Main Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds

Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds

Peter Adamson's History of Philosophy without any gaps series of podcasts is one of the most ambitious educational works on the web. It aims to do nothing less than take listeners through the entire history of philosophy 'without any gaps'. It assumes no prior knowledge making it ideal for beginners. This is the second volume to make these witty, and highly accessible, podcasts available in book form. Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds offers a tour through a period of eight hundred years when some of the most influential of all schools of thought were formed. From the counter-cultural witticisms of Diogenes the Cynic to the political philosophy of Augustine, the book gathers together all aspects of later ancient thought in a way that is a pleasure to read
Oxford University Press
ISBN 13:
EPUB, 2.89 MB
Download (epub, 2.89 MB)

You may be interested in


Most frequently terms

You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.


For a Limited Time Only

John Philoponus

Modern-day scientists estimate that the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years. That’s a very long time. If I’d started just after the Big Bang, I could already have finished writing this series of books on the history of philosophy, and still had about 13.6999999 billion years to kill. And yet, as staggeringly large as this amount of time may be, it is as nothing compared to the age of the universe according to Aristotle. You could double it, triple it, or for that matter multiply it by one billion, and get no closer. For Aristotle, the universe has already existed for an infinitely long time, and will never stop existing. Moreover, the universe has always been pretty much the way it is now. It has always been spherical, with an outer sphere of fixed stars at the edge, containing more nested spheres with planets seated upon them, and at the center the region of air, earth, fire, and water inhabited by humans, plants, and animals, all of which are likewise eternal in species.

Aristotle’s commitment to an eternal universe was so emphatic that no ancient philosopher seriously questioned it. Convenient doubts about Aristotle’s confidence would be raised only later by medieval thinkers like Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas. With Plato, however, things were not so clear. Some Middle Platonists, notably Plutarch and Atticus, read Plato’s dialogue Timaeus as endorsing a beginning in time for the universe, and were happy to say that on this point Plato was right and Aristotle wrong. But from Plotinus onwards, Platonists took this to be a misreading of Plato. Some, like Porphyry and other commentators on Aristotle, might have been motivated by their desire to make Aristotle agree with Plato whenever possible. But they had other reasons too. If the physical universe is a necessary effect of transcendent causes, which give rise to it like shining lights or overflowing fountains, how could the universe be anything other than eternal? Thus, all the figures we ; call Neoplatonists accepted its eternity, and believed that in doing so they were in agreement with both Plato and Aristotle.

Until, that is, the year 529 (or starting from the big bang, the year 13700000529, give or take), when a Neoplatonist named John Philoponus wrote a massive work arguing that the universe is not eternal, and that Plato knew it. The treatise was called 
Against Proclus, reasonably enough, given that it demolished a series of pro-eternity arguments collected by Proclus. The arguments given by Proclus drew not only on Aristotle’s physical theories but also on Platonist interpretations of Plato’s Timaeus. For instance, Proclus argued that the world results from its creator’s goodness or generosity—something implied in the Timaeus, which says that the divine craftsman is not “envious.” Since the creator is permanently generous, the results of his generosity must likewise be permanent. Otherwise the creator would change, suddenly acquiring the necessary generosity or ability to create, which had previously been lacking. This was only the first of eighteen arguments, which Philoponus refuted at immense length. Each of Proclus’ arguments is set out in about a page or two, whereas the English translation of Philoponus’ Against Proclus runs to four volumes.

In a further treatise,
 Philoponus tore into the arguments for eternity found in Aristotle’s works the Physics and On the Heavens. The original version is lost, but extensively preserved by the commentator Simplicius, who did to Philoponus what Philoponus had done to Proclus, quoting his opponent in order to refute him. Simplicius was not well pleased about Philoponus’ temerity in attacking the great Aristotle. He compares his own labors to the task of Hercules, who had to clean horse-manure out of the largest stables in Greece. He uses various terms of abuse for Philoponus, but especially delights in calling him “the grammarian.” This is probably meant to call attention to the fact that Philoponus never headed a philosophical school, and pursued a career on a lower rung of the educational curriculum. Yet this grammarian is now recognized as one of the most innovative philosophers of his era. His critique of Aristotle takes much of its power from his expertise in the texts he is attacking. Philoponus, like Simplicius himself, had studied at the feet of Ammonius in the city of Alexandria—though apparently not at the same time, since Simplicius claims never to have met his antagonist in person.
 And like Simplicius, Philoponus wrote a number of commentaries on Aristotle. Of these, some are apparently faithful recordings of the lectures of Ammonius. Others report on these lectures while occasionally weaving in Philoponus’ own innovative ideas. In fact Philoponus continued to comment on Aristotle after he began his campaign against the eternity of the universe.

What was his motivation? Certainly, he insists that Plato rejected the world’s eternity. For many Platonists, that might have been reason enough to disagree with Aristotle. But not for Philoponus. In Against Proclus (9.1) he says that, although Plato happens have to been right on this point, it is the truth that matters and not Plato’s authority. He then provocatively lists a whole series of claims found in Plato that are just plain wrong; for some of these Philoponus draws on his expertise in another field, medicine. Philoponus did not reject eternity because he was a Platonist, then; he rejected it because he was a Christian. Indeed, this may be the explanation of his nickname, “Philoponus.” It means “lover of work,” and given its length, Against Proclus alone would earn him that title. James Brown may have been the hardest-working man in show business, but Philoponus was definitely the hardest-working man in the eternity business. Still, the nickname probably has a quite different explanation: the term philoponoi referred to certain Christians who had no clerical role, but supported the cause of the faith and often agitated against the pagans in Alexandria. Our John Philoponus may have been a member of this group.

We saw in the last chapter that pagan teachers like Ammonius frequently had Christian students, and that this relationship was fraught but often respectful. In Alexandria especially, pagans went out of their way to find common ground with Christians. To the examples mentioned above we can add Ammonius himself, who wrote a whole work to show that, for Aristotle, God was a cause not just of motion but of the very being of the universe, a thesis that was, of course, also dear to the Christians.
 It is likely no coincidence that Philoponus chose to break ranks in 529, the very year in which the Platonist school of Athens was closed down by an imperial edict. Perhaps he was bidding for the headship of Alexandria. If so, Philoponus failed—he was passed over for the pagan Olympiodorus. But Philoponus didn’t need to be the head of the school to know his Aristotle thoroughly. This is the difference between Philoponus and other Christians who attacked the Neoplatonists on this same issue. In particular, two Christians from the city of Gaza, named Aeneas and Zacharias, had already written about the eternity debate.
 Particularly fascinating is Zacharias’ work, a dialogue featuring as one of the main characters none other than Ammonius. In the dialogue Ammonius is reduced to silence by a series of anti-eternity arguments. But in fact, though both of these Gazan thinkers had been taught by Neoplatonists, the arguments they mount fall far short of Philoponus’ sophistication.

Because the pagans offered numerous arguments for eternity, Philoponus has to fight on many fronts. Some pagan arguments for eternity relied on features of the universe we see around us. Although Proclus does use arguments of this kind, they are mostly drawn from Aristotle. For instance, he had argued for eternity on the basis that the heavenly bodies must be made out of an ungenerated and incorruptible substance. The pagans also thought they could show that divine principles must give rise to an eternal universe. We already saw one such argument—Proclus’ first proof, which invokes God’s generosity—and in general Proclus is the main opponent when it comes to metaphysical or theological arguments for eternity. Aristotle, by contrast, is the main target when it comes to physics and the nature of the heavens.

First then, let’s see how Philoponus takes on Aristotle’s physical arguments for the world’s eternity. As I say, these invoked the unique characteristics of the heavenly bodies, to show that these are bodies that can be neither generated nor destroyed. Aristotle thought this could be proved from the fact that the heavens move in a circle, unlike air, fire, earth, and water, which move in straight lines—either away from or towards the midpoint of the universe. The thing about circular motion, Aristotle observed, is that it has no contrary (On the Heavens 269a, 271a). For one motion is contrary to another if it begins where the other motion stops, and stops where the other begins. But a circular motion starts and stops in the same place—if you walk in a circle, no matter how big or how small, you will always wind up where you started, something familiar to anyone who has ever gotten lost in a forest. Furthermore, things are always destroyed by their contraries. Thus, if the heavens move in circles, as they evidently do, they have no contraries and thus cannot be destroyed.

This is clever, albeit perhaps not the most convincing bit of philosophy ever to flow from Aristotle’s pen. Philoponus makes short work of it, pointing out that the contrary we are interested in here is not a motion in a contrary direction, but the complete absence of motion (Against Aristotle 4.65). What we are asking, in other words, is not whether the heavens can move a different way, like fire being forced to move down instead of up, but whether the heavens can come from, and be reduced to, non-existence. And here we get to the real core of Philoponus’ disagreement with Aristotle. Aristotle wrestled with the question of how to explain change without saying that things pop into existence from nothing, or get destroyed into nothing.
 He agreed with Pre-Socratics like Parmenides that such absolute change is impossible. Instead, he offered his analysis of matter and form: in any change a surviving subject, the matter, gains or loses some feature, the form. If, for instance, a stone becomes hot, nothing comes suddenly into existence or vanishes. A previously existing stone simply gains a new property, namely heat. Philoponus wants instead to insist that God can create something from nothing. He adds that even in the kinds of change recognized by Aristotle, something does come into being from nothing, namely the new property that is gained (6.116). That is, even if a hot stone comes to be from something else, namely a cold stone, the heat that appears in the stone comes to exist after not existing.

But Philoponus is only getting warmed up. So far, he’s questioned a long-standing assumption of Greek philosophy that nothing comes to be from nothing. Now he wants to question a newer assumption of Neoplatonists, that Plato and Aristotle pretty much agree about everything. He points out that, according to Plato’s Timaeus, the heavens are not made of a special fifth kind of matter, but out of pure versions of the elements we find down in our world—predominantly fire. This brings us back to his other refutation, Against Proclus. There, Philoponus spends a lot of time on interpretive questions concerning Plato’s dialogues, especially the Timaeus. He wants to show that Proclus was wrong not only about the world’s eternity, but also in his interpretation of Plato. Proclus insisted that a divine cause like the Demiurge or the Forms cannot begin to produce its effects after not doing so. Philoponus retorts that this would make the causes somehow dependent on their own effects (Against Proclus 2.3). Proclus, after all, seems to be saying that the causes are incapable of existing without producing those effects.

