At the beginning of this year I was working on a book on Hellenistic philosophy. The aim is to write a general introduction to philosophy of the Hellenistic period, accessible to students and non-specialists. The idea for this came out of teaching Hellenistic philosophy for a few years and the lack of a single volume to recommend to students alongside collections of texts such as Long and Sedley or Inwood and Gerson. I had originally planned to write a very brief overview but the publisher asked if would do something a bit bigger.
One of the first things I had to do, prompted in part by some helpful readers’ reports, was determine precisely what I meant by ‘Hellenistic philosophy’, what would be covered, and what would not. I was encouraged to avoid seeing Hellenistic philosophy as merely ‘Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics’, which would both ignore other philosophers active in the period and risk slipping into the later Roman period into which those three philosophical traditions continued.
So what is, or was, ‘Hellenistic philosophy’? There are two dimensions to this, one temporal and one geographical. Temporally, the Hellenistic period runs from the death of Alexander in 323 BC to the battle of Actium (when the last of the post-Alexander Hellenistic kingdoms fell) in 31 BC. The beginning of this period happily coincides more or less with some important changes in the history of philosophy, namely the foundations of the Epicurean and Stoic schools in Athens. That seems, fairly straightforwardly, where Hellenistic philosophy begins. (It also means that Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus counts as a Hellenistic philosopher.) But when does it end? Some people have suggested that Hellenistic philosophy ends much earlier than 31 BC, proposing the physical destruction of the Athenian schools during Sulla’s siege of Athens in 86 BC as a suitable end date. Hellenistic philosophy, on that account, is primarily an Athenian affair. I don’t think this is quite right. It is true that many important developments take place during the first century BC, not least the recovery of Aristotle’s lectures and the beginnings of the commentary tradition. The first century BC is, philosophically, certainly a period of transition. But the Hellenistic ways of doing philosophy (Stoic, Epicurean, Academic) continue during the first century, even if not in Athens. There are also important authors writing between 86 and 31 BC who belong with Hellenistic philosophy rather than the subsequent period. I am thinking primarily of Lucretius and Cicero, but Philodemus would be another. These philosophers are all both important sources for the philosophy of Hellenistic Athens but also active contributors in their own right. If we think about Cicero, for instance, from our perspective he appears to be looking back to Hellenistic Athens, not forwards to the burgeoning Platonic-Aristotelian commentary tradition, although we would not say the same for his contemporary Antiochus who does, again from our perspective, look like he is part of something new. For this reason, then, I would place the end of Hellenistic philosophy around the same time as the end of the historical Hellenistic period, 31 BC. This means that Lucretius and Cicero count as Hellenistic philosophers, even if they were in Italy and writing in Latin. Hellenistic philosophy did not just take place in Athens; it also took place in Rome, the bay of Naples, Alexandria, Rhodes, and elsewhere.
That neatly takes me from the ‘when’ to the ‘where’ question. Where was Hellenistic philosophy? I have just suggested not only in Athens. When historians talk about the Hellenistic world they mean those parts of the ancient world that were influenced by Greek culture in the wake of Alexander the Great. So far I have mentioned Hellenistic philosophy in Italy but Alexander’s adventures were of course to the east of Greece, not the west. Greek culture intermingled with local cultures throughout the vast territories that he conquered in the east, all the way to (what we now call) Afghanistan and India. If these were parts of the Hellenistic world then ought philosophy taking place in these territories (if there was any) be part of an account of Hellenistic philosophy? First we might ask if there was any? It looks as if there was. We have evidence of philosophical activity in Bactria: a philosophical dialogue on papyrus and an inscription naming the Peripatetic Clearchus. Perhaps more interesting are the reports of the gymnosophists in India that are said to have influenced Pyrrho. And then there is Buddhism, which flourished in the Hellenistic part of India during this period under the benevolent kingship of Ashoka. Ought this to be a part of Hellenistic philosophy, if it took place during the Hellenistic period and in the Hellenistic world, as they are usually defined? These are some of the issues I was looking at this time last year (I presented some of this material at a conference at Warwick in September 2014 on Hellenistic cultivation of the self) and into the early months of this year.
After Easter I put this to one side to think about some quite different things. I have had a long-standing interest in Renaissance philosophy and over the last few years have started to work on it more seriously. In July I gave a paper on Renaissance humanism at a conference in Prato, Italy, just a few miles from Florence. The idea for the paper had been in the back of my mind for a number of years, but now was the time to formulate it properly, not to mention write it. So after Easter I started to work on this paper. I also had an overdue commitment to write about Stoicism in the Renaissance for a new encyclopaedia of Renaissance philosophy that will appear both online and (eventually) in print.
The paper made the argument that Pierre Hadot’s notion of philosophy as a way of life offers a useful framework with which to think about the philosophical standing of Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch who are rarely taken seriously as philosophers. Petrarch is dismissive of both Scholastic philosophy and Aristotle, and many have read this as a rejection of philosophy as such in favour of literature, rhetoric, or eloquence. But when Petrarch rejects Aristotle he does so because he is, in Petrarch’s view, not Socratic enough. Petrarch rejects one image of philosophy but does so in order to try to replace it with another, drawn primarily from Cicero and Seneca. In short he rejects theoretical Aristotelianism in favour of practical Stoicism. So he is not rejecting philosophy, just one model of it. Other humanists such as Leonardo Bruni and Pico della Mirandola tackle the same issue, but with different approaches and coming to different conclusions. Bruni tries to align Aristotle with the Hellenistic schools, claiming that they all embrace philosophy as a way of life, much as Hadot did more recently. Pico tries to defend Scholasticism, highlighting its many virtues while at the same time still embracing the idea that philosophy is about how to live.
Alongside this paper on Renaissance metaphilosophy (which it is tempting to try to develop into a much larger, book-length study) I have also been looking at Stoicism in Renaissance philosophy. The story inevitably begins with Petrarch again. I have enjoyed reading about Coluccio Salutati, who had a complex relationship with Stoicism, and also the lesser known Barlaam of Seminara, who wrote an introduction to Stoic ethics in Latin that probably stands as a earliest surviving piece of Stoic scholarship. I have also dipped into Barzizza, Manetti, Valla, Filelfo, Ficino, Pomponazzi, Erasmus, Calvin, Lipsius, Montaigne, and others. Some of these (Pomponazzi, Lipsius) I have been working on recently already; others were newer territory. One thing that is striking is how closely the reception of Stoicism was tied up with the reception of Seneca throughout this period, even when people had access to an increasingly wide range of sources.
Now that these pieces are both done it is time to return to, and hopefully finish, the Hellenistic philosophy book. In November and January I have speaking engagements both of which will involve Stoic physics, so my return to Hellenistic Athens (and elsewhere!) begins with conceptions of Nature.
(On top of these ancient and Renaissance projects I also edited the 26 chapters of The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition, wrote an 8,000 word introduction, sent it all to press, and dealt with copy-editing queries for its 500-plus pages.)