Book Review: Philosophy In The Hellenistic & Roman Worlds

Philosophy In The Hellenistic & Roman Worlds (A History Of Philosophy Without Any Gaps), by Peter Adamson

This particular author is a historian of philosophy who appears like one of the writers who would write lots of essays in those pop culture philosophy books I so dearly love to read as well as critique [1]. Throughout this book he talks a lot about giraffes, demonstrates a not particularly profound grasp of the Bible’s contents, and compares sophists for hire with battle rappers like Kool Moe Dee. The author’s praise of philosophers in light of their manifest follies demonstrates somewhat of the weakness of the base of philosophers to view themselves as superiors in the quest for wisdom to others, and not even realizing that they may be on the wrong quest to begin with. The author’s desire to praise and celebrate odd thinking and bad thinking on the part of the philosophers of the Hellenistic World as well as the Roman World going into late antiquity undercuts his desire to praise philosophy as a whole. For if people can be thought of as good philosophers when their thinking was plainly and obviously defective, then as a consequence philosophy itself cannot be anything particularly impressive or worthwhile, at least until it can be put in its proper place and not allowed to run rampant.

This sizable book is nearly 400 pages and 53 chapters long, divided into three parts. The book begins with an introductory section that includes a preface, acknowledgement, note on references, dates, and a map. After that the first part of the book, containing twenty chapters, examines the course of Hellenistic philosophy. This begins with the fight over Socrates’ legacy (1), the cynics (2), the Cyrenaics (3), Epicurus and his school (4, 5, 6), Lucretius (7), and the stoics (8, 9, 10, 11). The author spends chapters dealing with such philosophers as Seneca (12), Epictetus (13), Marcus Aurelius (14), and Pyrrho (15). There are chapters about the skeptical Academy (16), Cicero (17), Sextus Empiricus (18), as well as chapters on ancient medicine (19), and Galen (20). The second part of the book examines pagan philosophy in the Roman Empire in eighteen chapters (II), beginning with an overview (21), looking at the Middle Platonic (22), Philo (23), Plutarch (24), Aristotelianism after Aristotle (25), Alexander of Aphrodisias (26), the role of rhetoric (27), astronomy and astrology (28), Plotinus (29, 30, 31, 32), Porphyry (33), Iamblichus (34), the relationship of the state and the household (35), Proclus (36), the last pagan philosophers (37), and John Philoponus (38). The third and final part of the book then looks at Christian Philosophy in the Roman Empire (III), with chapters on ancient Christianity (39), the Greek (40) and Latin (46) Church Fathers, Origen (41), the Cappadocians (42), Pseudo-Dionysius (43), Maximus the Confessor (44), the desert fathers (45), Augustine (47, 48, 49, 50, 51), Latin Platonism (52), and Boethius (53), after which the book ends with notes, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

There are a few elements about this book that are distinctive. For one, the author adopts a rather conversational tone that takes philosophy from a remote and abstruse subject to one that can be easily understood by any reasonably literate reader. While this does nothing for the dignity of philosophy, it certainly does add a popular appeal. This book’s approach as a whole, not only in its friendly and not particularly scholarly language, but also in the fact that it tells the history of philosophy in a narrative form, is highly accessible. And while there are certainly some aspects of this book that I do not approve of or agree with, the approach of the book is certainly winning and enjoyable and for those who have at least some interest in the philosophy of the Hellenistic Ages and the Roman Imperial age would do well to check this book out, as it does a good job of pointing out the diversity of thought within the heathen world of ancient philosophy as well as how this heathen tradition opposed and was ultimately co-opted by both Jews (Philo) and Christians (Augustine, Origin, etc.). As someone with an interest in these matters I found the book to be amusing and worthwhile even where it pointed out areas of disagreement.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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