And now, we’ve come to the real core of his disagreement with Proclus. Philoponus objects to the idea that God is forced to create a universe at all, that he produces what comes after him necessarily, as Neoplatonists have been saying since Plotinus. This explains Philoponus’ relentless attention to the eternity question: he is trying to safeguard the idea that God freely bestows existence on a universe that would otherwise not exist. That idea underlies another typically clever move, where he turns to his own advantage a passage in Plato that at first looks better for Proclus. Plato has the divine craftsman promise that the universe will never pass out of existence once it has been made. So the universe is eternal after all, in at least in the future. But now Philoponus pounces: if the universe must exist at all times, past, present, and future, what is the point of having God promise not to destroy it? Rather, the fact that the universe could be destroyed shows that it is also subject to generation. The passage therefore confirms that, for Plato, it is up to God how long the universe will exist.

But in that case, mightn’t God have decided, perhaps for reasons beyond our grasp, to create an eternal cosmos rather than one that begins to exist? To put it another way, if God can do anything, it looks like the universe might be eternal or it might not; it was up to God. Here though, Philoponus points out that God cannot do anything impossible. And it is indeed impossible that the universe has already existed eternally. His chief argument for this claim is as powerful as it is simple: if the universe were eternal, it would already have existed for an infinite time. But an infinite time cannot ever finish elapsing, so we could never have reached the present moment (Against Proclus 1.3). Here he can yet again turn his enemies’ weapons against them, because Aristotle himself said that infinity cannot be traversed or completed. This is why Aristotle was worried about Zeno’s dichotomy paradox.
 Zeno suggested that every motion in fact consists of an infinity of sub-motions. To this Aristotle replied that a motion, or a distance, or a time, is only potentially divisible into infinity: you can cut it up as fine as you want, but you will never actually get an infinity of parts. Philoponus thus needs only to say that an eternal past time would give us an actual infinity, and not only a potential one. Even worse, it would be an actual infinity that is getting bigger all the time: the world has already existed for an infinite number of years, and each January that infinite number grows by one. Since Aristotle rejected the possibility of actual infinities, or the idea that infinity could be increased, these look like devastating objections. Simplicius, however, responds that past eternity is in fact only potentially infinite. An actual infinity is one that is simultaneously present in its entirety, for instance, an infinite number of divisions that are actually made in a motion or a line. But past eternity is not like this, since the times and things of the past no longer exist.

This debate, appropriately, is going to go on and on, finding echoes especially among philosophers in the Islamic world, some of whom adopt Philoponus’ arguments, with others repeating Simplicius’ replies. As for Philoponus, by the time he was done with the eternity debate he had thoroughly undermined Aristotle’s system of natural philosophy. This led him to make other adjustments to that system, of which I’m going to mention just the most momentous.
 In fact it concerns the issue of momentum: what causes a moving object, like a thrown javelin, to continue moving? When you are in the act of throwing the javelin, and your hand is still in contact with it, obviously your hand is causing the javelin to move. But once it leaves your hand it seems to be moving without being caused to move, at least until it lands on the ground some distance away.

To avoid admitting that the javelin’s motion is indeed uncaused, Aristotle devised the following ingenious, albeit totally false, theory. As it leaves your hand, the javelin is pushing air out of the way. The air needs to go somewhere, so it pushes back around the javelin, until it winds up pushing the javelin from behind. After all, as the javelin continues flying forward, the space just behind it is available for the displaced air to rush in. Weirdly, then, the javelin powers its own motion by shoving air back around itself and using this air as a kind of engine. The only reason the javelin can’t continue flying indefinitely in this way is that the air resists being moved around. Hence the javelin will fall back to the ground after a certain distance. In a related argument, Aristotle observed that the less resistance a moving thing encounters, the more easily and faster it will move. If this is right, then in a void, which offers no resistance at all, every motion should be infinitely fast! From this Aristotle concludes that void is impossible. Philoponus is not impressed by these arguments, and offers a new theory, which has been compared to the modern theory of impetus. In fact Galileo will mention him by name in his own writings on motion.

For Philoponus, things do not move because of any displaced air—he mocks Aristotle’s theory by asking why armies don’t launch javelins at their enemies using bellows to create gusts of wind. Rather, when you throw a javelin you impress into the javelin a certain amount of power for moving. The javelin will move until the power runs out. All that air can do is get in the way. This means that motion could in fact occur in a void: if you threw a javelin in a void, it would go further than it does in air because there is no resistance. But (and here is a difference from the modern way of thinking about things) it would still stop, because you have not imparted to it an infinite power to move. This is not to say that Philoponus thinks that void really exists. In fact he denies that it does. He just wants to insist that void is theoretically possible and that motion would work just fine, in fact better, in a void than through mediums that offer resistance.

Philoponus’ innovative theory of impetus turns out to relate to his views on eternity. Since he rejects Aristotle’s idea that the elements and heavens eternally move in straight lines and circles by nature, he needs to explain how it is that they do move. His answer is that God Himself imparts to these bodies whatever power they have. Thus he makes all motion depend on God, as Aristotle had done, but in a much more direct way: God gives each thing its motion by giving it existence and a certain power to move. Though the universe has not always existed, Philoponus probably agrees with Plato that it will exist forever into the future. This is not because it has the natural capacity to be eternal, as Aristotle claims, but to the contrary, because God overrides the physical universe’s natural tendency to corrupt. He gives it an unnatural, infinite power to continue existing and moving. Philoponus’ position here is a characteristic one. It is an innovation motivated by Christian belief, yet results from his deep engagement with the pagan philosophical tradition. This is why I have placed him here. He both rounds off our examination of pagan thought in late antiquity, and gives us new impetus to examine the topic that will occupy us for the rest of this book: philosophy among Christians.


 Reaping the Harvest


It began in the early afternoon, in August. From far away it was visible as a towering cloud of smoke, which resembled an enormous spreading pine tree. Closer observers were almost instantly buried in ash and battered by falling stones—killed almost without warning. That was in the nearest city, Pompeii. A bit further away, in Herculaneum, they had time to evacuate. But they did not run far enough. That night a blast of hot wind tore through their city, killing anyone left in it and many hundreds who had taken shelter along the coast. The year was ad 79, and the cause of death was the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny the Younger was an eyewitness. He was further away still than Herculaneum, and lived to write letters about the event to the historian Tacitus. In them he describes the darkness falling—not, as he says, the darkness of a moonless night, but utter blackness, as in a shut room where the lights are snuffed out. Ash and fragments of stone fell like rain, as everyone near him panicked, some clinging to the hope that the gods would save them, but most abandoning their faith and despairing in the face of this apocalypse.

It would have been no consolation to the victims to learn that there is, for historians of philosophy, a significant silver lining to this particular dark cloud. Like any respectable Roman town, Herculaneum had respectable citizens who lived in respectable villas. In one of these was a library, containing roll upon roll of papyrus. These books were charred into solid blocks and left buried under meters of ash and rock, where they would be discovered almost two thousand years later. In the eighteenth century archeologists dug out the papyrus rolls and began to peel them apart. Now they can be read with advanced scanners, without damaging them physically. The most sensational find among these Herculaneum papyri was a collection of books on Epicureanism. It seems to have been assembled by an Epicurean philosopher named Philodemus. So, thanks to Vesuvius, we have the charred remains of many works by Philodemus, and even more excitingly, the otherwise lost work On Nature by Epicurus himself.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this find speaks volumes about the influence of Epicureanism. Of course the texts, fragmentary though they may be after their ordeal, are a rich source of information about Epicurean thought. But their mere presence in an aristocratic library of a Roman town is itself telling. We’ve already seen that as late as the second century ad the Epicurean enthusiast Diogenes of Oinoanda had letters of Epicurus and other teachings of the school inscribed in stone in modern-day Turkey. Herculaneum shows us that Epicureanism had already made incursions into the upper crust of Roman society by the first century bc. This is confirmed by Cicero, who lived in the same century. As we’ll see later in this book, Cicero was no Epicurean, but he wrote philosophical dialogues pitting the teachings of various schools against one another. For him, Epicureanism deserved a place among the main traditions, one to be set against the Stoics and Skeptics.

Indeed, all the leading Hellenistic schools managed the transition from Greek to Latin philosophical literature. This is especially true of the Stoics, who had a kind of rebirth in the world of the Roman Empire. Epicureanism had its greatest flourishing earlier, here in the first century bc, around the time that Rome itself made a transition from a republic, controlled by the aristocratic Senate, to an empire. This is the age of Caesar, of Cleopatra, and of Cicero himself—no mean player on the political stage. In addition to the extensive information Cicero provides in his dialogues about Epicurean teaching in his day, he also alludes in one letter to a man who we must recognize, with all due respect to Philodemus, as the greatest representative of Epicureanism after Epicurus himself: the poet Lucretius. In 54 bc Cicero writes in approving terms of Lucretius’ poetry, and a few decades later the poet Virgil works a verse of praise for Lucretius into his Georgics.
 So Lucretius was known to his contemporaries. Sadly, as a historical figure at least, he is barely known to us.

We do know that he wrote one of the great works of Latin literature, and one of the greatest attempts to render philosophy into verse. This is De rerum natura: On the Nature of Things.
 It does what its title says. Lucretius expounds the nature of things, from the atomic structure of the universe to the mechanics of lightning and magnetism, from the fear of death to sexual ethics. The poem seems to be based closely on Epicurus’ work On Nature, as we can see by comparison with the burnt remains of that work found in Herculaneum. But Lucretius did not just write an expanded, poetic version of Epicurus’ Greek treatise on physics. He wrote an expanded, poetic version of this Greek treatise in Latin. Like his contemporary Cicero, Lucretius works directly with Greek texts and attempts to convey ideas from those texts in a new tongue. Both he and Cicero apologize more than once for their inability to render Greek philosophical terms perfectly in Latin.
 The Epicurean Philodemus and Cicero both made the pilgrimage to Athens, the home of philosophy, and studied with masters there. To be a lover of wisdom in Roman society was, at least in this period, to be a lover of things Greek.

