25 July 2005

A Single, Perennial Pagan Philosophy

"... one of the most important contributions to the study of ancient Greek philosophy in our time."

That's how Lloyd Gerson describes Richard Sorabji's project of translating the Greek commentators on Aristotle into English, in Gerson's review in BMCR (read it here) of a three-volume sourcebook derived from that project.

Yes, that is undoubtedly true. And yet, I cannot make sense of Gerson's two arguments for that claim.

First, he says, now that the commentators are translated into English, "the study of the entire canon of ancient Greek philosophy will be reinvigorated". This will correct for the "overfishing in the waters of the 4th century B.C.E. and a consequent marginalization of ancient Greek philosophy within the larger enterprise of professional philosophy."

This strikes me as bizarre. Ancient Greek philosophy is currently marginalized (is it, more than any other specialization?) because of attention to Aristotle and Plato primarily? And then because they can now read in English lots of ancient commentaries on Aristotle, scholars (students? philosophers generally?) will be motivated to study (say) Xenophanes and Epicurus? I don't get it.

Second, Gerson says, the Greek commentators show us a different way of reading Aristotle. They believed that Aristotle's thought was a unified system which did not develop; that it was in harmony with Plato's thought; and that the study of Aristotle was a good way to become initiated in the higher mysteries of Plato's thought.

Yet one might suppose that this different way of reading Aristotle will prove significant, in English translation, only if it is correct. Is it true that Aristotle's philosophy did not develop? Is it true that his thought constitutes with Plato a single, harmonious philosophical outlook? In what seems a relativistic passage, Gerson stops short of endorsing this:

([T]he commentators assumed that Aristotle's philosophy was a whole... and [that] that philosophy was a version of Platonism, albeit a version coming from a dissident within the Platonic school. Accordingly, they read all of the works in the corpus as based on identical (Platonic) principles. But of course their assumption was no less of an assumption than was Jaeger's.
But Jaeger's view was a conclusion, not an 'assumption'. And can't we judge whether the commentators were right in what they 'assumed'?

My suspicion is that Gerson gives such poor reasons, because he does not quite state his real reasons. The review looks to me as if written by someone who wants to say--but does not quite find the nerve to affirm it outright--that there is indeed "a single perennial pagan philosophy" (as Gerson puts it), which is a vigorous alternative to philosophy as practiced since Descartes; that the study of this philosophy could in principle replace, almost without loss, philosophy as now practiced; and that we can see that this is so--and perhaps even become converted to it--by entering into a community in which this sort of philosophy is practiced, which is precisely what is constituted by the ancient Greek commentators. The Greek commentators, on this view, are meant to play a role relative to this 'single perennial pagan philosophy' analogous to Aquinas' Summa and an ostensible 'single perennial Christian philosophy'.

I don't know; this is speculation. But it's how I would make sense of the strange mixture of noble enthusiasm and poor argument that I find in that review.


Anonymous said...

Cf. Gerson _Aristotle and Other Platonists_(Cornell 2005) for a cogent defense of harmonization.

Michael Pakaluk said...

I haven't had a chance to study that. But I'll aim to do so. Have other readers of D.B. looked at it?

I should clarify that, for my part, I'm not opposed to attempts to harmonize. E.g. Augustine does so to some extent, and Aquinas is, I suppose, about as successful as one can be. But it does seem wrong to call this project any sort of history. Someone intent on harmonizing ought, I think, to publish that sort of a book under a title such as 'The Nature of Things' and leave it at that, arguing against all comers (including post-Cartesian objections).

That points to another tension in Gerson's review. His two reasons seem in tension with each other. That 'the canon (?) of ancient Greek philosophy' should be reinvigorated is an historian's concern. That Plato and Aristotle should be studied as expressions of a single, perennial philosophy is, really, the concern of a systematist.

If we mix these--I'm not saying Gerson does--we risk doing either bad history or dreamy philosophy.

Clark Goble said...

It is interesting for us not specialists (who don't read Greek). For instance how was the harmonizing of Aristotle and Plato going before the Islamicists who appear to have conflated neoPlatonic and Aristotilean texts? What about Plotinus and neoPlatonism. It might indeed open up thought for many people.

Of course the real problem is that few philosophers seem to read much philosophy written before the 20th century after they graduate. Heavens even then few people read philosophy before the 19th century, with perhaps the exception of Kant. (Although I harbor a suspicion that most people read about Kant rather than reading Kant directly - although that's perhaps my whole guilt for find Kant difficult to read)

Anonymous said...

Well, for those of us who do know our languages, a complete, standardized critical edition of Aristotle's commentaries in the original would be even more desirable than a complete of their translations. Maybe eventually ... (I can dream, right?)

Michael Pakaluk said...

This raises an obvious difficulty, doesn't it, that those who have the greatest reason to study the commentators should read them in Greek anyway. Not to be a naysayer, but one has to wonder how many students or scholars without Greek have picked up a volume from among the translations and studied it. I'd be curious to look at the borrowing records of libraries on this point.

All of this is just to cast more doubt on Gerson's first argument that the availability in English of CAG will reinvigorate ancient philosophy generally. I still don't see that.

But perhaps others have anecdotal evidence to the contrary?

bjr said...

There are plenty of people who "read" greek who aren't going to sit down with a dictionary and read Simplicius.
I think there are a lot of scholars and readers who go back and forth between translations and originals.

David said...

There's also the objection that some of us don't have easy access to the original collection and really can't afford to plunk down whatever it would cost to acquire it. We ARE, however, able to part with $10-$20 per volume to pick up a chunk of the English translations on the used book market.

To answer your other question, I've read several volumes of the commentary and have found it very helpful in understanding parts of Aristotle. Some of the value of the collection for me is that the commentators are operating with a similar set of ideas as Aristotle and aren't likely to start utilizing utterly alien terms such as "values" or whatnot. I can't tell you how many volumes of commentary upon Aristotle or Plato I've donated to library book sales because of the author's need to "update" Aristotle's terminology. Of course, as with all commentators one has to be careful. I'm reading Simplicius's commentary upon Physics 4 at the moment and his explication of 223a21-29 is far more platonic than aristotlean. Nevertheless, he is quite good in other areas.

Anonymous said...

Much of the source material can be found in the original at the TLG. See: http://www.tlg.uci.edu/ -- That should be a sufficient resource for those who can't afford a personal library (or haven't ready access to a good academic one). And to bjr, one can very easily link any text up to Liddell and Scott through Perseus (though people reading Aristotle's commentaries should not need to use the dictionary all that often).

Anonymous said...

As one who began the study of ancient philosophy with an Aristotelian commentator and then worked back to Aristotle and Plato, I see a different reason for considering the harmonization question. Yes, Gerson is a true believer in a neo-Platonic system. But perhaps it is difficult for post-Cartesian/Kantian philosophers to understand arche, eidos, hule, etc. as the true ancients, pre-Socratics-Aristotle, meant them. Perhaps Aristotle took much more for granted, because of Plato’s breaking of the ground, than we realize. I'm thinking of form, notions of ordering, what makes something a cause, actuality and hierarchy.The commentators already understand all this.To consider this harmony would have topic-oriented consequences for scholars and deepen our understanding of classical ancient notions. Call it ‘REALLY thinking like the ancients.’ But it is hard for me to see the commentators every being more than an acquired taste for scholars who are not already hooked on Plato and Aristotle. 

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