key, Adamson says, lies in the ethical formation of a new world order that forced hedonism to retreat from philosophical and public discourse.
Though Epicurus’s hedonism was not defined by an “unrestrained pursuit of pleasure,” that pleasure was still “the sole criterion we should use in determining the right way to live, the right choices to make, the right actions to perform,” etc. This school of thought aimed to maximize “pleasure over a whole life, rather than in the present moment.” Epicureans weren’t given to copulating in public as less sophisticated hedonists were, but the reasons were not always exalted ones. Epicurus warned against “indulging in sex, at least in part because, however pleasant sex might be, having children leads to more than enough worry and trouble to overwhelm that pleasure.” He might be pleasantly surprised by what technological advances offer sexual indulgence today. Without children as a prohibition, what’s left to worry about or be troubled by?
As Christian philosophy began to take hold in the fourth century A.D., it did so by overwhelming the schools of thought that preceded it, wholly reconfiguring Platonic, Aristotelian and pagan ideals within a burgeoning theological tradition. That is, until Origen, the Cappadocians, and Augustine came along, all of whom recognized the uniqueness of Christian claims and the need for complementary philosophical arguments. For Adamson, the result was an immense contribution to Western thought, primarily through the work of Augustine, whose influence is felt in everything from the literary tradition of autobiography to philosophical examinations of the will. In fact, he argues, Augustine’s legacy looms so large that “today even non-Christians find themselves with powerful intuitions about freedom and moral responsibility that resonate more with Augustine than, say, Aristotle or Plato.” For instance, we see concrete examples of introspection as a way to transcendence, revelation, or truth, persisting through figures such as Nietzsche, Proust, and even Knausgaard in our own day.
In Adamson’s account, Augustine’s legacy looms largest in this era because he had the courage to announce a redefinition of philosophy that required “self-knowledge as involving not just duality but trinity,” and a resistance to any remnant of paganism—that is, anything that does not lead us “away from sin and self-interest to a truly ‘philosophical’ way of life.” Given that the pagan philosophies detailed in this history are resonant today, Adamson’s attempt to fill in the gaps provides greater context to understand the ongoing conflicts between hedonism and orthodox Abrahamic traditions that animate so much of Western thought.
Robert L. Kehoe III's work has appeared in The Point Magazine, LA Review of Books, and Boston Review of Books, among others. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and sons.