In particular, the Greek who Lucretius loves is Epicurus. Of the six books in On the Nature of Things, four start with extravagant praise for Epicurus, who is hymned quite literally as a god (5.8). Never mind that in this very poem Lucretius says that the gods have nothing to do with us, but rather exist far away from us in the infinite void. Lucretius is entirely open about the fact that he is following Epicurus and setting his ideas down in Latin verse. The six books of the poem take us through the highpoints of the Epicurean theory, including atomism, the centrality of pleasure, and the absurdity of fearing death or the gods. Lucretius says that his poem aims to present this teaching in a more pleasing way—like smearing honey on the rim of a cup full of medicine before giving it to a child (1.936–8). His avowed aim is to convert the reader to the received wisdom of Epicurus, the reader being, in the first instance, an aristocrat named Memmius, the addressee of the poem.

Does Lucretius bring anything to Epicureanism beyond his ability to put it into difficult but beautiful Latin hexameter verse? He does indeed, and I would insist that the literary achievement is inseparable from the philosophical achievement. Perhaps Lucretius’ greatest strength is the ability to conjure powerful and plausible images for Epicurus’ ideas. He compares the quick-moving atoms of the soul to poppy seeds (2.453), the constantly moving atoms within an apparently unmoving body to the mad fracas of a battlefield seen from a distance as an unmoving blur (2.308–16). In one of my favorite passages, he is trying to persuade us that atoms have many, subtly different shapes. To illustrate, he mentions a slaughtered calf whose mother cow is forlorn in her grief. She is described in loving detail, searching for her lost offspring, scanning the ground for its beloved hoof prints, caring nothing for other calves, though they all look the same to us humans (2.352–66). In the same way, atoms with different shapes seem interchangeable until we carefully consider the point. As it happens, Lucretius is going to go on to say that every shape of atom occurs an infinite number of times in the universe, which pretty much undercuts his point. But when the point is made with that much style, one hardly cares. Similarly powerful is the end of the poem. Lucretius is trying to explain the causes of disease. He unleashes a terrifying description of the classical plague of Athens, inspired by the historian Thucydides. Here Lucretius seems to want us to see what Pliny says the victims of Mount Vesuvius realized, as they thought they would die: the gods do not care about us. We are on our own.

Now, this is all well and good, but are there any new ideas here? Yes and no. Some ideas absent from the remaining writings of Epicurus do turn up. But it is usually assumed that whatever is unprecedented in Lucretius is taken from the lost parts of Epicurus’ writings. One example would be the account Lucretius offers for magnetism. Invoking the atomic theory, he suggests that the magnet sends out a powerful stream of particles towards nearby metal. These push aside the air between the magnet and the metal, creating a space dominated by void. But air is pressing on the magnet and metal from all other directions, so they lurch towards each other into the space between them, which provides less resistance (6.1002–89). More philosophically central is the distinction he introduces within the Epicurean theory of soul. He draws a contrast between two aspects of soul. With his newfangled Latin, he calls these two aspects animus, sometimes translated as “mind,” and anima, sometimes translated as “spirit” (3.94, 117). The ruling part of the soul is the mind or animus, and is seated in the chest, as Aristotle and the Stoics taught. The spirit or anima is dispersed through the whole body. You can keep living without parts of your spirit—as we can see from the fact that people survive when limbs are amputated. But your life literally depends on the continued presence of the mind. It is our commanding faculty, and initiates our motions. Still, it should be noted that Lucretius’ animus is not really a mind in our sense, or indeed in Aristotle’s sense. Lucretius illustrates its powers mostly through examples of emotion rather than, say, intellectual activity or consciousness.

This brings us to a fundamental issue, one already discussed by Epicurus and a running theme of Hellenistic philosophy as a whole. Lucretius is one of the first to give the issue a technical name: libera voluntas, meaning “free volition” or “free will.” He draws our attention to a fundamental difference between creatures that can exercise free volition, and other things like inanimate objects. With his flair for vivid examples, he describes what happens at the start of a horse-race. When the horses are allowed to charge ahead, there is the briefest of moments before they move—we might think instead of the few hundredths of a second between the starting-gun and the sprinter’s leaping out of the blocks (2.263–5). This is unlike, say, one rock hitting another. The rock that gets hit doesn’t pause before reacting, it just moves. That is because it is not moving itself, it is being moved by something else.

Plato and Aristotle already drew attention to the capacity of animate beings to move themselves. But the Epicureans may have been the first to worry about the conditions under which this was possible. In particular, they worried that if everything in the universe happens as a matter of necessity, the world unfolding inevitably from the past to the present, then nothing would have a power of free volition. And they were right to worry. After all, their physics describes the world as the result of atomic collisions, each of which seems to be like one rock hitting another. This suggests that the difference between the horse and the rock is only apparent. Perhaps it takes a while for the chain reaction to produce a visible result in the horse but it is still just a bunch of collisions, an inevitable chain of cause and effect. To put it another way, given the immutable laws of physics, the distribution and motion of atoms right now will make everything in the future utterly inevitable and necessary.

It was apparently to avoid this that the Epicureans posited what they called a clinamen, or “swerve.” The idea is not found in our extant evidence for Epicurus, though it does seem to be his idea; Lucretius discusses it in some detail (2.216–93). According to this notorious doctrine, atoms do not in fact always fall straight down. That’s mostly what happens. But occasionally an atom will, apparently randomly, shift slightly sideways. Lucretius gives two reasons for thinking this. One is that if all atoms only fell down then the world would never arise, because the atoms would never start to collide with one another. They would be like raindrops hurtling next to each other in the void, all at the same speed. But this is probably not the real reason. After all, the Epicurean world is eternal, so there need never have been a moment where the atoms were not already colliding and moving in all directions. Thus they don’t need to start colliding. The real motivation for the swerve is probably the second reason: avoiding the consequence that everything is necessary.

Now, one needs to be careful here. The mere presence of randomness in a physical system doesn’t really help explain the power of choice. If what I am worried about is whether I am in control of my own actions, or whether my actions are instead induced by atomic motions of which I am not even aware, then the swerve is no comfort at all. It will just turn out that the atomic motions that determine my action are sometimes random rather than deterministic. But who cares about that? The point is to put me in control, not to have my actions ultimately traced back to random things out of my control. For this reason, it would be nice if the Epicureans weren’t saying, for instance, that each choice I make actually involves a swerving atom. Instead, they are just saying that the universe contains indeterminism. This is intended to show that human actions are not necessary and inevitable events, since there are no necessary and inevitable events in an indeterministic world. One reading of Lucretius on the swerve would support this: he doesn’t seem to say that choices are swerves, or vice versa. Rather, he draws an analogy. Just as atoms can move by themselves, when they swerve, so we can move by ourselves, when we make choices.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that any choice I make, any action I perform, must involve atomic motions, whether swerving or not. After all, there is nothing in the world apart from atoms moving in a void. This might lead us to say that choices, along with anything else you might care to name, are not real, except insofar as they are identical with atoms and their motions. That may be a consequence that the Pre-Socratic Democritus drew from his atomism. He said, “by convention sweet, by convention bitter…by convention color, but really atoms and void.”
 According to this fragment, Democritus apparently wanted to eliminate the properties we actually experience, like taste and color, or at least treat them as merely conventional. An adequate scientific account of the universe could dispense with talk of such properties. You might think the Epicureans would follow suit, being atomists themselves. But instead they stoutly resist Democritus’ sentiment, insisting that all these properties are absolutely real, though they may depend on atomic motions. This will go for human choices just as much as for colors and tastes.

In another area of their philosophy, though, the Epicureans were happy to embrace a different kind of conventionalism. They did so in order to explain human society and language, a theme Lucretius takes up in the fifth book of his poem. With characteristically vibrant images, Lucretius gives a wholly naturalistic account of the origins of human political arrangements. Earlier in the book he has already explained how animals arose, giving a theory reminiscent of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles. As with Empedocles, Lucretius is often given credit for anticipating Darwinian evolutionary theory. He explains that animals first arose through random atomic entanglements, and propagated insofar as they were fit to survive. For instance, animals with no generative organs could not produce children and died after one generation. In much the same way, human society grows out of a long and painful process. In the beginning, as Lucretius vividly describes, humans were in a kind of state of nature. Only once they developed the rudiments of trust and cooperation could they advance beyond the most primitive condition in which each man fights for his own survival (5.958–1027).

It was at this time that humans first developed language. This too was simply a conventional advance on natural tendencies. Primitive man would naturally have communicated by grunts and gestures, something Lucretius illustrates by pointing out that children too young to talk articulately just point at what they want (5.1031–2). Animals too can communicate with rudimentary noises; just think of the different noises made by dogs when they are angry, frightened, or caring for their pups. Words are simply a more refined use of the same capacity. So far so good, but next Lucretius qualifies the optimistic account of progress he’s been giving so far. Once language and human cooperation were on the scene, the next step was the development of cities, of political rule, and of money. This was the breeding ground for the unnecessary desires against which the wise Epicurus warned. In the struggle to satisfy these desires, society began to slide back into violence. A kind of second social contract was needed to restore order, and this explains the imposition of the laws that govern our society today (5.1146). One wonders what Lucretius might have made of the civil wars that tore apart Roman society in this first century bc. A sign, perhaps, that society was preparing to backslide, having failed to heed Epicurus’ warning that honor and power are poisoned chalices.

It’s almost a cliché to note that Epicureanism appeared in Greek society, and then reappeared in Roman society, at times of great upheaval. The post-Aristotelian Hellenistic schools emerged just after Alexander the Great achieved domination over Greece. The confident independence of city-states like Athens and Sparta, so recently centers of empire, was upset for good. From this point on, the political situation of the Greek cities was usually just a matter of which foreign power was calling the shots—the Macedonians? The Romans? Either way, an intelligent aristocrat was bound to seek out a philosophy of reassurance, both against the uncertainty of his circumstances and against his new-found impotence. Likewise, in the first century bc the Roman Republic fell, tearing power, if not wealth and noble lineage, from the hands of the senatorial class. Was Epicureanism successful because it could offer reassurance in times of upheaval? If so, it’s appropriate that Lucretius’ poem caused some upheaval of its own when it was rediscovered in the early fifteenth century, after going unread and nearly being lost in late antiquity and the middle ages.
 Once unearthed, On the Nature of Things inspired such heavyweights as Machiavelli, who copied it out by hand, Gassendi, who adopted many of its doctrines, and Montaigne, who quotes it frequently in his Essays. Nor was Lucretius the only Hellenistic thinker to influence ideas in early modern Europe. In that period philosophy was also shaped by ancient skepticism (David Hume is a good example) and by the most successful of the philosophical movements that arose in the wake of Plato and Aristotle: the Stoics.


Father Figures

Ancient Christian Philosophy

As a historian of philosophy it’s somewhat embarrassing for me to admit this, but I’m pretty bad with dates. I don’t mean the dried fruits, or romantic encounters, though to be honest neither of those was ever my strong point either. I mean when things happened, when famous people were born, and for that matter, birthdays and anniversaries. So I’m always grateful when a historical figure has a really memorable birth- or death-date. The best example has to be al-Ghazālī, the great Muslim philosopher and theologian, who did people like me the favor of dying in the year 1111. You might say he should get no credit for this noble service, since this is the date of the Christian calendar; but in the Muslim calendar he passed away in the almost equally memorable year 505. What a professional! Of course, if we do stick with the Christian calendar, no one has a more memorable year of birth than Jesus of Nazareth himself, namely 1. As for the precise day of birth, even I can remember that Christ was born on Christmas.

Sadly, scholars reckon that the historical Jesus was probably not, in fact, born on Christmas Day in ad 1. Rather, he was born in the last few years bc, which last time I checked was supposed to stand for “Before Christ.” Nor was Christ’s birth a sudden turning-point in the history of philosophy. Some of the developments we’ve already examined spanned the first centuries bc and ad, such as the emergence of Middle Platonism and the rebirth of Aristotelianism. The Roman Stoics come along beginning in the following decades—Seneca, for example, lived in the first half of the first century ad. The birth of Jesus, and of a faith which accepted him as a Messiah, had no immediate impact on the history of philosophy. But in due course it would have an impact exceeded by no other single historical development. This impact already began in the ancient world.

When we think of Christianity in relation to philosophy, we are likely first to think of medieval philosophy in Europe, and then perhaps modern-day philosophy of religion. Antique Christian philosophy does offer one household name though: Augustine. He was exceptional in his genius and his influence, but far from the only philosophically sophisticated Christian author. Even a casual study of Christianity in this period will acquaint you with great theologians like Tertullian, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, the Pseudo-Dionysius, and Maximus the Confessor. The earliest Christian thinkers are collectively called “Church Fathers.” (I use the phrase in a broad sense, without necessarily implying that the “Fathers” I mention are considered orthodox.) Most were educated in the ancient rhetorical curriculum described in Chapter 27. This is clear from every page of their writing. It’s just as clear that they were steeped in the Hellenic philosophical tradition. They knew their Plato, their Aristotelian logic, and the Stoics’ teachings. Some living in later antiquity even knew their Proclus. Those who wrote in Latin also responded to authors like Lucretius, and especially Cicero, a major influence on Augustine. There’s no real room for doubt, then, that the Church Fathers made extensive use of philosophical ideas. But I suspect some may be skeptical as to whether they made any contributions to philosophy. Did they have ideas of their own, of philosophical and not just religious and historical interest? In the rest of this book I hope to convince you that they did.

Let’s first look briefly at the historical context. By the end of antiquity Christianity will be consumed by refined and complex theological debates. But the very earliest Christians would have been nonplussed, if not stunned, to learn of the disputes that lay ahead. In the first century ad we do not yet find bishops gathering in cities to dispute the technicalities of the Trinity, or Platonic and Stoic doctrine being used to refute heretics. Some even detect echoes of the philosophical tradition in the Bible itself—even in the teachings of Jesus, who since antiquity has been compared to Socrates. Ancient Christians preferred to detect an influence in the other direction. Unlike me, they were very good with dates, and pointed out that Moses came long before the Hellenic philosophers. Thus he could be recognized as an influence on their thought. Still, early Christian groups were not philosophical schools, like the later Neoplatonist enclaves of Athens and Alexandria. Nor were they committed to the passionate defense of dogma. They were bound together by the practices of sharing bread and wine in the Eucharist, baptism, and group prayer, not by the intense scrutiny of sacred texts. They anticipated an imminent final reckoning with God, and lived in hope, thanks to the mediation offered in the person of Jesus Christ.

Though the new faith was not yet associated with Greek philosophy, it was associated with the Greek language. Of course, the books of the New Testament are in Greek, not Hebrew, and the religion was spread around the empire by Greek-speaking missionaries like Paul. Even in Rome, many early Christians were Greek-speakers. This helps to explain why philosophy was later able to penetrate into Christianity, and vice versa. Much ink has been spilled over the question of Christianity’s Hellenic nature and its contrast to the Jewish culture out of which this new faith grew.
 It has been a controversial issue since antiquity, given that the boundary between Judaism and Christianity was at first rather blurry. One key point of differentiation was that Christians did not demand circumcision. It has been suggested that for them baptism occupied the role played by this ritual in Judaism.
 Christian writers of antiquity instead speak of circumcision as a metaphor, symbolizing, for instance, the way the faithful should renounce the things of the body. Before long, Christian theologians began to accuse their opponents of “Judaizing.”

If the line between Jew and Christian was blurry, the divide between Christian and pagan was clear to see. Christians were distinguished by their ethical beliefs, especially their praise of chastity. Romans had traditionally admired moderation and self-control, but without renouncing such basic human functions as sexuality. Like the Jews, the Christians were also distinguished by their refusal to accept the traditional pantheon of Greco-Roman gods. We’ve seen that the traditional pantheon was rather porous and flexible, able to accommodate divinities from Egypt and other cultures. So the Judeo-Christian insistence on a single true God struck pagans as not just wrong-headed but bizarre and needlessly provocative. They duly accused Christians of being “atheists.” This sounds rather strange to our ears, but the great Church Father Justin Martyr admitted that he and his co-religionists were indeed atheists, as far as the gods of Rome were concerned.

Justin’s name is a clue to another major feature of ancient Christian life. His honorific title “Martyr” refers to his death at the hands of the Romans, in ad 165. The reigning emperor? The philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus’ fabled Stoic restraint didn’t extend to putting up with Christians, and he was far from unique among emperors in this respect. Some were more tolerant towards Christians than others, but for two centuries the new faith faced the constant threat of persecution, even if actual persecution was more occasional and sporadic than we tend to believe. Some Christian writers seemed almost to revel in the danger of their precarious position. The Church Father Ignatius promised he would be glad to serve as wheat to be ground up by the teeth of wild animals, yielding flour for the bread of Christ.
 Origen, the greatest of the early Greek Fathers, wrote a letter to a friend urging him to greet his probable impending martyrdom with eagerness rather than reluctance. (You can see why he wrote a letter: they don’t make greetings-cards for occasions like this.) Some felt it necessary to caution their fellow Christians against deliberately inviting martyrdom. There’s a fine line between dying in the name of faith and using faith as an excuse for suicide.

The Romans had what they considered to be good reason for the persecutions. When not throwing the Christians to the lions, they threw various accusations at the Christians. They at least pretended to think that the Christians’ gatherings concluded with sexual orgies, and called the Christians cannibals because their ritual involved eating the body of Christ. But the above-mentioned charge of atheism was the key complaint. The survival of the empire was believed to depend on the favor of the gods, and here were people who not only refused to sacrifice at the temples, but who rejected the gods’ very existence! As antiquity wore on, the emperors themselves were credited with being gods. Christians, naturally, denied this also, which was reason enough for the persecutions. The repression and violence against adherents of the new faith would end only once the emperors themselves became Christians. The first to do so was, of course, Constantine.

Which brings us to another date worth remembering, ad 306—the year that Constantine became emperor in the West of the empire. In 305 the emperor Diocletian had relinquished power, after a reign that saw particularly enthusiastic persecution of Christians. Famously, Constantine consolidated his rule over the empire at the battle of the Milvian Bridge—in 312, since you ask. Just as famously, he supposedly had a vision before the battle which encouraged him to support the Christians. Whether this vision actually occurred, what he might have seen, what (if any) role it played in his benevolence towards Christianity, and when exactly he himself converted are all matters debated by historians. We historians of philosophy we can leave these issues aside though, and simply note that, after Constantine, the empire would be ruled by Christians, with the notable exception of Julian the Apostate. This made it possible for Christianity to thrive, to grow from an oppressed community to a major institutional force within the empire.

Free of persecution by pagans, the Christians wasted little time in turning upon one another, as they engaged in doctrinal disputes with increasing fervor. In the second century ad figures like Justin were using their rhetorical and philosophical skills to uphold what they took to be orthodoxy, and to refute what they took to be heresy. But the institutionalization of Christianity provided a new context and new impetus for such disputes. Already within the reign of Constantine, doctrinal clashes were causing headaches for the emperor. He was the first, but far from the last, emperor to attempt a peaceful resolution of the heated theological debates. In due course disagreements over such issues as the Trinity and the Incarnation would lead to street violence, would inspire insurrection against emperors of the East, and would provoke the leading intellectuals of the empire to write massive works of mutual refutation.

Which brings us back to philosophy. There is plenty of evidence that the Church Fathers were influenced by the Hellenic philosophical tradition. Here one need look no further than Augustine, who before his conversion took a large step towards Christianity thanks to his reading of what he calls “the books of the Platonists,” by which he probably meant Latin versions of Plotinus and Porphyry.
 They showed him how he could understand God to be an immaterial cause, something he had previously found hard to accept. Of course Augustine was an exceptional man, but in this respect not all that exceptional. Clement of Alexandria and Origen, two great Church Fathers who wrote in Greek, were steeped in Hellenic culture generally and Hellenic philosophy in particular. This is not to say that all Christian thinkers clasped philosophy in a warm embrace. All three of the theologians I’ve just mentioned criticize the pagan philosophers in various ways. Other theologians, like the Latin Church Father Tertullian, were actively hostile, as they exalted the Gospel over the works of Plato and Aristotle.

Despite this, Christian writings should be seen as being part of the ancient philosophical tradition. To be honest, this is not a widely shared view. Rarely would you find papers on the Church Fathers in ancient philosophy periodicals, and they are not usually taught in university philosophy courses. Instead, the study of the Fathers, often called “Patristics,” usually falls within the purview of Theology or Religious Studies departments. Even Augustine, one of the greatest philosophers who has ever lived, receives attention from historians of philosophy mostly in connection with the study of medieval thought—despite having died in 430. Yet scholars of ancient philosophy are showing increasing interest in the Church Fathers, attracted by the sophistication of these texts and the opportunity for finding new topics to investigate. Let me give you a few reasons why they would be right to do so.

First, there is the attitude of the ancient Christians themselves. Admittedly some, like Tertullian, did complain bitterly about pagan philosophy and even identify it as a source of heresy within Christianity. But others sought to appropriate the word “philosophy” for the new religion. We’ll see Justin speaking of Christianity as the true philosophy, and Clement treating philosophy as a stepping-stone towards the truth of the Gospels. We’ve already seen how it served this purpose in Augustine’s case. It would in fact be surprising if the Fathers had not attempted to appropriate philosophy for their own purposes. The Fathers were well educated and wrote for a well-educated audience. They wanted to show this audience that their faith was equal, or rather superior, to intellectually refined pagan systems like Stoicism and Platonism. Their pagan opponents understood the danger of allowing Christianity to draw on classical education. This is why the pagan emperor Julian banned Christians from teaching rhetoric. As for the Christians, they were not slow to point out that “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom” and depends on reason, in Greek, logos. If Jesus was quite literally the incarnation of divine wisdom and logos, what could be more “philosophical” than Christianity? There is more to this point than mere word-play. The Christians recognized that philosophers had always been pursuing truth, and sometimes praised them for this. But the philosophers were doomed to fail, at least in part, since perfect truth is given to man only in the Bible and in the person of Christ. Divine revelation opens a path to the wisdom that philosophers had been trying to achieve with the power of human reason alone.

Does this mean, though, that our theologians were not philosophers after all, given that they prefer revelation to rational argument? Well, consider Origen’s On Principles, perhaps the greatest work of Christian philosophy in antiquity outside the works of Augustine. At the very beginning he lists several doctrinal points that are not up for serious debate, because they are established beyond doubt by Scripture. These include the existence and oneness of God, the begetting of the Son by the Father, the incarnation of the Son in Christ, and so on. But Origen immediately goes on to emphasize how much still remains open for debate. What is the nature of the soul and how does it relate to the body? What exactly does it mean to say that the Father begets the Son? What, if anything, existed before God created the world? These are just a few of the questions Origen goes on to investigate. In doing so, he usually proceeds by giving philosophical arguments, which are only afterward shown to be consonant with the Scriptures. Often, it must be said, the supposed demonstration of agreement between his conclusions and Scriptural authority is the least convincing part of Origen’s presentation.

It’s natural that the Church Fathers should have proceeded in this way. The Scriptures were, apart from the odd textual dispute, common ground between them and their theological opponents. Certainly, theologians did not hesitate to hurl biblical proof texts at one another, but those texts were already well known to the other side, who could reply by quoting their own favorite passages. So it was common in such debates to appeal to the neutral ground of rational argument, sometimes including explicit use of logic and other tools of Hellenic philosophy. Philosophy was thus a weapon that could be used to combat heresy and to defeat rival theological theories. Especially in the hands of more adventurous and exploratory authors, like Origen and Augustine, philosophy could be an instrument for solving difficulties not settled unambiguously by Scripture. As a result of all this, we can indeed find innovative philosophical ideas in ancient Christian texts, ideas that should be of interest even to the most confirmed atheist. I will mention three.

First, there is the issue of causation. The most hotly debated theological issue of late antiquity was the interrelation of the Trinitarian persons. All agreed that the Father begets the Son. But how to understand this divine relation of begetting? Presumably, it should have something in common with the case where a human father begets a human son. This calls for a careful analysis of the causal relationship between human fathers and human sons, and an equally careful consideration of how the divine case might differ from the human case. Nor would even that be enough. After all, the Christians believe that God causes the world to exist, but they are at pains to deny that God relates to the created world the way that the Father relates to the Son. So any satisfactory position on the Trinity needed to compare and contrast three causal relations: between God and world, between divine Father and divine Son, and between human father and human son. It is no wonder that Church Fathers offer some of the most sophisticated discussions of causation to be found in antiquity.

Then there is the special kind of causation involved in freely chosen action. We have seen that ancient philosophers, including Stoics and Platonists, thought carefully about the sense in which human actions are free. Christian authors respond to these discussions, above all to the notion of an autonomous will or power of choice, such as we find it in the Stoic Epictetus. But they take this notion much further, exploring the conditions under which a will may be said to be free. They also discuss how moral responsibility attaches to the will. Again, the context of this discussion is usually theological debate. For instance, Augustine’s teaching on the will is developed partly in order to show that humans cannot merit salvation without divine grace. But the Christians’ ideas about freedom and the will lived on even once those debates had faded into history. Today even non-Christians find themselves with powerful intuitions about freedom and moral responsibility that resonate more with Augustine than, say, Aristotle or Plato.

Thirdly, ancient Christians were fascinated by language—by both its power and its limitations. The need to interpret Scripture forced them to reflect on the way that language both conveys and conceals meaning. Sometimes implicitly and often explicitly, they set forth new ideas about what we would call “hermeneutics,” the interpretation of texts. This topic had been explored by pagan philosophers, and by grammarians and rhetoricians who were commenting on Homer and other classical authors. But Christians recognized with new force the possibility that a given text may be subject to an indefinite range of interpretations. They were, of course, thinking primarily of the divinely revealed text of Scripture, but the interpretive theories developed by Augustine and others are applicable to language more generally. Ancient Christians also worried about how language could describe God, including passages in Scripture that describe Him in terms that clearly could not be taken in their literal or surface sense.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of areas where Church Fathers say things of novel philosophical interest. One could easily add more examples, such as the nature of the soul or the metaphysical relation of parts to wholes, another issue that arose in the Trinitarian debate. Also central to their writings was the problem of whether God’s knowledge of the future leads to determinism, a version of a problem that appeared in Aristotle’s logic.
 Philosophically, then, we have good reason to spend a while in the company of the ancient Christians. Historically, their importance is even more obvious. One cannot understand medieval philosophy without looking first at ancient Christianity. That goes not just for the medieval age in Europe, but also for the Byzantine tradition, and even philosophy in the Islamic world. In all three spheres we see engagement with late ancient Christians, and the theological controversies that started in late antiquity continued to make themselves felt throughout the history of philosophy.

Just as you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, you can’t write a book about later ancient philosophy without being egged on by supportive colleagues, friends, and family. Among my colleagues and friends I would particularly like to thank my fellow ancient enthusiasts in London and Munich, especially Verity Harte, Fiona Leigh, M. M. McCabe, Oliver Primavesi, Christof Rapp, Sir (!) Richard Sorabji, and Raphael Woolf. The last two of these also kindly agreed to be interviewed for the podcasts on later ancient philosophy, as did many other wonderful scholars: George Boys-Stones, Sarah Byers, Charles Brittain, Serafina Cuomo, Jim Hankinson, Tony Long, John Marenbon, Dominic O’Meara, Jan Opsomer, David Sedley, John Sellars, Anne Sheppard, James Warren, and James Wilberding. For the production of the podcast I was ably assisted by Fay Edwards, who edited the episodes on later ancient philosophy, and Julian Rimmer, who created and maintains the podcast website. Thanks too to Stefan Hagel for allowing me to use his wonderful music in the podcast, and to Fedor Benevich for his work on the volume index.

I received very useful comments on the podcast scripts and book version from Dirk Baltzly, Marc Delcogliano, and Brad Inwood, as well as from listeners who wrote in with suggestions and corrections. I wouldn’t be surprised if all this advice has not prevented me from making mistakes along the way. Indeed, I’ve read enough about ancient Skepticism to be sure that I must have. (Unless of course I didn’t; but sadly, in that case the previous sentence is a mistake, so I made one after all.)

Of course my greatest debt of gratitude is owed to my family. I would especially like to mention my grandfather Arthur Adamson, whose amazingly productive and inventive life came to an end while I was revising this book. I think even an ancient Stoic would have recognized Arthur as a virtuous man. The love and support I have received from my parents have as always been unflagging. I have dedicated this book to my twin brother Glenn Adamson, in thanks for his enthusiasm for the podcast, among other things. And finally, of course, I would like to thank my wife Ursula and our children Johanna and Sophia. The three of them are living proof that Aristotle was right and Epicurus wrong: the most happy life is lived with family.


 We Didn’t Start the Fire

The Stoics on Nature

“Most majestic of immortals, many-titled, ever omnipotent Zeus, prime mover of nature, who with your law steer all things, hail to you. For it is proper for any mortal to address you: we are your offspring, and alone of all mortal creatures which are alive and tread the earth we bear a likeness to god. Therefore I shall hymn you and sing forever of your might. All this cosmos, as it spins around the earth, obeys you, whichever way you lead, and willingly submits to your sway. Such is the double-edged fiery ever-living thunderbolt which you hold at the ready in your unvanquished hands. For under its strokes all the works of nature are accomplished. With it you direct the universal reason which runs through all things and intermingles with the lights of heaven both great and small.”

This is the beginning of a Hymn to Zeus written by the Stoic Cleanthes.
 Cleanthes, as mentioned above, was the successor of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and the predecessor of the great Chrysippus. It shows us that a pious attitude towards the divine was at the heart of early Stoicism. This may come as a surprise, given that they were materialists. They insisted that what really exists is what can act on something, or be acted upon by something else (LS 45A, C). And this, for them, means bodies. Thus they agreed with Aristotle in dismissing Platonic Forms as a fantasy: how could something like the Form of Large actually make anything large? You make things large by, for instance, inflating them with air or stretching them. And so for any feature of the world around us: it is caused by the interaction of bodies. Aristotle had also complained that Plato’s Forms could not accomplish anything, but the Stoics are going further than he did. After all, Aristotle did invoke an immaterial god as the primary cause of his cosmos.

Yet the Stoics too included God in their vision of the cosmos. In fact, they quite literally included God in the cosmos, seeing him as a physical being that pervades all things. Here they again mention their idea—which incidentally, and ironically, is borrowed from Plato—that what exists is what can act or be acted upon. In general they see God as the active cause in the universe, and speak of “matter” as the passive cause that is acted upon (LS 44B). But this is, to some extent, just a conceptual distinction, because in fact God is never apart from matter. The cause is never apart from what it acts upon. Instead, God and matter are both physical principles, which, in their permanent and mutual interaction, form the body of the cosmos. Thus the Stoics are willing to call their god “nature,” rather than seeing the divine as something supernatural, as might be suggested by Aristotle. Indeed, later in the history of philosophy there will be a long tradition of seeing the title of Aristotle’s Metaphysics as appropriate precisely because it studies that which is “after” or “beyond” nature, namely God.

So the Stoic god is immanent, physically interwoven through all bodily things and hence through everything that exists. But if he is physical, what kind of physical thing is he? Here, the Stoics reach back into the Pre-Socratic past for inspiration, making common cause with, of all people, Heraclitus. He had portrayed God as a fire or as a “thunderbolt that steers all things,” an idea that appears in our quote from Cleanthes’ Hymn. Following Heraclitus, Stoics too describe god as having a fiery nature, although god is not to be imagined simply as a flame such as you see rising from the wick of a candle. The sense in which god is fire is more that he is physically subtle and active. He is also unlike earthly fire, in that his activity is not blind or mindless. To the contrary. The Stoics call god a “designing fire,” and also a craftsman or “demiurge,” echoing the name given to god in Plato’s Timaeus (LS 46A–B). He does not just pervade the cosmos, but wisely and artfully builds it from within, as if the carpenter’s designing skill were inside wood and able to make it into a table.

For this reason, the Stoics point to the apparent design of the world around us as a proof of god’s existence.
 This kind of proof, often called a “design argument,” was certainly on the table (if you’ll pardon the expression) in Plato’s Timaeus and in the works of Aristotle. But the Stoics make it very explicit, claiming that it is just obvious that there is a pervading principle of wisdom in the world. To deny this, Zeno said, in a weird and striking image, would be like encountering a tree that grows flutes that play tunes, and then denying that there is a principle of music in that tree (LS 54G). The Stoics see every feature of the cosmos as the result of divine wisdom and purpose, claiming that all things are as good as they could possibly be, and devoted to the fulfillment of god’s plan. Often god’s plan coincides with our own. My favorite detail from Stoic design arguments comes when they claim that pigs are clearly designed by providence to be food for man, because their flesh is naturally salty, which keeps it from rotting!

The Stoic god, then, is a principle of order and activity, and yet immanent within the body of the cosmos. Doesn’t this sound less like a god, and more like a soul? Doesn’t it, in fact, sound a bit like the so-called “World Soul” of Plato’s Timaeus? In fact this is no coincidence: although Plato’s World Soul is immaterial, in other respects it is indeed comparable to the Stoic god, which is likewise woven together with the body of the cosmos. In fact, one could see Stoic theology as a weaving together of a different kind, taking both the World Soul and the divine craftsman or Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus, and combining them into one single principle. It would seem that this is not a coincidence. The early Stoics were carefully reacting to Plato, borrowing from him even as they rejected some of his ideas, not least the Ideas or Forms themselves. That was incompatible with their materialism, but the comparison of god to a craftsman, the analogy between the cosmos and a living thing, the notion that providence and wisdom are visible in the design of the universe, all these things were taken over from the Timaeus and given a distinctively Stoic, materialist spin.

Cleanthes says in his Hymn that we alone among earthly beings bear a likeness to god, which looks like another Platonic allusion, to the dialogue Theaetetus and its suggestion that mankind’s purpose is to achieve likeness to god (176a–c). Of course, as materialists, when the Stoics say this they must mean that the soul too is a bodily thing, which somehow resembles the divine nature that physically pervades all things.
 Our souls can be thought of as portions of this divine nature, and they give to our body what god gives the world: order and a principle of activity. The human soul is also, like god, fiery. Starting with Chrysippus, it is identified with a kind of warm breath, in Greek, pneuma. Thanks to this breath, living animals possess a “vital heat” that spreads along with the soul through the body, just as god, the designing fire, spreads through the cosmos (LS 54I). The Stoics naturally locate the center of the soul where we find the center of heat, namely (as Aristotle too had said) the heart. It is here, not in the brain, that we find the soul’s so-called hegemonikon, or commanding-faculty (LS 53D, G). Later on in this book we’ll see that claim being thunderously refuted by the great doctor Galen.

Of course, the Stoics knew that their materialist understanding of soul would be no less contentious than their materialist portrayal of god. So they argued for it. One proof was the fact that children resemble their parents in character as well as in appearance (LS 53C). Parents produce their children through a physical process. So how could our character dispositions be inherited, if the soul were not somehow physical? They also describe the way that the soul physically acts upon, and within, the body. Taking their cue from respiration, they imagine the soul as a kind of breath that is moving both inward and outward in the body, holding the body together in a balanced state of tension. Actually, something like this is true even for lifeless things such as rocks, which also have a so-called “tenor” (LS 47P). This is what holds a rock together as a single thing, and makes it distinct from the other objects around it. But humans have a much more exalted sort of unity, which gives them the godlike capacity for reason and intelligence.

Here the Stoics run into a problem. They are saying that god and the soul are physical things, which spread all the way through other physical things, namely the cosmos and the ensouled body. But how is this possible? It seems to presuppose something absurd, namely that two physical objects can be in the same place at the same time. If only this were true, it would solve all our housing problems. But unfortunately, each physical object seems jealously to guard its own space. Some kind of force is needed to push it out of its place to make room for something else. When I pour wine into a glass, for instance, the air in the glass is pushed out of the way. So it seems that god cannot be everywhere in the cosmos, because there is no room: the cosmos would have to get out of the way. But the Stoics can now ask, what happens when wine is poured into water? In that case, the wine does not push the water aside. Rather, it mixes together with the water, so that the two are both together in the same place. Similarly, the Stoics want to say, god is thoroughly mixed together with the body of the cosmos, and your soul is mixed together with your body (LS 48C).

This theory of mixture provoked a good deal of discussion, and derision, in the ancient world. Of course some philosophers, like the atomists, thought that there is no total mixture—only the juxtaposition of particles, jumbled together the way that pebbles or beans might be. Chrysippus, author of the Stoic view on this issue, did of course agree that mixture can happen by juxtaposition. But he insisted that two things can be in the same place at the same time, if they are suitable for this more thorough kind of mixture, like wine and water. Opponents retorted that, in that case, a body could be stretched to be coextensive with another body, no matter how large. A drop of wine could be mixed into the entire ocean, and would be stretched across the whole ocean, a little bit of that drop in every drop of water. A gorier version, suggested by the Skeptic Arcesilaus, pointed out that if Chrysippus were right, a single leg that rotted in the ocean could become big enough for two fleets of ships to fight in, since the decomposed leg would spread throughout the entire sea (LS 48E). If this was supposed to scare Chrysippus, it didn’t work: he insisted that a drop of wine can in principle exist throughout the sea (LS 48E). His opponents, of course, continued to feel that he didn’t have a leg to stand on.

The Stoic god, then, is not only a source of all order and activity, which steers all things like Heraclitus’ thunderbolt, but it is also present within all things. He could hardly be more unlike the Epicurean gods, who are envisioned as uninvolved, remote entities living in detached bliss. The Stoic god, by contrast, is about as involved as he could be. Indeed, Stoic physics in general is diametrically opposed to that of Epicurus. Instead of unmixed atoms colliding at random, we have divisible and intermixing bodies woven together by a providential rationality. A more subtle contrast for the Stoics would be Aristotle. Of course his god, like a Platonic Form, is an immaterial cause, something the Stoics reject out of hand. But the Stoics agree with Aristotle, and most other ancient philosophers, in thinking of the cosmos as spherical, with the more divine heavens surrounding an earthly realm. They accept a system of four elements, air, earth, fire, and water. And like Aristotle, they assume that these are “continuous,” in other words, that they can be divided, and divided again, ad infinitum, without ever reaching indivisible parts (like the atoms of Democritus and Epicurus).

Thus, the Stoics find much to agree with in Aristotle’s physics. Regarding the past and future, though, they do not see eye to eye. Aristotle believes that the cosmos is eternal, and has always been organized more or less as we see now. For the Stoics, though, the world-order we experience is only one chapter in an ongoing story. Long ago the cosmos consisted of nothing but divine fire—a pure fusion of god with matter, in which all was wisdom and there was no evil. Our world emerged from this state when the fire condensed into the other elements and, as in many a Pre-Socratic cosmology, transformed into the earth below and heavens above. Also familiar from Pre-Socratic philosophy—even if it is an idea that turns up too in some Platonic dialogues—is the idea that our world undergoes cycles. The Stoics believe the cosmos will revert to its original state in a so-called “conflagration,” when it will be consumed in fire and be reduced, or rather increased, to nothing but fire (LS 46E–F, I, K).

I say “increased” because the Stoic theory takes account of the fact that the elements vary in density. When fire transforms into water or earth, it takes up much less space, and the reverse of course is also true. This means that when the cosmos is in a state of conflagration, it will take up vastly more room than it does when it has partially condensed into its current form. To make this possible, the Stoics posit that our cosmos is surrounded by an infinite emptiness—a void. Here again, it’s useful to compare them to the Epicureans and to Aristotle. Aristotle rejects the possibility of void entirely. For him, the cosmos is a finite sphere, surrounded by nothing at all, not even empty void. Epicurus instead goes for an infinite void, the emptiness in which atoms can move and collide, combining into indefinitely many worlds. Like Aristotle, the Stoics recognize only one world, our world. But they say it is able to expand in volume because there is plenty of room around it, since they also recognize infinite void, like the Epicureans. Against Aristotle and whoever else doubts that the cosmos is surrounded by void, the Stoics ask what will happen if someone standing at the very edge extends his arm (LS 49F). If he can stretch his arm out past the edge of the cosmos, there is empty space. But if he can’t, there must be something outside the cosmos blocking his motion. So if the cosmos really does have an edge, with nothing beyond it, that nothing must be conceived as void.

When the Stoics combine their cosmic cycle with their respect for divine providence, they come to an unnerving conclusion. God designs the whole world with maximal wisdom. Presumably, then, when the world has been consumed in fire and reborn, we can expect god to make the same choices again. Every cosmic cycle, in other words, will be exactly the same (LS 46O). This is the idea of eternal recurrence, also famously discussed by Nietzsche. It is not merely an idle cosmological speculation, but is intended to make us weigh up each choice as if it will be repeated infinitely many times. Nietzsche saw great ethical significance in this idea, seeing it as the ultimate affirmation of life in this world, as opposed to the supposed afterlife of Judeo-Christianity.
 Marcus Aurelius (also no friend of Christianity) saw it as ethically important too, but for a rather different reason: it puts things in a great deal of perspective.
 For instance, why should I be afraid to choose an honorable death over cowardly safety, if my life will be repeated an infinity of times, so that I will live forever either way?

To draw this sort of moral, of course, Marcus and other Stoics need to believe that it will literally be me who exists again and again, in cycle after cycle of the world. Some Stoics denied this under pressure from their critics (LS 52E–F, H). But it seems that the original Stoic view here was that the very same Socrates will exist in every world-cycle, will drink hemlock in every cycle, and so on. It has even been suggested that time, for the Stoics, is therefore circular.
 If this is right, the Stoics see the future not as an infinite series of repeated events that are exactly alike, but as a loop of literally identical events happening over and over again. This may be captured in the image of time as an unwinding rope, which Cicero uses to describe the Stoic theory (LS 55O).

But how, we might now ask, can Marcus Aurelius or any other Stoic speak of choosing, whether or not we choose with eternal recurrence in mind? If god so orders the world as to achieve the best and most rational results, and if our actions too fall within that ordering, then can we really be said to “choose” our actions? Are we not rather puppets of divine causation? The Stoics might, like later philosophers, have sought to reconcile divine providence with the idea that our actions are uncaused by god, or by anything else. But they went in the other direction. They embraced the notion that all things are caused, including human actions. They were, in a word, determinists, convinced that all events, including human choices and actions, arise out of unbreakable chains of prior events, a web of cause and effect that is inescapable, and the product of divine wisdom.

The Stoics saw all parts of philosophy as interconnected, and we’ve here arrived at a connection between physics and ethics. In fact, we already saw that the physical doctrine of eternal recurrence had a practical significance. Determinism, though, has further-reaching consequences for ethics. The thought that all things are fated to occur as they do by divine providence might fill us with a deep peace, leading us to accept even the most horrifying events with equanimity. We might, that is, take what we have come to call a “stoic” attitude towards misfortune and suffering: what happens is inevitable, so there is no point getting upset about it. Moreover, it is preordained by god, and getting upset would just be to show our all-too-human incomprehension of his greater plan. On the other hand, this same thought might itself strike us as pretty upsetting. It seems to depict us as mere pawns moved by irresistible divine will in a cosmic chess-game, albeit a game of chess that happens over and over, with a big fire breaking out at the end. So is nothing, to put it as the Stoics and other philosophers of the period put it, “up to us”? It’s up to you to turn the page and find out.


 Silver Tongues in Golden Mouths

Rhetoric and Ancient Philosophy

It was December 1981, with New Year’s Eve just around the corner, and Busy Bee Starski was at the microphone. He was enthusiastically laying down some rather simplistic rhymes over a beat. His main theme was that everyone should party. Then fellow hip-hop performer Kool Moe Dee leapt onto the stage. Kool Moe Dee proceeded to demolish poor Busy Bee with a torrent of rhyming, improvised invective, accusing him of lacking lyrical imagination, of stealing rhymes from other rappers, and of generally being really lame. A typical passage, which I quote mostly because of its unusual lack of obscenities, went like this: “In a battle like this you know you’d lose, between me and you, who do you think they’ll choose? Well if you think it’s you, I got bad news, ’cause when you hear your name, you’re gonna hear some boos. ” Ok, it’s not T. S. Eliot. But Kool Moe Dee’s tongue was quick and poisonous enough to make this a legendary humiliation for Busy Bee, and a pioneering moment in the development of freestyling “battle rap,” in which MC’s throw rhymed insults at one another. As Kool Moe Dee put it on one of his albums, he considered rapping “as a competitive sport.” In the ancient world, too, there were performers who competed at improvised verbal pyrotechnics. They did not rap to a beat, but they could help defendants beat a rap: they were rhetoricians, and they were at home in the law-courts, as well as legislative bodies or even before the emperor himself.

The art of public persuasion already played a role in classical Greek philosophy, Plato contending with the sophists and Aristotle devoting a treatise to rhetoric. But it also helped to shape the philosophical scene in late antiquity. And no wonder: rhetoric was part of the standard educational curriculum for the young men, and occasionally women, who might go on to learn and write about philosophy. If your parents could afford to educate you at all, you would be packed off at an early age to learn to read and write. Many did not progress beyond this stage of basic literacy. Those who did would study grammar to become properly lettered. (The Greek word 
grammata in fact means “letters” or the alphabet.) For the ancients, this discipline included what we think of as grammar, but much more besides. It also meant learning to appreciate the classics of Greek or Latin literature. Young students would be taught to read aloud properly with poetic meter, about the historical allusions and difficult vocabulary used by Homer and other authors, about etymology, and so on. Again, some students would stop there, but those who progressed would study rhetoric. Studying grammar and then rhetoric, especially with the right teachers, was a way to climb the social ladder. Students paid handsomely to learn from well-respected and influential masters, who reciprocated by greasing the wheels of power to their students’ advantage. Having learned at the feet of an outstanding teacher was a status symbol, even if one didn’t exploit the connection for direct favors. In towns like Athens, teachers of rhetoric could draw well-paying students who flocked from all over the Roman world to sit at their feet.

An outstanding witness to the place of rhetoric in the educational affairs of the Roman Empire is Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, known to you and me as Quintilian. Born in ad 35, he was a rough contemporary of Seneca. In fact Quintilian, like Seneca, hailed from Spain, in the western reaches of the empire. He came to Rome, where eventually, in 88, he was appointed holder of the chair of Latin rhetoric, established by the emperor Vespasian. This chair was not unique. I have mentioned the chairs of philosophy established at Athens by Marcus Aurelius, and he also created chairs of rhetoric there. Such prestigious posts brought wealth and political influence. Quintilian profited greatly from his silver tongue, rising to the rank of consul under Domitian. But he did not present rhetoric as a pathway to wealth and power. Rather, he saw education as a path to moral excellence. A teacher of rhetoric needs not just mastery of his art but also mastery of his self, a paragon not only of persuasion but also of virtue.

Quintilian’s enormous treatise Institutio Oratoria would become a classic treatment on both rhetoric and educational theory for later generations, down to the Renaissance.
 In the fourteenth century the Italian humanist Petrarch wrote a letter to the long-dead Quintilian. It is not recorded whether Quintilian wrote back, but given his way with words you wouldn’t put it past him. Of course most of Quintilian’s Institutio deals with rhetoric itself: how to assemble material for a persuasive speech, the art of memory (indispensible to those living before the age of the teleprompter), the use of gesture, correct pronunciation, and so on. But tellingly, it begins with two books on the education of the youngsters who are to grow into perfect orators. He starts at the beginning, giving advice even on the selection of nurses for babes in arms—like a modern writer explaining how to improve a newborn child’s chances of getting into a top university. Regarding grammar, he defends the practice of packing young men off to public school, where they can test themselves against their peers and be given public praise or corrective abuse. Marcus Aurelius would disagree: in his Meditations he expresses gratitude that he was home-schooled.

Quintilian and Marcus share something else though: a deep debt to the Greeks. Marcus wrote in Greek, and though Quintilian didn’t go that far, his discussions of grammar and rhetoric show the extensive influence of Greek authors. He even draws on the great Stoic Chrysippus’ lost work on pedagogy (1.1). Still, Quintilian speaks in terms of a canon of literary classics in Latin, featuring such authors as Livy and, above all, Cicero. Cicero too had written instructional works on rhetoric, and his style was seen by Quintilian as the best model for young men to learn to imitate. When Quintilian speaks about solecisms or the inappropriate use of foreign words (1.5), he bends over backwards to explain away passages where Cicero seems guilty of such lapses. Quintilian’s own educational theory is rather appealing. He does want the student to learn by imitation, but only in order to achieve independence, like a bird leaving the nest (2.6). Ultimately, the teacher’s goal is that the student should need no further teaching.

The type of education envisioned by Quintilian was remarkably durable throughout late antiquity. As emperors rose and fell, as barbarians invaded and were repulsed (or not), the children of the well-heeled and the upwardly mobile were put through their paces by grammarians and rhetoricians. Three hundred years after the time of Quintilian, Augustine speaks of his father scraping together money to send him for a first-rate education in Carthage.
 There he received a training in rhetoric, as is evident on every page of his voluminous writings. What students learned was not only a set of skills, but a set of cultural references, which identified them as members of the educated classes. Then, as today, education could involve not only intellectual and ethical formation but also religious belief—after all, you can’t read Homer carefully without thinking about the traditional Greek gods. Thus education became a weapon in the culture war between paganism and Christianity, a theme which will be occupying us later in this book. Nonetheless, the curriculum remained remarkably stable through the transition from paganism to Christianity.

Because grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy belonged to the same educational culture, it was inevitable that these disciplines would influence one another. Besides, grammar and rhetoric raise many philosophical issues. Perhaps that’s clearer in the case of rhetoric. Its aim of instilling belief brings it into close contact with epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with justification and knowledge. It’s no accident that when Plato wants an example of a group of people who believe something true without knowing it, he gives the case of a jury persuaded to convict a genuinely guilty man (Theaetetus 201a–c). Less obvious, at first glance, is the connection between grammar and philosophy. But given that we express our knowledge of the world in language, philosophers have always suspected that understanding language helps us understand the world. For instance, ancient authors compared Aristotle’s idea of a species, like giraffe, to the grammarians’ “common noun.”
 By this they meant a name that was shared by many things, in contrast to a proper noun like “Hiawatha” or “Socrates.”

This topic of the parts of speech turns out to be an unexpectedly rich source of connections between ancient grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy. The ancient grammarians recognized numerous parts of speech: a typical list includes noun, verb, pronoun, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and article. That was problematic for philosophers, and especially for Platonists. Their man Plato had, in the Sophist, recognized only two parts of speech: noun and verb (261e–262e). In the second century we find Plutarch defending this on the basis that these are the only indispensable parts—the rest are just for stylistic variety, like seasoning on our food, as he puts it.
 Centuries later the Christian philosopher and translator Boethius is still fighting what seems to us a losing battle, trying to show that all other parts of speech are somehow improper parts or can be reduced to noun and verb.

It’s interesting that even the more expansive list of the grammarians didn’t include adjectives. The ancients needed some time to wrap their mind around the idea of an adjective. Even once the category was identified, the adjective was understood as a noun that needs another noun to complete it. This shows that their idea of a “noun” was rather different from ours. The relevant Greek word onoma can mean “name” as well as “noun,” and it is natural to think of a word like “white” as the name of, say, the color of a piece of paper. Again, philosophical issues are looming: Aristotle uses this very example of whiteness to illustrate his idea of an accidental feature that subsists in a substance (Categories 1a). But rhetoric too influenced the theory of adjectives. It seems that the adjective, sometimes called a “quality” or “epithet,” was made a distinct grammatical category in part to account for the terms of praise and blame that rhetoricians practiced applying in their speeches.
 One Latin grammatical text tells us that a so-called “epithet” is simply a word used to praise or censure someone in terms of their soul, body, or their external circumstances. Not coincidentally, that threefold distinction of soul, body, and externals itself comes from Platonist discussions of the virtues.

It’s no wonder that Plato and Platonism keep coming up in discussions of grammar and rhetoric. Plato was, after all, a literary classic. He was widely praised as a great stylist of Attic Greek, a dialect that was fetishized in the Imperial age, when the great rhetorician Aelius Aristides could praise Attic as the only type of Greek that possesses both dignity and charm.
 Philosophers like Plutarch followed suit, cultivating an interest in antique Attic vocabulary and style. Even the doctor Galen, also in the second century, wrote philological works on the differences between Greek dialects in order better to understand the works of Hippocrates. Previously I’ve explained the victory of Platonism over the Hellenistic schools by mentioning how Platonism co-opted those schools and lent itself to religious belief. But another significant factor was that well-educated people considered Plato to be part of their canon. For the Romans, just as for us, effortlessly quoting authors like Homer or Plato was a way to establish one’s breeding and refinement. A standard technique was to allude to what was already “ancient” Greek literature, but without identifying the source. The reader is flattered by the assumption that they too are in the know.

Another way to prove one’s refinement was to go hear philosophers lecture. Hypocritical or superficial devotion to philosophy became an obvious target of satire. The star example is Lucian, a rhetorician of the second century ad who wrote stinging parodies of the philosophy of his day. In his work the Nigrinus, a philosophical tourist waxes enthusiastic about his recent visit abroad, where he sat at the feet of a Platonist master.
 The comedy comes in part from the fact that the tourist’s philosophical adventure has left his character entirely unchanged. For him, philosophy is nothing but an exquisite performance. It makes no demands on him to become more virtuous. Here Lucian has put his finger on a sore spot: cultivated Romans studied Greek literature in the context of an education that included philosophy. But when philosophy threatened to subvert the values of this cultivated elite, they were unmoved. Many an aristocrat swooned at stylish speeches showing that money and reputation are valueless—and then returned to the Forum in search of wealth and fame.

All these trends culminated at the highpoint of the Roman Empire, from the first century to the early third century ad. It was an age of sophists. The word “sophist” is familiar to us from fifth-century bc Athens, but it re-emerged in third century ad Athens, where a man named Philostratus devised the expression “Second Sophistic” to describe the movement covered in his treatise The Lives of the Sophists.
 The rehabilitation of the term “sophist” went along with a rehabilitation of eloquence for its own sake. In this period rhetoricians devised showpiece speeches about historical topics, just as the sophists of classical antiquity had done. Gorgias had written a speech in defense of Helen; the great sophist Dio of Prusa went him one better, with a speech proving that, whatever Homer might say, Troy was never sacked in the Trojan War. This man Dio was also called “Chrystostom,” meaning “Golden Mouth.” Like modern-day hip-hop artists, sophists like Dio could wield the silver tongues in their golden mouths without preparation, speaking extemporaneously, often on a topic given to them by the audience. Ever ready to mock his peers, the satirist Lucian found humor in the reliance of rhetoricians on pre-prepared tropes, exaggerated gestures, and dramatic facial expressions. But notwithstanding Lucian’s satire, such techniques did work. Ancient sources tell us of rhetoricians so admired that their adherents affected the same style of clothing, or could be reduced to violent weeping by the mere mention of the orator’s name.

The Second Sophistic is now taken seriously by classicists and historians, but it used to be seen as a sign of the decadence of the empire. Some contemporaries tended to agree. We already find Seneca, in the first century, complaining about those who value style over substance, and in the second century, the heyday of the Second Sophistic, Plutarch is banging the same drum. Such serious-minded men were bound be exasperated by the self-conscious playfulness of rhetoric in this period. My favorite example comes from somewhat later in antiquity: before he became a bishop, the fourth-fifth century author Synesius wrote a treatise In Praise of Baldness.
 On behalf of the follicularly challenged, I extend my thanks to him. Nor was philosophy immune to the witty use of eloquence and self-aware appropriation. The sophists loved to rework themes from Plato, producing pastiches or retellings of the Ring of Gyges story from the Republic or the speeches on love in the Symposium.

But for a true fusion of philosophy and rhetoric, we need to turn to a man who lived in the fourth century, after the time of the Second Sophistic: Themistius. Like Quintilian, he rose to eminence thanks to his gift of gab. Eighteen surviving speeches document his relations with a series of emperors.
 Some speeches were declaimed to the emperors in person; others were written when he served as an emissary. Despite being a pagan, Themistius received his first imperial patronage under the Christian emperor Constantius II, and he showed nimble political skills as well as a nimble tongue to retain an influential position under subsequent emperors, ultimately entering the Senate and helping to decide who else would be allowed to sit in this august, albeit now largely powerless, body. Ironically, the stridently pagan and philosophically minded emperor Julian was more cool towards Themistius, perhaps because he did not share the Christian emperors’ need for a pagan court philosopher to demonstrate ecumenical and intellectual broad-mindedness. Themistius also argued for peaceful co-existence between pagans and Christians, something certainly not on the cards under Julian.

In his speeches Themistius drew on sophists and rhetoricians, like Dio of the golden mouth and Aelius Aristides. But he also emphasized his philosophical credentials, pointedly wearing the simple cloak of a philosopher at court, and presenting himself as a man bound to tell truth to power, since philosophers always tell the truth (honest!). The credentials were genuine. He wrote numerous commentaries on the works of Aristotle, though actually, “commentaries” is perhaps too grand a word. They are more like running paraphrases, easier and clearer versions of difficult Aristotelian texts. Meanwhile Themistius quietly indicated points of harmony between Aristotle and Plato. In this he was typical of the philosophy of his age, when Neoplatonism was already harmonizing the thought of these two giants. But his overall philosophical outlook was closer to that of the great Peripatetic commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias than that of later Neoplatonist commentators.

Yet Themistius sometimes disagreed with Alexander’s interpretations; the best example is his treatment of Aristotle’s remarks on the intellect.
 Themistius especially wanted to sort out one of the most contentious and tantalizing passages in all of Aristotle: the fifth chapter of the third book of On the Soul (430a). In the previous chapter Aristotle has explained that the human intellect is a kind of potentiality for receiving intelligible forms, just as eyesight is a potentiality for receiving visual forms. Now Aristotle says that if there is potential intellect there must also be an intellect that is always actual. This will be, as he says, a “maker intellect.” It is comparable to light; it is always thinking; it alone is separate and eternal. The chapter has always fascinated and frustrated in equal measure. The only thing that is clear about the passage is that it’s very important. Down to the present day there is no real agreement about the identity of the maker intellect Aristotle is describing.

In at least one work Alexander of Aphrodisias argued that it should be identified with god himself, given that god is always thinking, separate, and eternal. But Themistius was convinced that Aristotle must be describing an aspect of the human mind. For him, the universal maker intellect is, as he puts it, “what it is to be me.” It facilitates the inception of my thoughts, which are actual forms in my mind—just as light makes it possible to see visible objects. The choice between these two interpretations is one of far-reaching importance. On Alexander’s view, it looks as if the human mind is just another power belonging to the embodied person; there is little reason to expect that we will survive the death of our bodies. For Themistius, though, we each are above all to be identified with the maker intellect. When Aristotle says that this is eternal, he is promising us a shared immortality.

Themistius attained another kind of immortality too, because his paraphrases of Aristotle were valued for many centuries. His rhetorical gifts were likewise cherished; the Christian theologian Gregory Naziantius called him “the king of words.”
 In his own day, even emperors found it politically expedient to have a man of his pedigree around—a surviving letter from Constantius II to Themistius shows how keen the emperor was to present himself as a guardian of philosophy and the classical heritage more generally. But speeches and court intellectuals could only take an emperor so far; what they really needed was evidence of divine favor. A crushing military victory was always helpful. Failing that, though,